An Atheist in AA


By Megan D.

When I entered our Program some 33 years ago, I was a complete cynic about life in general and the term “god” made me nauseous in particular. Actually, I was ‘terminally unique’ as we say, and the pecking order was clearly defined. The only places worthwhile were Los Angeles, and New York.

And that was the way it was at the beginning.

Because I had no other place to go, above ground that is, I bore the unmitigated insult of ending up in the mortifying rooms of AA. And then adding “the god thing” was the last straw to have to endure. But I was so physically and emotionally desperate with a just one last gasp of a try at survival.

When Charlie P. approached me in 1980 – I had only a few months of sobriety – and asked me to assist him in starting the first “We Agnostics” meeting on the West Coast, I jumped at the opportunity to find my own people. I knew you were out there somewhere.

At six months sober though, there were those who were taking bets that I’d slide out the door on my fanny. But I was just stubborn enough to become outraged at alcohol. I reasoned that I’d worked so diligently on building a career and I’d be damned if I’d let my drinking take me down without a fight. My anger saved my life… and my willingness to explore the marvels hidden in our Steps and Traditions.

Grabbing hold of the concept of a higher power – which became the universe, my most evolved self, and the AA groups at large – I felt such a sense of relief. Maybe, just maybe, I might get a chance to live after all. To my amazement, it actually worked. A “god” had nothing to do with it. What I was experiencing was being on the path of the return of innocence.

Attending meetings on a daily basis and our own We Agnostics group weekly helped me along my journey into recovery.

As a realist, I’m aware that high on the ranks of reasons for religions is the fear generated by our inevitable death. Perhaps not death exactly, but how about accepting the possibility that there ain’t no hereafter after all. That’s a really terrifying thought. Going down into the dirt just like my favorite dog Fido sounds ugly. It is ugly, and frightening… and uncannily true.

So religions were formed by saints and politicians alike. They took control of us for a variety of reasons. They protected us from ourselves. Encouraged us to bathe, as well as forced us to suit their corporal and temporal needs. Doing their bidding offered us, rather than a grand thud, a forever with wings.

Now, as for today, with all our challenges, hopefully some of us have come a long way towards seeing and accepting life on life’s terms without the dangling carrot. We act like a civilized human because that’s what an evolved species does.

In the Program we are taught to give up fighting against persons, places, and things. What nonsense! At the beginning, yes, it is in our best interest to lie low, put our outrage and injustice-collecting on the shelf. Although I am an activist on any given day, I was willing to put all of that aside for a time. I always knew that it was within reach if I needed it. But sobriety came first.

Now, to spend a moment on regular AA meetings, which I love.

In my experience, with few exceptions, a good majority of AAs who are atheists and free thinkers remain somewhat cynical. That goes for some of my best friends.

On the other hand, I’ve observed that many AAs who have done the deal with developing a contact with a higher power of their choosing, seem really free in spirit. So, when I hear of AAs attending only meetings for attorneys, celebrities, atheists, etc., it gives me pause for thought. I strongly believe that without knowing it, we are short circuiting our own potential.

We are atheists, so what! Most importantly, we are alcoholics first.

In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t change much. Many of us atheists and agnostics have stayed sober and believe it or not, have lived happy, joyous, free lives within the traditional AA ranks. Once in a while it gets a little thick and at that time I speak up and remind everyone that AA is non-denominational.

What Charlie P. taught me, so many years ago, was the art of translation… and that virtually no one in the Program is out to “get me.” And I’ve learned to bless them for saving my skin, in my own way, without a need for a “god” of their understanding to blame or glorify.

As I’ve mentioned before, at the library, I came across a video BBC documentary from 2004. The Atheism Tapes was produced by a Jonathan Miller. It is worth viewing. He interviews philosophers, writers, and church leaders who are atheists – some of the finest minds alive today. Ultimately, when asked why he is so focused upon that subject, his response was something like he considers himself a “pious” atheist.

