How to Talk to an Atheist or Agnostic

By Ritha F.

The primary purpose of AA is to help the alcoholic who still suffers. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Yet for alcoholics who are nonbelievers, some AA groups are less than welcoming. 

Some of this behavior has occurred at the organizational level, such as when leaders refuse to list or attempt to delist secular meetings. Other actions occur in meetings.  One member recounts being in a meeting where the “Chapter to the Agnostic” was referred to as the “Chapter to the Obnoxious.” Some behavior can be extremely harmful, such as when newcomers are told that they will never get sober – or worse, that they will die – unless they believe in God. 

The majority of AA members, however, sincerely wish to be of service to alcoholics who seek recovery. Because we believe that building bridges serves the fellowship better than building walls, secular AA members from across North America have contributed ideas on how to work with alcoholics who are nonbelievers. 

Why does it matter how AA treats secular members? 

The ability to incorporate diverse viewpoints is important to keep AA relevant as society changes. According to Pew Research, 16 percent of the US population identify as Agnostic, Atheist, or say that religion is unimportant to them. In contrast, the percentage who say that they are Christian has dropped by eight percentage points since 2007.  This is partly because society is becoming more secular and partly because it is becoming more religiously diverse. 

In Europe, these numbers are much higher. For example, in the UK, 53% of the population are nonbelievers. This is why AA meetings in Europe are much less evangelical than in the US and are less likely to close with the Lord´s Prayer.  (In a recent Grapevine poll of 1,835 readers, 48% said that they would prefer to close with the Secular Responsibility Statement, compared to 25% who preferred the Lord´s Prayer, 20% who preferred the Serenity Prayer and 8% who preferred some other form of closing.)

AA needs to attract younger members to stay relevant. The secular population tends to younger, 37 years old, compared to 46 for all U.S. adults, or 50 for AA members. (Sources: Pew Research, US Census, AA Membership Survey) Despite the cliché about people getting more religious as they get older, Gen X and even Baby Boomers have become less religious over the past decade. Twenty-five percent of Millennials are not religious. Society has changed since the 1940´s; the religious aspect of AA is much less likely to appeal to younger alcoholics. 

What can AA members do to build bridges across belief systems

First, understand that tolerance does not imply a lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. The secular path in AA is simply a different path with the same goal: recovery from addiction. Tolerance also does not mean one cannot express his or her own beliefs. However, it does mean refraining from undermining or attacking the beliefs of others, especially when it drives someone away from a place where they can get help.  Shana L writes, “When I got sober the first time, I was accosted in the parking lot of my work place by an AA member who told me I could “never get sober without God. This man’s statement and the inappropriate place where it occurred made me feel unwelcome and were big reasons why I decided I didn’t belong in the program.”

Believers as well as non-believers need to speak up when members treat those who do not believe in God poorly. Saying nothing implies consent. The Golden Rule applies to everybody, regardless of what they believe. Tom G. puts it evocatively: “Treat all people with love and respect. Let them find their way. Let them search until the transformation takes place and they find freedom from their suffering.” (Unless otherwise attributed, all quotes are taken from this website.)

Karen M. writes, “When I say that I’m a non-theist (or atheist or agnostic), believe me. Assume that I am just as strong in my non-belief in a deity as you are in your belief in a deity.” Jim M. says, “Understand that we atheists, agnostics, and others already have a belief system that has to be respected and put into context when talking about sobriety.” 

Do Secular AA members want to ban talk about a Higher Power?  

No. Libby L. says, “I don’t expect them to change the whole program because that’s just silly, but don´t tell me that I’m going to fail the program because I don’t pray to God.”  Richie L says, “I certainly do not want to ban deity talk . . . It has been my (wonderful) experience that many in my fellowship say or imply that their religious beliefs are their own and are not intended to be imposed upon anyone else. Dare I say that there is a growing respect for those of us who happen to be atheist and agnostic? The keywords in AA are sobriety and recovery, not heaven and hell.”

Attitudes are slowly changing. In October, 2016, the Grapevine published an edition dedicated to stories of members who are agnostic and atheist. AA members can also show an interest in how secular members maintain sobriety. These members have decades of experience to share. (For example, secular member John H. has over five decades of sobriety.) Dale K. writes that asking a secular member how he or she stays sober is “an indication that they accept me as I am and they’re showing respect for my beliefs. It’s a pretty big compliment that somebody wants to know how you stay sober.”

