The God Dilemma in AA

Balancing Faith and Sobriety

According to the website “164andmore.com,” the term “God” appears 315 times in the Big Book and 12 and 12. The concept of God was pivotal to AA’s founding and remains a cornerstone for many long-standing, sober members of Alcoholics Anonymous. But does sobriety necessitate a belief in God?

The Confusing Aspects

I recall an early meeting when I was a newcomer. An old-timer, addressing the assembly, stated, “If you desire sobriety, relinquish your nonsense and discover God. Which, by the way, you are not!”

Old-timers, who embraced sobriety during the era when organized religion was prevalent in the USA, could assert such a claim. God was a given. This “God concept” is generally accepted and comprehended within the AA community, an understanding further reinforced by the fact that most people who joined AA in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s had a religious background to lean on.

Contrarily, today’s circumstances are the opposite. As The Atlantic reports, the number of “unaffiliated” individuals rose from 5% to 25% between 1972 and 2015. Among young people aged 18-29, the “unaffiliated” demographic approaches 40%.

Simultaneously, there has been an increase in agnosticism and atheism, as reported by Pew Research. Young newcomers to AA, earnestly seeking recovery, might be puzzled by the extensive God references both in the Big Book and meetings. They might genuinely wonder, “What exactly are they discussing?”

Mixed Messages

AA remains unwavering in upholding most of its traditions. Almost every meeting commences with, “There is one who has all power. That one is God. May you find Him now!” Strong words indeed! Non-believers might question whether they have walked into a religious gathering or cult. “Isn’t this supposed to be about recovery?” they might wonder. When they turn to the Big Book, they confront more than 150 explicit mentions of God or allusions to a “Higher Power” or “Power Greater than Yourself.” Both terms are clear euphemisms for God.

So what should these non-believers do? “Find Him now,” or exit? The answer, it seems, is somewhat mixed.

The common course of action for a non-believer is to read the chapter, “We Agnostics.” Regrettably, this chapter is more about converting non-believers into believers than it is about respecting and embracing disbelief. A quote from the chapter that is often repeated in meetings states, “Actually we were fooling ourselves, for deep down in every man, woman, and child is the fundamental idea of God.” In essence, your disbelief is a flaw. This disregard for non-believers is what I term the AA version of “you can’t handle the truth!”

However, individuals without faith do find sponsors, work the steps, and lead sober lives – their agnosticism or atheism intact. They are often advised by their atheist sponsors to “navigate around the God-talk in the books or meetings” and to “practice acceptance toward the fervent believers.” Developing a bit more tolerance toward differing viewpoints wouldn’t harm them.

The Incongruity

The truth is, this growing secular form of AA contradicts the deeply religious origins of the program. Reading the history, such as “Not God” by Ernest Kurtz, reveals a strongly religious past. Therefore, advising people to ignore or modify a sacrosanct AA concept – finding God for Recovery – seems disingenuous. More critically, from AA’s early days, it is seen as outright hypocrisy achieving sobriety without God.

Recent developments in the recovery domain make the God dilemma even more perplexing.

Firstly, overtly religious programs such as Celebrate Recovery have expanded. Celebrate Recovery, established in 1991 at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California, is now active in 35,000 churches and claims over five million attendees at their step study. This popularity suggests that a more religious approach to recovery has considerable appeal.

Secondly, there has been significant growth in recovery models and methodologies beyond AA. The traditional “complete and total abstinence” model that AA is known for is adjusted. The medical profession now uses the term Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) to discuss alcoholism. Treatments often include pharmaceuticals and regular therapy, and outcomes have been recalibrated to encompass relapse or moderate/infrequent alcohol consumption. The “spiritual angle” to recovery that made Bill and Bob’s solution to alcoholism innovative in the first place has been partially discarded.

At the Crossroads

AA finds itself at a peculiar junction. Although official records of AA attendance and membership aren’t maintained, it’s generally agreed that attendance has decreased over the past decade. AA is still strong, with an estimated 1.5-2 million members in the US. But if AA intends to appeal to those who are considering rehab, therapy, or Celebrate Recovery, change is essential.

AA could revert to its early days, adopt a more religious tone, and possibly retain some who might otherwise defect to Celebrate Recovery. However, doing so would alienate even more people who are less religiously inclined, pushing them towards rehab, therapists, or choosing to opt out of any program. Either way, the downward trend persists. This is a genuine conundrum.

Change, however, is challenging for AA. The 12 Traditions are intentionally restrictive, and many older members adopt the mindset of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

And here’s the harshest truth: at best, AA is only 10-20% effective in the long term. If a surgeon gave me those odds, I’d seek a second opinion.

Yet, AA is unusual in this respect. Its long-term members are confident in their program’s application and correctness, claiming it to be 100% effective for them. “We have a tool that will fit any nut!” they might say. Well, with 80% failing to find recovery, it might be time for an updated toolset.

The Arrival of Zoom

I’m hopeful that the recent resurgence of interest in AA (via Zoom and lockdown) might facilitate more dialogue and quicker changes. New “virtual fellowships” have begun to emerge, tasked with adapting AA to a new medium. There are now “Zoom babies,” individuals who attained sobriety during the pandemic without ever attending a live AA meeting.

Additionally, Zoom meetings can unite diverse or like-minded groups globally. The platform also allows instant feedback (through polls), enabling immediate and frequent “group conscience.” It’s uncertain where this might lead AA.

I’m hopeful that this technology will encourage swift, iterative adjustments to AA, aiding in more genuine and honest recovery.

Dishonesty and hypocrisy aren’t the best foundation for something lasting.

So, Do You Need God to Achieve and Maintain Sobriety?

The answer is, it depends.

If you’re predisposed to belief in God, you likely need God for sobriety. Find those people. If you lean towards disbelief, atheism, or agnosticism, then you probably don’t need God. Those individuals are around, find them. No matter where you stand, I likely don’t need to instruct you on what to believe to stay sober. That decision is entirely yours.