Out of the Closet

Out Of The Closet

An atheist shares about her long sober journey in Alcoholics Anonymous

By Anonymous
Published online by the AA Grapevine in March 2015.

It’s 8:35 p.m. on Saturday and the speaker has just suggested the topic “How God works in your life.” I settle back in my seat, preparing myself to be open to receiving the message of recovery. I’ve become very good at listening and finding a message. It’s rare that I walk away from an AA meeting without taking home a little hope.

I’ve been coming to this particular meeting for 10 years. In November, I celebrated 27 years of continuous sobriety in the same county, and the speaker knows this. But I won’t be called on tonight; in fact, I’m rarely called on at all in Alcoholics Anonymous these days. You see, I’m an atheist. I’m not resentful of my standing in AA, at least not often. And because I strive to stay a part of AA, most of the time I feel a kinship in the rooms. But there are nights that I wonder; there are nights that I feel separate.

I came into AA one month shy of 21 and, amazingly, it stuck. This means that if I stick around these rooms and don’t have a drink, in a few years I’ll be 50 years old and have 30 years of recovery, never having had a legal drink of alcohol. I came to these rooms without having lost a lot because, in truth, I had not gained anything in my short life, except for an obsession to drink. When I got here I was seething with hate, rage, pain and attitude, a common combination I’ve come to witness over the years. These emotions were all I had except for a small voice in me that didn’t want to be in pain or die, and that voice was enough to keep me coming back.

I had been raised in my parents’ religious beliefs and had rejected the idea of God at an early age. I remember questioning their beliefs and the concept of God, as early as 8 years old. Actually, by the time I found my first love, alcohol, I had rebelled against the whole idea of God. Alcohol had dragged me down by the age of 12, so it’s no wonder I felt hopeless by age 20.

The first years of my recovery were spent trying to live without alcohol. I worked the Steps with a sponsor and tried to follow directions. If you measure success by whether one drinks or not, then I was successful. However, I did learn some valuable lessons in the first 15 years of my recovery. I did service, worked the Steps and continued to go to meetings, but there was a deep unrest inside me. I had copied what other people had done and pretended to believe the way that they did. I learned the song and dance that was most acceptable to AAs in my community. I could parrot the Big Book and say all the things that people wanted to hear, and yet there was something missing. I wanted people to like me, to tell me I was OK, and they did for those first 15 years.

Then there was a point in my recovery when things began to change: situations happened in my life that pulled the rug out from under me and I was forced to change my life and how I was in the world. I was forced to open my eyes, and the changes began. They were gradual and subtle at first. I started seeking, not God, but something that I could believe in, something that made sense to me. It started with returning to school and becoming interested in the world outside of AA. Now, I’ve heard horror stories about people who stop making AA the center of their lives. I know many people who only socialize in AA — and that’s what works for them. I did not leave AA, but I took the principles that I learned in the rooms and went out into the world. I learned to listen to that healthy inner voice that we all have, if we have stayed on this path for any amount of time. I found interests and hobbies outside of the rooms and frequently pulled my friends in AA out with me to experience opera and theater. I began, for the first time in my life, to really thrive.

I came to the knowledge that I was an atheist more than five years ago, but it took some time for me to get up the nerve to step out of the closet with the general AA public. I did it while speaking at an Easter Sunday morning meeting over three years ago. At least 3 people got up and left. Truth is that I hadn’t planned it that way. Simply put, I just said what I believed and felt I needed to say out loud. I had been silent in meetings for over two years prior to that Easter Sunday. I had been listening for my truth, and it finally spoke up.

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I have heard it all since then. I’ve been told that I’m really a Buddhist, a Native American and, of course, that I will get drunk if I don’t mend my ways. There are those who ignore me and those who don’t understand me, yet I strive to be polite to all of them, regardless.

Most important are those who don’t care what I believe in because they love me and leave me to my beliefs, although we do have great conversations over coffee about our differences.

