Reading the Step Two essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions has always been an exercise in self restraint for me. In this piece, Bill marshals every trick of innuendo, misstatement, and misrepresentation that one might expect of the law school trained writer that he was. The arguments he presents are mostly threadbare repetitions of old, exploded pleas that have no place in a serious discussion of the existence of a “higher power.” However, Bill, consciously or not, is mostly preaching to the choir here; the essay does not appear to be designed to present a serious challenge to those who supposedly lack faith, but to reassure his constituency of the inerrancy of their views. Yesterday, I went to perhaps my 50th meeting at which Step Two was discussed, and as a result I have decided to examine the essay piece by piece, and to present specific criticisms and counterarguments. The format I propose to use is to present various quotations, and to follow each one with my own thoughts. This may not be instructive to the reader, but one thing I do know is that “venting” usually makes me feel better.
1) “Some of us won’t believe in God, others can’t, and those who do believe that God exists have no faith whatever He will perform this miracle.”
This is the opening statement that presents the putative dilemma of the “newcomer” to AA. It is worthwhile to look at this statement closely for the assumption that underlies it, and that is the smug belief of so many theists, that those who claim not to believe in a god are really fooling themselves, and “deep down” they really do believe, but refuse to admit it even to themselves. Notice the italicized word “won’t” which implies a stubborn refusal to admit an obvious truth. Also the word “god” is capitalized, as is the pronoun to which it is antecedent. This is a common convention used to emphasize the majesty, holiness or whatever, of the deity, and placing it in the mouth of the protester emphasizes the idea that the poor sap really does believe after all.
2) “Let’s look first at the case of the one who says he won’t believe—the belligerent one. He is in a state of mind which can be described only as savage.”
Oh, come on! Belligerent? Savage? How insulting! This is nothing more than an ad hominem attack against atheists and agnostics, a suggestion that only those of emotional instability can possibly deny the existence of a god. Notice also the phrasing “says he won’t believe.”(italics mine) Here again we see the implication that the nonbeliever is denying the evidence of his own deepest feelings. The suggestion is that if we could only get the poor atheist to “get in touch with” his own feelings, he would immediately see the error of his ways. Parenthetically, this may be the reason why treatment programs for substance abuse stress “getting in touch” so much.
I subscribe to Isaac Asimov’s expression of his personal beliefs that intellectually he is an agnostic, as he is open to anyone who comes up with a convincing argument for the existence of a god, but that emotionally he is an atheist, because he is pretty sure that there is nothing out there. I further have defended my agnosticism by noting to those who have a problem with it that it really doesn’t matter very much, as I would live my life the same way, god or no god. But I find I have to be careful about my language, due to this tendency among theists, especially fundies, to ascribe inner meaning to my words. I recently snarled a nonsense phrase of a theistic nature(God damn it!) at my misbehaving computer, and a coworker who happened to be passing by in the hall stuck his head in and suggested that it was odd how often I, as a nonbeliever, invoked the name of the Almighty. (There, I capitalized it myself! We are often prisoners of the conventions of our culture, as I learned when I threatened my computer with the wrath of eternal damnation).
3) “How he does cherish the thought that man, risen so majestically from a single cell in the primordial ooze, is the spearhead of evolution and therefore the only god his universe knows!”
Long ago, I had a history professor who referred to this sort of prose as a “purple passage,” meaning one in which the words are chosen for emotional rather than rational content. There is a sense of the futility of this belief contained in the word “cherish.” The phrase “risen so majestically from a single cell in the primordial ooze” suggests a desire to impart simple scientific facts with a purposeful and dramatic impulse. Man as the “spearhead of evolution” and “the only god” indicates a smug egoism on the part of the evolutionist (I use this word advisedly, because it is inaccurate, and has loaded connotations) that does not exist. Biologists compare the evolutionary process not with a tree of which man is the highest branch, but with a shrub containing a myriad of branches, none of which is more important than any other. A man being chased across the plain by a pack of hyenas is evolutionarily the loser, because it is unlikely that his ability to reason with his adversaries will have any effect on their splendid speed and powerful jaws. A man equipped with the product of his particular evolutionary advantage, say a Thompson sub-machine gun, considers those same hungry hyenas to be a mere nuisance.
“(T)he only god” also contains an echo of the belief, common among twelve steppers, that we have a “God-shaped hole” which we try vainly to fill up with drugs, alcohol, or in this case, reliance on a scientific theory for meaning.
