Everyone Has Alternatives

By Stephen S. and Justin M. 

Stephen is an AfroAmerican living in Australia.

Stephen is an atheist. So am I.

Akin to sexuality and political orientation, atheism and agnosticism are hidden traits of character. Atheists/agnostics can choose to share that trait or not.

Stephen is a military veteran. His training included studying foreign language and linguistics. He demonstrates a keen and academic appreciation of language and commits to respecting its rules of usage.

Because of that, he is direct when he speaks. He attends both traditional and secular AA meetings. As do I. We both attend traditional meetings in our city.

In that meeting, he has shared only three times.

He has said that I present casually in social interactions. But that is a deliberate cover for my political position regarding AA. Research also has found that it is significantly more difficult for people who are discriminatory towards any group to maintain that discriminatory attitude to someone that they know (and are emotionally attached to). For that reason, I did not identify (dogmatic speech – personal peeve, that’s all) as an atheist for the first six months of AA attendance. I currently mention that I am an atheist in every share, where it is relevant, to help normalize my atheism. Also, it may help others who have not “come out” as atheist, agnostic, secular, or non-Christian to realize that they can be a member of AA to pursue sobriety. In other words, it may help them to look past the religion-oriented wording in the Steps and Traditions.

I enjoy speaking to Stephen and exchanging ideas regarding belief, knowledge, race politics, alcoholism, ethics, etcetera.

Stephen and I recently had a chat about dogma. He abhors the prevalence of dogma within AA. This post is a result of that chat.

I feel an affinity with Stephen. Of course, we both identify as alcoholics. So that helps a lot. But also for his identity as an Afro-American. Some in the atheism normalization movement compare it to the normalization of LGBT+ identities. I feel that there are also parallels to modern civil rights movements.

There are, at least, two approaches to seeking to protect secularism within AA. The first is to simply start secular meetings, gather secular alcoholics about myself and create a secular AA community. That is akin to Malcom X’s idea of separatism. Stephen and I also practice civil disobedience by refusing to say the Serenity Prayer at the end of traditional meetings – emphasizing our nature of being separate from traditional members, whilst remaining part of AA.

The second approach is to create that secular AA community, but also to attend and identify as an atheist/agnostic/secularist within traditional AA. I feel a moral obligation to do so, as it may help others who are atheist/agnostic/secular to attend and stay within AA. That is more akin to Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to civil rights – the “they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” approach. Where we replace “the color of their skin” with “a lack of belief” to become: “they will not be judged by a lack of belief, but by the content of their character”.

Whilst I am unconvinced of AA’s claim that it is a “solution” to problem drinking – others have been convinced. The medical community in Australia interacts with AA, encourages attendance at AA meetings and encourages problem drinkers to become AA members. They, by default, accept that it is useful and has positive outcomes for problem drinkers. My pragmatic approach to traditional, exclusionary AA is to use it as a recruitment ground for inclusive secular AA.

Here is where Stephen and I digress. As an example, he sees words like “probably” in “probably no human power could restore us to sanity” as the authors hedging their bets. It is avoidance. Not wanting to be held to the standard that they set for themselves. Not living up to the claims that “the program” is a solution to alcoholism.

I have, what I consider to be, a more generous interpretation. That “probably” gives me, as an atheist, a testable claim. I have the ability to test whether that is the correct word. To see if it should be “maybe” or “it is untrue that”.

In my two years as I member of AA, all I have seen is human power. It was human power that saved Bill W’s sobriety when he was tempted to drink at the Mayflower Hotel. He sought out another human, an alcoholic, on which to rely rather than drink. He literally turned his back on drinking and sought out Dr Bob. Even now, it is humans that set up groups. Humans organize meetings. Humans hang the banners. Humans prepare the coffee and refreshments. Humans chair meetings. Humans attend meetings. Humans share in meetings. Humans get telephone numbers of others and ring them when in trouble or when they are ill at ease. For me, the whole AA enterprise is based on human power. For me, the whole AA enterprise is successful because of human power.

No supernatural pleas are needed or required. Humans are the ultimate higher power. I would argue that they have always been the higher power in AA.

It is untrue that no human power could restore us to sanity.

It is true that human power could restore us to sanity.

About the Authors

Justin and Stephen are alcoholics living in Australia. They have both been sober for approximately two years. They are trying to spread the message of secular AA and host a podcast called “We Agnostics.”

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2 years ago

Good going! it is very important that we keep going to regular AA and speak our piece. I have seen a definite shift in our meetings as a whole, because of my activism, though there are a few there who balk all the more. But we are all getting tired of it, even myself, I’ve been in combat mode for  5 years, it’s time for me to focus on my own recovery a bit again, make a suggestion here and there, and only speak up against the worst religious abuse. I’m going to really try…..

2 years ago

In most of the meetings I attend I am the only atheist, or at least the only atheist who openly shares that they have no belief in God. At the end of most meetings, everyone holds hands and says the Lords Prayer. I stay quiet. I have had to work hard to overlook the strong religious, and specifically Christian, beliefs and practices in AA. I do this because despite finding this aspect to be extremely offensive, appalling, and unwelcoming, I find the program of AA to be very helpful. As you point out in your article, it is the human… Read more »

Lance B
Lance B
2 years ago

Thanks for your exposition. Your comment that neither of you recites the serenity prayer at the end of meetings set me to thinking.  Even before I began to announce my nonbelief directly, I found it peculiar that the ideas expressed were called a prayer.  And from what I understood about other peoples’ belief in a god, it seemed strange that they would say “grant me” as that sounded more like a demand than a plea, and their god did not seem to be the kind of gal who wanted it’s subjects to tell it what to do.  Or is it… Read more »

Marty N.
Marty N.
2 years ago

Keep swinging!  I’ve been on this train for 37 years.  I have been not quiet about my atheism. although I’m not a militant atheist  It appears you guys are going about it in a good way.  Keep up the good work.  We have started 2 meetings here in Connecticut, USA.  One 2 years ago and the other 5 months ago.  Also, after attending the ICSAA in Toronto, I became more inspired to do more.  I’m now finding there is less resistance to us than there has been.  I’m sure this will be a very large part of AAs’ future.  Good luck.