The AA Grapevine published this article by J. L. of Oakland, California, which it called Atheist, in its January 1980 issue. At the time J. L. was eight years sober. When J. L. reached 16 years of sobriety her son entered the rooms of AA and The Grapevine published her perspective on this event in Is There Room Enough in AA? in its October 1987 issue. That article was posted on AA Agnostica a few weeks ago, on August 19, 2012.

She made personal translations of the Steps and applied them to her living

SOME TIME ago, a fellow AA member asked me, “How in the world does an atheist make it in AA?” She was referring to my eight-year membership, in spite of my lack of a god concept. “How do you do Steps Two and Three and the others that depend on God?” she wanted to know.

The only answer I could give her then was that I guessed I didn’t do Steps; they just sort of happened to me along the line. To her questions of how AA works if you’re an atheist, I could only say, “Very well, thank you.”

Her questioning how I, as an atheist, could stay contented in AA’s program set me to some analysis of my relationship with and attitude toward the Higher Power of our program, and of how I can stay sober, progress in enjoyment and quality of living, improve my relationships with others, and live well within the goals of AA’s personal program–and still not believe in a god.

I came into AA at the urging of a man I knew to have no religious inclinations and to have been sober a number of months. He had warned me that there might be a lot of talk about God; he said he just overlooked it, because AA was his best chance of getting off booze. I decided to take the same attitude, and when the first three weeks of meetings seemed to be on the Third Step, I was neither surprised nor offended. I knew I needed what AA had to offer in learning to live without drinking, and I immediately made personal translations of the Steps and applied them to my living.

At the very early stages of my sobriety, I was concerned only with the conversion of Steps Two and Three into terms I could understand and apply in my life. Step Two says the first 100 people came to believe that a Power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity. My Step Two, in my head, said simply that I was willing to accept that I could be helped. Step Three, for me, translated into a decision to avoid trying to direct my life, and instead to go with the current of life. These translations, along with Step One and frequent attendance at meetings with good sponsors, produced my first two years of life without alcohol.

After those years, I found I was beginning to have an idea of a well and happy person inside me that had become overshadowed by the sick alcoholic. It seemed reasonable to me that I had been born whole and that alcohol and pills had damaged me. With the alcohol and drugs out of me, the healing had begun, and the well and happy person was getting stronger and taking a greater role in the conduct of my daily affairs. Letting that well and happy part of me get stronger was and is my equivalent of asking God to remove shortcomings.

By proper nutrition, exercise, and regular living habits, I worked at taking care of myself physically. I looked after my emotional and mental health by attendance at AA, repeated introspection, some outside therapy, consultations with trusted AA friends, avoidance of relationships or decisions I knew were likely to bring emotional chaos to me. The positive actions I was able to make on my own behalf in my daily life nourished the well and happy person in me and were my Steps Ten and Eleven.

Gradually, my life got better, and I got healthier and happier in every way. I was able to do things I never expected. One was to return to college to get the degree I had never attained because of the way I had lived as a practicing alcoholic. Twenty years after I had first started, I resumed my studies in the natural sciences and ecology.

I have learned that education does more than provide me with factual information; it vastly improves my vision and other perceptions. I no longer saw a forest–I saw five species of trees, eight of shrubs, and thirteen kinds of wildflowers. I also saw in the natural world an order and a flow that are consistent, producing an intricate web in which everything has a place. Ecologists call that place for living things a “niche.” I became aware that I, too, must have a niche in the world. The nature of my alcoholism had been the denial of that niche and the inability to perform within it. As a sober person, I can recognize that I fit in the world, and that my obligation and privilege in living are to strive to remain in harmony with my niche, not in conflict with it, as practicing alcoholism surely is.

Sobriety has come to me, and remains mine, through attendance in AA and by close relationships with other AA members. It lets the well and happy person in me survive, and permits harmonious living in my niche and within the natural flow. Conversely, my efforts to strengthen the well and happy person and to live each day with an intent of remaining in concert with the world, instead of at loggerheads with it, permit my sobriety. It is the web of AA.

When I review the last nine years, I can see that the pattern has been one of improvement, even in times of depression or actual misfortune. I have no reason to think the pattern will not continue; this is the one bit of knowledge I have of my life that is probably more belief than fact. It is the closest thing in my thinking to what one might call faith. I still do not believe there is an omnipotent being that runs the universe. Nevertheless, I stay sober and am not troubled. AA works for everyone, even atheists.

Copyright © The AA Grapevine 1980. Reprinted with permission.

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