“Hi, I’m John, welcome,“ a kind man said to me as he extended his hand in friendship. Instinctively I responded in kind, saying, “I’m PJ,” extending my hand in turn to receive a very warm handshake. For the next hour and a half, I sat and listened to alcoholics share their stories in a general way to disclose what they used to be like, what happened, and what they are like now. John came up to me at the end of the meeting and simply said, “Whatever happens, try not to pick up the first drink and come back to another meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.”
I sensed that just maybe this bunch of alcoholics could somehow help me and that it wasn’t the end of the world that I had wound up in AA. At that meeting I felt the healing atmosphere of love and kindness created when alcoholics share their experience strength and hope. It seemed to me that a lot of what I heard that night and at subsequent meetings was common sense. The actions that I started to take to stay sober were not rocket science or incredibly complex. I needed to be patient to allow my participation in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous to influence how I related to life. Over time, I have tried to develop my own common-sense approach to sobriety by:
- Not picking up the first drink no matter what happens, to avoid triggering the physical compulsion to drink. (The first drink does the damage.)
- Using the twenty-four-hour plan to live a healthy, active, and enjoyable life in day-tight compartments. (One day at a time.)
- Attending a variety of AA meetings, learning how to stay sober, then using this knowledge in my life. (Take the best and leave the rest.)
- Getting involved in AA (including online), trying to lend a hand, and helping other alcoholics. (The power of fellowship keeps me sober.)
- Over time through discussion and interaction with other AA members who have a sobriety I respect, I figure out what makes me tick. Then I make changes in my behavior and take actions to develop peace of mind. (Get honest with myself and others to grow up.)
- Being prepared to make plenty of mistakes and go with the many inevitable changes in my life (e.g. realising I’m an atheist at eighteen years sober).
- Remembering, alcohol will always be a poison for me and I’ll never be cured of alcoholism. (Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.)
- Remembering, the only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking. (Just about the only rule in AA)
- Realising that I can do all of the above without a belief in god; it’s a choice, not a requirement for sobriety. (What a relief!)
- And most important, remembering that sobriety can be enjoyable.
This simple message of how to get sober and stay sober in both theistic and secular AA now faces challenges from influences both within and without the fellowship. As I see it, these influences sit on either side of a mainstream commonsense sobriety. For the purposes of this writing I intend to remain focused on just two distinct sources:
- Mindless Religious Dogma
- Disruptive Argumentative Atheism
These two sources are detrimental to the life-saving atmosphere of love and kindness I experienced within the rooms of AA. This writing will focus on their negative impact on both secular and theistic AA and ways to counteract them. My experience is based on over two decades of regular participation in the Sydney AA fellowship, including eighteen months membership in a secular AA group. Additionally, I have participated in the online secular AA community for over two years.
I will only refer to two categories of alcoholics, those who believe in a god (theists) and those who don’t (atheists). This reflects my own experience as former believer and present atheist.
Mindless Religious Dogma
My Irish Catholic upbringing was dogmatic in the extreme with total acceptance of and unquestioning belief in Catholic dogma, Catholicism was right, all other religions were wrong. By the time I drank myself into AA I had finished with religion but still retained the idea of my right way and everyone else’s wrong way. Needless to say, my narrow dogmatic views took quite a battering in AA before I felt comfortable with alcoholics with different points of view or belief. I appreciated the AA old-timers not being concerned with religious differences or my sordid past but simply focused on helping me to achieve and maintain sobriety. This inclusion and acceptance of every alcoholic was incredibly therapeutic, and at long last I could feel that I belonged and was part of. This spirit of inclusiveness and tolerance was what I had been looking for in the bottom of a bottle.
But it is now commonplace in Sydney AA meetings to hear people open their shares with the words, “By the grace of god I’m sober today.” Throughout their share we will hear, “I just need to ask god’s will for me, god guides me,” and “I owe everything to god.” These statements are at odds with the secularity of Australia with separation of church and state. I believe that AA in Sydney has become far more religious over the last twenty years. When I first got sober the shares I heard at meetings made very little reference to god. You were told to leave your religion at the door of an AA meeting on the way in and pick it up again on the way out. I’m not sure why this change has occurred. My best guess is that this increased focus on religion occurred around the same time as the New York 9/11 attacks in 2001. Since then, religion has become much more serious in Australian society generally and it seems that you are expected to take a side in a debate. “You are either with us or against us” is never too far below the surface. Intolerance of differences is more the norm and even encouraged.
My perception is that this attitude of intolerance has found its way into the rooms of AA and this conflicts with AA’s primary purpose. To quote the Big Book, “Most of us sense that real tolerance of other people’s shortcomings and viewpoints and a respect for their opinions are attitudes which make us more useful to others.” Generally, my observations in the rooms of AA suggest that tolerance of others is fine as long as they believe in god and are white Anglo-Saxon heterosexuals.
