Alcoholism Plus Religion Almost Destroyed My Family, by Simone | AA From An Atheist’s Perspective, by Ash J.

Introduction

This week, instead of publishing a single story, we are presenting two brief stories. In the first story, Alcoholism Plus Religion Almost Destroyed My Family, Simone writes about the challenges her family faced when her sister was first getting treatment for alcoholism, and in AA From An Atheist’s Perspective, Ash J. writes about his journey to atheism and how he found a home in Alcoholics Anonymous. 

We hope you enjoy these two short stories, and that you consider sharing your story by writing to editor@aabeyondbelief.org.

Alcoholism Plus Religion Almost Destroyed My Family

By Simone

My story isn’t a unique one. I was just another girl in a religious family in a red corner of a blue state. Some of my first memories were driving to and from church, my father’s AM radio roaring over any attempts at conversation. My brother, sister, and I were all enrolled in the local K-12 Catholic school, and were all active members in the church youth programs. It wasn’t a bad childhood; on the contrary, to anyone who saw our family, my life looked like a regular Norman Rockwell illustration.However, what lay beneath was a family torn apart and plagued by alcoholism, and a church that prevented us from healing and recovering from it.

I think my parents always drank, but I never realized what alcoholism was until I was about nine. I remember my fridge always being full of different bottles and cans that I couldn’t drink. I remember starting to notice my father’s post-church beer turning into an all-day event. I remember bottles of wine slowly disappearing over dinner. It wasn’t until I started spending the night at friends’ houses that I realized it wasn’t normal for parents to slur their words or get into fights on a nightly basis. My parents were never abusive; in fact, they were the most loving, caring individuals I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Unfortunately, alcohol was starting to pull our family apart, and the support system my parents assumed they could rely on fell apart in front of our very eyes.

My parents caught my sister drinking when she was 13. I was 11 at the time, and even then I could see the mixture of anger, rage, and guilt in the eyes of my parents. The house was surprisingly quiet that night. My brother and I played Super Nintendo in the living room, my sister was confined upstairs, and my parents whispered to each other about what to do while huddled in the dining room. My older brother, who would later triumph in his own battle with alcoholism years later, comforted his clearly uncomfortable little sister, and told me everything was going to be okay. It would be, but we didn’t know just how arduous it would be to get there.

The next morning, my entire family loaded up into our old Ford Bronco, AM radio blasting Rush Limbaugh, and drove to the church to meet with our priest. He was a longtime family friend and, until this day, had always guided our family down a wholesome and religiously rewarding path. We arrived at the church and sat down in the waiting area of our priest’s modest home attached to the Catholic school we all attended.

My brother and I lingered awkwardly outside as my sister, mother, and father talked to the priest behind closed doors. Initially, the only audible sound was the radiator clicking on and off. Out of an almost painful silence, the sound my father’s thunderous voice erupted from behind the closed door, followed by the muted sound of our priest’s modest and pleading tone. My father again cut him off, and before we knew it, my father exploded out of the door and in one motion swept my entire family into the car and drove off in complete silence.

It wasn’t until months later that I actually found out what happened, but before that, things started to change in our house. Once filled with beer, the fridge suddenly felt vacant. There were no more wine bottles scattered across the dinner table. No more awkward yelling matches. My sister was still grounded for what seemed like forever, but in time things went back to normal. Before long, my family stopped going to church, and they found a new school for my siblings and me. When I asked my father why we had to change schools, and if it had anything to do with that day at the priest’s house, I got an answer I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

“He told us your sister was a failure in the eyes of the Lord,” my father said. My parents had tried to explain that, at least in part, my sister’s drinking was their fault, but our priest wouldn’t hear it. Instead, he explained that my sister was out of touch with God, and her drinking was a failure in his eyes. The final straw was our priest handing my father a pamphlet for a Christian drug rehab center. My father understandably lost his cool, screaming that if one drink made his daughter a failure in the eyes of God, then so was he. We never went back.

This wasn’t the last of my family’s battles with alcoholism, but it was certainly the beginning of the end. They tried to keep it from us, but my parents and sister would attend sobriety programs hosted in the community center every week. The wine and beer that filled our fridge slowly started to disappear, and the relationship between my sister and parents flourished.

After a few years of near perfect sobriety, my sister and parents graduated their respective programs, and never looked back. My parents, now atheists, are proudly sober, along with my sister and brother. My story isn’t unique, though. This happens every day. It’s an anecdote, but my family was almost torn apart by alcoholism, the Church, and the lack of solutions it provided. With secular treatment, my family was able to mend from what would have assuredly torn us apart otherwise.

