Wednesday, June 11, 2014

AA's Critics and the Mangling of Theologies of Grace: Considering a Recent Challenge to AA. (Part 2)

In a post last week, I began to consider a recent Salon piece by Lance and Zachary Dodes, in which the Dodes argue that Alcoholics Anonymous's 12-step programs are a poor method for treating addiction. In the earlier post, I considered their contention that AA works for only a very small percentage of people (5-10%) and is "harmful to the 90% who don't do well." I explained why I find these claims less than compelling.

In this post and the next one, I want to consider something I think may be going on beneath the surface of the Dodes' essay, something that may help explain why they make such dubious assertions with disproportionate confidence. Although anti-religious bias might not be the best term for it, it's related to the kind of prejudice one finds among many well-meaning humanists--a prejudice that fixates on a distinctive (mis)construal of religion that's widespread among believers and nonbelievers alike, but which is opposed to a more reasonable and beneficial construal.

Mangling the Twelve Steps

My suspicion that some kind of prejudice is in play is elevated by several tensions and confusions in the Dodes' critique of AA. These come out especially as they walk through the twelve steps.

For example, one recurring feature of the Dodes' critique is their charge that AA creates the illusion of control by giving the addict a series of steps to follow: "AA offers a comforting veneer of actionable change: it is something you can do." They raise this concern in their lead-in to examining the twelve steps, and in the very next paragraph consider the first of those steps: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” They dismiss the value of this step on the grounds that "it lacks any clinical merit or scientific backing."

The tension here lies in the fact that the first step is about admitting that recovery requires letting go of the idea that you can do it on your own. So which is it? Should the twelve steps be accused of inculcating a false sense of control in the addict? Or should they be accused of encouraging addicts to give up the illusion of control even though such an act of release has no "clinical merit or scientific backing"? Maybe the charge here is that the twelve steps contradict themselves.

If so, the problem may be that the Dodes haven't really understood what the twelve steps are about. They haven't found the interpretation that makes sense. What they are targeting is an interpretation that doesn't make sense at all. Doing that is worthwhile, of course: If AA is going to work, it's the version that makes sense which will work, not the version that doesn't. And so it's beneficial to expose incoherent interpretations and warn addicts against working them.

But if there is a version of the steps that isn't contradictory, assuming that the steps are essentially confused  does a disservice to addicts who would benefit from AA if they only got past their mangled understanding. It's exactly similar to the kind of attack on religion that we find in the New Atheists: They treat the mangled fundamentalist understanding of religion as the very essence of religion, never considering the possibility that there exists a more promising and life-enriching understanding.

And there can be little doubt that the Dodes are attacking a mangled understanding of the twelve steps.

The Dodes excoriate the twelve steps for inspiring "self-flagellation," as if the twelve steps were about beating yourself up about your failings: "The degradation woven through these steps also seems unwittingly designed to exacerbate, rather than relieve, the humiliating feelings so common in addiction." And they make this charge despite recognizing that the first step "is intended to evoke a sense of surrender that might give way to spiritual rebirth."

It doesn't occur to them that this first step sets the tone for understanding the rest: addiction is an illness, not a fault, and from the perspective that concedes something greater than ourselves, the guilt and shame that comes from clinging to a vaunted sense of control can be released. The idea is that, from the right perspective, we can honestly recognize our inescapable imperfections without beating ourselves up over them, and so can seek the kind of help and support required to become better than we could be on our own (something we can't do so long as we are hiding from our imperfections in order to avoid the guilt that we attach to them).

The Dodes deride the fourth step's call to make "a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves" and the tenth step's call to continue taking "personal inventory," while extolling the capacity of competent therapy to promote the kind of honest self-awareness that can lead to positive change. That the twelve steps are about cultivating the kind of inner honesty essential to therapeutic breakthroughs doesn't even enter the Dodes' radar screen, because they link AA's call to acknowledge our "shortcomings" and hand them over to our higher power with "the fundamentalist religious principle...that the path to recovery is to cleanse oneself of sin."

It doesn't occur to them that this funamentalist religious principle, which drives people to fixate on their sins in an effort to purge themselves, is the very opposite of what is intended when AA calls on its members to hand their shortcomings over to their higher power. It's not accidental that steps six and seven don't say "we are entirely ready to make ourselves responsible for overcoming our defects of character" and "arrogantly take charge of the effort to overcome our own shortcomings." The steps don't call for this because "cleansing oneself of sin" is the very opposite of what the twelve steps are about.

