True Believers Anonymous
About the author: A former Protestant seminarian and ex-Roman Catholic, Barrett Evans is an agnostic who has retained a fascination with non-supernatural contemplative practices. He holds graduate degrees in divinity and counseling from an evangelical seminary and has also taken graduate coursework in religion at Wake Forest University. His book The Contemplative Skeptic is an exploration into the benefits of combining doubt with a non-supernatural, contemplative way of being. A short account of Barrett’s journey can be found here at americannone.com
Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for lost faith in ourselves. —Eric Hoffer (1898-1983), The True Believer
The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been widely utilized due to their perceived effectiveness in helping many people struggling with alcohol addiction. As exemplified by the AA Agnostics of the San Francisco Bay Area, those who are skeptical of a “Higher Power” have even utilized the framework in a slightly modified and non-religious form.
Interestingly enough, some psychologists have noticed a parallel between alcohol addiction and compulsive religious thoughts and behaviors. While I am not a licensed mental health professional myself, I have found that reworking the 12 Steps to address harmful religious experience can be a thought-provoking and even liberating exercise.
Recognizing that a problem exists is an essential part of the traditional 12-step program in AA. In the realm of dogmatic religion, an analogous recognition would involve admitting that devotion to a particular faith community or dogmatic perspective was causing significant, personal harm. Likewise, AA requires complete honesty—and so too the religious “addict” should give a frank acknowledgment of when fears of divine wrath or social rejection have taken precedence over cognitive congruence or psychological well-being. Finally, AA encourages an open acknowledgment of individual limitations and weaknesses. And so, the “true believer” should be encouraged to ask whether confident belief in certain ancient miracle stories or in any particular set of widely disputed, unverifiable, and speculative metaphysical doctrines is either realistic or commensurate with a finite and fallible human nature.
A 12-Step Program for Religious Addiction
We admitted that we had become powerless over a certain religious perspective or community, even while recognizing the harm it was doing to us.
We recognized that there were resources and people that could help us consider better and more helpful ways of thinking and acting.
We decided to both admit our personal fallibility and to still trust that being open and genuine is the best approach.
We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, our cognitive abilities, and our capacity to make reliable speculative metaphysical determinations and extra-sensory perceptions about divine leadings.
We admitted to ourselves without reservation, and to another human person, that despite the internal psychological pain and the friction it could cause with others, we needed to have the courage to make a change.
We acknowledged our defects of character and our unrealistic claims to know speculative conjectures about the divine and the metaphysical. We were ready to accept help from “unorthodox” books and “heretical” people—as long as their counsel seemed both objectively true and personally helpful to the best of our knowledge and understanding.
We humbly and with openness sought to give up our religious addiction.
We made a list of all persons we had harmed by evangelism or other forms of religious manipulation. We became willing to make amends to them all if and when appropriate.
We made direct amends to such people if and when appropriate, except when to do so would injure them or others.
We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong about some aspect of a religion (or didn’t know if we were right or wrong), promptly admitted it. We sought neither to demonize nor glorify religious people or human religious experience in general.
We sought through reflection, study, and meditation to improve our contact with reality, understanding that it is proper to admit when we don’t know or can’t comprehend things.
Having had an “awakening” as the result of these steps, we tread with care when trying to communicate our new perspective to others, never forgetting our own ability to err and our own never-ending process of learning. We recognize the fact that different approaches work for different people, and that attempting to force perspectives on others is often both disrespectful and unhelpful.
Sources: This blog content is adapted from a chapter in The Contemplative Skeptic; additional sources are cited in the book. (A slightly different adaptation of this chapter previously ran on Recovering from Religion at patheos.com.)