I have long been baffled by people who cannot separate God from morality. I’m talking about those people for whom the two are so inextricable from each other that they don’t see how someone without God could possibly have any sense of morality at all. These are the ones who ask – with every intention of being rhetorical — “If you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from murdering someone?” So many pathologies and logical leaps can be teased out of that question that one could write a book – and many have.

The other day (Sunday), I was reading Amanda Marcotte’s “Sunday Sermon” (read it all) on her awesome blog, Pandagon, and she opened by expressing the same bafflement:

One of the long-standing claims of pro-religionists is that without religion, there is no morality. It’s a startling claim, for a couple of reasons. The first is that they’re essentially saying that you must lie to people about a god watching in order to get them to behave, which already puts the moral system on the shaky ground of being immoral in and of itself. It’s a claim that strikes atheists and liberal religious types as unlikely, because we experience morality as coming primarily from the inside. You don’t strike other people when angry, even when you could get away with it, because hitting is wrong and disturbs you.

I’m perfectly content not caring whether there is a god or isn’t. I really don’t care. I don’t rule it out, but it doesn’t matter to me. In my personal cosmology, it’s best not to worry about it. What’s true is that it’s a damn, creepy lie that god busies himself by sniffing everyone’s panties.

What really got me thinking was her next sentence:

But maybe they’re telling the truth. Maybe many conservative types would have a hard time being moral without a series of endless rules to teach them not to be dangerous and evil.

If you go to the Fundies Say The Darndest Things blog, you’ll see that she’s correct. Anyway, she goes on to make the connection between “conservative types” and authoritarian types, and offers a very relevant (to Stinkin’ Thinkin’) quote by Sara Robinson on the blog Orcinus:

First, as a kid in this [authoritarian] kind of household, you learn that your thoughts and feelings are untrustworthy — and furthermore, that people in authority are not the least bit interested in your internal life, only in your external behavior. Stop crying. Don’t give me any excuses. I don’t want to hear any more from you. Just do what I tell you — now. Or else. The message is that you can trust the rules, tradition, The Good Book, the boss, the preacher, or Daddy to tell you what’s right; but you should never ever trust your own instincts or thought processes. This pretty effectively inhibits the development of your own internal authority.

In her post, Robinson continues:

Second, you learn that you’re not entitled to have any physical or emotional boundaries. The authorities have an unlimited right to intrude on your thoughts, feelings, personal space, and even your body perimeter at any time, for any reason. You are not your own; you entire being is at the mercy of those set by God to rule over you. You must trust that whatever they do, they do for your own good — even if the reasons aren’t clear to you right now, and in fact may never be explained to you. They know best. Just go with that.

Third, you learn that the Authority is the Authority no matter what. It doesn’t matter if Dad is abusive or Mom is manipulative or Grandpa gets drunk and molests you. Lakoff observed that conservative families define “family” as a dramatic set piece requiring people to take on and fulfill an ensemble of traditional roles; and they hold those roles absolutely sacred. The office of “Grandfather” is inherently demanding of respect, even when the person holding that office is a drunken pervert. You are out of line to question the behavior of your betters, even when their behavior is beyond questionable. He is in authority over you, and it’s not your place to object to how he chooses to deploy that authority. So hush now. I don’t want to hear another word against your Grandpa.

I can’t be bothered to list all the slogans and quotes frome the Big Book that reinforce this, but I’m sure they popped into your head as you read. Robinson explains how it is that certain people come to believe – or at least feel comfortable and safe with the idea – that morality is something dictated from without. And it also leads me toward greater compassion for alcoholics who might very likely have been raised in this type of environment, and therefore have an affinity for Alcoholics Anonymous (which pointedly preys on these people), and its steps, slogans, higher power and hierarchy – and even its notorious patriarchy, which MA just wrote about.

This also brought to mind something I read several years ago, in Harville Hendrix’ book Getting the Love You Want, in which he says that one of the reasons that people keep ending up in the “wrong” relationships, with people who are abusive, say, is that we are gravitating towards those who offer us what we experienced as love when we were children. This is what love looks and feels like, and so we go for it. It’s familiar. And for a long time, I have likened the dynamics of Alcoholics Anonymous to those of an abusive relationship, in which people are isolated, told that they cannot trust themselves and that they will die without the program. (Hendrix goes on to say that this is an opportunity for emotional health and healing for both parties, which perhaps you AAs might take to heart.)

So, what we have with AA is a deeply-ingrained authoritarian cultural institution that preys on the weak and broken, who are in many cases weak and broken because they grew up in hell and are also walking in the door from hell. AA welcomes them with open arms, makes them the most important person in the room, and offers them precisely what they are familiar with: random authority, rules, traditions, negation of self, the threat of death and abandonment (don’t let the door hit ya…), conformity, discouragement from reason, tribal loyalty, rigid guidelines, suspicion of outsiders (science, for instance) and superstition. This type of enclave feels safe and familiar for some.

And these “some” thrive in AA because they are authoritarian enough to take grandpa’s seat at the table; and some thrive because they need an outside force to dictate their morality (sobriety); but most leave, for various reasons, not the least of which is because they know that this is not what love or emotional health feels like, and they trust themselves. They know that there is nothing more powerful than the decisions that they make for themselves, based on their own innate sense of responsibility.

Based on this little epiphany, I feel even more strongly that AA – AAWS, Inc., Hazelden, and all the 12-Step programs and 12-Step-based rehab centers – has to become more accountable to its members, especially the ones who are most vulnerable to abuse: to become transparent, to innovate and evolve, to keep honest records and statistics — to exercise its own innate sense of morality. AA has a place, but it is broken, and it must be fixed. If AA serves a purpose among people who need this kind of authoritarian structure, then AA has got to be responsible for the types of vulnerable or abusive people who find an affinity for it. Simply saying that AA is not perfect is not enough, and its especially not enough when its utterly unwilling to do anything about it. The reasons it’s not perfect are easily addressed. Give me a good reason why they shouldn’t be.