Am I Agnostic Enough?

By Gene G.

In August, my eleven year old Great Pyrenees, Stoney came crawling up the ramp to the deck after an afternoon run in the backyard.  He had torn his CCL (ACL in humans). His knee was gone. He could not walk. Due to his advanced age, ten years is the life expectancy for a Pyrenees, and his size, 130 pounds, the surgery was an unlikely option. The next day, the vet administered the final shot as Stoney lay in the back of my van. I stroked his head as he went to sleep for the last time.

Four months later, Samie, my thirteen year old lab boxer mix finally stopped eating. She had an inoperable tumor on the top of her mouth. We had known about it for six weeks and were at least able to spend some quality time with her. Then finally, with dignity intact, she too went to sleep in the back of the van.

I hope there is a doggie heaven.

I suppose I could be angry. What kind of a god would let his creatures suffer? Life is cruel. If there is a deity, he is certainly not fair, but instead I hope my dogs live on in spirit. I hope they are free and happy. Does that disqualify me from calling myself agnostic?

When I walked into the rooms over eight years ago, I would have simply told you that officially I was a lapsed Catholic or ‘fallen away’ as my dear departed mother used to say.

Now make no mistake, this was not my first go around in AA. Like many of us, I had been here before. I was 53 years old this last time, and I had been through three 28 day alcoholic rehabs, a couple of less sophisticated drying out places (after the insurance companies had figured out my pattern), and a methadone clinic after my pain pill stage. I was a periodic drunk-hopeful start after hopeful start. I would get dried out, go to AA for a few months and then go off on my own, you know, just god and me. Surprisingly, we stayed sober for years at a time on more than one occasion, but eventually one of us would get drunk.

Finally, after the last week-long blackout binge in 2007, I walked back into AA, picked up a white chip and came to the realization that I had never picked up a drink while regularly attending AA meetings. (And by regularly I just mean I had a routine, whether it was daily meetings or just one meeting a week. It always worked if I stayed in touch with other like-minded people trying to get better.)

So I sat in my chair on the wall for one or two meetings a week and for the next five years, I listened intermittently, I never opened my mouth at a meeting, never cracked open a big book, never worked a step, never got a sponsor and, oh yeah, by the way, I never picked up a drink. At about the five year mark, I started having some problems in my marriage involving my wife’s meds and her drinking. That, however, is her story. My side of the story was staying sober myself and hopefully helping her and thus saving our marriage.

I started to speak up at meetings, slowly at first. Maybe I could find some answers here. I had heard others share their problems openly. Why not me? The first thing I talked about was ‘god as we understood him.’ I told the group that sounded good, but I simply did not believe them. I was aware of AA’s roots in the Oxford group, the bibles used at the first meetings before there was a big book, and I wondered aloud as to why did we close with the ‘Our father,’ if indeed we were not affiliated with any religion?

I was told not to worry.  “Any conception of a higher power that you have is just fine,” they said. What they did not say, but what I inferred was, ‘it is just fine for starters.’ As a matter of fact, I am pretty sure that Bill Wilson writes exactly that somewhere in his ramblings. I decided to proceed with caution. After all, I had sat there sober for five years, it was time that I saw a return on my investment. I began to look for someone to help me with the steps. They seemed to be a big deal and if I were to continue participating in the meetings I needed to be able to say that I had worked the steps.

During this period, I had been given what I like to refer to as, ‘the gift of gullibility’. (Others often refer to ‘the gift of desperation’ when they first came in, but I was five years sober, so for me it was the gift of gullibility.) I started to believe the literature and the things I heard at meetings. I looked at my time in the rooms and began to think that the steps must have been working me. It was a bit of revisionist history on my part, and I was changing my experience to fit the program. While I had been sitting there for five years, this god of AA must have been doing for me what I could not do for myself.

Then one day, my friend and mentor, Harry, asked me, “What exactly can’t you do for yourself?”

So with Harry’s common sense influence and with me listening more at meetings, a funny thing happened. I started to think for myself. ‘I came to’, as they say. I started to see and hear things clearly. “I made up a deity. A father figure,” one old timer said, “then I started talking to him. Sometimes he scolds me, but he is always there to take care of me.”  Seriously? You made him up, I thought to myself.

