Can You Stay Sober Without God?

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Can You Stay Sober Without God?

By Jesse Beach 09/21/11

How can a non-believer navigate the twelve steps?  The Pulitzer-nominated author of Wasted discusses an agnostic's path to sobriety.

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Bestselling Author Marya Hornbacher on Recovery Without Religion
Photo by Mark Trockman

Twelve-step fellowships were founded on the idea of one amateur helping another. Our currency is experience, not expertise. If we canonize founders and enshrine their words as instructions or rules—on spirituality as in other matters—aren’t we forgetting the very message that was entrusted to us, to pass on to the next in line? Marya Hornbacher was next in line. Like many, she didn’t come to save her soul, she came to save her ass—only later did she find that they were connected.

Individualistic and flaunting a casual disdain for structure and authority, Marya’s also a rather famous writer: in 1998, whe she was just 23, she wrote  Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, which sold over a million copies in the US and has been translated into 16 languages. Her third book, Madness: A Bipolar Life rose to the top spot on The New York Times bestseller list in 2008.

Marya’s now been sober more than 12 years and her most recent two books are written addict-to-addict, continuing a conversation started in AA in the 1930s and keeping recovery talk alive for a new millennium. Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps was published last year and hot-off-the-press is May’s Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power. She isn’t announcing her candidacy to lead a Twelve Step revolution in Waiting. She’s chronicling how she got sober in a God-conscious fellowship—without having a theistic world-view herself.

"I don’t know two people who share identical spiritual beliefs."

She wrote of recovery in Wasted, “There is never a sudden revelation, a complete and tidy explanation for why it happened, or why it ended, or why or who you are. You want one and I want one, but there isn’t one. It comes in bits and pieces, and you stitch them together wherever they fit, and when you are done you hold yourself up, and still there are holes and you are a rag doll, invented and imperfect.”

Many people wrote Marya to respond to this, saying it pained them to read it and asking if addicts ever feel whole. She asks what “wholeness” means to them: “Do you need to feel attached, complete, saved, well and perfect? I don’t need to feel that way. I know many people in recovery who accept their incompleteness, or that to the extent to which we can find any completeness, it comes from a spiritual life.”

Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power addresses the issue in depth. Hornbacher’s spiritual life is not a series of Hollywood “Ah ha!” moments of peace and clarity. Instead, spiritual connection is the doubt, the asking without a sense of entitlement, the humility, the waiting. Versed in the religious literature of a number of traditions, Hornbacher saw doubt portrayed as suffering—but that was not her experience. To her, doubt is an opportunity. Sometimes the answers come and sometimes they don’t, but the exercise of waiting teaches patience, humility and willingness. Now that is adapting to life on life’s terms. Who better to talk with about the challenges Twelve Step groups face in adapting an age-old message to the scrutiny of the modern world? She shared her thoughts with The Fix.

Why stick to the word “Nonbeliever?” Your writing clearly shows that you believe a lot.

I get asked, “Are you an atheist or are you an agnostic?” I don’t like the common definition of either word. People’s experience differs from this popular understanding. The assumption is that nothing spiritual exists for atheists. I know many atheists who do believe a spiritual life exists within us and between us. And many agnostics would not say, “Yes I believe there is something out there.”

“Nonbeliever” for me is a very specific term meaning that I do not believe in a theistic or deistic world or universe. I was frustrated. I was talking to a friend and I said, “You know I feel like I am required to know an upwardly located deity or power. I searched and I didn’t find one.”

When you say the word “atheist” you hear or feel or imagine a ripple; or maybe that’s just my perception. Maybe people don’t bat an eye. But my perception is that as I speak, you can hear people thinking, “Oh God, how is she going to do this if she can’t recognize God as she understands Him?” Some people suggest the group as your higher power, a door knob, whatever you need, but I struggle with the very idea of a higher power. My experience has been that I don’t require one in order to find spiritual growth in recovery. I find these things in the rooms, in actions, reflections, the work I do with people and the work they do with me.

So, your message is both for those inside the fellowship and those who dismiss a Twelve Step solution for their addiction because of an incompatible world-view?

The subject line of an email to me said, “You have taken away my last excuse for not going to AA.” That cracked me up. Many do stay away from AA because they feel like they are going to have to believe in a certain type of spiritual platform.

I don’t know two people who share identical spiritual beliefs. There are people who believe identical tenets, but tenets are not the same as spiritual or religious beliefs. Tenets are: I do or do not believe in abortion rights. Tenets are platforms. Those are the things I wanted people to move away from. [Waiting] is not about religious or spiritual tenets. It is not about, “I do believe this” and “I do not believe in that.” People who don’t believe in God are not a-spiritual. I also wanted to give a voice to the people who believe that without God-consciousness, they are destined to a cold and intellectualized world. I want them to realize that there is a way to spiritual connectivity without any deity.