4) “a one-time vice-president of the American Atheist Society”
Details, please. Who is this person, and how did he do it? Of course, you can plead anonymity and refuse to reveal his name, but did he develop a nontheistic view of a higher power, or is he currently attending the Church of the Nazarene? By the way, I do not find a citation for this group on the Internet. Is it a defunct organization, or did Bill have the name wrong? Or is it a case of Bill’s well-known tendency to exaggerate for effect? Whatever is the truth, this line is thrown in, without any verification, to provide a spurious support to Bill’s line of argument.
5) There follows a set of three propositions:
a) AA does not demand that you believe anything.
b) You don’t have to swallow all of step two now
c) All you really need is a truly open mind
Proposition (a) is the classic bait and switch. Anyone who has spent time in AA will tell you that there is overwhelming pressure to conform to group beliefs, including the one about the higher power. There is a smug assurance on the part of old timers that they have the answer, and that you will end up agreeing with them or drinking. They are able to maintain this belief in the face of any evidence to the contrary. My wife and I are both agnostic (I have a Zen slant, she Pagan) and we have respectively twenty-six and eighteen years clean. It is absolutely futile for us to point this out to other twelve steppers, including those with a good deal less time than us. They are blithely confident that eventually we will “get the spiritual angle.”
Proposition (b) is the beginning of the process of giving the lie to Proposition (a). The end result is stated at the end of the essay: “God will restore us to sanity if we rightly relate ourselves to Him.” Is there any question about what Bill means by “rightly?” I don’t think so.
Proposition (c) is double-speak. By a “truly open mind,” twelve-steppers mean the same thing as my aforementioned fundie colleague, who has used the same line on me, namely, a willingness to swallow whatever they choose to think that you should believe. The idea that an open-minded person is someone who weighs the evidence and takes into account all relevant factors, including the appropriateness of granting authority to a particular source, runs directly against their assurance that they are the ones with the truth. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it!” was a popular bumper sticker on my college campus, and I still see echoes of that sentiment here. This is what passes for an open mind among many theists.
Bill then describes a condition that is familiar to many desperate addicts, including me many years ago, that is, our perception that the percepts of AA are totally unscientific and there is no obvious reason why they should work.
6) “Then I woke up…It wasn’t AA that had the closed mind, it was me. The minute I stopped arguing, I could begin to see and feel.”
Many of us are personally familiar with the seductive charms of resigning our intellectual freedom to an attractive set of principles that only need to be taken on faith, and claim to be immune to rational investigation. However, the fact that twelve step organizations do work for a surprising number of people is not one of those principles. When I sponsor newly clean people who are troubled by this paradox, I advise them to first accept that it does work, and secondly, after gaining a foothold in sobriety, to worry about why it works. The majority of twelve steppers answer this question (Why it works) by adducing the proposition that “God is responsible for the miracle of my sobriety.” (For some reason, it’s never God’s fault if somebody uses again) But in fact there are sound psychological reasons why AA works for certain people, just as there are sound psychological reasons why it doesn’t work for others. This is not the place to go into that subject, and I certainly consider that my own understanding of these principles is imperfect and incomplete. But I do not need to stoop to the level of assuming that because I do not understand why something is the case, that there must be a supernatural explanation. (For the repetition of the phrase “closed mind,” see the preceding paragraph.)
7) “Many a man like you has begun to solve the problem by the method of substitution. You can, if you wish, make AA itself your higher power.”
Bait and switch again. Note the 50’s style sexism of the word “man.”
8) “Surely you can have faith in them. Even this minimum of faith will be enough.”
Faith is a filthy, dirty word the excrementality of which is only exceeded by the word “sin.” Hypothetically, when first contacting AA or NA, and discovering that the members claim to be abstinent from alcohol or drugs, one should address oneself to the problem of verifying their claims. I do not think it is difficult in most cases to accomplish this, although many seekers after sobriety reject AA/NA because they perceive that many of the people they meet there have not solved their problems with substance abuse. Perhaps in some (many) places this is true. But once I personally found a group of people whom I was satisfied had solved a problem that I desperately wanted to solve myself, I did not need “faith.” I had the proof of my senses and my reason. I was then able to devote myself to learning what they had done that I hadn’t, and if I liked it, I did it. If I didn’t like it, I didn’t do it.
Having thus disposed of the ‘belligerent, savage atheist”, Bill goes on to:
9) “(T) hose who once had faith, but have lost it. There will be those who have drifted into indifference, those filled with self-sufficiency, who have cut themselves off, those who have become prejudiced against religion, and those who are downright defiant because God has failed to fulfill their demands.”