There were obvious discrepancies with AA history and in the AA literature,  oddities, if you will.

  • Why would Bill W. pretend to be a woman when he wrote the chapter ‘To Wives?’ Isn’t rigorous honesty essential to the sobriety process?
  • If Bill W. we’re such a saint, why had there had been no real infidelity (whatever that means) when he was drinking, but he was quite a womanizer after he got sober?
  • I have never read anything, anywhere that clearly states that Bill W. ever worked the steps. He made them up with an assist from the Oxford group. But work them? I don’t think so. He had a hallucination and decided to write and sell a book.
  • When was the word sober redefined by the way? It doesn’t have anything to do with serenity, spirituality or peace of mind. It means not drunk, not intoxicated or it can mean serious. As in, ‘he thought soberly about his future.’

These are just a few examples of the inconsistencies with AA.

One day after doing some outside reading, I told Harry that Bill Wilson’s grandfather had gone to the mountaintop when Bill was just a boy, had seen god just the way Bill described it years later and then grandpa never took a drink again. It seemed to me that Bills spiritual experience was not so original. Harry just looked at me and said, “You aren’t supposed to know all of that.” Then he smiled and we just left it alone.

I came, I came to and I came not to believe. My experience in the rooms of AA had taken me down an unexpected path. I was no longer a lapsed Catholic, I was never going back. AA had turned me into an agnostic, and for that I am grateful. It was about this time that I clearly saw AA as a fellowship with a suggested program of recovery. While it was tempting to throw the baby out with the bath water (I am a bit of an all or nothing type), I knew based upon my true experience that the meetings and the fellowship had a real value for me. Regular meeting attendance and contact with other alcoholics had always kept me sober.

Even though I had developed contempt for the program after investigation, I could not deny the value of the fellowship. Things at home worked out. My wife got a proper diagnoses and got better. She stopped drinking and life is good. Thank you Alcoholics Anonymous.

So why am I not a grateful alcoholic, talking the AA talk at meetings, getting down on my knees and thanking an abstract deity for keeping me sober? Because, like Harry asked me once, “What’s god have to do with not drinking?” In my experience, I finally had a desire to stop drinking and I relied on the support of other alcoholics to stay sober. It was that simple.

I am a long way from my gullibility stage. Unfortunately the meetings I have been attending are threatening my sobriety, but at least I am well enough to recognize that. Those meetings are driving me crazy. Everybody at the regular meetings appears to be an idiot. The big book thumpers say the same things over and over and over, ad infinitum. God this and god that. I usually feel worse after a meeting than when I went in – not good. “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” I think Bill Wilson said that, at least he should have.

I do remember in my first rehab they told me that generally, an addict will replace one addiction with another. “Last summer an alcoholic crackpot; now I suspected a little cracked about religion.” Bill Wilson did say that. Seems to me it is the basis for many people’s sobriety. But if not for the motivation that these religious meetings provided, I would not have found an Agnostic AA meeting just a 45 mile drive on Wednesday nights. I also have one very small local meeting that I can stomach and attend every week, so regular meeting attendance is in place, the one thing that I can honestly say keeps me sober.

The other thing that Alcoholics Anonymous has lead me to is a mindfulness meditation group that meets for two hours every Sunday afternoon. AA has me searching for more in life and it is not in the rooms. This Sunday group is a nontheistic Buddhist practice that emphasizes living in the present moment. It is a relaxing and positive practice, and it has me believing in the possibilities.

I still want there to be a doggie heaven. If there is anything, most certainly it begins with the unconditional love of a pet, but I don’t know, and I will not believe in something just because it makes me feel better. I do not know and I do not believe I am supposed to know or understand god or any other abstract metaphorical concept. So I hope I am agnostic enough. I cannot go back to the brainwashed non-thinking idiots in the regular meetings. I just can’t. I hope the AA agnostic meetings continue to have room for me, a hopeful, maybe even spiritual nonbeliever.


About the Author, Gene G.