In my lexicon I never was satisfied with a small piece of the pie. If I can’t have the whole pie, then I don’t want any. I love AA with all its imperfections. It saved my life. My atheistic beliefs caused me great grief when I buried my younger brother. I drank for years in my sense of hopelessness. As we mature, we gradually grow into our true beliefs. Life will teach us as we apply the Steps in a gentle fashion.

It’s another thing altogether if we already have a problem with the “god” thing when we get here due to abuse or disbelief. If you are like me though, among other things, I wanted to be hip, slick and cool. In that effort, I was a complete flop – or like a child playing musical chairs, I’d fall between chairs every time by trying to be someone other than my true nature. What an arrogant ass!

We started the We Agnostics group with the intention of helping ourselves and others tolerate the onslaught of desperate religiosity. We took the risk and won our lives back. Now what?

It was not our intention to separate ourselves from the whole but to show us how to filter into the whole and show the whole of our fellowship by example that an alternative point of view was quite acceptable and workable. You might say we were a sub-strata or a refinement of the entire concept.

In Orange County, CA where I live there are between 1,300 and 1,500 meetings weekly. There are many more in Los Angeles.

So the bottom line is that I’ve gotten so much out of the Program. At regular meetings, everyone knows that I’m an atheist. It is really okay for the most part. I volunteer at Central Office weekly. It has been enlightening for me to learn from the cross section of AAs, from old timers to newcomers, gays and straights, in Little Tokyo, or in Watts. Keeping an open mind about our diversity and what we have in common keeps me flexible and teachable. It is my concern that atheists don’t isolate themselves and cheat themselves of AA as a whole.

Now that we have The Little Book, we have credentials. Members from AA and Alanon are reading it and growing. I meet with one of my Alanon friends on a weekly basis and we explore our ideas of each Step using this remarkable learning tool.

In the meantime, what I’ve learned over the years is if I’m hurting, I grab hold of any member regardless. It doesn’t matter what their belief system is. You are all my teachers.

We in AA are a strange and wonderful lot don’t you think?

Megan D. and Charlie P. together founded the first-ever AA meeting to be called “We Agnostics” in 1980 in Los Angeles, California.

You can read Charlie’s story right here: Father of We Agnostics Dies. Agnostic groups have existed in AA for decades now, with the first one having been launched by Don W. in Chicago in 1975. You can read about that, and some of the challenges faced by these groups, here: A History of Agnostic Groups in AA.

This is the second article by Megan on AA Agnostica. The first one, Megan D., was posted almost in February. She is also the author of a book available at Amazon called Transitive Woman.

20 Responses

  1. PamS says:

    My sponsor assured me that I belonged in AA if I had a desire to stop drinking, regardless of my beliefs. She encouraged me to share my unbelief. I was slow to do so, until I was at meetings in which the topic seemed to be less about staying sober and more on “how greatly I believe in god.” I relate what my sponsor (with 20+ years of sobriety) told me; I point out that the step says a power “greater than” not “higher than” ourselves. The AA group of people is certainly greater than my single self. AA in my area seems tolerant of my unbelief, which I do not press on others but just mention it now and then.

  2. Andrew H says:

    You’re all so lucky to have Agnostic/Atheist options. I’m an atheist, new to AA, in a high-speed, about-to-hit-rock-bottom plummet as my drinking finally catches up with me and destroys the last vestiges of a once-happy life. I need AA badly. But I feel so isolated and alone at meetings. Everyone is so glad to see each other and they’re always very welcoming to me as well, but I live in a VERY conservative and religious area, and I don’t dare identify myself as an atheist. I clearly don’t belong. Not here anyway. To illustrate my point, there are competing Tea Party meetings just blocks from my house. It’s that bad. Ugh.

    I’ll keep going, and I’ll remain silent during the incessant praying and talk of god. Finding a sponsor will simply not be possible.

  3. Bob C. says:

    I received this wonderful link in an e-mail that I would normally call spam. However, as a member in good standing (going on three decades) who remains active in all kinds of meetings as well as general service work, and I am overjoyed to find this resource that speaks to the way I view the world and the universe.

