Our Own Conception
March 2020 | Puzzled

Our Own Conception

A member raised in the “Bible belt” feels that religious beliefs are better left outside of meetings

The worst five years of my drinking, as well as my last drink, all occurred in the north part of South Carolina. For those not familiar with the area, it’s not only part of the “Bible belt,” it’s the buckle. I’ve lived in cities where there are bars on all four corners of every intersection. The part of South Carolina where I lived is like that, except it has churches at every intersection. 

When I was very much a newcomer, with only a month or two sober, I arrived early at my home group one afternoon to make coffee. One of our old-timers was there and we happily chatted while I rinsed the pots, poured the grounds and otherwise made myself busy. In a very matter-of-fact way, this old-timer assured me that my only hope lay in turning my life over to the care of his “Lord and savior” and in welcoming that figure into my heart.

My heart sank. I’d tried his ways and his religious ideas years before. Nothing changed. I finished making the coffee and sat through the meeting, biting my tongue the whole time. I wanted to know how many newcomers this man had harmed by spreading a message that had nothing to do with AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. I wondered if he’d ever read the part of Bill’s story in the Big Book where Ebby asked of Bill, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”

By some grace I’ll never understand, the Fellowship restored to me the kind of hope this older gentleman had so casually crushed. I was lucky that two people who were not members of my home group, but who regularly showed up, attended meetings at different times that week. 

One person was—and still is—an atheist. He had around 25 years sober at the time. The other was—and still is—a Buddhist nun. She had only slightly less time than the atheist. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’m fairly certain neither of them has turned their will and life over to that man’s Higher Power or welcomed him into their hearts.

Don’t get me wrong. I have many friends who profess the same religious beliefs as that man who nearly ended my sobriety. They just don’t feel it necessary to proselytize to newcomers. They go out of their way to avoid talking about their religious beliefs in AA settings. They tend to lead newcomers instead to the line in our Big Book where Bill wrote, “Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him.”

In the time I’ve been sober, I’ve found that the language used in our Big Book and by our founding members may not be welcome to the more secular members like me. Words like “God” and the capitalized pronouns “Him” and “He” and other religious terms get in the way of our understanding, even when the person trying to communicate these ideas has clearly told us that they’re not talking about a specific interpretation of those words. 

When I use the word “God” for instance, I’m not referring to the biblical idea of God, nor am I referring to the old-man-in-a-robe that I envisioned as a child. More than that, I won’t say. It’s not my place to let my ideas get in the way of anyone. We must all find our own conception, however inadequate.

The General Service Office of the United Kingdom has a pamphlet titled, “The God Word.” At the end of the introduction to that pamphlet is the following: “Whatever you do, please don’t let someone else’s religious beliefs prevent you from finding the solution that is available to you through Alcoholics Anonymous.” The North American General Service Office, representing and serving AA in the U.S. and Canada, recently adopted this pamphlet at the request of the General Service Conference. 
It is my hope that each of us remember our Fifth Tradition: “Each Alcoholics Anonymous group ought to be a spiritual entity having but one primary purpose—that of carrying its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” Our primary purpose, in other words, is to help the newcomer to undertake our way of life, based on the actions described in our book and supplemented by our sponsors, home groups and active service work. Our purpose is not to proselytize.

It’s been more than seven and a half years since that day I spoke to that man at my home group. I still have the same sobriety date I did then, as do the Buddhist nun and the atheist. To this day, I’ve never found it necessary to seek that particular lord the old-timer tried to sell. I took the Steps with the aid of a sponsor like any other AA member and I got the results promised in the Big Book in the Third, Fifth, Ninth and Tenth Steps. 

My family life is more beautiful and peaceful than at any time in my life prior to sobriety. I’m a productive employee at work, my home is clean and well-maintained, my car is properly registered and insured and I’m properly licensed. 

I’ve gone from a grand total of one friend in the world on the day before my sobriety date, to having so many that I couldn’t possibly count them all. I’ve sponsored a handful of men and several of them are doing well and carrying our message to others. Life has had its ups and downs, but the simple reality is that I wouldn’t trade anything I have today for anything I had eight years ago. This universe has been kind to me and the harder I try to repay my debt to it, the further behind I find myself. I kind of like it that way.

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