Here's the idea: One crucial barrier to genuine self-understanding is that people are afraid of what they will find when they honestly introspect. They are afraid because (a) they know they will find serious imperfections, and (b) they have a habit of beating themselves up ruthlessly about their imperfections. You could avoid this fear of introspection, of course, by convincing yourself in advance that there aren't any imperfections to be found. But that, of course, is going to be a lie. Every human being has imperfections. You can't begin a project of honest introspection by telling yourself a lie. The alternative solution is to stop beating yourself up about your inevitable human limitations.

That is what the twelve steps are about: leaving behind the perspective from which you deserve to be beaten up for your shortcomings, so that you can look inward without fear of those shortcomings. The promise of a perspective greater than our own from which our shortcomings are already set aside, a perspective from which we can hand our failings over to something greater than ourselves as opposed to beating ourselves up over them--these are the defining features of the twelve steps.

With such a perspective in place, a crucial impediment to instrospective self-understanding--namely, one's propensity for self-flagellation--can be set aside. The addict is able to engage in the kind of internal inventory and honest self-discovery that the Dodes think the best therapy can help facilitate--and which, thankfully (since not everyone can afford therapy), can also be facilitated with the help of talented AA sponsors and peer counselors.

In short, the Dodes have an understanding of the twelve steps that is almost exactly backwards. Sadly, their confusion is entirely predictable.

Works vs Grace

The Dodes display a classic confusion about the nature of the twelve steps. I say the confusion is classic because the twelve steps have their origins in the Christian theology of grace. But in the history of Christianity, the theology of grace has been repeatedly misconstrued and misappropriated by people who can't let go of "works theology." The result is that good news is twisted into bad news, a message of hope is turned into a threat, and a liberating idea is reframed as a call to self-flagellation.

That the Dodes misconstrue the twelve steps as they do is no surprise, because even those who explicitly endorse the theology of grace have had a long tradition of finding ways to subvert its meaning.

According to the Christian theology of grace, we are saved, not by what we do, but by what God does for us when we get out of the way. And the first thing that God does for us is forgive us--a forgiveness that liberates us from the weight of our offenses, from guilt and shame, precisely because it springs from the author of our very being. If the infinite creator of all does not hold our offenses against us, who are we to do so? This is what traditional Christian theology has called "justification."

The second thing God does is provide spiritual resources for becoming better than we can be on our own. By releasing ourselves to something greater than ourselves, giving our wills over to a good that transcends us, we transcend ourselves. That is, we become better than we could be on our own. This is what traditional Christian theology has called "sanctification."

AA has extracted this theology from its Christian context, offering its practical dimensions purged of specific doctrines and creeds. The way in which releasing yourself to a higher power opens doors to self-improvement can be viewed, within AA, as the result of a metaphysical infusion of divine grace. But it needn't be. There's no cry of heresy if you think of it as a shift in perspective that erases self-imposed limits. Contrary to what the Dodes say, there is nothing preventing you, in AA, from conceiving of your higher power as your best self, the self you could become were you to let go of the narratives and habits that are constraining you.

A friend told me of one person who decided, cynically, to make a doorknob his higher power. What he discovered is that when he went through the twelve steps earnestly, the doorknob became a functional focus for the steps. He released his shortcomings to the doorknob, and they didn't weight him down anymore. The doorknob was transformed into a symbol of something else.

Others less cynical but equally skeptical of supernatural powers have envisioned that their higher power is the support network of love and community, within AA and elsewhere, that encourages them to be more than they thought they could be and offers resources greater than a single person can hope to possess alone.

What AA seeks to preserve is the practical dimension of this theology of grace: the release and openness to transformation, the reaching out for support and strength, the giving up on stubborn reliance on one's own willpower, the attitude of self-forgiveness that makes honesty possible and turns the act of making amends into an exercise of responsible relationship-building instead of an exercise in self-recrimination. AA thereby also affirms the distinction between using moral principles as a map and and using them as a bludgeon--that is, using them as a guide to a better life instead of using them as a tool of judgment and condemnation.

By contrast, we have the theology of works: The idea that it all rests on our own shoulders, that we are to blame for every imperfection, that we can achieve perfection on our own, save ourselves...and that our failure to do so is our own fault. In a theology of works, everything depends on our own willpower--and so, if we fail to live up to moral principles, we are blameworthy. Morality is thus twisted so that it becomes about guilt and blame instead of guidance.

