By Michael B.
I’m Mike, alcoholic and atheist; sober since March 1990. I accepted atheism at age 65. Now 70, I realize my beliefs changed as a result of a paradigm shift in my spirituality. I don’t hate god or religion and I’m grateful theists find sobriety in AA. Unfortunately god and religious based AA does little for the spiritual growth of non-theists. That is my experience.
Raised in a religiously intolerant home, I was subjected to religious bigotry, hatred and abuse. I was taught people of other faiths were doomed to hell and god was vengeful, fearful and punishing. Without obedience to god I too was doomed. My questions about god and religion received few rational answers. In adolescence I rejected biblical teachings such as virgin birth, living in whales, rising from the dead, walking on water, parting seas and many other mystical and seeming fairy tale stories. How do otherwise sane and rational people believe such nonsense? In my teens I rebelled, rejecting both religion and god.
My father, the principal source of my spiritual abuse, died in 1963 when I was 18. The next 52 years I seldom attended church except for funerals and weddings. I was neither comfortable nor had any sense of belonging in churches and still prefer attending AA meetings in non-church locations. According to theists, god is all powerful, loving, forgiving and intervenes in personal and worldly affairs. If that’s so, why does god allow wars, disasters, crime, human pain and suffering? Theists credit god for sobering millions of alcoholics in AA. Why has he allowed many more millions to die of alcoholism?
I drank alcoholically for 32 years, the last 26 daily. My spiritual growth in AA has been slow, confusing and painful. The first 20 years I faked belief in god, as suggested, but felt dishonest and spiritually empty. In 2011, when retired, I moved to the small rural town of Oliver in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, where secular AA is non-existent. I knew I was an atheist but was reluctant to reveal my beliefs at meetings fearing rejection, abuse and alienation; fears which later proved well founded. I countered the religious agenda in meetings by not participating in chanting, prayer and prayer circles nor reading god based literature. I was labelled an atheist before identifying myself as one. Last year a theist member told me to go home, get drunk and not return until I could accept god. Acceptance and tolerance of my atheism in AA has been rare to non-existent. I believe harm to my spiritual growth is the result of two things; impeding the spiritual growth of others and impeding my own spiritual growth.
I enjoyed playing god, AA cop and big book thumper. I regret my past behaviour may be responsible for some leaving AA due to my impeding their spiritual growth. I have learned meetings are not for evangelizing, preaching, converting or criticising other’s spiritual beliefs.
Five separate higher courts in the USA ruled AA as religious. Secular AA groups were delisted from intergroup meeting lists in Toronto and Vancouver; proof of discrimination against non-theists. Secular AA is growing in North America (250+ groups) and should be accepted and welcomed not marginalized or excluded. Christian society, circa the 1930’s is now egalitarian, pluralistic, secular and multi-cultural. Failing to change with the times, AA has lost its attraction, credibility and reputation for many alcoholics, health care professionals and the general public. Many believe AA has become a religious cult.
I read the AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief secular web sites and am grateful for the information I found. I now know many non- theists achieve long term sobriety in AA despite the overwhelming presence of god and religion in our fellowship. I’m not alone!
Many things could have made AA more personally attractive and helpful including; reading any AA literature by and for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. The AA pamphlet, Many Paths to Spirituality, falls far short of my expectations. The Big Book, with hundreds of references to god, should be rewritten or discarded to eliminate AA’s Christian bias. Chapter 4, “We Agnostics”, is insulting and condescending to the intelligence and dignity of non-believers. Six of the twelve recovery steps suggest members utilize god instead of the principles of the steps. Tradition 2 should state democracy, not god, is the ultimate authority in group conscience. The 12th promise should place responsibility for the solution to problems on individuals not god. I find solutions in the steps, fellowship, home group and my inner- self which allows me to do for myself today what I couldn’t do before.
AA membership doubled every decade for fifty years, but has flat-lined at 2 to 2.5 million since the 1990’s. Is AA growth, unity and success hindered by back to basics, Christian, god centered AA?
I frequently hear, “AA is spiritual not religious”; these comments are wrong and misleading. Facts prove AA is undeniably religious and “the facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored– Aldous Huxley”. My experience reveals god and religion have been the most divisive issues in AA and will continue to be unacceptable to non-theists.
Recently I helped start a men’s group holding a Thursday night closed discussion meeting. I believe our meeting format is close to secular, but was not designed or listed as secular. The group is listed in the district and area meeting guides but has yet to be registered with GSO. We don’t do prayer, prayer circles, chanting or hugging. We open with a minute of silence and read the preamble. We close with a minute of silence and a short big book reading. The remainder of the meeting is one drunk talking about his experience, strength and hope with others, while keeping god talk to a minimum. Other than fellowship, I find little attraction at traditional meetings, but gain a better appreciation for my home group which keeps me coming back. I’m now a happy, joyous and free atheist; sober in AA.
I hope my story helps AA members better understand the needs and aspirations of secular members. There are many spiritual paths to recovery, including options for atheists, agnostics and free thinkers. AA should become more proactive in accepting secular AA groups and their members in order that AA may be a more attractive, inclusive, relevant and effective in the future treatment of alcoholism; for all alcoholics!
About the Author, Michael B.
Michael is a retired paramedic and worked for the British Columbia Ambulance Service for thirty-five years. He took care of alcoholics during that time and as a result rationalized that he couldn’t be one. Michael served in the Canadian Army and owned his own business prior to his paramedic career. He and his wife Barb have been together for 46 years. They have two daughters and four grandchildren. Michael enjoys his retirement and the time it allows him for golf, fishing and the grandchildren.
The audio story was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.