Spirituality for a Non-Believer


By Ed S.

My parents sent us three children to Catholic school. After twelve years of attending Catholic schools, first grade through high school, I went away to college and began to question my beliefs. One of the best things I learned at The University of California was to think and to question everything.  After several discussions with my fraternity brothers about whether God exists or not, reason prevailed, and I became a non-believer. I graduated in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting.

What does spirituality mean for a non-believer, atheist or agnostic?

Secular spirituality for me includes meditation, which I have done for 28 years. It helps me to stay in the moment and to see things as they are.

I first studied and practiced meditation at the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY. On my first visit there I asked the Abbot what Zen had to say about God.  John Daido Loori  Roshi said,  “Zen does not talk about God.” That was good enough for me so I stayed, became a student of Daido, and did several ten-day meditation retreats at the monastery. When I moved to Ohio, I started, with several other meditators that I met, Mindfulness Meditation of Columbus. We had weekly meditation sessions and put on several weekend retreats with attendance of up to fifty people.

I do not pray because I do not believe there is a spiritual being who answers prayers.

Spirituality for me includes positive affirmations, insights, nurturing thoughts and compassionate action. In Waiting – A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, Marya Hornbacher states it well: “When I speak of spirit, I am not speaking of something related to or given by a force outside ourselves.  I am speaking of the force that is ourselves. …It is an awareness of presence in the world.”

How does a non-believer thrive in Alcoholics Anonymous?

When I first started going to AA meetings 26 years ago and heard members mention “a power greater than myself” or “God as I understand him” that did not work for me. I even attended a weekly second step Came to Believe meeting, but I still didn’t get it. Candlelight Eleventh step meetings were okay as long as I focused on the meditation part and ignored the prayer part. Members of AA suggested that I use the group as my higher power and that worked, at least for a while.

Now that I have been an out-of-the closet atheist for many years, I have no problem saying I have no higher power. I don’t need it. Actually, I believe it is the unconditional love we receive from other group members that keeps us sober. Science has shown that the neural pathways associated with cravings and addictions are also activated when we feel loved. [1] For many years I drank to get rid of the feeling of being unloved.  I go to meetings and feel loved and no longer have the craving to drink.

In the pamphlet, Questions and Answers on Sponsorship it states, “…some alcoholics have been able to achieve and maintain sobriety without a belief in a personal Higher Power.” I have heard many times in meetings that if you don’t do a fifth step, you will drink again. I think this is one of the most important things to do and you certainly don’t need to believe in a higher power to do a fifth step. When I first got into AA, I rewrote and typed up my version of the Steps, leaving out god. That worked for me. There are several versions of the twelve steps written by other atheist/agnostics and they can be helpful. A great – and brand new – resource is the book published by AA Agnostica, The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps.

I thank Jim Burwell (known as Jim B, 3/23/1898 – 9/8/74) for suggesting AA’s Third Tradition: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” He is the author of “A Vicious Cycle” found in the second and fourth editions of the Big Book. Jim was an atheist and worked to tone down the God bit in the first draft of the Big Book. This resulted in the use of the terms “Higher Power” and “God as we understand him.” Without this compromise AA might not have grown like it has.

What we do need, however, is more literature for non-believers.  A recent book by Joe C., Beyond Belief – Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, is a good book for those who like a daily reader.

I have talked to people who have left AA because of so much God talk. Because of this I wanted to start a less religious meeting. I looked for people at meetings who did not pray with the group and did not mention god or higher power in their shares. I found Dan H. and Lee S. and we started a We Agnostics meeting. Our first meeting was held in Columbus on January 4, 2011.

I obtained the format for the meeting by writing to a We Agnostics group in California. A member was kind enough to send it to me. It is an open discussion meeting and very similar to other AA meetings, except that we do not pray at the beginning and end of the meeting. God and a Higher Power are usually not mentioned unless a newcomer asks how we do AA or the Steps without either. We say the Responsibility Declaration at the end of the meeting.

There have been several visits from the Membership Committee of the area Intergroup, which publishes the Central Ohio Directory of AA meetings. They seem to be looking for a reason to take us out of the Directory. So far we are hanging in there. We celebrated our second anniversary at the Dublin Hospital at 7:00 PM on January 1, 2013. We usually have 10-20 attendees who are most grateful for this type of meeting.

I am responsible…

When anyone, anywhere,
reaches out for help, I want
the hand of A.A. always to be there.
And for that: I am responsible.

And that includes non-believers.

[1] Discover Magazine, January 2, 2011, Page 81, Science Explains Why Breaking Up is Hard to Do.

