Faith from Within

By Keega

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.

Artwork

Original Photography by Keega

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  1. Galen T. September 26, 2017 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    Thank you for your eloquent article, Keega.  I note the “for now” at the end of your third to last paragraph with the hope that you may one day return to an AA that embraces your secular orientation.

    I belong to a group that recently booted out the Lord’s Prayer and adopted the Responsibility Statement for the close of our meetings.  A few people left, but our local “notoriety” attracted replacements.

    When I am at a meeting that closes with the Lord’s Prayer I seal my lips and look around the room ostentatiously to spot other non-compliers.  Usually a person or two approaches me after the meeting to ask about my non-recitation of the prayer, which gives me a chance to explain why it doesn’t belong in AA.  One step at a time, but time is on our side.

  2. Jim September 25, 2017 at 4:05 pm - Reply

    Hi Keega,

    I appreciate your insight. Been in recovery 10+ years and thought the Lord’s Prayer closing meetings was just a Wisconsin thing. I just hold hands and think about our connected energy. In terms of the god word, my solution has been to replace the word god with good orderly direction, whenever I hear it. The context of the message still makes sense from my experience.

    I have not had any similar experiences with other fellowship members and religeous suggestions, but it is still a challenge at times in the meetings I attend.

    Thank you.

    • Keega September 25, 2017 at 4:28 pm Reply

      Jim,

      Nope, not a Wisconsin thing at all. I appreciate your input Jim, but that’s the problem: after having to translate/substitute/readitbackwards, it loses its meaning.

      Thanks!

       

  3. Diana R. September 25, 2017 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Keega, I loved reading this article. It is beautifully written and I strongly relate to your story. I stopped drinking in November of 2013. Although I was very hesitant about attending AA, I really wanted support and to hear how others were finding and maintaining recovery. I tried many different traditional AA meetings but was discouraged by the religiosity, slogans, prayers and some of the repetitive and condescending statements made in meetings. I continued to attend but felt there had to be a healthier and more secular was to approach addiction. Thankfully, I found a few secular AA meetings nearby and I make full use of the secular online recovery sites. Thank-you again for sharing your perspective and welcome to the secular community!

  4. 'life-j September 24, 2017 at 11:47 pm - Reply

    Keega, thanks for your story. I could relate. And well written too.

    And I’m trying, and it is not easy, to establish local contacts with individuals and groups here in northern California, if you consider yourself at all ‘northern’, then please email me (and you’re also entirely welcome to, even if you aren’t). I’m 3 hours north of SF, up 101.

    lifej@mcn.org

    • Keega September 25, 2017 at 8:30 am Reply

      Hi Life-j,

      I’m probably about 4.5 hours south of you so I wouldn’t consider myself northern…emailing you anyway!

      Thanks!

  5. Roger C. September 24, 2017 at 7:27 pm - Reply

    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.

    I thought you very well described the problems in AA for many, many people, Keega, and I particularly liked the last two sentences, quoted above. It’s a message we have to get out to “traditional” AA but, boy, it ain’t easy.

    • Keega September 24, 2017 at 7:42 pm Reply

      Thank you RogerC.

  6. Keega September 24, 2017 at 7:06 pm - Reply

    You’re welcome PatN.

    Your third paragraph…is what blew my (AA) world apart. Every time I though about those words, I knew that person didn’t care whether I died or not, I cried. I couldn’t believe that such cruelty existed in AA, simply because I didn’t believe in their god.

    Thank you for your support and kind words.

    Keega

  7. Judy W September 24, 2017 at 6:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for your article.  It is so well written and expresses my feelings about traditional AA and my atheism perfectly.

    • Keega September 24, 2017 at 7:09 pm Reply

      You’re welcome Judy. My hope is that it may help another alcoholic who is “on the fence” because of the religiosity in traditional AA.

  8. Gerald September 24, 2017 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    I guess I just took it in stride, the God talk, until about fifteen years sober or so till it started to make me feel lonely in AA to hide my non-belief. I don’t hide my Prozac experience anymore either. It saved my life and got me through the first two years of sobriety, but changing my diet in ’09 to ultra-low carb/ high animal fat has completely cured me of depression, ten times better than Prozac, not a moment depressed in over eight years. I don’t hide that anymore. I don’t hide my ACA recovery anymore.

