It’s the day after my 31st sobriety anniversary, and feeling somewhat sentimental, I pull my old Big Book down from the shelf where it’s lived unread for years. It’s a third edition, paperback, dark blue with the title “Alcoholics Anonymous” discretely embedded in the cover. The book is tattered and worn with most of the pages loose from the binding. The pages are marked with faded yellow and orange ink from highlighters I used to mark passages I thought important. Written within the margins are my comments and notes with arrows I drew pointing to selected sentences or words I had circled. I turn to page 44, chapter four, “We Agnostics.”
I was in my mid-twenties when I got sober, certainly an adult, but lacking the confidence and independence I enjoy today. At the time, I felt a need to be accepted by the people in AA. I was desperate and afraid, and I thought AA was my only hope. The god bit was a challenge early on, but rather than fight it, I became the square-peg alcoholic struggling to fit into the round hole of AA.
I wouldn’t have described myself as an atheist, but I also wasn’t a believer. Growing up, I didn’t go to church, and what I knew about religion, I learned from preachers I watched on television and a class I took at a community college. I tried to believe in God, but I couldn’t, and I didn’t understand people who could. I figured there was something wrong with me.
What became my home AA group was a men’s meeting, and it seemed most who attended were Catholic. Many of them grew up together in the same neighborhoods, went to the same Catholic schools and the same Catholic churches. They shared a life experience that was foreign to me. Having lived my childhood as an army brat, I learned early to adapt to new surroundings and that’s what I did in AA. I suppose it served me well.
Surveying the pages of my old Big Book, I see clearly how I adapted. I conformed. Thumbing through its pages, I realize it was probably 29 years ago when I was highlighting the paragraphs, underlining and circling the words, drawing arrows, and writing between the lines and in the margins of “We Agnostics.” The book stands as a stark reminder of my conformity, and though it’s obvious to me now, at the time I was only doing what I thought I had to do to survive. I would please my sponsor and the group, and I didn’t give it a second thought. Fooling them, I fooled myself, and this went on for decades.
I cringe now as I read the words that I wrote in the margins of “We Agnostics.” At the top of page 49 I wrote, “If I can believe in electricity and I can’t see it, then I can believe in God. I have seen electricity light up a room, and I have seen God change a man.” At the bottom of the same page I wrote, “Amazing, Faith = Logic.” Did I really believe what I wrote? I don’t know to this day. I was an expert at self-deception. I learned long ago that all I had to do was convince myself of my own lies.
I did the drill. I worked the Steps and stayed sober. I prayed on my knees, day and night…until one day I stopped. Sober ten years, there was a day I stopped praying, and my doubts about God and what I was hearing at AA meetings were increasingly nagging at me. My deceit continued, and incredibly for the next fifteen years, I went to meetings hiding my doubts from others as well as from myself. I was essentially unchanged from the day I arrived at AA. I couldn’t believe in a god, but I needed to fit in, and knowing the language of AA, fitting in was easy—until it wasn’t.
During my 23rd year of sobriety, I read The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens. These books sealed the deal on my atheism. Lawrence Krauss, in his book A Universe from Nothing, helped me appreciate the wonders of the Cosmos. It was exhilarating. I found a worldview that made sense to me, one with which I was happy and at peace. That is until I thought about AA, and my old fears of not being accepted returned.
I recall reading the Big Book for the first time after realizing I was an atheist. I could easily glean from the pages the practical actions that sustained my sobriety, and it was obvious to me that it wasn’t what I believed that was keeping me sober, but it was what I did. Comfortable with this new outlook, I tested the waters at my home group.
It was difficult. I walked on eggshells at every meeting. No matter how sensitive I was to avoid offending or disappointing someone, and regardless of how I couched my words, I began to receive sometimes subtle, but often not so subtle criticism. People quoted the Big Book to me as if I had never read it, or as if I suddenly forgot what was written in its pages. This was a painful time.
Learning that there were atheist and agnostic AA groups all over the world and had been for years, I was emboldened to become more honest when I shared during meetings. I refuted passages from the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, as well as the Big Book. I made it clear that how the literature described atheists was wrong and unnecessarily divisive. I was in open conflict with my home group and it seemed with AA at large. I believed I could no longer fit in, and if I was going to have a place in Alcoholics Anonymous, then I would need to attend meetings for agnostics and atheists. Such a meeting didn’t exist in Kansas City, so I would have to start one.
I approached Jim C., a life-long atheist who attended meetings at my home group, and I asked him if he would help me start an AA meeting for agnostics and atheists. He agreed, and together we started the We Agnostics Kansas City AA group. Our first meeting was on August 7, 2014, and today the group has five meetings a week. Two other secular AA groups, Freethinkers in AA, and the Secular Speaker Meeting formed after We Agnostics, and now there are a total of eight secular AA meetings a week in Kansas City.
My place in AA is now secure and I have a home group where I can be myself. I no longer need to conform to someone else’s beliefs, nor must I give lip service to the Big Book. I can share my experience freely as an atheist and feel accepted and understood.
Holding my old Big Book and perusing its faded pages, my eyes are drawn to a note I made to myself, just beneath the first paragraph of “We Agnostics.” It reads, “I must believe this.” Those words, my thoughts from so many years ago, give me pause and I feel a tinge of sadness as I read them. Bringing my attention back to the present, I again turn to the pages of “We Agnostics,” and I say to myself, “I don’t believe this. I don’t need to believe this.”
About the Author
John S. has been sober since July 20, 1988 and lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his wife Susan, cats Phoebe and Luna, and a very energetic Australian Shepherd named Bonnie. His home group is We Agnostics, and his favorite podcast is AA Beyond Belief.