When I read Jesse Beach’s essay on AA and theism I smiled a big smile.
I smiled not because I am an atheist or agnostic, but because I am an atheist/theist/agnostic spirit-jester who doesn’t give a damn about labels, snapshots or philosophical underpinnings when it comes to the issue of getting sober and staying that way.
I have been sober and dope-free since March 17, 1991. That was about the time my Irish girlfriend informed me that I was too drunk to accompany her and her sister to a Saint Patrick’s Day Party with a crowd of locally well-known, if drunken, fools. I was nearly 30 years old at that time and she was 44. Her sister was almost 40. They were from a blue-blooded Illinois family and I was from a red-blooded American family packed to the gills with drunken nar-do-wells and abuse victims. The schism was fated, certainly, but it was my delusional thinking that caused me to believe that I was actually experiencing a deep and abiding love with a woman who only wanted to get the hell away from an emotionally vacuous 18 year marriage. A marriage to a well-respected executroid who had eaten enough of m’lady’s crap over an 18 year period to float a battleship. Many in recovering circles will suggest that you need to get sober for your self and no other way will work. Bullshit. You can get sober any way the wind blows. Staying sober, however, is a horse of a different color.
And this is where the ardently articulate atheists and I part company.
If you are an alcoholic or an addict, you are powerless over that feeling of blissful abandon that accompanies every significant contact with your drug du jour. A normal person may, in fact, become addicted to a substance known to cause addiction, but, once detoxed, a normal person will never go back to that substance. The thought of repeating the same desperate experience of withdrawal is enough to keep these individuals sober. Not me. Not an alcoholic or an addict. We’re just getting the Party started.
What happens inside my body can be explained in biochemical and psycho-pharmicological terms by addictionologists with advanced medical degrees. What I will tell you is that the experience of spree and remorse seems like the only “normal” possible in a lifetime punctuated at the end by the awareness that all that has ever been considered a luxury, or a dignified entitlement, has been lost, or cruelly taken, by the same anthropomorphic schmuck who granted them in the first place. So the moment where my nervous system is compromised just enough to not give a damn about how I feel about any of this or that, or fear of any of this or that, is a place I would sacrifice any comfort, any pleasure or suffer any indignity to experience. In the end, a split second of the comfort of this place is enough to justify all the misery, depression, alienation and loneliness of what can be decades of suffering. A split second of freedom from the bondage of a nervous system that, for addicts, screams and cries about the indignity of feeling more powerful than a normal human, and yet counting the seconds until I finally discover that my feelings have no actual truth to them, and perhaps never did. I may feel immortal, at times, and yet I am confined to a bag of water consigned to a variety of limitations most of which I will never overcome. Every human must have something like these same kinds of internal experiences, but alcoholics and addicts simply cannot let them go or get past them and onto the business of living a “normal” life.
This dichotomy of human experience, these perceptual boundaries of sensuality, form the basis of human perception. Without dark and light, sweet and sour, pain and pleasure, joy and sadness, there can be no distinction between one moment and the next. For the addict this dichotomy feels like the most polarizing of opposites, one of which makes us desire to have only one and forego having the other. To soar to the highest of heights and beyond, or to locate the lowest of lows and then burrow under it, these are the feelings we obsess over and become compulsive about. In a nutshell, addicts simply feel entirely too much, too fast, to feel of much use to anyone, including themselves. Even years into recovery we take to hiding ourselves from spouses, partners and coworkers out of fear that no one could ever understand what it means to experience life without buffer or moderation. Not autism or Asperger’s, but something sets our teeth on edge whenever we feel this experience of raw, naked life coming on. Ecstacy, perhaps, but what good is an experience that cannot be shared or spoken of, much less controlled?
Not to put too fine a point on this state of affairs, but an alcoholic or addict is stuck in this predicament. We can try to medicate it away, but the fact of dependence on a buffering agent is a reality upon which we cannot ignore, or we imperil our survival. We are, in fact, powerless over addictive substances and compulsive thinking. Our lives in this condition, over time, become unmanageable to us. Our bodies can no longer tolerate ingesting our buffering agent over any considerable period of time while the lack of a buffering agent causes us to feel restless, irritable and generally discontent. On occasion, our long suffering spouses confined or imprisoned in relationships with us during a spell of clean-time without benefit of recovery prefer to be around us while we are under the influence, rather than under the lash of the dubious luxury of dry abstinence. “So-dry-ity,” as many of us refer to it.
Addicts get to experience a hopeless place that few humans do, a place where we cannot imagine life with, or life without, our drug of choice. The loneliness and alienation of such a place eventually becomes intolerable. Suicide begins to seem appealing as the ultimate state of oblivion. Meanwhile, we keep trying to regain that first experience with our drug of choice regardless of how many times we have demonstrated to ourselves that we cannot have a better past. Those first days of blissful indulgence are long gone by the time we have had enough to qualify as addicts, yet we cannot stop trying, persevering, or demanding that justice be served to us in a form we can finally approve of. Insanity is one characterization of this DMZ of human contact; mental illness of a sort can be another. Regardless, anyone attempting to scratch out an existence living anywhere near us when we are in this state of being will be driven into a neurotic stupor. Caring for us will be your keys to a frustrating level of despair that no human being should ever inflict on another.
Where is the possibility of hope for recovery in any of this misery and suffering?
