The Myth of the Angry Atheist

By John H. 

Most myths and stereotypes have a least some basis in reality and it is clear, even to the casual observer, that some portion of self-identified atheists (including this one) exhibit what can be misidentified, on the surface, as an aggressive, superior attitude.

This perception can be particularly problematic in AA where its Twelve Traditions call out for consensus, solidarity and, above all, “AA Unity”.

An AA Traditions checklist published by the Grapevine in 1971 which I had read long ago recently came my way once again in connection with a Group Conscience meeting and the following six points from the discussion of Tradition One on AA Unity caught my eye:

  1. “Am I in my group a healing, mending, integrating person, or am I divisive? What about gossip and taking other members’ inventories?
  2. Am I a peacemaker? Or do I, with pious preludes such as “just for the sake of discussion,” plunge into argument?
  3. Am I gentle with those who rub me the wrong way, or am I abrasive?
  4. Do I make competitive AA remarks, such as comparing one group with another or contrasting AA in one place with AA in another?
  5. Do I put down some AA activities as if I were superior for not participating in this or that aspect of AA?
  6. Am I informed about AA as a whole? Do I support, in every way I can, AA as a whole, or just the parts I understand and approve of?”

As with most everything in AA that relates to the practical, day to day, conduct of group affairs (as opposed to the purely religious stuff erroneously identified as “spiritual”) there is a great deal of wisdom in these particular “suggestions” and I found myself squirming a bit in my chair as I read them the other day for the first time in many years.

Despite the emotional resonances engendered by this traditional AA “even handedness” and emphasis on consensus people in our wing of the fellowship (of all shades between atheism and agnosticism) always need to be aware that what is stated on the surface is often laced with multiple meanings not necessarily of benefit to people who hold alternative views. This is especially true when you hold firm views (such as the hard core militant atheism I espouse) that might be misconstrued as “divisive’ just because they (and YOU) exist.

Our founders placed a high premium in the construction of the 12 Steps and the narrative in the Big Book on AA as a “leveling” factor in an alcoholic’s life leading to a boiling down of the ego-driven drinker to lowest most common denominator, “worker among worker”, status. This was designed, initially, to be certain we got on our knees and stayed there.

A few of us, like the late, great James Burwell, resisted these tendencies from the beginning and went their own way while making accommodations and living with compromise as a way of life being quite aware of their own lack of alternatives in terms of the healing of their alcoholism. There were no “We Agnostics” meetings in 1939 and Burwell and his fellow NYC and DC non-believers did magnificent service in mitigating some of the harsher Oxford Group inspired realities we still deal with today.

While we live in a different age that is far more open and transparent than the 1930’s and 40’s there are still ingrained strings of societal and (of particular concern here of course) structural AA prejudices aimed at marginalizing or even converting people like myself.

When a long term non-believer is identified as an atheist the attitudes of some fellow members (even some of these so-called “freethinkers” who I just can’t seem to figure out) harden and an oppositional reality presents itself. It’s at that point that the eyes narrow on both sides of this divide and problems ensue.

I have been observing this within the fellowship for nearly 29 years now and, sadly, things don’t seem to be getting any better over time. It’s for this reason that I am attempting, in this piece, to now articulate (from my own point of view as strictly confined to my own study and observations) a few things that we atheists are and are not within the context of AA.

The atheist does not have a creed, or ax (despite some misconstrued evidence to the contrary) to grind. The perception of others in this regard comes, I believe, from the impatience engendered in the mind and temperament of some of my fellow atheists in having to deal with the purest forms of irrationality on a day to day basis.  Since it is a chronic inflammation (that’s not going away) it needs to be managed just like any other serious condition but sometimes, despite our best efforts, the frustration comes out and we tell you the truth. That’s just the way some of us are.

The atheist (at least this one) does NOT want to leave AA, threaten it, or form an alternative movement. We don’t lead movements or holy wars. We do tend to demand respect for who and what we are. This creates reactions in others who fail to see the paradox and wonder inherent in our condition and the nearly infinite variability in the ways people recover. If you happen to think that there is one single path to recovery then, on the face of it, the position of the atheist is going to be perceived as a threat and any expression of same as aggressive.

There is no such thing as a magic elixir. Many folks are threatened by that position and look for mitigating psychological formulas and “spiritual” principles that many atheists personally deny.  We don’t deny that such things work for you. Some of us do say that such things have no basis in reality and happily take the consequences in terms of being labeled “divisive”.

