To thine own self be true

London Agnostics Featured Image

By Jude Core

I’d like to let you all know that we have a fully formed agnostic AA group that meets every week on Sundays in South West London.

It has been an interesting journey for me. I started out in Putney & Chelsea about 12 years ago and moved to South America for five of those years. Upon my return to Purley in South London, I discovered that the face of recovery had changed entirely in my area. There seemed to be a growing influx of groups with circuit speakers imported from the US, a blind fanaticism towards Joe & Charlie and a dogmatic adherence to the Steps which I had never encountered before. The cult of sponsorship disturbed me – the message now was that the ONLY way to recover is to find the Higher Power – when my own experience as an atheist in AA is that it is entirely possible to live a fulfilled, happy and sober life without having to invoke any kind of Deity or supernatural power whatsoever. It was now to me an unrecognizable recovery environment.

I felt isolated within AA and found it hard to meet anyone who shared my lack of spiritual belief in my part of the world – I craved the fellowship, love and tolerance that I had found many years previously when I had first started on my journey.

To that end I started up a new agnostic AA group. “To thine own self be True” carried me during the difficult early days. I can now share that we have a small but thriving group of men and women, some who were already sober and found our meeting, and some who GOT sober in our meeting.

Our first meeting was on a Sunday in early February 2012 in Purley. Since then we have grown and moved out of the Church at Purley and into a YMCA in Surbiton, SW London.  It’s a lovely space for us with less religious iconography and comfy leather sofas! It’s also nice to distance ourselves geographically from the more dogmatic meetings and enjoy a more relaxed and nurturing atmosphere.

 The thing that thrills me most is that we can be of maximum service to our fellows, EVEN those of us who reject any kind of supernatural thinking, or those of us who just can’t seem to get the hang of having a God in their lives. The only requirement to come to the meeting is a desire to stop drinking, we don’t ask anyone to believe in anything at all. Everyone is welcome.

BBC Beyond Belief

Jude Core interview on BBC’s Beyond Belief

As a result of having our website, the BBC contacted me to add my thoughts to a religion and ethics programme about addiction and alcohol, orginally broadcast on March 18. The programme asked a very current question in AA: how do atheists or agnostics navigate their way through such a religious/spiritual programme? My part in this BBC radio show, which perhaps ironically is called Beyond Belief, can be accessed by clicking on the link on the right.

(You can listen to the entire programme on the BBC Radio 4 website here: Religion and Addiction.)

The support from that interview has been overwhelming, and it has made me feel like I did a good thing in setting up this meeting a year ago. Despite the name calling, the ostracism from other members and the like, I have been overwhelmed with messages of support from others who, like me, lack a belief in God but STILL value the great things that AA has to offer, including the 12 steps which can be accessible to us all with just a little bit of creativity. The BBC interview has galvanised me and brought me into contact with many, many AAs who are supportive and proud of our small, but growing voice as agnostics/atheists in AA.

I can’t explain sufficiently how grateful I am to have had the support each week from other atheists and agnostics that come along to share their experience, strength and hope – we are all sober without God and it is true freedom. Our meeting now has it’s own group conscience so it was wonderful to hand the group over to the group itself. The pioneering spark came from me, and it did take a lot of courage in the Primary Purpose heartland I found myself in, but I give thanks to all of the pioneers who came before, who had already done most of the work, and who showed me that a truly wonderful, sober God-less existence is possible.

I’ve met some inspirational people on my journey, both believers and non-believers, many that I now call friends from all over the world. Our online Facebook group has also been a lovely place to pop into to help support others and show that resoundingly YES! A life beyond our wildest dreams is possible, with no need for prayer or ritual. I feel positive about the future for atheists/agnostics in AA, there is so much GOOD in the Big Book and in our meetings that it is a wonderful thing to be able to be part of Alcoholics Anonymous but yet not be subjected to dogma and judgement.

43 Responses

  1. Neil F says:

    Congratulations on your success with the new group and thanks for sharing your experience as well as the material that you have developed.

    What you have done is very inspiring.

