An Atheist Speaks Out

May 1962

By E. L. from Vermont.
This article was first printed in the AA Grapevine in May, 1962.

I AM an alcoholic and an atheist. I am addressing this to those alcoholics who have had trouble with the religious overtones in the AA program. But let me state first that it depresses me to think of what life would be like without AA.

It has been long on my mind to write this and now, after five years of sobriety, I think my brain is clear enough to make a statement which might be of worth to others.

To those who do not accept the idea of a supernatural being having a direct interest in each and every human, let me assert that there are people who do care about others. It has been my direct experience that it is always people – human beings with humanity – who have strengthened me when I needed help.

I admit that I need more strength than I alone possess to overcome the compulsion to drink. I receive this strength from the power for good that is generated in AA. I have interpreted the frequent mention of “God” in the Twelve Steps and elsewhere as this power which obviously comes from other humans. I hope this will help the alcoholic who is an agnostic or an atheist to be more willing to search for the way to sobriety that exists in AA.

After a year and a half of real sobriety (I had been trying to grasp the AA program for three years previously), I suffered a personal catastrophe. I am baffled by those well-meaning acquaintances who confidently assure me that God will help me to overcome my difficulties. I do not ascribe my dilemma to punishment for past “sins” nor do I have the vanity to think that a deity would choose me for martyrdom, but simply to the absurdity of life. Certainly it is ironic that I should have become crippled after a period of genuine sobriety and not during a bout of drunkenness. But it is nothing more nor less than that – simply ironic.

The complacency of those in AA who confidently assert that there are no atheists in AA is as ridiculous as the statement about there having been no atheists in foxholes. The clever clergyman who invented this fiction has my admiration – it is top flight Madison Avenue. Also, some of these members probably expect me to find my way into religion through my association with AA. I do not attempt to dissuade them from this hope because it is so very unlikely as to be not worth attention. I have been an atheist through twenty-five years of drinking and through the past years of sobriety.

I don’t want to change AA. It works for me. I just want it to be more effective in attracting rationalists. Their membership in turn would help AA tremendously. 

Perhaps a pamphlet addressed specifically to alcoholics of this persuasion would have much influence.

In AA one frequently hears that some people “claim” to be atheists. I refrain from disputing this illogical and thoughtless remark – I let it pass. Obviously, the burden of proof is on those who profess a belief, meaning that Christians are under the obligation of proving their beliefs through acting out the precepts of Christianity, etc. Unfortunately, I find this rare, if not actually non-existent.

I have a deep belief in what I call human morality. I believe that evil impulses can be subordinated by decent actions. AA brings out impulses for good and this has tremendous force. In my opinion this sum total of action for good is the “Higher Power.” I interpret “higher” to mean greater rather than supreme as is implied in the phrase.

At this point I would like to quote the words of a Unitarian minister: “In a world that has lost, or is losing fast, any convincing concept of divine providence at work, of a personal God ordering the affairs of mankind, it is not necessary to assume that the only alternative to a man-cherishing universe is a hostile or satanic universe. There is the much more likely alternative of a neutral universe where man lives, hammering out his salvation without hope of heaven or dread of hell. Man can find that life has value, not because a divine father so ordains, but because the achievements of good men and women, laboring together with love and self-respect, are self-validating and self-rewarding.”

Please do not assume that I make any issue of my convictions. At meetings I let others find their own interpretations of AA. If this includes religion, good luck to them. I never attempt to dissuade them from beliefs which they have found to be of help in maintaining sobriety. However, I ask the same acceptance for those of us who wish to make a rationalistic interpretation of the AA program. I do want to say, though, that I am constantly surprised when an AA member, who professes to be a Christian, has no hesitation in making offensive remarks about minorities. I find this puzzling in church-goers and in AA members in particular. (By the way, are meetings in the South segregated?) After all, drunks also belong to a minority that is despised by the ignorant and uninformed. I am sure that atheists are not completely free of prejudices but, on the whole, I think they recognize the absurdity of prejudices and generally do not voice them. Believers do not seem to possess this reticence, however.

Many people have refused the help AA can give because of its quasi-religious flavor. It seems to me that if we really want to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety we should mean it by not putting obstacles in their path. I think the important thing is sobriety and not the acceptance of a dogma (which is impossible of proof).

It is entirely possible that many who come into AA have trouble with the program because, in spite of lip service to religion, they do not and cannot believe in a supernatural being. The conflict arising from a superimposed idea that they are required to accept a “Higher Power” in order to maintain sobriety, leads to unconscious revolt and reinforces the compulsion to drink. Who really has the arrogance to say they “know” or “understand” a God?

