The Hope For Some Kind of Sinners Anonymous

Better late than never: This past week I came across a remarkable (and remarkably witty) […]

David Zahl / 3.3.15


Better late than never: This past week I came across a remarkable (and remarkably witty) article by Helen Rittelmeyer Andrews, published last January, on the subject of “AA Envy” that seems almost ripped from the pages of Grace in Addiction. Andrews explores why Alcoholics Anonymous gets a free pass in contemporary society when pretty much every other organization/movement that talks openly about “moral failure” and abstention from traditional vices inspires ridicule, contempt or indifference–at least in elite metropolitan circles. Indeed, if NY Times articles like this one are to be trusted, then the inventories and amend-making and low-as-you-can-go anthropology (and monergistic soteriology!) espoused by the 12 Step world grow more unfashionable with each passing year. Yet somehow AA stands apart, widely respected and near-unassailable. I mean, even HBO’s Girls has been giving the Friends of Bill props this season! This despite the fact that, as Andrews so astutely points out, the resonances with certain forms of historical Christianity are downright uncanny.

While I wonder if AAs themselves might take issue with some of the moral language here–Andrews thankfully acknowledges that the organization’s self-understanding has more to do with survival than rectitude (even if they look the same from the outside)–still, the analysis of why AA enjoys (and will continue to enjoy) exemption is both spot-on and deeply encouraging, and her conclusion re: the church knocked me off my feet. All I can offer is a hearty AMEN:

A Sex Addicts Anonymous sobriety chip and a True Love Waits promise ring mean exactly the same thing—The bearer has given it a lot of thought and ultimately decided it would be a bad idea to sleep with you—but only one of them will successfully call a moral halt to an attempted cocktail bar pick-up.

Why this special treatment for twelve-step programs? Because all the other moral languages in which modern Americans are fluent, the languages that sound so inspiring and correct when talking about politics, turn useless in the face of addiction. Trying to analyze addiction-like behavior with the tools of modern liberalism—ideas like consent, personal choice, scientific evidence, or better education—is like trying to put a key in a combination lock. These concepts cannot account for the behaviors that make twenty-first-century Americans feel ashamed of themselves, which is why we can’t stop grasping at A.A. jargon…


So what exactly is the nature of this system that has everyone so transfixed? It should surprise no one, given its genealogy and its particular popularity with the post-religious, that A.A. could fairly be described as Christianity with certain bits left out and other custom-designed bits thrown in. It has jettisoned enough of Christianity that its secular admirers don’t have an allergic reaction but kept enough that their God-starved souls get a taste of what they’re hungering for. At least that’s how a Christian might put it. An atheist would say that A.A. has torpedoed Christianity’s silly parts and rendered religion basically sensible, provided that your idea of a Higher Power is sufficiently abstract and you think of prayer as a form of meditation. Either way, it seems clear that the very things your average David Foster Wallace fan likes most about A.A. are the things he hates about organized religion: the admission of powerlessness, the submission to authority, skepticism about the value of thinking for yourself, and the rote repetition of phrases that to an outsider seem facile or sentimental…

Molly Monahan used to think she was just a nice nun who drank too much. Then she joined A.A.—an unusual step for a nun, though not as unusual as you might think. As she describes it in her memoir Seeds of Grace, she found in A.A. many of the practices she was drawn to in convent life but which had been swept away by Vatican II: “weekly confession, the daily examination of conscience, or the ‘examen,’ practiced by me twice daily as a young nun,” and the emphasis on personal salvation rather than “social concerns like poverty, racism, hunger, and homelessness.” Monahan doesn’t say it, but her reflections leave the reader wondering whether A.A. hasn’t preserved the spirit of Christianity better than some churches have.


Whether fairly or unfairly, churches have developed a reputation for being quick to judge. Secular Americans have the vague idea that if they were to admit their faults to a group of churchgoers, a gang of old biddies would start shooing them out the door with great whacks of their pocketbooks. A.A., on the other hand, has somehow managed to uphold strict moral expectations while still reassuring the public that they really mean it when they say that the only requirement for membership is a sincere desire to stop drinking. This despite the protestations of the churches that Mark 2:17 (“It is not the healthy who need a doctor”) is their line.

It must also be admitted that A.A. has comported itself better than many religious denominations in the face of the skepticism of our age. When taunted by the New Atheists, for example, Christians do not always maintain the serene dignity for which their religion’s saints have such a reputation. A.A. members tend to respond to similar taunts with less sputtering and more shrugging. The source of this attractive equanimity is the knowledge, often from experience, that without the program they will die, so anyone else can think what they like. Technically Christians need their own program just as desperately, but for some reason they’re still more likely to get defensive about it.

Cribbing from A.A.’s playbook doesn’t get you fellowship, and the person whose addictions are non-alcoholic is left wishing there were some kind of support group for them. Some kind of—Sinners Anonymous. It would be contrary to the spirit of One Day at a Time to make sweeping predictions, but that may be how the story of our collective A.A. envy ends: with the lost children of the post-religious world realizing that the very things that inspire such longing when glimpsed through church basement windows can also be found one floor up.

p.s. Stay tuned for the audio/video from JAZ’s session on Addiction from the recent Liberate conference, which covers a lot of similar ground. Should be available next week!

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4 responses to “The Hope For Some Kind of Sinners Anonymous”

  1. em7srv says:

    Thanks for this post…it’s like being friends with a couple who fail to realize they are ideally suited for one another. My AA friends can completely miss the narrative that the church ‘should’ be telling and the church misses the narrative that AA nails in regards to human anthropology. Come on people, get a room! 🙂

  2. Conor says:

    Woah. Fantastic.

  3. What the 12-step programs nail, and the church seems to have all but forgot, is that faith is all about trying to survive while helping others do the same. They lift you up, you lift them up. When you’re doing that you know full well that a compact bag of institutional creeds and confessions is useless. So what’s the point of arguing about who’s right?

  4. Stefan Awad says:

    Wow, this article crushed!! Thanks for sharing.

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