I should point out that a theology of grace does not hold that humans aren't called to good works, or that they don't have responsibilities, etc. What a theology of grace says is that our salvation does not depend on our own works. Instead, our good works depend on our salvation: We live up to our responsibilities because we have opened ourselves up to that which makes it possible to do so--what Christianity calls the grace of God. We don't overcome our flaws by "will power" and personal effort, but by a connection to something that gives us more strength than we can ever muster alone. If we want to transcend our limits we don't do so by relying on our limited self but by reaching out to something that is not limited in the ways that we are. Our "salvation" is found in making the connection to that something--and we make that connection not by an effort of personal will but by an act of release.

Again, AA is open to wholly secular conceptualizations of this process: You might conceive of your higher power as a community that is greater than the sum of its parts, which can offer to you the resources for being better than you could be alone. Whether this works as well as conceiving of your higher power as the infinite creator of the universe is a different matter, and one I think it would be very hard to assess (for reasons mentioned in the earlier post). But even in its secularized understandings, it remains a kind of theology of grace.

In the history of Christianity, the theology of grace has prevailed in theory...but in practice, the theology of works has continued to operate behind the scenes, twisting and distorting the message of grace.

This happens in all sorts of ways. The idea that our salvation comes from divine grace through the channel of faith is converted into the idea that we are saved by the work of our own faith. And so we focus in on our faith, struggling to make sure it is pure enough, fixating on it and beating ourselves up if we fail to show sufficient faith. People say "let go and let God"...and then beat themselves up for failing to do this work for which they see themselves as wholly responsible. The "good news" of Christianity--that humanity has been saved by God's saving work in Christ--is transformed into the terrible news that if you fail to get your beliefs about Christ just right and then perform the act of making Him your Lord and Savior, you will writhe in eternal anguish in the fiery pits of everlasting hell.

At every turn, Christians have found ways to twist and distort the core message of divine grace, making it all about what we do. Paradoxically, what really requires work is resisting the urge to make it all about our own works. We're saved by our own faith, or by getting our beliefs right, or by believing the Bible, or by saying a prayer in which we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, or by saying such a prayer with the right degree of earnestness--anything but our salvation depending on something greater than ourselves.

The Dodes' utter inversion of the twelve steps--getting AA's core message completely backwards--falls cleanly into this pattern. It's as if they've seen the connection between AA and Christian theology, but have experienced Christianity largely in terms of these historic distortions. They transfer the distortions to AA, and condemn the program based on a distorted understanding of it.

But as understandable as this may be, it remains a mistake. The theology of grace should not be judged by the flaws in theologies that wear grace as a cloak. Instead, we should assess the theology of grace and the theology of works on their own terms--and if we decide that there is something problematic about the latter that the former avoids (as the Dodes seem to think, albeit in wholly secular terms), we should look for ways to encourage the former despite the seductiveness of the latter.

Instead, the Dodes treat the mangled variant of AA as the proper way--perhaps the only way--to understand it. In so doing, they are not just unfair to AA. More seriously, they help to perpetuate the misconstrual and the harms that it can do.

If they really want to help addicts recover, it would seem far better to give AA an honest and careful assessment that recognizes both the harmful misconstruals of its methodologies and the more promising understandings--and then encourage those who pursue AA to approach the steps as they were meant to be approached, in a spirit of grace.

I suspect that one reason the Dodes don't approach things this way lies in a common tendency among those who display an anti-religious bias: the tendency to see all of religion through the lens of its most pernicious expressions. The religion of fear and hellfire, the religion of hate-yourself-because-you're-a-sinner, is their model of religion. When they see the religious roots of AA and the persistence of religious language and forms, their stereotype of religion rises up and offers a template for interpreting the twelve steps that admits of no more humanistic rivals.

Such stereotyping of religion can be resisted. And if we want to be honest in our engagement with the diversity of religious communities and those influenced by them, we need to resist such stereotyping.

In my next and final post in this series, I will consider another way in which I see anti-religious bias at work in the Dodes' essay--in a way that reflects the false opposition between science and religion.


  1. Eric-

    I don't know the Dodes' piece and won't comment on it. But here, there seems to be willful misdirection, from the clearly religious steps of the 12 steps (7 of them) to the more anodyne steps of introspection, correction, and restitution. Perhaps the Dodes's focused on the wrong bits here. The problem with AA is that it is 1- highly religious in most of its steps, thus unwelcoming to non-religious people and a little nutty to a non-religious perspective. And 2- that it is not quite as effective as many people make it out to be, forming sort of a cult of long-term, dragged out self-abasement more than an efficient, focused therapeutic method.