Ed’s professional experience spans 50 years and includes top management financial positions at large corporations and small not-for-profits.  He has two sons and lives with his wife, Nita, and their yellow lab, Morgan. Ed retired in 2013 at the age of 71 and enjoys cooking and is active in three book clubs.  He takes the Steps seriously and that includes the Twelfth Step. He is a volunteer guardian (appointed by the court to make medical decisions for patients who are not capable themselves and have no relatives to help them) and a hospice volunteer who sits with the terminally ill. In 2010, Ed received a CFO of the Year – Honorable Mention Award for his service as CFO of the House of Hope for Alcoholics, a rehab treatment facility in Columbus, Ohio. Ed has been a sober  non-believer in AA for 26 years.

18 Responses

  1. Michael H says:

    I really like the idea of watching for “like minded” non-reciters of prayers at meetings. I know it is a program of attraction, but since they have already been attracted to AA, I think I will ask them if they might like an agnostic meeting. Thanks, Michael H. in Maryland.

  2. paul h says:

    I find no need for spirituality, whatever it means. Robert Ingersoll wrote an essay saying, in essence, the term is meaningless.

    • John L. says:

      Thanks for lead on Ingersoll talk, which I found on-line: Ingersoll on Spirituality.

      Interestingly, after Ingersoll rips apart the hypocritical religionist uses of “spirituality”, he ends up describing what real spirituality might be.

      I liked Ed’s piece on “spirituality”, although my own take is different. I usually avoid the word, considering it fraught with religious connotations. But I can also discuss the “spirituality” of late Beethoven, or the feeling of support at an AA meeting, or the endorphin feeling that comes after exercise and a sauna, and so on.

  3. bob k says:

    Thanks to Ed for his story, as it was one with which I STRONGLY identified. I too was educated and indoctrinated in the perplexing philosophies of the Roman Catholics. When I got to the University of Toronto in 1967, I was very open to ‘new ideas’ as the old ones were so unsatisfactory in almost every respect.

    At the U. of T. I encountered professors who were agnostics and atheists, and even said so OUT LOUD! A pretty shocking contrast from the parochialism of my previous environment. Following a year or so of study and contemplation I had a new world view that made sense and was devoid of ‘weird mythology.’

    Of course, there was a problem when my alcoholic genes transported me to the doors of AA, where belief in the unbelievable is alive and well. Fortunately, the suggestions of “Group of Drunks” and “Good Orderly Direction” were sufficient to allow me to stay, and to navigate a more secular path to the desired result. I knew that I needed SOMETHING. Efforts to quit on my own solitary power were doomed to failure.

    After a couple of decades, my mind is becoming more open to the more secular versions of spirituality – I’m planning to take some instruction on meditation.

    Thanks so much to Ed – I still find identification very ‘groovy.’ Peace, man.

  4. Laurie A says:

    I like the idea that we are not AGAINST AA’s who believe in God – Live and Let Live. We simply have an approach that works for us, and we have stopped fighting anyone or anything. The AA group I joined met at a Quaker Meeting House and I soon began attending Quaker meetings myself; I was not told what to believe – but asked what I believed. I was then, and remain, an agnostic and was welcomed for who I was and not expected to sign up to some creed or other. I belong to the Nontheists Friends Network, a Quaker group who are not anti-God but who like Buddhists believe that the main thing is how we live our lives.

    • Eric T says:

      I agree entirely Laurie, the gift for me in all of this is the serenity that comes with choosing *not* to struggle with people, places and things.

