Everyone has alternatives
By Stephen S and Justin M
Stephen is an Afro-American living in Australia.
Stephen is an Atheist. So am I.
Akin to sexuality and political orientation, Atheism and Agnosticism are hidden traits of character.
Atheists/Agnostics can choose to share that trait or not.
Stephen is a military veteran. His training included studying foreign language and linguistics. He demonstrates a keen and academic appreciation of language and commits to respecting its rules of usage. Because of that, he is direct when he speaks. He attends both traditional and secular AA meetings. As do I. We both attend traditional meetings in our city. In that meeting, he has shared only three times. He has said that I present casually in social interactions. But that is a deliberate cover for my political position regarding AA. Research also has found that it is significantly more difficult for people who are discriminatory towards any group to maintain that discriminatory attitude to someone that they know (and are emotionally attached to). For that reason, I did not identify (dogmatic speech – personal peeve, that’s all) as an atheist for the first six months of AA attendance. I currently mention that I am an atheist in every share, where it is relevant, to help normalise my atheism. Also, it may help others who have not “come out” as Atheist, Agnostic, Secular, or Non-Christian to realize that they can be a member of AA to pursue sobriety. In other words, it may help them to look past the religion-oriented wording in the Steps and Traditions. I enjoy speaking to Stephen and exchanging ideas regarding belief, knowledge, race politics, alcoholism, ethics, et cetera.
Stephen and I recently had a chat about dogma. He abhors the prevalence of dogma within AA. This post is a result of that chat.
I feel an affinity with Stephen. Of course, we both identify as alcoholics. So that helps a lot. But also for his identity as an Afro-American. Some in the Atheism normalisation movement compare it to the normalisation of LGBT+ identities. I feel that there are also parallels to modern civil rights movements. There are, at least, two approaches to seeking to protect secularism within AA. The first is to simply start secular meetings, gather secular alcoholics about myself and create a Secular AA community. That is akin to Malcom X’s idea of separatism. Stephen and I also practice civil disobedience by refusing to say the Serenity Prayer at the end of traditional meetings – emphasising our nature of being separate from traditional members, whilst remaining part of AA.
The second approach is to create that secular AA community, but also to attend and identify as an atheist/agnostic/secularist within traditional AA. I feel a moral obligation to do so, as it may help others who are atheist/agnostic/secular to attend and stay within AA. That is more akin to Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to civil rights – the “they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character” approach. Where we replace “the colour of their skin” with “a lack of belief” to become: “they will not be judged by a lack of belief, but by the content of their character”. Whilst I am unconvinced of AA’s claim that it is a “solution” to problem drinking – others have been convinced. The medical community in Australia interacts with AA, encourages attendance at AA meetings and encourages problem drinkers to become AA members. They, by default, accept that it is useful and has positive outcomes for problem drinkers. My pragmatic approach to traditional, exclusionary AA is to use it as a recruitment ground for inclusive secular AA.
Here is where Stephen and I digress. As an example, he sees words like “probably” in “probably no human power could restore us to sanity” as the authors hedging their bets. It is avoidance. Not wanting to be held to the standard that they set for themselves. Not living up to the claims that “the program” is a solution to alcoholism. I have, what I consider to be, a more generous interpretation. That “probably” gives me, as an Atheist, a testable claim. I have the ability to test whether that is the correct word. To see if it should be “maybe” or “it is untrue that”. In my two years as I member of AA, all I have seen is human power. It was human power that saved Bill W’s sobriety when he was tempted to drink at the Mayflower Hotel. He sought out another human, an alcoholic, on which to rely rather than drink. He literally turned his back on drinking and sought out Dr Bob. Even now, it is Humans that set up groups. Humans organise meetings. Humans hang the banners. Humans prepare the coffee and refreshments. Humans chair meetings. Humans attend meetings. Humans share in meetings. Humans get telephone numbers of others and ring them when in trouble or when they are ill at ease. For me, the whole AA enterprise is based on Human Power. For me, the whole AA enterprise is successful because of Human Power.
No supernatural pleas are needed or required. Humans are the ultimate higher power. I would argue that they have always been the higher power in AA.
- It is untrue that no human power could restore us to sanity.
- It is true that human power could restore us to sanity.
Every AA member has alternative steps. It’s inevitable
By Stephen S and Justin M
Everyone has developed an alternative version of the steps in their mind. Why is the word “god” still on the steps and traditions banner? Surely, we should be able to recognise that it is no longer necessary. Surely it can be replaced with “higher power”. You may be surprised, but I am going to say that it needs to be kept, at least in traditional meetings.
At face value, the writing “god as we understand him” allows us to interpret The “god” word to be anything that I want. The steps invite, almost demand, that we interpret them. We have to come to an understanding of god “as we understand him”.
It may be a bug in the original wording. The wording indicates that I have to do work to come to understand a god of my own understanding.
Or it might be a feature. A feature that Bill was convinced to put in, to “widen the gateway” by Atheists who were among the first members of AA. (This and the previous paragraph are brilliant!)
Importantly, there is a concept within Semiotics that unalienably makes everyone to interpret “god as we understand him”. Words have usages, they do not have fixed meanings. Some words have multiple usages. Usages change over time. Semiotics uses two terms to describe how words and their usages are transmitted in a message exchange. The terms are encoding and decoding. Encoding is the process of creating a message for transmission by an addresser to an addressee. Decoding is the process of interpreting a message sent by an addresser to an addressee. All communication depends on the use of codes. When the message is received, the addressee is not passive, as decoding is more than simply recognising the content of the message. Over time, individuals develop a cognitive framework of codes which will recall the denotative meaning and suggest possible connotative meanings for each signifier. The actual meaning for each message is context-dependent: the codified relations between the signifiers in the particular context must be interpreted according to the syntactic, semantic and social codes so that the most appropriate meaning is attributed. Some message exchanges are open to dialogue, where usages can be negotiated and refined. Other message exchanges are closed – i.e.: there are no exchanges but a one-way phenomenon.
The Steps, whether in the Big Book or on the banners, are a one-way phenomenon. Umberto Eco calls such phenomena “closed texts”. But he does recognise that there exists more open texts which may have latent usages or be encoded in a way that encourages the possibility of alternative interpretations. We are all forced (forced by whom?) to decode closed texts for ourselves. We may have an exchange about that decoding with other members or sponsors. But, then, we are comparing their decoding to our own. We are not in an exchange with those that originally wrote them. Such an exchange is impossible – the authors are dead. This has left us with a situation in which everyone has developed an alternative version of the steps in their mind.
Umberto Eco suggests that there will be a dominant decoding of closed texts and possibly several minority decodings. This is the case in AA, with traditional meetings generally encouraging members to adopt the dominant decoding of the Big Book and other AA literature. However, given the academic understanding above, it is most reasonable that anyone, myself included, would have an alternative decoding of The Steps. All other members have an alternative decoding of The Steps. Some may be more or less in line with the dominant decoding. Others may diverge wildly. The key point is that the member’s decoding will inform how they understand the steps – they form a set of alternative steps that work for them. In that sense, there may exist as many sets of alternative steps as there are AA members. Every member will have a set of alternative steps. However, given the third tradition, I can’t force others to do my alternative steps. And vice versa.
AA has an obligation to recognise decoding and not stand in the way of members to freely come to an understanding of god “as we understand him”.
To paraphrase MLK, all we say to AA is, be true to what you said on paper. All AA members seek a relationship with sobriety. Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. MLK was killed by an assassin’s bullet. But his dream was not killed with that bullet. We all benefited from his dream.