Until I started AA, I never gave religion much thought. I suppose I leaned towards non-belief in a god or a higher power simply because the concept of worshiping, praying to, or thinking that an invisible friend had a personal interest in my well-being sounded silly. It did back then and still does today.
I sought help from AA in December of 2015. I walked into my first meeting, sat down, looked around the room, and read the long vertical banners that prominently displayed the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions. I was a bit surprised by the religious slant, but since I was there just to get sober, I didn’t give it much thought. I assumed my belief or non-belief would not be an issue. I was dead wrong.
During my first week of sobriety, I was told I would have to get a sponsor to guide me through the 12 Steps. It sounded odd, but this was new territory. I attended a local meeting and the secretary, upon hearing that I was new to the program, immediately summoned a woman who introduced herself and said she would be happy to be my sponsor. The woman began talking about God, the Bible, and staying sober. I wanted to get sober, not sit in church, so the following day I called her to tell her that I would be better off having a different sponsor.
I was terrified that if I didn’t find a new sponsor immediately, I would start drinking again. At the time, I needed to be accountable to someone since I couldn’t be accountable to myself. I asked my co-worker who had introduced me to the program if she would be my sponsor, but she declined based upon our working relationship. Eventually, after a little pleading, (okay, a lot) she acquiesced, and I eagerly began to work the 12 steps. I feel very lucky to have found an AA sponsor who is kind, compassionate, and couldn’t care less if I believe in gods or not; my well-being and sobriety are her concerns. I would not have come as far as I have in the last 20 months had it not been for her continued support in showing me that by being willing to change, having faith in myself, and practicing the principles, I too can enjoy a sober life – no god necessary.
I studied the Big Book diligently and promptly took a personal affront with Chapter 4 and its condescending tone, and was offended by the chapter, “To Wives,” but kept moving forward through the Steps anyway.
As the months passed, I regularly attended a variety of meetings, stayed sober, met some good people and some questionable ones as well. I sometimes read the various materials at the beginning of meetings – “How it Works,“etc., and begrudgingly stood with everyone else to hold hands at the end while the Lord’s Prayer was recited. I could not participate in reciting the words of what sounded like a group plea to an imaginary, anthropomorphic deity. I didn’t believe the words, so I wasn’t going to recite them just to go along with everyone.
Little by little, my tolerance for the “god talk” (and the general religiosity that was so pervasive in meetings) decreased. I reached the point of walking out when people started talking about how God “saved” them or seemed to have intervened on their behalf. When I did find the courage to speak up to express my non-belief, I was advised to find something, anything, and call it a “higher power.” According to a few people I would “come around eventually.” To me, a “higher power” is just a placeholder for “God.” It seems the common thought in AA is that if you can accept a “higher power” then it’s not a far reach to begin accepting “God.”
On one occasion, after identifying as a non-theist, I was told by a member that perhaps I “should go out and do a little more research until you are good and desperate.” I didn’t understand what that meant at the time, but soon realized that she was telling me to go out and get drunk enough to accept God. My expectations of the program had been few, but at the very least, I had thought AA was a place where one could be who they are without fear of being shunned or shamed.
Not having a god or higher power doesn’t mean I think of myself as all-important. It simply means that I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic, imaginary big brother who saves me from hell, makes a parking spot available when I need one, or keeps me sober. Personally, I believe it’s arrogant to think that I’m so special that a god would want to save me while allowing a child to die from a horrific disease. It seems people think of themselves as inherently bad, so anything good that happens to them must be the intervening “hand of God.” I believe in myself, and rely on my own strength. I am responsible for my sobriety; not a god, not my sponsor, not the fellowship, and certainly not a “doorknob.”
Several members at different meetings have said that although they don’t believe in a Christian god, they still call their “inner light” God. I suspect this allows them to avoid openly divulging their non-belief. My genuine non-theism runs very deep, my integrity even deeper. I will not pacify others by referring to my “inner light” as God. Stubborn perhaps, but I must be true to myself – that’s what really matters.
One of the many expressions I heard in the rooms was, look for the similarities, not the differences. As much as I tried, the differences outweighed the similarities. It was difficult to wade through the god stuff; having to translate the heavy religious talk, and changing the pronouns to make it sound less patriarchal became tedious. The meaning was lost. Meetings began with prayer and theistic readings, people shared how God did this or that for them, and finally, the meetings would close with the Lord’s Prayer. Where were the similarities? Other than our shared reason for being there, I felt I had nothing else in common with these people.
Despite my wonderful sponsor and the progress I’ve made, the harsh realization of not being accepted in AA as I am has finally sunk in, and as difficult as it is, the time has come to find my own path. I suppose I knew it all along, but I was holding on to the one thing that initially brought light to my dark days. There’s an expression in the rooms: “Take what you need and leave the rest.” Well, I took my sobriety, along with a few valuable insights (honesty, openness, and sharing) I learned from the fellowship, but I’ve left the traditional meetings behind for now.
Fortunately, I’ve found the AABeyondBelief, AAgnostica, and Secular AA websites which, with their extensive selection of personal stories and online meetings, have helped me to feel less alone and isolated. I’ve finally found a place where I belong, where I feel welcome.
Despite the negative experiences I had, I believe the fellowship itself is what is important in recovery; connecting with other alcoholics, sharing our experiences, and supporting one another. So much can be learned by listening to differing beliefs and perspectives. By excluding, or otherwise making meetings uncomfortable by being hostile toward, or shunning those who don’t share the same belief, division is created. Division is not what is needed in AA.
About The Author
Keega is an information technology professional who got sober in December of 2015. She lives in a small community in the coastal mountains of California with her life partner, two horses, one lizard, one bird, and a bunch of chickens, dogs, and cats.
Original Photography by Keega