Spirituality and Agnosticism

By Galen T.

When I arrived for my 28 day stay in rehab and introduced myself with a brief autobiographical sketch, I was heralded by the other patients as somebody who surely had the “spirituality stuff” down pat. This seemed a reasonable assumption.  After all, I possessed two graduate degrees in theology and had just completed 10 years as the ordained minister of a mainline Protestant congregation.

But the confidence my fellow patients had in my spiritual stature was ill-founded.  Yes, I could make my way through the Greek New Testament and was current with the latest biblical scholarship. I could explicate the Nicene Creed. In seminary I had specialized in systematic theology and mastered the principal theologians of the modern era. My preaching sparkled with erudition. In other words, I had a well-trained and finely tuned theological mind.  But as l entered the chaos of early recovery all this knowledge about God, absent any relationship with God, evaporated like a puff of smoke. I entered sobriety in a spiritual vacuum.

Upon leaving rehab I resigned from my pastorate and, eventually, from the ministry. I was required to leave my congregation immediately upon release from rehab and to have no further contact with its members. The problem was not my alcoholism but that I was an alcoholic who had engaged in conduct unbecoming a minister by having overlapping affairs with women in the congregation. My denomination did not “defrock” me, but it was soon apparent that no other congregation, no matter how down on its luck, was ready to welcome me.

A secretive drinker and philanderer, I was now publically unmasked and disgraced. I was numb with shame and there was only one place I could go where I might find a measure of acceptance.

I plunged into Alcoholics Anonymous immediately, following all the usual suggestions.  I went to four or five meetings a week, obtained and used a sponsor, completed the steps, made coffee, and chaired meetings. Despite this level of activity, I remained spiritual moribund and after five years I relapsed on prescription medications. So, I reset my sobriety clock and maintained the same level of involvement in the fellowship. Today I am still active in AA and sober for 20 years.

I wish I could say that my relapse sparked a spiritual rejuvenation, but it did not. I was naturally aware of the spiritual principles embedded in AA’s program of recovery and I gave them a thorough mental workout. In other words, I had not fundamentally changed since my years in the ministry. I still mistook thinking for participating.  I fancied myself a connoisseur of elevated moral ideals. I entertained compassionate thoughts about others but did nothing to cultivate actual compassion. I felt no need for spiritual grounding in anything beyond myself. The mechanisms of suppression and repression operated so smoothly that I was rarely conscious of feeling anything other than episodic irritation with people who disappointed my unarticulated expectations of them.

This spiritual blankness prevailed in ironic juxtaposition with an intellectual preoccupation with the meaning of life. This paralytic posture survived hundreds of meetings, multiple encounters with the 12 Steps and the kind observations of friends that nice guy though I might be, I was “blocked.” I might have endured in this woeful condition unto death but for an encounter with grave suffering.

larryknight2 Three years ago I sank into a severe depression. This was by no means my first such episode, but it was the deepest and longest, lasting 11months. During many of these days I could not leave the house. Instead, I found a new twist in AA’s exhortation to take life one day at a time.  One day at a time I decided not to kill myself. I could always kill myself tomorrow, I assured myself, and with this comforting thought would make it through the day at hand. The next day I would have the same interior dialogue. Day after day, week after week, month after month. Many AA friends kept a distance. People are frightened by depression and don’t know how to comfort or respond to those upon whom it preys. But a couple of people stuck with me and I went to meetings whenever I could. Without the hope I received from AA, my decision on one of those days might have gone in the other direction. Clinging to this hope during a time when my mind lay wasted was my first spiritual experience, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

After 11 months I got better. Perhaps this was due to the self-limiting nature of most depressive episodes. Perhaps my new psychiatrist, an experienced pharmacologist, had hit upon the right cocktail of medications. Perhaps the advent of spring gave me a boost.  In any event, within a month of my rebound I realized that I was a different person than my pre-depression self.

