Religious Bias In The New NA Literature -- An Insider's View
by Clifton John Walker
March 31, 1992
Reprinted with permission from
Journal of Rational Recovery; all rights reserved.
1. We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
Most Narcotics Anonymous members are quick to point out that NA is "a spiritual, not a religious program." At each NA meeting someone recites, "Anyone may join us, regardless of ... religion or lack of religion." The book Narcotics Anonymous tells us, "At some point, we realized that we needed the help of some Power greater than our addiction. Our understanding of a Higher Power is up to us. No one is going to decide for us. We can call it the group, the Program, or we can call it God....We don't have to be religious to accept this idea" (page 24). In NA, we take it for granted that we don't need to believe in God to work the program. I think the proposed new Steps and Traditions book may change all that.
It Works: How and Why, due in 1994, assumes that all NA members believe in God, leaving no room for other belief systems. It professes a very specific understanding of God, affecting those Steps that, on the surface, have nothing to do with God. It is difficult to explain bias like this to people who believe in God and who follow the popular understanding of the Steps; but to those who believe differently, this bias can stand out like a sore thumb.
The latest draft reveals a pronounced lack of sensitivity to the diversity reflected in NA's membership. Every reference to higher power appears to mean only one thing: God. As a concession, they substitute some occurrences of the word God with phrases like "Higher Power" and "Power greater than ourselves." Why bother!? In each case, without exception, they are talking about a personal, omnipotent deity. Other views of higher power cannot easily be reconciled with the ideas presented here.
The new literature presupposes a God with a set of standards that we cannot possibly meet. We appear to owe our happiness, our recovery, and our very existence to Him; consequently, we owe Him our loyalty, reverence, submission, and obedience. In other words, as long as we practice humility toward Him, our relationship with Him will be okay. We will be fulfilled, and somehow (this book says), we will not return to active drug addiction. People who believe in God should find this book very useful.
The religious bias goes much deeper than the descriptions of God. The meaning of each Step conforms to a single view of higher power -- a "loving God." Obviously, a nonbeliever will deal differently with the direct references to God, but what about the Steps that do not refer to God? Let's examine this book's theocentric interpretation of the first three Steps.
With God in the picture, Step One changes from a simple admission to an act of surrender. The exaggerated idea of complete personal powerlessness promotes, among believers, a stronger need to rely on God; however, a person who accepts the message of personal powerlessness but then rejects the doctrine of the saving grace of God is in big trouble. They may conclude that they are powerless to change. When this happened to me, I did not seek recovery again for six years.
For me, Step One was simply the recognition of my drug problem and admission of my need for change. Contradicting the idea of complete powerlessness, the Serenity Prayer encourages us "to change the things we can." Step One continues to be a positive and motivating reminder to keep drugs out of my body.
In Step Two, this book characterizes recovering addicts as utterly incompetent individuals, conspicuously in need of a firm guiding hand in all areas of our lives. The most vivid examples include the counsel to follow a sponsor's suggestions and to follow the advice heard in meetings. The book says nothing about first examining the advice to see if it makes sense. It says that "addicts staying clean is compelling proof of the existence of a [Higher] Power," and tells us to "pray, even if we don't believe."
It Works never comes close to describing my experience: that we are people with drug problems who simply need some help. I had to be shown that complete abstinence is entirely possible, and is the only solution to a drug problem. I used positive examples to help germinate and maintain my desire to stop using. People taught me some tricks to staying clean. I had to stop isolating to look at the bigger picture. Only by dealing with others can I adjust my attitude, learn coping skills, and develop self-esteem. This is interdependence, and I learned it by working Step Two in a manner that seems realistic to me.
The Step Three commentary admonishes us to admit just how thoroughly self-centered we are. Any attempt to do things "on our own" is connected to our struggle "to force things to go as we want" in "fruitless attempts to control everyone and everything" -- as if symptomatic of our rebellion against the authority of God. Our inability to become perfect and our unwillingness to surrender is contrasted against God's perfect goodness.
Since the goal, here, is an admittedly unattainable "perfect harmony with God's will," we can never expect to complete Step Three. "It is a decision we can make perfectly, but not live by perfectly." By saying this, we could rob ourselves on much needed dignity and degrade the integrity of the Steps. But, the book says, "without a willingness to make this decision [to allow God to work in our lives], there is no chance for recovery."
As a nonbeliever, I simply cannot, in all honesty, work these Steps as described. Step Three was symbolic of a decision to change my outlook on life. I trust the natural healing process and allow my thoughts (my will) and my actions (my life) to begin reflecting this trust. As a bonus, I can work this Step completely because trusting the natural process (and doing all I can to aid that process) does not require any sense submission, surrender, obedience, or any quest for perfection.
I don't know what to say to the NA Literature Committee. They appear to follow the will of a representative majority that precludes people who left the program because of the emphasis on God. If NA accepts the challenge to develop literature that can benefit a wider variety of readers, they will need to throw this book away and start over from scratch. Frankly, I don't expect this to happen.
Clifton John Walker
Quotes in the first paragraph are from Narcotics Anonymous pages 43, 9, and 24 respectively.
Other quotes are taken from the review draft of It Works: How and Why (Steps 1-6).