    I wish you all the best in continuing sobriety and hope to find the courage to follow in your footsteps before long.

  2. Jude says:

    Sincerely thank you.

  3. Joe C says:

    Bravo Jude,
    A word that has a fairly new place in my lexicon is “reactance.” This is a feeling we get when authority tells us we can’t or it can’t be done. The feeling or reactance builds an even greater resolve.

    The literalists feel it from the secularization of the world around them. In their own AA world they encourage others to see their worldview as the only path to AA survival. It is their reactance that seems to, when projected in a hyperbolic way, urge others like us to react to their fundamentalism.

    Here in Toronto when AA was all one happy pluralist community agnostic AA was growing. But I think that the anti-agnostic fundamentalism that was motivated to silence the voice of deity-free sobriety has actually accelerated growth in our numbers and support from moderates.

    Oh the law of unintended consequences – it is alive and well in AA and indeed is a power greater than human wit.

    I feel great fellowship with all who seek sobriety but a special bond is shared with my freethinking brothers and sisters. Jude, thanks for being so candid. Your insight, humility and service are inspiring others.

    • Jude says:

      Joe thank you. You already walked the path, the pioneers that took out the God and left the Good in our programme means I live as a free woman. There is no better feeling and it was worth going through the tough times to be able to share with you people globally now. Gigantic gratitude ! All the best.

    • larry k says:

      Great article Jude. There really has been a shift in the last few years. I came to Toronto from an area near Algonquin Park. The AA there was and still remains for the most part a gentle and relatively secular community. Toronto groups have been changing with a dogmatic fervor that only a brash personality can bring to the fore.

      It isn’t AA changing…it is people. The more we need to be true to ourselves the more we see others from a different paradigm being true to themselves.

      Once upon a time we just wanted to help the still suffering alcoholic…now there are members who feel their “afterlife” is assured by saving drunks.

      I am glad you stuck to your path…the world needs more like you. One drunk helping another.

      • Jude says:

        Thank you so much Joe. It does make my heart weep a little to hear real life men and women that are rejected by their home groups. I observe the shift in the temperature of God meetings, they are very slick and the rewards for conformity are great. But not enough for me to prostitute my trust in science and free thought, there is no evidence that only God can provide the “Power” – after all we are all sober without god. Some need the comfort blanket, but for me and others I have met – the blanket is too high a price to pay to live great lives. Critical thinking seems to stop the blanket from working we’ve found.

  4. Jude says:

    Thank you Neil. It was tough being persona non grata there for a while but now it is just mindblowing to be with our fellows. I am continually inspired and excited to know them.

  5. Dave H says:

    Thanks, Jude, and best wishes for yourself and the group.
    Two questions: Are there other agnostic, atheist, freethinker groups in London or the UK that you are aware of? And why the decision to go against the 11th and 12th traditions [by using your full name]?. Couldn’t you have been just as effective, and you were very eloquent on the Beeb interview, as Jude C.?

    • John O says:

      Here’s a few:

      I hope that the website is notified about any new agnostic AA groups, because as far as I know, its the only online directory of agnostic A.A. meetings

    • Jude says:

      Yes sorry. The BBC needed a name so they have a pseudonym. I think we are actually the only group that use the Agnostic 12 Steps (although the God version is also alongside) in the UK. I hope I am wrong, perhaps someone will correct me.

  6. steve b says:

    Nice essay and radio interview. I continue to attend mainstream AA meetings, and often announce at them that I’m an atheist, that I don’t believe there is a higher power, and that AA works because it is people helping people. At one meeting, I even said that when the AA founders discovered that they could help one another stay sober, but attributed this “miracle” to “god,” they made a huge and fundamental mistake which has dogged AA to this day. I think that I make many of these people uncomfortable because I challenge their cherished beliefs, which, frankly, are clearly false.

    I too helped start an agnostics meeting, 32 years ago, and it was called “Agnostics and Others.” After a while I got bored going there, and drifted away. Now, with more religious members, they took a vote, and now the meeting’s called “Believers and Others”! I went back to take a look, and it wasn’t too bad, but I did hear a lot of “Get on your knees in the morning….”

