Is There Room Enough in AA?

Birds at Feeder

By J. L. from Oakland, California.
Published in the AA Grapevine in October 1987. Copyright ©  AA Grapevine; reprinted with permission.

Recently my twenty-eight-year-old son began to recognize his growing problem with alcohol (an episode with the law helped get his attention) and went to his first AA meeting on his own behalf. As a child he had been to meetings with me, now sixteen years sober in AA. Over the years he has watched the improvements in my life and I am sure he knows of AA’s high success rate for alcoholism recovery. When he was about eighteen and I spoke to him about the probable inherit-ability of alcoholism and the strong potential for him to become alcoholic he said, “Don’t worry. If I find out I’ve got it I’ll just go to AA.”

The time has come for him, but his initial visit to AA for himself was a disaster. He says the only member there who approached him was a woman, well-meaning no doubt, who began telling him the first thing he had to do was find a belief in God. This woman’s suggestion that God would bring about his recovery from alcoholism is about as absurd to him as a suggestion to use bloodletting or a few voodoo treatments would be to most of us in the modern Western world. You see, my son, like me, is an atheist.

When my son told me of his encounter, I tried to point out to him that I and an agnostic woman he knows have had success with AA’s program. But his comment was: “Maybe you can handle that stuff but I don’t want to waste my time with it. I’ll just have to find some reasonable way to work this out.” Like many alcoholics he may still be somewhat uncertain about whether he wants to make a commitment to sobriety. The heavy-handed religiosity he found provided exactly the excuse he needed to bolt and run. Unfortunately his assessment of AA as a group of religious fanatics was supported by two of his friends who had also sought help from AA and had rejected it for the same reasons after similar experiences.

The experience of my son and his friends led me to consider why and how I was able to find compatibility between AA’s teaching and my own atheistic philosophies. My background prepared me better, I think. I had been raised in a religion – one that I rejected, but also one that I understand and do not feel any particular animosity toward. I simply do not regard belief in God as supportable by evidence, rational, nor necessary for happy living. That was true for me when I got to AA and continues into my long sobriety. I suspect that my earlier contacts with religious people whom I loved and trusted made me more tolerant or at least less suspicious of their ideas. Also the man who urged me to call AA was an atheist in AA and had forewarned me of the strong God orientation of many people. This AA member had suggested I reveal my ideas at once and ask that I be referred to someone with similar ideas.

Furthermore, I think my first call to AA was crucially different than my son’s. I told the woman who came to take me to a meeting of my atheism and my concern that AA might not work for me. She respected my attitude and pointed out to me how AA, regardless of God or higher power, had a great deal to offer that was very practical. AA would (and did) provide friendly counseling from people who had followed the same path as I. In the nurture of the Fellowship I could develop living skills that I had neglected for so many years. The Fellowship would be an immediate source of social contact with those who also did not drink. AA could teach me to be a social being without having to use the drugs I was accustomed to. She told me the Twelve Steps could be liberally translated to be an excellent guideline for reasonable and harmonious living with others and with myself. Not that first night, nor in the years of our friendship since, did she tell me that I must find God in order to stay sober.

Over the years I have been reticent about my atheism at AA meetings because I know it goes against the grain of most members and is contrary to AA literature. The chapter to the agnostic is quite clear in its message that somehow all of us will eventually find God – that such belief is fundamental to humans. I do not agree, but when God or higher power is discussed at meetings I tend to pass, except at the small close-knit group I attend. Otherwise, my contributions are mostly limited to topics which address practical sobriety. I have refused requests to speak at meetings for several years because I didn’t think I should speak openly of how AA works in my life.

Perhaps that was wise of me when I was still quite mad and the benefits of AA were not so obvious in my life. It seemed unacceptable to state that sobriety is possible without believing in God when my sobriety was so short-term and my mental emotional equilibrium was so tenuous. But years have passed and all the promises of AA have come to me. My life is richer than I could have ever imagined and I owe it entirely lo the AA program. You see, AA’s Twelve Steps and the exchange of ideas with other recovering alcoholics are so effective in combatting this disease that, for some of us, these tools alone are enough to gain a rewarding sobriety. It concerns me that many do not realize this fact.

Rarely do I hear anyone else admit to nonbelief in God, and I have held the impression that very few atheists remain in AA. The man who sent me to AA subsequently abandoned the Fellowship. Often I have wondered whether the atheists commonly go away or if they finally conform out of greater willingness or more determination to believe than I have. Recently I have come to suspect that neither is the case. I hear so little from atheists in AA because those of us who do not believe in God keep quiet about it. I have done so partly out of timidity and partly to avoid the comment that the admission of atheism frequently brings: that I will someday believe or I will get drunk.

The relationship between a belief in God and sobriety cannot be demonstrated to be consistent. Over the years I have watched many people get drunk even though they professed a belief in God and a clear understanding of him. The clergy suffer as much from alcoholism as any other group of people. Clearly a belief in God is no assurance of not returning to drinking. I am convinced from demonstrations all around me that sobriety is the result of one recovering alcoholic helping another, with both striving to achieve the orderly, responsible lives described in AA’s Twelve Steps.

Often it is said in AA meetings that AA is not a religious program but a spiritual program. However, in AA most spirituality is spoken about in religious terminology. The term God (with capital “G”) and references to “Him” and “His Will” are right out of Western Judeo-Christian writings. We cannot expect a newcomer atheist to read between the lines of religious jargon and conclude that a phrase like a “conscious contact with God” could be translated to mean “an enlightened attitude.”

