Groups such as AA and NA have many detractors, people who believe that they are religious organizations or even cults. This misconception extends to 12-based treatment centers, who are accused of brainwashing their patients rather than treating a disease. Those who make such allegations often know little of the science behind the disease, or else they simply do not believe in the concept of a spiritual cure. Of course, there are others who simply do not like the presence of the word “God” in the Twelve Steps. AA co-founder Bill Wilson wrote “We Agnostics” in an attempt to address the issue that many non-religious alcoholics would face when working a spiritual program, and that chapter might be recommended to anyone who falls into the above camps as well.
“We Agnostics” is the fourth chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, or the fifth if you include “The Doctor’s Opinion.” By this point in the book, Bill W. has related the nature of the disease in great depth, also expanding quite a bit on the concept of a spiritual solution. He has shared his own story about his struggles with alcoholism and how he came to enter recovery. Now, he discusses the fact that many atheists and agnostics were among AA’s core starting group, and elaborates on how they came to define spirituality in a way that worked for them.
Certain parts of “We Agnostics” may be discomforting for those with particularly strident views. It speaks of men who did not begin to undergo a spiritual awakening until they chose to embrace religion. But if you have tried religion and know that it is not for you, do not fear. Whether or not you choose to be religious, you may still embrace the concept of spirituality. This is something we already touched upon in our article on the concept of true faith. Now, let us use the wisdom of “We Agnostics” to examine the topic in even further depth.
The Need for Spirituality
One of the first pages of “We Agnostics” includes the following passage:
“If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly.”
It boils down to a lack of control, one which we have fought very hard to ignore. This is why Step Three requires a surrendering of the will. Yes, we may have very decent morals and a wonderful comprehension of standard ethics. But over the course of our addictions, we began to place less value on these ideals. We ignored our own moral compass, as sturdy as it had seemed up to that point, for the sake of weaseling one more fix into our daily schedule. We forsook our families, friends, careers and other obligations for the sake of prolonging our substance abuse. But no matter how often we sacrificed our own morals, values and ethics, those of us for whom “We Agnostics” was written were dedicated to the idea that we alone could solve our problems.
There are various reasons for why we may have felt this way. Perhaps we were indoctrinated to believe a version of God that did not meet our own moral standards. Perhaps we looked at the world and its many wars and decided that religion was to blame for all of it. We never looked at the many people who practiced religion with love and respect for their fellows, because we considered them to be the rare exceptions. We wanted none of this God concept, so we decided to view it in the most cynical way possible.
But “We Agnostics” is not saying that you must take up arms and join the Crusades. In fact, “We Agnostics” does not attempt to sway your religious beliefs one way or the other. It is about spirituality, and nothing more. If we continue to harbor our former prejudice against religious people, however, we may find a spiritual solution quite difficult to seek. There is a form of the Serenity Prayer that mentions accepting the world as it is, not as we would have it. This is the backbone of true faith and spirituality—acceptance. If we are to accept our disease and learn to overcome it, we must accept that we are not the ones running the show. Whether you embrace religion or science in reaching this conclusion is no one’s business but yours. Simply have faith that there are greater forces in the world, and endeavor to become one with them rather than constantly fighting against them. Otherwise, you will forever be locked in a battle that simply cannot be won.
“As We Understood Him”
Some who read “We Agnostics” will not perceive it as being quite as open and accepting as we have made it out to be. This is because “We Agnostics” includes terms such as “Creative Intelligence,” which would appear not to gel with the notion that we are allowed to accept the greater scientific universe as the Higher Power of our choosing. The Big Book would advise you, however, not to be too perturbed by these references.
“Besides a seeming inability to accept much on faith, we often found ourselves handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning prejudice. Many of us have been so touchy that even casual reference to spiritual things made us bristle with antagonism. This sort of thinking had to be abandoned. Though some of us resisted, we found no great difficulty in casting aside such feelings. Faced with alcoholic destruction, we soon became as open minded on spiritual matters as we had tried to be on other questions. In this respect alcohol was a great persuader.”
There’s a common question asked of those in recovery when they find themselves taking a particularly obstinate view. “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be sober?” This question is of great annoyance to those of us who would prefer to be both, but really think about what the question is truly asking. Do you want your views to be so overpowering that you would succumb to emotional disturbance simply because you did not agree with something that was said? Bill is using “We Agnostics” to demonstrate how he overcame his own struggles with spirituality. Your path may not be the same as his, and this is okay. You do not have to take his view of a Higher Power, but we should still respect the fact that his view kept him sober until the end of his days. Just as you would like others to respect your own spiritual views, so too must you respect theirs. Do not shift uncomfortably whenever someone says that God or Jesus is keeping them sober. Unless they begin following you around day and night in an attempt to convert you, they have done you no wrong.
In other words, we must develop our own understanding of the spiritual and what it means to us without looking down on anyone else’s perception. We are reminded in “We Agnostics” that many long-held scientific beliefs have been proven wrong upon more research, and some scientifically accepted information regarding our universe has technically never been proven. If cold, hard fact can occasionally fail us, then who are we to question anyone’s spiritual beliefs? We must find what works for us and accept that it may not be the same thing that works for others. The moment we begin judging others for what they believe, our faith has been replaced by pride. If we truly wish to let go of our character defects and lead a sober lifestyle full of grace and humility, this sort of false pride will get us nowhere.
Our Spiritual Awakening
“We Agnostics” goes on to tell us that those who embrace spirituality will eventually encounter a spiritual awakening. The spiritual experience often comes into the conversation when discussing recovery from alcoholism and addiction, as it is seen as the very moment at which a person begins to truly embrace sobriety. It is different for every person. “We Agnostics” ends with the story of a man who experienced it in a very brief moment while in bed. It is likened to a thunderbolt dashing through his mind.
Not everyone, however, will find their spiritual awakening in a sudden realization or a flash of light. It is sometimes more gradual than that. There is an appendix referenced in “We Agnostics” that notes this. For many of us, we may not even realize that our spiritual awakening is underway. We simply realize that our mental obsession has left us, and we may not be able to pin down precisely when it happened. The only thing we know for certain is that it had a lot to do with the development of our faith. Whether we have embraced religion, the fellowship and unity we have found in sobriety, or simply a newfound trust that all is right with the universe, some form of faith has helped us to see that we no longer need to abuse substances every day. Life may not be easier than it was, but it’s a lot happier now that we are not hiding behind the synthetic armor of drugs and alcohol.
Again, you may find some of the text of “We Agnostics” to be slightly at odds with what we have said here. Remember that “We Agnostics” was written while AA was very young. The program grew over time, and Bill’s later writings are a bit broader when covering the subject of spirituality. He still maintains his own views, but does not necessarily advocate that a person must be religious in order to benefit from sobriety. By virtue of the Third Tradition, there should be no requirements for recovery other than a desire to stay sober.
Here at Amethyst Recovery, we take a similar view. Our Alpha Series is geared largely toward Christians, but may still interest those who are a bit open-minded and able to take spiritual lessons from scripture without feeling as if they are being forced to convert. We offer incredibly personalized care, and we are willing to accept a person’s religious views as long as they can be incorporated into that person’s recovery. Those who feel turned away by step-based programs when reading “We Agnostics” should never forget that open-mindedness is a key aspect of sobriety. Leave all prejudices at the door, and open your heart to the power of self-discovery. Upon doing so, you will find that your faith in the world and in sobriety was never so far away to begin with. The only barriers we experience in finding faith are obstacles of our own making. It’s time to remove them, and allow sobriety to better our lives.