I Lost My Faith and Happily So

700 Club

Chapter 3
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

By John S.

It’s hard to believe, but it was twenty-six years ago when I attended my first AA meeting, and fortunately I’ve been sober ever since. The circumstances that brought me to AA are far from unique. I was a young man who’s drinking quickly spun out of control. It wasn’t an overnight thing, like one day I could drink normally and the next day I was a hopeless drunk, but looking back I can see there were warning signs.

I remember my first drink as if it were yesterday. In fact, it’s one of my clearest childhood memories. It was Thanksgiving dinner and my mother thought it would be nice to teach me to drink like a gentleman. She poured a glass of wine, which I instantly loved. It was good in every respect, but more importantly it made me feel different, and though I didn’t know it at the time, that was one of my deepest needs, to change the way I felt. I downed the stuff and asked for more. My mother, amused, told me to sip it like a gentleman, but I couldn’t do it. I could never do it.

I drank through High School to overcome my social unease yet it drove me deeper into isolation. I drank in college for fun and acceptance, but even my wild fraternity brothers realized that my drinking was somehow different. At 19, I pondered going to AA, but decided I was too young to be an alcoholic. Today, I know better, and I realize that normal drinkers don’t sit around wondering if they should go to AA. If you have reached that point, in my opinion, for what it’s worth, you may be an alcoholic.

As my drinking got worse, I became increasingly depressed and desperate. I didn’t know anything about religion, but it was the 1980s and televangelism and the Moral Majority were in their heyday. Depressed and hopeless, I watched Pat Robertson on television make incredible claims of what God would do. I read the Bible cover to cover, took a class on the New Testament as literature, and I prayed daily to Jesus for help.

I recall one particular episode of the 700 Club when Pat claimed that if I only had the faith of a mustard seed, that God would answer my prayers. In other episodes, God would cast out demons, cure disease, make people happy, but only if they really believed he would. My understanding was that he, God, would basically do as I asked, as long as I sincerely believed he would.

It was during this period when my mother committed suicide by drug overdose. I was with her, watching her run away from this life. I did my best to believe that God would answer my prayers while the paramedics frantically worked to bring her back. It was useless. I was simply incapable of making a connection with the creator of the universe, so I abandoned the God experiment and for the next five years, I was drunk much of the time. I accumulated three DUIs, and my employer, who previously offered me several avenues of help, was ultimately left with no choice but to fire me.

Alone with my fear and desperation, I was driven to my first AA meeting. It was here where I heard for the first time, “My name is so and so and I’m an alcoholic”. That stunned me when I heard it, but as people told their stories, I could see that they shared with me and I with them, the terrifying experience of losing ourselves to alcohol, losing control of our own lives.

At the end of the meeting they motioned me to the center of the room where they formed a circle, held hands and prayed, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” It was the first time I ever experienced holding hands and praying out loud with other people, and I remember feeling embarrassed like I wouldn’t want to be seen doing this. It really made me uncomfortable, but I was desperate and when they told me to “keep coming back”, I did. In no time I was praying the “Our Father” as if I were Billy Graham himself.

During the first year or two of sobriety, life was difficult but gradually getting better. I was meeting new friends from all walks of life and making amazing discoveries about myself. There seemed to be more God talk in those days than what I hear now, but it was made palatable with assurances that I could choose my own conception of a higher power. I didn’t have to believe in any religion or anyone else’s conception of God.

Yet, in meetings people would stress the importance of “the drill”, which is to start your day on your knees and ask God for a day of sobriety, go to a meeting, call your sponsor, and at night return to your knees and thank God for the day of sobriety. Often in meetings people would claim they did this drill every day, and that they never knew of a single case of anyone getting drunk, who began the day on their knees in prayer. I would sometimes wonder to myself if this were really true.

AA - First edition

The first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (1939)

I studied our book Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as the Big Book) with my sponsor. I read passages and chapters repeatedly, many to the point of memorization and gradually progressed through the steps. I went on many “twelve step calls” to carry the message of sobriety to the suffering alcoholic. I visited detox centers, hospitals, jails, prisons, and even people’s homes. I saw it all. I experienced alcoholism up close in all its ugliness. I was as the Big Book puts it, “on the firing line”.

