Making a case for atheist/agnostic groups in AA



The idea that atheists and agnostics have the right to take part in the AA experience and fellowship does not involve either a subtle or complicated mental juggling act.

The third tradition explicitly says, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”  Virtually no one in AA would outright slam the door shut and ban atheists and agnostics from becoming members, but there is more to actually including us than begrudgingly accepting our right to be members. Anyone who has ever been in a typical AA meeting knows that there is plenty of de facto exclusion. It often hurts to be an atheist in AA. All the god talk and the repeated claims that it is impossible to get sober without a Higher Power present significant obstacles for atheists and agnostics.

And closing meetings with the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t help.

Being allowed to join AA doesn’t mean a thing if my experience causes me to not want to come back. I don’t have to like everything I hear, but unless my experience gives me a glimpse of something I want, AA will be of very little use to me. It’s a program of attraction. I have to want it in order for it to work. It is not enough to be able to sit meekly and silently in the back row. And it is insulting to be magnanimously tolerated if it comes with being told, “Keep coming back.  Eventually, you will either find your Higher Power or you will get drunk.”

The true fulfillment of Tradition 3 rests on whether anyone who wants to stop drinking can feel at home in AA and participate fully. Being relegated to a marginalized position does not constitute membership in any meaningful sense.

It is natural that those who need to find a way to get sober without having to embrace the concept of a higher power would want AA groups where who we are and what we stand for is accepted.

However, contrary to AA’s slogan, “Live and let live,” many AA members strenuously challenge the legitimacy of these groups. Even though no one is seeking to eliminate God from the AA program altogether, devotees of the “god of love” heap ridicule and contempt on everyone associated with atheist/agnostic groups. In spite of the inarguable fact that addicts are dying because of AA’s intolerance towards those who do not accept that an interventionist God is responsible for their sobriety, many members of “the last house on the block” thwart the life-saving inclusivity of these groups by snubbing them and refusing to list them in local meeting schedules.

When AA’s Twelve Traditions were crafted, one of the main guiding principles was a shrewd avoidance of a top-down organizational model.  Tradition 2 is very explicit. Leaders don’t govern. Instead, they assume the role of “trusted servants.” The allusion in Tradition 2 to a “loving God” may be anathema to atheists, but this god is a nonessential ingredient in the process. The mention of God in this Tradition is intended to empower and liberate rather than bind. It is a deliberate move to discourage rather than promote any sort of religious or political orthodoxy. It is not referring to the almighty, sovereign god of the Abrahamic religions but instead imagines a commonality and a beneficence that is experienced through the “group conscience,” a bottom-up process that encourages the expression of divergent viewpoints.

The rejection of top-down thinking is also explicit in Tradition 9, which enjoins AA against becoming “organized,” and in Tradition 4, which grants the groups autonomy. AA’s bottom-up center of authority not only establishes a network that is able to function with very little administrative structure, it also enables and encourages maximum creativity, flexibility, and adaptability at the group level.

The heart of the traditions is Tradition 5, which outlines the “one primary purpose” of an AA group, which is “to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” The idea that the group has a distinctive message, “its message,” stands in sharp contrast to the twelfth step’s “this message,” but the fifth tradition’s implied notion that each group’s message is pliable and unique is consistent with the second and fourth traditions. The fifth tradition says what the group’s purpose is, to carry its message. The second tradition specifies how the group goes about shaping its message, through the group conscience. And the fourth tradition empowers the group to carry out the dictates of the group conscience without unnecessary interference.

To summarize the goals and intent of these Traditions: AA aspires to provide a solution that will work for anyone who wants to stop drinking, but recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all formula that can achieve that.

There’s a saying in AA, “For every nut who walks in the door there’s a wrench that will fit them.” One of the main ways that AA is able to custom fit the solution to individual needs is the group. AA groups are crucial in fostering vital one-on-one relationships and in providing a sense of belonging. Different AA groups have different strengths. AA groups are in a position to craft a targeted message better than anybody else. Anything that interferes with a group’s ability to carry its message puts lives in jeopardy. Thus Tradition 4 says, “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.”

