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Alcoholics Anonymous Is My Religion - placeholderAlcoholics Anonymous Is My Religion
6 min read | Dec 2021

Alcoholics Anonymous Is My Religion

The program has given me a spiritual purpose, helping others reclaim their lives and adhering to a set of principles along the way.

Delia Bathwater / Gen X / Anarchist / Writer

On March 11, 2020, a significant development was drowned out by the sound of COVID-19 coming straight for New York. While we were battening down the hatches that day, The New York Times reported that an “analysis of 27 studies involving 10,565 participants” had found that people in Alcoholics Anonymous experienced deeper and longer abstinence compared to subjects in other forms of treatment. Members of AA were also twice as likely (or three times as likely, depending on the data) to stay sober than people trying to get clean some other way. 

What hit me about this study was not a sense of validation, in part because many AA folks don’t believe in studies like this. (My sponsor at the time immediately told me he didn’t pay attention to scientific appraisals of AA, right after he tried to convince me that COVID-19 was no big deal. He was not my sponsor for long.) The remarkable thing about this good news is that a spiritual program has a medical outcome, one that can be measured.

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AA Is a Mixture of Homemade Faiths, and It’s All the Better for It

The program of AA does have a strong nonreligious, social component and some behavioral suggestions; it uses more than one method to bring an alcoholic toward sobriety. The central concept, though, is of “turning it over,” of abandoning the best thinking that got you here and admitting that some larger force may be at work. The genius ecumenicism of the program means that there is no specific faith that anyone needs to follow in order to get sober, just a higher power of your own choosing. 

There is some hair-splitting to be done here, as so many unnamed, untagged iterations of faith might not qualify as religions—nor do they need to. What AA did was to break apart the idea of organized religion, toss out the doctrine and hang on to the spirit. AA also threw out all the power and money, which may explain the lack of pedophilia scandals. 

AA is an anarchic, decentralized cloud of homemade faiths, and it runs better than any company I've ever worked for. It would not be true, however, to say that AA introduced me to my concept of god. Since I was fairly young, I had a feeling that god was beneath everything, like a river of fire that flowed into the trees and grass and animated whatever needed animating. God is simply a placemarking word for me, as this force is not a person, nor does it respond to questions or prayers or curses. My god is what is true and what actually exists and what makes alive things be alive. Trees are a fairly good way of capturing the tenor of this god, though god isn’t the same as nature, for me. God has to do with how we interact and the ways in which we might better incline our behavior.

But until AA, I didn’t think this god had anything to do with me. I assumed god would simply rumble on, and I had no chance of aligning myself with this power. My time in the program allowed me to slow down—in fact, slow all the way down to stopping—and to abandon my thinking in favor of a blank space where only god might be, a place I could turn over my tangled and cracked ball of anxieties. When I stop thinking, the world goes on. And that’s god going on.

There’s a Connection Between a Commitment to Sobriety and One’s Faith

AA allowed me to mark the place where I could find this god again and again—a church, in the form of a meeting. The AA format was taken, at least 10 steps of the 12, from the Oxford Group, so it is fairly logical that AA itself feels like a kind of worship. Removing reference to any specific faith was a major innovation of the early AA boys and is no small tweak. A few wanted to hang on to the Christianity of the Calvary Church in Manhattan, where Bill Wilson met the Oxford Group, an explicitly Christian organization. But sticking with Christianity would have doomed AA to obscurity and possibly even the same kind of internal anguish and abuse that has more or less laid waste to the official church.

Faith, set free, flourished in the program of AA, and it seemed necessary.  Connecting with others is often defined as the opposite of addiction, but the fellowship itself couldn’t get the job of sobriety done. We all have to carry a sense of purpose outside meetings and beyond sobriety itself. We are not here simply to be sober, and the presence of an articulating and generating force is more important to me than sobriety itself, on many days. The idea that this feeling is a connection that has nothing to do with judgment or power or success or wealth is in the Bible, of course, but was brought back into action by AA in the early 20th century, when the Christian church was stumbling headfirst into lust and greed. Kind of insane that the drunks got the point, or brought the point back, rather.

So how to see religion and sobriety together? Would AA merit being called a religion without an organizing schema? Perhaps the legacy of AA is more as a faith with a practice than the adherence to a text or set of principles, though the program has that, too. Lord knows AA has enough sayings, and there is one that answers these questions. “Faith without works is dead.” Straight out of the big book. (And, originally, the other big book: James 2:26.)

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Religion, Like AA, Works Best When It Has Purpose

This feels like the place where AA made things richer by making them simpler. In the program, we only have to stay sober and help another alcoholic to achieve sobriety. We have a task, and we can carry it out. This gives us purpose, and because AA has such a specific focus, it allows members to feel a sense of achievement. Life outside AA is a more sprawling affair, and feeling a sense of spirituality depends on different parameters, which end up being set on an individual basis—or, for anybody following a faith, a set of principles. 

This is how I began to see that a religion is, in its most benevolent iteration, not faith alone, but a way of organizing behavior, of giving the gift of purpose. What we all want is what dogs want—to be put to work, to have an assignment, to have a list of things to do. Practicing that in AA has reinforced my faith, as I need to feel my faith almost every time someone challenges me to explain why I might have any at all. Called upon to explain it, I feel it. Called upon to put it into practice, I help another alcoholic. 

Outside the program, I can use these exercises to call up my faith when I want to be connected. It’s right there. And when I need to help others, it comes more easily. My selfishness is more easily peeled away now because I have become accustomed to my faith being paired with work. It’s a slightly corny comparison, so forgive me, but it’s the best one I’ve found. The gym of sobriety gives me muscles for life and my faith is what keeps the lights on, what keeps me going. 

This is my way of explaining that I don’t know if an abstract faith is likely to work. Meditation brings me closer to my god, but I don’t know how long that would last if I didn’t have obligations as a sober person and as a human. If religion has faltered in the 21st century, it isn't just because the church fell on its own depraved sword. It’s because we find it so hard to conceive of or discuss a purpose separate from profit, and outside of AA, few really have a viable plan. 

If your faith is healthy and thriving, then God bless, literally. If it’s Islam or DSA or sword-smithing, keep doing what you’re doing. But the most reliable path I've seen in my lifetime is through a program by and for drunks, who realized that the point of life was faith and works powering each other. My god is always working. I am joining in and following suit. None of it is my idea, beyond that first decision to surrender and let something else do the thinking.

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