Shortly after I reached ten years of sobriety my father unexpectedly died. His death stunned me. He seemed bigger than life, career military, Vietnam combat veteran, fluent in German, and well versed in Shakespeare. Yet it only took three days for some microscopic virus to ultimately bring him down. I saw the fear of death in his eyes, followed by a desperate fight to live, and finally acceptance of his fate. We told one another, “I love you”, and that was it. He was gone.

After he died, I realized there was much that I had not accomplished and time was slipping away. I was thirty-six years old, and still had not graduated from college, never married, never owned a home, and never made much money. I soon went into a mad rush to change all of that. I enrolled in college, started dating, and I found myself spending less time in the AA halls than I had in the past. Within two years, I finished my college degree, bought a home, and had a steady relationship. In another couple of years, I bought my first new car, had a nice job with my own office, and proposed to my wife on the same day that I that earned my MBA degree.

I entered a new phase of life where AA was no longer the center of my existence. It was only one part of who I was, and I began to question everything. My wife who I married in 2006 is an atheist and the first atheist that I ever knew very well. She’s not at all like the atheists I heard described by an early sponsor. He would often say that atheists were some of the unhappiest people he ever knew.

Well my wife is one of the happiest people that I’ve ever known. She has a good sense of humor, she loves people, animals, and good books, and she enjoys life to the fullest. Though others around her seem to go through much drama, myself included, she remains amazingly even keeled. And she’s an atheist!

The God Delusion

A 2006 best-selling non-fiction book by English biologist Richard Dawkins

Perhaps influenced by my wife’s example, I read the book God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens. I was quite secretive about reading it, and I certainly wouldn’t dream of talking about it with my AA friends. However, that book changed the way I thought about religion, spirituality and AA. I next read Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion, and I became interested in evolution and the workings of the universe. I found that reality as explained by science was far more beautiful than the best story concocted by any religion.

I had gone past the point of no return and I didn’t want anything to do with spirituality or God. But how was I to work the AA program? Would I ever come clean with my AA friends? Would they still like me? Although AA was no longer the center of my life, it was the cornerstone, it was the bedrock upon which I had built a new life, and I no longer believed or wanted to believe much of what I had been talking about, thinking about, and doing for so many years.

There’s a chapter in the Big Book titled “We Agnostics” where an effort is made to convince agnostics and atheists that belief in a higher power is practical, and that recovery from alcoholism is possible only through a spiritual experience. I used to swallow this chapter hook, line and sinker, but I now see it as totally absurd, and it’s completely against my world view.

When I learned that there are AA groups consisting primarily of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers, I found it strange that they would name their groups after this chapter, but it makes sense to me now. I see it as the atheist alcoholic’s declaration of independence, announcing to the AA community that this chapter leaves us unconvinced. We are still agnostic and still sober.

I started exploring the Internet for more information and my search led me to some people who formed an online community for atheists in AA. I would later meet one of these people, R.J., in Omaha and we had a great time talking about atheism, AA, the Big Book, the future of AA, you name it. I became energized and excited about the program and I still look forward to my weekly meetings with R.J.

Today, I find AA more meaningful when I am free to think about the steps without feeling compelled to conform to the party line. Recovery is real when removing the supernatural aspect. I still find some good in the Big Book and though the language is more than dated, I do think it speaks to the experience of alcoholics, and I believe the AA program works. It’s just that I now find the religious language divisive and unnecessary.

We Agnostics Kansas City

Click on the image to visit the We Agnostics – Kansas City website.

Inspired by R.J. and sites such as AA Agnostica, I helped to start a We Agnostics AA meeting in Kansas City with Jim C., the only other atheist I knew in Kansas City AA. Our group is off to a nice start. We have a comfortable meeting place and a core group of people committed to its success.

I’ve seen people come to our group who were avoiding AA because of the religious nature of other meetings, or who left years ago but returned after learning about our meeting. We support one another and we’re genuinely excited about helping others.

Our experience reminds me of a passage from the Big Book taken from the chapter “A Vision for You” that describes AA as a place where “…you will find release from care, boredom and worry. Your imagination will be fired. Life will mean something at last. The most satisfactory years of your existence lie ahead. Thus we find the fellowship, and so will you”.

Thanks to other agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA, this is how I feel about the program today.


Do Tell! [Front Cover]This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

The paperback version of Do Tell! is available at Recovery 101 and at AmazonIt is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom. If you live in the UK or Europe, please purchase the book your local Amazon. The result is much better shipping rates and a quicker delivery.

It can be purchased online in all eBook formats, including Kindle, Kobo and Nook and as an iBook for Macs and iPads.


