Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist's Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous

By Adam N. 12/20/19

Our recovery is not up to angels, demons, or gods. It is up to us.

young man, head bowed, receiving laying-on-of-hands by group
What keeps us sober from day to day is fellowship Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

An audio version of Common Sense Recovery is now available on Audible

Science Is Not a Four-Letter Word

A lot has been learned since Bill and Bob first met. I like to think that they did not so much set things in stone as set them in motion.

But we must always keep in our minds that the deep roots of AA in religion have set into our fellowship a long standing tone of anti-science and anti-learning. Religious organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous tend to be subtly, if not overtly, hostile to new ideas, to science, to change, and to anyone or anything which calls into question their traditional view that the big and important questions have all been answered, and the answer is God.

I am not an expert on the subject matter, and this is not going to be a science paper. Yet we would be doing ourselves and all the suffering alcoholics, now and in the future, in and out of the rooms, a huge disservice if we failed to recognize the ways in which a rapidly expanding body of knowledge might enhance our efforts. So, for example, there is an ever-growing body of scientific data to support the view that positive thinking and associated actions can literally re-wire the brain’s circuitry.

So let’s consider just one important area of investigation which will suggest the kind of exploration I think we have an obligation to more diligently pursue. Recent findings in the neurosciences suggest that the human brain is more malleable than once thought to be. Our experiences can actually rewire our “plastic” brain. Simply put, when we form habits of behavior, such as drinking or any of the destructive habits of thought associated with the alcoholic lifestyle, we forge strong pathways in our brain, neural connections that are reinforced over and over again, becoming stronger and stronger each time we repeat the patterns of thought and behavior.

The good news is that change is possible. The even better news is that positive change, consistently different thoughts and actions, will re-wire our neural pathways, literally changing our brain’s structure. The more we engage in the new behavior, the more that particular set of neurons fires together and wires together. The new connections, perhaps very tenuous at first, grow stronger and stronger with each reinforcing positive thought and activity. Meanwhile, the old pathway literally begins to atrophy from non use. The old habits fade, while the new ones become stronger and stronger with each repetition.

I find it encouraging that we have this growing body of evidence supporting many of our traditional teachings. Repeated alternate behavior choices can actually restructure our mental map. “Fake it till you make it” is scientifically verifiable. “Living our way into right thinking” is not a mere slogan on the wall, but an empirically verifiable technique for altering our brain chemistry and, thereby, our entire lives. How encouraging to know that, as hard as it may be at first to have an “attitude of gratitude”, habitually cultivating one through practice and repetition can, over time, literally change the way we see the world at the most basic level.

One of the more influential books I have ever read in my own personal recovery is an old school classic called A New Pair of Glasses, by Chuck C. Amongst many other insights, the book offered up the idea that god was in fact, simply, a new way of seeing the world, a new pair of glasses. This idea is suggested throughout the Big Book. The whole point of the AA experience is to initiate a “psychic change” (p. xxix), one which will “revolutionize our whole attitude toward life” and “toward our fellows”. (p. 25. Here, as in many places, I intentionally edit out Bill and the old timers’ copious references to god, spirit or higher power. This is quite intentional, and represents in fact a main thrust of my argument: Alcoholics Anonymous is replete with a wonderful and useful toolkit that can help anyone stay sane and sober if they are willing, even after we take out all the unnecessary, distracting, obfuscating religious language.) They may no longer be with us, but I suspect that Bill and Bob, Carl Jung, Dr. Silkworth and Chuck C. would all have been impressed by the correlation between this focus on a new pair of glasses and contemporary findings in the brain and behavioral sciences.

So, scientific findings support our experience: we can act our way into right thinking. We can ultimately enjoy lasting, whole scale changes in our personalities through seemingly small, incremental changes in behavior. Every time we experience a desire to drink and, instead, go to an AA meeting, call a friend, or work with a newcomer, we weaken that demon and strengthen that angel. We do the next right thing and, at some point, we realize that all these slow incremental steps have produced a significant, “miraculous” transformation. Our brain is literally being rewired, slowly but surely reprogrammed.

The AA tradition is to call this kind of change “spiritual” for two reasons. First, because of tradition. This sort of personal transformation, prior to the last couple hundred years of human history at least, was generally considered the sole province of religion, the handiwork of angels and deities.