The problem partly seems to stem from the theistic Christian influence contained within the text of the Big Book and reflected in the shares at AA meetings. Alcoholics who are comfortable with a Christian belief prior to coming to AA can easily identify with this element and develop a comfortable religious sobriety. This is all well and good for the theistically inclined. But when they insist that their religious approach is both the right way and the only way to get sober a line of intolerance separating Us and Them is drawn. The crucial life-saving AA principal of the inclusion of every alcoholic who seeks a sober life is violated and sacrificed by these religious dogmatists. Currently, many Sydney AA meetings will only be welcoming and inclusive of those who follow a strict protocol of “god sharing.”
I experienced being seen as one of Them on the other side of the inclusion line when I began to identify as an atheist in AA. The usual pushback and put down comments from follow-on shares quickly materialised. Interestingly, I had known many of these respondents for decades and had even considered them to be friends, but I now know these friendships were only a facade. Understandably, many newcomers are put off AA by this attitude of intolerance. In addition, many long-term sober members I know don’t attend AA anymore because of this intolerance. This is a real tragedy because their message and experience are no longer heard in the meeting rooms. We have lost their stories, sharing their experience strength and hope, remembering what got them sober and keeps them sober.
But, we have two secular AA meetings in Sydney in addition to the worldwide online secular community to support alcoholics who are no longer comfortable in theistic AA. I still attend a variety of Sydney AA meetings as I feel it’s important to develop a broader support for my sobriety and remain connected to AA. Identifying as an atheist in theistic AA is well worthwhile provided it is safe to do so. Overall, this has been the case for me, but I know it could be dangerous for AA members to do so in many parts of the world. While it can be challenging at times to deal with the jibes and put down remarks it has also been an education.
One of the many benefits of my interaction with the worldwide secular community is learning about the importance of atheists to the early formation of AA. This information can easily be incorporated into sharing to provide secular balance to a meeting. When sharing, I love to remind AA members that Hank Parkhurst, an atheist, was the first alcoholic that Bill W. got sober when he returned to New York from Akron in 1935. It’s also nice to then add that Ruth Hock, Bill, and Hank’s secretary, believed that the Big Book would probably never have been written without Bill W. or published without Hank. The religious dogmatists tend to focus on the first 164 pages of the Big Book but there is a wealth of information in the story section. Jim Burwell’s story “The Vicious Cycle” is an absolute gem for secular AA. Again, I love reminding the religious dogmatists about Jim’s contribution (an atheist) to the Twelve Steps with his insistence on qualifying the term ‘god’ with the words “. . . as you understand him.” While this wording may be less than perfect, it is very effective to quote in a meeting and the religious dogmatists have difficulty arguing against it since it is contained in the steps.
The six steps used by Dr. Bob as described in the story “He Sold Himself Short,” are well worth a quote. They are as follows
- Complete deflation.
- Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power.
- Moral inventory.
- Continued work with other alcoholics.
Once again, they are not perfect, but the religious dogmatists have difficulty arguing with them as they are contained in the Big Book. God isn’t even mentioned, and these steps provide a lot of latitude for interpretation of the AA recovery program for those who don’t believe in god.
I interpret the term Higher Power as the human power of the AA fellowship that keeps me sober. I don’t pray for guidance since I don’t believe there is anything there listening to my prayer. For me to pray doesn’t make any sense. Instead of praying, I interact with my fellow alcoholics by sharing experience, strength, and hope. I draw strength from the affinity I feel when I share with other alcoholics just like me who understand me in a way that no one else does. I believe this is the healing power that manifested itself when Ebby T. met Bill W., Bill W. met Dr. Bob, and Bill W. and Dr. Bob met Bill D. (AA No 3). No god present, just alcoholics trying to help each other by sharing experience, strength, and hope.
Disruptive Argumentative Atheism
I believe this disruptive element is as much if not an even greater threat to AA’s future as religious dogmatism. Just to be clear, I am not referring to extreme atheists who refuse to adopt many elements of the AA recovery program. They reject the theistic element of AA but develop their own workable recovery program. What I am referring to are those atheists who remain in AA but are antagonistic and constantly critical of fellow AA’s and their sobriety. They show little regard or respect for anyone else and once again the line of intolerance separating Us and Them is drawn. But it is even more damaging than the line drawn by the religious dogmatists. The line drawn by argumentative atheists only allows enough room for one person on their side, themselves. There is no room for anyone else; the life-saving power of fellowship created when alcoholics share their experience strength and hope is quickly destroyed. Us and Them rapidly deteriorates even further to become Me against Everyone else.