I don’t want to change AA. It works for me. I just want it to be more effective in attracting rationalists. Their membership in turn would help AA tremendously. Perhaps a pamphlet addressed specifically to alcoholics of this persuasion would have much influence.

For a period of over two years I was practically a loner, being able to attend only a couple of meetings a year. Fortunately, my wife has a good understanding of the problem of alcoholism (because of past association with a family group) and I was able to have almost daily discussions with her. Now, however, we have formed a group in this area which meets in my home, weekly.

I was not able to accept AA or the very real help it could give until I made a rationalistic interpretation of the program. I am still an atheist and see no reason why I should change my views at this time. But I am a grateful atheist.

———-

Copyright © The AA Grapevine. Reprinted with permission.

On the right hand side of the AA Agnostica website you can access articles on the website by category (Posts by Category). We currently have a dozen agnostic-friendly articles from the AA Grapevine.

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Comments

An Atheist Speaks Out — 37 Comments

  1. From Box 4-5-9, Vol. 59, No. 3 / Fall 2013 edition, Terrance M. Bedient, our latest Chairperson of the General Service Board mentions AA’s Responsibility Declaration; “When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be. And for that; I am responsible.” To that end, according to Bedient, “The key issue facing AA is membership growth and engagement.”

    Terry Bedient might want to consider how the largest growing segment of American population – non-believers – might find AA more attractive. If we were an obvious choice for still-suffering alcoholics who have a natural – not a supernatural – worldview, then I suspect AA would grow… just saying.

    • Let’s hope, Joe, Mr. Bedient and the General Service Conference are making a start on this in New York this week by approving a pamphlet that includes WAFT perspectives, which has been in the works since 1976.

      I’m sending the General Service Conference my good vibes, not to date myself too much . . . ;)

  2. From the Grapevine books list: Step by Step (GV25) ‘shows how AA members of all ages and lifestyles from around the world; spiritual, religious and atheists; newcomers and oldtimers have recovered and found a new way of life by working the 12 Steps. Discover a variety of experiences from AAs that have written about the Steps for Grapevine from the 1940s to the present.’

  3. Very good article. I can’t believe it was written more than 50 years ago. Sounds like today. I have been sober for 21 years… the first 15 or so through AA. Finally, I felt I had to leave. I live in Florida, and the AA meetings were getting to sound blatantly Christian (I almost expected an altar call at the end). I found LifeRing, a secular recovery group, which I’ve been attending quite successfully since then. I was not aware of AA Agnostica until about 3-4 months ago. Keep up the good work!

  4. This debate about is there or isn’t there smacks of the immaturity or, the stunted emotional growth that most of us accept as the real challenge to getting along with others and staying sober. It’s like kids boasting, my Dad’s bigger than your Dad.
    In our case we’re told that we were selected to be sober by a power greater than ourselves. This begs a couple of questions. Why would he put us through the horrors of alcoholism, allow us to lose everything near and dear to us and then sober us up? The other is this idea that “no human power could have relieved our alcoholism”.
    Having been sober for good stretches then relapsing for an equally good stretch I have had considerable experience with rehabilitation from a hopeless state of mind and body.
    The way it usually started was, a couple of friends would take me to the hospital where human beings attended to my withdrawal. Then I went to detox where more humans attended to my various needs. Next it was a treatment centre where more humans did all they could to educate me, and encourage me to continue getting help from AA. At AA were more people, human beings, who welcomed me and, in some cases, went well out of their way to support me, particularly in that first year. My point is, I never once saw or heard God, I felt no divine power propping me up as I slowly emerged from that battered state of mind and body. It was all humans who were helping me. In point of fact, that statement, “no human power…” is clearly incorrect. Thank God for the humans.

    • Not unlike crediting God for the cure and ignoring all the medical personnel and what they did.

      I regularly hear “It is only thru grace that . . .”

      My reply is the BB also says four times that faith without works is dead. A person can be full of grace but if they don’t get off their asses, nothing gets done, as in the thirteen two-letter words prayer, “If it is to be, it is up to me to do it.”

      Theodicy gets them coming and going.

      • I just got back from Man To Man 31st Annual AA conference in Texas. They gave me a coin that says Faith Without Works is Dead. I used to ignore the saying and misunderstand the meaning because too much antipathy arose from the word Faith which isn’t a virtue – it’s more like a gambling fix for emotional junkies. Anyway now I laugh when I see the slogan or coin because “faith without works is dead” means prayer doesn’t work. Lol
        Furthermore I laugh at analogies that mean so much to Christians like: God can move mountains but we have to bring the shovels. Another says: God and I are on a rowboat in a pond called life. I’m on the oars and he is the rutter, He’ll switch places with me but we won’t go anywhere because God doesn’t row! I heard a speaker use that.
        They seem funny but are telling to me of God’s absence. Even St. Bill said “From what Id seen in Europe, the presence of God in human affairs was negligible.”

