Group Morale as Higher Power in AA

By Bill Manville 12/21/16

“Their ‘Higher Power’ ideas may work for the simple-minded but not for someone educated in the mysterious profundities of what God’s Grace really means.” 

Group Morale
Where to turn when faith is shaken?

“Bill, I used to believe in God. Now all I have is a belief in bourbon, gin and the occasional weekend on speed.”

That’s how an email began, addressed to me from—let’s call him Tom—who read me a long time ago in The Fix, an early piece called, “An Atheist Like You, Bill? You’ll Never Get Sober!

Tom went on: “Last year I was diagnosed as suffering from pancreatitis. The docs tell me if I don’t stop drinking I will die, but something in me knows I will never stop unless I regain my belief in the mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I was once a theology student but dropped out when I began to have severe doubts. Bill, how can I learn what you did—an atheist who’s figured out how to stop, and even have a meaningful life sober? 

“And please don’t tell me to go to AA,” Tom went on. “Their ‘Higher Power’ ideas may work for the simple-minded but not for someone educated in the mysterious profundities of what God’s Grace really means.”


During my time in rehab, I once spoke to Dr. LeClair Bissell about my own discomfort with AA’s shadow embrace with religion. An unabashed atheist, an open and self-confessed ex-drunk herself, now an eminent authority on addiction, she’d been the doc who’d persuaded me to enter rehab in the first place. 

“One way to understand the dance of religion and recovery,” she said, “is to think in terms of magic.” 

Seeing my look of surprise and doubt, she smiled.

“When we are infants, if we feel cold, a blanket magically appears and is draped around us. Feel hungry? We don’t even have to ask. Magically, a breast is being popped into our mouth. Freud called this stage of life ‘infantile omnipotence.’ What makes The Twos so Terrible is that is when we are taught we must give up our belief in magic—surrender our omnipotence. What alcohol and/or dope do is re-arouse those feelings and when we are at the top of our high, we feel the magic back and running in our blood—we rule the world.”

“The power of the irrational at work,” I said. “No wonder common sense alone rarely stops anyone from drinking.”

“We need some kind of equally powerful magic,” said Dr. Bissell, “to counter the magic of dope and/or booze. Some find it in religion. In AA we look for it in the kind of spirituality embodied in group morale.”

And I knew from my infantry training that group morale—or "group cohesion" as the military calls it—is the power that wins wars. 

Let’s say you have a waiter, a poet and a stockbroker. There’s a war, and you tell them: Run up on that beach and take out that machine gun emplacement.

Fat chance. 

The military long ago developed a practical, and yet, magical, solution. Give recruits a uniform, strip them of the superficial marks of who they used to be. Put them through the rigors of basic training, hardships they suffer equally, and together. You’re in the army now. Group morale buoys them up, loyalty to an entity bigger than themselves, they become bonded as a regiment, welded into a company and a squad—an identity stronger than they ever felt on their own. 

“Run up on that beach and take out that machine gun emplacement!” is the order. Group morale heartens them, pride in their new identity as one of a band of fighting brothers keeps them going even in the face of death. They do not want to let the others down. They run up on the beach. In the service of something greater than themselves, the machine gun nest is taken out.

“If group morale can arm a soldier to face death,” is the way Grant C. puts it, “little wonder that AA’s group morale has been powerful enough to keep me from ever thinking I want another drink.”

Talking to Grant—a cattle-raising, no nonsense, seven-day-a-week rancher and long time friend of mine—I told him about Tom’s feeling that without the help of a God he no longer believes he will ever stop drinking. 

“If Tom were sitting with us here right now,” I said to Grant, “what would you say to him?”

“I’d start by saying I felt his same need to find something to believe in, something noble and true. I was never especially religious so it was an easy step to find whatever magic I needed—call it spirituality if you like—in booze and dope.”

Addicted to gambling too, Grant served time in jail “for crimes,” he said to me, “I hope, Bill, you won’t ask me to name in print.”

Twenty-five years sober now, when I taped our talk he was brewing the coffee, sweeping out one of the rooms at one of our local rehabs, setting up the chairs—work he does every week for the AA meeting he runs.