How should members in the program work with Secular newcomers?

Maria B. writes, “What I wish someone had told me when I was a newcomer: It’s ok if you believe in nothing at all, or something outside of mainstream religious beliefs, or if you are still questioning. No matter what your persuasion, you can get and stay sober. You can also — if you choose to — work the steps as an atheist or agnostic.”

John R. says he finds good advice for working with secular newcomers in the chapter, ‘Working with Others.” “I try to focus on what the other person is saying and especially feeling. I also try to keep my sharing about my own experience, not my beliefs. To me, far too much is made of what one must believe or think and not enough on what the experience of addiction and recovery are like. Connection with the experiences and feelings of others is what helped me and continues to help me in my journey even 36 years later.”

Realize that some secular members may choose not to participate in prayers and readings that run counter to their beliefs. Jim M. says, “Don’t ask us or place us into a position where we are forced to act in a way counter to our belief system. This alienates people. Example: I caught a lot of flak for not participating in a meeting’s prayer because it is counter to my Buddhist beliefs and would affirm an endorsement of Christianity. I was polite about it. But I was told it was NOT the AA way.” Other examples include repeated requests to secular members to lead the Lord´s Prayer when the meeting chair knows that they are nonbelievers.  

Can someone who believes in God sponsor someone who doesn´t? 

Sure. John R. writes, “I had a sponsor who told me he didn’t care about beliefs … if I would simply do the process, I’d come to my own understanding and beliefs.” Robert K writes, “I’m am grateful that my sponsor suggested taking what I can use and leaving the rest. No judgement, just learning a new way of thinking. Try it. If it works, use it.  If it doesn’t, move on to something else.”

Maria B. advises, “Look for the people who nurture and support you.  I looked for someone who was open-minded, kind, respectful, and loving. I looked for temperament, basically. I could not find any atheists or agnostics who were available to sponsor in my area at the time I was looking. My sponsor happens to be a Christian, but she has all of these characteristics and is very supportive.”

How do you explain how the program works to a Secular newcomer?

John L. writes, “I really think that we should avoid any kind of overt spirituality in talking with newcomers. I speak of my higher purpose. I understand the steps as being a process to redevelop a relationship with humanity that I lost in my pursuit of self-gratification. I like to stress the diligent work of grinding away the sharp edges of my personality and developing a reserve of emotional sobriety. I also stress the importance of asking for help and freely giving help to others, which is the cornerstone of why we hang together.”

John C. says, “Explain the history of the AA program, how it started with religious roots. Explain that going to meetings, getting a sponsor, writing and sharing an inventory, making amends, and being of service is a process that leads to a change in attitude and perception. That process in itself is a power greater than our self/ego. Explain that some call it a spiritual process, some say it is God, but you can call it whatever you want. The point is that everyone in AA goes through this process and the results are the same no matter what anyone believes or doesn’t believe. it gets you to a place where alcohol is no longer a thought. The power is in the process.”

What kinds of resources are available for secular members? 

 There are thousands of secular members in AA. These members can provide support for other secular members by identifying who they are in meetings, answering questions, providing information about secular meetings and conferences, and   suggesting reading materials and sponsorship. Members who believe in God can also provide support by sharing their own experience without proselytizing, by showing respect for divergent beliefs, and by speaking up when inappropriate comments are directed at secular members.

Living Sober is full of useful, practical information for newcomers and there’s less focus on God than in other AA literature. The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery shows how the program can be interpreted and worked by secular members. Roger C.’s Little Book is invaluable and almost essential as an aid to understanding what the steps mean. Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life is a daily reflection book used by many secular members. Note that the majority of secular members find the “Chapter to the Agnostic” in the Big Book insulting. This chapter reflects Bill Wilson’s personal beliefs and is obviously not drawn from experiences of early secular AA members like Jim B. and Hank P. Instead, it implies that nonbelievers must be converted to believing in God in order to stay sober.

Over 320 secular AA meetings have sprung up across North America and Europe.  Online secular AA meetings are available and draw an interesting and articulate crowd from around the world. Secular AA websites include AA Beyond Belief, Secular AA Coffee Shop, AA Agnostica, and others. 

How can AA members create an environment where everyone feels welcome?