  5. Well Roger, this article certainly lives up to the billing you mentioned to me a couple of days ago; virtually any one of us with some time in our fellowship could have written this or something close to it. I agree with everything E.L. has to say and in particular:

    I don’t want to change AA. It works for me. I just want it to be more effective in attracting rationalists. Their membership in turn would help AA tremendously.

    I cannot add anything to this; E.L. has said it all for me.

  6. I am a newby here, and I see there are LOTS of intelligent people on this site.
    I don’t have many resources (none) as far Agnostic AA meetings in my area, so I choose to use a private psychotherapist. She is helping me work the steps and I do feel it is working for “Me”. My problem is as soon as I walk into a AA meeting and they start with the God issues… I totally draw a blank, cannot concentrate, anything that is read goes right thru my head. So, I will keep on pumping away as best as possible, because I don’t feel God is going to lift my psychological problem with alcohol. Please feel free to comment. Thank You!

    • Hi Teesha, a BIG welcome!!!!

      Although I was fairly happy at a my traditional home group for the first few years – REALLY happy now at Widening Our Gateway – and I had a good open minded sponsor, I did my 4th & 5th Step with my psychiatrist over 10 sessions and I highly recommend doing at least parts of the Steps with a professional, as you are doing. (I also did my 5th with my sponsor for his perspective on things.)

      So, if you have a good psychotherapist, stick with her. You may also want to check out the Chat Room here at AA Agnostica. I know it is helping a number of folks stay connected. My wife always has a huge smile on her face every time I see her on it.

      Again, so glad you have found us here.

  7. Supreme Power, eh?

    Something more to aggravate the true believers with.

    “My supreme power trumps your higher power.”

  8. Thank you Sir: I share your explanation in regards to and especially the part, “Leads to unconscious revolt and reinforces the compulsion to drink”! I too have thought that because I couldn’t accept the thought of a Supernatural power that was why I kept relapsing? It’s refreshing to have AA for Free thinkers and such and, moreover, to see the many successful stories of recovery from alcohol and drug addictions, free of religious overtones.Thank you very much.

  9. In retrospect 1962 was an important year in my formative years of my alcoholism. Four months before E.L.’s article appeared in The AA Grapevine my medical school class was given a psychiatry lecture on alcoholism by one of our gynecologic surgery professors. That odd mixture of medical fields was fortuitous, since it became evident that the professor, Earle M., wanted to introduce us to the availability of Alcoholics Anonymous as a referral source for those frustrating recalcitrant practicing alcoholic patients for whom we would find that we had little to offer in the framework of clinical medicine. Although I had no idea that I was then a germinating alcoholic myself, at some subconscious level this lecture must have been important to me. Not long after I joined AA in 1983, but years after I destroyed all of my medical school notes as outdated, I found my notes for Earle M.’s lecture saved separately. What a revelation they were in my new role as a sober alcoholic. I, too, had made my career as a gynecologic surgeon. But instead of lecturing medical students under the umbrella of psychiatry, I shared my experience with my fellow physicians as Chairman of the Physician’s Well Being Committee at my medical center, and in recent years I share my experience as an atheist in AA in order to give newcomer skeptics a reason to not walk away after only one meeting. (The late Earle M.’s story is in “the Big Book” under “Physician, Heal Thyself!”)

    • A relative newcomer made an interesting comment after a meeting recently. She posed the question why is AA stuck with a medical model from the 30’s? Has medicine not evolved since then?

  10. This is so thoughtfully written. EL gently expresses his desire to have AA members treat him the way he treats them: allowing them to make their own interpretations of AA and a higher power. AA’s insistence that sobriety is only achieved via belief in a higher power excludes so many who need the fellowship, and is in direct conflict with AA’s desire to reach out to all suffering alcoholics. I do not understand this conflict, or those who insist on maintaining it.

  11. Wow! Says what I feel and think. It is very difficult to BE in AA when one is refused the right to be who one truly is which leads to a lack of freedom, for how can I ever be free if I am not allowed to be who I am. It’s a struggle and a life long one. Just mentioning yesterday a quote from, Irene Nevirovsky’s, Suite Francaise an idea that the mostly Roman Catholic French population during the Occupation was unable to accept a woman who they could not believe was virtuous despite being a non- believer. So I really appreciated the attempt to convince that human nature has the capacity to be good,an idea, that many in our AA and our society at large do not accept. In fact, in my experience, AA tries to undermine our respect for humans in order to convince us we need a higher power. Well, this dreamer doesn’t want to believe humans can’t be counted on. Alcoholics can’t be counted on, in fact some in recovery can’t be counted on or am I paranoid to believe it’s all a plot to send us into the arms of some supernatural being??

