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Monday, December 27, 2010

Spiritual But Not Religious? What Are We Really Talking About?

How many times do we here someone describe him or herself as "spiritual but not religious?" And, how many times do we hear that A.A. (or a sister 12 Step Program) is not a "religious" but a "spiritual" program?

While the 12 Steps are decidedly a spiritual program - the point of which is to provide a "spiritual solution" to the problem of addiction which will "render the sufferer happily and usefully whole" - do the continual and repeated admonitions against 'religion' per se serve the still suffering alcoholic addict well?  Do they not foster close-mindedness when open-mindedness is one of the three prerequisite mental attitudes (along with willingness and honesty) that are essential to recovery.

It is good to remember Herbert Spencer's pointed warning at the end of the Spiritual Experience appendix in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:
"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance - that principle is contempt prior to investigation". (Emphasis added.)
I have been as guilty as any of the most recalcitrant and dogmatic of AA purists who adamantly protest that "AA is not a religious program!".  Citing our Preamble that says "A.A. is not affiliated with any sect denomination, association, political organization etc., I would self-righteously proclaim that "religion has no part in A.A.!" (Man! It feels good to be self-righteously right; particularly when you are sure you are right.)

Perhaps the uncomfortable bursting of my self-righteous bubble over the issue of 'religion' in AA is why I now try to debunk - in a reasonable and, I hope, informative manner - the myth that 'religion' has no part in a 12 Step Program.

When Bill Wilson had his famous flash-of-light spiritual awakening at Towns Hospital after Ebby had brought him through the Oxford Group's word-of-mouth program, he questioned his sanity.  Bill was somewhat reassured by Doctor Silkworth telling him he'd heard of such things before, and with great foresight urging Bill he ought to hold onto whatever it was he had experienced because "it was better than what he had before."

Ebby later returned and gave Bill a copy of William James' Varieties of Religious Experiences. Reading this book, Bill was relieved and came to understand that he had undergone a 'religious' or 'conversion' experience that had removed his alcoholic cravings and obsession.

In the whole 'spirituality versus religion' debate, it is enlightening to realize what William James meant by "religious experience." His book was about "inner" religious experiences; the deep inner reordering of thought and consciousness undergone by the deeply spiritual individuals, saints and mystics of various religious traditions. The "outer religious" traditions and sects themselves, however, with their various dogmas, rites and physical structures, were "outer" religious matters and, as such, beyond the scope of phenomena James was concerned with.

In this sense, the 12 Steps and 12 Step Recovery groups have a strongly "inner" religious concern, but are wholly unrelated to any "outer" religious sect, denomination or belief system.

The word "religious" itself is derived from the Latin re ligare, a verb that means "to tie," "to bind" or "to unite;" as in a "ligament" (which ties a muscle to a bone), or "ligatures" (the stitches which tie or bind a wound). "Religion," in the strictest sense of the word, is what re-unites or re-attaches an individual's consciousness to a deeper universal consciousness (referred to as "God-consciousness" in AA's Spiritual Experience appendix) that exists within each individual being.

This "inner religious" re-union or re-attachment to a deeper universal consciousness (i.e., a "power greater than ourselves") is the effect that the 12 Steps are designed to produce, once the seemingly unbreakable attachment to the thought streams of the ego (i.e., "the bondage of self") is severed. The means of severing this attachment to the "bondage of self" - the processes of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" urged by Bill Wilson in his Step 11 essay in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions - are, thus, strictly speaking an inwardly "religious" as well as "spiritual" methodology.

The Spiritual Experiences appendix, in fact, reassures the alcoholic addict that the "personality changes, or religious experiences" (emphasis added) that may be required as the solution to his or her addiction do not have to be "in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals," but may just as readily be of what "William James calls the educational variety because they develop slowly over a period of time."

A repeated course of "self-examination, meditation and prayer" (i.e., the application of the 12 Steps) is thus an "inner" religious path to spirituality and spiritual awakening; and distinguishing "religion" and "spirituality" is really a false dichotomy caused, in large part, by our usually (at least it was for me) prejudiced and uninformed opinion of what the actual words really mean.

As an illustration, the Hindu word for "religion" is "yoga," a word that shares the same Sanskrit root with the English word "yoke" (i.e., the wooden harness that attaches or ties the ox to the plow). Yoga is, of course the method of self-examination, meditation and prayer that many varieties or Eastern wisdom traditions advocate for reuniting the consciousness of the yogi with the godhead within which every individual and the universe exists. Yet while we constantly hear the admonition that the 12 Steps are "spiritual and not religious," there is no talk of "yoga practice" versus "spirituality.

The words we use - and the ideas we share - are important. We should ask what they mean and use them wisely; particularly when we share our experience and insights with those still suffering from alcoholism and/or addiction.

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