    My wife and I have often agreed that AA and Alanon’s post-religous members are much more numerous than one would ever expect from the sharing we hear at meetings. The problem is just linking up with each other. The only way religious AA’s will ever become comfortable with sharing from secular humanists and the like is for those of us in the latter group to articulate our perspective — politely, patiently, non-aggressively, yet assertively. Are we just going to remain intimidated into remaining silent for the rest of our lives? I for one do not intend to leave anything on the table at the end of this life. Every time the God talk gets a bit too thick, I think of the newcomer and share my own experience: that I have found long term sobriety in AA without pretending to believe in a sky god when believing in such is not compatible to my own nature. And nearly every time I do that, one or two or three newcomers, middle-timers or old timers approach me afterwards and thank me for sharing that, often saying that they were surprised to find they are not alone.

    I wonder how many of our members have drifted away and died because they felt isolated as agnostics or freethinkers, when in actuality they were surrounded by their own kind the whole time.

    Also, have you noticed how many people are starting not to join in the Christian prayer at the close of many of our meetings? After awhile, it’s going to be a very quiet room…. 🙂

    Keep up the good work! I will visit often.

    Bob C.

  4. Stephen says:

    Lovely article, thanks for your inspiring words Megan… Just got home from a meeting, sooo tired of God!
    Tomorrow I am trying an Agnostics AA meeting, one of two in Vancouver BC. I am hoping it will be good…

  5. John L. says:

    I strongly agree with Megan’s main point, that we nonbelievers should not shun regular AA meetings. Indeed, almost all of the meetings I’ve attended for the last four and a half decades have been regular AA meetings — albeit those I’ve selected for their high congeniality and low religiosity.

    I personally avoid talking about “the Program”, because it’s different things to different people. For me it’s the Fellowship and the 24-Hour Plan.

    Likewise, “our Steps and Traditions”, which conflates two very different things. Although AA has adopted the Steps, they did not, contrary to common belief, develop out of AA experience. Rather, they were concocted by Bill W. and imposed on the fledgling New York group, against the wishes of its rational members. The Traditions, on the other hand, really are based on AA experience. Although Bill W. set himself up as their official interpretor, the Traditions had multiple and anonymous authors, and some of the Traditions were designed specifically to curb the profiteering and self-agrandisement of Bill W. himself.

    As freethinkers we should be willing to challenge the Conventional Wisdom of AA as well as its religiosity. Megan wrote: “In the Program we are taught to give up fighting against persons, places, and things. What nonsense!”. Yes! Although, at least in the beginning, it may be best to be discreet, to tread softly, to avoid rocking the boat — the time comes to be ourselves, to be alive intellectually, perhaps even to be activists.

    When the Stonewall Riots took place in New York forty-four years ago, I had been sober for a year and a half. When the Gay Liberation Front was formed a couple of weeks later, I was ready. I plunged in, and my life was changed. Without AA sobriety none of this could have happened.

  6. IVAN K says:

    My name is Ivan K and I am an Alcoholic, and at 2:00 pm today I have been sober a day at a time for 21861 days = 59.85 years.

    I believe in a Higher Power not the one in the Bible.

    My Higher Power is energy. Science says you can neither create nor destroy energy. It just turns to a different energy. An example: water is a form of energy and put it in a pot on a stove and boil the water, eventually the water disappears. It has not been destroyed it has changed to steam, another energy.

    My belief is that it take intelligence to make a computer, and to program the computer.

    The brain is greater then any computer and to believe it takes intelligence to make and program a computer and that making and programming the Brain was some sort of an accident I do not think so.

    In 1953 I started a drinking binge and 33 days later at age 21 I was admitted into an RCAF Hospital and was told I was six month from the grave. After my release from Hospital I stayed dry until Aug. 1953 when I went on my annual leave and started to drink and on August 29, 22 years young, I looked at the wall clock, it was 2:00 pm, and these are the words I spoke, “Ivan stand up, drink up, walk through that door, and you will never drink again,” and that is exactly what I did, and the rest is History.

    God or prayer has nothing to do with my sobriety, it is the AA Program, and my strong desire to stay sober.

