How it Works for Many of Us (And Questions for the Reader)

By Ed S.

I have been attending meetings for over 30 years and five years ago started a group that is now called Secular Sobriety in Columbus, OH. I paid close attention when someone said they had relapsed and were now back in AA. If they did not mention it, I asked them after the meeting what happened. Invariably they would say they had stopped going to meetings. This helps me to realize how fortunate I was to connect with someone at my first AA meeting and subsequently with others as I attended more meetings. I was an atheist for 20 years before my first AA meeting so choosing a door knob as a higher power as was suggested was not going to work for me. Yet I intuitively knew that connecting with others was the key to helping me feel better.

What is the message that Tradition Five directs us to carry? To answer this question, turn to page 151 in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. An old-timer tells his story to a prospect on the third floor of Towns hospital. He explains what a wonderful fellowship we have and how together we can do what we could not do separately. The drunk asks the old-timer what he got out of it. “Of course, my answer was ‘My own sobriety and a mighty happy life.’” 

The account continues, the drunk, still dubious, demanded, “Do you really mean the only reason you are here is to try and help me and to help yourself?” Then the old-timer ventured to talk about the spiritual side of the program and the drunk shut him down.  The drunk had his own church and didn’t want to hear about this new religion. The old-timer stopped trying to change the prospect’s religious views: “Now concludes the old-timer, suppose I’d been obliged to talk to this man on religious grounds? Where would we have wound up? No place, of course.” 

Based upon my experience and as I read this passage, the message isn’t to pray, do the steps, read the Big Book, and call your sponsor like many profess. The message is to go to meetings and help others. As stated in the Preamble that is read before most AA meetings, “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.”

I visit a person who has been on death row for twenty years in Chillicothe, Ohio. He related to me that before prison he had been going to AA meetings for five years, was married, and had his own business. Then he believed he was cured, stopped going to meetings and got involved in a drug deal that went bad. He killed the other person. This tragic story illustrates why we want to place no unnecessary obstacles in front of people who need our fellowship. This includes any claims that religious belief is necessary to sobriety.      

How do so many people in traditional AA meetings say that they could only stay sober after they prayed, found God and that it is God who keeps them sober? Is it a placebo effect? Is this how groupthink works? Maybe it works for them. However, I know there are many of us attending meetings who don’t believe there is a God or a higher power and are staying sober.

How do we stay sober then if we don’t subscribe to the party line? I firmly believe it is the fellowship, connections, friendships, and support we get from associating with people who also want to stay sober. We stopped going to bars and hanging out with friends or family members who drink. Some of us had to change jobs to get away from the drinkers and partiers. That is how it works.

In addition to attending secular meetings, I do go to the religious meetings for the fellowship. But I do not recite the prayers that others do in the meetings. Also, if appropriate, I am not afraid to say that I do not believe in a higher power and tell them how I stay sober as described above.

I have attended the two International Secular Conventions and plan to attend the next one in Toronto in August 24 – 26, 2018. It is great to be with these like-minded alcoholics in addition to the people I am with at our Columbus, Ohio secular meetings. I am active in my District as a GSR and am a committee chair in our Area 53. These are great opportunities for connection and fellowship. I am also active in non-religious groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association. These are not recovery groups but they are additional opportunities for connection and fellowship which I believe is the most important part of meetings.

I have been married to a wonderful woman whom I met in AA 24 years ago. We often attend meetings, Area meetings and conventions together, but also go to meetings separately.

When I initially attended AA meetings I did what everybody else did because I wanted to fit in. I said the Serenity Prayer at the beginning of meetings and the Our Father (Matthew 6: 9-15) at the end of meetings. I did most of the steps, but could not deal with Steps Two and Three and Six and Seven. I drafted my own steps leaving out the God stuff. Eventually I stopped praying with the group, although I did stand in the circle silently.

I attended a meeting in Columbus called the Meditating Peacocks. This AA group opens with five minutes of meditation and closes with five minutes of meditation. Peacocks symbolize the transmitting of desire into the path of liberation.

At one meeting, a woman shared how she was in AA for 10 years and struggled with the God stuff, stopped going to meetings, and eventually started drinking again. She explained how she lost everything including her marriage, house, job, and children. I thought to myself, “This should not have to happen.”

After that, I looked for people at AA meetings who did not recite the Our Father after meetings, thinking they might be atheists or agnostics. Also, I found two members of the Saturday Afternoon Live group and approached them after the meeting to see if they wanted to start a non-theistic group. We decided to meet the following week after the meeting to discuss a format for the meeting. At this time, I did not know there were other agnostic/atheist meetings in the country. There are now over 400 such meetings. I suggested reading the steps that I had developed years ago, but others thought this would be blasphemous, so we didn’t. I am glad we decided not to use the altered steps, because I learned later that groups in Canada and Indiana were not listed in the meeting directories because they read alternate steps. We also discussed where we would meet and agreed that it would be best if it was not in a church.