    But it is effective, I am sure. The self-abasement method is hardly new. Everyone from the Chinese communist party to the Marines use it.. break 'em down, then build 'em up. The problem I see is that it gratuitously insinuates a load of god-talk in there. Perhaps, and certainly in Bob's day, this was the most understandable route to most people, as you discuss. But these days, it is a painful anachronism, as similar support groups open to heal people from former Catholicism, fundamentalism, etc.. you name it. Most people surely just let it slide (however grating) and use the parts they can deal with. I certainly did back in the boy scouts, though I wondered whether I could be excommunicated for apostasy- a weird position to be in, for sure.

    " Contrary to what the Dodes say, there is nothing preventing you, in AA, from conceiving of your higher power as your best self, the self you could become were you to let go of the narratives and habits that are constraining you."

    Well, not when steps 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11 mention god specifically.

    It does seem a bit unfair to critique Mr. Bob's method as not being validated, double-blinded, etc. Other treatment / drug rehab systems are notoriously bad as well. It is not a solved problem by any means. At least AA is a self-run, self governed affair, not some kind of corrupt Walmart of rehab. I give it props for that as well.

    "And the first thing that God does for us is forgive us--a forgiveness that liberates us from the weight of our offenses, from guilt and shame, precisely because it springs from the author of our very being."

    Well, this is weird.. how about I just forgive myself without making up an imaginary father figure through which I forgive myself through the back door? The aggrandizing aspects of this (author of everthing... talks to me, little old me!) is pretty stunning. But as you say, the release one gets by organizing and controlling the process of self-judgement can be very psychologically productive.

    1. Burk,

      It's true, of course, that the steps use the term "God"--but according to what I hear from the numerous people close to me who have been active in AA, the program makes an effort to point out that "God" should be understood as synonymous with "higher power" and that participants should construe that idea in a way that makes sense to them. Nevertheless, of course, the theistic language remains--and I agree that for some, this may impose an impediment.

      While most people in this country, whatever their attitudes towards historic religions, are open to some vaguer conception of the divine, there are those for whom anything that smacks of the transcendent is just unbelievable and off-putting. And it may well be that, for them, what AA offers is couched in a form that makes it psychologically less accessible to them.

      On the other hand, I think it's worth considering whether the religious dimension--when it is accessible--enhances the transformative potential of AA. While you caricature the notion of transcendent forgiveness, the religious experience of being forgiven by God an supported by God in efforts towards self-improvement is a common one. And those who have this experience often report (a) finding it far easier to forgive themselves and (b) experiencing greater hope that self-improvement is really possible, and a concomitant capacity to persist through trials and failures. Even if you think (as I do not) that these experiences of divine love and support are based on nothing but illusion and wish-thinking, the experiences themselves may have distinctive potential for enhancing personal transformation.

      That said, it might well be possible for those who have atheistic beliefs to access transformative experiences of a similar form while remaining atheists in their belief systems. Theists will then likely say that they are being aided by God without recognizing it as such, and atheists will likely say that they are enjoying a purely subjective experience which helps "reprogram" their brains in beneficial ways.

  2. Eric-

    "... the religious experience of being forgiven by God an supported by God in efforts towards self-improvement is a common one."

    Yes, I enjoyed Tanya Luhrman's descriptions of this activity / experience.

  3. Dear Eric,

    I just discovered your website a couple of days ago and was delighted, among other things, to read your two essays on Lance and Zachary Dodes and The Sober Truth.

    I find your essays to be a breath of fresh air. I had written a review of the Dodes’ book in April for AA Agnostica and we both seem to be on the same page as far as our criticisms go. Our terminology may be somewhat different but the spirit is the same.

    Some of my friends at AA Agnostica might not have the patience to think through the theology with you regarding your discussion of grace but, if they do, they will find that “grace” can be a less threatening concept than they are used to.

    You do a nice job of separating the terminology from the concept, and then delineating two notions of grace: one that is ego-centered, ego-driven and therefore (and ironically) ego-diminishing, and the other, ego-accepting, ego-relating (“right sizing” in AA lingo) and therefore (and equally ironic) ego-enhancing (in a healthy, balanced, and “gracious” sense).

    Really, this is AA in a nutshell which you discern so well. Or, in other AA terminology — love and service, which I believe is also central to your particular religious tradition.

    I look forward to your third and final instalment.

    If anyone is interested, my review can be found here:

    1. No one seems to understand that the twelve steps are
      only suggestions, and are to be offered in a suggestive
      manner. We of AA speak of them, explain how they
      have helped us. We welcome any alcoholic who wants
      to try them, to try them. Bill W. explains in LOTH that we
      do not cram them down anyone's throat. Some may say
      "who is this Bill W.". We'll cram them if we want to. Well,
      Bill was the designer of our fellowship. We must follow
      the path to the end. attraction not promotion.