    [Editor’s note: Ivan’s complete story is here: The Bird in Your Hands.]

  7. Pam L says:

    I completely disagree with Megan. As the group she started with has been told we can’t have one meeting at the So. Cal. Convention. We wanted to “merge”…they are “UN-mergable” today… We will go in like the “art of war” and try to show them by positive action that we are not the enemy. As the old timers die off, we may have a fighting chance in the future. Unfortunately, I do not feel happy or safe in a “regular” meeting of AA. They talk down to me and take my inventory if I share. I do, however, feel it is important for me to be there for the newcomer who thinks like me. I know you can be an atheist and stay sober.
    I have been sober for 29 years and the last two have been in agnostic meetings. I found a safe place finally!

  8. steve b says:

    I too co-founded a nonbelievers’ AA meeting many years ago. I got sober in Park Forest, a south suburb of Chicago, in 1980, and the next year, after going into the city to experience the Quad A meeting that Don W had started, we opened the Agnostics and Others meeting in Park Forest. From the beginning, we had a sizable contingent of traditional believers, so I suppose we were a sort of hybrid group, but it was expected that god talk would be kept to a minimum.

    I participated in this meeting for about ten years, and then lost interest in it, and drifted away. After a while, the meeting was moved to Homewood, a few miles north of Park Forest, and renamed Believers and Others! I’ve gone there a few times in the last several years, and I can’t say I actually dislike the meeting, but it certainly isn’t one I’d be willing to drive a long way to get to.

  9. Thomas B. says:

    Lovely, Megan . . .

    I particularly was struck and deeply moved because I identified so strongly with this observation: “What I was experiencing was being on the path of the return of innocence.”

    As a southern Protestant survivor of hellfire and damnation revivals, who converted to the Catholic brand of Christianity at puberty with its emphasis on how tainted we are as human beings in g(G)od’s stern eyes by original sin even before we encounter temptations of carnal knowledge, I was enraged at every concept of a wrathful g(G)od. And this was before I survived Vietnam . . . 😉

    I also deeply appreciate your stated intention when you and Charlie P. started the LA “We Agnostics” group that you did not want to separate from AA, but rather to create a place where like-minded(spirited) folks could share “experience, strength and hope” by “helping ourselves and others tolerate the onslaught of desperate religiosity.” I strongly believe it is necessary for we agnostic/atheists to speak our truth at AA meetings so that others, especially newcomers, may feel safe to speak their truth.

    For myself, I know when I feel judged and condemned by the Bible & Big Book Thumpers’ “desperate religiosity,” it is more an indication of my judgment and condemnation of them than they of me. The old adage of three fingers pointing back at me whenever I wag my forefinger in cynical and sarcastic judgment amply applies. Instead of focusing on “them” it’s a splendid opportunity for me to practice “Love and tolerance is our code,” as well as the 12th Tradition “to place principles before personalities.”

  10. Lech L. says:

    I still feel “terminally unique” in AA because my views are so much at odds with AA conventional wisdom.

    • Lech Lesiak says:

      There are no agnostic meetings in Calgary that I am aware of. There are certainly meetings that tend to be less godly than others.

      I can’t say I like hearing people talk about their spiritual life, their conscious contact with god, or how they pray five times daily.

      But there are things that irritate me more.

      The god stuff easily ignored. The tendency of the same people to drone on for 10 minutes about the same things are much more irritating to me.

  11. John M. says:

    Many of us as agnostics, atheists, and free thinkers are asked by AA traditionalists as well as non-AA recoverers why we don’t just form our own new, separate fellowship and leave AA to the theists or pseudo-theists.

    Megan’s article explains why we don’t leave AA, why we can still love AA as non theists, why we can still feel at home in AA.

    Many thanks, Megan, for sharing with us why even the godless among us can feel a deep and abiding commitment to Alcoholics Anonymous.

    • Eric T says:

      John, you’ve just articulated what I was feeling. Diversity and inclusivity combined makes for a wonderful AA fellowship indeed! Unity in service does not mean uniformity or conformity.

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