Erica K. Fitting in with Traditional AA

When I first met Erica in March of 2015, her confidence was shaken, her sobriety was fragile, and she was facing a life or death situation. She needed to stop drinking, and having experienced past success in AA, she felt it was still her best hope. Yet, something was different this time, and it frightened her. She no longer felt that the AA program could work for her. You see, when Erica came back after a long relapse, she realized that she was an atheist, and the “God Talk” in meetings made it seem that sobriety was out of reach. The feelings of hopelessness that brought her back to AA only intensified, and she was afraid, and she was angry.

Not feeling comfortable in the rooms of AA, she started looking for a new group, and as she browsed the meeting directory on our Central Office website, she ran across a group named “We Agnostics”. Intrigued, and not knowing about secular AA, Erica came to our meeting and immediately felt as if she had come home.

Today, Erica is sober, confident and secure. She has an understanding of the Twelve Steps that works for her, and she is comfortable at any AA meeting—even with the “God Talk”. She’s an open atheist in Alcoholics Anonymous, and she has been a tremendous ambassador for our group, helping bridge the divide between secular and traditional AA.

Her transformation was incredible, though not at all uncommon in AA. It’s what happens when we recover, when we experience an entire psychic change. Paraphrasing Doctor Silkworth’s words from the Doctor’s Opinion, “Our old ideas and attitudes are replaced with a new set of conceptions.” This is precisely what happened with Erica.

Watching other people recover and to share in their happiness is one of the great joys we experience in AA, and that’s how it’s been for me to watch Erica’s recovery. One day at a time, one meeting at a time, she shared her experience with us, and we with her, and together we stayed sober. That I think is the magic of AA, and it’s true for the believer and nonbeliever alike. Since AA’s beginning, there has never been any doubt, that one alcoholic sharing his or her experience with another, is the true essence of Alcoholics Anonymous.

While attending meetings at our group, Erica met other nonbelievers who were staying sober, and this gave her something she badly needed—hope. And hope is everything for an alcoholic in early recovery. She got a sponsor and went to work on the steps. At that time, many of us were reading Marya Hornbacher’s Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, and I remember that Erica in particular loved this book. It gave her a way to make sense of the steps as a nonbeliever.

Inspired by Marya’s book and other books as well, Erica wrote her own version of the Twelve Steps. I remember the night when she brought them to the meeting. She was absolutely beaming with happiness. I think the breakthrough of knowing with certainty that AA could work for her was a relief, and this showed throughout her entire countenance.

Erica knew that if she was going to recover, she would need to rely on resources beyond her own power. This would include AA as well as other outside resources, and out of necessity, it would also include traditional AA with its prayers and “God Talk”. She learned to look past the small differences, and to instead focus on our shared experience, and the actions that we undertake through the Steps.

I share Erica’s understanding that in AA, action is more important than belief. In Bill’s Storyin the Big Book there is a line that reads, “Faith without works is dead… and how appallingly true for the alcoholic!” This perhaps is even more true for us nonbelievers. Though we may have “faith”, or if you prefer “trust” in AA, we need to do the work, otherwise it’s meaningless. Erica is doing the work.

Coming out as an atheist in AA can sometimes be a difficult proposition. There’s a  fear that the group won’t accept us, and it goes against our grain to defy the majority view. It’s so much easier to just go along, but like Erica and many of us have found, we simply can’t just go along. We need to be honest when we share in meetings, we need to be who we really are. Erica came out slowly over time. She tested the waters and over the course of a year, she was finally fully out as an atheist at her new home group. The experience was positive for her, and she now has friendships in the program with people of faith. She respects their views and they respect her’s. Nobody is trying to convert or convince the other.

Erica’s participation in traditional AA has done a lot of good for our secular AA community here. The Freethinkers AA group in Kansas City may not even exist , if not for Erica going to another group and telling people about We Agnostics. She’s also done a lot to educate people at her current home group about secularists in AA, and many of them attended the recent anniversary celebration for our groups where they heard Roger C. talk about the history of secularism in AA.

I admire Erica for courageously coming out as an atheist in traditional AA, and for serving as a great example for secular AA. It was a genuine pleasure to sit down with her at my kitchen table, and to talk over coffee about her journey .

I hope her story inspires and helps someone out there who may be listening to this podcast.

Read Erica’s Version of the 12 Steps


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  1. Peter T. September 11, 2016 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    Thank you both for your message and service.  I live in Vermont where it’s hard to find meetings with a minimum of the whole higher-power stuff, so I have to acclimate to traditional meetings.  It took me a while to figure out that I could avail myself of the fellowship and maintain quality sobriety without having to conform to the “spiritual” regimen.  I feel it is my duty and responsibility to share my experience at meetings because I never know if it is going to help just one person feel better about their own beliefs and give them a reason to “keep coming back.”  Most meetings up here end with the LP I now often stay seated for it (which leaves me in the middle of the circle) and I’m the only one here who ever does that.  It’s a very uncomfortable moment for me but again, if it lets just one other person understand that they don’t have to conform, I really don’t care what anyone thinks of me.  “To thine own self be true!”

