Updated: Aug 29
Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by the venerable Trysh Travis, former Points managing editor.
A friend with a drinking problem has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings lately, and finding them not very helpful. “I can’t stand all the God talk,” she explained. She was raised in an Islamic country where God is routinely invoked—sometimes consciously, other times mechanistically—as a punitive, fearsome presence whose main purpose in the world seemed to be to limit the freedoms of women like herself. God was the last person she felt like turning to for help.
Before you go getting up on your Fox News soapbox and calling in more drone strikes in the name of an oppressed Third World Woman, let me just note that I’ve had American friends—Baptists, Catholics, and Jews—who had the same gripe with 12-Step culture. Twelve-Step recovery’s official posture may be that it is “spiritual, not religious,” but the niceties of that distinction may be lost on people for whom “God” is hot-button issue.
In addition, because the discourse at any given 12-Step meeting reflects the predilections of the regular attendees, groups may become religious, either by default or by intent. In the course of researching my book on the history of the recovery movement, I moved from the secular Northeast to Texas, where I was shocked to hear people in meetings talking not about a generic “Higher Power,” but about “my lord and savior Jesus Christ.” In the staid Connecticut 12-Step culture with which I was familiar, believing Christians were careful to invoke “my Higher Power, whom I choose to call ‘God.’” This kept them, and the meeting, aligned with the spirit of AA’s Preamble to the 12 Steps, which states “AA is not allied with any sect [or] denomination [and] neither endorses nor opposes any causes.” But such personal reticence on matters of faith, I soon discovered, was not generally a part of Bible Belt 12-Step culture. A meeting was an opportunity to witness.
This regional variation has taken on an institutional cast in recent years. Within AA, “Back to Basics” proponents—like Barefoot Bill, James H. and Dick B.—focused on 12-Step Culture’s origins in the evangelical Oxford Group have become increasingly vocal and visible. In fact, as Glenn C. has argued, a variety of religious traditions informed the AA co-founders’ thinking about drink cessation, but the Back to Basics movement tends to emphasize their connections to Christian pietism. The internet and the increased ease of self-publishing and –distribution have made it incredibly easy to systematize and extend the reach of what once might have been isolated sub-cultures.
And there’s an evangelical bent to the Back to Basics movement: program friends across the country have mentioned to me over the last few years that individuals invested in the movement—sometimes called “Big Book Thumpers” or “Oxford Groupers”—have come into their meetings with the clear agenda of shifting the discourse towards a conventional Christian (if non-denominational) God. Such a shift intends to improve the amount and quality of sobriety among individuals within the fellowship, but is also meant to reform AA itself, which many Back to Basics advocates see as having fallen away from a sacred beginning. As Barefoot Bill puts it, “It was never intended that phrases such as ‘higher power,’ ‘power greater than ourselves,’ or ‘[God] as we understood Him’ [serve] as an enabling device to justify our membership’s continued avoidance of a connection with our Creator.”
So if we want to understand what’s driving the First International “We Agnostics and Free Thinkers” AA Conference (WAFT) next week in Santa Monica, California, we should know that there have always been regional (as well as local and neighborhood-level) differences in the way people live 12-step culture. That culture has also changed over time, and in recent years, a vibrant populist version of 12-Step thinking that emphasizes its Christian dimensions over and against its commitment to spiritual pluralism has grown in visibility. Now, in a countermove, the agnostic tradition in the fellowship is pushing to the fore.
That tradition, like the evangelical one, is a rich one, sketched by Roger C. in a 2011 article in the American Humanist. The phrase “We Agnostics” is from the Big Book’s Chapter Four, which explores the difficulty the original members faced with the idea of a spiritual solution to their drinking. Their solution to that problem, and the one that the reader is encouraged to take as well, was to find “your own conception of God.” This tolerance—indeed, this invitation—to agnosticism is the foundation of AA’s “spiritual but not religious” platform. It was, to co-founder Bill Wilson’s way of thinking, the thing that separated AA from the Salvation Army and other proselytizing missions devoted to “saving” drunks.
AAs loyal to this strain of thinking within the fellowship have founded Agnostic AA and AA Agnostica, among other groups, and created a list of World Wide Agnostic AA Meetings, which is maintained by the New York City Agnostic AA chapter. Next week’s International Conference is another step towards visibility. That it may be seen as something else is suggested in the FAQ section, which contains questions about whether WAFT is, in fact, AA; whether it is trying to split from AA; whether it uses “God-free” steps; and whether the General Service Office (the administrative arm of AA) “will shut us down.” (If you’re not moved to visit the site yourself, the answers are yes, no, no, and no.)
Consternation within AA about who represents the true spirit of the fellowship, and who is a self-interested interloper whose hubris is likely to make him start drinking again is nothing new. The AA History Lovers group, to name only one group of stakeholders, has already seen some discussion of the WAFT’s legitimacy. Doubtless there will be more, and it will probably get heated. At the heart of American political and cultural life today is the post-liberal quarrel over which special interest groups have too much power; should we be surprised that AA can’t see itself any differently than we see our school curriculums, our health care, and our electoral politics?