    I talk about all this stuff. Does it make me feel less lonely in AA? Hmmm …

    You know, reading Bill’s Story, Dr. Bob too, I never sensed that they ever felt “out of the mainstream” as in outside of mainstream Middle America culture.

    I guess I’ve always felt outside the cultural mainstream, at least since age ten, when I realized that God was just Santa Claus for grown ups. My fellow AA members talk about loneliness, you know, having felt like they’ve always been on the outside looking in, apart from instead of a part of, etc., you know, the “You are Not Alone” banner we see at some meetings. Hmmm … Really? 🙂

    I think that they’re simply sharing about being disconnected from themselves. I was divorced from myself, too, and that’s a terribly lonely feeling, but then there’s that other very lonely feeling of feeling like a cultural outcast … and you believers & churchgoers, you don’t know what we non-believers are talking about.That’s obvious. The tyranny of the majority, as someone commented here today.

    So, recently at meetings I’ve been emphasizing in my shares that the AA Big Book was written by people who were, at most, three or four years sober. They didn’t know much about the mental illness of depression. About long term sobriety, they knew nothing; they were just guessing at a future happiness (!) And about family dysfunction, the lifelong effects of childhood trauma, abuse, & neglect, that chapter, the Family Afterward, just looks like wishful thinking to me. Nowadays that’s what it looks like: this is the way it is because this is the way it should be … Goodness, how much family dysfunction does AA help cover up because of that stuuuuupid chapter???

    I emphasize that the AA Big Book was written by newcomers and fornewcomers and that the subject matter is early sobriety, that AA’s simple program of action is for starting the rest of your life, anew, and that the stated goal & purpose of that simple program of action is a spiritual awakening, not a religious awakening.

    Nor a mainstream Middle America cultural awakening 🙂

    … On the one hand I say I don’t know how long I can remain in AA. On the other hand, I don’t know where else I can go 🙂

    … I share that AA didn’t cure Bill Wilson of his depression either (!) but that he found a cure in megadosing vitamin B3. I don’t help AA hide that from itself (!) 🙂

    Thanks for your story,

    Gerald, alcoholic, Japan

    • Keega September 24, 2017 at 8:59 pm Reply

      You’re quite welcome Gerald. I’m really glad you enjoyed it!

  9. Sasha Lee September 24, 2017 at 12:54 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Keega

    Your modest-yet-assertive attitude is a good teacher for me.  I admire the mature attitude and the integrity in this story.  Sometimes I regret the lengths to which I went in order to placate my believing fellows in AA. For me, as for you, the later it became, the harder it became.

    • Keega September 24, 2017 at 9:02 pm Reply

      Thanks Sasha! I’m glad you were able to get something out of it, however your description of my attitude is way too generous 🙂 I thank you the same.

  10. Lennerd September 24, 2017 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    Nicely written!

    I have shared in meetings that I am an atheist, that I don’t believe in an imaginary sky-fairy that is going to make the bus come on time for me and make that other person, who was running late, miss the bus! *Without fail,* every time I’ve said this, one or more (and it’s often everyone who speaks after me!) AA members cross-talks to say that I can’t possibly stay sober without a belief in God or god. (I haven’t drunk or used for over 29 years.) I’ve been similarly confronted in the parking lot after the meeting by an angry member who had shared in the meeting that they had recently “relapsed.” So, at the time, a person with two weeks of sobriety is shouting at a person with 20+ years about how they’re not working the program right! LOL.

    Also, conversely, I’ve been at meetings where people go on and on about how Jesus is their higher power and how he keeps them sober, that they owe their lives to him, etc. Nobody has *ever* piled on to this type of sharing to say that we are spiritual but not religious. I also don’t every say the Lord’s Prayer and with the Serenity Prayer I say, “I seek the serenity to accept….” making it more an affirmation than a prayer.

    I frequently point out that the 3rd Tradition does *not* say, “The only requirements for membership is are a belief in god and a desire to stop drinking.”