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I Lost My Faith and Happily So — 12 Comments

  1. As I read and listen to the stories of people who sojourn with an open-ended perspective on life, I feel there seems to be a greater sense of ease among those who’ve abandoned concept(s) of an “ultimate cause” in favour of a receptiveness to an “all possibilities” approach. I am sincerely grateful to and have the deepest respect for the founding fathers of AA and their commitment to creating a means of recovery for themselves and us and for the legacy we all enjoy. Having said that, to quote Shel Silverstein, “…Life is a creature of constant change…” (Beans Taste Fine) and stagnation is dangerous to any dynamic entity. Unfortunately many traditionalists feel that safety lies in keeping things exactly as they were “in the beginning and ever more shall be” and I can appreciate their fear. However, this kind of thinking gives rise to ritualism and loss of meaning and purpose.

    When I first exited the weirdly grotesque religious organization/denomination/belief system I was raised with, I admit to a loss of direction and, on a good day, my life was completely out of control. My alcohol and drug usage skyrocketed. It was as though a great knife had slashed through the guidelines and anchor-sheets of all I’d known and I was adrift and lost in a chaotic maelstrom. At this time I subscribed to the perspective, “Life, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.” I was fortunate that through this period, I met many individuals living “alternative” life styles and having a wide range of perspectives. Among these was an idea referred to as “Tao”, a concept indescribable in language, and the daily practice of meditation and martial arts. These had a sanity about them and have generally formed the background of my life through the past 40 years. The general theme is, “Life is what it is and we attribute the meaning”. To me that seems to be a very useful approach, enabling every individual to allow her/his life to mean whatever they choose it to be. Life’s purpose is in everything we engage in from making a simple cup of coffee to constructing a spaceship to explore the universe. It also places responsibility (not blame) directly in our own hands. When it was clear to me that I could decide to continue with my self-destructive behaviour or decide to redirect my life, the inner strength was the knowledge itself. I stopped drinking and drugging and chose to become a source of love and support to my family and friends and to live the life I truly wanted which, to date, has been a lot of fun and pretty creative.

    May I wish the same or better happiness and fulfilment to you all.

  2. Hi all. Thanks for all the shares. I too have lost my faith in any supernatural being or deity after being in the rooms for over 22 years. I stopped going to meetings and basically withdrew into reading books by Dawson, Harris, Hitchens, Grayling, Tarico, and a host of other atheistic/freethinking people. I watched many debates on YouTube between Christians and atheists. I was afraid too, about going back, about people still accepting me, liking me, and tolerating me. I have since returned to a men’s meeting that uses our big book and also a study guide by Joe and Charlie. It has been positive in some ways and challenging on other levels. I live in Vermont where Bill and Bob hail from. The meeting closes with the LP. I don’t know, I do feel better after going and connecting. I really missed that aspect, the human identification and compassion stuff. I hope a meeting develops for us freethinkers. I did submit my information and interest so maybe others like me/us, can start something in VT. Thank you everybody for being here. Chuck D.

  3. John, when I read your story in “Do Tell” I identified with it as parts of my own story are similar to yours.
    I identify with drinking to overcome social unease; drinking relieved that unease for awhile but it eventually led me into desolate isolation, desperation and depression. It has taken many years of recovery/discovery to come to terms with those issues and become comfortable in my own skin.

    When I came to AA in 1975 I was completely beaten and desperate; I was teachable! I read the big book, attended many BB studies, the same for the 12 X12 and parroted the usual clichés I heard at those meetings always with a feeling of unease. My feelings of unease were based on my innermost thoughts that this stuff simply wasn’t working for me and in fact I had a tough time believing in most of the jargon related to higher powers, gods, miracles and the rest of the religiosity I was hearing.

    For too long I felt guilty about thinking and feeling this way; this was reinforced by people telling me I just wasn’t doing it right, I had to try harder and eventually I would get it. Who was I to question what they claimed to have and I so desperately wanted?

    At 20 years sober I decided to take up Bill Wilsons Challenge, “Either god is or he isn’t”, I chose isn’t to my great and almost instant relief. I wrote about what I didn’t believe; I challenged myself to write about what I did believe, my core values and beliefs which were always there deep down inside. This was a long and lonely process till I finally opened up to a fellowship friend who had been going through much the same journey. Dan is 31 years sober now and an active member of our Agnostic groups.

