March 25, 2017

What Religion could Learn from 12-Step Spirituality.

I have worked in substance abuse for the better part of a decade.

I regularly lecture and give workshops on 12-step spirituality at drug and alcohol treatment centers. Often it is those of agnostic or atheistic temperament that are thought to struggle most with the spirituality of the 12-step program. But this has not been my experience.

In my experience, it is the more religiously inclined people that struggle with 12-step spirituality. This is because 12-step spirituality is action-based. Alcoholics Anonymous has no prescribed theology, no system of belief. It is a pragmatic spirituality. 

In a single AA meeting you might find a couple of Christians, a Buddhist, a Jew, maybe a Muslim, and a handful of people that identify as “spiritual but not religious.” They all believe different things but enjoy the same result: sobriety. This is because they all follow the same course of action.

A pragmatic spirituality focuses on how you believe, not on what you believe, which can be difficult to grasp if you are accustomed to propositional religion.

Evangelical Christianity is the single largest religious denomination in America, accounting for 25 percent of the total Christian population (40 percent in the South). Evangelical Christianity stresses the acceptance of certain theological propositions more than the practice of spiritual principles. It is more concerned with what you believe than it is how you believe it.

When these people try to get sober, they think they already have the spirituality angle worked out because they answer in the affirmative to all the right propositions. They already believe, and as far as they’re concerned belief is what spirituality is all about. And that is why they struggle with 12-step spirituality.

Their religiosity prevents them from seeing the obvious: “You already believe.” If the problem persisted in the face of your belief, then more of that belief cannot possibly be the solution. The 12 steps are referring to action or practice when they prescribe spirituality, not the affirmation of supernatural propositions. You can believe that Jesus Christ is the one and only son of God and still walk into a liquor store or a drug dealer’s house.

Belief is worthless unless it affects our actions. In fact, a “belief” that fails to inspire action is no belief at all.

According to Pew Research, 58 percent of Americans believe the Bible is the literal word of God. Over 80 percent of Evangelicals believe in the existence of heaven and hell. Now, think about that for a minute: There is an afterlife. You will spend eternity in either perfect bliss or unimaginable torment and God alone is the arbiter in this matter. He will weigh the balance of your life against his prescribed guidelines recorded in the Bible and assign you to eternity in either heaven or hell.

If you really believed that, wouldn’t you read the Bible cover-to-cover over and over again? Wouldn’t you consult it before every consequential decision made? But what percentage of people who claim to believe all of that have read the Bible cover-to-cover? Approximately, one-in-three Evangelicals read the Bible once a month or less, and one-in-five churchgoers say they never read the Bible. Why does a substantial portion of the people who accept those religious propositions not read the Bible more frequently?

People often do not believe what they say they believe.

At this point, we must distinguish between a belief and a thought. A thought is an unsubstantiated idea; whereas a belief is an idea we are inclined to trust based on some measure of evidence, even if we cannot prove it to be true or rationally explain our position. Belief is an idea, or network of ideas, substantiated by enough reason or experience to inspire action, though it falls short of knowledge or the state of knowing.

For example, imagine being in a strange house all alone. Late at night, your mind may start to wander. Based on nothing at all, you start thinking there is someone in the house. But you don’t call the police. Why? Because you know those thoughts are nothing more than the spontaneous ruminations of your paranoid mind.

Now imagine you heard a strange noise in the house, something that sounded like a person rummaging around. Now you have reason to believe there is someone in the house, so you pick up the phone and call the police. You are not certain. It could be a mouse, a raccoon, or the old home settling, but there is enough evidence to take action.

 That is the threshold an idea must cross to become a belief.