I have observed and experienced this nasty and divisive phenomena first hand in secular AA. While it’s not a nice experience, I have been sober too long to be pushed out of AA by it. When I got sober, many of the old timers impressed upon me the importance of being able to take criticism. They told me the world isn’t fair and just because I’m sober doesn’t mean people are going to be nice to me all the time. “Toughen up or you’ll be softened up,” Maureen from Edgecliff once advised me.
The main problem with criticism from argumentative atheists is that you can’t respond in the same way as you do to the religious dogmatists. With them you can quote their own material back at them making it difficult for them to counter quote. This can create an environment where secular AA can be heard by everyone present, including those with doubts about theistic AA and in particular newcomers. In comparison, argumentative atheists only wish to continue arguing and to win at all cost. The fact that there may be someone new in the room who is treading a wobbly and uncertain path in sobriety and gets blasted by their nasty verbal broadside is irrelevant to them. I was advised that when sharing I should remember that there might be someone in the room at their first meeting, walking that line of alcoholic uncertainty. I was told, “Choose your words carefully, you could be holding someone’s life in your hands.”
Argumentative atheists may be few in number but substantial in effect. They not only potentially discourage alcoholics’ participation in secular AA but cause an even greater problem as a loud and in your face embodiment of a commonly held belief in society of what an atheist is — disruptive, disrespectful, undisciplined, and uncontrollable. Their argumentative tirades only serve to undermine the efforts of mainstream secular atheists trying to build a greater level of acceptance for themselves within the greater AA community. This makes developing an inclusive atmosphere in AA of secular AA difficult to achieve.
Counteracting the damage caused by argumentative atheists without creating further disruption to the wellbeing of others in the meeting can be quite difficult. Dealing with argumentative atheists in online forums is much easier to manage since they are generally privately run with rules for participation. It is easy, although not necessarily desirable, to ban argumentative atheists from participation. Face-to-face meetings, on the other hand, are obviously much more difficult to manage. Do you allow total freedom of expression or do you impose rules to ban participation by argumentative atheists?
When I first got sober in AA I saw how troublesome alcoholics were excluded from sharing at meetings. In some instances, the troublemaker would be ejected from the meeting but told to come back. This seemed a bit harsh, but then I observed in other meetings where these troublesome characters were accommodated, a corresponding drop in attendees often followed leading in some cases to meeting closure. Irrespective of how argumentative atheists are dealt with, the healing atmosphere of an AA meeting will almost certainly suffer damage. To be honest, I really don’t have a satisfactory answer for this problem.
From my observations the religious dogmatists and argumentative atheists are very similar in nature. Like all alcoholics they face the challenge of dealing with ego and keeping it right-sized. But for them, their ego is colossal with a corresponding sense of their own self inflated importance. This makes them egotistical in the extreme with an insatiable demand for attention and accolades. Underpinning this oversize ego is an infantile psyche. Psychiatrist, Dr. Harry Tiebout, long-time AA supporter describes this phenomenon as “His Majesty the Baby”, “. . . born ruler of all he surveys.”, “, , , the infant tolerates frustration poorly and lets the world know it readily.” This infantile world is one that many of us alcoholics can inhabit at times. This is certainly true for me as both former believer and present atheist. I cringe when I recollect some of my own outbursts and unnecessary criticisms of others.
Developing the ability to recognise when this destructive egotism becomes active in myself is essential for both my own peace of mind and that of those around me. When my ego inflates I need to be able to recognize when this is happening, deflate it and bring myself back to right-size. I learned that the most effective way for me to achieve this right-sizing is to try to help another alcoholic. When I become totally engrossed in doing this, the self disappears. I feel this same principle needs to be applied by all AA’s whether theistic or secular on the larger fellowship scale. This will safeguard the healing atmosphere of love and kindness in AA created by alcoholics sharing their experience strength and hope.
I will finish with a story from the late Don from New Zealand. In the 1960’s Don travelled to New York to meet Bill W. He got to spend fifteen-minutes with Bill and even got him to autograph his copy of the Big Book, a very ego feeding experience for Don. He couldn’t wait to return home and tell everyone in AA he had met one of AA’s co-founders. But, as he was about to leave, Bill said to him, “You know Don, it’s the same old struggle isn’t it? The struggle with ego, the struggle with self.”
About the Author
PJ migrated to Sydney Australia from Ireland in 1989 and got sober in 1993. Having come from an Irish tradition of oral storytelling he naturally gravitated towards the wonderful Sydney AA storytellers, sharing experience, strength, and hope. This has proven to be a mainstay of his sobriety with the tried and tested formula of sharing in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. He co-founded the Sydney Brookvale Quad-A ID meeting with Dave in February 2017 and has enjoyed the tremendous boost to sobriety that being part of a new meeting provides. The Brookvale meeting continues to grow and develop and provides a safe space for those not sure about the ‘God’ bit.