Here’s Grant, speaking in his own words:

“Tom, you and I have never met but if the consequences and repercussions of your drinking are to find yourself drunk, sick, broke and/or in jail—no money to spend, no place to go, and no way to get there—then I’m talking to you. My theme is that if formal religion has lost its power with you, group morale may well be the healing kind of spirituality you need.

“Remember when the hijackers flew two Boeings into the World Trade Center? When a call for blood donors went out, people who had never been to New York, disliked New York and who made jokes about New Yorkers, immediately lined up across the country to give blood, and if their hospital collection point was swamped, made appointments to come back whenever they could be taken. 

“No planes were flying, so structural engineers in Wyoming and Louisiana, medics and nurses in Virginia, steel workers in Kansas got into their cars and drove to New York to volunteer their help.

“I saw an interview with a firefighter who'd come up from Philadelphia. Won't your wife miss you?" he was asked. "You go out with men on a call," he replied, "maybe you walked into their firehouse ten minutes ago, but now they're your mother, they're your wife, your family, nobody thinks of anything but helping each other get the job done." 

“Money for Trade Center victim relief poured in by the ton, and armed forces recruiting stations were besieged with people wanting to sign up. 

“Tom, you may call this patriotism or idealism. What I believe is that it was a purpose in life grander than yourself, a feeling more deeply satisfying than the counterfeit joys of making money while afloat on a sea of booze and dope, the unending masturbation of showbiz and trivially entertaining yourself to death—a chance at last to break free from the narrow and forever tyranny of me, me, me. 

“Commenting on why the Trade Center attack brought Pearl Harbor so immediately to mind, Harvard historian Ernest May said it was not just the fact of surprise. It also reflected 'the idea that this, too, would … unite us. I think people were reaching for that.' Posters proclaiming 'United We Stand' sprung up on every wall.

“Our economic system pits people against each other, the competitive ’war of all against all.’ It may be the most efficient ever invented, but in the end is it anything more than getting and spending? It does not satisfy a basic human desire, the one that brought the Philadelphia fireman to New York for no pay: the exaltation of spirit that comes from working together for a noble goal. He was an instance of community, of human solidarity—emblematic of the kind of group morale that is the healing force in 12 Step programs. When AA speaks of a return to spiritual satisfactions, this is what I take it to mean. Honor and altruism are in us all, one of the joys of life to feel and answer their call. 

“Bill says you’ve tried AA and feel it doesn’t work for you—not the way religion once did. But religious or not, if you are possessed by the insatiable desire to drink, then I have more bad news for you. AA may be a simple program, but for some of us it will be the hardest thing we ever do. Bleached tombstones witness this statement; boozers like you and me and Bill know that feeling of being unable to imagine life without alcohol, but with it, the future is always uncertain and the end always near.

“Could it be that all the people who claim to talk for God didn't know what they were talking about? Who guaranteed them that without Jesus Christ you will never get sober?

“Maybe there is a form of spiritual energy that has nothing to do with religion, a kind of group morale which can be harnessed—a sense of working for something greater than yourself which is more powerful than booze, more satisfying than gambling and dope. And, Tom, since there’s no one listening but you and me, just a couple of drunks, let me add this: Maybe you’re still addicted to alcohol’s one great and good friend—grandiosity? 

“Try AA again, but this time check your snobbery at the door. Treat it like a baseball or football game where half the pleasure is joining into the crowd, united and roaring for the home team. Only this time, instead of finding this or that theological flaw to nag at, set up the chairs, sponsor a newcomer, find speakers for meetings to come. Forget about faith; just do the work. The home team is sobriety and we’re all on it. And if this sounds like a placebo; like giving yourself up to Make-Believe, well you can always go back to where you are now—sick, lonely and frightened and writing to strangers for relief.

Grant C.

P.S.: Stop complaining. This works on gambling, dope and smokes too."

P.P.S. (this one from Bill): I see that Grant did not mention that we taped this interview a couple of days after one of his outpatient radiation treatments for cancer of the mouth due to his years of two-packs-a-day smoking.

So I thought I would.

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