I got a reputation as the rebellious atheist type at my AA home group, even though I never spoke against religion or the Judeo-Christian concept of God or identified myself as an atheist, and had, in fact, encouraged Christian sponsees to practice their faith.
Like almost all AA meetings, my home group has members who almost every week will say or strongly imply that working the AA program requires a belief in God and that we AAs believe in one God of our collective understanding. Whenever we had an unfamiliar face in the room, I felt compelled to counter these falsehoods by letting newcomers know that people of many different beliefs stay sober in AA and that I as a non-Christian have enjoyed many benefits from working all parts of the AA program. As people who lack power over our drinking, we need to tap additional power and that power can take many different forms, such as the group, recovery principles, nature, the universe, or any power capable of helping us toward sanity.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that others in the group jumped to false conclusions about me and my beliefs. Some decided I was an atheist rebel against religion and spirituality. Some assumed I was against the steps and reliance on a higher power, despite everything I had said to the contrary. Invariably, AA members heard what I said as a criticism of the Judeo-Christian concept of God rather than a criticism of pushing any particular outside worldview.
When I attended my first AA meeting, I had already believed in powers greater than myself that could guide me to sanity. I had rejected the religion of my youth but later experimented with meditation, Buddhist concepts, and self-empowerment principles that changed my life. My personality shifted in a radically positive direction and guided me down a path of growth and healing that led to the doors of AA.
I was simultaneously relieved to find so many people on similar paths and worried by the strong Christian overtones. Fortunately, some members made it clear that each of us can use our own personal concepts of a higher power.
I needed help. I desperately needed support in staying off booze. So, I focused on what we had in common and took the suggestion to hear “God” as “G.O.D.,” good orderly direction, and not the male deity of my upbringing. It worked for me. I was fortunate to feel unaffected when some people pushed a religious belief or made misleading claims about the necessity of a belief in God. For many years I was perfectly content in AA and sometimes referred to my higher power concepts as “G.O.D.”
My contentment with AA came to an end when I began sponsoring other people. Because I often spoke about the wide range of possible higher power concepts and the ability to work the AA program as a non-Christian, I attracted certain newcomers torn between wanting help in AA and not wanting to have religious belief pushed on them. At first, I felt total confidence that they could navigate AA as I had, so I explained the use of “good orderly direction” and that the AA program requires no religion. When a sponsee was triggered by the pushing of religious belief in a meeting, I urged him to tolerate the misguided few and reassured him that we can definitely benefit from the AA program as non-Christians. Some members have some off-the-wall or narrow-minded ideas that they’re free to express, I’d say, and we don’t have to be chased off by them. If one meeting is not working well, there are many others to check out.
As my sponsees continued to struggle with this issue, I became more and more aware of the subtle ways that AA members imply that there is only one valid higher power concept, which is God, that other concepts are temporary until God is accepted, that the steps require belief in a male deity who requires obedience to his will, that AA members all share belief in one God, and that people without these beliefs are being stubborn, closed-minded, and contrary. It was unpleasant to find my experience with AA meetings souring as these misleading and harmful claims became more glaringly obvious. I found them in every meeting. Suddenly I was aware of the same problems in AA literature. I was stunned at how often I heard and read these things and troubled by how many years it had taken me to wake up to it.
I hit a very painful turning point a few years ago. Two of my sponsees had had traumatic childhood experiences connected to particular churches and were painfully triggered by certain religious dogmas. “John,” despite his initial enthusiasm for a sober life, lost all interest in meetings and resigned himself to a life of drunkenness. My friend “Robert,” despite repeated attempts, going to meetings, and some honest step work with myself and another sponsor, relapsed repeatedly and in his final relapse took his own life.
I shared my pain and struggles in my home group a few times. I don’t think my AA friends could or would allow themselves to understand, as understanding would undoubtedly bring the same kind of discontent, pain, and desire for difficult changes that I felt. AA is a lifeline and many members won’t question any part of it out of fear of talking themselves out of it completely and losing their hard-won progress in recovery. For many, the thought of removing references to God in favor of general terminology can inspire fear of retribution from a jealous and vengeful deity. Surely most of them understand that trying to change AA would drive a wedge between them and most devoted AA members. I see these things now in hindsight. At the time I was just frustrated, demoralized, and angry that my friend, a generous, kind, and well-liked man, and one who deserved sobriety with the help of AA as much as anyone, was dead and would never have another shot at a happy sober life.
I had called for a business meeting in the format of a group inventory and was searching for quotes from Bill W. that call for inclusiveness, openness, and a willingness to grow, take inventory, and change as a fellowship when I came across AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief. What a relief to find so many voices putting into words the things I had struggled with! I frequented the sites and read everything. At first, as someone who doesn’t identify as an atheist or agnostic, I felt like an outsider to the movement, but I kept returning and enjoying the articles and discussion. I am excited that the movement today is less specifically atheist and more secular and all-inclusive, as I believe that inclusiveness is a principle that we can all get behind rather than something that divides us.
I have been searching for local support in starting an all-inclusive AA meeting that does not place one higher power concept above all others. I want a positive focus on principles rather than any kind of negative stance against current AA shortcomings, but it is not clear how to publicize the meeting and its purpose without giving offense. “All-inclusive” implies a shortcoming with other groups. Probably my area needs a special interest meeting for atheists and agnostics, but personally I am inspired to start an AA meeting that is a welcoming, safe space for atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and all other non-Christians, as well as those who do have Christian beliefs.
I have considered naming it the “3-6-10 Group” after those three traditions. Tradition Three warns against additional membership requirements, such as a requirement to embrace or tolerate the near-constant promotion of particular religious beliefs. Tradition Six warns against affiliation or endorsement, actual or implied, such as endorsing the Judeo-Christian God as the highest of the higher power concepts. Tradition Ten warns against making statements on controversial outside issues, such as religion and the existence of God.
I do not want to let my past experiences with sponsees and the terrible losses some of them have suffered be all for naught. I can’t change the past and I can’t even much change my AA home group, let alone all of AA, but I can work with others to make a few positive changes. I firmly believe that the principles behind inventory and amends can be applied to our groups and the entire fellowship. How can we better serve the newcomer—that is, all newcomers of all worldviews and backgrounds?
About the Author
Scott J, 45, is long time AA member grateful to be free of obsession and compulsion. He loves writing, working with newcomers, hiking in the mountains, and raising his eight-year-old son. He helped write an inclusive, secular version of the twelve steps for another fellowship and hopes to bring a secular AA meeting to the Bible Belt of the U.S.