I recently heard a story of someone asking a monk, who may have been Benedictine, “What is your life like as a monk?” The monk replied: “We walk, we fall down, someone helps us up. We walk some more; someone else falls down. We help them up. That’s pretty much what we do.” I love that; it is so spiritually articulate. We are responsible for the spiritual care and feeding of each other and ourselves.

Is reification happening in Twelve Step circles, in the sense of things that were originally meant in an abstract way being taken literally? Is this true of the religious language?

I think it is true of all of the language. We need to address some groups that have felt shut-out. We need to include these groups and ask, “OK, what are your challenges with these Steps and how can we be of service to make them comprehensible and accessible to you?”

Could the language of the Big Book be altered to be more inclusive? 

Ah… Yes, but I come from two positions on this; I am torn. Firstly, all the Twelve Step fellowships work from a language which is quite old. Step Six “separated the men from the boys,” for instance. I have come to believe that they meant me too. When the movement started it was assumed that you were religious. Since then, membership has changed. Women, young people and people of various faiths have found a place here. I think the last people to feel that they do not have a place would be non-theists.

"If you can find the spiritual principles to work in your life, you have a hell of a good shot at making it."

Secondly—and this will sound a little old-fashioned, but just as true for me—is that these “first 164 pages” [of the Big Book] contain a great deal of inspiration and have kept a great many millions of people sober. So I believe there is such enormous value in this literature. This is where we learn, in a general way, how AA members have gotten and stayed sober over time. How it Works is a critical chapter. That’s where the Steps are explained. The Steps are essential to me; they cover so much of how we redefine ourselves, how we come to be of service to others.

We can work with this literature but I felt I had to worm my way in by saying, “OK, they meant women, they meant atheists and they meant me too.” I am not sure they did, but I do feel a place for me in the rooms. I see the personal stories in new Big Book editions reflecting the diversity of the groups and the ways different people find sobriety and serenity. We have “token” diversity right now; there are a couple of gay stories, some women, a few ethnic varieties and an agnostic. The personal stories mean a great deal to us because we hear our own stories told through them.

Will AA adapt, or can you see the struggle between absolutism and relativism splitting it into two camps?

I hope AA doesn’t break into two camps. But I can go to an Alano Club and I will find many different camps in different rooms. I don’t know if that is good or bad. If that is where we feel welcome, great. If that is where we find people all preaching to the same choir, I think that’s dangerous.

The Traditions say, “This is a group of people who would not ordinarily mix.” An idea that gets lost sometimes at meetings by some people is that we place principles before personalities, but what are the principles? They are justice, willingness, “brotherly” love—that one cracks me up!—and so on.

The White Paper on Non-believers, authored by an anonymous member and circulated last year, is a call to control agnostic recovery inside AA—agnostics are scapegoated as spelling AA’s unavoidable demise if we don’t silence them: “AA without God is water-wagon sobriety.” Are you familiar with this document? Does it offend you?

I am familiar with that paper. I feel perplexed. This is antithetical to the fellowship’s inclusion principle. Anyone who cares to stay sober can try our way. Our way isn’t 164 pages, verbatim; it is Twelve Steps any way we find a way into the Steps. If you can find the spiritual principles to work in your life, you have a hell of a good shot at making it. When people say, “I know how it works, I know how you get sober,” I just raise an eyebrow and say: “Do you now?” Because they aren’t describing how I got sober.

I know people from so many world-views who have found sobriety through the Twelve Steps and have found a spiritual life of their understanding. Inclusiveness has a way to go yet. When you put out a paper and say, “You can’t do it and you can’t do it and you can’t do it…” I do find it offensive, yes I do.

I have learned a tremendous amount from my 79 year-old male sponsor, who is a really wonderful guy. He has achieved sobriety in his own singular way. He taught me ti get sober my way, without bowing to rules or conventions. If I could have found it by myself I would have done it 20 years ago.

Years ago you heard, “Don’t talk about drugs in your story. This is Alcoholics Anonymous.” This stipulation is now commonly considered nonsense because most of us have experience with multiple addictions. So we changed the language in the rooms for today’s member with a broader experience.

Look at the many, many groups of people who have found help in the Twelve Steps for so many addictions. This is a testament to just how inclusive the Twelve Steps actually can be.

Jesse Beach is a writer in Ontario, Canada, who is in recovery. He previously wrote about Toronto's AA God-controversy for The Fix.

Photo by Mark Trockman © 2011 / trockstock.com

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