By Ed S.
My parents sent us three children to Catholic school. After twelve years of attending Catholic schools, first grade through high school, I went away to college and began to question my beliefs. One of the best things I learned at The University of California was to think and to question everything. After several discussions with my fraternity brothers about whether God exists or not, reason prevailed, and I became a non-believer. I graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting.
What does spirituality mean for a non-believer, atheist or agnostic?
Secular spirituality for me includes meditation, which I have done for 28 years. It helps me to stay in the moment and to see things as they are.
I first studied and practiced meditation at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY. On my first visit there I asked the Abbot what Zen had to say about God. John Daido Loori Roshi said, “Zen does not talk about God.” That was good enough for me so I stayed, became a student of Daido, and did several ten-day meditation retreats at the monastery. When I moved to Ohio, I started, with several other meditators that I met, Mindfulness Meditation of Columbus. We had weekly meditation sessions and put on several weekend retreats with attendance of up to fifty people.
I do not pray because I do not believe there is a spiritual being who answers prayers.
Spirituality for me includes positive affirmations, insights, nurturing thoughts and compassionate action. In Waiting – A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, Marya Hornbacher states it well: “When I speak of spirit, I am not speaking of something related to or given by a force outside ourselves. I am speaking of the force that is ourselves. …It is an awareness of presence in the world.”
How does a non-believer thrive in Alcoholics Anonymous?
When I first started going to AA meetings 26 years ago and heard members mention “a power greater than myself” or “God as I understand him” that did not work for me. I even attended a weekly second step Came to Believe meeting, but I still didn’t get it. Candlelight Eleventh step meetings were okay as long as I focused on the meditation part and ignored the prayer part. Members of AA suggested that I use the group as my higher power and that worked, at least for a while.
Now that I have been an out-of-the closet atheist for many years, I have no problem saying I have no higher power. I don’t need it. Actually, I believe it is the unconditional love we receive from other group members that keeps us sober. Science has shown that the neural pathways associated with cravings and addictions are also activated when we feel loved.  For many years I drank to get rid of the feeling of being unloved. I go to meetings and feel loved and no longer have the craving to drink.
In the pamphlet, Questions and Answers on Sponsorship it states, “…some alcoholics have been able to achieve and maintain sobriety without a belief in a personal Higher Power.” I have heard many times in meetings that if you don’t do a fifth step, you will drink again. I think this is one of the most important things to do and you certainly don’t need to believe in a higher power to do a fifth step. When I first got into AA, I rewrote and typed up my version of the Steps, leaving out god. That worked for me. There are several versions of the twelve steps written by other atheist/agnostics and they can be helpful. A great – and brand new – resource is the book published by AA Agnostica, The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps.
I thank Jim Burwell (known as Jim B, 3/23/1898 – 9/8/74) for suggesting AA’s Third Tradition: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” He is the author of “A Vicious Cycle” found in the second and fourth editions of the Big Book. Jim was an atheist and worked to tone down the God bit in the first draft of the Big Book. This resulted in the use of the terms “Higher Power” and “God as we understand him.” Without this compromise AA might not have grown like it has.
What we do need, however, is more literature for non-believers. A recent book by Joe C., Beyond Belief – Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, is a good book for those who like a daily reader.
I have talked to people who have left AA because of so much God talk. Because of this I wanted to start a less religious meeting. I looked for people at meetings who did not pray with the group and did not mention god or higher power in their shares. I found Dan H. and Lee S. and we started a We Agnostics meeting. Our first meeting was held in Columbus on January 4, 2011.
I obtained the format for the meeting by writing to a We Agnostics group in California. A member was kind enough to send it to me. It is an open discussion meeting and very similar to other AA meetings, except that we do not pray at the beginning and end of the meeting. God and a Higher Power are usually not mentioned unless a newcomer asks how we do AA or the Steps without either. We say the Responsibility Declaration at the end of the meeting.
There have been several visits from the Membership Committee of the area Intergroup, which publishes the Central Ohio Directory of AA meetings. They seem to be looking for a reason to take us out of the Directory. So far we are hanging in there. We celebrated our second anniversary at the Dublin Hospital at 7:00 PM on January 1, 2013. We usually have 10-20 attendees who are most grateful for this type of meeting.
I am responsible…
When anyone, anywhere,
reaches out for help, I want
the hand of A.A. always to be there.
And for that: I am responsible.
And that includes non-believers.
Ed’s professional experience spans 50 years and includes top management financial positions at large corporations and small not-for-profits. He has two sons and lives with his wife, Nita, and their yellow lab, Morgan. Ed retired in 2013 at the age of 71 and enjoys cooking and is active in three book clubs. He takes the Steps seriously and that includes the Twelfth Step. He is a volunteer guardian (appointed by the court to make medical decisions for patients who are not capable themselves and have no relatives to help them) and a hospice volunteer who sits with the terminally ill. In 2010, Ed received a CFO of the Year – Honorable Mention Award for his service as CFO of the House of Hope for Alcoholics, a rehab treatment facility in Columbus, Ohio. Ed has been a sober non-believer in AA for 26 years.
 Discover Magazine, January 2, 2011, Page 81, Science Explains Why Breaking Up is Hard to Do.