    You are absolutely right that we stay sober on our own, but AA is a helpful resource. How else could it be?

    • Jude says:

      It takes tenacity and commitment and often I wish there is an easier softer way! It is nice not to rely on a God for my recovery. I relied on alcohol and to switch to reliance on anything else…it makes me wonder….where is the recovery in that? Codependence on an imaginary friend just didn’t cut it for me – it is great to have solidarity with you all and my real life brothers & sisters. Good luck!

  7. Dave H says:

    sorry, Jude. just now saw that the name is a pseudonym.

  8. Lon Mc says:

    London’s Jude Core recounting her own inspired journey, followed by Toronto’s Joe C.’s highly favorable response, makes this Easter Sunday a cause for celebration. When I was a child in the Junior Choir at my church (in Southern California), Easter Sunday was only one of two days when the balcony was opened up to accommodate the twice-a-year parishioners desiring to show off their new holiday finery. Looking up at them, I experienced my first perception of hypocrisy before I knew the word existed. So on the day that celebrates the non-existent resurrection of JC, we are brought into a fresh breeze of reason, logic and verifiable reality by TWO modern day JC’s, Jude Core and Joe C. It really is good to be alive to see this. Thanks more than you perhaps know!

    • Jude says:

      Thank you so much. I am indebted to all that have gone before me. And everyone that shares this glorious path today. Christopher Hitchens death was a pivotal moment for me, life is too short to withhold my truth. I am glad I share it with so many.

  9. Becky says:

    It is heart warming to see it can be achieved. I live n Bournemouth South Coast UK which is full of the treatment industry, its here that many Addicts/Alkies from London come to dry out and do treatment. It means it can be very fundamentalist around here. I dream of the day we get meetings like this. I only have 100 days myself but it is something to aim for – maybe once I have my first year.

    • Eric T says:

      Congratulations on 100 days Becky, that’s wonderful! I am celebrating one year at my agnostic AA home group this week, and I do service at another recently-formed agnostic AA group. I finally feel well in sobriety in these groups, where I can be completely honest and authentic. I hope you can feel the connection to the broader agnostic AA community, which I can assure you is alive and well.

      Thank you Jude for your post.

      I’m so grateful to be truly sober today!

      • Jude says:

        Great news Becky. I am sure one day you will find like minds in real life too. I craved rational thinkers and it is a profound joy to be among them/you all.

  10. Aitch says:

    Good luck with your London group; at least you’ve survived the first year and continue to trudge onwards! I was lucky enough to visit Freethinker groups in NY five years ago and thoroughly enjoyed them all. I’ve manage to get by in AA in Glasgow as a declared atheist for over 26 years of continuous sobriety but there have been ‘fun’ times on the journey: I’m no longer barred but was again told a few weeks ago during my share to cease talking because what I say isn’t good for the newcomer to hear! Yes, there are still meetings where the Higher Power is in residency! I hope that there is a change developing within AA towards more open-mindedness about non-belief in a Higher Power but my percetion is that there is more of a sway towards giving the Big Book something akin to biblical recognition. Any form of dissent at any of the content is akin to heresy at some ‘discussion’ meetings. I wish your group continued success in keeping a safe place for all to share, who wish to share, in the fellowship of AA.

    • Jude says:

      That sounds awful. Only tonight at our meeting we had many testimonies about how those meetings ostracise newcomers with their insistence on the God aspect. I wonder if they realise they are sending people back out onto the streets (according to what I’m told) with this dogmatism. Very sad times for our fellowship, bring back the good old days! (And I only have 12 years!)

  11. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, I too offer my congratulations, Jude, on what you’ve been able to do to insure that our 3rd Tradition and the “Responsibility Declaration” keep the doors of AA wide open for anyone who has even the flimsiest of a desire to stop drinking in England. I also am deeply grateful to Roger C. and Joe C. as well as the others, who have shamed the more fundamentalist elements in the Toronto AA community to include those who deter from the strictly Christian-oriented, OG-influenced party line.

