By Stephen S and Justin M
Stephen is an AfroAmerican living in Australia.
Stephen is an atheist. So am I.
Akin to sexuality and political orientation, atheism and agnosticism are hidden traits of character. Atheists/agnostics can choose to share that trait or not.
Stephen is a military veteran. His training included studying foreign language and linguistics. He demonstrates a keen and academic appreciation of language and commits to respecting its rules of usage.
Because of that, he is direct when he speaks. He attends both traditional and secular AA meetings. As do I. We both attend traditional meetings in our city.
In that meeting, he has shared only three times.
He has said that I present casually in social interactions. But that is a deliberate cover for my political position regarding AA. Research also has found that it is significantly more difficult for people who are discriminatory towards any group to maintain that discriminatory attitude to someone that they know and are emotionally attached to. For that reason, I did not declare that I am an atheist for the first six months of AA attendance. I currently mention that I am an atheist in every share, where it is relevant, to help normalise my atheism. Also, it may help others who have not “come out” as atheist, agnostic, secular, or non-Christian to realise that they can be a member of AA to pursue sobriety. In other words, it may help them to look past the religion-oriented wording in the Steps and Traditions.
I enjoy speaking to Stephen and exchanging ideas regarding belief, knowledge, race politics, alcoholism, ethics, et cetera.
Stephen and I recently had a chat about dogma. He abhors the prevalence of dogma within AA. This post is a result of that chat.
I feel an affinity with Stephen. Of course, we both identify as alcoholics. So that helps a lot. But also for his identity as an Afro-American. Some in the atheism normalisation movement compare it to the normalisation of LGBT+ identities. I feel that there are also parallels to modern civil rights movements.
There are, at least, two approaches to seeking to protect secularism within AA. The first is to simply start secular meetings, gather secular alcoholics about myself and create a secular AA community. That is akin to Malcom X’s idea of separatism. Stephen and I also practice civil disobedience by refusing to say the Serenity Prayer at the end of traditional meetings—emphasising our nature of being separate from traditional members, whilst remaining part of AA.
The second approach is to create that secular AA community, but also to attend and identify as an atheist/agnostic/secularist within traditional AA. I feel a moral obligation to do so, as it may help others who are atheist/agnostic/secular to attend and stay within AA. That is more akin to Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to civil rights – the “they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” approach. Where we replace “the colour of their skin” with “a lack of belief” to become: “they will not be judged by a lack of belief, but by the content of their character”.
Whilst I am unconvinced of AA’s claim that it is a “solution” to problem drinking – others have been convinced. The medical community in Australia interacts with AA, encourages attendance at AA meetings and encourages problem drinkers to become AA members. They, by default, accept that it is useful and has positive outcomes for problem drinkers. My pragmatic approach to traditional, exclusionary AA is to use it as a recruitment ground for inclusive secular AA.
Here is where Stephen and I digress. As an example, he sees words like “probably” in “probably no human power could restore us to sanity” as the authors hedging their bets. It is avoidance. Not wanting to be held to the standard that they set for themselves. Not living up to the claims that “the program” is a solution to alcoholism.
I have, what I consider to be, a more generous interpretation. That “probably” gives me, as an atheist, a testable claim. I have the ability to test whether that is the correct word. To see if it should be “maybe” or “it is untrue that”.
In my two years as I member of AA, all I have seen is human power. It was human power that saved Bill W’s sobriety when he was tempted to drink at the Mayflower Hotel. He sought out another human, an alcoholic, on which to rely rather than drink. He literally turned his back on drinking and sought out Dr Bob. Even now, it is humans that set up groups. Humans organise meetings. Humans hang the banners. Humans prepare the coffee and refreshments. Humans chair meetings. Humans attend meetings. Humans share in meetings. Humans get telephone numbers of others and ring them when in trouble or when they are ill at ease. For me, the whole AA enterprise is based on human power. For me, the whole AA enterprise is successful because of human power.
No supernatural pleas are needed or required. Humans are the ultimate higher power. I would argue that they have always been the higher power in AA.
It is untrue that no human power could restore us to sanity.
It is true that human power could restore us to sanity.