The intent of the fourth tradition is very clear. The creativity of individual AA groups is not to be curbed in any way unless it involves “matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.” The reason for the exception clause is not to protect the AA “brand” or to insist on any sort of orthodoxy. The goal is maximum effectiveness at every level of the AA organization. AA as a whole and AA groups are supposed to complement each other. The service structure that makes decisions on behalf of AA as a whole only exists to support the real work of AA, most of which occurs at the group level. AA as a whole is restrained from interfering with what a group deems effective, and the group is restrained from anything that would jeopardize AA’s general effectiveness.

The burden of proof is always on anyone who would restrict the autonomy of a group. Most AA members get that – thus the saying from AA folk wisdom, “All you need to start an AA group is a coffee pot and a resentment.” This is of course a humorous reference to the fact that many AA groups are founded by disgruntled former members of existing groups, but it is also a true reflection of the conscious intent of Traditions 2, 3, and 4. The long version of the third tradition explicitly states, “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.”

That the existence of atheist/agnostic groups is controversial is very hard to understand, given that they seem like perfect examples of precisely the kind of responsiveness to the needs of its members that the fourth tradition is explicitly designed to encourage and support.

Those who would deny their legitimacy need show that there is something about them that infringes upon “matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.” What do atheist/agnostic groups do that adversely affects AA? They do not turn theists away. They are not allied with any “related facility or outside enterprise.” Their purpose is not to promote or endorse atheism or any belief system that is alien to or in conflict with the primary purpose of AA groups. The sole reason for the groups’ existence is to fulfill the traditions’ explicit aim to carry the message of recovery to individuals who would otherwise fall through the cracks. Period. Full stop.

But what about the claim that the meetings misrepresent what AA is about and/or that they undermine AA unity?

Honest people can disagree about what would constitute a misrepresentation of AA. However, a good starting point for understanding what an accurate representation looks like is conference-approved AA literature.

Appendix II in the big book says, “Most emphatically we wish to say that any alcoholic capable of honestly facing his problems in the light of our experience can recover, provided he does not close his mind to all spiritual principles… We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program.”

If we take these words at face value, we could even say that those who say that finding a Higher Power is necessary are the ones who are misrepresenting what AA is about. Atheist groups don’t promote atheism, but there is blatant promotion of religious ideas in many AA groups. No one ever suggests that meetings whose members flagrantly endorse religious beliefs be banned from AA or removed from the schedule – unless there is some kind of obvious and formal affiliation with a particular religion.

There is no question that the storm surrounding atheist and agnostic meetings is a threat to AA unity, but it is important to look objectively at the question of who or what is actually causing the disunity. Truly understanding the traditions generally starts with self-examination. Does AA’s first tradition require atheists and agnostics to set aside our own personal needs for the sake of putting the common welfare first? Clearly, the very presence of atheists and agnostics is a disruption of AA’s status quo, but do atheists and agnostics owe AA unquestioning docility? Do we just need to not rock the boat and adopt the stance of going along to get along? It is easy to put the blame on atheists and agnostics, but where is the actual fault? Atheists and agnostics are not imposing anything on anyone. We just want to find a way to stay sober without having to abandon our own core values and understanding. Is AA unity so fragile that it can’t survive the admittance of a small handful of non-theists?

The paradox of AA unity is that it is strengthened rather than imperiled by the fellowship’s diversity. “We are,” the big book says, “people who normally would not mix.” Joining together with people whose political views and social values might well be abhorrent to me demands somehow getting beyond or putting to one side my own perspectives on the world. As in the well-known folk story about the blind men and the elephant, none of us has the complete picture.

The peaceful coexistence of radically different viewpoints with regard to everything except one common goal, staying sober, is what AA unity is about.

Maintaining a balance between having confidence in my own approach and being open-minded with regard to other approaches often requires a considerable amount of work. That each of us is sometimes going to err on the side of our own obsessions is predictable. My life depends on having a “design for living” I know I can count on. My way may not be “the right way,” but I should be thoroughly convinced that it is absolutely the right way for me; otherwise, my commitment will wither when I need it the most, in times of crisis.

That there is no one right way doesn’t change the fact that my own sobriety depends on finding the right way for me and committing to do what it requires, no matter how uncomfortable it might get. There is wisdom in the AA truism, “If your home group is not the best group in the world, you need to find a new home group.” Most people know enough to realize that this is meant wryly rather than literally. The point is that finding a right way that feels exactly right for me is not too much to demand. The difference between an imaginary right way for everybody and a necessary right way for me can be difficult to keep in mind, especially if finding a proven solution I can count on feels like a matter of life and death.