    I love, Joe C., your explanation of “reactance” and have also added it to my lexicon. I came across the aa.agnostica website in 2011 at the height of the public controversy over de-listing the Toronto groups who didn’t adhere strictly in both spirit and letter to the majority AA God-centered rhetoric. I’ve become an avid reader ever since.

    I was utterly appalled at the hubris of the Catholic priest with over 50 years of sobriety, who publicly declared in the Toronto Star that groups who refused to adhere to some kind of god in the 12 Steps should not be allowed in AA, because “the only one who can restore that person to permanent sobriety is God.”

    My current home group is in a small town, a very conservative part of Oregon’s southern coast. The two persons with the longest continuous sobriety are Jack C., who identifies himself as a Buddhist/Atheist with 56 years of sobriety, and myself with 41 years of sobriety from my primary drug of abuse, Colt .45, who believes in some kind of spiritual energy for good in the Kosmos, as I proclaim I DON”T understand him, her and/or it (lowercase only) .

    We are in stark contrast to many of the longer-term members of our group, staunch Christians one and all, who are convinced and proudly proclaim that their Christian God has insured them that they shall never drink again because they didn’t quit before the miracle. I am sorely tempted to remind them of Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goeth before the fall!” Reluctantly, I yield to our more universal principle of “Love and tolerance” . . . 😉

  12. Wally says:

    Hi Jude. Yes its a real shame AA has gone mad with the spiritual hype. Bill W wrote the Steps as suggestions only and that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. I’ve never done the Steps, haven’t read the Big Book, never had a sponsor and I’m 26 years sober. I got sober on the principle of the 1st Step, don’t drink no matter what and learn how to manage your life and the Preamble and of course lots of AA meetings. The fellowship, one drunk talking to another. This is how it first started. Good luck.

  13. Tricia says:

    Hiya Jude and everyone else. Well we made it past the first year yaaaaaaaaaaaay. And to be out of that church is just brilliant. I am an atheist as you know, with 25 years of sobriety a day at a time. I never got around to getting a sponsor, never “done” the steps but somehow a lot of them have sneaked into my life. I have never got on my knees or prayed. It has been my responsibility to remain sober a day at a time. I am a happy alcoholic with an amazing partner and home life. I remained in AA for all these years as I didn’t want to drink. I put up with all the rhetoric and dogma, which at times drove me pure nuts but remained true to myself during all these years and strutted my stuff even though most didn’t want to hear what I had to say. Often people left the room. I did a chair once and everyone left the room hahahahaha. I didn’t give a rats ass to be quite honest as I was happy and sober and had the attitude of “I come here for me”. It has been an interesting journey with ups and downs. I have always had a good sense of humour and this came in very handy with mainstream AA. I kept coming back to everyones annoyance and I remained sober. Though I have to admit I think I drove other members to drink at times! I love our Sunday meeting where everyone is free to express themselves with honesty, so refreshing. I am writing my life story now at my writers club and after 25 years this will be a sort of step 4. Eventually even a rebel like me gets around to doing some of this stuff. AA has changed over the years and seems to be more influenced by the Clancy south coast crap together with their huge egos and slick rehearsed sharing; which I detest along with the god nonsense. We are extremely fortunate to have an atheist/agnostic meeting in Surbiton and let’s hope that more spring up over time. Thanx Jude.

    • Jude says:

      You are a great example and a great friend. Just another example of the wonderful things that happen when we find our fellows. The ones without imaginary friends 🙂

  14. Lech says:

    I went to AA meetings in London for a bit in 1984-85, and on the continent for about a year. They struck me as far less spiritual (aka religious) than North American ones. Pity that the UK seems to be adopting our ways.

    • Jude says:

      It is a shame. I am very familiar with meetings in DuPont Circle in DC – strangely they end with the Lord’s Prayer, in direct contradiction with our preamble – but actually the people there seemed quite rational and I didn’t meet even one who was overly infected with the God meme. Interesting experience!

