Atheists, Traditions and Concepts

Flowers for Atheists

By Edward S.,
Jupiter, Florida

Recently, while doing some fellowshipping with local AAs, a friend expressed her belief that atheists should not be allowed to start their own atheist-oriented groups (and therefore should not be recognized by Intergroup) and should start their own fellowship. This essay was born out of an attempt to formulate a coherent rebuttal to her assertions, using the Traditions, Concepts and considerations of AA’s founding members.

It is my contention that atheists in AA should be free to start their own AA groups and be recognized as such. The choice should not be either a) leave AA and start your own society, or b) attend theistic-oriented AA groups. My argument holds regardless of the apparent fact that AA’s Steps and Traditions mention a god (or a higher power) or hold a spiritual experience as their goal.

The argument for the creation and recognition of atheist AA groups is stated as follows:

  1. An atheist with a desire to stop drinking is an AA member. (Tradition Three, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”)
  2. An AA group is defined as “Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety… provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.” (The long form of Tradition Three.)
  3. From premises 1 and 2, it is clear that two or three atheist members of Alcoholics Anonymous can gather together for sobriety and form a group.1

An objection to this argument could be raised that an atheist group is violating the long form of Tradition Three, that it has an “other affiliation,” atheism. However, a certain belief, (or in the case of atheism, a lack of belief) does not qualify as an affiliation. Affiliation is defined as “a close association or connection,” and refers to links to groups not to ideas or convictions that are held.2 An example of an AA group having an affiliation would be if a group was a member of the Atheist Alliance International or even the Humane Society. Lack of belief does not qualify as an affiliation anymore than, say, homosexuality, being young, or, for that matter,  voting Republican.

In the case of atheist groups then, a questioning of their affiliation cannot serve as a legitimate justification for denying their creation or recognition by Intergroup.

The argument against atheist groups, if it were to continue, would most likely devolve into an appeal to a god as a necessity for recovery. However, we can say with logical certainty that a belief in a higher power or god is not necessary for recovery. The oft-supposed relationship between recovery from alcoholism and god might be stated as follows:

  1. If you have recovered (or are recovering from alcoholism – take your pick), then you have belief in god or a higher power;
  2. However, there is at least one person who has recovered from alcoholism without a belief in a god or higher power;3
  3. Therefore, 1. is demonstrably an invalid argument from 2.;
  4. Therefore, there is no necessary relationship between having a belief in god or a higher power and recovery.4

What of the charge that atheists do not follow the program as it is specifically laid out in the book, “Alcoholics Anonymous? Isn’t the atheist’s nonconformity reason enough to prevent him or her from starting an atheist group? This objection can be met with a general defence of an atheist’s freedom to reconcile his or her beliefs with a theistic interpretation of the 12 steps, which attributes recovery from alcohol to a god. The following three points illustrate AA’s position that members are not required to believe in or conform to any of AA’s principles (or any interpretation thereof).

  1. No penalties to be inflicted for nonconformity to AA principles (Concept Twelve, Warranty Six).
  2. “AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.”5
  3. “In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration… Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive.” (Address to the 1965 General Conference).6

It is clear, therefore, that an atheist need not conform to the program as it appears in the book. It is permissible for an atheist or atheist group to reject the theistic language in the book or steps.

We also hear the objection that an atheist group cannot carry the message because the message of AA is spiritual in nature. Although covered generally in the above rebuttal regarding conformity to AA’s principles, I would respond to this objection by asserting that an atheist group’s message could be considered spiritual depending on the way in which we define the word.

If spiritual is something otherworldly, having to do with gods or souls, then an atheist group would not carry that message because, by and large (some Buddhists notwithstanding), atheists do not believe in souls or spirits. If the term spiritual is secular, defined as an awareness of “the experience of living in this world, bound by a body, space, and time, woven into the fabric of human history, human connection, and human life,”7 then atheist groups are more than capable of carrying a spiritual message.