My family may not be a Norman Rockwell painting but it is beautiful. It was far from easy, but through each other and the secular options my parents pursued, we’re better now than ever.

About the author: Simone

Simone is a writer, photographer, and film lover living in Detroit, MI. She currently blogs about drug and alcohol addiction, and how to move beyond them. You can find her on her days off cooking, playing hockey, or watching Netflix with her cat Luke Skywalker.

Artwork by Kathryn F.

Audio

The audio version of this story was 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 lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com


AA from an Atheist’s Perspective

By Ash J.

When entering AA for the first time at a very young age, I had yet to begin contemplating the meaning of existence, much less any particular conceptualization of God. It wasn’t until I entered a Christian college that the challenge began. I’m a skeptic by nature, so I questioned everything. Searching for answers I sought out primary resources, accepting secondary and other resources when necessary. Eventually all my beliefs held about God, and Christianity in general, were turned upside down.

Thus began my existential angst. It became tough for me to make sense of anything, most especially why I exist or whether or not a celestial being reigns over the universe. It was the beginning of a very dark, nihilistic time of my life. Angst eventually led to increased drinking, leading me down many dark roads, of both a philosophical and physical nature. As my drinking became problematic, I found myself in and out of AA rooms. Researching the program as I do most things, the God concept became very hard to swallow. I still experience adversity as well as acceptance from those in the rooms due to my beliefs or lack thereof, and struggle with the God concept.

When attending meetings it’s impossible to avoid the subject of God (the capital “G” gender-specific deity), as God is an intricate part of the twelve steps and twelve traditions. To anyone who thinks it through, it’s obvious that early AA was referring to a particular Deity of a particular religion: Christianity. With the Oxford Group, and before them the Washingtonians influence on AA, this is no surprise. One can also read in the pamphlet, “The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous,” Dr. Bob’s explanation of how the “Good Book (Bible),” especially the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13, and the Book of James influenced the program. 

Learning these facts and much more as I studied the details of the program, it became tough for me to separate AA from Christianity. Even though AA is not affiliated with any “sect or denomination,” it is clearly influenced by and shares certain tenets of Christianity. The ultimate question for me became: As an atheist (non-believer), how am I to reconcile my attendance at meetings with the theism of AA?

I believe when people hear the term atheist, especially in the Bible Belt, they automatically assume that the person claiming atheism is taking an active step in denying the existence of god. This is far from the truth. Just as there exist numerous schools of thought within theistic circles, there exist many schools of thought within atheist circles.

Atheism, by definition, simply means “without god,” nothing less, nothing more. Similar to theism, there exist dogmatic (strong) atheists, and weak atheists who fall more into the category agnostic-atheist. Strong atheists take a more dogmatic stance, providing proof as to why they believe god doesn’t exist. Agnosticism deals with knowledge alone, not whether one believes or doesn’t believe. There are also agnostic-theists. An agnostic-theist believes in the existence of god, but regards the basis of this proposition as unknown or inherently unknowable.

I consider myself an agnostic-atheist. While I am without a belief in god, I don’t take my lack of belief to the next step by fully denying the existence of god. I believe that if god exists, humans have not cornered the market on what god is, nor is such a god comprehensible. In fact, I see my position as an ultimate act of faith.

My not having a belief in god does not imply the non-existence of a god. It is possible a god (or gods) might exist. Applying human characteristics (anthropomorphization) to what I believe god might be is limited by my finite understanding as a human. It seems very self-righteous to think I can pinpoint the exact characteristics of something beyond nature (supernatural), when all understanding and knowledge I have gained is based in the natural world and from the fact I’m human, and thus limited by this fact. In other words, I have never experienced not being human, and therefore find it impossible to characterize something that is not human or greater than human.

As my journey in AA continued, it was inevitable that I seek other like-minded individuals or groups. It was then that I discovered Agnostic AA groups throughout the country and on Facebook. Though no meetings exist in my area, I reached out by contacting the intergroup office in Texas. To my surprise an individual from the area responded and we have since maintained a relationship. He has played a major role in helping me come to come to certain terms with AA philosophy through the lens of a non-believer.

It is still very hard for me to comprehend thousands of individuals in AA having their own conceptualization of god. For me such logic leads to two conclusions: 1) We live in a polytheistic world where everyone has their own god, or 2) “God as we understand Him” is a manifestation of our own mind which, coupled with the group, is depended on to stay sober.

