Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Atheist Survival and Recovery in God-driven Alcoholics Anonymous

How Does An Atheist Navigate Alcoholics Anonymous?
Part I
You Vs. Theists
I have decided to publish online the efforts I have gone to, and the thoughts I have to deal with as an atheist in the A.A. program, because it is most definitely a "god" and "spirituality" based program.

It's rather easy to be an atheist in A.A., actually, without compromising your principles. The most difficult part would be to find yourself in a group that does not accept your atheism and one way or another tries to convert you. The A.A. so-called Big Book, which is actually called "Alcoholics Anonymous," does at at times seem to make that attempt at winning us over.

But in the end, it does have enough leeway in the way it operates, so that even a die-hard, no-nonsense, there-is-nothing-supernatural-in-the-universe kind of guy like me can come to enjoy the sobriety and the peace of mind and the serenity, not to mention what the Big Book describes as "a new freedom and a new happiness."

Theists don't frighten me. Why should they? They have their beliefs, and I have mine, or none at all, which ever way you wish to see it. Some atheists say they "believe no god exists"; some atheists say they "don't believe a god exists"; some of us say other things. But it all comes down to the idea that the other members of A.A. are going to talk about the "God of their understanding." Even for some theists, the "power greater than themselves," in which they must find the strength to stay sober, starts out as nothing more than a belief in the power of the group itself to help to them.

That is what the A.A. program offers--the place to find the power to stay sober--and so there are Catholics sitting next to Mormons sitting next to Southern Babtists sitting next to New-Agers, Buddhists, Unitarians, and me. As of yet I have found no resistance to my atheism, and my "home group" is more than happy to listen when it is my turn to speak. If you find yourself in an intolerant group, find another group. If there is no other group in your area, there are A.A. chat rooms online. An intolerant group is not the group that A.A.'s founders would have approved of.

You see, when it comes to speaking and listening to other members in an A.A. group, the unwritten rule is, "Take what you need and leave the rest." We say it all the time. In practice this means that you listen to people speak, and you pick up on what they say that comes close to your own experience. From this "taking" you are able to think about your own situation and whether you would handle it like that person said he/she did. Other speaker's stories may be so unlike your own and unlike the drunken life that you lived, that you have no choice but to "leave" what they say at that table; what that speaker offered had nothing to offer you.

Listening for similarities is what the listening is for, not for finding differences. No one in A.A. ought to criticize another member for anything he/she did or said. It isn't your business. Your business is none of their business--except to listen and learn. If your business is anybody's business, it is the business of your sponsor, and you should find a sponsor right away, even if you "fire" him/her after one meeting. I learn so much from theists that I'm grateful they are at the tables; I just don't "take" their god perspective; I leave it at the tables.

If, as an atheist who is telling his/her story at the A.A. meetings you find resistance, ask yourself if perhaps it is because you didn't have the sense not to criticize the "god" part of their program. You don't want them to criticize your atheism; don't denounce their theism and your resistance to it. I actually think many of the people I attend meetings with learn from the things I have to say. I know they thank me for speaking, and many are my friends.

My own sponsor is not an atheist. He doesn't have to be. He is a "free thinker" who accepts that whatever a person chooses for himself is best for that person. But on the book bag he has, which is filled with his A.A. approved literature, he has a sign that says, "In case of emergency, please contact God." But one of my previous sponsers was very religious; yet he accepted my atheism and worked with me anyway.

The only way you might not make it in A.A. as an atheist is if you are "reductive." Reductivism is a way of thinking that is accepted by many naturalists, most of whom are atheists. Reductivism says that we have no soul or spirit as something that can speak to us, that we can use as a sounding board within our consciousness, and that "seems" to have a life of its own.

Well, actually the reductivist admits that that is exactly the problem: the soul "seems" to exist, we can feel it and experience it, but it isn't real, they say. It's just a "twitch" in our emotional center that is caused by chemicals and electricity in the brain, and in the body. It "seems" to have a life of its own, but reductivists won't admit it is anything more than a "twitch," because to admit that it is more than a twitch is, in their estimation, the same as admitting that it is transcendental, in other words, that it supernaturally manifests itself.

