Mike the Mad Biologist

God Is a Doorknob?

I recommend Christine Wicker’s The Fall of the Evangelical Nation. In it, she describes one of the most devastating forces to hit modern fundamentalism (yes, that’s oxymoronic)…

Alcoholics Anonymous. Consider:

The single best time to convert an adult has always been when he’s down and out. He hits bottom; God steps in. Any of “the big D’s” will do it. It might be drink, it might be drugs, it might be divorce, it might be death, it might be disaster. A sinner riding high is not looking for Jesus. He’s got to be knocked down so hard that he knows he can’t get up on his own.

For about two thousand years, for your average Western screwup the only help available was divine. And then along came two Christian men whose souls burned with a desire to help the suffering. The were responsible for the biggest shift in Western spirituality in the last one hundred years. Their program rarely makes the headlines, and when it does, no one quite seems to understand what a radical change it has fostered. With hearts full of Christian love, they decimated traditional Judeo-Christian ideas about how God works.

They wrote “the Big Book”, which became the basis for Alcoholics Anonymous and all other twelve-step programs of recovery. Millions of Americans–drunks, druggies, divorcees and divorces, even the bereaved–have taken those programs and been healed…. But twelve-step programs made one critical change in Christian ideas. They switched from God to a “Higher Power” of each person’s own understanding, which doesn’t necessarily mean any god anyone else has ever seen or thought of. This Higher Power, this made-up god, has healing force that had previously been reserved only for known gods. Sometimes twelve-step leaders, in trying to explain how loose this new concept, will say, “That doorknob could be your god.”

And here is the critical part: this doorknob god works wonderfully….if they put reliance on Something–no details needed–and then add twelve steps that are psychologically and morally sound, mostly based on treating yourself and others well, they are on their way to recovery. Make public confession part of it. Then add a group that supports the recovery… Make sure people gather together frequently to share their stories–that is, testimonies. Do all these things, and you can get amazing results….

The most insidious thing about the twelve-steps concept was that it didn’t oppose anything. It helped people. It worked. And it slowly exposed people to the notion that they could get the power of God without the dogma, the doctrine, and the outdated rules. Without the church, in fact. It was a kind of mini-Reformation, cutting out yet another middleman between ordinary people and God. Only it wasn’t just the pope being eliminated this time. It was the preacher and the Bible and tradition.

I’m not sure that I would say this is achallenge to Judeo-Christian beliefs, since many Jews, for a long time, have had non-fundamentalist views of God (e.g., Maimonides; here’s a modern take too). Still, it’s very interesting.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    July 27, 2008

    I think a lot of people unthinkingly use “Judeo-Christian” in place of “Christian”, not being aware that the phrase is a quite insidious piece of rightwing framing.

  2. #2 Rose Colored Glasses
    July 27, 2008

    The 12-step program reduces to giving up trying to fix yourself, turning to Doorknob for help, and then taking on Doorknob’s job of deciding how to fix you, then doing Doorknob’s work in fixing yourself, and, thanks to Doorknob not actually doing anything ever along the way, you never need to feel you should feel grateful to Doorknob. Religion doesn’t work, but here the pretense of religion seems to do some people some good. At least they know they’re pretending, which is why they don’t take their Doorknob too seriously.

    This has a parallel in the patient who entrusts his treatment to his therapist, then takes charge of the therapy, works out his own treatment, and improves himself.

    The difference? Doorknob is much cheaper, but the chairs are less comfy.

  3. #3 John McKay
    July 27, 2008

    The single best time to convert an adult has always been when he’s down and out.

    This sounds like those real estate seminars that tell the wannabe millionaires to look for “motivated” sellers, which means the tell them to prey on the desperate.

  4. #4 Steve
    July 27, 2008

    Yeah, I called bullshit on AA when I first heard the guy tell me “this isn’t a Christian organization.” Technically, he wasn’t lying, but only technically.

  5. #5 Paul Murray
    July 27, 2008

    “And here is the critical part: this doorknob god works wonderfully”

    Um, actually, it doesn’t. No better than trying to go sober without a bogus self-help organisation. And the organisation is a cult: it tells members that since alcoholism is a disease, they will be battling it forever. Like all religions, it attempts to claim mind-share: each day you have to do the AA thing and remind yourself that you’ll always be an alcoholic and it’s only by the grace of the AA that you are kept daily from falling into the abyss.

    Works rather like those zombienet computer viruses, actually.