I’ve often been asked what I do each day to stay sober without a God. I do the same things that any believer does—minus the reliance on a God. I get up each morning and focus on what needs to be done. I strive to be the best person I can be, to carry understanding, love and tolerance in my dealings with my fellow human beings. I turn things over, not to a God, but to the knowledge that I live in a world that I cannot control. I take responsibility for what’s happening in my life and endeavor to be proactive on those things that I can take action on. I’m not perfect, not by a long shot, but I’m not worse at the practicing of these principles than anyone who believes in God. I find peace in the journey of life and living in this day. I still work the Steps and yes, I don’t work them with the word God in them. I have a sponsor, sponsor other women and do service. I believe strongly in doing service outside of AA as well, and believe that finding balance in all I do is the key to a strong recovery and love of life.

There have always been atheists in the history of humankind. Sometimes they have been ignored and sometimes persecuted, but they’ve always been present. There are atheists in AA. I have met some of us and we are productive members of AA as well as of our communities. The Big Book was written to include more than just a small slice of humanity, and there is room for us atheists. The Twelve Traditions were written to insure the openness of AA to all those who have a desire to stop drinking. I’m grateful to the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have found a way of life here that first answered my drinking problem and then gave me solutions to my living problems.

__________

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Out of the Closet — 44 Comments

  1. Your story was real and in my opinion you have not only been physically sober but are really working on your emotional sobriety. I find it really admirable that you are finding your way in the real world not just AA world. If one only stays in the place where they feel safe one does not grow and evolve. One of the most insightful posts that I’ve read here. Dare greatly my friend.

  2. Thanks for the article. Good start to the day for me to identify with a like minded person. As was mentioned in other comments you ladies & gentleman in the States seem to be in the “eye of the storm” regarding being open about being atheist or agnostic. Makes me realise most of the evangelists must have left these shores on the Mayflower. I admire your courage and resilience.

  3. Suzanne in Bristol UK here. Our new meeting – starting this Saturday, 4th April, will be in Bristol, and we have shamelessly lifted our fabulous name – Children of Chaos – from the group of that name in Austin Texas. It is also from p. 146 of the 12 n 12 – so the name at least is AA approved! We don’t have the kind of god-bothering at meetings here as you have in the US. But it is still bad enough to require a challenge to it. I agree – we don’t need a lot of readings (or any). But what do groups do about the literature they provide for sale? Apart from a pamphlet called A Member’s-eye View, (only a couple of references to God) and Living Sober (very dated) I struggle with the idea of selling literature which is God-heavy. What do other groups do? Is it ok to openly provide a reading list with aaagnostica literature on it? Or to sell aaagnostica literature direct? Yours, requiring a small boost of courage, Suzanne.

    • Children of chaos, we have defiantly played with every brand of fire, only to emerge unharmed and, we think, wiser.” (Bill Wilson, 12 and 12, p. 146)

    • Hello Suzanne…
      Give me a roomful of Anglican bred folks any day when compared to the crazies we have here! You are indeed most fortunate in that regard. I have recently taken to keeping a copy or two of Living Sober in my bag to give away to newcomers at our We Agnostics meeting here in DC. It’s the one conference approved book that made sense to me many years ago and still seems to resonate with folks here. Since I have been made aware of this site (post Santa Monica) I refer people here where they can make up their own mind regarding agnostic/atheist non-conference approved books. As a group we have totally avoided any literature issues with our local Intergroup Office and intend to keep it that way. The preamble is all we use and it seems to be all we need as well.

    • Hi again Suzanne, each group is autonomous so it’s up to you what literature you provide. But why provide any if it causes complications and obstructs Tradition Five? I’ve been to AA conventions in Britain where AA literature was sold on one table and other 12 Step/spiritual type material sold at another table. Your intergroup would find it hard to refuse to register you as a new group provided you are non-restrictive, i.e. willing to admit anyone with a drink problem.

    • Suzanne, Why bother to sell literature if your group does not approve of it. (Why bother giving Head Office all the credit for approved literature)

      Good luck with your group I used to visit Bristol quite a lot in the late ’80’s – early 90’s. Then there was a very funny group, which I had to visit for a laugh. It was one based on what was thought to have meetings exactly as they had them in Akron in the ’30’s. ( yes it was terrible 🙂

      Good days

  4. Thank you. I’ve never exactly made my agnosticism a secret but nowadays I share it frequently. Fortunately, there is little blowback…nowadays, anyway.