But if AA unity is not about enforced uniformity, what is it about? Unity that is entirely open-ended is meaningless. Viable communities are grounded in shared values. There is ultimately more to unity than glossing over irreconcilable differences.

Even though there is no one right way to recover from addiction, arriving at something of a consensus regarding the core of what holds us together is crucial.  AA is a “we” program. Recovery is not a solitary undertaking. Personal freedom cannot come at the expense of the we of the program. The greatest threat to sobriety is for the recovery community to be at cross-purposes with itself. The first tradition says, “Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.” And in the aptly titled chapter, “There Is a Solution,” the Big Book says, “We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree, and upon which we can join in brotherly and harmonious action.”

There are two basic components to the kind of unity upon which personal recovery depends. First, there is the absolute empathy and support that comes out of having survived the life-threatening affliction of alcoholism. Second, there is the willingness, no matter how deep our differences, to “join in brotherly and harmonious action.” Our agreement is possible because we have discovered a spirit of brotherly and harmonious action anchored in the shared experience of having come through the harrowing challenge of a disease that wanted us in an institution or dead. The operative word in the phrase “on which we can absolutely agree” is “can.”  It does not say “must.” It leaves the onus on us to reach out in a spirit of love and tolerance.

For most of us, our sobriety and our very lives depend on ultimately being able to put aside our differences and open ourselves to the unparalleled personal transformation that comes with the identification and support of “one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic.” The solution for us is in being a part of a community whose shared identity is deeper than our differences, deeper even than what can be put into words, and certainly deeper than banner-carrying, slogan-quoting and quasi-religious conventionality. Attempts to define or circumscribe our collective identity always leave something out. Focusing on anything that excludes or divides, like theological assertions, puts lives in jeopardy.

Unity is paramount, but it’s a both/and proposition, both united around a single purpose and multi-faceted in its particulars, allowing for a diverse set of individual needs. There is a shedding of our “terminal uniqueness” but, at the same time, an embracing of “to thine own self be true,” a principle which is not solely for use on medallions.

Realistically, it is inconceivable that the prevalence of god talk in AA is going to go away any time soon, but neither is the dilemma presented by atheists and agnostics showing up at AA. The number of persons needing an approach to sobriety that does not rely on a higher power is on the rise.

The only real solution is to work toward building a culture that can accommodate the needs of both theists and non-theists.

Theists may be uncomfortable with atheist/agnostic meetings, but there is far more real harm – not to mention the violation of AA principles and traditions – involved in needlessly placing obstacles in the path of an atheist who wants to get sober than is involved in ruffling the feathers of those with an apparently messianic zeal for God.

The true spirit of AA is to ensure that the hand of AA is always there to help anyone, anywhere get sober and maintain their sobriety. That is the unique and ultimate purpose of our traditions. Let us not amid the current brouhaha let anyone or anything cause us to lose track of that.

A long while back JHG went to church to get clean and was miraculously transformed from a pot smoking heathen into a Christian alcoholic. His idea then of a promising geographic cure was to go to seminary, after which, he spent a number of years as a Methodist minister. Unable to control his drinking, he eventually arrived at what the Big Book calls “the jumping off place,” the inability “to imagine life with or without alcohol.” His introduction to the idea of finding his own higher power ultimately led to atheism. JHG learned the traditions the hardest way possible, by trying to get other people to follow them, an approach that somehow has nevertheless produced valuable insight into his own motives and designs.

32 Responses

  1. Shane M. says:

    Just came across this great article. Well put! I live in Australia and have been sober 33 years. I have been to many meetings over the years and have tried to adopt a ‘when in Rome…” attitude to groups that may be a bit different to what I am used to. The Lord’s Prayer is not commonly used in meetings here however when it is spoken at the end of a meeting, it is no bother for me. Likewise, I’ve no problems with AA’s who stand by good orderly directions or group of drunks. I like my AA to be as attractive and welcoming as possible to the suffering alcoholic.

