By John S.
For this episode of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast, I was interviewed by my co-host, Benn B. and thanks to his excellent interviewing skills; I shared my story in perhaps more detail than ever before. This was a valuable exercise that left me with a renewed sense of gratitude for Alcoholics Anonymous and particularly thankful for my involvement with the agnostic, atheist and freethinking community of AA.
What a journey it’s been! Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life. If not for the understanding and support of other alcoholics, I may not have been able to stop drinking, and I honestly don’t see how I could have survived many more years of active alcoholism. Had I somehow managed to continue drinking, I surely would have been destined for an even more nightmarish life, not to mention the physical suffering that would inevitably come as my alcoholism progressed.
At one point during our conversation, Benn asked about my early experiences in AA, and I recounted my first meeting, which I described as a “life-changing experience.” Life changing it was, and I don’t for a moment regret a minute of the time that I’ve spent in AA, including the years that I was “doing the drill,” which involved praying day and night (on my knees) and studying the Big Book and 12×12.
Life as a sober person in recovery was good and getting better all the time. Borrowing a phrase from the Big Book, I was “trudging the road to happy destiny,” but soon enough, I would take an offramp onto the “broad highway,” and over an extended period of time, I began to question my personal beliefs. With help from The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything, by Christopher Hitchens, I accepted and came to terms with my atheism.
I was quite happy to finally shake free and end my struggle with faith once and for all. It was an open mind that led me to the conclusion that I no longer needed supernatural explanations for the Universe, nor did I care to define my recovery in spiritual terms.
The reality of the natural world, as described by science, is to me, far more satisfying, beautiful and elegant than the various creation myths devised by religion; and the reality of my experience in AA is much more meaningful and reassuring than is the myth of a sobriety granting God.
As far as I’m concerned, recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous has more to do with experience and action than it does faith and belief. Having read the Big Book from an atheistic viewpoint for the fist time, it was evident to me that the religious language in the book was, for the most part, superfluous.
I went through the Big Book line by line, completely rewriting those portions that were not acceptable to my worldview. In doing this, I found an approach to AA that worked for me. The program came to life when I stopped believing in God. It was now more real.
Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms to deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.
—We Agnostics, Alcoholics Anonymous (p. 47)
As I worked my way through the Big Book, one of the sections that I had to rewrite was the chapter titled “We Agnostics.” Perhaps the only sentence in that entire chapter that I found at all useful is the suggestion to readers that they ask for themselves what spiritual terms mean to them as individuals. I took this advice to heart, and as a result, I became comfortable with interpreting the Twelve Steps as an atheist. However, as I shared my new outlook at my then homegroup, I didn’t feel that my experience was respected, and for the first time in 25 years, I no longer felt comfortable in the rooms of AA.
It was and is important for me to share honestly and openly in AA meetings, but I no longer felt that I could do that, or at least not very easily. The time had come to get a divorce from my home group.
Learning about agnostic AA groups, I completed a form on AA Agnostica to find someone who could help me start a secular AA meeting in my community. Within a matter of days, I was given the names and email addresses of two people in Kansas City who had also signed up at AA Agnostica, and who also expressed an interest in starting an agnostic AA meeting. Unfortunately, neither of those two people responded when I tried to contact them.
Having spent the majority of my life in Alcoholics Anonymous, it was disconcerting, to say the least, to feel as if I no longer fit in. I knew there had to be other alcoholics like me, but at that time, I knew of only one person in AA who was an open atheist. That was Jim C. from my former home group, so I asked him if he would like to start an AA group for agnostics and atheists. He gladly agreed, and on that very night, I put up the website, weagnosticsaa.org and our new group, We Agnostics Kansas City was born. That was July 20, 2014, which also happened to be my 26th anniversary of sobriety in AA.
Inspired by Roger C. at AA Agnostica and Joe C. at Rebellion Dogs Publishing, I began blogging on our group’s website. I posted quite frequently during those early days after starting our group, and among my favorite subjects to write about was how to interpret the Big Book as an atheist. I created a category that I titled “The Atheist Big Book Study,” and I went through the Big Book, beginning with the Forwards to the various editions and then through the first 164 pages. I never completed the project because I started spending more time with the group, which was growing by leaps and bounds.
The website is still important for our group. We get a lot of newcomers who find us through a Google search for “atheist in AA” or “AA for atheists.” Even if you google “Alcoholics Anonymous in Kansas City,” our website shows up on the first page of the search results. Though our Central Office lists our meeting on their meeting directory, they don’t provide a designation of “atheist/agnostic” to let people know that we are a special purpose meeting for agnostics and atheists. Having our own website is the best way to help people find us who are specifically looking for a secular AA meeting in Kansas City.
The group started meeting in August of 2014 with just Jim and me as the only two members. After meeting for thirty days, GSO gave us a group number and our Central Office was listing our meeting. At that time, we were only meeting once a week, every Thursday at 7:00 pm. At our second meeting two people joined us who became regulars, and in no time at all, our meetings grew to about six to eight people per meeting, and we kept growing. We eventually added two other meetings to the schedule so now we were meeting Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday.
After we had been meeting for a year, attendance was holding steady at about 15 people at each meeting. Then in the summer of 2015, we were discovered by some freethinkers who were becoming frustrated with the increasing rigidity they were experiencing at their home group. They liked our meeting format and continued to come back. Their attendance helped boost the size of our meetings to 20 or more.
The freethinkers eventually started their own group, Freethinkers in AA Kansas City, and they began meeting on the nights that we didn’t. Today there are seven agnostic and freethinker AA meetings a week in Kansas City, and we created a single website that lists all of our meetings, Secular AA Kansas City. In addition to our websites, we also have public Facebook pages for each group as well as private Facebook groups.
I’m happy to see that both the We Agnostics and the Freethinkers groups in Kansas City are doing well. What started with just two people and one meeting a week has blossomed into a community of over 100 people and seven meetings a week. The two secular groups are well integrated into the AA community, and both see newcomers at almost every meeting. We are helping people who might otherwise avoid AA because it’s just too religious.
Helping start a new AA group has without a doubt been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. When I see someone find sobriety who otherwise felt that AA was not for them. When I hear laughter during our meetings and watch people sponsor and help each other. When people from the group go on to serve Alcoholics Anonymous by giving their time and energy to help our Central Office, the District and Area Assembly. When I witness these things, I am filled with a sense of gratitude that is simply beyond my ability to describe with words.
Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share my experience.