In the age of Big Data, I am beginning to believe we’ve discovered our own version of Sacred Scripture. It’s not written by “sages” in the traditional sense but by expert social scientists, whose polling and demographic research uncover the attitudes and trends that shape us. In this most bizarre election year, who among us hasn’t been riveted to oracular pollsters with new insights about whether we will be “Stronger Together” or we will “Make America Great Again” on Election Day?
For America readers, this fixation most likely applies to research on religious affiliation and practice. A recent Public Religion Research Institute study, “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back,” contains grim statistics about the ever-growing religiously unaffiliated population. These so-called nones constitute the single largest “religious group” in the country (25 percent); among those 18 to 29, they number nearly 40 percent.
The study included interviews about why respondents left their childhood religion. The top three reasons were: no longer believing in their religion’s teachings (60 percent), lack of family religious practice as children (32 percent) and negative religious teachings about gays and lesbians (29 percent).
This data can be disheartening, and some may even wonder, “How can we reverse this trend?” While those are understandable reactions, perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.
The truth is that institutional affiliation has been in decline across the board for decades. This affects not simply religion; people are also not affiliating with political parties, civic organizations and societal institutions like marriage.
Are these institutions doomed? Is our communal life irrevocably dead? Has postmodern man/woman transcended the needs once met by these institutions in favor of an atomized existence? I would argue that the relationship to these communities is not dead but changed and that there is insight to be found here by looking at what I believe is our nation’s greatest contribution to religious thought: the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Skeptical readers—not to mention A.A. members—will counter that A.A. is expressly not a religion, and they would be correct. The genius of A.A. is that it is a proto-religious fellowship in which people in desperate need somehow rediscover the fire of a foundational miracle.
A.A.’s meeting rooms are where postmodern men/women gather regularly, not because they are “supposed to” but because it is a matter of survival. The miracle they rediscover there is that by telling their own story of brokenness and listening to others’ stories they are somehow moved toward healing. It is a communion of people who recognize that in moving beyond themselves and serving others they find greater peace and wholeness. Sounds a lot like church to me.
Core to that experience is the fundamental insight underpinning the 12 steps that I believe is best summed up by the realization, “I am not God.” This is the urtext of any authentic adult religious journey because it compels us to ask the questions: Who is God? Where is God? What is God? Is there a God?
One of the co-founders of A.A., Bill Wilson, put it starkly: “We must find some spiritual basis for living, else we die.” His co-founding partner, Dr. Bob, framed it in terms of mutual sharing. “The spiritual approach was as useless as any other if you soaked it up like a sponge and kept it to yourself.”
In other words, you don’t do God alone. The program these two self-described “drunks” founded began with their meeting in Akron, Ohio, one day in May 1935. Since then their fellowship has grown from two active members to 2.1 million today in 181 countries around the world.
In the A.A.-inspired The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum frame it this way: “Those wrestling with spiritual dilemmas do not need answers but presence—permission to confront the dilemma and struggle with it aloud.”
Sounds a lot like Pope Francis’ vision of “the church as a field hospital after battle.”