  2. Duncan says:

    I am almost 36 years sober and an athiest. Here in Manchester, England we seldom hear the Lords Prayer being said at meetings. However we do have a lot of Bible Bashing at some meetings, most quite harmless but a lot of it is dangerous. Why? Because it stops people from joining AA.

    Maybe I was lucky when I joined AA back in ’78

  3. Werner L. says:

    Oh My God! (Just kidding, I’m an agnostic too.)
    This is truly amazing! I thank you so much for this awesome text!

    I’m even planning to (trying the best I can) translate this to Brazilian Portuguese, so I can carry on the message here in my country!

    If I do so, I’ll check with you first, the authenticity of the translation! (Maybe re-translate it to english with my own words, to check if I did it right.)

    Congrats brother!

  4. Mark C. says:


    Thank you for posting this little gem. Quite a contrast between the immature Bill Wilson of the Big Book, and his mature reflections and attitudes.

  5. bob_mc says:

    Hello JHG. Love the article.

    The paragraph that starts “The heart of the traditions is Tradition 5…” bothered me and I had to read it over several times. Then I realized your focus is on the traditions and I was interpreting from the personal recovery mind set.

    There are inventories for individual AA members as well as for groups. I have never heard of an inventory for intergroup, do they exist? Have you or anyone been part of one? More importantly I was reading in The Language of the Heart on page 333:

    It is an historical fact that practically all groupings of men and women tend to become more dogmatic; their beliefs harden and sometimes freeze. This is a natural and almost inevitable process. All people must, of course, rally to the call of their convictions, and we of AA are no exception. Moreover, all people should have the right to voice their convictions. This is good principle and good dogma. But dogma also has its liabilities. Simply because we have convictions that work well for us, it becomes very easy to assume that we have all the truth. Whenever this brand of arrogance develops, we are certain to become aggressive; we demand agreement with us; we play God. This isn’t good dogma; it’s very bad dogma. It could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of thing.
    Newcomers are approaching AA at a rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture, and religion. In AA we are supposed to bond together in the kinship of a common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy whatever should be a first consideration for us all. Let us not, therefore, pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way to the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive; let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.

    This is from July 65 for the Toronto convention and is a quasi inventory for AA’s 30 year anniversary.

    We can transcend that invisible barrier the alcoholic gets trapped in and our common suffering can get us past hardened hearts and closed minds. We can unite in the virtues of humility, honesty, and love.

  6. Christopher G says:

    Continuing to practice the principles in ALL your affairs is an example I hope to follow. Thanks for your share. I consider it a pleasure, honor and privilege to be among your ranks. To me God is a mythological personality with projected upon principles and it’s the principles I’m interested in, whether in yours or my person.

  7. Marnin M. says:

    I’ve been answering the phones at an Intergroup in Southern Florida. I’ve answered their phones since 2001 (11 years). Although I’m openly agnostic they trust me with the key to the office, to handle cash and to answer the phones.

    In 2012 they asked me to write up my story for their newsletter. I did and it was never published because the editor thought “no one can get sober without God!”

    It was the the same story AA Agnostica published: My Name is Marnin.

    Rather than nurse a resentment I continue to provide this service at Intergroup because it strengthens my sobriety.

  8. Roger says:

    I personally sit through it. It’s important to me that others understand that Matthew Chapter Six, verses 9 through 13, doesn’t cut it for everybody.

  9. Roger says:

    I personally sit through it. It’s important to me that others understand that Matthew Chapter Six, verses 9 through 13, doesn’t cut it for everybody.

  10. Lech L. says:

    I don’t like it either, but I just ignore it and tune it out.

    At one time I would leave the room, but I have come to accept the fact that people are going to do what they like despite my disapproval.

  11. WAA says:

    This could be published after various articles but here is as good as anywhere.

    I have always been very uncomfortable with the so-called Lord’s Prayer being used in AA meetings. The first time I encountered AA more than twenty years ago the religiosity of the program was a deal breaker as far as my participation in the program.

