Higher Power versus God
Relapse versus Sobriety
Misery versus Happiness
The characters behind the scenes of the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous are numerous both at its inception as well as built on the pain, suffering, and deaths of alcoholics preceding them and to follow them. That being said Dr. Bob, Bill W., Anne Smith (Dr. Bob’s wife), Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker[i], Frank Buchman and Dr. Silkworth are names people must research and know if they are to understand the foundations of AA today. I am particularly interested and have not read yet the diaries of Anne Smith[ii], wife of Dr. Bob.
The General Service organization maintains a list of “approved literature” that includes 14 books and other resources (pamphlets, workbooks, conference materials, etc) for general use and carrying the message forward. This is a good practice. For the newly recovering Alcoholic the field of recovery books is awash from the excellent to an outright harmful menu of options. If you are early in your recovery or considering recovery this post is probably not for you right now. I would direct you to professional help, a self-help group that is well established and related to your addiction, and if you have one, your faith support system. The evolution of AA and internal and external politics of the organization is simply not helpful to early recovery.
The essence of this post is on the definition of a “higher power of my understanding.” Dick B’s book “The James Club and The Original A.A. Program’s Absolute Essentials” makes a strong case for AA’s early success being routed in Christianity and specifically the Gospel of James, the 13th chapter of first Corinthians, and the Sermon on the Mount. It is not an approved history of AA.
Current coinage in “the room” allows for “higher power” to be defined by almost anything from a monotheistic absolute god to an inanimate object like a chair. Despite this metaphysical abstraction AA maintains it is a “spiritual program.” And it is a spiritual program.
The primary aim of course is to abstain from alcohol. That being said, for long-term sobriety and happiness, the spiritual program takes hold and focuses on principles and a way of life that embraces a higher purpose be instilled, developed, and maintained. It does so by presenting incrementally principles to live by and testimonies to support pursuing such an endeavor without wedding the model to any religious institution, deity (by name), or formal recovery treatment program. Its independence and separation allows access to all people regardless of religious affiliation or absence of any belief at all.
The white washing and scrubbing of its Christian roots has allowed AA to have a vast casting net to worldwide potential members that are suffering from the disease of alcoholism. The risk (or downside) is new members may benefit from the recovery tools of meetings, abstinence, fellowship, service and other tangible supports but never quite receive the “spiritual awakening” that so often provides recovering alcoholic’s purpose, happiness, and sustained sobriety.
The conundrum for the addicted is a phrase “half measures will avail you nothing.” In all likelihood many suffering from addictions only know one speed – all or nothing. Many will enter the AA room and size up rather quickly the immensity of the change being proposed, and if throwing in a God they have cast aside decades ago as well, may leave and never get the chance to return.
The caveat of using the term “Higher Power of your understanding” allows agnostics, atheist, and non-Christians a chance at using the principles of AA[iii] without the religious affiliation. The Oxford Group that preceded AA had similar principles like the four absolutes.[iv] Dick B maps out extensively the comparisons of these principles to the New Testament as well as the life experiences of the early founders of AA.
It is not surprising that the bible is not credited with attributions on A.A. literature despite evident overlay and outright plagiarism. It is perhaps the most plagiarized book in history. While the bible is recognized by most as public domain it is still intellectually dishonest to not credit sources if the ideas presented are not your own. Most authors will credit both the bible and its version when quoting or paraphrasing from the Holy Book. That being said I am not accusing Dr. Bob or others of any theft of intellectual property. They have lived experiences that have included quite heavy influences from the holy bible and Christian institutions and leaders.
It is no accident most AA groups find their homes in church basements for a nominal fee. The evidence of AA history overwhelming points to the original “higher power” used by the early fathers of AA is being Yahweh and the Son of God, Jesus Christ. However, AA is not a Christian institution. You do not need to believe in God to benefit from AA.
If you are Christian is it blasphemy to promote “a higher power of your understanding” as potentially being anything as abstract as an empty chair? Is it disingenuous to do so if you secretly aspire that an unbeliever will find true conversion through the program as spirituality reveals itself overtime? Probably yes.
However, AA is not an evangelical program even though its Big Book, Steps, Traditions and Fellowship may lead people to a stronger relationship with God. What is a Christian in Recovery to do? The answer is so relatively simple. Both Christian evangelization and Alcoholics Anonymous are programs that work by attraction – not by coercion.
The Recovering Christian Alcoholic need only be transparent and brutally honest. The newcomer will be attracted to the recovering alcoholic that he/she can identify with in the rooms. The atheist or agnostic alcoholic will probably not identify with the Holy Roller Jesus Christ preaching enthusiast anyhow – at least not initially. However they might be attracted to the success of the Promises of AA and is fulfilled and demonstrated by the Recovering Christian Alcoholic’s story and want what they have.
If the Recovering Christian Alcoholic can give away what they have for free from AA and help someone get sober – great weather who they help shares their faith is a believer, agnostic or atheist. That is the primary purpose of AA. If the fellowship blossoms over time and that someone express an interest in your “higher power” as you understand him that is something that can be shared but not put on the fellow alcoholic. AA is not a “sell up” program where you come in wanting a car and they sell you an RV.
AA managed to collect the work of several hundred great people in its early days and create a reference that would provide replicating aspects of what they did for others to do and carry forward the message. The melding of ideas was truly conflictual and dynamic and the end result looks very different from the truly early days.
However, you cannot replicate the truly early days that were dependent on unique characters, small numbers, shared visions (and in many cases shared religious views), shared homes and meals and much more. It is a wonder how the program ever managed to survive.
And its survival is a question today. Is AA effective? AA self-reports indicate participation improves recovery and sobriety.[v] American Addiction Center[vi] seems to support AA assertions. However, it is not as successful (ratio wise) as the original group of founders.
I propose the fragility of the “higher power verbiage,” a less spiritual society, and struggling Christian and Catholic institutions (from self-inflicted wounds and moral decay by leadership and believers) have an impact on alcoholics being able to enter and engage A.A.
On a more positive note improved treatment options (medication and cognitive behavioral treatments) may also draw away some who may have been prime candidates for successful engagement and partnership with AA in supporting people in need of help for alcoholism always have a place to go.
Whatever your view alcoholism and other “isms” have not been defeated in our society. The self-help community, professional treatment community, religious and governmental planners at all levels (researchers, policy makers, economist, legislators, and the president) would be remiss to not continue to fight and refine our efforts in prevention and treatment of alcoholism and substance abuse disorders.
In the meantime, if you or a loved one has an “ism,” don’t go it alone. Get professional help. Call a self-health hotline. Seek a spiritual transformation. It can be the difference between relapse and recovery, between misery and happiness, between purposefulness and alienation.
To answer the question, AA is not blasphemous, imperfect yes, blasphemous no. AA clearly refutes itself from being religious and thus sidesteps the thicket of thorns of defining the absolute, the creator of the universe, or whatever the alcoholic deems to be his/her higher power. Religion is left for the churches and the theologians. Sobriety and Spirituality are its calling card for those with the desire to not drink.
[iii] Honesty, Hope, Faith, Courage, Integrity, Willingness, Humility, Brotherly Love, Discipline, Perseverance, Spirituality and Service
[iv] Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love