  6. #6 Mark
    July 28, 2008

    As the resident cult member here I figured I’d throw my two cents in…

    I’m an alcoholic who has been in recovery for just over six months now. My first experience with AA was back in January when I was admitted to an inpatient detox facility. I had stopped drinking abruptly two days before and the resulting withdrawal sent me to the doctor and from there to the hospital. Since getting out I have been attending AA meetings almost daily. I had many of the same reservations as some of the commenters here, being an atheist and naturally squeamish about the whole higher power deal. I still am not always in 100% agreement with all of the AA “doctrine” (few AA members I know are), but I now realize that most of the knee jerk reactions to anything with the slightest whiff of spirituality were completely unfounded. If AA is a cult, it’s surely a pretty poorly thought out one with the whole choose your own god part. In fact everything about AA is the complete antithesis of fundamentalism, as is the subject of the original post.
    As for the efficacy of AA and other 12-step programs, shades of denialism creep in with the highly selective inclusion of some studies which fail to demonstrate positive results without explanation of other studies which do indicate effectiveness. The inherent problem with trying to measure the efficacy of AA is the anonymous part, which makes it impossible to conduct impartial, controlled studies. But regardless of the effectiveness of 12-step programs, the fact that addiction is a disease is recognized by the AMA and some form of treatment is necessary. If you don’t think AA is the correct treatment, I’m willing to hear suggestions on what would be better.

  7. #7 Immunologist
    July 30, 2008

    My daughter became addicted to a controlled substance, nearly flunked out of school, and spent a year in some pretty expensive private therapy. After the therapy she started with AA. She is very dedicated about going to meetings, and actually will go to some trouble to find and attend daily wherever she is. In common with some of the other commenters, and as a committed atheist, I had concerns about the apparent religiosity of the 12 steps, the higher power, and all that. I can only say that she’s been clean and sober for over 4 years, exhibits no spiritual or religious sentiments that I can detect, and has even been able to help a few others in the program through some rough times. And, unlike a cult, they make absolutely no demands on her at all…not for money or time or anything else. It’s all voluntary, and note there are no quotes around voluntary. My impression of the whole thing is very much like the one expressed by Mike, above. I can’t speak to the overall effectiveness of such programs. All I can say is that, for her, it’s been a very good thing indeed, and I’m thankful for that.

  8. #8 JoshK
    August 8, 2008

    @Mark & Immunologist

    Note: if it works for you, cool; stick with it and ignore the rest of my post.

    Take a look at anything by Stanton Peele or Albert Ellis. Or google “non-12 step recovery” and see what comes up.

    My biggest complaint with 12-step programs is the insistance that they are the only way to succeed: you will not get a reference to any other resource or technique that might apply to your situation. If it works for you and yours, great! If it *doesn’t* work for you, though, you’re pretty much screwed. The prescription for an AA failure is more AA, not an alternate treatment.

    When I was in it, I didn’t view it as a cult. I do now. It is self-referencing, isolating, woo-based, and requires both a lifetime commitment and missionary work.

    Oh, it might be benign (like a lot of woo is benign), unless you’re one of the people it doesn’t work for…then it becomes actively harmful to your sobriety.

    Just look at step one: before god can heal you, you have to undermine your own confidence in being able to live a sober life. “Admitted we were powerless…”

    Basic psychology says psyching yourself out dramatically reduces your chances that you’ll succeed, right? Is it a wonder that relapse rates are what they are, when this is the very first principle learned?

    *shrug*

    Just take a look at Peele/Ellis if you end up in a rough patch with AA and see what he says, or check out Secular Sobriety. None of those references is actively anti-AA (as I kinda am after my treatment by the organization) and they point out some of the benefits of such organizations, as well at the pitfalls.

  9. #9 Mark
    August 8, 2008

    Thanks for the info Josh. I certainly would be interested in organizations like secular sobriety. To be honest, it’s mostly the widespread prevalence of AA that makes it attractive to me. Having such a large support network kind of outweighs the negatives, but I might check out some of Stanton Peele’s books. I’m definitely going to stay on the sobriety course rather than attempt any controlled use, but it looks like he might have some worthwhile stuff to say.

  10. #10 JoshK
    August 8, 2008

    No worries, Mark! And gratz on six months!

    Peele actually recommends support groups and therapy; the issue isn’t one (according to him) of “therapy and AA don’t work” but “therapy and AA help, but not for the reasons they think they do”.

    The man isn’t a crank, though there are plenty in the field. :)

    Of his books, 7 Tools to Beat Addiction is the one I found the most useful. He’s not cookbooking recovery, mind you, just injecting some well annotated science into the process.

  11. #11 Kenneth Shaw
    March 6, 2009

    I just wanted to say that I started all this GOD-doorknob stuff and still think it’s hillarious. I was making a point to some real dipwads at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I asked them if their ‘doorknob’ was gonna make them feel any better about stuff like selling their bodies on the streets or raising their children in some roach-infested crack den. A prostitute got mad and huffed on out the door. Some dipwad went home and bragged his God was a doorknob duh-huh. This all is hillarious as that guy is stupid. It all started when I picked up the bible and started reading Revelation. I kinda felt like the guy on the white horse, of course I’m not. Could the blood he’s stained with be from the addicts that has suffered alive and dead? The sword that comes out of his mouth, could that be words that are so suggestive as to make one kill themselves? They say in meetings that they hear God talking to them. I know I’ve made them say that before, but this guy is not me I can assure you.

  12. #12 big
    September 4, 2009

    Any of “the big D’s” will do it. It might be drink, it might be drugs, it might be divorce, it might be death, it might be disaster. A sinner riding high is not looking for Jesus.

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