John L. writes, “First of all, there is never any reason to not be kind. I will not beat sobriety into anyone. No scorning or shaming, either. No tough love.”  Henrik B says, “I never let God-or-death-by-bottle comments pass unchallenged. I cut in and say that long-term sobriety is very much possible without believing in the supernatural. To let a newcomer go home after being told such nonsense would make me feel guilty.” 

The world is becoming more secular and more diverse. The ability to incorporate different viewpoints is important to keep AA relevant as society changes. This is especially important for attracting younger members, since AA is “graying” rapidly.  Tolerance and respect are not a luxury; they are a necessity.

We are all different. AA members ascribe to a variety of belief systems. We speak different languages and get our customs from many cultures. However, when we look beneath the surface, we discover certain universal elements. It can be helpful to think of the fellowship like a pearl necklace. Each member is a pearl with distinct characteristics, but underneath there is a string that ties us all together. That string is mutual support and respect. 

What we believe matters less than how we treat each other. Let´s build bridges.

About the Author

Ritha is a freelance writer and owner of Business Research Solutions, a marketing research company that helps organizations understand their markets and develop successful strategies for building their brands. She currently lives and works in Mexico, and has lived and worked extensively in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Ritha is a foodie who enjoys trying new dishes (Beef Bourguignon, anyone?).  She also manages a small airbnb business.

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Vince Hawkins
2 years ago

I suspect the non-believers who might deliberately undermine religious members’ beliefs and the believers who would undermine agnostics’ or atheists’ beliefs are in a small minority. What are the best approaches to these minorities? I’d like to see “greater power” written into the steps instead of “God.” Then members who believe their greater power is God would still be catered for, as would non-believers. It would prick the balloon of anyone who says “if you don’t get God, you can’t get the program.” If it was taken for granted that all members should tolerate other members’ beliefs, then the subject… Read more »

2 years ago

Thank you for your thoughtful and reasoned thoughts on this critical issue; they are particularly clear when written by a skilled author.  As secular AA grows the process of building bridges instead of walls is increasingly important, particularly in a hyper-tribal world. I am increasingly aware of my own tendency to be tribal. Within secular AA I find a group of similar individuals – or individuals I perceive to be similar. However, if I expect traditional AA members to respect my position, I must equally respect theirs. I find that this is not easy and I do tend to be… Read more »

John S
2 years ago
Reply to  COTU Bill

Bill, please write the article if you can and we can post it here.

John M.
John M.
2 years ago

Thank you, Ritha, for the comprehensive way of presenting the various kinds of substantive issues we face day to day now that it has become increasingly apparent that secular and “traditional” AA will have to find some way to coexist.  Last Saturday, my wife, Dianne, and I attended a large, 100 person+ traditional group in the heart of Toronto. It was our first time visiting this group and Dianne had been asked to speak and come up with a topic of her choice. (At this group a speaker talks for 10-15 minutes with discussion to follow.) Dianne’s topic was “inclusion… Read more »

Joe C
3 years ago

What a wonderful article. You make impassioned points without ridicule or retaliation. You know this of course but the point I hope to make is that this temperament is the best way to build bridges. There is more to the nuance of communication that proving we are right. I was at NAADAC (association of addiction professionals) in Houston a week ago, talking to a group of program directors and counselors about the growing appetite for a secular view to 12-Step Facilitation, changing demographics and the body of resources that has emerged to meet this demand. They were already receptive. Within… Read more »

3 years ago

Ritha, thank you. Something like this would go great in the Grapevine, where more regular AA members go. They’re the ones that really need to read it.

Now, while I do give individual members who are believers the same respect that I would want, if not necessarily expect to get quite yet, I do think it would be a good goal to purge some of the worst aspects of religiosity from our program, it is our program, it is one we share, it is not their program.

Jack Blair
3 years ago
Reply to  life-j

The purge is underway in the area where I live. Beware though, the extremely religious people in AA are not going without a fight. While my home group is quad A, I regularly attend traditional AA. Many I chat with are quite surprised that Secular AA exists.  Even after several years of higher profile existence, quad A is still somewhat in the shadows. When asked to speak at these meetings I never miss the opportunity to say loudly and clearly that recovery is absolutely possible whilst having no beliefs in medieval myths and other bronze-age nonsense. Predictably, the heavily religious members take… Read more »