By Chris G.
Since early 2013, AA Agnostica has had a service of introducing people in various cities, towns and villages for the purpose of getting people together to start new agnostic AA meetings. If you have explored the site, you have surely seen this:
Click on this image, and you get a form to fill out. Enter your location, email address, optional phone number and a comment, and maybe, if others near you do the same, you will be connected. And maybe, if you all hit it off, you’ll start a new meeting. It is a matter of chance… the world is a very big place.
Many hundreds of people have clicked, filled out, and waited. Some for a very long time, even in sizeable cities. Some for a short time, in small towns. Many are still waiting. But every week, more click in. Many click in again, to make sure they are still on the list.
Why? Why do we want our “own” meetings? That’s what this post is about.
Some people leave comments on the forms, and many of these are about why they feel the need for an agnostic meeting. (“Agnostic” is a simple word – please take it to mean anything from “less religious” to “Totally Atheist” for this purpose in this article.) I recently scanned the comments and found about 100 that give unsolicited reasons. Hardly scientific, but not a bad little sample. The results show the circumstances that can drive agnostic people away from meetings, as well as the desire to help others that lead them to want to start new ones.
Scanning through the list of keywords I extracted from the comments, “uncomfortable” is far and away the most common. People are just not comfortable in a group of people who do not share their viewpoint. That is nearly axiomatically true any where, any time, of course, and for less-religious drunks trying to stay sober in a religious setting it can get acute. Some examples of the discomfort of being “different”:
I know a few people like myself who are agnostic/atheist or free thinkers who feel very uncomfortable at meetings sharing whenever the topic is on “God”, which is a lot in Little Rock.
I am 40 days sober and struggling deeply with the idea that I will have to accept God in order to work the program successfully.
I have attended 4 AA meetings and feel like if religion wasn’t such a focus I could connect on a better level.
I feel very alone as an atheist in recovery.
A fair number, especially long-time members, add the concept of exhaustion to the discomfort:
After almost 25 years in AA I’m just tired of the god thing.
Been in program 20 years and I’ve had it with the nonsense.
I am exhausted with my AA meetings being SO god, prayer, magical entity etc.
Sixteen years sober in AA, saying the lord’s prayer and thinking, “Why am I doing this?”
Shunning and Ridicule
It gets more serious when people are shunned or ridiculed – this discomfort is not internal, but pushed on you. This is especially detrimental to newcomers. Shunning – casting out from the society – is the ultimate punishment, save death, exacted by many societies all through history. Being made fun of is a bullying tactic, and bullying-to-suicide is an all too common theme in the news since the advent of social media. Sensitivity and suicide are no strangers to alcoholics …
In our “fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others… ” we use these tactics? Really? Here are examples:
I attended my first AA meeting 42 years ago and have struggled ever since, I stayed sober thanks to AA for over 20 of those years but always felt an outsider because of the reliance of the programme of a god that I did not accept.
I stayed sober 26 years in constant conflict with AA’s god reliance and drank for 1.5 years never intending to return to AA. As alcoholism kicked my ass again I returned to AA as the only familiar solution to get sober. I still recoil at allowing myself to be a hypocrite just to not drink. I seek like minded souls, not antagonists… simply live and let live.
told them exactly how I felt… God as I don’t understand it… it has been difficult to stay sober because the majority of people I knew in AA shunned me.
The last meeting attended clearly made me feel like an outcast when almost all members at this meeting got a big laugh at the atheist’s expense.
I have been the subject of some shunning since I have been trying to get abstinent for nine years. In some part, this may owe to the so-called God thing, or my lack of faith in same.
I feel uncomfortable in regular meetings. I get shunned by some old book thumpers. I respect their belief. I would like them to respect mine.
I have been in AA for 8 1/2 years and am finding the “God Slot” in the programme harder and harder to handle. I am definitely the odd one out in my home group.
I was even told by my sponsor (who fired me because she can’t relate to someone who doesn’t believe in “God”) to not attend a meeting…
Fear is a familiar motivator to us all, and it is especially difficult for the newcomer to face the fear of being moulded into a religious or spiritual state that is alien to him or her
I am an atheist and I cannot see that as ever changing, although I have firmly believed in the need for spirituality in my life. I have been afraid to bring up my beliefs in the meeting for fear of being ostracised.
…which demands “Christian” beliefs system… it’s very intimidating & I cannot express any of my fears at a “regular” AA meeting. I mean, the AAs at the house even accuse me of practising witchcraft because I’m a SGI-Buddhist.
I’d like to start going to meetings, but am nervous about how God heavy they may be in my area.
Translating the Words
Quite a number of non-religious people have been successful in AA, but have had to translate the language into their own words in order to use the program. This technique has been the subject of a lot of writing on this site, and is a main subject in two books at least: The Little Book by Roger C., and Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous by Adam N. Apparently it has been used independently by many people:
I’ve found my own way of understanding the Program without any god, grace or magic.
I got sober god free by reinterpreting the steps to my needs and am convinced that finding the wisdom of each step and tailoring them to individual needs can work for many people…
I am exhausted by attending the meetings and trying to translate every spoken word into my own language that I can tolerate.
…find a meeting in the Boston area that might require less internal translations of the message.