Most people do not actually believe—they think. Their “beliefs” are in reality unsubstantiated ideas. Such feeble “beliefs” actually prevent true believing. This is a serious problem in American religion, which is eaten up with fundamentalism. As I wrote in Finding God in the Body:

“The fundamentalist is an individual who subscribes to a system of ideas that do not belong to them. They rely upon a book or the experience of another person who relies, interestingly enough, on a book or the experience of someone else. This line of co-dependency stretches back to the source of the tradition, the owner of the original transcendent experience…Fundamentalists study books rather than using books to study themselves. They mistake myth as fact and read it like history. This inoculates religion. It says that the transcendent realm is off limits to everyone except the historical embodiment of transcendence that sits on the altar of their tradition.”   

Fundamentalists have an unwavering attachment to a set of ideas that do not belong to them and lack the potency to effect meaningful change in their lives, partly because a strong in-group dynamic is established which utilizes the mechanism of fear and the threat of ostracization to perpetuate their psychological identification with those ideas. But those ideas are not beliefs. They lack the experiential component needed to effect action.

The experiential component comes from spiritual practice. That is why practice-based spirituality is so important.

Practice can be seen as a process of experimentation, and experimentation leads to experience. Ideas, which are otherwise unsubstantiated, can be tested using spiritual practice. The truth or validity of a certain spiritual idea can be tested using prayer, meditation, and self-examination. In more religious language, you could say that practice makes us susceptible to revelation.

Once again we must pause to clarify an important issue. When I say the “truth” of an idea can be verified through spiritual practice, I do not mean, for example, that the existence of a personal God can be proven using prayer. I mean “truth” in the pragmatic sense. William James wrote, in The Meaning of Truth, “The true, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in our way of behaving.” It is also worth noting that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and the creator of the 12 steps, was deeply influenced by James.

The idea of a personal God, if properly understood and skillfully employed, can be proven effective—and therefore true in the pragmatic sense—through spiritual practice. Prayer can be used to transcend our limited, self-centered point of view and arouse courage, compassion, and sanity in the face of fear, anger, and confusion. This obviously does not prove the existence of a creator God, but it does demonstrate the truth or expediency of the belief in God.

In order for the idea of God to be transformed into a belief in God, the idea must be practiced. In Luke 6:32-34, Jesus defines practice as the application of an idea outside of our comfort zone:

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.”

In other words, practice must be demanding. There must be sacrifice. Prayer cannot be limited to periods of quiet reflection in our bedroom. It has to enter our daily life, particularly when we are angry, stressed out, and afraid. The expediency of prayer is demonstrated when we pray beyond the false-self system and reconnect with the life of the body. There we tap into the power needed to “love our enemies, do good, and expect nothing in return.” This is where we discover the truth of God, or as Jesus said, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High.”

But this is easier said than done.

Bill Wilson wrote, “Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation.” It is easy to think, but the work and sacrifice that belief requires is demanding. So we go looking for the easier, softer way. “The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

For most people, the concept of God never matures into a proper belief—an idea that orients their entire being toward the world in which they live. Instead, it remains an impotent piece of intellectual property with which they psychologically identify. This identification is a form of spiritual bypassing. It circumvents the painstaking work of transformation by plastering over fear, anger, and self-centeredness with delusion and spiritual rhetoric. But that rhetoric is empty. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

What we think and say does not matter. It is our actions that matter. When we think and talk of spiritual principles but fail to express those principles in our daily life, we betray our “true self.” This is the betrayal of Christ, the Kiss of Judas.

Spirituality is nothing if it is not the act by which we transcend the claustrophobic world between our ears and reconnect with the vastness and richness of our “true life.” Any ideas about spirituality we possess or identify with must be measured against their capacity to realize this goal. If those ideas fail to inspire action or bring about meaningful change, then they must be discarded. If they inspire us to give freely of our time and energy, to love our enemies, and shed the skin of our false-self, then these ideas must be practiced until they become a working part of our mind. That is the path of transformation.


Don’t have time to read the article or just prefer a podcast? Listen to episode 9 of the Finding God in the Body Podcast where I discuss the nature of “belief.” I talk about how belief often prevents believing and what religion can learn from the pragmatic approach to spirituality found in the 12 Steps.




Author: Benjamin Riggs

Image: Flickr/Mark Collins

Editor: Travis May


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