The “Religion Thing”

The issue of religion arises at least once a month at any 12-step meeting that includes people. It’s amazing how it causes confusion. Some folks claim that you have to believe in God, while others say all you have to do is admit you aren’t Him. Others, myself among them, maintain that the spirituality aspect of the program has nothing to do with God unless we choose to make it so. Only one thing’s for sure: put two alcoholics or other addicts in the same room and it will soon be overflowing with opinions.

Bill Wilson was quite clear in his Big Book chapter “We Agnostics” that a belief in a higher power need have nothing to do with a belief in God. (He was also clear that he assumed non-believers would come around to belief in time. I’ve always found that inference condescending, but that’s just me.) Nonetheless, I completely agree that a “higher power” doesn’t have to be a metaphysical entity.

However I do believe that addicts need to humble themselves by admitting that they need help. From my experience, 25 years an alcoholic/addict and 30 in recovery, and having watched a lot of sponsees suffer through their own, I believe it’s nearly impossible to recover completely without it. The humility* to accept help is difficult to come by. For those of us making our first foray into recovery, it can be difficult to cede power to another “mere” human being. So if it comforts someone to believe that a deity will be rooting for the team, I think that’s great. Faith is a powerful thing, and the idea that we don’t have to go it alone is a great feeling.

I found it sufficient to simply believe that I couldn’t do it alone, because I had proven that to myself many times over. I “came to believe” that the people in the rooms had their stuff together when it came to this addiction thing, and that a smart guy like me should take advantage of the suggestions that have worked for so many others instead of re-inventing the wheel and ending up with corners on it. In every sense that mattered, as far as getting sober went, the members of the fellowship were my higher power.

When spirituality is concerned, I don’t believe it is necessary to believe in a transcendental being in order to lead a spiritual life. Further, I believe that the wrong kinds of religious ideas can hinder development of a spiritual life, and I think it’s unfortunate that so many folks conflate the words “spiritual” and “religious” — because they’re not the same thing.

Religion involves beliefs, dogma, ritual, prayer, judgement and often condemnation, along with possible salvation, the concept of a reward in an afterlife, and faith in a supernatural or metaphysical entity. Some of the ideas to which we may have been exposed early on involve vindictive gods that punish us unmercifully. Some of those are even claimed to be “loving” gods. These deeply ingrained ideas can cause some of us to reject religion altogether for fear of those teachings and their promised results. (Few of us fit well into the “salvation” template when we first make it to the rooms.)

Furthermore, although our program literature refers to a God held in common by many people (not, by any means, all people), the 12-step programs are not, in my opinion and that of many others, about religion. I believe that dislike of organized religion and/or fear of certain religious concepts can fuel powerful denial that leads to rejection of the underlying principles and concepts of our programs. That’s why I cringe when some “bleeding deacon” starts declaiming about the need to believe in “Gawd” while sharing in a meeting. It’s not that I disagree with what the person is saying, it’s that I can’t help worrying about what the poor, frightened newcomers are thinking! (That’s not sharing, BTW, it’s preaching.)

However, recovery programs are, at their essence, about spirituality. To me, spirituality is about relating the way I try to live to the human spirit, that thing that makes me more than an especially capable ape. Here, for whatever it is worth, is my understanding of spirituality and its principles. Take what you like and leave the rest….

Tolerance, the disposition to allow others freedom of choice or behavior is, in my view, the absolute foundation of spirituality and recovery. It is the basis of all reasonable systems of ethics, because it permits me freedom as long as I do not harm others. Tolerance does not mean that I agree with you, or even that I approve of you. It does mean that I recognize your right to follow your path, as long as it does not unduly interfere with mine. I emphasize “unduly” because I need to be sure that the interference is with those things to which I am entitled, not the things to which I think I am entitled. King Baby may not yet have moved all the way out of my neighborhood.

Patience goes hand in hand with tolerance. If I am to allow you to pursue your happiness—your bliss, as Joseph Campbell called it—then I must allow you the time and room to do so, as well. Seen through that lens, the old woman in the grocery line ahead of me, fumbling in her change purse, becomes a person much like the one I will someday be, just trying to get through her day the best she can. To deny her the right to find the correct change simply because I want to save a few seconds –to glare, to raise eyebrows, to make comments — is to take away some of the shine (what little there may be of it) from her day. How selfish! The spiritual life is not a theory.

Forgiveness, the willingness to set aside the past, is a gift that I can give to myself. It means recognizing that it’s okay for others to make mistakes, just as I do on occasion. It means recognizing their worth to me, and being willing to make allowances because of what they may mean to me in the future. It means putting the matter aside and going on with my life. Are resentments worth the dissatisfaction and discomfort that they bring with them? The resentment that knots up my belly whenever I think of wrongs done to me is my problem, and it probably isn’t bothering the other person at all. Resentment is the poison that we drink while we wait for the other person to die.

Compassion is the logical outcome of tolerance and forgiveness. In being patient and forgiving, I need to look at my relationships with others in a new way. I need to see things as they may have been from their points of view. Compassion, a humane understanding of others and the way they may be feeling becomes inevitable when I recognize another’s humanity. It is essential to healthy relationships based on recognition of mutual needs. Compassion is not pity; it is understanding and a willingness to help.

Love means different things in different situations, but I like to think of it as an inevitable result of tolerance, forgiveness and compassion, or perhaps they are the results of love. In any case, a willingness to love and allow myself to be loved, with the equality, trust and openness that are necessary for that to happen, are clearly essential traits of the human spirit. To feel and act otherwise stifles the spirit at the same time that I am trying to set it free.

A sense of Responsibility has grown as a result of these steps: the understanding we are all needed in order to create a world that will sustain us all with the least pain. “When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA to be there — and for that, I am responsible.” Over my years of sobriety there has (slowly) come the realization that this principle extends far beyond the walls of the rooms, and beyond AA itself. We “try to…practice [it] in all our affairs.”

Harmony, the feeling that I am moving through the world with as little friction as possible is a result of spiritual growth. A sense of harmony allows for the bumps and scrapes, as well as the smooth stretches of life. As a grown-up in recovery I understand that I cannot have my way all the time, but that the manner in which I grant others theirs, without begrudging it, is of great importance to my state of mine. It is my choice to live a life of harmony — or not. As a feeling, it comes and goes; as a principle, I try to keep it firmly in mind.

Joy is extreme happiness; a feeling that all is as it should be. It includes the knowledge that it will pass. That’s okay, it will come again. Joy is the reward, occasional but real, mundane but spiritual, that awaits me when I remain willing to allow myself to change, and to awaken to reality.

Spirituality can be—and ought to be—an integral part of the religious experience, but it is equally available to non-believers. It is simultaneously the essential aspect, the goal, and the reward of a sober life.

Of course, your mileage may vary.
* Humility is by no means the same thing as “humiliation.” Look it up. ;-)

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