William James and Alcoholics Anonymous

Religious Serials & Series Articles

01-061 William James and Alcoholics Anonymous, by Fr. Robert J. Roth, S.J. AMERICA, July 10, 1965

AMERICA, JULY 10, 1965

Fr. Robert J. Roth, S.J.

On June 10, Alcoholics Anonymous celebrated the 30th. Anniversary of its founding. In order to mark the occasion, an international convention was held at Toronto, July 2-4, when delegates met to represent some 350,000 members from 12,000 groups in 90 countries throughout the world. The celebration attracted considerable attention, for the story of the origin and growth of A.A. has been told many times. The two best books on the subject are Alcoholics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (A.A. World Services. 1955, 1957).

The Toronto convention included meetings pertaining to the clergy, the medical profession, hospitals, educators, public information, the courts, industry, alcoholic agencies and A.A. itself.

But probably the most important session was a panel discussion on the question "God as We Understand Him." This should not surprise those familiar with the Twelve Steps of the A.A. program. The first three steps read as follows:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

The central place of God in Alcoholics Anonymous is, of course, widely known. I was quite surprised and intrigued, however, to learn recently that the emphasis given to God is due in large measure to the direct influence of William James, the father of American psychology and one of our most important philosophers.

It seems that when Bill W., a co-founder of A.A. was trying to fight his way back to sobriety, he happened upon a copy of James' Varieties of Religious Experiences. He read the book from cover to cover and was deeply impressed by James' "great wisdom." It helped Bill to reach the turning point in his career, and initially to completely arrest his progressive illness of alcoholism. In subsequent years, the influence of James came to be felt also in the formulation of A.A.'s basic ideas.

One could well wonder what this "great wisdom" was that has been so influential in the development of Alcoholics Anonymous, especially in its fundamental dependence on God. It was James, we know, who made pragmatism a byword in American life and thought - something for which he has been praised and dammed, depending on the point of view. In its worst sense, pragmatism has created the stereotype of the typical American as a time-server who wishes to get a job done by the most efficient means possible, whose norm of truth is what works, whose rule of value is what furthers his own aims. In the minds of many, pragmatism is scarcely distinguishable from naturalism or irreligion, and both have become synonyms for "Americanism."

To deal adequately with all the misconceptions in this picture would require an extended study. What is of primary concern here is that William James proposed pragmatism precisely as a means of enabling contemporary man to find God. Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, was actually intended as a preliminary step in this direction. In it, James undertook to examine various types of religious experience in order to see if they could give evidence for a belief in the existence of God. So absorbed did he become in describing and cataloguing experiences that the psychologist in him completely overshadowed the religious philosopher and the work became a long - though rich - sourcebook for all kinds of religious experience. It was only in a hurried chapter or two at the end that he got around to asking what conclusions could be drawn regarding God's existence.

In his Pragmatism, published in 1907, James returned to the investigation of theism. This work, to be properly understood, must be read as the biography of a scientific man in search of God. In the late 19th century, America had reached a critical period in its intellectual development. The new scientific age had burst upon Americans with startling suddenness, and those with vision could see that they stood on the threshold of the greatest period of progress the world had ever known.

Cheering though these prospects were, there were some thinkers who feared that the coming of the scientific age would mean the end of religion and belief in God.

Of these, William James was one. He pondered deeply the question how one could be a man of science and still remain a religious man. It was in attempting to answer this question that he developed his philosophy, which has since become known as pragmatism. In the spirit of the scientific age, he proposed pragmatism as an empirical method of arriving at truth but in his own mind he was convinced that if it was properly used it would lead to a belief in the existence of God. This was a preoccupation with James for many years - briefly expressed in Varieties of Religious Experience, and sharply delineated in Pragmatism.

For James, the most convincing evidence of God's existence "lies primarily in inner personal experience," and its starting point is the sense of emptiness and frustration. As a young man, he had experienced very poor health for about five or six years, and this caused him frequent periods of depression and discouragement. About the same time, he seems to have gone through a spiritual crisis, which manifested itself in a lack of motivation and purpose. Slowly he began to realize that he needed a unifying philosophy of life.

All this was brought to a focus in the sense of incompleteness that James found in the depths of his being as he looked at the world around him. In his scientific work, he was in search of a solution to the mysteries of nature. As a man of science, he was convinced that the answers were there; otherwise the world would be irrational. In the light of this conviction, he could not believe that man was to be frustrated when it was a question of the deep anguish and longing he experienced in his search for a final completion to all his hopes and aspirations.