Gene G. is retired and lives with his wife of 35 years, Margie, in the Sandhills region of North Carolina. They have two dogs, Marley and Happy, as well as a cat, Ziggy. Gene and Margie exercise daily at a local fitness center and both regularly attend the Fayetteville AA group, ‘Agnostics and Others’ on Wednesday night. Gene is dabbling in blogging and exploring the world of self-publishing. He has been sober since 2007.

Gene believes that if AA is to be more than an obscure religious cult in the next eighty years, it will be because of the inclusion of everyone. Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers will lead the way.

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David B
David B

I was  genuinely disappointment by this piece. I sense a lot of anger and judgement here that, from my point of view, really doesn’t help in recovery. I don’t read an elegs to defence of agnosticism or atheism; instead I hear the dry drunk rant of a man who thinks of his fellow sufferers as “idiots.” As a Buddhist and a non-theist in the rooms, I am hopeful that you’ll continue to explore the teachings of Buddhism. Perhaps sharpening your sense of compassion and learning to see yourself in the suffering and struggle of others will help mend some of the evident… Read more »

Gene G.

Thank you, David, for your comment.

I will admit that I felt a twinge of regret when I reread the word ‘idiots’, but I am recovering. I am still getting better. I am happy that recovery is a process. I believe I have begun my journey on a good path.

I am unsure what you meant by ‘elegs’.

Thanks again for the insight.

John S

Oh, I’ve used harsher language than that to describe some of my brothers and sisters in AA. 🙂

David B
David B

Ah, the pitfalls of writing on my phone! “Elegs” should have been”elegant.”

And my apologies for referring to your honestly expressed frustration as a “dry drunk rant.”  That was definitely me taking your inventory, and I owe You an amends for that.

i guess we are BOTH in recovery! And what a wonderful thing that is.

 

namaste,

-d-

 

 

Gene G.

Thanks, David.

Marti S
Marti S

I thoroughly enjoyed your share. I enjoyed the honesty, even the honest anger, and I was delighted with the snarky skepticism. Freethinkers, unite.

Gene G.

I appreciate you taking time to read my article, Marti. Thank you for your positive comment.

Emily Whittle
Emily Whittle

You are a gifted writer, Gene. Keep at it!

Gene G.

Thank you, Emily Whittle.

You are too kind.

Sarah D
Sarah D

The AA program involves the 12 steps, agnostic or not. And as a result of working the steps, a “psychic” change may occur to advance us each as a person. Thereby, we can quit taking others’ inventory; Bill’s or whomever. I choose to attempt to work the steps to rid myself of judgement and resentment.

Gene G.

Thank you for your comment, Sarah.

I find that for me, attending my agnostic group with like minded people who are staying sober really helps. I am better able to get rid of and understand some of the resentments I developed attending traditional meetings.

I very much appreciate your input.

Sarah d
Sarah d

I am planning to attend my first “freethinkers” meeting this week. Very much looking forward to it. I just hope the focus is still on the 12 step program.

John S

If it’s anything like my group Sarah, most of the time the meeting will center around recovery, the principles of AA and personal experience. Usually a touch of laughter mixed in with some heartfelt honesty. However, there will be days when it’s not quite as serene. We occasionally get a new person to the group who has been in AA for a long time but has recently gone through a process of changing belief systems or maybe they were always a nonbeliever but were either suppressed or felt they were. These people will come with some pain and resentment and… Read more »

Norm Roach
Norm Roach

Gene, thanks.  Reading your story and those of other Freethinkers is helping me slow down my increasing irritation with delusion and outright bullshit at AA meetings.  I don’t know if I can take much more, but if you can maybe I can.  I think it was Lenin who said that religion is the opiate of the people.

Take care, my friend.  Keep writing.

 

Norm R

Fred S
Fred S

Thanks, Gene, for sharing your musings with us.  Fittingly, you answered your own question at the end, when you said, “I do not know and I do not believe I am supposed to know or understand god or any other abstract metaphorical concept.”  That’s a succinct declaration of the very definition of agnostism: “A person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.”  Our agnosticism is not a choice or a creed; it’s simply a state of being.… Read more »

Gene G.

Thanks, Fred. Unfortunately, when I tell someone my Wednesday group is called, ‘Agnostics and Others’, I believe when I use the word agnostic, they hear, ‘against god.’

All I am saying is that I don’t know.