  5. Thanks so much for posting this article. It was “chairperson’s choice” tonight at my home group, and since I chaired, I chose for us to read it. I was a little apprehensive because I’m in a fairly conservative city within the Bible Belt, but feel it is crucial for atheists and agnostics to know there is a place at the table for all of us. Had I read such an article years ago I might not have gone back out after 4 years of feeling like an imposter in AA. I found my way back in and, like so many others, have had to make peace with the religious overtones because there is no other viable option. The discussion following the reading at my meeting tonight was very positive and, tho a number of members confuse “no God” with “God of your understanding,” they did report having had their eyes opened, having not previously considered the difficulties of being agnostic or atheist in AA.

    • Thank you for speaking up. I was touched by your response. Two things in particular really hit me. the part about relapsing. I went back out after 23 years of sobriety. Part of it was exactly what you said, feeling like an impostor. AA’s theism presented a significant barrier to me, and I could never connect. Had I been more deeply rooted, connected, things might have gone differently. I learned a lot from my relapse, so, it’s all good for me. But it makes me think about those who do not make it back, or who cannot even try AA in the first place because of the religiosity. And I just felt like “impostor” was such an apt description, such a perfect word. I live in a very ‘progressive’, West coast college town. Very liberal, very tolerant. Yet I only know of three other members who self-identify as atheist. Tuning in to AAAgnostica and connecting with people like you is a real breath of fresh air for this sober alcoholic…

      • Almost my story to a tee! It was 17 years sober and fighting the GOD thing! Then went out for 4 years made it back without burning my life to the ground, no DUI’s, didn’t lose my business or rental properties, but knew if I continued to drink what was bound to happen. I know I cannot drink no matter what, I have no interest in finding GOD and enjoy connecting with you people (my tribe).

  6. Such a wonderful article, written with such honesty and humility, showing by example how we atheists and agnostics can live in accordance with the generic humanist and moral principles despite our lacking a belief in the traditional judeo-christian religious concepts of spirituality that seem to be becoming more rigidly and dogmatically ingrained within many North American AA venues.

    I am convinced that the more we speak up, sharing our experience, strength and hope in AA rooms as persons with long-time recovery, slowly but surely we shall steer the ship of AA away from irrelevancy for the generations of alcoholic addicts who will always need the hand of AA to be there, with belief or without it . . .

    I just got a call from a alcoholic/drug addict with severe mental health issues to include brain damage from his using days who is back from a relapse. I was safe enough to call because he knew I would not judge, shun and/or condemn him for not working the steps right. I’ll meet him at a meeting in my hometown tomorrow and help him if I can by just relating with him, not proselytizing him.

  7. Thanks for the article. I identify with Humanism and have been attending AA off and on for 17 years… using it mainly as a social support system… but I think I am done with AA and ready to move on… to speak my truth and walk without shame… to a new level of joy…

  8. Hi. Suzanne in UK here. We are about to launch an new freethinkers group in the UK next Saturday, 4th April. Is it permitted to use Grapevine articles as AA conference approved literature? I struggle to find readings from the mainstream approved books that don’t lead to God references. I don’t know if people will try to excommunicate (de-list) us if we use literature that is not from the dozen or so usual books of readings. we need to be a bit careful while we are finding our way so that we do not give grounds for people to raise technical objections to our meeting format. Any advice would be welcome.

    • Let me start. Keep the reading to a minimum. Start with the AA Preamble and end with the Responsibility Declaration. Don’t need any more than that, methinks.

      • Living Sober is a pretty much secular AA book. Topic meetings or speaker meetings work too.

    • Suzanne, the GV states that it is not “conference approved” as the approval process is too burdensome for a monthly magazine like it.

      You will often note that they usually have some suggestions for topics from the issue.

      This “conference approved” limitation is way out of hand IMHO.

    • Good luck Suzanne, last month I started a Keep It Simple group here in Essex, England. The format read by the secretary at the beginning states that the meeting will start with a few moments’ silence to remember the still suffering alcoholic and those who love them. This is followed by reading the Preamble and the long form of Tradition Three with its emphasis that AA membership does not depend on conformity. The rest of the meeting is given over to sharing ESH and the meeting closes with reading the Responsibility Pledge. We say the Serenity prayer at the end, seated and without holding hands, and the format makes clear that the prayer is entirely optional and anyone who prefers not to join in, particularly newcomers, is free not to do so. I stay silent. Incidentally I also attend a topic group and one of the topics suggested is articles from Share and Roundabout, our British magazines.