    Your words sum up my 20 year journey without god and without the cool aid nicely for me so I will take some artistic liberty here!

    “I had gone past the point of no return and I didn’t want anything to do with spirituality or God. But how was I to work the AA program? Would I ever come clean with my AA friends? Would they still like me? Although AA was no longer the center of my life, it was the cornerstone, it was the bedrock upon which I had built a new life, and I no longer believed or wanted to believe much of what I had been talking about, thinking about, and doing for so many years.”

    “Today, I find AA more meaningful when I am free to think about the steps without feeling compelled to conform to the party line. Recovery is real when removing the supernatural aspect. I still find some good in the Big Book and though the language is more than dated, I do think it speaks to the experience of alcoholics, and I believe the AA program works. It’s just that I now find the religious language divisive and unnecessary.”

    Thanks John, you once again made my day!

  4. Nice one John. Maybe we can be cautiously optimistic that the tide of religiosity in AA is on the ebb. I read this the other day, ‘The Baptist leader Russell Moore recently told evangelicals that the Bible Belt is collapsing under culture and demographic pressures …’ And those pressures must be impacting on AA membership. In the UK there is no Bible Belt, thank God (sic). In fact national politicians who have a religious faith tend to keep quiet about it because it irritates the voters. We’re a pretty Godless country! Of course, AA groups that insist on everyone standing and reciting the Lord’s Prayer are violating Tradition Three. A newcomer could say, ‘I was told the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. Yet you’re telling me that it is this group’s rule that everyone has to stand, join hands and say a prayer which I don’t believe.’ In a letter dated 1955 Bill W. – after noting that it was ‘unnecessary to defer to the feelings of our agnostic and atheist newcomers’ over the prayer – nevertheless wrote, ‘Around here the leader of the meeting usually asks those to join in the prayer WHO FEEL THEY WOULD CARE TO DO SO.’ That form of words is sometimes used at AA meetings in Britain, though we close meetings with the Serenity prayer, hardly any groups use the Lord’s Prayer; and of course our few agnostic/atheist groups don’t say prayers at all. The 1962 US Conference noted, ‘Participation or non-participation in the Lord’s Prayer should be considered a matter for personal conscience and decision.’ Quite.

    • Not quite, Laurie. There should be no Lord’s Prayer, PERIOD, and thus no decision needed as to whether to participate in it or not.

      Either AA is religious or it is not. If it is not then there is no Lord’s Prayer – anytime, anywhere or by any Group.

      • “There should be no Lord’s Prayer, PERIOD.”

        In our zeal to see the LP not be a part of AA meetings it is good to remember there are fellowship elements to closing a meeting that might be lost in the process, holding hands in a circle, facing one another, etc. For some that is not a loss. For this hippie the circle is amazing, especially among men. The responsibility statement is one alternative if something needs to be said.

        Needed reform will arrive in unpredictable, even surprising ways if our egos are in balance with those forces “we can not change”.

      • Nothing to fear, hippie-type Boyd.

        At our agnostic Beyond Belief meeting in Toronto we end with holding hands and saying the Responsibility Declaration. You don’t need the Lord’s Prayer to hold hands.

  5. Wonderful story, John — good to read it again. Your experience mirrors what my experience was. Finding AA Agnostica saved my sanity if not my sobriety, when my wife Jill and I moved from New York to a rural, fundamentalist Christian area on the southern seacoast of Oregon. Fortunately, we were able to relocate further north near Portland where we too have a thriving community of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers successfully sober in AA despite all the emphasis on the “God-bit” as Jim Burwell, the first atheist successfully sober in AA, describes it.

  6. John, isn’t it odd how so many unbelievers coming out of the closet in AA these days have been sober give or take 20 years?

    And how that fact entirely escapes the minds of those who so stedfastly hold on to the 1939 version of AA.

    We have a little old lady here in our area around 43 years sober who finally came out about 2 years ago, inspired by all the commotion my fight with Intergroup set in motion. She had a sponsee a few years sober who fired her and told her maybe she didn’t belong in AA. On the one hand I can understand – here she had been leading the sponsee along with something she herself didn’t even really believe in – but that was not why the sponsee fired her, the sponsee wanted to hold on to her religious belief and was one of those who fought our freethinkers meeting tooth and nail.

    Here we are, sober way longer than Bill Wilson’s bunch, and yet less credible, though the point of view ought to be, if anything, that we can see farther because we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, among those who are so quick to denounce our faulty version of the program.