There are all sorts of naturalists. I'm a metaphysical naturalist, which means I don't believe anything is supernatural. That is what makes me an atheist. But some naturalists believe in some supernatural things. Some even believe gods exists; they just don't believe in the gods. And some naturalists believe in god. It's confusing even for we who call ourselves naturalists. The bottom line is, you can be an atheist and still believe the soul is a wonderful expression of your consciousness, and that it is something you can use in that "spiritual" quest that all must seek, myself included. I love the spiritual quest, but when I die, my spirit dies with me.

Admitting the soul exists as a thing that tells us about ourselves, that tells us when we hurt or when we are ecstatically happy, is not the same as admitting it is transcendental, eternal, everlasting. It doesn't mean that at all.

I believe there is a power greater than myself, because obviously it made me and I did not make it. Thomas Jefferson, who believed in God, still believed that what held the universe together and made it work was not the direct hand of God, but "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God." Those Renaissance men used to capitalize all the words that had importance in a sentence, and so Jefferson capitalized Nature to make it equal with God.

Jefferson didn't know what God was anymore than anyone else does, although he and his Deist friends who founded America thought God was supernatural. Still, not knowing exactly what God was but believing He existed, they were naturalists--because they believed that God, whatever He was, created Nature and then let Nature take over. God sits back and watches, and keeps his hands off, never interfering in the affairs of Man, because He gave man Reason for the very purpose of controlling his own affairs.

So for an atheist "god" can be those laws of nature which are obviously there, like gravity. Isn't gravity a power greater than you are? If you want to escape gravity, you have to learn how. You can't just jump in the air and go floating into space.

An atheist author wrote that it is impossible to hear a man's voice over the distance of 240,000 miles; and yet, she wrote, we heard the astronauts speaking to us from the moon. We learned to command nature, but we cannot change nature; we created radio waves and receivers, but it's still just as impossible to hear a man's voice over 240,000 miles. That is a power greater than any man can overcome.

And so it our Reason we must use to navigate the tricky twists and curves of being atheist in a god-based group. But there are very good reasons for navigating those waters.

1) You receive the "Promises," which are officially described, in part, as:

"a new freedom and a new happiness;" a loss of regret over things we may have done or said in the past; that "we will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace"; that "that feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear"; that "our whole attitude and outlook on life will change" for the better; and "we will intuitively know how to handle things which used to baffle us. [These promises] are being fulfilled among us--sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them."

I added the emphasis at the end of that because it must be understood that these things don't come just by showing up at A.A. meetings and listening and talking. You have to work for them, you have to go "into action," which is name of a chapter in the Book. That is why it is important to find someone you can work with on a one-to-one basis. That person is who you can call your sponsor, even if you find another sponsor next week.

Don't let the "god" part of A.A. deter you from using the program selfishly. "The principles we have set down are guides to progress." [italics added]

"We are not saints. Do not be discouraged.
Half measures availed us nothing. Without help it is too much for us.

"But there exists among us a a fellowship, a friendliness, and an understanding which is indescribably wonderful. We are people who would not normally mix. We are average Americans.

"The tremendous fact for every one of us [in A.A.] is that we have discovered a common solution. We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree, and upon which we can join in brotherly and harmonious action. This is the great news this book carries to those who suffer from alcoholism."

Those paragraphs were mixed and matched from different pages and chapters of the Big Book. But that is how each of us must learn to do it. People at meetings who quote the books flip back and forth between pages and books all the time, taking what they need and leaving the rest.

"If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps"; and one of these steps is putting up with a program based on god while you look for your answers that are devoid of god.

In the meantime you will have that fellowship, and those promises will come true if you work for them.

And oh yes, about 1) listed above. Where are the rest of the reasons for navigating the god-waters of A.A.? Well first, ask if all those reasons listed under 1) are not a good start. But then ask yourself if you "want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it." Any length, that is, that does not deny your own beliefs. No person who believes the "Rapture" is coming next year will try to convert a Unitarian; and no Babtist will try to convert a Coptic. No one of any religious faith asks another person of another faith to deny his or her own religious beliefs.

If you are willing, that is the best reason for navigating the waters. Don't be afraid of the theists and their talk of god, because when you open your mouth and speak of how you are finding this-way and that-way of attaining those "principles" which are really only "guides," and you show that you are finding them through something someone said and through something, anything, that you found in the books, then you, and they, will know that the program they put so much faith into even works for we atheists.

For Part II Click Here more

For some outside perspectives, read the Comments on the link below.

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