The linkages between human hallucinogenic experience and belief in a theistic god have roots that extend deeper than recorded history. The interaction is twisted and complex. At times (like with the Salem witch trials) hallucinogenic material conjures visions of evil. In the 70s it was popular to interpret sections of revelations as promoting the consumption of blotter acid. In November of 1934 Bill Wilson took massive doses of a strongly hallucinogenic drug mixture, saw what he thought was a manifestation of god, and then laid the foundation of what would become Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
In the 77 years since Bill’s big trip AA has helped millions of alcoholics and –despite their insistence on focusing only on alcohol- drug addicts recover from their active addictions. The twelve steps that Bill Wilson was instrumental in developing for AA have been adopted by numerous other self-help organizations. Collectively those groups are called “12-step groups” and cater to problems with everything from gambling addiction to a problematic propensity towards loving other humans. The 12 steps of AA contain two references to “God as we understood him” (Steps 3 and 11), two references to “God” (Steps 5 and 6), one reference to “him” (Step 7), and one reference to a “Power greater than ourselves” (Step 2); half of the steps mention god. Bill Wilson began AA by understanding god through a hot flash and a strong feeling of ecstasy mixed with serenity.
The Towns-Lambert cure for alcoholism that worked so well for Bill Wilson involved the administration of a mixture of two herbs: deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). The alkaloids in both these plants are severe digestive irritants in addition to being potent hallucinogens. The Towns-Lambert cure also contained large amounts of prickly ash bark (Zanthoxylum americanum) which was used at the time to counter the purgative effects of cholera. Dosage of the mixture was determined by administering it to the patient until their eyes dilated and they became visibly flushed. The cure required that the mixture be administered every hour –day and night- for 50 hours. The cure was considered complete when the patient’s bowels cut loose, at which time they were given large amounts of castor oil to help them “purge and puke”.
"All at once I found myself crying out, "If there is a God, let Him show himself! I am ready to do anything, anything! Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up in an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me in my mind's eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay there on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness... and I thought to myself, "So this is the God of the preachers!" A great peace stole over me." – Bill Wilson
Most people would quickly connect the huge doses of hallucinogenic drugs with the onset of a hallucinogenic experience. Bill would not try and recapture his chemically-induced spirituality for another 15 years. In 1950 he engaged in “clinically controlled” LSD experiments. He apparently liked them so much he talked many people into joining him for experiments, and may have continued them into the 1960s. The LSD may have influenced some of his later writings (through a supernatural bond with a 15th century monk named after Saint Boniface who was martyred bringing Christianity to the Frisians), but it had no effect on the initial incorporation of god into AA. By the time Bill started dropping acid regularly many other 12 step groups had begun the process of splitting off from AA. The god they would take with them was the nightshade god not the acid dream.
Perhaps even before Bill Wilson stopped attending AA meetings, and certainly before he died in January of 1971, the god of AA began undergoing a subtle change. The god became more secularized, and less definitively theistic. Today it is just as likely that an AA god will be defined as “Good Orderly Direction” or “Group Of Drunks” as “Christ who died for our sins”. AA has always been secular, but early on that operationally meant that they would even allow Catholics into their initially all-Protestant organization.
Some of the splinter groups formed from AA members adopted the 12 steps in an entirely religious setting. Any secularization was unacceptable. Though each of these numerous “Faith-based” 12-step groups probably has an interesting history they are of little and less importance in this essay.
On its official website AA advertises that: “A.A. is not a religious organization; it is not allied with any religious organization, and requires no religious belief as a condition of membership. Members include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and atheists.” Which suggests that all beliefs are equivalent to no belief in the practice of AA’s principles.
However, in the chapter titled “We Agnostics” in the central literature for AA (The “Big Book”) we get a different story. Here the unabashedly theistic AA god is described as: “an All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence” underlying everything. The chapter continues to describe an atheist's conversion to a theistic belief, and underscores how this allowed the former agnostic to find fulfilling recovery. How can an atheist not feel like a second-class member after reading this material?
Perhaps even more damning is where –later in the “Big Book”- the alcoholic is given advice on how to treat atheists: “If the man be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God. He can choose any conception he likes, provided it makes sense to him. The main thing is that he be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself and that he live by spiritual principles.”. Is this advice to lie to atheists in hopes of converting them later?