  9. I found this post very encouraging and sincere. I got sober in rehab about 20 yrs ago which was a truly life changing experience that I am very grateful for. I have not picked up a drink since but it has been a pretty rocky road at times.

    I never really felt at home in AA despite a lengthy period of Rehab and found it difficult to fit in. The groups in my area were fairly large and quite ‘evangelical’, there were a couple of Rehabs close by, and I began to have misgivings which included the whole God issue. I never acquired a sponsor either and gradually my attendance dwindled. I rarely attend a meeting now and when I do I feel a bit of a misfit.I am going through another rough patch at the moment and considering taking myself back to meetings but once again I have reservations.

    I came across AA Agnostica a while ago online and it was quite a revelation – I had found people in AA like myself. There were probably people like myself in the meetings I attended but we never connected either because like me we stopped attending or feared being ostracised if we shared our misgivings. I have experienced the backlash that can happen if you go “off message” in a meeting. It can be a lonely place. However one of the real problems about not going to meetings regularly, for me anyway, is life can become very lonely and difficult to establish a social life.

    Aside from my alcoholism, though, I have other health issues and have found support groups for these have offered alternatives. I always share that I am a recovering alcoholic and that I have a problem with AA and the meetings. This helps. I do follow the Steps in a way and try to take the positive messages with me. A Step 5, seems to take place every time I screw up, usually with a GP or health care professional. It is really about being honest about your problems and mistakes and “getting it off your chest”.

    I am not sure whether God is around or not. I live in the UK and there do not seem to be many AA Agnostica meetings outside of London. I think it takes us a awhile to catch up with the US, after all that is where AA originated. However having read this and other posts I might just take myself off to a local meeting knowing I am am not alone in my struggles with AA.

  10. This was a delightful read. Thank you. When I began to declare my agnosticism in meetings I quickly learned to expect defensive recoil from those who aren’t yet mature enough to coexist peacefully with beliefs different from their own. I began to preface my comments with a reference to the “rigorous honesty” discussed in the first paragraph of “How it Works” (which has usually just been read), explaining that for me to state or pretend anything other than the truth would not be rigorous honesty, and that for the sake of maintaining my sobriety it is necessary for me to be straightforward in discussing my take on God. One group in which I did that was accepting; in another I felt an atmosphere conducive to lynching.

  11. Thx for sharing this story and getting me out of my pity party today. I hold such admiration for my fellow old-timer atheists. The courage to continue on while suffering from silence is a thought unbearable and undesirable for someone like me. What great role modelling. Having three people walk out on you seems like torture. Perhaps a skill I need to embrace toward letting go and letting my inner strength build from thoughts of being excluded. And the ability the author had to carry on in AA, build a life outside of AA and carry the principals is something I continue to aspire to be.
    I hope you guys keep sharing more with grapevine magazine in the years to come. Thanks again.

  12. “Ditto”
    I hid out for many years after a devastating response the first time I admitted I did not believe in god. The last 5 years or so, when the LP starts or 3rd step prayer, I drops hands and back out of the circle. I was originally told I would come to believe or get drunk. I don’t know that either might yet come true, but I’ve been waiting 40 years “and it hasn’t done so yet”.

    • I haven’t had occasion to do it yet, but I was thinking of dropping hands and walking INTO the circle. Just so I’m not excluded….

      • I’ve actually made a point once in a while of sitting in the centre of the room and remaining seated when the Lord’s Prayer is recited. Doesn’t go over that well, but my point is not missed.

  13. I am based between southern Spain and the UK. Since my earliest meetings, I have made it plain that I am an atheist. I have never felt any twitch of contempt or even surprise from the other members, partly because there are so many other atheists, agnostics and free-thinkers as a whole in the two countries where I spend most of my time.

    It seems that the US is so far behind us in European AA (at least that which I know) in getting free of irrational and dogmatic supernatural beliefs. It must be really tough on you guys and I admire you for standing up for the true principles of AA in spite of the possibility of ostracism from other members.