How to describe a spiritual awakening without spilling clichés? To boil it down, first I was suffused with feelings that had so long eluded me — sadness, hurt, bewilderment, love for others, guilt, contentment, vulnerability, and even occasional joy. Second, my relentlessly preempting and controlling mind quieted down. Third, as self-preoccupation faded, I felt deeply connected with other people and through this to a flowing sustenance of humility and compassion.

This healing was not self-generated, not even self-discovered, but alighted on me with the force of grace, though a different sort of grace than I had preached about from the pulpit so many years ago. It was not tethered to doctrinal notions of salvation from sin but rather to a sense of being lifted up and opened out.

I have heard people in Alcoholics Anonymous describe similar experiences in many different hues and usually with a sense of reverence. Many ascribe their awakening to God, without tying said being to any religious specifications. So regarded, God is the source of transcendent meaning that suffuses our lived experience with a sacred cadence that we ourselves are unable to orchestrate. This fit my experience and I am comfortable thinking of a God as the source of the grace which came flowing into my life.

This is not the all-powerful, entirely benevolent intervening God I learned of in Seminary and who is the subject of devotion in Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. At the very least, the problem of suffering is insurmountable.  None of the usual solutions or atypical resolutions of the problem work and this rules out the existence of a personal God, at least for me.

So now, to use the fashionable lingo, I “self-identify” as a spiritual agnostic. When I occasionally mention this at meetings, I am met with both chuckles and expressions of quizzical skepticism. I don’t elaborate during meetings but when asked am pleased to expostulate on this apparent misnomer. I view agnosticism as a position of epistemological humility, the belief that it is intrinsically impossible for humans to know whether or not God exists. Human certitude is confined to the realm of the empirically discernable. God, by definition, lies outside this sphere and therefore cannot be known as an entity within the confines of space and time. Hence, any human perception of God is either speculative or grounded in faith. Religious faith per se is based on distinctive revelations that delineate a divine being who intervenes in human affairs with particular purposes that require devotional fealty.

Spiritual faith or belief, by contrast, is an openness to a transcendent sacredness that imbues human experience without requiring the causality of a divine entity.  The origins of spiritual truth may lie in a God or in an extra-phenomenal vibration of energy or in a higher collective human consciousness. Or the source may be a mystery. I am content with mystery, though for semantic and communicative purposes may use the term God. I think that most people in AA find themselves somewhere in this spiritual landscape.

larry7 I don’t know what caused my spiritual deliverance. Did my depression burn a knot of ego out of me?  Or was the cessation of pain so sweet that it opened portals to new vistas? The proximity of depression and spiritual awakening suggests a connection. Bill Wilson wrote many times that pain is the touchstone of spiritual deliverance and this is given testimonial proof day after day in AA meetings and gatherings around the world.

Well, what does all this have to do with the present and future of Alcoholics Anonymous? Tradition Five tells us that our primary purpose is to carry the message “to the alcoholic who still suffers.”  In fulfilling this mission, experience has taught us, we at the same time maintain and cultivate our own sobriety. Furthermore, as Tradition Eleven reminds us, we carry out our mission through attraction rather than promotion. AA is not going to hawk its wares on highway billboards or TV infomercials but rather invite the interested through personal encounters and the exchange of stories. Thus every AA group needs to welcome newcomers with an open embrace and erect a minimum of barriers between them and the fellowship. Over the past couple of decades two issues have threatened to soil AA’s welcome mat.

First, what about drugs other than alcohol? This was once a source of heated controversy.  Bill Wilson cautioned that AA’s focus need to remain on alcohol alone, but this admonition has been overrun by sheer volume. In most parts of the world the number of “pure” alcoholics coming into the program has shrunk to a tiny percentage. Most newcomers have been multiple drug users. Even matronly suburban women have typically mixed their booze with prescription medications. I have been to hundreds of meetings and never heard a person admonished for speaking of drugs other than alcohol.  We seem to have adjusted to polydrug addiction, flying under the banner of “A drug is a drug is a drug.”

