Engaging AA as an Atheist

By jdye 06/28/19

For the atheist, the most troublesome chapter of the Big Book is undoubtedly "We Agnostics."

In it, the writers trot out many tired arguments that the well-read atheist has seen pummeled in debate ad nauseum. It attests that belief in God is the only 'reasonable' approach to life while also bringing reason itself under the microscope of scrutiny and declaring it insufficient. It also takes the biblical position that no one is seriously atheist, they just think they are, a proposition many non-believers may find repugnantly condescending.

It may seem to the newcomer atheist that the only path to recovery requires in-authenticity and intellectual suicide. 

Fortunately, this is not the case.

Evolution and the 12 Steps

What's profound about the 12-Step Program is that it's remarkably in alignment with our current conception of evolutionary biology and psychology. Give me a moment to explain before that sentence has you racing to the back button. In one sense, it's kind of a work of rough science itself, the product of hundreds of years of humans struggling against a problem and identifying a functional solution. The trouble lies in semantics and terminology.

We are excellent problem solvers. It's perhaps, alongside language, our single most valuable evolutionary trait. We can solve a puzzle even if a few crucial pieces are left out of the box, an ability we see exercised time and time again in all modern physics wrestling with space-time. 

It may seem to the newcomer atheist that the only path to recovery requires in-authenticity and intellectual suicide.

However, the authors of the book are at a bit of a historical disadvantage. Evolution was still a relatively new concept, and atheists of the day were painted with a broad and insufficient brush. The atheists of the Big Book are largely "Hollywood Atheists," people who have experienced loss or pain to the point where they abandon their previous faith and are just waiting for the right coincidental confluence of circumstance to re-embrace the supernatural.

Atheists picking up the Big Book today might see much of themselves in its description of the alcoholic, but none whatsoever in its description of the atheist.

The most discouraging passage to the atheist might be on page 51:

When many hundreds of people are able to say that the consciousness of the Presence of God is today the most important fact of their lives, they present a powerful reason why one should have faith.

Ouroboros of "reason to have faith" aside, any freshman student of a science could write at length about how this is a stunningly bad argument based on profoundly bad evidence.

The real good news is that it is by no means necessary to abandon reason if you want to use the 12-Step Program to seek recovery from addiction.

Consider the infant. In most species, offspring are born more or less able to take care of themselves after a brief period of nurturing. The human baby, however, is fundamentally helpless for a hilarious length of time.

Atheists picking up the Big Book today might see much of themselves in its description of the alcoholic, but none whatsoever in its description of the atheist.

This weakness is actually an evolutionarily advantageous trait. Humans are social creatures, and the structures we create - families, businesses, industries, economies - are heinously complex. None of the skills necessary to navigate these systems and survive can be installed through instinct. The toddler who strikes off into the Savannah alone is essentially guaranteed to be weeded out of the gene pool.

In addition to being physically advantageously crippled to adapt to society, we also come packaged with a handful of advantageous psychological hangups. Extended periods of isolation, for instance, become incredibly stressful. Our bodies and minds read this separation from the tribe as a seriously life-threatening situation. Irresolvable and extended Fight or Flight mode can lead to depression, medical issues, and provably shortened lifespans.

Society must be organized to be enduring. This lends itself to hierarchies. Our hardwired intuition that we are part of a larger whole can be traced all the way back to Freud, who called it the "oceanic feeling."

 We come packaged with a handful of advantageous psychological hangups.

The chemical associated with this tribal belonging is oxytocin, which is released during religious ceremonies, football games, political rallies, and Marvel movies. Essentially any time we relish in the moment of being in the "in-group."

We are biologically rewarded for this behavior. We are evolutionarily designed to "worship," as it were, together. There is no more escaping this than there is escape from the body (a sensation, it should be noted, that alcohol provides).

Evolution has always a master of the bodge. 

Gods, then, and their creation across cultures, are the wholly reasonable extension of our rational problem solving struggling against the equally evolutionarily-designed, but non-rational, psychology. We extrapolate the hierarchy upwards into the abstract and the infinite, creating divinities to order us. It is natural for us, and it has the advantageous result of keeping our societies orderly, purpose-driven, and cohesive.

It also has screeds of disadvantages, but evolution has always a master of the bodge. 