    In the larger metropolitan area where I live there are roughly sixty weekly AA meetings. I am not aware of one that does not either begin or end with the Lord’s prayer. The use of this prayer has been raised at one meeting and the group quickly decided they would have no part in breaking from tradition. If you are also uncomfortable with this prayer I can suggest a strategy: You should resolve never to refer to the prayer as the Lord’s Prayer again. In the first place calling it that opens the questions of whose Lord. I guess you could call it The Christian Lord’s Prayer. I prefer to refer to it exactly as it is. It should be referred to as Matthew chapter six verses nine through thirteen. “We will now close the meeting by joining hands and reciting Matthew chapter six, verses nine to thirteen.” I do not understand how anybody can imagine this is acceptable in a program that considers itself spiritual and not religious.
    Thanks for listening, WAA.

  12. Roger says:

    I will provide JHG with your email address, Mark.

  13. Mark C. says:


    Thank you for your humane, well conceived, and well executed essay!

    It is my view that rational clarity will eventually win the day, and your essay is a great example of the kind of “thinking” and discussion that will influence many.

    I’m located in the West Texas Bible Belt, and would like to make contact with you.

    Thanks again!

  14. Joe C says:

    A very reasonable and fair-minded essay, as so many have already said. From the First Tradition opening of “Our common welfare…” to Tradition Twelve’s closure of “…principles before personalities,” it is clear that AA is intended to welcome everyone who seeks our help. To welcome people, we are obligated to be accommodating. A.A. is; some of us are rigid know-it-alls. but there’s room for us, too.

    And to echo one of your opening comments. JHG, newcomers will vote with their feet in terms of how well we accommodate (make newcomers feel welcome). If they think we’re full of shit, they won’t come back. They may also not come back because the want to drink. But for those who desire to stop drinking, the experience they have – their experience of us – will be a large factor on how welcome they feel.

    AA isn’t in New York or at Intergroup; it’s in our business meeting and all of us can encourage our own group to take inventory of our rituals and customs. We can ask the newcomer if we did a good job and if they got what they needed. Each of us can do our part to accommodate the next person we each see, coming to our group for the first time. I say this because this article and the discussion that followed has inspirited me to be a little bit better the next time a hand reaches out for help.

  15. Christopher G says:

    Wow! All great posts! I have found my people! Thank you all!

  16. Lech L. says:

    I don’t think it has outlived its time.
    There is enough diversity in this fellowship that most can find like-minded people.
    The meetings I attend are not getting smaller, and new people come in frequently.
    Even if the newbies don’t stay, a seed might have been planted.

  17. JHG says:

    life, the pleasure is mutual.

  18. life-j says:

    JHG: Thanks for this thoughtful article. Makes me all the more pleased to be making your acquaintance in the chat room.

  19. life-j says:

    Brent, yes the god people do have a lot of explaining to do. And usually refuse to try to do so. But the problem can hardly be stated more clearly than you did here.

  20. Roger says:

    Thanks for your comment, Michael. Very thoughtful. Just to note that the whole point of this website is to NOT sit “in the back row in silence,” and – in spite of some opposition, mind – to take our rightful place as full participating members of, and groups within, the fellowship of AA.

  21. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, JHG, a most well-reasoned and articulate article that I’ll pass on to my Area 58 Oregon Delegate for his consideration before he attends the General Service Conference in April, where a pamphlet along the lines of “AA — Spiritual, Not Religious” shall once more since 1976 be considered.

    I especially appreciate your emphasis that we agnostics/atheists need to forthrightly speak our truth at meetings in the spirit of “love and tolerance” of all others, especially those who vehemently at times proselytize about their “one and only/back to basics” way of recovery at meetings. Increasingly this is the primary challenge of my on-going addiction recovery in AA during my 42nd year of “progress, not perfection” due to the continuing gift of a non-theistic “daily reprieve contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

  22. Michael says:

    Great analysis, there’s no doubt that atheist/agnostic meetings do not conflict with AA as a whole.

    Sometimes I feel I want to offer some helpful criticism when I hear of these experiences. I identify as an agnostic but I practice Buddhism which is a non-theistic religion. Atheists are welcome in the Buddhist tradition and it’s not because Buddhists try to convert them, this is often confusing to Westerners. Consequently I don’t have much issue with people who have been helped by religious concepts so I don’t feel marginalized when I hear people say things like ‘you have to have a higher power to stay sober’. For me and me alone, I had to practice meditation to stay sober, I had to do something different than when I was drinking. I don’t believe a person has to have a higher power or a deity but this doesn’t make me feel like an outcast when others feel strongly about it. I listen carefully to other members and I’ve gravitated to people who have a similar view as myself for sponsorship. This hasn’t been difficult, I’ve received nothing but respect for my views from my close AA friends and I respect their views.