Here we find a far different James from the one presented by critics of pragmatism. He was an American who, even while he upheld the integrity of the scientist in weighing and judging every last bit of evidence, was religious to the very core of his being. Though remaining a scientist, this man could stand before the world as one who knew human suffering and anguish, as one whose 'spirit was open to the call from the divine. James believed in a God who was "cosmic and tragic" a God in contact with the needs and the deeply human problems of mankind. With his flair for the dramatic, he pictured God as walking through the world, suffering with those in pain and weeping with those who were reduced to tears. It is small wonder, then, that an alcoholic, face to face with despair, found kinship with James as he read in Varieties of Religious Experience the account of human suffering. Sorrow, disappointment, failure, physical pain, all led James to the conclusion that "natural goods perish; riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish."

For James, human existence, even at its best, is left with an "irremediable sense of precariousness"; it is a "bell with a crack."

Perhaps more than most others, Bill W. felt the frustration and anguish consequent upon human weakness and misery. Hence he took seriously James' observation that truly transforming spiritual experiences are nearly always founded on calamity and collapse. Following through on this lesson learned from Varieties of Religious Experience, Bill W. writes:

"Complete hopelessness and deflation at depth were almost always required to make the recipient of spiritual experiences ready. The significance of all this burst upon me. Deflation at depth, yes, that was it. Exactly that had happened to me."

For Bill W. and others like him, alcoholism was the starting point on the way to God and to sobriety. Their affliction was not so much the cause of their turn to God as its occasion. For the possibility that the divine existed had occurred to them before, but now they felt they could no longer postpone or evade the question. Bill states: "We had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn't. What was our choice to be?"

Faced with this issue, alcoholics such as these come to the conviction that the world is not a cipher, aimlessly rushing nowhere, that human existence at its roots is not meaningless or absurd. They echo James' statement that sadness lies at the heart of every philosophy that tries to exclude God. If human life is to have any meaning at all, they can only conceive it as completed by a God who has in His hands the direction of the universe and the final destiny of mankind.

For an alcoholic, the move toward God is not an escape from responsibility, a concession to weakness, an excuse for laziness.

According to Bill: "We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness. Paradoxically, it is the way of strength. The verdict of the ages is that faith means courage. And men of faith have courage. They trust their God. We never apologize for God. Instead we let Him demonstrate, through us, what He can do."

The moment the alcoholic turns to God, he engages in the life-and-death struggle back to sobriety, which will mean daily sacrifice and self-denial. It will bring a change not only in his whole way of thinking but also in many aspects of his daily life.

He will have to take up again his personal and family obligations. More than that, it will mean assuming a special responsibility for his fellow man, for an important part of the A.A. program is Step Twelve, which is "to carry this message to alcoholics." Each member becomes an apostle in the original meaning of the word: one sent to others on a mission of salvation.

In this sense, the acceptance of God is, for an alcoholic, only the beginning. And yet it is everything, for it is God who integrates every aspect of his life - his joys and sorrows, hopes and ambitions - and gives them meaning and direction. And this is authentically Jamesian. In the words of Ralph Barton Perry, James' faith is both a "comforting faith" and a "fighting faith."

The first rises out of weakness and gives refuge and security.

The second springs from strength and enables the religious man to fight on with courage, hope and joy even in the face of danger and uncertainty.

This is the way such an alcoholic seeks to solve the burden of misery and sorrow that his addiction brings. He proposes it not as the way, but as a way to God. In fact, A.A. does not even require its members to accept theism if they do not wish to do so. This point had to be carefully hammered out in the early stages of the A.A. program. There were some who objected to making the acceptance of a personal God an essential condition for membership. It was finally agreed that the members could choose a "power greater than ourselves," even if A.A. itself was this "higher power."

Most alcoholics, however, come to believe in and depend on a Higher Power, which they call God, even though each one is free to decide for himself what God will mean to him. In almost every case, full recovery from alcoholism has depended on this all-important faith. God "as we understood Him" has become the cornerstone of the whole movement. Usually the alcoholic comes to believe in a personal God who is deeply concerned with the needs and the aspirations of men.

At the 30th anniversary celebration in Toronto this July, a panel discussed the question of "God as We Understand Him," to show once again that belief in a Higher Power is essential to the program. Represented in the audience were a variety of experiences, many of which were probably never envisioned and certainly not discussed by William James in his account of religious experience.

Yet James would have felt at home there, for he would have understood and appreciated those experiences as well as the problems they raised. He would certainly have recognized as his own the solution of the problems, for it finds expression in his belief that "where God is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution are not the absolutely final things."

Both William James and Alcoholics Anonymous are convinced that this fact is due not to God alone, but also to what God can do through us.


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