Over the years I have seen numerous people give all the glory to god for their sobriety, only to later resume drinking. Some, including my father, succumbed to alcoholism despite their beliefs. Such experiences make it tough for me to see belief in god as requisite to maintaining sobriety. I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to depend on myself along with the help of the group to stay sober.

Unfortunately sharing my struggles with the god concept during meetings caused some to roll their eyes, and others to share legitimately about how they overcame their struggle with belief in god (referring to the “Chapter to the Agnostic”). I’ve also met non-believers, who’ve struggled as I have, who eventually learned how to reconcile their lack of belief with the program. Over time I’ve been exposed to numerous perspectives on how to apply AA to my life as a non-believer.

It wasn’t too long after I began researching the program that I discovered Jim Burwell, otherwise known as Jim B, an atheist pioneer of AA. It is because of Jim that “God as we understand Him” is included in the Twelve Steps, as well as the third tradition. He explained in the May 1968 edition of the Grapevine how he began opposing everything Bill W. and the others preached, especially religion, aka the “God bit.”

It is rumored that the others prayed about what to do with him. Unfortunately, we never hear about Jim anymore. Most people in AA, old-timers included, have no clue who I am talking about when asked. Jim’s story, titled “The Vicious Cycle” in the Big Book, has greatly influenced my journey in AA as an atheist. Thank god for Jim Burwell.

Despite the aforementioned struggles as an atheist in AA, I have come to reconcile my non-belief with the theistic tenets put forth by the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. The Third Tradition, on which I base my entire foundation, clearly states that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stay sober. What I believe or don’t believe is not a prerequisite. In Tradition One (pg. 129 of the 12 & 12), it’s stated that, “No AA can compel another to do anything; nobody can be punished or expelled. Our Twelve Steps to recovery are suggestions; the Twelve Traditions which guarantee AA’s unity contain not a single ‘Don’t.’ They repeatedly say ‘We ought . . .  but never ‘You must!’”

In one of my favorite readings from As Bill Sees It (pg. 50), Bill describes AA as a “benign anarchy.” AA is a bottom-up organization. There are no governors, no one individual to tell you what or how to believe. It is for this very reason I believe AA still exists today. Most important is that AAs recognize each other’s individuality. Despite our differences we are all here for the primary purpose of staying sober. For this I am grateful for Alcoholics Anonymous. 

About the Author, Ash J.

Ash J. currently resides in Elk City, OK. He loves to cycle, attend spin class, and run a lot. When not doing these things or working, he loves to read and contemplate.         

Audio

The audio version of this story was 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 lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

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Dave J
Dave J

Great stories, both, thankyou. Simone, there is an agnostic/athiest meeting called All Are Welcome in Windsor on Saturday nights at seven. We have recently celebrated our first year and if you and any like minded friends would like to attend,  we’re easy to find. We are on the river literally under the Ambassador Bridge in the basement of Assumption church (contradiction?) – It’s Canada, what can I say?  Anyway the old (really old)  church has been kind enough to provide a beautiful space and we’re grateful. Not grateful enough to be re-baptized but grateful none the less. We duked it… Read more »

Gerald
Gerald

Thank you both, Simone & Ash. For me personally, the common theme in your stories is that I’ve been largely unaware of all the trouble that the religious experience can cause a recovering alcoholic. And I’ve been lucky with my religious experience. For all the ways in life that I was terribly unlucky, there were all these religious bullets whizzing by my head, but other people got hit, not I. And I just didn’t pay much attention to those bullets. Simone, both of my parents felt that the Catholic Church impeded their own personal developments. They each wanted me to… Read more »

Steve b
Steve b

What’s with this knocking of “militant” or “hard” atheists? All of the proofs of god’s existence fail, so it appears that it is far likelier that there is no God than that there is. For this reason I am an atheist, and not an agnostic. I’m sure that my belief fits the definition of “militant” atheism, but I personally am not a particularly  militant person. In fact I am rather mild mannered. But I feel that my nonbelief is almost undoubtedly correct, and I am not afraid to express this opinion to anyone who cares to listen, including militant Christians,… Read more »

life-j
life-j

I’m the kind of wishy-washy agnostic who calls myself that because that way I don’t have to argue with anyone. If I call myself an atheist then I’m going to be constantly goaded with that whole issue about thinking I can prove the non-existence of gods. I really couldn’t care less about whether I can prove it or not. Though I like you ‘feel like I’m undoubtedly correct’, but I realize, so do all the god people. I will fight for the removal of gods from any part of the program spoken on my behalf, just because it is not… Read more »

bob k
bob k

^^^KABOOM!!!!^^^

Ash
Ash

Life j,

While not much for changing the steps from their traditional form, I am a proponent of agnostic meetings posting alternative steps that suit the group conscience?

