By David B.
A little over a year ago, a group of atheist AAs from San Antonio got together with the help of AA Agnostica to form a new group – Mostly Agnostics AA of San Antonio. It has been, by my standards, very successful. We meet twice a week and have somewhere between 5 and 15 at each meeting, usually with some newbies. We don’t have a single member that appreciates the godliness of regular meetings, but most of us go to regular meetings, and occasionally, we talk about how to deal with our fundamentalist brothers and sisters in regular AA.
Recently, I attended a meeting at another group, and the subject was gratitude to our HP. One by one, going around the room, each AA spouted off standard fare, giving total credit to god for every good thing happening to them – how delicious the Rice Krispies were for breakfast; a family member having overcome cancer; having refrained from road rage that afternoon, etc. I began getting irritated, thinking, why is it so hard to understand that when you quit drinking, start taking your own inventory instead of everyone else’s, are grateful for what you have, and in general, act responsibly, better things happen to you and life improves? Why, when this group hears hoofbeats, do they look for zebras (gods) instead of horses?
When I purposefully choose to act on my productive thoughts (that “unexpected inner resource” mentioned in Appendix II, pp. 567-568 of the BB) instead of my antisocial ones, I’m opting to be a better and happier person. One difference between me and some of my religious friends is they think, when using similar thinking, they’re being directed by God.
My dilemma came when the AA to my immediate left was done sharing, and it was my turn. What was I to say? I didn’t believe any god(s) had anything to do with my sobriety. I suppose that I could have credited my improved self to the group’s influence, and that would have been partially true, but I believed the choice – and the responsibility – was ultimately mine.
On the one hand, after having just endured an emotional anecdote about how Jesus kept someone sober, I couldn’t see boldly announcing that he couldn’t have because he’s been dead for almost 2,000 years (or whatever). I have mixed feelings about denouncing any concept that gives someone comfort.
On the other hand, I’d put in for a program that would help me deal with my obsession to drink. If I’d wanted to hear about god, I’d have gone to church.
I know AAs who have figured out how to handle this comfortably and that’s the scenario I’m looking for. Through comments on articles at AA Agnostic, I surveyed what some of our AA friends think about this issue, and here is what I found:
From God of Coincidence
“I recently sat through one of those coincidence/miracle meetings. When it was my turn I said, “The middle two digits of my Social Security number are the year I was born. I guess some miracles have no significance.”
— Beth H.
“I asked if there were any other atheists about. I was told by the group leader “I’m sure there are but it’s usually not discussed.” These people are locking some of us out by insisting on a belief in a higher power that is nothing but a thinly veiled god”.
“I feel shunned in god meetings if I say I’m agnostic. I’m still working on how to “come out” to my regular group”.
— Cecilia E.
“I’ve had similar resentments about the predominant creed at many AA meetings. We can help by speaking our truth at meetings, addressed then and there when it arises. When I’ve had the courage to do this it’s paid off. Others always voice similar concerns during the meeting or afterwards”.
— Maureen F.
“I support the Agnostic groups in AA but no longer go to regular meetings. I find them awkward – more like religious events than programs dealing with addictions. To me, neither religion nor the God concept is a path to salvation or sobriety. Action versus prayer, honest conversation versus preaching, and facts versus faith have been the basis of my continued sobriety.
— Joe V.
“I do my best to keep “not-god” open as a possibility to newcomers. Honesty, self-revelation, and behavior change lead to a change in my attitude. Along the way, my obsession to drink somehow went away. When I’m helping others, my thinking gets less self-centered, less crazy. I’m taking these actions by choice, but through AA – not alone. I see no need for a supernatural explanation for “do useful things – feel less useless.” “Seems simple enough to me”!
“I haven’t noted any increase or decrease in religiosity during the 35 years that I’ve been sober in AA – and good luck on changing that. At the meetings I attend, I often state my opinion that the notion of “god” keeping people sober is bunk, but it’s a rare occasion indeed when anyone will verbalize agreement”.
“I believe that the fellowship of AA is indeed group therapy. The AA founders naively attributed their new-found sobriety to a “higher power” rather than realizing that AA was working for them only because they were helping one another. I like Life-j’s higher power (nothing) – and speak about it frequently at the traditional AA meetings I attend”.
— Steve B.
“The majority of newcomers leave AA never to return as they are turned off by the God thing. AA members like us should be at newcomer meetings letting them know: 1. There are alternative steps 2. You don’t need God or all of the steps to get sober”.