    • Quite so. There are two pragmatic reasons why Grapevine has published only 40 stories by atheists / agnostics in 70 years: 1.) no other atheists/agnostics contributed articles; 2.) there are far fewer atheists/agnostics in the US/Canadian fellowship than believers or “neutrals”. There are also very few stories in Grapevine by e.g. born again Christians, Sikhs, Inuits etc. Grapevine does not deliberately exclude articles by atheists/agnostics, indeed its statement of purpose explicitly points out that it seeks to reflect the varied opinions of all members. “Grapevine communicates the experience, strength and hope of its contributors and reflects a broad geographic spectrum of current AA experience …the awareness that every AA member has an individual way of working the program permeates the pages of Grapevine, and throughout its history the magazine has been a forum for the varied and often divergent opinions of AAs around the world.” The statement also quotes Bill W.’s words, “Within the bounds of friendliness and good taste, the Grapevine will enjoy perfect freedom of speech on all matters directly pertaining to Alcoholics Anonymous”. So let’s stop moaning and feeling sorry for ourselves – and get writing!

      • Hi… I wonder how they (Grapevine) would react to a submission that clearly states (from someone with long term sobriety) that:
        a) I don’t do most all of the steps at all.
        b) Most of the Big Book is absolutely useless (and actually quite detrimental in part) for the atheist making the submission.
        c) I give back by passing the message (don’t drink, share and go to meetings) in that context.
        d) I’ve lived a productive, happy and fruitful life inside the fellowship despite/without these steps and Big Book things.
        It might be an interesting experiment in terms of their reaction.

    • I tend to agree with you Joe in that AA in the UK has very few of the evangelists that seem to feature so strongly in the USA/ Canada. I’ve been sober a long time now but there is no way I would have tolerated that sort of nonsense in the beginning and I would have to had done something else to get sober.

      I too have always been open about my atheism. However Joe I don’t think we atheists in UK have anything to shout about. We still get the same Serenity Prayer, we still have Big Book readings etc. etc. and the 12 Steps are still full of Holy nonsense. I think it will be the North Americans who actually change things.

  14. Beautifully written, exceptionally so, and I can relate to it with all my heart, only I must confess I have been far from this graceful about my own coming out, and indeed continue to be less graceful, much to my dismay.
    Though I never, in about the same number of years in AA tried to hide, or had any particular doubt about my lack of belief, it has only been what, maybe the last 3-4 years that I have become an activist about it. It has definitely changed my whole life in AA to do that, and there are days when I want to take it back, and just be the relatively anonymous non-believer I used to be, days when I sit there just before the meeting starts and tell myself that today I’m going to keep my big trap shut, and just try to work on keeping harmony in the meeting, and I get as far as the reading of the Daily Reflection, one of the worst books in the program, and it’s all over.
    Sometimes I want my lost innocense back so bad, but it’s just not happening, so instead I am looking for ways to accept my new path with more grace than I possess at the moment. It’s hard, it’s lonely sometimes, more lonely than I had ever thought I would feel in AA, but at least I do have 27 years sober, have a good life, the best life I have ever had, except for the cloud of threat of recurring cancer, but really, my life is good. It is all because of the “everything else” in AA, and I know I am not going to go drink.
    If nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake, I’ll take it, I will walk this path, figure it’s what god gave me to do. Ok, I’m getting carried away here. I just watched Django Unchained yesterday, I’m easily excited.
    Anyway, this was really beautifully written, and I will try to learn from it all I can……

  15. Since coming out atheist in AA, I have often wondered ‘what else aren’t they telling me?’ One answer I have come to understand as the ‘get a life’ principle. One of the important components in my ongoing recovery is getting a full, rich life which, while including AA, goes well outside of AA too.The big book does not say much about this. There is no extra step added on which says: “Now, go get a life!” You spoke nicely of this truth, that there is a big, full, rich world outside of AA, and maintaining sobriety enables us to fully partake of it in a manner we previously could not. Plus, having the fullest, most engaging and enjoyable life possible makes life worth living, which makes getting up in the morning and choosing sobriety every day easier, a real no brainer! I look forward to getting up every day and going about my excellent life, some of which has to do with AA, while a great deal of it does not.