This appears to refer to former believers, (who still, of course, believe “deep down”) who have rejected religion/spirituality because of its apparent inability to influence their lives. Well, if you’re drinking and drugging your face off, of course it doesn’t matter how much time you spend on your knees at the altar rail, your life is still going to be unmanageable. What these people do in AA is discover the limitations of their faith; that no one is going to work miracles for them unless they do the hard work of getting better. This is referred to as “doing the footwork and letting god take care of the rest.” Pardon me, but once I have done all the footwork, is there really anything left for this god of yours to do? Once again we see that twelve steppers tend to give their god credit for all the things they have accomplished themselves, while blaming themselves when things go bad. This seems to be the only real difference—they blame themselves for their misfortunes instead of god. But who was it that created the process that allows fermentation of alcohol? Whose creation includes coca plants with extractable resins? And who planted all those marijuana plants that only have to be dried and smoked? If there is an omnipotent, benevolent god, we are left with the insoluble problem of where evil comes from.
Let’s look at the above passage in light of emotional language as well. “Self-sufficiency” of course is a bad thing for twelve steppers, as it contains the impermissible thought that we can actually accomplish something on our own. And “prejudiced” is a favorite word Bill had already used in the Big Book to condemn nonbelievers (e.g., page 45). And the alliterative “Downright Defiant…Demands” brings up the arrogance of the mere mortals who require an accounting of their creator.
Why shouldn’t we require an accounting of god? As noted, he did apparently create all these lovely abusable substances, and he did give us fire earthquakes, famine and death. Read some of his commandments in the Torah, or the unthinkably cruel and despotic episodes he precipitated in the history of his chosen people.(one classic example is found in Numbers 31: 14-18) Why would I worship such an imperfect god? Even the New Testament god, who gives up his own son to be murdered, in order that he can let himself off from carrying out a rule that he made himself! Who could rationally believe such an absurdity?
While discussing the confusion of the wanderer from faith, Bill comes forth with one of my favorite blatherings:
10) “Religion says the existence of God can be proved; the agnostic says it can’t be proved; and the atheist claims proof of the nonexistence of God.”
All three of these statements are false. Any reputable theologian is aware that the existence of a god cannot be proved. Thomas Aquinas did the best job, but his proofs have all been refuted, notably by Immanuel Kant and David Hume. An agnostic may indeed say that it can’t be proved, but is more likely to say that there is no known proof, and that he is certainly open to argument. An atheist may deny the existence of a god, but any educated man has to be aware that it is impossible to prove a negative. His denial is therefore based on best available evidence and Occam’s principal of parsimony, which states, more or less, that the simplest explanation is to be preferred. Bill is again using pretty phrases for effect.
11) “Now we come to…the intellectually self –sufficient man or woman…far too smart for our own good. We loved to have people call us precocious. We used our education to blow ourselves up into prideful balloons…Scientific progress told us there was nothing man couldn’t do. Knowledge was all-powerful. Intellect could conquer nature…the god of intellect displaced the God of our fathers.”
There’s that poisonous word “self-sufficient” again, accompanied by equally loaded words such as “precocious,” “prideful,” and “the god of intellect.” The implication runs in tune with the anti-intellectualism so often found in AA, a tendency which for me dates back to my first days in detox, when I was told by a counselor, who was also a twelve stepper, that he had never known someone too dumb to get the program, but that he had known plenty who were too smart. This is an extension of the anti-intellectualism of evangelical Christianity, which places its greatest emphasis on emotionalism as the justifier of faith. Bill then appears to resolve this dilemma, but for the majority of readers he probably only confuses it:
12) “(T)hey showed us that humility and intellect could be compatible, provided we placed humility first.”
The biggest problem with this statement is caused by the fact that, although they talk about humility all the time, ninety-nine out of a hundred twelve steppers cannot adequately define the word. Bill could define it, and did, on page 58: “(Humility is) a clear recognition of what and who we really are, followed by a sincere attempt to become what we could be.” (Actually the second phrase is extraneous to the definition) The simplest way to define humility is “self-knowledge” which of course requires that we become familiar with both our faults and our good points. At this point, Bill’s statement almost makes sense. Of course self-knowledge is a necessary virtue. But the only way to acquire it is by the use of the despised intellect! We need to get our priorities straight here, and stop equating humility with some sort of groveling emotional response to the presence of a god in our lives, and get back to Socrates’ “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
13) “Another crowd of AA’s says: “We were plumb disgusted with religion and all its works. The Bible…was full of nonsense…we couldn’t see the Beatitudes for the begats…But it was the morality of the religionists themselves that really got us down. We gloated over the hypocrisy, bigotry and crushing self righteousness that clung to so many ‘believers’…This all meant, of course, that we had substituted negative for positive thinking.”
