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 almost forty years 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.