It can only come from a belief in a power greater than the addiction problem. Does that power have to come from a belief in a supreme being? In my experience, no. Whether this reality eliminates the possibility of the existence of a supreme being seems a separate issue to me. An unrecovered addict is out of their right mind and right-mindedness seems like a minimum baseline to be achieved before anyone bothers to risk thinking in philosophical terms; the very threads of sanity hang tenuously in the balance.
What I will suggest to the atheists of AA is that it is simple-minded dumbassery to assert that your non-belief in our conjoint belief is both necessary and sufficient proof for the non-existence of a god that you, yourself, create by negating our simple-minded, theistic belief. In the hole left behind by your atheism, you only draw attention to what you seek to ignore. What you attack only makes your belief in that which you would attack, stronger. Serve yourself and be rid of such foolishness.
Agnosticism is the only philosophically defensible position to take in any theistic challenge to religious ideology and dogma. We simply do not know if a supreme being exists or does not; our perceptions report to us the nature of our reality. Omniscience makes perception impossible since there can be no contrasting agent to render a perception to our brain. And, even if by some alchemy we could perceive omniscience, we could never conceptualize it through a limiting definition and so there could never be a word like, “god,” through which we could communicate anything like a true meaning for the experience of omniscience. So not-knowing is an honest appraisal of the god issue and it is one that serves me well in my recovery. Contemplative discussions of the notion of a personal, omnipotent god serve no useful purpose because they must always become what they are, by definition: void of real interpersonal meaning.
I have lived in the Bible belt since 1995 and, let me assure the gentle reader, AA is chalk-full of crazy religious zealots and people-pleasers who fawningly enable the belief in a Christian god of insanity, impossible mystery, magic and religious hokum. In my opinion religion has no place in AA and, if I had my druthers, it would have no place in human experience. Religion has served an important purpose, as has science, and they have both come full-circle and dumped humanity on its collective head. The objective each of these systems of thought had at their outsets was the civilizing of human beings into stable interdependent communities. The only thing our current science and religious practices achieve is the polarizing of each of us into mutually-exclusive thought groups hell-bent on destroying one another for the crime of thinking differently about the nature of human experience. This situation, and in particular its denial, must result in sheer nonsense.
And, if you are still unfortunate enough to believe that religion provides humanity with salvation, let me share with you a bit of lore from the experience of one of my friends in recovery, a thoracic surgeon. A brilliant man in retirement from a long and successful practice, Raymond had carried his religious beliefs on his sleeves as only a charismatic soul can. But it was the opening of Raymond’s skull as a child to the belief in the father, son and holy ghost that, like a bowling ball, allowed Raymond’s mind to be slung down a greased alleyway where a gifted confidence man was able to convince Raymond to spend a significant chunk of his retirement on a scheme to wrest marketable quantities of gold from the raw sewage ponds of New York City. Not quite the whopper of transubstantiation, Raymond’s religious beliefs suggested that “faith, alone” could save any day. Well, Raymond now works as a glorified physician’s assistant in a local doc-in-the-box, a far cry from the dramatic outcomes he had been a party to as a thoracic surgeon. Religion and religious dogma prey on every vulnerable mind regardless of its gifts, turning it into useless goo at precisely the wrong time.
This case contains an important lesson about the power of sheer bullshit to literally stun and paralyze human ingenuity in trying times. There have been, and will be, many others. This the price we pay for going through the motions of belief in the unreasonable propositions of religious myth; these consequences, rather than the imaginary ones posthumously experienced before a disembodied Saint Peter, are the real consequences we need to be concerned about as living, breathing human beings.
I thank my atheist and agnostic friends for coming into sobriety to carry their message to me as I carry my message to them. I smile because both messages are crucial to understanding just how precious this AA phenomenon has been for me and countless others like me. I smile because I relate to the alienation and isolation of human experience, and I smile because I appreciate the fact that I am not, and never have been, alone in that experience. At times the pain can be excruciating.
Of course none of this means that you should burn your Bible and never again darken the doors of your local church. Something should be sacred in everyone’s life and, for me, there is nothing more mysterious and sacred than the relationship I have with my own unconscious mind. I have no direct experience of this place, but I know it exists because I have seen powerful patterns cutting through and through my Fourth and Tenth Step inventories. And I am, in a word, powerless to deal with these patterns in anything like the manner a focused, conscious thought might allow me to toss a rock through a stained glass window. My unconscious mind is my sacred friend guiding and directing me into brick walls, bad relationships, traumas and all of their opposite experiences. And so I begin my spiritual awakening and my belief in a super-ordinant higher power right there.
As it turns out, I do not have to go any farther or make any grand pronouncements requiring your expressed faith in my beliefs about myself in order to feel whole or holy. Those sorts of pronouncements have all already been made, today and every day, for thousands of years, to the effects we see before us. Yet my relationship with myself has been sacred and profound enough to keep me from doing, for over twenty years now, what I used to love doing every day. I do not need to convince you of it and you have your own unconscious drives to become conscious of and contend with. I have found a way of contending constructively with my more self-destructive unconscious drives, a way shown to me long ago now, and you do not have to believe in dead people reanimating or the weekly conversion of water and wine into blood in order for this method to work for you. There is no longer any rational justification to abandon hope in what was once a heartbreaking and hopeless situation for thousands of years.
What is most important to life is that it be permitted to flourish and that it be enjoyed by all creation capable of such an experience. I don’t think life cares a damn if we eat meat on Fridays during Lent and I don’t believe that a loving higher power wants us to invade the wombs of women trapped by an economic system designed to enslave us all. But that’s what I believe today. Tomorrow may be different. For everyone.
Let us hope so.