  12. Thank you, editor, for this post. I cruise this site daily in anticipation of new posts and read the older ones when none are here. I am pleased and surprised to also notice that you have included in the left side bar the poem “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham as a proposed Unity Declaration for AA. Bravo!!

    • Thank you, Christopher. Traditionally we post a new article every Sunday morning, although we sometimes post on Wednesdays as well. Love the poem “Outwitted”!

  13. Yes, a classic find. It strikes me that really there is a need for a concordance of WAFT- friendly materials, both so-called “conference approved” and material published by Grapevine, Inc.

    It’s so refreshing to read this article from 1962 when I was a freshman in college and I was just beginning to be aware of “existential angst” which led to me becoming an agnostic, who has transcended the last couple of years into an atheist . . . ;)

    • Here’s a reference for the proposed concordance: Alcoholics Anonymous (Big Book), 4th edition, page 374, (at top of page from Flooded With Feeling).

  14. Thanks for another outstanding post (and again, for this website)! A year ago, I was disgusted with the religiosity of the meetings and was ready to quit going altogether. Because of this site having a link to a listing agnostic groups, I was able to find an Atheist/Agnostic meeting here in the double knot of the Bible Noose – Dallas, TX.

    This Thursday marks my 25th anniversary of sobriety and I will be celebrating that with fellow sober skeptics today (and the addition of a second We Agnostics Group meeting as we work to increase AA options). Like those of us here, I want AA to expand and encompass all people and viewpoints.

    As E.L. wrote 52 years ago, I’m a grateful atheist alcoholic – and one willing to keep speaking out so that the non-supernatural yet miraculous hand of AA is there for ALL!

  15. I recently went through the Grapevine’s archives, and found many articles which support
    a WAFT approach to sobriety through AA. I also found a number by writers who had been led “out” of disbelief through AA (!).

    Even though the General Conference lacks the brains/guts to publish a pamphlet for nonbelievers, I’d like to see some tech-savvy person put a number of the nonreligious-friendly articles on a website to which we could refer inquirers. Grapevine, Inc. seems more humane and modern than the conference, and I’m sure it would cooperate with such a site.

    • I was a believer when I first came into AA back in the 80’s, but it wasn’t something I gave a whole lot of thought about. When I started going to meetings down here in jesusland where I live now, I was led INTO disbelief. BTW–I love the term “the god bit” that the old timers used. It just says it all to me. The Grapevine is a little more open minded, but they too are nowhere near as liberal as they used to be.

      • The expression “God bit” comes from Jim Burwell, and his article Sober for Thirty Years: “I started fighting nearly all the things Bill and the others stood for, especially religion, the ‘God bit.’ But I did want to stay sober, and I did love the understanding Fellowship.”

    • Pat,

      You wrote, “I’d like to see some tech-savvy person put a number of the nonreligious-friendly articles on a website to which we could refer inquirers. Grapevine, Inc….”

      THAT is a stupendous idea. As one historically trained, I would love to see every Grapevine article (published) having to do with “rational” approaches in AA, in chronological order in a web-based data base.

      I have no idea if the Grapevine keeps all the submitted articles, but if they do, it would be of historical interest to see all of those in chronological order as well.

      It would be very interesting to me, and other historical types, to begin to get a grasp on the trajectory of ‘thought’ within the Grapevine over time on issue of non-theists in the Fellowship.

      My guess is many of our long-term sober non-theists already have a “feel” for the direction, phases, and content of those published articles, but factual knowledge on these kinds of questions necessarily surpass any feeling.

      Of course, I have no idea how to go about it, but it sounds like a good, big, collaborative project.

      • The GrapeVine has a digital archive online that goes all the way back to Vol. 1, Issue 1, and is searchable.

        It is accessible for a modest fee.

        Go to http://da.aagrapevine.org/

        The articles are listed by issue which makes it chronological. I’m not sure when they post the current issue.

        Have at it.

  16. I knew this article existed but had not read it before. I really appreciate that you have posted it. This article is wonderful.
    Thanks.

  17. Roger, this is such a simple yet profoundly articulate statement of our position today in the 21st Century. I was not aware of this Grapevine article and I assume there are many others like me who don’t go searching this far back into the Grapevine archival vaults.

    Thanks for resurrecting it from the dead.

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