    There’s a growing movement to secularize recovery (I’m in Seattle and see lots of these meetings posted now). When it says “practice these principles” it really means that the principles unspoken behind the steps are actually more important than the words in the steps: 1. A statement of exhaustion, psychic defeat, growing lists of negative consequences. 2. Belief that substance dependency can be overcome through connection with fellow sufferers. 3. Statement of willingness to let go of old ideas that might hold us back. 4. An assessment of our strengths and weaknesses including the people harmed by our substance dependency. 5. A statement of our responsibilities now and going forward. 6. An admission that elements of our character contributed and continue to contribute to our personal relations. 7. A recognition that those elements of our character can be reduced, re-used, and recycled to our benefit through contact and connection with our fellow substance-dependency sufferers. And so on. There are multiple principles behind each step. None of them are of supernatural causes and all of them relate to the power of connection between us. (I just typed out this list on the spot, a more thorough list of ideas that form the principles behind each step is certainly possible and desirable!)

    Loved your story. Stay strong.

    • Keega September 24, 2017 at 9:05 pm Reply

      Thank you Lennerd! With the help of all of you, I will remain strong!

  11. Joe C. September 24, 2017 at 10:47 am - Reply

    I feel comfortable and welcome at regular AA but I hardly go; I have more agnostics meetings available in my hood than nights that I crave a meeting. The agnostic meetings and community make the platitudes tolerable because Au know they have their AA and I have mine. Not everyone is so lucky. I did here that the 415th worldwide secular AA group opened in St Louis so we are getting there.

    I wonder if every newcomer walked into AA  was welcomed and told this room here is religious AA and this room is secular AA, without influence, what would the mix be? Our population is growing but we are still a marginalized minority. Yes, there is tremendous improvement but this story outs the tyranny of the majority that continues to present an AA that speaks out of both sides of its mouth. If you get a chance to hear Sharon’s talk from SOAAR she was ill-served by AA for forty years not being able to identify with the faith healing offered in her local meetings. She found agnostic AA eventually but she could well have died in the meantime.

    Keega, your first sponsor is a cliche that’s still alive and well in AA. I thing theists fall into authoritarian sponsor/soonsee dynamics because their worldview lends itself to a student/teacher paradigm.

    I sponsor people but I know that I’m not every man’s best fit. I will not tell someone what to do or when to do it. If someone wants a disciplinarian I’m not going to work out. If I can’t talk someone out of choosing me, I’ll do it.

    thanks for sharing your journey today. Great pics too.

     

    • XBarbarian September 24, 2017 at 10:56 am Reply

      “marginalized” perfect descriptor. thanks

  12. XBarbarian September 24, 2017 at 10:30 am - Reply

    (hmm.. my first comment never appeared.. maybe because I had used a vulgar word?)

    anyway, good stuff,  Keega, thanks for the post.

    I will add thing: I have shared my atheism from the podium, even at large mtgs (500+). 23+ years C&S

    while I will get a few stink eyes from especially the elderly members.. inevitably, I will have many folks approach me after.. on the side.. and tell me that my being honest about not believing in invisible man in the sky myths has given them, what they described as PERMISSION to be honest about their beliefs and feelings around the gawd stuff.

    if the real magic of aa/na etc.. is IDENTIFICATION.. not the later made up processes of steps, or books, etc… then if I can support identification by being honest about my incapability to buy myths serves that end, I am honored.

    peace

    • John S September 24, 2017 at 11:38 am Reply

      I posted it xBarbarian. Every once in a while, our spam filters incorrectly trash a comment. I always search our spam folder and restore any comments that were put there incorrectly.

      • XBarbarian September 24, 2017 at 11:45 am Reply

        thank you John <3

  13. Pat N. September 24, 2017 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Many thanks, Keega. I intend to copy out some specific sentences from your story for my files. You’re talking about simple integrity, which I never had when religious, and certainly didn’t find in booze.

    I’d been sober 4-5 years in the program, without sponsor or steps, and felt half-guilty that I wasn’t “working the Program”. I suddenly realized that I had come to AA to stop drinking and had done so, absolutely intended to stay sober every day, was doing service, etc. All I wasn’t doing was believing in a god or practicing any religion. I finally admitted to myself, and then others, that the prayers, readings, and godtalk weren’t doing it. I was sober through my own efforts, with the love, example, and acceptance of my believing and nonbelieving peers. I had what I’d come for. I’ve never looked back, and hope to help other nonbelievers find what I’ve found through the fellowship.

    Incidentally, folks who tell nonbelievers to go back to drinking until they find a god are saying: “I don’t care whether you live or die, or how much your loved ones suffer. I just want you to believe what I believe.”

    Ungodly blessings on you, your partner, and all your critters!

