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As I came to understand through regular contact with AA meetings, working the 12 steps means (1) Accepting that you are powerless, (2) Accepting that you are crazy, (3) Throwing your future into the hands of a supernatural God, (4-5) Tallying up your moral failings and making them out to be as horrible and deeply rooted as possible, (6-7) Begging God to remove your character defects, (8-9) Reliving what a morally corrupt person you were, and begging everyone you know for forgiveness, (10) Forever thinking of yourself as defective and forever tallying up new moral failings, (11) Praying to God for guidance in all things, and (12) Recruiting new members to sponsor them through this entire process, and treating them with the same contemptible self-righteous flatulence that you yourself were treated with by your sponsor and by others in the program.

Now, I don't hate AA, at least not anymore.  The truth is, it works for many people, and that is the most important thing - whatever works.  Furthermore, the vast majority of people who are involved with AA are reasonable, and are comrades on the journey through clean and sober living for former addicts.  But if you are familiar with 12-step, you will see that I reworded the steps and spun them in a particular way just now, and I did that deliberately for a reason; This is exactly how they sounded to me.  The philosophy centers on unquestioning passive obedience to The One True Program and your sponsor, viewing yourself as a defective sinner who's moral failings led you to where you are, and believing in and trusting a supernatural God to fix your problems for you.  But I could not do or believe any of these things.  Add in the endless asinine platitudes, "your best thinking got you here", "there are no unique snowflakes", "sponsoring yourself is using unskilled labor", "fake it till you make it", "let go and let god", "working your own program", "dry drunk", and it was enough to make me want to keep drinking.

And so I did keep drinking.  And the reason I kept drinking was because, if I believed the counselors and took to heart the warnings about the poor "unfortunates" who will die drinking because they cannot accept AA philosophy, I was doomed anyways.  Fuck it, why bother.  I was being pushed to abandon my core principles and core beliefs, that long predated my addiction to alcohol, and was essentially being told that this is the only way to get sober; I cannot get sober unless I abandon the foundations that make me who I am, and willingly accept a philosophy that I would ridicule if I wasn't so profoundly addicted to alcohol, and one of the key foundational beliefs I have to abandon is atheism.  Believe in God and I might get sober, keep disbelieving in God and I'm doomed to die drunk.

AA is at root an evangelical Christian organization, built upon early 20th-century Protestant foundations including especially the Oxford Group, and relies on religious approaches including emphasis on moral failings, the potential for redemption through God, service, and evangelism.  The 12 steps refer to God repeatedly, but the "power greater than ourselves" wording of Step 2 has given rise to the notion that you can replace God by a "Higher Power" and not lose the essence of the program.  This seems to have originated as an effort to broaden the appeal of AA, and thereby satisfy unspoken evangelical goals.  And so one of the common topics of discussion in recovery meetings is, what does Higher Power mean?  What is a Higher Power, if not God?  You will hear people claim, with a straight face, that it can be anything external to you, even a doorknob, but it has always seemed to me to be a trick, a bait-and-switch technique to lure the agnostics into the program and hopefully lead them to accept God.  No reasonable person, even a pickled drunk, could seriously believe that the power of a doorknob will keep them sober, so the people who say those things (and I have heard them with my own ears) must either be profoundly troubled, or disingenuous.

Nothing made this more clear to me than reading the introduction to a workbook by Ken Montrose, a Hazelden counselor and AA proponent, entitled "Choosing a Higher Purpose: Early Recovery for Agnostics and Atheists".  Here we find an attempt to take another step back from "God", first to "Higher Power" and now to "Higher Purpose".  The stated goal is to help agnostics and atheists find a way to be comfortable with AA, but the real motivation became clear to me as I read on.  And the motivation that comes through loud and clear is, if you are an agnostic or atheist, Montrose wants to use AA to convert you during what may be the most difficult and emotionally challenging time of your life, a time when you are least able to process and evaluate such deep questions even if you are willing to do so, and a time when you are most vulnerable to external control.  This is the sort of thing that cults do.