  15. Laurie A says:

    I studied religion for a university degree and received a commendation from an examiner for an essay I wrote in which I compared and contrasted the apocalyptic millenarianism of the synoptic gospels with the eschatology of the Fourth gospel; at the time I was drinking myself to death! I sponsor a Catholic priest – he ended up in a treatment centre before finding AA. Our problem was not lack of religious knowledge; our problem was lack of power. I tapped into that “unsuspected inner resource” (my real Self) which our more religious members call God, and which I call … an unsuspected inner resource.

    • Jude says:

      Yes. I agree. We found the great reality deep down within us says the book. The promises also work for me except that little bit that says “God is doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself” – in fact I am doing for me with the support of humans that which was previously impossible alone. God is simply surplus to requirements in my experience.

    • AndrewWS says:

      Laurie, I think we’ve met – at a gathering about meditation and recovery held in a monastery in North London (Cockfosters) a few years back with Linda and her nun friend from the States. Your biographical details are familiar. Good to know you’re still around.

  16. stephen r says:

    Great to hear.

  17. AndrewWS says:

    This is marvellous news; I think I’ll turn up. When I do, it will be my first meeting in five years (still sober, dropped out because I couldn’t stand the closed mindedness).

  18. AndrewWS says:

    I will add to my last post that I rather think I will turn up this coming Sunday. I live way out the other side of London and will only be able to get there on Sunday immediately preceding bank holidays or if I have a Monday off work.

    I know Surbiton well; I used to live there and did a lot of my drinking in the Victoria just down the road from the Y.

    • Jude says:

      We look forward to seeing you. I travel quite far too but it is so worth it to be free from trite god platitudes and “spiritual” unhelpfulness. Take care!

  19. Andy R. says:

    To all of you, thank you for comments and your commitment to be authentic. Like many of you, I was grateful for the fellowship and program of AA, but was shocked by the icy reaction I got when I stated at a meeting that this program works, even for those of us who are atheists (I was endorsing the program, but got looks like I was the Antichrist!).

    Granted, I’m in the Bible belt, but this intolerance is unacceptable to me – so I’ll either quit going (which I realized I had done for the most part since living in TX, without knowing precisely why) or resolve to broaden the reach of the meeting and appeal to the newcomer.

    I’m in Dallas, but the actions of Intergroup in a more liberal city like Toronto and the surprisingly hostile reactions I got when I contacted AA friends in NYC and LA showed this is an insidious attitude beyond the Land of Bush.

    I’ve got 24 years sobriety and whatever wisdom that comes along with that – as do so many oldtimers who have left AA meetings. Since we don’t do church work, maybe our service work is to reclaim tolerance – either in existing AA meetings and/or in providing agnostic alternatives.

    I attended the one alternative meeting in the Dallas area and met another atheist who has been speaking up (as appropriate) and will join him locally at the traditional AA meetings.

    AA is too great a program to let die because of a hijacking by the religious factor. I felt defeated 10 days ago but after finding this site and your like-minded comments, feel hopeful again – and empowered by the inner power of righteous indignation (not self will run riot – just wanting to follow the long form tradition 3, with the freedom from conformity!)

  20. Larry says:

    Is there anyone else out there who`s an agnostic pothead pretending to be an alcoholic? All comments are welcome but PLEASE don`t tell me to go to NA…

    • Roger says:

      Hi Larry: I’ll happily refer comments on this directly to you. Best, Roger.

    • larry k says:

      Larry, larry k here. I am not a pot smoker, but there are several pot heads in our group. One or 2 go to MA as well. They identify being alcoholic addicts.

      It doesn’t matter to most AA’rs…but there are zealots everywhere!

      One day at a time…just do the next right thing as you can. If it’s part of your story, it’s part of your story.


  21. John O says:


    I don’t see a group named “To Thine Own Self Be True”, although I do see one Sunday 7:30 PM called:
    Beyond Belief Agnostic Meeting
    YMCA Surbiton – 49 Victoria Road – Surbiton – Surrey KT6 4NG

    Is that the same meeting? Thanks

    • Roger says:

      I believe so, John. If you have the opportunity to confirm, please let us know. I believe it was started by Jude Core, who once had a website as well, but I have been unable to contact her or find the website. Roger.

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