There were several attempts to get us delisted. The first was someone who said we were affiliated with an outside group because we were listed in New York’s AA Agnostic list of agnostic meetings around the country. (The New York group looked through directories for meetings with names that sound like they might be agnostic or atheist.). Next, someone said we couldn’t possibly be following Tradition two because we didn’t believe in God. I told them that our higher power was the Group. We were able to deflect these and other concerns by speaking with the Advisory Board Chair of Central Ohio Group Fellowship and our Intergroup central office (the body that prepares the directory of meetings). It also helped that I was on the audit committee, was also the Assistant Treasurer and friendly with members of the Board. In addition, we have a representative from our group attend intergroup meetings.

Based on the October 2016 action of AA General Service Office (GSO), I doubt that intergroups will try to delist any secular meetings in the future. In May 2011 two agnostic AA groups were removed from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) meeting list.  GTA argued in 2014 before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that AA is a religion and therefore GTA had the right to keep agnostic groups out of its listing. GSO states that AA is not a religion and told GTA that if they didn’t list the agnostic meetings, they would cut off all ties with GTA. GTA made a complete about-face and acknowledges that a group can be recognized as a participating group “regardless of the specific beliefs or practices of the group members or the group as a whole.”

In spite of what GSO states, five courts have ruled that AA is religiously oriented:

  1. Griffin v. Coughlin (1996)
  2. Kerr v. Farrey (1996)
  3. Evans v. Tennessee Board of Paroles (1997)
  4. Warner v. Orange County Dept. of Probation (1999)
  5. Inouye v. Kemna (2007)

Also, in February of 2007 an atheist whose parole was revoked due to his refusal to attend a 12-Step program was awarded $2 million in damages for the violation of his First  Amendment rights.

          Hazle v. Crofort (2014)

At our secular discussion meeting we do not start or end with a prayer. We read the preamble and close with the Responsibility Pledge. We, of course, don’t read “How it Works,” which contains all the steps and God talk. We do read part of “A Vision for You” and the piece in Step Two, page 26 which states that “Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything. All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions.” Otherwise, our meeting is like any other AA meeting. The only difference is we don’t pray. We’re just staying sober by supporting each other and with unconditional love for each other.

I’ll finish with a couple of questions that readers of this article might respond to: 

First, how do you and others manage with all the talk about God when attending regular AA meetings? 

Second, for those of you involved in secular meetings, what has it been like to organize them and have you had any trouble with being listed?

About the Author

Retired from a career in accounting, Ed now has the time to gain knowledge for the pure pleasure of it, attending classes such as “The Philosophy of Religion” and “The Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology.” Although as a child he attended Catholic school for 12 years, he graduated from that hotbed of free thinking, The University of California at Berkeley.

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3 years ago

Hi Ed, thank you for a very intelligent and beautifully written article and I just love the two questions at the end to prompt discussion. I will take a leaf out of John S’s book and answer them directly.   My thoughts come with a caveat though. My experience is limited to Australian Sydney AA which I found to be very different to that of the US and Canada. I have been to fifty odd meetings there over the years and apart from one Atheist AA meeting in Berkley CA I was left in no doubt that the higher power… Read more »

Tom D.
Tom D.
3 years ago

  Thanks, Ed, for such a well written, thought provoking piece. In answer to your first question, how do I handle all the god talk at meetings? With as much humor and compassion as I can muster at the time. I am thirty-one years sober and it took me all of twenty plus of those to gather the courage to speak up for myself as an agnostic. Much of that early stick-uppy-ness was of the “in your face” variety. That worked well as you may imagine. It took a bit of time for the lessons of a live-and-let-live approach to… Read more »

Peter T.
3 years ago

Thanks Ed, I enjoy these practical articles, and like to refer “the struggling” to essays like yours. I’ve always found it interesting that the 5th tradition says that the group is to carry “ITS” message – not “THE” message.  I like to point this out to anyone who preaches that the content of all meetings needs to be some homogeneous higher-power party line.  It allows theistic and non-theistic meetings to coexist. How do I manage with all the talk about God when attending regular AA meetings?   I have to do a little preparatory attitude adjustment, instead of expecting discomfort, I… Read more »

Rich Reust
Rich Reust
3 years ago

Thanks Ed. Being in between Cleveland and Columbus , where / when is the Secular Sobriety meeting. I seem to have difficulty navigating the Columbus General Service website. Any info would be greatly appreciated.

Ed S
Ed S
3 years ago
Reply to  Rich Reust

Secular Sobriety meeta at 7PM Tuesdays at St. John Lutheran, 6135 Rings Road, Dublin, OH.  Hope to see you soon.

Pat N.
Pat N.
3 years ago

Thanks, Ed. Good article. I’ve been thinking about the same thing lately: why does AA work for people who don’t buy into the religiosity IF the religiosity is essential? The answer to me is obvious-it’s not essential. Bill W. and Dr. Bob didn’t strike gold that afternoon in Akron because of religion; they’d both been religious for a long time; Bill was finding that wasn’t enough, but that he needed other alcoholics. Dr. Bob was very religious and drinking himself to death. So, although I’m sure they prayed and talked about religion, it was their linking up that made the… Read more »