I won't bother to refute the text sentence by sentence, though I could do that because there are so many that are offensive to me, but my own sober atheist's summary is:
1) AA teaches that a spiritual awakening is necessary to stay sober, and believes that reasonable open-minded people will find God.  This underlies the entire philosophy.
2) If you do not believe in God, you are running from your "true beliefs" or are basing your beliefs on misinformation, prejudice, negative experiences, rumor, innuendo, and stereotyping.
3) If you do not believe in God, you are actually open to changing your mind.  It is possible to solidly believe in God, but there are no solid atheists; you are really a questioning agnostic no matter what you say.
4) If you do believe in God, you do not need to question your beliefs and you already have an open mind.  If you do not believe in God, you do need to question your beliefs and you do not have an open mind.
5) Early sobriety is an acceptable time to sort out deep questions about God, the universe, your destiny, and your relationship to the world, even though you are probably struggling hour by hour or day by day just to stay focused and keep your emotions in check, after removing your emotional crutch maybe for the first time in decades.
6) The concept of "Higher Power" is ridiculous unless it equals "God".  This is exemplified by people using doorknobs, light switches and dirt as their Higher Powers.
7) While AA does not insist that you believe in God, it will try relentlessly to convert you until you leave the program as another "unfortunate" or cave in to the pressure after giving God a second, third or fourth chance.  "Higher Power" and "Higher Purpose" are bait-and-switch maneuvers, concepts designed to buy time for the program to convert you, and it will never stop trying.

I won't belabor the obvious criticism that the workbook ignores the many alternative non-spiritual, non-religious paths to sobriety, or that many people will never be able to get and stay sober in AA, because it's clear that the author is talking to people who do want to be a part of AA.  I also won't belabor the frequent references to the "Big Book", that treat it as the final tome of wisdom on addiction recovery, or the numerous AA platitudes that the author throws into the mix.  The author does mention some useful specific secular tools at the end of the introduction, but only after devoting three sections to evangelism that ends with, "If you have honestly decided that you do not want to include a supernatural Higher Power in your recovery..."  And by the time I got to those pages, my interest had already evaporated.

Montrose would undoubtedly claim that he does not speak for AA, just as I do not speak for any group.  But in my view, God has no place in recovery unless you personally want to put Him there, and the casual mixing of recovery and religious evangelism that many in AA practice kills thousands every year.  I'll say that again; Mixing addiction recovery with religious evangelism kills people.  Your priority as an addict is to stop being an addict, and whatever works for you to keep you clean and sober is what you should do.  If that involves religion, great!  If that does not involve religion, great!  But it is sickening to me to read such worthless tripe, knowing that I myself was driven to keep drinking by the sort of preaching exemplified by Montrose's workbook.  I did not want to trade my beliefs, beliefs as deeply rooted as Montrose's, for sobriety - I needed to keep my beliefs and also find sobriety, or else I would lose essential parts that make me who I am.  A drunken death seemed preferable to me, and inevitable until I came to find that I was not alone; I am just one of countless thousands who resent the preaching evangelism that underlies AA philosophy, and there are many other paths to comfortable sobriety that do not use AA at all.

You have the power to stop drinking or using, you have it in yourself; your "Higher Power" resides within, if you want to look for it there.  You probably need help to see it, and to feed it with enough power to overcome addiction, but the wellspring is in you.  Support groups like LifeRing, Smart, and AA are critical to most people because we can almost never climb out of our addiction hole without help.  Tools are critical; what options do you have when you feel triggered, and what specific things can you do to minimize those triggers and remove yourself from triggering situations?  Knowledge is critical; what can you expect as your sobriety gains strength, and what can you do to get through the inevitable emotional upheavals?  And eventually, with some sober time under your belt, it may be critical to think deeply about how you got into the hole in the first place; what drove you to that place, were you running from something, had you been training yourself since childhood to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism before addiction took root?  You may need long-term therapy or specialized support groups, especially if trauma is involved.  The journey does not end when you take your last drink, it begins.

But especially early-on, the very last thing you need is for someone to insist that you can only get sober their way while relentlessly trying to convert your religious beliefs.  Evangelism as promoted by Montrose, and as often espoused by people in 12-step programs, can kill people who might otherwise live happy, productive, clean and sober lives, and the medical treatment establishment needs to understand that by pushing people into 12-step programs, subtly or not, they may be killing them.

Copyright, 2013, JeffK

When I was struggling to get and stay sober, the first medical treatment program I attended subtly and not-so-subtly pushed 12-step as the path forward.  The treatment program itself was not 12-step at all, and the treatment groups were mostly educational and supportive, but the clear message was, this is a detox and early grounding period, and over the long haul you need to go to AA or NA to stay sober after you leave here.  I attended many AA meetings over a period of months, and while they are not all the same, the unmistakable message that you will eventually get if you keep attending AA meetings is, you need to get a sponsor and work the steps.  No one will force you, of course, but to some extent you are expected to do these things, and you will probably never feel a part of the group unless you do.