What is it you mean by “spoken on your behalf”?

Also, thank you so much for your article in the Grapevine. I really appreciate it.

Ash

life-j
life-j

I mean there is a difference between whether someone in AA talks about “my god” (meaning theirs) or whether our literature says things in the nature of “we have found that a good is needed” – we includes me.

Ash
Ash

Thanks for clarifying.

Ash
Ash

Steve,

As far as I’m concerned the issue of whether or not god exists is an outside issue. If someone wishes to have the discussion outside of a meeting that is fine. Making philosophical arguments for or against the existence of god during a meeting is irrelevant to the “primary purpose.”

I would like to have this discussion with you, as I am curious as to what proofs and concepts of god you are referring to when you say all proofs fail?

Ash

steve b
steve b

Ash,

There are many good books and articles covering the proofs.  For starters, I recommend Appendix: 36 arguments for the existence of god, which you can easily find online.

I don’t think god’s existence is an outside issue because so much of AA is about turning to god for help. If someone says at a meeting that she prays to god for sobriety and thanks him for it, isn’t it relevant to note that if there is no god, these are empty gestures?

Ash
Ash

Steve, One of the beautiful things about AA is that no one individual can compel another to do or believe anything. The same can be said about not believing a certain way. It is just as much the right of someone to claim they pray to God to maintain sobriety, as it is a non-believers right to claim they don’t. Who am I to tell them there is no god, especially as I am not so certain myself. The irony is that many people who hate having God shoved down their throat, do the very same thing by shoving disbelief… Read more »

Steve b
Steve b

Just as a believer praises God at a meeting, an atheist may praise nonbelief. If she does, is she shoving her opinion down the believer’s throat, or is she simply expressing herself, much as the believer has expressed herself?

Also, in my experience, I haven’t come across many atheists who are willing to clearly state their position at meetings. Other than myself, almost no one, and even I don’t do so very often, and almost always in a nonconfrontational manner.

Ash
Ash

I think I may have misunderstood your initial post. I agree with you.

life-j
life-j

Seems to me it would be more fruitful to argue that a god is not inherently needed for recovery, than to argue there is no god. Let the believers go on believing, on their own behalf only, but ask them to leave any notions of collective belief inside AA at the door.

life-j
life-j

Thanks for both of these stories. I’m not good at multitasking, but I’ll try write about both. What really strikes me about the first one is how your parents stood up for you to the point of changing their whole own lives. My parents did not stand up for me. they would – in best AA tradition I would come to find out 25 years later – drill me about what I might have done wrong. I have to admit I’m thankful my dad has died, I have actually been able to establish a reasonably loving relationship with my mom… Read more »

Ash
Ash

Life j,

What makes AA, AA? At what point does deconstructing the AA program cause AA to no longer be AA, but something different?

Ash

Dan L
Dan L

I do not speak for Life-j but for myself.  “AA is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.”  That is it.  No mention of Steps and the Great Big Huge Giant Book written by god’s philandering utensil Bill W.  The stuff is just window dressing so the busy bodies can tell people they “are doing it wrong”.  Either that or they are mental bookmarks to file sobriety things with.  Apologies Life-j and thank you Ash.  -dan l.

life-j
life-j

Ash, surely a good question, and I would tend to agree with Dan in his answer to you. One could of course take the position of the fundamentalists in AA, that everything in the big book is true & the last word on recovery. To which I can’t help but remind that when the big book was published there were, according to a talk by jim burwell, a total of 8 people with more than 6 months sobriety, and of the 20 people in the back, one already relapsed before the book was published, 6 of them committed suicide at… Read more »

Ash
Ash

life,

Very well stated. I too find it my duty, with the knowledge I have, to be a light of reason when a newcomer is being hounded by a fundamentalist, or simply does not understand the program. I would like to see more open-minded (neutral) readings at the begining of meetings, and find the Lord’s Prayer at the end unnecessary.

Ash

Dan L
Dan L

Thanks for those two essays.  I also come from an Irish Roman Catholic family of hard drinkers.  The proportion of those who become alcoholic is about the same as any other group of people as is the percentage who seek out recovery.  Unfortunately we are often treated as casualties and most of us at one time or another said, “In this family alcoholism is an occupational hazard.”  I am in recovery now and am available for the next cousin or aunt or uncle who wishes to talk about recovery.  I still go to the parties but leave early instead of… Read more »

Ash
Ash

Dan,

You’re welcome!! Thanks for reading it.

Ash