Second, the caulk thing again. We find the radical change inexplicable, so we apply the magic, one-size-fits-all explaining power of theism as a metaphysical caulk in order to satisfy the never-ending human thirst for understanding or explanation.

Most importantly, these responses are not merely unnecessary; they are demeaning and disempowering in a very important sense. Our recovery is not up to angels, demons, or gods. It is up to us. We are responsible for taking the necessary actions that ensure the necessary changes which make for lasting, contented sobriety. Furthermore, supernatural explanations such as this give the false impression that we know all we need to about the phenomenon in question. As such, they tend to stand in direct conflict with the kind of curiosity and exploration which will grow the recovery sciences and our understanding of the relevant social and psychological processes.

The Real Higher Power

The most miraculous and inexplicable force at work in Alcoholics Anonymous may be fellowship itself. Even the most devoutly religious members depend upon our society, upon the power of the group. Often they will describe their fellow AAs, in a typical example of religious interpretation, as the mouthpiece through which god speaks to them. The fellowship is understood as a mere vehicle, or as a temporary expedient to be replaced by the real Higher Power when the newcomer finally “comes to” or “comes to believe”. But the experience of most recovering alcoholics is that, what guides and sustains us on a day-by-day basis are peer support, empathy, mentor guidance, and the emotional reinforcement of group membership. In short, what keeps us sober from day to day is fellowship. 

Consider these three suggestions, probably the most common ones made to an alcoholic who is suffering:

  1. Go to a meeting
  2. Call your sponsor
  3. Work with another alcoholic

What do all three have in common? They all entail immersion in the society of recovering peers, a meaningful connection with our newfound tribe. Reams of data from social psychology, evolutionary biology and a host of other disciplines attest to the essential role played by peer groups and societies in determining both our values and our action choices, in shaping our thoughts and behaviors. Scientifically, mounting evidence suggests that the social group is the source of an important kind of basic emotional nurturance that is fulfilling to tribal hominids such as we at a most fundamental level.

Our brain evolved to be what it is over the course of five million years spent in small, familial tribes, within which complete immersion and total dependence were essential for our very survival. We are, at our core, not so much individual animals as we are pack members. Gathering in fellowship is the most important practical tool we have borrowed from religion and the church. But, in the end, the power of the group is undoubtedly a little less miraculous, a little more ancient, and a little more explicable, than once thought.

The tribe functions as the disseminator and teacher, the source of encouragement and reinforcement, that which empowers the addict to live a better life on a daily basis. The fellowship offers new ideas, role models who practice them, wise guidance and counsel, reinforcement of values and goals, and essential emotional rewards to its members. It empowers us to practice new and different behaviors until they become new and different habits. As time passes our membership within the tribe is the source of life enriching friendships.

But it also becomes an important source of a newfound sense of value and purpose as, over time, we transform into seasoned members who reap significant benefits from passing guidance and support on to the next member in need. This life sustaining mutual exchange is a huge part of recovery. It builds a web which sustains us all, a web of support that is fundamentally tribal. Our lives are saved, shaped and defined by the herd. We survive by running with the pack. The fellowship is the most tangible instantiation of a “higher power” in our lives. I would argue that we need seek no further.

For humans, isolation is death. Community is life. We overestimate the value of religious belief and faith in god: in fact, the community of fellows is the vehicle, whether it is church, temple, ashram, therapy group, mosque, sangha, a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, or the meeting after the meeting.

Keep in mind how miserable and close to disaster Bill Wilson was in spite of his life-changing experience at Towns Hospital. AA lore unwisely exaggerates his alleged spiritual experience. This was, in all probability, merely a side effect of the quasi-toxic, hallucinogenic Belladonna cure being administered at the time.

But when Bill went out into the world and engaged with other alcoholics, he ultimately found what he was looking for. It was not more white light, or god, or a higher power that he found, but a drunken country doctor named Bob. The lasting good they created is a society of peers who gain synergetic strength in numbers, loving support from each other, and much wisdom gleaned from years of collective experience.

The above is an excerpt from the book Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist's Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous. The book was originally written as a journal by long-term member Adam N., as he sought to bridge the gap between the religious language and perspectives of AA, and his own increasingly secular, atheistic understanding of the fundamental principles of recovery. Now in its third edition, this work continues to be a valuable guide for many who struggle with the religious nature and language of AA and contains important insights for the future of the fellowship.

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