As I reread the articles and the excellent comments, it became abundantly clear there were as many ways to handle this problem as there were nonbelieving AAs. Some hadn’t yet perfected that game plan they could be happy with, but others had tackled the issue head-on.
From God of Coincidence
“I have gotten way more radicalized than I ever wanted to be. It started with the fight with Intergroup, and then an LP fight with my home group.
“If it hadn’t been for all that fighting (in AA of all places where we cease fighting everything and everyone), if open-mindedness and unity had prevailed, and the god people could just have said “Hey great, they’re starting a freethinkers meeting, we support that, it will help a bunch of people who don’t like the idea of a higher power” – well, then, “Live and let Live” would reign. Any time I’d hear people talking about their god I’d think “more power to ‘em” and we’d be one big happy family.
“As it is, I got so hostile that I practically never leave well enough alone anymore. I don’t crosstalk, of course, but if any reading has some nonsense in it I’ll bring it up, and if I’m in the mood, I’ll go on about it at length. Frankly, I don’t even like doing it. I’d much rather just mind my sobriety and my emotional growth, but I guess it is a political act, like speaking up against injustice.
“If, after a 20 minute discussion at that first intergroup meeting, they’d approved putting our meeting in the schedule, all this would have been avoided. Now unity is lost. They get to sit and roll their eyes whenever I speak, or feel sorry for me or whatever.
“If I didn’t feel that the fellowship was still important for me, I’d have just quit going, but between having been indoctrinated sufficiently in AA to believe I shouldn’t ever stop going to meetings, and thinking that maybe a newcomer will show up who needs to hear an alternate message, I keep going”
— Life -j
“I believe that I am 100% responsible for my own recovery. I deserve the credit for my sobriety and the blame for my slips. My higher power is my higher self, i.e. the part of myself that knows right from wrong. When I follow it, I’m usually ok. When I don’t, I’m fucked”.
— Hilary J.
“I staggered into AA 6 ago. My first AA meeting seemed quite like a Southern Baptist tent revival meeting. It opened with the Serenity Prayer and ended with the Protestant Religious ritual, the “Lord’s Prayer”.
“Everyone in the room “circled up” and recited this Protestant mainstay. I stood and held hands with my fellow alkies at first, and observed. Mostly with heads bowed and eyes closed, I noticed that this ritual was meaningful to many of them, although others were just going along.
“I hadn’t hidden that I was an atheist and that prayer didn’t get me sober, nor was it part of my learning to live sober. The more hyper-religious, Big Book thumping types liked to say shit to me and about me.
“Look! We got the Atheist to pray!” Snarky things by those who didn’t like the atheist among them.
“After a couple of months of putting up with this sort of nonsense, I asked myself, Why am I participating in at all this Protestant Religious Ritual, if in fact, it has nothing to do with my getting sober or staying sober? What purpose does my participation serve other than a way to be singled out as an “other” by fundamentalist bullies? How did my participation document that I was being Honest and Tolerant?
“I decided to stop participating in these practices and customs. I simply remained in my chair when the folks “circled up” and said “Who keeps us sober?”
“I was the only one. My sitting out highlighted the fact that AA was an exclusive, Christian club. Those were lonely days and I sat there alone.
“My nonparticipation only served as more fodder for the religious bigots to make hay about me not “getting with the Program”. Then I began to make the case that this god had nothing to do with me getting sober or learning to live sober, nor was it a requirement for membership per Tradition Three.
“An odd thing happened. After a couple of weeks another individual opted out. We were not friends so I didn’t perceive that his nonparticipation had anything to do with some personal alliance.
“Over time, another, and another began to opt out. This continued, and continues today in my home group. Today, for any given meeting approximately half, sometimes less, sometimes more, completely opt out of this very Protestant Religious Prayer Ritual/Custom.
“I don’t make an issue out of the fact that many still do circle up and recite Christian scripture. My view is that I am not about restricting another’s freedom to believe and practice whatever helps them. But being intellectually honest about “me” doesn’t include aiding and abetting the perceived Christian supremacy in my home group.
“I don’t jump around from group to group in an attempt to somehow make an issue of what other people do. I chose to stay planted. I would’ve never guessed that my actions would have had the effect it has.
“Who cares if half the room, or even a majority of attendees still circle up. It doesn’t concern me. What does concern me, and you, and folks like us is that the gates are widened a bit, and other AAs see they don’t have to conform to religious practices and rituals – that we practice Honesty and Tolerance in real time, in real life”.
