Reflections on AA’s appeal to all men, regardless of formal belief or creed
ALTHOUGH I do not believe in a supernatural God, I have found it easy to stay sober in AA more than ten years. And in my view, AA is a spiritual, or religious, Fellowship.
Sometimes those of us whom the orthodox religious call “atheists” or “agnostics” or “humanists” get a bit weary of the benign condescension we hear in, “I used to think that way, too; after you’ve been around a while. . . .”
Let me try to make my position clearer.
From the very beginning, AA members have been free to interpret “spiritual” broadly, thanks to the wisdom of the man who coined such phrases as “a Power greater (not higher) than ourselves” and “as we understood Him.” Believing in a sponsor, a group, or the entire world-wide Fellowship as a Greater Power, we can interpret “spiritual” as a way of life–a way of life dedicated to ethical values rather than the acceptance of a set doctrine.
In part, my reluctance to embrace the traditional religious doctrines is due to my conviction that among all the forces which influence human thought, feeling and action, religion has too often been, and still can sometimes be, a divisive force. (Not for nothing those signs in bars warning that politics, women and God are not suitable conversation topics for a peaceful barroom!)
The religions of man, in my opinion, seem to differ most vigorously on theology–the idea of creation; God; immortality; which Bible is the final, eternal truth; which prophet is infallible; which savior is the true Savior. And in the name of these differences over the great mysteries of life there have too often been prejudice, persecution and conflict.
If the test of religion, or even of the spiritual life, is the belief in a Supreme Being–if the test is the acceptance of a particular document as the final revelation–if the acceptance of a set ritual is necessary in the celebration of sacred values–then, it seems to me that AA is not a spiritual Fellowship.
Why not let men differ about their answers to the great mysteries of the Universe? Let each seek his own way to the highest, to his own sense of supreme loyalty in life, his ideal of life–as he understands it. Let each philosophy, each world-view bring forth its own truth and beauty to a larger perspective, that men may grow in vision, stature and dedication. The more views we have in AA, the richer is our storehouse of experience to share with more and more who need and seek our help.
In my opinion, each member’s understanding of a Greater Power should, like the religions of man, strive to be a unifying force. All the world’s great religions reveal a basic unity, especially in ethics–in man-to-man relationships, in man-to-world interaction. Whether it be Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism or Confucianism, all grow out of a sense of the sacredness of human life.
This moral sensitivity to the sacredness of human personality–the commandments not to kill, not to hurt, not to put a stumbling block in the path of the blind, not to neglect the widow or the fatherless, not to exploit the servant or the worker–all this can be found in all the sacred Bibles of man. All teach in substance: “Do unto others as you would that others do unto you.” There is, then, a basic unity among the great religions in matters of ethics.
True, there are religious philosophies which turn men away from the world, from the here and now, concentrating life-purposes on salvation for one’s self or a mystic union with some supernatural reality. But most of the great religions agree on mercy, justice, love and service here on earth. And they agree, it seems to me, that the great task is to move men from apathy, from non-involvement with others, from an acceptance of the evils in life, to face the possibilities of the world, to make life sweet for one another instead of bitter. This is the unifying (healing, whole-making, integrating) ethical task of all the religions and philosophies of mankind. There is no need to force our own theological points of view upon one another or to insist that the moral life grows out of final, absolute authority.
In its deeper meaning, we can say that AA’s program grows out of people’s refusal to accept the evils in their own lives and in the world about them; out of the human being’s thirst for wholeness. “Spiritual life” began long before there was AA, long before there were temples and mosques and churches. It began with the dawn of conscience, with man’s awareness of the suffering of others, the hurts that men do to one another. It grew as men began to recognize good and evil, to see that there are ways of hate and destruction, of love and creativeness.
The effort of the individual through centuries to control his destructive impulses, to atone for his wrongs, to live out love and justice in his personal relations and in the larger community is the history of man’s moral development. It includes, too, the social struggle to free men from slavery and exploitation, from ignorance and poverty, the movement for the emancipation of women, for civil liberties, for racial equality, for universal suffrage, for democracy in all areas of human relations.
It is these expressions of the human spirit, magnificently stated in AA’s Steps and Traditions and Concepts which are, I believe, a key to a meaningful existence. It is the destiny of man–and AA’s advice to him–to seek for truth, to create beauty, and to strive for the achievement of relationships which treasure the good in people. Man’s moral growth in the personal relations and in the creation of a more ethical society, constitutes the significant spiritual movement in the life of the human race, I think. We need not derive our ethical faith from a theology, although we are glad if others choose to do so. We need only agree that all men have the possibility of moral sensitivity and moral growth.