Second, and more germane to our present concerns, many of the young people flowing into our rooms bring an indifference, even hostility, to the concept of God. They did not come of age in the predominant Christian culture of their parents and grandparents. When they are told that they need to believe in God to get sober, they are startled and ready to bolt. We certainly do not need to stop speaking about God in and out of meetings. Many people in AA speak of a spiritual experience that they loosely attribute to God, for lack of a better designation. But at the same time we should eschew dogmatic religiosity and any suggestion of affiliation with specific religious institutions.  Pain is our common denominator; this and the opening up of our pain to a spiritual remedy. Religious faith is one species of spiritual remedy, but not the only one and far from the most common one in the fellowship.

An AA group I regularly attend recently met after the regular meeting to discuss whether we wanted to keep saying the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the hour. The alternative was to use the more neutral serenity prayer or the responsibility statement. Strong opinions were expressed on both sides of the issue.

Traditionalists argued in favor of, well, tradition. One person maintained that AA was based on Christian principles which, as our literature attests, has some truth to it. These principles, however, are not embodied exclusively in Christian doctrine and practice. Those adopting the opposite view, myself included, pointed out the peculiarity of using an explicitly Christian prayer in an organization that disavows any religious affiliation. We made the key point that the Lord’s Prayer is off-putting to many newcomers, who increasingly these days come from non-religious backgrounds and are alienated by a collective recitation of a prayer embedded in the Christian religion. Several at the meeting knew of first time visitors qualified for AA membership but put off by the sectarian prayer. They were not mollified by the circled hand-holding, which only imbued the proceedings with a cultish tinge. There is only one (albeit now broadened) requirement for membership in AA and remaining faithful to this primary purpose is a key to our future relevance and vitality.

After a spirited discussion the group voted overwhelmingly in favor of replacing the Lord’s Prayer with the responsibility statement. A couple of regular attendees were offended and have not returned, but the group as a whole is thriving. From my neck of the woods in the Northeastern part of the country this vote is consonant with the trend in many meetings away from using the Lord’s Prayer.  This trend supports AA’s affirmation that God is characterized by our individual understanding rather than collective agreement.

Here, I hope, lies the future of AA – broad-mindedly open to an amalgam of spiritualties that may or may not rely on a belief in the Gods of religion and are open to the multiple manifestations of the sacred.

About the Author, Galen T.

Galen spent most of his career in the ministry, and in mental health and career counseling. He has published numerous articles as a career consultant. He is now an independent writer focusing on the application of personal narrative to addiction recovery and life generally. He has been sober since 1995 and is active in several of his local AA groups.


The photography used in this article was created by Larry K. from the Beyond Belief Group in Toronto, Ontario. Thank you Larry for allowing us to display your work.

Audio Version

The audio for this story was recorded and narrated 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, you may reach him by email at lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com.

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Johannes WegGalen TPat N.Galen Tindersteve b Recent comment authors

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Johannes Weg

Dear agnostic Alcoholics Anonymous, I wrote a short philosophic German essay about agnostic belief in 2010. Now I tried to translate it to English. If You interested in a philosophical justification of agnosticism, or why even hard science rests upon belief, than You can find a raw version of the English translation at https://archive.org/details/WegBelievingVeraciouslyInRevision The text also discusses the problem of free will. Somehow in accordance with the 12 steps of AA I argue that we always depend on the mystery behind the manifesting phenomenal reality. I would be very much obliged to anybody (especially English native speakers) for helping… Read more »

steve b
steve b

Ok, Galen, I guess you’re an agnostic after all. Your way of expressing yourself using religious language made me think you had theistic tendencies. Now you’re at the halfway mark. You went from being religious to being an agnostic. Have you ever considered atheism? Most atheists speak in terms of probabilities: that the existence of a god is so highly improbable that it makes sense to simply conclude that he doesn’t exist. This is my position.

Galen T
Galen T

Steve- I can see how my language in the article could have been misleading.

I have considered atheism, but not embraced it.  I am not sure why not.  I agree with you that the probability of God’s existence is slight.  Perhaps I can’t give up a mystical bent in my make-up.  I realize that this is not a convincing argument, so I will think about it more.