A working spirituality may be the goal of working the AA program, but an otherworldly, god-given, spirituality is not necessarily so. Ultimately, however, this objection fails due to Concept Twelve, Warranty Six, that there are “no penalties to be inflicted for nonconformity to AA principles.” Even if an atheist group failed to carry a spiritual message, regardless of the definition of spiritual, Concept Twelve, Warranty Six clearly states that the group could not be penalized.

The Traditions, Concepts and founding members deliberations clearly permit the formation of atheist groups and their recognition in local Intergroup offices. My hope is that the above argument will help atheists state their case logically and coherently in order to help sway those who oppose us to our side.


[1] A good resource about groups in AA is found here, The AA Group …Where it all begins. How a group functions. How to get started. This “conference approved” pamphlet is produced by AA World Services, Inc.

The long form of Tradition Three states: “Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation” (Ibid).

[2] Affiliate: (Accessed Sept 23, 2012).

[3] Charlie P., the founder of the first Agnostics AA group, passed away with 41 years of continuous sobriety. He died a sober atheist. Hat tip to Roger C., Father of We Agnostics Dies. (Accessed Sept 23, 2012).

[4] It is important to point out that the claim is not that a god is not required for recovery. That is the subject for another argument. The claim is that belief in a god is not necessary for recovery.

[5] Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A brief history of AA (New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.: 1957), p. 810.

[6] This quote is from Bill W’s address to the 1965 General Conference and was also published in the AA Grapevine: Responsibility is our Theme

[7] Marya Hornbacher, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power (Centre City, Minnesota: Hazelden: 2011) p. xiv.

3 Responses

  1. Joe C says:

    This is a sound argument. And I really enjoyed the connecting of dots. I thought that all we needed to bridge the impasse between god-AAers and godless-AAers was a better argument. But the problem isn’t ignorance. Ignorance can easily be overcome by knowledge. The problem is fear, bigotry and the unrest caused but sober atheists in the presence of those who profess that without obedience to god, sobriety is not possible for an alcoholic.

    Fortunately the pathological insanity that is Toronto intergroup isn’t found in the greater General Service ranks. I am a GSR at the district and Public Information rep for said district. A neighbouring district was hosting an information-AA day and they don’t have a PI chair so I was asked to do a presentation. I did. It was after lunch, so I kept it light, informative and short. The DCM followed and he couldn’t say enough about how grateful he was that I came out and how well received my presentation was. What can I say–I never met a microphone I didn’t like. He then went on to describe the work that a General Service District does and he explained how he chaired a discussion about the Toronto atheist AA issue and he seemed proud to report that the table voted almost unanimously to support Intergroup for policing it’s membership and keeping out undesirables.

    I can only guess he assumed that I couldn’t be an atheist because I was funny and I do service work. Aren’t all atheists humourless and trying to destroy AA? I will have a word with him and I think he will be shocked.

    I think that the solution to bigotry is be among them, work among them. Doing AA service work there is no us and them–just more jobs than people to do them. It’s hard to hate someone you do 12-Step work with. It’s easy to hate a faceless, nameless perceived threat to AA’s future.

    And lets not forget that we don’t ask permission because there is no one to grant permission. The only rules a group follows is the rule we impose on ourselves. This of course is a point well made by the author. Intergroup is no longer the gatekeeper between the suffering alkie and the group that it once was. Each group can do its own outreach and have a phone number website or ad in the paper if it wants. I would rather be part of Intergroup in Toronto but we aren’t waiting for their blessing. We carry the message anyway.

  2. Tim C. says:

    AA people seem to come in two types: Those who want to help everyone we can and those who don’t. Long arguments are a waste of time.

  3. John M. says:

    Thanks, Edward, for providing a clear and concise argument for our case that atheists, agnostics and free thinkers belong in AA. If we all keep pressing the point that our Concepts, Traditions, Steps, and spirit of Fellowship support ALL who suffer from alcoholism and wish to recover, the members of Alcoholics Anonymous will, in the not too distant future, solely concentrate their efforts on helping everyone who reaches out for help.

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