Well, yes. I can sympathize with the person who is disgusted with religion, the Bible, and the religionists. (By the way, notice that this mention of the Bible certainly betrays the ultimate end of our bait and switch routine.) I fail to see, however, how a realistic appraisal of the futility and waste of the religious life can possibly be characterized as “negative thinking.” Those of us who have abandoned the concept of a personal, rescuing deity, are not, contrary to popular belief, sunk in despair and desperately searching for meaning. On the contrary, the only feeling I remember as a result of my de-conversion was a sense of relief. Achieving a sense of purpose and meaning in my life was expedited by the realization that it was a matter of self-definition, 1.e., that purpose and meaning were something I defined for myself, rather than “discovering” it. Bill has indeed described a cynical state of mind that can be characterized as negative thinking, but we need not stop where he thinks we do.
14) “(D)efiance is the outstanding characteristic of many an alcoholic. So it’s not strange that lots of us have had our day at defying God Himself.”
A false parallel is being set up here, between disbelief in a god and defiance of God, and it is being attributed to the so-called “alcoholic personality” rather than to a reasoned examination of the claims of theism. This is another example of the tendency of theists to discount any statement of nonbelief as mere posturing. By claiming that I don’t believe in god, I am actually defying him, because it goes without saying that everybody really believes in god, whether they know it or not. In addition, there is here again a suggestion of a parallel between nonbelief and emotional abnormality. This business of attributing particular character traits to alcoholics, by the way, is something that Bill indulges in frequently, usually using unnamed medical sources as his authority. It is, as it happens, unadulterated hooey. There is no such thing as an alcoholic personality. Alcoholism is a disease caused by genetic abnormalities. There is no way to predict the personality of the person who has the proclivity towards alcoholism, except that statistically some mental diseases and personality disorders tend to be associated with alcoholism. But just go into any self help meeting in
15) “Sometimes it’s because God has not delivered us the good things of life which we
specified, as a greedy child makes an impossible list for Santa Claus.”
(How is it that Bill was able to make the connection between god and Santa Claus, without noticing the correlation between two imaginary beings?) We are leading up here, and throughout the following paragraph to the “resentment” argument, that we who do not believe are guilty of a resentment against god and therefore refuse to believe (are defiant). It’s surprising how many people automatically assume that we have a resentment against god. This is comparable to having a resentment against the Tooth Fairy.
16) “No man, we saw, could believe in God and defy Him , too.”
No, no. Exactly the opposite. I have seen several people over the years express defiance towards their god. I have never seen an unbeliever defy god, as I have never seen an adult defy the Tooth Fairy.
17) “Now let’s take the guy full of faith, but still reeking of alcohol…Valiantly, he tries to fight alcohol, imploring God’s help, but the help doesn’t come. What, then, can be the matter?”
Good question. Maybe if he gets off his ass and does the footwork, there will be nothing left for a god to do. Maybe if I distill out the essential parts of the program, discarding all the godtalk, then I can begin to practice a program of change, responsibility, and balance and then I will find I can get clean and sober without having to give god the credit and take all the blame myself. Maybe if I do all that I will arrive at a new consciousness of my place in the universe that doesn’t involve slavery to a non-existent higher power, or to a chemical dependence. Maybe.
18) “Few indeed are the practicing alcoholics who have any idea how irrational they are, or seeing their irrationality, can bear to face it.”
Actually, I have no problem with this statement. I merely wish to note that I can also say, “Few indeed are the practicing religious persons who have any idea how irrational they Are, or seeing their irrationality, can bear to face it.” If this seems harsh to you, then all I can say is that you probably have never really had a conversation with a committed Christian/Muslim/whatever which involved the contradictions that he is forced to swallow to make his faith work.
19) “(E)very AA meeting is an assurance that God will restore us to sanity if we rightly relate ourselves to him.”
At other places Bill expressed a willingness to accommodate those alcoholics who did not share his beliefs, notably in a Grapevine article in which he meets an agnostic doctor whom he later discovered to embody the moral values that he (Bill) believed in. Why he refused to do so in the book which more than any other contains the directions for following the program as he conceived of it is anyone’s guess. My own feeling is one of sadness that I have had to deal with this…betrayal…of those who did not perceive the universe as Bill did for so many years now, and that so many of those who have walked the AA way have swallowed this line for so long.
I am now in a place in my recovery, and I am considered by those in my recovery group to be a person to be listened to, that I can get away with stating my convictions in public, and not many have the effrontery to contradict me. Yesterday, in the step group I attend, we read the step and then the chairperson opened the discussion by asking me for my thoughts. I responded, “My name is ------, and I think this is Buullshiiit!” I then shared a little of what I have placed in this essay. I like to think that over the years, my adoption of this attitude has prevented a few people who are turned off by the god crap from leaving AA prematurely. I hope that someone out there will get some benefit from my thoughts. If not, well, we all do what we can.