We also tend to continually rely on the proposition that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking” and expect the same from the rest of the membership. The fact that some of us insist on that point from time to time is also misunderstood. Within the confines of the conventional program any sort of declarative statement of skepticism or non-belief, even when calmly stated and combined with this instance on one of the primary tenets of AA, is often perceived as being oppositional.

This atheist is far more concerned with the integrity of his belief than the fallacy of yours. Atheism also renders many sacred “truths” irrelevant and therefore is erroneously confused with a lack of a moral center.

In the 27 plus years I have been attending our We Agnostics meeting here in Washington (which is heavily though not exclusively atheist) I haven’t noticed such a lack. On the contrary I have seen great love, service and charity exhibited over and over and strong bonds (along with decades of happy sober living) form that would have been impossible elsewhere for many of us. Integrity, love, service along with an occasional voice raised in frustration. Exponentially more love than anger there. Some (not all) do speak our mind with few if any filters which sometimes can be perceived as “not the AA way.”

Atheists are prone to ask difficult questions while in pursuit of the truth they see. They tend to be persistent in the pursuit of fact. Many (but not all) have a high level of educational achievement and it is not coincidental that artistic, scientific and technical disciplines in particular tend to be heavily populated with us when compared to other segments of society.

The firm statement of a purely individual belief can be easily confused with agression. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed in our dealings with the fellowship at large without compromising core beliefs. We are what we are and pay a price for it both inside and outside the fellowship.

Not all AA Atheists are angry old white men. This is rather amusing considering that I am 66, male and of Old French Protestant and Hungarian Magyar Protestant ancestry. I’m also still, obviously, even after all this time, visibly agitated, impatient and distressed by some of what I hear being expressed within AA.

Despite being “guilty as charged” I have been exposed to many people in AA of atheist belief who defy my own stereotypical profile and have a surprisingly calm demeanor. Some of us are actually rather quiet

We really are all kinds as I indicated in a previous article “The Importance of Diversity”  that was published on AA Agnostica. AA Diversity when I described my abiding friendship with the late Gaston N. who, as an African American activist was one of the strongest members of our atheist AA  “tribe” I ever have met. Likewise the current composition of our DC group has a high concentration of women as well as a very evenly distributed age group between the late 20’s and people well into their eighth decade. We really do take in all kinds with personality types ranging from “mild” to “wild” and everything in between. We are mixed just like any other fellowship group is by both chance and circumstances. There is nothing mysterious about us.

All this said following a party line (be it generated at the conventional group level, by so called “Centralized” organizational structures of non-believers or by the AA General Service Office) is, in general, not our thing.

In the absence of clear, well defined, rational ideas we occasionally lose our patience. This can lead the less than well informed to sum us up as malcontented victims of an “angry” mind set who lack that paramount AA value known as “serenity” which is often equated with sobriety itself and the “quality” thereof.

In 1966 a “Patron Saint” of mine (long before his religious conversion in the late 1970’s) put it best when he quite aptly (for us) said:

“But to live outside the law, you must be honest

I know you always say that you agree”

And that’s what we quite simply are trying to do. Live by our own lights in our own way without threats, without timidity, with a bit of courage and a considerable amount of tenacity.

As I indicated earlier we atheists are not the repository of any mysteries or “secret handshakes.”  We really aren’t a threat. Just look at us as the scientists of the spirit.

We aren’t angry. Just determined.

About the Author

John H. is one of the founding members of the We Agnostics group in Washington, DC that has been meeting continuously for over 27 years. After a career of worldwide travels that involved stints residing overseas John now lives with his wife in Bethesda, MD.

Other articles by John H:

History of the DC We Agnostics AA Group, WAAFT Central, June 27 2015

Back to Basics and Other Threats to AA, AA Agnostica, May 17, 2015

The Importance of Diversity, AA Agnosticsa April 5, 2015

Coming out as an Atheist in Conventional AA, AA Agnostica, March 1 2015

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Cecilia E.Norm RThomas BLaurie APeter T Recent comment authors

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Cecilia E.
Cecilia E.

I enjoyed this very much. Articles like this give me hope and strength to support my non-belief in an atmosphere of continual godliness in regular meetings. We have a small but consistent Mostly Agnostics meeting twice a week, which is in its 2nd year. It gives me strength to keep going. I’ve been sober for 29 years and do not want to turn my back on the program which has given me new life. It’s terribly frustrating when I say I’m an agnostic with 29 years, and people who I have thought were friends come up to me after the… Read more »

John S

Thanks for letting me know about the typo. That seems to be the most common word to get wrong. I understand how it feels to be victim of condescending remarks. I’ve been sober in AA for 27 years, and once attended a meeting with people very new to the program who felt it was necessary to provide me instruction from the Big Book.