    • Mikey J. September 11, 2016 at 10:29 pm Reply

      I don’t have a problem circling up but I don’t say the prayer. There’s nothing wrong with staying silent and still being part of the group. 😉

      • Diana Ritter September 12, 2016 at 8:32 am Reply

        I also have enjoyed the sense of community when standing in a circle at the end of a meeting. Sometimes I say the prayer and sometimes I don’t. Most of the time, I am thinking about how we all have a common goal and are there to support each other. For some reason, reciting the prayer does not bother me as much as some of the “required” readings and rigid thinking.

         

    • John S September 11, 2016 at 9:17 pm Reply

      Thank you for sharing that Peter. I don’t go to regular meetings very often, but when I do, I think I will sit out the Lord’s Prayer too. I’m pretty much done with that. Thank you for listening and for participating in our community.

  2. Diana R August 18, 2016 at 6:25 pm - Reply

    Thank-you both for this talk. It was very helpful to me and so much of it resonates with my experience. I came into traditional AA almost three years ago and just tried to be respectful of what others believed but was fearful that I was not quite “getting it right” and therefore felt alone and anxious. I also did not feel comfortable sharing my lack of religious beliefs. I recently moved and have attended two secular AA meetings and have really enjoyed the fellowship there and I am now feeling more comfortable. It is nice to just be who I am—being authentic, honest and more myself seems to be a very important part of my recovery. I am really looking forward to the convention in Austin!

    • John S August 18, 2016 at 10:10 pm Reply

      Thank you Diana, that is very nice of you to comment on the podcast. I have so much respect for Eric and what she has been able to do. It’s really amazing. I’m glad that these agnostic meetings exist for us. I am still not very comfortable in traditional AA meetings right now, but it’s something that I recognize that I need to work on.

       

  3. Steve K August 17, 2016 at 4:24 pm - Reply

    Great podcast John and Erica!  Focusing on the principles within Steps and traditions rather than the language or any particular concept has really helped me to get along in traditional AA meetings.

    I went through a period of really fighting the religious language and ideas in the fellowship and was quite hostile in meetings. My attitude just brought me into conflict with others and didn’t really help me or anyone else as I wasn’t the best example of recovery principles.

    Now i’m positive about the program and true to my beliefs and don’t criticise what others choose to believe or the ideas in the literature. I just focus upon my own understanding and what makes sense to me. I don’t seem to get into conflict with others in the meetings anymore and feel respected for just being myself. The God problem seems to have gone away and in general is no longer an issue for me. I feel secure in my understanding of the program and how it works for me, so don’t really need to concern myself or become resentful about others’s beliefs.

    I am amazed that I now sponsor someone who has really religious beliefs about God and we get on great! This would not have been the case a few years ago. I suppose acceptance is the key to me getting along with others.

  4. Mikey J. August 17, 2016 at 9:07 am - Reply

    I think the most important reason I go to Traditional AA meetings is Step 12. It’s so rewarding to carry the message to that person that doesn’t think they’re going to survive in AA.

  5. Mikey J. August 17, 2016 at 8:56 am - Reply

    What an amazing talk this was! It completely is in line with my view of  getting along with traditional AA. So refreshing (and the “Catholics are going to hell” comment cracked me up.

    With your permission I’d like to link this podcast on the Agnostic AA fellowship page of our online meeting at intherooms.com and I’d like to post your alternative steps on our website OMAGOD.org. I’m so happy you’re finding sobriety in AA. All of AA. 🙂

    P.S. The name of our outside meeting field trip is the recovery expansion project.

    • John S August 17, 2016 at 6:38 pm Reply

      LOL. I keep forgetting, the Recovery Expansion Project. That is one of best ideas that I’ve heard since doing these podcasts. Please feel free to post a link to anything here anywhere. I know that Erica would be thrilled if you shared her Steps with others. Thanks Mikey!

  6. Thomas Brinson August 17, 2016 at 8:49 am - Reply

    Wonderful story, Erica, with which I identify a lot. I spent much of my early life living in the Protestant/Catholic split in Jackson, MS, heavily southern Baptist, converting to Catholicism at puberty because my mother was converting and my best friend was Catholic — I was fascinated by the bleeding hearts, statutes, incense, etc. and I wanted to drink, smoke, gamble and dance.

    I’m so grateful we have the safe, ungodly rooms of the secular AA Fellowship where we can achieve a comfortable and satisfactory recovery without having to “fake it.”

  7. Edward C. August 17, 2016 at 7:38 am - Reply

    My name is Eddie C – -consider myself a recovered alcoholic – slightly over 24 years sober and nicotine free – – I am a devout agnostic (former christian- sorta- then atheist fer a few years.  Somehow 24 plus yrs ago I was desperate enough for recovery that I did my best to ignore the god stuff and it worked.  I have now reached the point where i only attend one (Freethinkers in AA ) meeting once a week and mostly out of my desire to help others – – I feel no need or pull to meetings – IM FREE ( of happy – joyus – and free)   I just plain avoid mainstream AA as the god talk now offends me rather a lot.  I do reach out to others who seek recovrey without god – – hay (or hey) may the force of reason be with us – – Shalom

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