— Mark C.
“So I try: I talk about service, the power of the fellowship, new literature and new stories, the latest research about addiction, some of my own godless success story. Most of them don’t listen, but the odd spark appears. These are the sparks we have to fan.
“I invite them to a Wednesday meeting where they will hear some Dharma, do some meditation. This Wednesday they’ll hear John’s version of “Why it Works” as my share.
It’s a new meeting with a really tight if still small membership. We do all sorts of experimental stuff in exploring our sobriety, not navel gaze. However you can do it, fan the sparks”.
— Chris G.
“I remain a member of the regular AA I have always attended. There I am vocally “out” about being an atheist and what that entails. I do this so new people will know it’s an option. Also, that one doesn’t have to believe in supernatural entities to live clean, sober, and content, though one can if one wants to, of course.
“For many of us, interaction with others in recovery is a major component of our program. AA is the biggest game in town and much of it is very good stuff. But just because we like many aspects of the program, does not mean we buy it all hook, line and sinker”.
— Adam N.
“When I recovered in New York City in 1972, the predominant formula in most AA meetings was “Don’t pick up. Go to meetings. Help others.” This has successfully worked for me for 43 years. I guess I only have 3 steps:
- By myself, I can’t stay sober.
- Joining with you, we can help each other stay sober by sharing experience, strength and hope, both within AA meetings and outside of meetings.
- Together we can help others who want to get sober, as well as those among us who relapse, a natural part of our malady for some of us.
Indeed, inventory, amends, and meditation are certainly admirable pursuits, but they are icing on the cake”.
— Thomas B.
“May 1, 1970 is my AA birthday. I’ve gone to meetings, AA conventions, and have 12-stepped sick alcoholics, but I never got the “god” thing. I don’t say the prayers at meetings and have just ignored the evangelical comments. I tell newcomers with god doubts they can stay sober without the dogma”.
— John F.
I remember speaking my mind at that meeting but I wasn’t happy with the result. There was a bit of nonproductive crosstalk and I didn’t win any allies. As a matter of fact, I heard through the grapevine that one AA referred to me as a “dry drunk”. I looked it up. After an hour of sifting through the propaganda, my productive thoughts (better self) perceived the correct definition: “dry drunk” is a fundamentalist AA-coined term meaning “my program is the only true program and yours sucks.” With that in mind, I became a bit less concerned about coming across too strongly.
Anyway, as I reviewed the articles and comments, I came to a few conclusions:
First, AAs who successfully come “out of the atheist closet” do so for several reasons:
- To let newcomers (and others) know they can “take what they want and leave the rest”.
- To get it off their chest and maintain personal integrity.
- To provide an opposing view that keeps the room from being totally dominated by religion.
These AAs, as represented by their comments, share certain features:
- They address the issue frequently (whenever it comes up).
- They respect opposing views.
- They are fully-participating group members.
So on future attempts, I’m planning on getting across the following points:
- That I don’t believe in any ghosts – holy or otherwise.
- That there are thousands of AAs who have lived clean, sober, and content lives without reliance on anything supernatural, including at least one of the founders.
- That what one thinks about god or any higher power is a choice that’s irrelevant to comfortable sobriety.
- That I appreciate AA for the fellowship and help it provides for all of us, and wouldn’t begrudge anyone else any program that helps them stay sober.
I might start with, “Well, I’ll be your token agnostic tonight”. I plan on it being short and delivering it without malice. I intend on including other subject matter in my shares. I’ll come early, stay late, and cultivate friendships. Hopefully, I’ll end up saying variations of my spiel enough times so that it’ll become second nature.
Finally, I’ll have a few quotes available in print and perhaps by memory, such as this one from Bill’s “AA Comes of Age”, 1957:
“We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who would never have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.”
About the Author, David B.
Dave B. is also the author of “A New Agnostic AA group and a Hat Tip to Unitarians”, published in AA Agnostica last spring. He is a physician who is pleased and proud to have been sober now for twenty-six months. He achieved nonbeliever status during his senior year at an ultra-religious college. Since then, he claims, “the longer I live, the more it looks like nobody’s watching.” His home group is Mostly Agnostics AA of San Antonio – check out their website at Mostly Agnostics AA. He and his Catholic wife have six kids, all married and productive, for which he is grateful. He takes as much credit for their success as his wife will let him.