     

  14. Lance B. September 24, 2017 at 9:53 am - Reply

    My first impression was how adroitly (thanks Thomas for the proper word)  you described your experience in so few months of association with AA.  It feels like a sped up version of my story–or perhaps my story is a slow version of  yours.

    I felt a pang of guilt at the point where you described the person who gently suggested maybe you should try staying sober after seeking the “gift of desperation” by drinking again.  I, just last night, pointed out that term to a woman who has been sober 5 years.   I had not noticed that the basic idea of seeking it both in the big book and in the context of several speakers I’ve heard is, as you describe,  to go out and get in enough trouble to accept god.  And, of course, that implies that one cannot stay abstinent without god’s blessing.

    Bill probably believed that as did the particular speaker I’m thinking of.  So telling me or you that, or even hinting at it, like noting it’s presence in both the big book and the 12 X 12, directly contradicts the experience of so many of us in secular AA.  I suppose the “gift of desperation” is an accurate description of what happened to me and it made a difference.  But the idea of seeking it (especially since I don’t think god will save their bacon if they do get more desperate-maybe the fellowship will) seems dangerous and thoughtless.

    What I might try to do is suggest one recognize the desperation which I felt upon finally surrendering to the idea that by myself, I was unlikely to avoid starting to drink again.

    Your story was poignant and meaningful in many other ways, of course, but the shock of realization from that one paragraph may help me clean up my speech in meetings just a bit more.  Thanks.

    • XBarbarian September 24, 2017 at 10:35 am Reply

      i have spoken about using that “Gift Of Desperation” as my take on god, too. not ever suggesting, the desperation transforms to willingness to suspend a rational mind and believe though..

      as you know, there is no evidence of any gods. faith is NOT elegant. its actually detrimental and dangerous.

      thanks for your post bro

  15. XBarbarian September 24, 2017 at 9:14 am - Reply

    thanks Keega. nice essay.

    recently, I made the switch to NA, as I was a poly substance abuser anyway. there ‘s a mtg within 1 mi of my new home. I was hoping for less theism. I have spoken about my atheism from day 1 in this mtg, and no one has given me any grief. although NA has it’s rabid theists as well.

    one thing I always try to remind myself. Im 55, and I’ve been through the gamut of attempts to believe, etc. having been atheist through most of my life, I have on occasion, chosen in, and attempted to become part of, the religious people. I look back at those moments, and can see, usually it was motivated by external reason and influences, just the same, I have been “saved about a dozen times, hell, even baptised on tv!!1! lmao. dabbled in mimicking others and spoken in tongues, all the bullshit. a desperate effort to capture what I imagined others had. always, only to wake up a month or so later and say.. what the fuck.

    I mention that, because it reminds me to have compassion. to consider other’s context. life today remains damn superstitious, 3 churches pimpin jebus or mohammed or whatever, for every 1 school. that’s a helluva lot of peer pressure.

    I have spoken about my atheism and journey from the podium inn 500+ mtgs. sure, a few jackasses shame. but more importantly, many come to me on the side, grateful for my honesty.

    I have been told, my honesty about my inability to believe in invisible men in the sky, has given them PERMISSION, to be more honest about their skepticism. there is no greater compliment. sad, but so many folks apparently require that permission.

    the permission reminds of this: the 12 step groups greatest offering, the true magic beans of aa, na, etc.. is IDENTIFICATION. not the literature, not the steps, not jebus, none of that. theoretically, a place where we can take off the mask and speak honestly about the inability to not drink. even when we knew better.

    anywho.. thanks for the post. peace.

     

  16. Thomas B. September 24, 2017 at 8:51 am - Reply

    Indeed, Keega, thank you for so adroitly writing about your experience in AA and your decision to leave traditional AA meetings. You exemplify the essence of the quote that is on every AA sobriety coin, “To thy own self be true.” Thank you.

    I am also grateful you are able to find the fellowship you experience through our secular AA websites.

  17. Katie September 24, 2017 at 7:10 am - Reply

    Beautifully written Keega .My feelings exactly

    • Diane September 24, 2017 at 10:19 am Reply

      Thank you. Your photography is beautiful. You live in a beautiful area. That and your connections with your partner and your animals are great reinforcement for continuing the path you have chosen without the angst of the God thing. So glad you have joined us in the secular AA movement.

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