Some men insist that the moral struggle has meaning only in terms of some ultimate reality–a god of supernatural power, a final judgment, or an after-life. They cry out for these assurances, but many of us in AA have had no personal answer from the Universe.
Nevertheless, despite the lack of a guarantee of victory of good over evil, of love over hate, men can make the commitment and give themselves to this struggle, for their own salvation. Many of the best Twelfth-steppers I know decline the conceptual system of formal religion and even deny that they have a secret, private personal spiritual (as opposed to religious) life.
Yet they, like other men, can and do make the sacrifices and live out the love that is in them without regard to fear of punishment in some hell or promise of reward in some heaven. Whether or not human judgment and human effort matter to the universe, it seems to me men have a challenge to meet. Basically it is a matter of personal decision and personal integrity, and most of my atheistic AA friends meet it handsomely and quietly.
This does not mean that their faith has no framework or viewpoint beyond man. It may be capsulated as “Deed, not creed.” But “deed” implies an outlook on life; “deed” is part of a larger faith, whether we put that faith into words or not. The larger outlook and faith need not take the form of a dogmatic statement but the “deed” indicates what the individual views as important in his life perspective.
For “deed,” or a life of action, to be part of a spiritual life, there must not only be a dedication to values but a feeling of reverence and the awareness that one’s own life is part of the larger life of the community of mankind and indeed part of a larger life process in the universe.
Although we do not know the ultimate or total truth about reality, although we do not know the beginning of the beginning or the end of the end or the ultimate nature of the cosmos, we realize that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves, possibly having a meaning which is beyond our grasp. It is this larger awareness of man’s relation to nature and life and to the cosmos which gives spiritual, even religious, quality to the “deed” and to our here-and-now, this twenty-four-hour effort of ours, to grow and to serve and to create and to love.
It seems to me that as a spiritual movement AA not only offers a common ground of faith for all men without creed or sectarian division, it inspires and unites us in seeking the truth, in penetrating further into the great mysteries of the universe and of human destiny to which we have not yet found, and may never find, the final answer.
Beyond this, AA can unite us in the positive task of growing ethically, of being more mature morally, of having more insight, more vision, more wisdom of how men might live together in a more ethical world. For far as man has come in moral growth and fine as is the heritage of customs, laws and institutions which we have received from the generations past, human beings, it seems to me, are not yet prepared for the responsibilities of freedom in an age of complex technology and interdependence. We have not yet created the perfect education and laws and institutions which express, give support to and implement our best impulses and our spiritual needs and aspirations.
Our generation may well face one of the most difficult moral crises in history. We must fulfill the democratic promise or fall before the anti-freedom movements which grow out of man’s fears and hates and sadisms. We must fulfill the promise of peace, using the unity and interdependence of the world (about which we in AA learn through trying to act out our First Tradition) to make this planet safe for all men or to be destroyed by bacteriological and atomic weapons.
How can we convert our international relations into trust, into creative interplay, interchange of ideas, mutual aid and sharing so that we enrich and liberate mankind? Is this not the overarching spiritual task of all human beings, regardless of theology, in AA or not?
AA is, in my view, a Fellowship of people fostering moral growth and a clearer life orientation in terms of human values–stressing love and service, self-education and group action.
I think that the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi so often heard at AA meetings is a challenge to us all, especially the phrase about seeking to understand rather than seeking to be understood. It seems to me that we learned while drinking that “Nobody understands me” is a futile, untrue and useless whine. We learn in AA that they do. And we learn that recovery lies in large part in trying to understand others’ views. Am I mature enough to seek to understand the religious man’s views, without needing to persuade him to mine? If I try to understand, will I not be reaching for more maturity, more healing? How long will AA as a movement concentrate on publishing literature based on the premise that few non-alcoholics understand us? Maybe we’d better try as a movement to understand better all the people we’ve damned for not understanding us.
It seems to me that the agnostic or atheist in AA has a life orientation based on every man’s moral experience and insight and evaluation. It is a faith in man’s capacity to solve his problems, a faith in which every man is called upon to take some responsibility unto himself. To strive that the world of men may be better is a command from within. In this consecration each of us can find the power within himself to meet any personal crisis, to make our life decisions, to join together with others in a Fellowship which offers meaning and direction and faith.
In this Fellowship we try to stay sober a day, help other alcoholics, bring up our families, live out our friendships, give ourselves to our work and take on in all our affairs the burdens of mature citizenship for a freer and better world.