And as you can see, they find it tiring and would like not to have to do it… in an agnostic meeting.
Building New Meetings
Most of the people with more extended sobriety expressed a great love and gratitude for AA. Many people have recognized the phenomenon of increasing numbers of religious meetings, or individual meetings becoming more religious, and that many people are turned away by this. Their comments reflect a desire to serve others, especially newcomers, and broaden the gates of AA by providing more agnostic-friendly meetings. A lot of oldtimers seem to feel this way:
As a person in long term recovery (28 years), my observations over the years are that the religious belief system collapsed onto the program is driving away and keeping out the non-religious and keeping the doors of recovery closed. I am passionate that everyone deserves the chance to recover; I hear “Love and Tolerance of others is our code” and it’s my opinion the religious in our program don’t realize how excluding and intolerant they are of other points of view. I want to help kick the doors wide open for ALL! Believer or Non-Believer, I want to create a place where all are truly welcome and safe. Belief not required for the actions to work!
I’m sober 27.6 years and an adamant atheist and am going to start a meeting here in West Hollywood for atheist and agnostics… because I’ve seen people driven out of AA rooms by people telling them they can’t stay sober unless they have a GOD… which is not true… and I want to give these atheist a chance to stay sober without that feeling of being an OUTSIDER that I’ve felt from time to time…
I am an atheist member of AA. I love what AA has done for my life. I want to continue to give back what has been so freely given to me.
Sober and clean for 33 years and an active engaged member of AA for all that time. Also a committed humanist. Willing to start or help start a religion-free meeting in my city.
I’m willing to put my reservations about AA aside and have a stab at starting a meeting for people like me, who find the camaraderie and common purpose of primary importance to sobriety rather than the spiritual side.
We have a wealth of strong AA groups here, but the centre of that strength is too much oriented towards the idea of an interventionist God, prayer and ‘worship’. I want to start a new group with all the values of AA except the Christian Religion ones!
There must be SOMEONE else besides me in my area who would like the fellowship/sistership of sobriety without all the religious crap!
We have seen the “God talk” drive a lot of newcomers straight out of the rooms. We are meeting to plan a meeting and need info and an atheist version of the steps.
I love my traditional AA home-group. They have been very accepting of my agnosticism, which is a nice change from some of my past experiences in AA… it sure would be swell to occasionally meet just one or two people who are in AA and atheist/agnostic. It would be amazing to share, face-to-face, our experiences in the program and the way we’ve adapted the steps so that we can maintain our “lack of belief” while still developing and growing spiritually.
So there you have it, from the keyboards of folks looking for agnostic meetings – why we want agnostic meetings.
We are social beasts, we humans, and we do not do well if we are not in a comfortable society. And if society is not comfortable with us, it finds ways to let us know, and eventually, drive us out. For a recovering alcoholic, the AA meeting is a poignant distillation of this social interplay. Many try and translate alien ideas into something more understandable to cope with it.
For atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers and similar people, religious AA is just plain uncomfortable. This discomfort can range from mild exhaustion to that horrible feeling you get when the doctor picks up a four-foot syringe and says “bend over”, and your feet head for the door.
The discomfort can be internal or external. Internally, from “I just don’t like it” to “I can’t stand the god talk”. Externally, from “you need God to get sober”, to “they laughed at me”, or worst of all, “they told me to stay away”.
We all have fears, and fear of another’s gods, or lack of gods, is a powerful internal motivator on the one hand, or a weapon on the other. Both aspects play a role in our desire for meetings with familiar people, ideas, and a reduction of these fears.
I did not find any surprises in these comments – just good old fashioned social humanity doing its thing. And for me that makes the existence of agnostic meetings completely compelling: to give agnostic alcoholics a place where they are able to recover as best they can, in as much peace as can be provided, without fear of ridicule or ostracism. It’s hard enough to stay sober, even with all the support that AA can provide.
Many people are working to set up just such meetings, with the knowledge that AA works no matter what, if you give it the right setting. This has happened over and over again for other groups with particular interests, beliefs, or social needs. Don’t expect GSO or someone “in authority” to do this. Remember the inverted triangle power structure of AA: the groups have the power. It happens in meetings. And new agnostic meetings are happening all around us now.
In fact, in the past couple of years hundreds of agnostic AA meetings have started – some of them with a little help from our form. This is all these need-a-meeting frustrations coming out; it is a wave of transformation. I’m happy to be riding that wave, and grateful to be able to help so many people start those meetings.
The title of this post was one of the comments. I’ll end with another pithy one:
I can’t stay sober without AA, but the god thing is a pain in the ass.
Chris was a somehow functioning drunk for 30-odd years. This allowed him to fit right in to the corporate sociopathy as president of a couple of companies, and positions of senior management at several others. He regrets the damage done to society while gaining various accolades in the mindless race to shareholder happiness. He has been sober 5 years, and after coming out as an AA Atheist a year ago, is starting a long stern chase after bodhichitta and understanding the Tao. He has been working with AA Agnostica, trying to put people together to form groups, since 2013. He apologizes to all those hundreds of seekers in California who just happen to be about 100 miles apart. He is secretary-treasurer of a mostly secular AA meditation group that meets Wednesday mornings in Fort Erie, Ontario.