Recovery from addiction is life-saving. That's good. In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous there is a pamphlet called, "Do You Think You're Different?" Everyone who struggles with addiction has a hard time owning up to the fact that the tail now wags the dog, that they are powerless over a process or substance that is making their life unmanageable. At least this is how the abstinence based recovery programs speak of addiction: A recreational behavior or substance use becomes habitual to the point of dependency of a physical and emotional extent. This popular worldview of addiction is shared by the American Medical Association and many of their counterparts in the developed world.
There have been "moderation management" programs that counsel addicts into practicing their own bottom line, self determined limits for controlled use. I am a recovered addict myself and I subscribe to the abstinence model that suggests, like a pickle can never become a cucumber again, an addict like me can't return to recreational use of alcohol or drugs. I personally don't doubt that moderation management(MM) has success stories. It only makes sense that there are more than one way to solve a problem. However, all I see is the MM failure that relapse into full-blown addiction and then come crawling into a 12 Step program to try another approach. But again, it only seems logical that this system of addressing addiction has some success stories, too.
Back to AA's "Do You Think You're Different?" pamphlet. It is a collection of stories of alcoholics who arrived at the doors of AA and said that AA couldn't work for them because they were different. There are stories form young people, the GLBT community, atheists, agnostics and various visible minority groups. The point that the pamphlet makes is that alcoholism doesn't discriminate. It doesn't care who you know, how much money you make, what your IQ is or your race, creed, gender or sexual orientation. The other point of the pamphlet is that the principles of the 12 Steps can be applied to anyone who is open-minded, honest and willing and that AA is made up of all types. That is true and it isn't.
AA was birthed from 1939 religious, sexist, racially segregating, homophobic America. The fellowship of AA has adapted to the changing attitudes outside of the doors of our local AA meetings, but some systemic discrimination still pervades AA culture. A 2011 survey AA did of its own members shows that AA is 65% male, 85% Caucasian, middle age, middle class with token representation of non-Christians, visible minorities and youth. AA isn't sexist, racist nor religious. Yet as any organization may face, reification and dogma has led to many of the practices in AA meetings still steeped in mid-20th century, middle-America culture.
AA has a modest staff on non-alcoholics and almost all of the work is done by AA volunteers. There is no human resource director who monitors human rights issues within the groups. Some of the groups are what might be called special interest groups. There are secular meetings, called, atheist & agnostic groups or freethinker groups. There are GLBT groups put on by and for queer culture. There are women's groups, young peoples groups, men's groups and even groups for alcoholic lawyers.
The first time AA meetings voted on the issue of allowing African American alcoholics membership, the members voted against it. Now any such objection would be condemned. AA struggled with their first female members and gay groups, too. As America struggled with embracing pluralistic culture, so did Alcoholics Anonymous. The issue of theists and skeptics all being one big happy family has bent but never broken AA. Despite the obvious Christian overtones, AA has suggestions but not a single rule. There is even a pervasive attitude that atheism is a form of intellectual stubbornness and many newcomers who don't believe in god face proselytizing or fear-mongering from the more zealous members. There is a chapter in the Big Book of AA called, "We Agnostics." It is far less of a wholehearted welcome and more of a stark warning. It stops short of insisting that god-consciousness is the only path to recovery but insist that no member serious about overcoming alcoholism should close his or her mind to all spiritual concepts.
Part of the systemic discrimination is a folksy notion that AA's "God of our understanding" is inclusive. Anyone here would find the suggestion that our health and welfare was predicated on our ability to seek the grace of an omnipotent being. "God of our understanding" might have been cutting edge for 1939 but it doesn't reflect today's secular society. Many one-time AA members have gone on to form their own recovery based secular fellowships. Some like SOS (Secular Sobriety) use the peer to peer model and others (Life Ring, or SMART Recovery) use a quasi-trained moderator approach.
All programs have found some success, again there are many ways to skin a cat or dry out a drunk. AA is still home to many atheists who's quality of life and service to the community is equal to any member. Some are out of the closet and some dodge the "am I or aren't I" question. There is still some coaxing to talk in AA language. Instead of a creator God, why not the acronym of Good Orderly Direction or use the fellowship as a higher power, the Group of Drunks acronym? But why talk of god at all if you don't believe in one? For one reason, you don't stand out from the crowd if you talk the language. In some AA quarters the encouragement to adherence borders on cult-like. In other groups no one cares less what other members believe or don't believe.
In my own little Ontario (Toronto Canada) there was flair up between AA agnostic groups and a few dogmatic theists. Our agnostic group adopted a secular reading of the Twelve Steps at our meeting and we posted it on our website. The Pharisees said, "You can't do that. You're not AA if you change the words." There is no such rule but with a little help of some politicking literalists and the greater apathy of AA as a whole, they were able to get the Toronto Intergroup to de-list the agnostic groups, taking their listing out of the Toronto group list and removing their voice from the Intergroup floor.
This act of bigotry is very un-Canadian and it made the front page of Canada's most read daily, The Toronto Star. Oh the wonder of unintended consequences. The story was picked up by CBC radio which invited three members of the blasphemous group onto a popular show called Tapestry and the result is the two groups are now five groups. Each group is still part of AA World Services but still not part of local AA politics. Because of the Internet, AA Toronto Agnostic Groups are easier to find than ever, thanks largely to all they attention they got due to an effort to silence them.
Funny, isn't it? There are over one hundred groups for atheists and agnostics mostly in North America (where most AA meetings are anyway). Sometimes our liberal society shows a tendency for the majority to dictate terms to the minority, but these don't often last. AA faces some difficult times negotiating the 21st century, like any organization. One of the founders, Bill W once said:
|"Let us never fear needed change. Certainly we have to discriminate between changes for the worse and changes for the better. But once a need becomes clearly apparent in an individual, in a group, or in AA as a whole, it has long since been found out that we cannot stand still and look the other way. The essence of all growth is a willingness to change for the better and then an unremitting willingness to shoulder whatever responsibility this entails."|
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