Thanks for the conversation.

steve b
steve b

Galen, if you don’t believe in “any one God,” then please tell me just what god, if any, you do believe in, and while you’re at it, tell me what evidence or other reasons you have for your belief. And, if you aren’t sure whether there’s a god, do you pray anyway? And if so, to whom or what?


Galen T
Galen T

Steve, These are good questions.  It is probably easiest for me to begin by saying what I don’t believe in.  So, I don’t believe in the theistic God of, say, Christianity.  A friend of mine calls this an intervening God — one who causes all things to happen as they do and intervenes in our earthly lives, perhaps at the behest of our prayers.  Aside from all the other arguments against the Christian God, the world is too burdened by undeserved and inexplicable suffering for a God of this sort to make any claims on exercising sovereignty over the universe.… Read more »

steve b
steve b

First, Galen, I googled the word “religion,” and the first definition that popped up was “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” No particular religion or belief system required. Second, you assume that there are “fundamental truths…that can’t [be] derived from the material, empirical world” such as compassion and honesty. What if this assumption is wrong, as I think it is? I don’t think there is any other world besides the material one we all know and love so well. Also, as social animals, we humans come equipped with evolved brains that generate… Read more »

Galen T
Galen T

Steve, You have clarified how are perspectives differ.  I do believe that there are fundamental truths, but that they can not be derived from, found in, or deduced from the physical world, that is, from the empirical world that is the object of scientific study.  As you point out, this assumption may be wrong. Your own belief that the material world is the only reality we have may also be wrong.  Neither of us can prove our assertions.  So it comes down to how we see human life, what we intuit about ultimate meanings, and where we choose to place… Read more »

Kit G
Kit G

I’ve got to agree with you here, Steve. I’m leaning way closer to pragmatism and the physical, psychological (mental/emotional/bio-chemical/neurological) worlds for answers to life’s questions. Physicalism, the doctrine that the mind (and all else) can be explained by scientific descriptions, is something that attracts my particular bias. When folks divide areas of life into the four quadrants of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, the word spiritual is redundant to me because it is already found or explained in the other three. And just because there is no scientific answer at the moment in this physical realm does not mean there isn’t one… Read more »

Galen T
Galen T

The spiritual can be compatible with “not knowing.” In fact along with the “spirituality of imperfection there can be a spirituality of not knowing. It might even be said that the sphere of the spiritual lives in the realm of the unknown, provided that we acknowledge that what in unknown (at least in the empirical sense) is not necessarily unreal.

Kit G
Kit G

Yes, the essence of things exists in the unknown but is not limited to it. It already exists in the known. And the more I deal with what is already known the more the unknown is revealed. (More than I can ever know!)

Pat N.
Pat N.

Thanks, Galen. Highly useful article, as the flow of responses shows. The beauty of secular AA is that for that hour, we can talk about what’s really important without having to kowtow to any tradition except tolerance and inclusion. In my home group’s early days, we had one retired minister and another fellow who had to leave early to sing in his church choir (we meet Sunday mornings). One of our current members has a Master’s in theology or ministry, and I’m both a former Knight of Columbus and a former Presbyterian elder. Those are just samples of the truth… Read more »

Galen T
Galen T

Pat, That was quite a collection in your early home group.  In the mix of meetings I attend some are more conservative and conventional in orientation while in others anything goes.  I tend to get more from the latter, partly because I like never knowing what a person is going to say. Before today I had never heard the term “apatheist.” Is this distinct from the atheist in the sense that the non-believer does think it makes a difference whether or not you believe in god? My second question is why anybody should believe that the “fundamental cause/energy in the… Read more »

Steve K

In the reasonably sane and healthy, is not the drive to connect, to be with each other and care for one another, more powerful than hate? It seems that the most co-operative thrive. The fundamental force to survive and nurture ourselves and others, coupled with our conscious awareness, seems to win overall.

I admit that this is how I like to see it.