  16. BRILLIANT!!!

    I think those of us who write a bit may particularly appreciate the wonderful clarity of expression in this essay.

    In my observation there is some very good news within the conventional AA world. Although the hardcore fundamentalists are meeting the voices of doubt with a shrill and strident countering, the mainstream center seems to be growing a bit in openmindedness.

    The cookie-cutter, cake recipe robots are being met with latitudinarian rebuttal from the center. From my perspective, the gateway may be becoming wider.

    bob k

  17. There is an air of sadness, perhaps even loneliness, in this wonderful memoir. I understand that, only too well, but like the author I too lead an active, interesting even compelling social life which includes a lot of international travelling. I live in a big city, London UK, and love it and many other big cities too ( Santa Fe NM is hardly a big city but it has a great annual opera festival). It is important to me that I attend a meeting each day and I do so especially when I am away from home.

    In recent years I now quietly announce that “I do not believe in god” wherever I am. I feel I must do so for me and for others especially those in early recovery and also for those like me and this inspirational anonymous author.

    The Preamble is read at the beginning of each meeting and it troubles me that the Fellowship just does not live up to those words and, in fact, is capable of ignoring the meaning of them. Why?

  18. Thank you for your heart-felt post. Here in my small CO town, my good friend – who has 44 years sober – is an atheist, and has recently ‘come out of the closet.’ Fortunately, we live in a very tolerant area, and no one has taken issue with this.
    I have given my friend some of the Buddhist and other literature that I find helpful. There is no god in Buddhism and the precepts are very similar to those of AA. Many have already written fine essays here on this.
    I find my higher power in the group, in nature, in the sun, and this entire miraculous Universe! “All beings contain Bhudda (enlightened) nature” thus all beings have the light of life in them. My 44 year sober friend shares this higher power as well.
    My only problem now in AA is the fundamentalist big book crew. They claim it is, like the Koran or the Bible, a sacred text. That’s fine – as I am not at war with anyone. But when I share that for me it is the group that is most vital – the meetings and social life and freedom from isolation – I get responses like “there is no mention of aa groups in the 12 steps!” and “there is no mention that you need meetings in the Big Book!”
    I find these people irritating. They think that the BB contains ALL! Even though Bill W. says “we know but little” and he talks about how AA will EVOLVE as we learn more about this disease. These fundamentalists may be the death of AA. Really. There is an article in the new Atlantic magazine (online it is called “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous“) that is very hard on AA – and part of this is deserved because these “hard-core” AA folks dismiss any questioning of AA the SAME exact way a Christian will dismiss any doubts about the Bible! “It’s your disease talking” will be their response – or some other idiocy.
    I recommend reading this article because it shows why newcomers are getting increasingly turned off and away from AA to other recovery modalities.
    Many of my fellows in recovery seemed to be able to turn the world into a black and white reality. The big book as gospel – as the final word on alcoholism. This hurts AA as there is no final word, no words in stone, on this disease. It pains me when folks scoff at ANY mention of science making headway in the field of recovery. These close-minded AA “fanatics” are making it very hard for the atheist newcomers (most of the young folks are atheists) with their know-it-all attitudes.
    People should be aware that recovery is NOT a ‘one-size-fits-all’ journey. I have been criticized (in rude cross talk) for saying this. But it is the truth. I hope we are wise enough to accept that AA does NOT work for everyone – AND it is not their fault – as the “those unfortunates – they seem to have been born that way” passage in the BB insinuates.
    The more recovery methods that work the better. It is stated in the BB that it is NOT the final word on alcoholism – yet these BB Taliban folks ignore this and shut new ideas and science out!
    Well that’s my two cents. I recommend reading the Atlantic article, as there is some good stuff in it concerning this whole God thing.

      • Yes of course! I like the term because this “one book=all” mentality seems to be a part of our human DNA. Many peoples around the world have this “one book=all” mentality – from the Mormons with their epic and absurd book of… well… The Book of Mormon… and across the earth to the Muslim world. There it is a capital offense to even burn the Koran! So we can see just how bad this sickness of fundamentalism can get.