John H
John H

Thank you Cecilia,

I was the despair of my late mother (long before my first drink) who had perfect, old school, American penmanship and spelling! I can vividly remember those grueling sessions  regarding my deficiencies in that regard some sixty years on. Spell check is the enemy of sense and sensibility also sometimes and paying attention to every word is indeed important.

Thanks for the kind words about my article.

We shall always endeavor to “say what we mean and mean what we say” as we move along.

Best Regards,

John H

Norm R
Norm R

Thanks to all of you for your help in keeping me a tad sane.  I’m 76, but a relative newcomer, in my 6th year of sobriety, 2nd time.  Perhaps a Freethinker.  Atheistic Agnostic?  I like “apatheist”, today. Sadly, there are no freethinkers meetings near me, so far as I know. The good folks at my home meeting and another where I am fairly regular are kind … fairly patient as they wait for me to come to my senses.  My mentioning their inconsistency (and my discomfort) in/with starting with “God” (traditional Serenity Prayer) and ending with the LP has been… Read more »

John H.
John H.

Thanks for your thoughts Norm,

As I have said many times before every time I hear stories like yours I am both humbled and grateful. I had an easy ride here in DC compared to this and I admire your tenacity.

By the ay, one of the founders of We Agnostics here, Maxine B., was 70 when she got sober and had many wonderful and productive years prior to her death. She got sober and stayed sober at an advanced age and I learned many things from her.

Best wishes to you,


Thomas B
Thomas B

Thanks so much, John, for a well-reasoned and written article. It, along with the cogent comments here, have helped me clarify who and what I am as day by day with the gift of recovery I keep evolving deeper understanding and gratitude for the life I have been able to live through recovery in AA despite it’s decided evangelical and pietistic Christian orientation. What I define myself as — spiritual, areligious, agnostic, atheist, whatever — constantly changes and evolves. If anything, Joe C.’s concept of being an “apa-theist,” who is not concerned about doctrinaire religious matters, is what I ideally… Read more »

John S

I tell you what, I also have “grave emotional and mental disorders” and it’s been a struggle ever since I’ve been sober. Thomas, you give me strength in knowing it’s not a personality fault, it’s just crap we’ve been through that’s pretty damned hard to work through. Your story is so incredibly compelling and inspiring, so thank you for your honesty. John’s article was a great success and has done a good job in stimulating conversation and hopefully get people thinking. He certainly got me to think. If you have time to listen to the  podcast interview, I would recommend… Read more »

Peter T
Peter T

I’m more of an agnostic than an atheist, but man did I get angry the other night.  I stayed seated at the end of a meeting where they circled up and said the LP, and one of the old-timers asked me afterwards why I wouldn’t stand anyway and just not say it, like others did.  I told him that it was a Christian prayer and hypocritical in an organization that claimed not to be aligned with any sect or denomination, and I refused to condone it.  He said I seemed angry about it. I was probably more angry at that moment that… Read more »

John S

I went back to my old home group yesterday. I left a year ago to help start an agnostic AA meeting. Never heard from a single one of them while I was gone, but felt I needed some closure. I told them that a few years ago, I stopped believing in God, was no longer comfortable there and left to help start a new group. That was my home group for 25 years, so I thanked them and said that this may not be goodbye, but consider it “sea ya round”. Most people were pretty cool, but a few treated… Read more »

Laurie A

We’ve stopped fighting anyone or anything … if only. I must have wasted too much time and nervous energy on-line and by snail mail defending AA from our critics inside and outside AA. E.g. I wrote a long letter to Jeffrey Schaler pointing out the error of his ways in his book, ‘Addiction Is A Choice’ – it certainly didn’t seem like a choice to me! He didn’t reply. And anyway it’s all hot air, I’m not going to change his ‘contempt prior to investigation’ nor that of AA fundamentalists, so why bother? GSO does not respond when asked to respond to public attacks on… Read more »

John S
Thank you John for your well-written contribution to this site and for the interesting conversation yesterday. That turned out to be our longest podcast at over an hour and a half, but the time flew by for me. It was very enjoyable and thank you again for all your support.

John H.
John H.

Thank you John..I enjoyed the conversation and hope it can be of some use to others as we slowly move along..