We all need to be able to explain to newcomers how AA works in terms that particular alcoholic can understand. Never would I seek to explain AA in my own atheistic interpretation to an alcoholic who believes in God and suggest that he would do well to modify his perception in order to get or stay sober. Instead I can speak to the person about God from the many references and explanations which abound in AA literature. Yet it is probably more difficult the other way around. A God-oriented AA member doesn’t have a large supply of ideas from atheists available to share with the newcomer atheist. Too few of us state our positions in meetings; too little is written in AA’s literature.


7 Responses

  1. Kelly says:

    I liked this post. I practice Buddhism and lean towards agnosticism, but nothing in AA has ever given me much trouble. I’m always tickled by the members who will do readings giving God a feminine pronoun, etc, or those loudly atheist. Or those who literally do the Jesus talk thingie. And then there’s the love and tolerance shown for all views. That’s pretty awesome. You don’t find that elsewhere, much.

    My advice: don’t let anything chase you out of AA if you want what they have. Useful, happy sobriety. I want it. I get it in AA. I’m okay with differences, as our commonality and our way of life is very meaningful to me.

  2. Stephen says:

    In my meetings I’d say there are more atheist than religious people. I’ve heard people feel out of AA because their religion was constantly under attack during meetings, even though they never named their religion. Tell your son to find meetings he likes, etc. I get uncomfortable with religious talk and the passive aggressive religion bashing. ..oh I’m Catholic…so yeah, you are going to hell!

  3. Ivan K says:

    My name is Ivan K. I am 81 years young and this Aug. 30 at 2:00pm I will be sober a day at a time 59 years. A brief history of how I became sober.

    Dec. 27 1949 I became a member of the greatest air force in the world, the RCAF, and in 1969 I retired with 20 years service. April 13, 1953 after drinking heavily for 58 days I was admitted into an air force hospital, diagnosed 6 months from the grave. The day I was to be released the doctor informed me to quit drinking or the next hospital visit I would be taken out in a wooden box. I stayed dry until August when I went on my leave, and started to drink. Sitting in the Legion on the 29 of August I looked up at the wall clock: 2:00pm. I said “Ivan stand up, drink up, walk out, and you will never drink again.” And that is exactly what I did, and the rest is history.

    April 1958, stationed at RCAF Station Cold Lake Alberta, I came into AA 5 years after I had my last drink. When I came into AA I was told AA has nothing to do with religion, it is a spiritual program. And I bought into it. And one day I received a spiritual experience. The experience was to be able to think.

    I looked very honestly at the Twelve Steps. Step 3, 5 and 6 mentions God. Step 7 says humbly asked Him for it. God is in Step 11, the Lords Prayer and the Serenity Prayer.

    I understand that our founder Bill died from smoking, and I am sure that he prayed many times to quit and could not.

    Staying sober has nothing to do with a belief in God. If an alcoholic has not the honest want to stay sober, he or she won’t.

    The proof of the pudding is this. Some atheists and agnostics stay sober and some religious people don’t.
    The secret to sobriety is wanting to stay sober. And go to AA. It is that simple.

    Ivan K. from London Ontario

  4. John S says:

    I have been going to AA meetings for three years now. I have been “back out” once. I recently spoke at a meeting and did not hide the fact that god was not my higher power. After the meeting I was told to “fake it till I make it.” To me this means that anyone can use their own conception of a higher power until AA convinces you otherwise. I do like some of the people at AA, but I find I am becoming less and less interested in “keep coming back.” Getting fed up with AA.

  5. Boyd P. says:

    …“faith is never a necessity for AA membership…” Bill W. Grapevine July 1965.

    Bill repeatedly corrected himself concerning… “the high cost of spiritual pride.” “I have become a pupil of the AA movement rather than the teacher I once thought I was.” – 1946

    Humility looks like the wellspring for change in AA.

  6. Joe C. says:

    As they say, “God could and would if He existed.” That’s just a little blaspheme we were sharing around the coffee shop last night.

    I remember this story. I read the Grapevine sporadically at that time. I also remember thinking, “Hey yeah, the climate does seem to be getting more conservative and less inclusive.” The sober hippies of the 1970s seemed to be more “anything goes” than the yuppies of the 1980s. But then and now, AA from one meeting to the next can be dramatically different so I hate to paint us with a single brush stroke.

    I regret that, back then for me, being approved of was more appealing than being blatantly authentic. I found a way to talk in questions and satirize my futile quest to find God as a means of coping in AA. The speaking engagements kept coming, I guess because I didn’t threaten or offend anyone. I would say things like: “spiritual awakening? — I don’t know about that, but I have had my fair share of rude awakenings in AA.” People would laugh and identify and neither they nor I had to confront the fact that decades after my search for an interfering/intervening deity, I had come up dry.

    Without the Internet then, I think nonbelievers were more likely to feel different, incomplete or like recovery freaks of nature. I did. It made me nervous some of the time – nervous that I was a phoney who would be outed as a fraud, or that my brand of sobriety wasn’t going to get me through a rainy day.

    Today, the combination of having a clearer sense of what my true values are, the confidence that comes with the fellowship of others that make the Twelve Steps work without Jehovah the Creator, means that I speak more candidly. That said, I am not on a crusade. Most of the time I say what I do to stay sober and what I believe; there is no need to say what I don’t do or don’t believe. But I don’t back away from expressing myself authentically. I feel like a rights-bearing equal to everyone in AA now, no more complete or incomplete than anyone else.

  7. Allesah says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. I just started AA, and I am agnostic. The heavy “God” talk is a bit unsettling to me, but I need people for support who have been where I am. Reading your words is like a breath of fresh air.