It has been said that "Hell is other people." However, a far more meaningful sentiment is "God is other people."

Of Your Own Understanding

Alcoholics Anonymous, as it stands, is unavoidably religious in its lexicon. It is likely to remain that so for a very long time. Atheism and secularism in general have unfortunately thus far been unable to construct any lasting system that nurtures certain key psychological needs. What AA might call "spiritual" needs.

A quick note on "spirituality." Through the Physicalist lens, spirituality can be discussed without resorting to the supernatural. What others may call spirituality is really no more than the deliberate and earnest engagement with our evolved psychological needs and an awareness that our conscious minds are just the tip of a mental iceberg. Engaging the whole psyche, then, involves techniques like meditation. Though these practices may appear irrational from all descriptions, the act of stillness and mindfulness has proven psychological benefits. Though our immediate rationality may buck against the perceived waste of time and lack of active puzzle assembly, we're wise to heed the longer-scale rationality of scientific inquiry that has demonstrated the benefits of such practices time and time again.

We're wise to heed the longer-scale rationality of scientific inquiry

It's to AA's credit, though, that a key tenant embodies its fundamentally altruistic and all-welcoming objective. The Steps allow literally any conception of "God" so long as it's a power greater than one's self with the capability to restore the alcoholic mind to sanity. Furthermore, members of the group are, by and large, relentlessly unprying on this topic, which is noteworthy since the Steps otherwise involve thorough disclosure of an individual's worst behavior and states of mind.

It is implicitly encouraged among members to perform a kind of "Find and Replace" whenever the word "God" arises in any context, substituting any previous or conventional idea of God with a conception of one's choosing.

With "other people" as "God," the entire system snaps neatly into place. It is a god you can "pray' to as easily as talking to a stranger or friend, a god who created you, a god responsible for everything from all the love in the world to cell phone towers, a god you can "worship" in such simple ways as emptying the dishwasher. It's a god arrived at through description and discernment rather than mental gymnastics or bad faith, and it is at loggerheads with the core virus of alcoholism: selfish living.

The core virus of alcoholism is selfish living.

It's a common argument among atheists that if one were to delete all instances of a given spiritual text from existence, it would never be reconstructed some time in the future. If one were to do the same with physics texts, it's an inevitability that the components of mathematics and particle interaction would eventually be reconstituted. We might call electrons "amberites" or "spidoodles," but the mechanics would bear out. Though, it might take generations to rebuild.

It could be that this holds true for the Big Book as well, which was hewn out of a centuries-long struggle with a malady that has plagued millions. We would of course not have Bill W, and there might be 9 steps instead of 12, and there may not even be any mention of God, but the foundation is a practical methodology uniquely suited to address addiction in human beings.

Community, not Faith, is the Core Value of AA

We are evolutionarily designed to be social creatures, and it has been said among addiction specialists that the opposite of addiction isn't sobriety, it's connection. Without that, the addict is an infant in the Savannah, equally ill-equipped to deal with the physical and psychological threats surrounding them.

Therefore, an atheist armed with this or a similar "conception of God" has no trouble engaging groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, nor should they be concerned with any trace of falsehood or inauthenticity when speaking in the group's vernacular. 

We are evolutionarily designed to be social creatures.

Furthermore, no seemingly religious or spiritual language need cause them to balk at engaging such a potentially helpful community. 

Some may see this in itself as a kind of mental gymnastics, but since spiritual terms in AA have already been extended such enormous flexibility, it seems closer to linguistic accommodation. 

A life lived for the self is both a waste and a destructive force in the lives of others. A life lived for others, however... that's something worth considering.

Be quick to see where religious people are right.

What makes AA an effective organization is that it offers a program for genuine spiritual experience that runs on most western operating systems, and which procedurally debugs a widespread system error. For maximum reach in the West, it necessarily adopts a monotheistic framework for spirituality. This is a structure the majority of newcomers are most comfortable with, and it allows them to immediately start the business of recovery without undergoing a cosmological overhaul.

It may present initial troubles and irritation for incoming rationalists, but in the absence of any similarly widespread and effective secular organization in place, it seems wise to perform the encouraged "Find and Replace" operation for the atheist to best engage this vast resource and community.

"Be quick to see where religious people are right. Make use of what they offer." You don't have to swallow the rest.


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