  5. Aitch says:

    Thanks to those publishing the AA Agnostica site, its great to read the expressions of other freethinkers in the fellowship via this site.
    I live in Scotland and look forward to receiving the postings.
    And thanks to Ed S for posting his interpretation and experience of spirituality as a non-believer; another chance for us readers to consider the views of a fellow member. I like to hear different experiences and opinions expressed; it provides opportunities that can only enrich the fellowship today and enrich me personally.
    As an atheist with over 26 years sobriety in AA, I have encountered more than my fair share of conflict from fellow members when expressing my differences or apparently ‘dissenting’ opinion on some subject matter read out for ‘discussion’ at the meeting. ‘Dissenting’ apparently meaning being different from the consensus (there’s no freethinker meetings here in Glasgow that I know of!).
    One particular rationale given to me on a few occasions, in justification of abusive reactions to me, is that what I say is not good for the newcomer. Ah, the wisdom of some! Spirituality, Higher Power, God, Prayer, Willpower, Sponsorship, Acceptance, and a plethora of other themes including, dare I say it, The Big Book and even Sobriety, all interpreted by individuals and shared freely at meetings as experiences or opinions. Wonderful, and so should it remain, that all voices are shared and heard in AA.
    I was lucky when I heard old Peter at my first meeting share his non-belief. Then I heard Midnight Charlie share his non-belief a few months later. Both of these members now dead. I had a desire to stop drinking when I came into AA but hearing these two non-believers undoubtedly played a part in me remaining in AA, particularly when I started to consider what was being fed as fact within AA.
    As I remained sober and in AA, I read many AA approved books but I also started to read other books like ‘Getting Better Inside AA’, Jack Trimpey books, and many other books. I came to form my own understanding of ‘why’ AA is ‘how’ it is and, most importantly, I came to understand ‘how’ AA works for me in helping me maintain my sobriety. I believe that its in my humanness where I am most frail; in particular, ‘isolation’ and ‘insularity’ were two particular demons that became a part of my chronic dependency on alcohol.
    But I’m one of the lucky ones that have AA in my life today and its the ‘fellowship’ within AA that supports me to remain free of isolation and insularity and free of returning to a dependency on alcohol.
    I believe that I read within The Road Less Travelled something like: ‘Its a fine line between being spiritually well and being mentally well, if there’s any line at all’: to paraphrase it, from memory, which may not be accurate!!! I’ll settle for good mental health.
    I believe that the expressed differences that are seen as conflict within AA today between the ‘fundamentalists’ and the ‘agnostics’ requires a degree of tolerance, particularly from the fundamentalists!
    Sometimes you’ve just gotta laugh!

  6. marnin says:

    It gives me a terrific feeling of togetherness with others expressing their non beliefs about “GOD”.

    Often after attending an AA meeting I am left with a deep lonely feeling since I seem to be one of the few on an agnostic path to recovery.

  7. Pam L says:

    Loved the story. Our Hollywood Agnostic group just breeched the Southern California Convention Meeting for a meeting space. We look forward to having an Agnostic/ Athiest panel this year. We are also looking at starting an Agnostic Convention so all of us can come together to give many a suffering alcoholic options to dying. Thanks for this website! 🙂

  8. Eric T says:

    Great post and comments – thanks to you all for reminding me again today that I am not alone. I’m also reminded that in sobriety I do have options; when I was drinking all I could do it seemed was to drink more. Grateful to still be on the right track…

  9. Ivan K says:

    This is my comment to Ed S.

    Ed I sure enjoyed what you had to say about God. I am 81 years young I had my last drink at 2 pm August 29, 1953, but did not join AA until April 1959.

    I spent 20 years in the RCAF and April 1959 one of my fellow Airmen mentioned that he was a member of AA, and I told him of how I drank, and he informed me that there was an open meeting that evening, and he invited me to come.

    That evening the alcoholic that spoke had 12 years of sobriety, and as I listened he was telling my story.

    When the speaker finished his message I said to myself, “Ivan you should have become a member the day you had your last drink,” and I have been going to AA ever since.

    At each meeting members would say AA is not a religion it is spirituality, and I bought into it, until one day I said. “Ivan if praying will keep you sober how come you hear members that went back to drinking prayed that morning, how come religious people pray, and can’t stay sober, and how come alcoholics that do not pray stay sober?”

    My answer was this praying has nothing to do with staying sober.

    I heard this saying at meeting years ago, and I still use it.

    Sobriety is not for people that need it; it is for people that want it.

    Ed great article and thank you.

    All the best, Ivan K.

  10. Dave H says:

    Thanks, Ed S. for your insights, and for starting a We Agnostics meeting in Columbus, Ohio. If I ever get up there again I’ll look you up.
    I thank Jim B., also. It’s to AA’s credit that they published his story, and left enough wiggle room for us non-believers to come to where we are today.
    And thanks to AA Agnostica for its part in the growth of secular AA.

  11. Denis K says:

    Thanks Ed,
    This is a great post; I agree with everything you have to say.
    We have started an Agnostic group here in Vancouver BC, ( not yet registered). Although small, we are starting to attract some attention and inquiries from curious people. Hopefully these curious individuals will find a home with us.

  12. JIM H says:

    god is optional in aa

  13. John K says:

    Hello and greetings to all. I also don’t pray, as I to do not believe in a god the caters to the whims of whiners. No pun intended. I heard that God granted human kind with FREE WILL. So if that be the case, then any spiritual intervention would be a breach of trust. Buddhism is the only spiritual philosophy that I can utilize, as Buddhism says what we need is already there in our genetic make-up. Thanks for this wonderful AA Agnostica. God Bless! Not really, LOL Johnny.

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