Oct 6, 2014

Alcoholics anonymous and the definition of religion

David Foster Wallace had trouble with the religious parts of 12-step recovery programs. As his biographer D.T. Max notes, the author found the aphorisms ridiculous and the simple belief in a "higher power" to be wishful thinking.

But then, Wallace might have misunderstood the nature of religious parts of the program. As the "crocodiles," the gruff recovery veterans, say in Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, "It's not about whether or not you believe, asshole, it's about getting down and asking."

Federal Appeals Court Judge Thomas J. Osowik said more or less the same thing recently in a ruling in his Ohio courtroom. His language was more suited to a court room than an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, but the point was more or less the same.

The case: A man named Johnny Miller was convicted of robbery and sentenced to "community control" in lieu of five years in prison. Court documents show a condition of that alternative sentence was mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. About six months after his sentence, Miller was caught  forging attendance records by his parole officer. The courts extended Miller's sentence of "community control," and then he sued, claiming his First Amendment rights had been violated.

The government, Miller claimed, was supporting an establishment of religion by making him attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. "It is incontrovertible," the suit said, "that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is fundamentally based on a religious concept of a higher power."

Osowick rejected the claim because AA is not about belief. It's about getting sober. That means, he said, it's not religious.

While it's true that AA and many 12-step programs include, as one of the steps, recognition of a "power greater than ourselves," it's not a program propagating that belief. According to the judge, the primary purpose of AA is not to "advance religious beliefs," but rather "to promote sobriety and recovery from addiction and substance abuse."

If the promotion of sobriety through a process of submission to a higher power isn't religious, though, and it's not about whether or not you believe, that worries the Baptists of Keithville Lake, Louisiana.

Westwood Baptist Church of Keithville Lake, Louisiana, recently barred AA from using the church building. The recovery group has been meeting at the church for about five years, but then unexpectedly got a letter saying it couldn't any more.

The letter, signed by the pastor and a minister of administration, attributes the decision to court rulings about the rights of gays and lesbians. It says,
Churches and Christian businesses alike, across our nation, are being forced, by our legal system, to accommodate these groups in the use of their buildings/facilities to perform marriage ceremonies, receptions, etc. The court's decision was based on the fact the churches and business were accepting and accommodating other public entities, and therefore must also accommodate the homosexual and lesbian community.
The church's understanding of the law and the facts of what has and hasn't happened is dubious. But beneath that questionable understanding is the defensible idea that it, as a church, is different than AA. AA is, in Westwood Baptist's language, a "public entity." Or, in Osowick's language, an organization not primarily aimed at advancing religious beliefs.

The church believes itself to be embattled, fighting to maintain a distinction between itself and secular culture. In its separatism, the church has to draw a line between the religious and the non-religious, and it came to the same conclusion about the religiousness of AA that the Ohio judge did.

For its part, AA says it's not a religion. It is open to the non-religious. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.

Also, though, the unofficial/semi-official positions seems to be that arguing about religion and religiousness and what that means and whether AA is or isn't that is not helpful in sobriety. It isn't important. It's not the point.

The late Roger Ebert, writing about his participation in AA, put it this way:
There's usually coffee. Sometimes someone brings cookies. We sit around, we hear the speaker, and then those who want to comment do. Nobody has to speak. Rules are, you don't interrupt anyone, and you don't look for arguments. As we say, 'don't take someone else's inventory.' 
I know from the comments on an earlier blog that there are some who have problems with Alcoholics Anonymous. They don't like the spiritual side, or they think it's a "cult," or they'll do fine on their own, thank you very much. The last thing I want to do is start an argument about A.A.. Don't go if you don't want to. It's there if you need it. In most cities, there's a meeting starting in an hour fairly close to you. It works for me. That's all I know. I don't want to argue with you about it.
Academics who study religion don't generally restrict "religion" in the way the Louisiana Baptist church and the federal judge recently did. "Religion" is a slippery category. If it means anything, surely it involves beliefs and advancing them. And also, surely, it involves things that aren't that.

"Religion" involves things like hope and anxiety, raising children and taking care of parents, rituals that feel meaningful and one that don't. It involves what you mean when you say something is meaningful and when you say it's not. It involves words that are said, sometimes, and sometimes words that aren't said. It can involve a sense of cosmic order. It can involve a sense that something's wrong. It can mean a self improvement regimen or submitting the self to something beyond the self in ways that aren't healthy. It can be a way of defining what's healthy. Religion is about beliefs, sometimes, and sometimes it's also a lot of things that go into that category David Foster Wallace learned about in his recovery program, where, "It's not about whether or not you believe, asshole."

Religion involves practices and proscriptions about alcohol with some frequency.

Religion, for sure, is involved in the impulse to say what religion should be and to correct those who are doing it wrong.

Some academics spend a lot of time working over, constructing and critiquing definitions. Generally, the debate about the definition and where to draw the line doesn't seem that productive. It's easy to get lost in the abstractions of category construction. At least in some cases, though, how you construct the category of "religion" does have practical consequences.

Like here: religion has been defined as being about advancing beliefs, so Alcoholics Anonymous can't meet in one Baptist church in Louisiana and one Ohio convict with a suspended prison sentence will have to keep going to meetings.