Most people who attend AA meetings are struck by the religiosity of the Lord’s Prayer which is used to end most AA meetings. To the controversy surrounding the Lord’s Prayer Bill Wilson replied: “It is also true that most AA’s believe in some kind of god and that communication and strength is obtainable through his grace. Since this is the general consensus, it seems only right that at least the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer be used in connection with our meetings. It does not seem necessary to defer to the feelings of our agnostic and atheist newcomers to the extent of completely hiding ‘our light under a bushel.”.
Thousands of atheist alcoholics have stayed sober for longer than Bill Wilson ever did. This calls into question the dogmatic requirement for a theistic conversion in order to reap the benefits Bill Wilson describes in his writings (he wrote most of the “Big Book”). Because so many atheist alcoholics entered AA because they were (even if disingenuously) offered full membership, and then stayed sober, it would appear as if the collective understanding of AA would cause it to become increasingly secular. Unfortunately AA is fused to the theistic articulations of Bill Wilson, and can only undergo a secular transformation at its edges.
Some splinter groups have been able to continue the obviously-needed secularization of the AA doctrine. Some groups even go so far as to categorically define themselves as “Not Religious” at the start of their meetings. However these splinter groups are still 12-step groups which mention god in half their steps.
There was a move in some Toronto-based AA groups to secularize the 12 steps. When the region found out what they were doing they removed mention of the meetings from their meeting lists. Once off a meeting list a meeting becomes a private group with no area support for attracting new members; in essence it is no longer an AA meeting.
What can an atheist honestly gain from any group that insists on upholding a concept of god in its central premises? Is it possible to have a concept of god that does not contain a god in it?
The god of the 12-steps is the non-existent hallucinatory god of Bill Wilson. However, this tool is credited by many as being the essential element that helped them in recovery from their active addiction. Is there anything in Bill Wilson’s god concept worth salvaging?
Addiction is a condition characterized by the obsessive use of drugs (and I mean mind-altering drugs when I say drugs in this essay). Drugs –by definition- affect the ability to reason. This places the addict in a situation where their personal reason is incapable of responsibly assisting them. The subtle workings of a disease-embolden system of self-deception actually allows the warped reason of the addict to destructively work against their own self-interest.
Few would take the screaming delusion of Bill Wilson’s 1934 encounter with god as proof of any god’s existence. Most would not have to closely examine a slobbering Bill Wilson with toxic levels of hallucinogenic plant alkaloids in his blood to realize that there might be a drug problem at work. What might be obvious from the observer’s perspective is clouded by drug-fuelled delusion in the mind of the addict.
Where can an addict get the observer’s perspective that they need? It is almost everywhere that isn’t in their mind, but who will they listen to? From the social amalgam of the addict's environment the information will come as bits and pieces from a collective set of intelligences whose parts are distinguished only by the seemingly random choice of which will be heard. This differs from a theistic god only in that it is a convenient construct designed to describe something that cannot be operationally defined, but need not -in the conventional sense- actually be real. In this case it is confusion that makes sense of the god concept rather than any god making sense out of confusion.
As the clouding dissipates (due in large part to drugs physically leaving the body) the addict can begin to focus on their personal self-deception in a more organized way. In steps 4,5, 6, and 7 the addict lists and then examines what goes on in their head. Hopefully the well-practiced mechanisms of self-deception become apparent here. By step 7 the 12-stepper has dealt with five of the six mentions of god in the 12 steps. God becomes increasingly less theistic as the addict develops a reasonable sense of self. In steps 8 and 9 the focus shifts to how the addict deals with other actual people.
11 is the last step that specifies a theistic-sounding god, but in this step the god is rather deistic in ability. The 12-stepper is instructed to pray: “only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”. For many the spiritual awakening described in step 12 was the understanding that there actually is no real god.
Drug addicts have thrown themselves off buildings because they thought they could fly. Some have drowned believing that they could breathe water. The magnitude of a delusion is no impediment to its use by a drug addict in the manipulation of their perception. As the addiction progresses it becomes harder for the drug addict to constructively tell the difference between delusion and reality. The forces that must work together for an addict to realize recovery of are indistinguishable from an interventionist god to that addict.