    I respect the fact that people do feel marginalized, I can’t speak for anyone else, and I support atheist/agnostic meetings because this is a big issue for newcomers. It’s impossible to calculate how many people have not made it to sobriety because of the god language.

    What I have issue with in the article is the idea that atheists and agnostics feel they have to sit in the back row and stay silent. I’ve come across this sentiment a lot reading articles at AA Agnostica. I can’t think of any group I’ve been drawn to that would ostracize a member because they want to discuss their approach to sobriety as an atheist or agnostic. Someone might be made to feel uncomfortable in some meetings for sure but there are other meetings to try in most places. With over 20 years in the program I’ve heard countless people talk about their problems with organized religion and how they’ve used the AA group as a higher power, or nature, something ‘bigger than themselves’ which can simply mean a psychological concept. They’re not talking about a supernatural deity here. I think they have more in common with an atheist than a Christian and in my view, most are clearly agnostic even if they don’t use that word as an identity. I’ve never heard these people criticized, not once. AA is full of opinions and they’re often flawed and have nothing to do with the Big Book. We have every right to share our experience, strength and hope as non-theists and if a few people have a problem with that, who cares? From what I’ve seen, more people would have a problem when someone starts sharing about Jesus. I think many people would be helped with their own struggle with the higher power issue if atheists/agnostics refuse to feel marginalized and assert themselves more.

    I hope I’m not sounding critical of this critique because I think it’s spot on.

  23. Brent says:

    Here’s where I’ve gotten stuck every time the “God relieved me of my alcoholism” thing comes up. As an alcoholic and drug addict my behaviour was reprehensible. I took no responsibility for my actions, cared not a whit about the welfare of others, lied, manipulated, stole and conned. Still I went to AA when I was awash in self pity and, on those occasions, I was likely to comply to anything anybody suggested I do. But once the storm blew over, I was back out doing exactly the same things.
    I have been sober now almost 4 years. But am I to believe that in the thirty years preceding that a god was watching over me then decided, arbitrarily, that I had finally earned the right to be sober? A god who also couldn’t have helped noticing that mothers addicted to crack were giving birth to babies who, through no action of their own, were born crack addicts too? Am I to believe that while this god was rewarding me with sobriety, he somehow overlooked the girls who were being sold into slavery? The people in war torn countries in Africa who had their children stolen from them only to see them them turned into drug addicted soldiers for a cause nobody understood, a cause that often meant their fathers had their arms amputated in the most gruesome fashion? Am I to believe that innocent folks whose only mistake was being born poor and continue to struggle to put food on the table and to get a decent education so they can rise out of the morass of poverty that keeps them dependent, somehow got overlooked because this god was watching out for Brent as he lied to his family in order to get money for drugs?
    If this is really the god who got me sober then I’m not really all that impressed. While it was kind of him to choose a very small minority of drunks and addicts to get cleaned up, I think his priorities are all wrong. In fact if this is in any way a reflection of how this god operates then I want nothing to do with him, her, it.

  24. John k. says:

    Good day fellow members in recovery. We as Free thinkers and such have bent over to facilitate the beliefs of our theist members. The result has not been in any way democratic; moreover, it is more an exercise in futility.
    The United States Supreme Court has ruled against the mandatory sentencing of convicted persons with alcohol related crimes like impaired driving etc. to attend AA meetings. Maybe AA, Like the more inclusive Washingtonians, has outlived it’s time.
    Especially the old guard, these old Oxford evangelicals are the old-school problem that only will cease as their wicked souls are six-feet under. Sorry for getting emotional, but telling me as an agnostic/freethinker that I will die if I do not accept Jesus Christ as my personal saviour is not in my opinion being a loving follower of a deity. Thanks.

  25. JHG says:

    Excellent point about the emotional aspects of persuasion. That is usually more of a factor than the intellectual arguments. And your approach makes a lot of sense.

  26. JHG says:

    Thanks Robert. Unfortunately there are a lot more like Chris R than like me in Texas. Most though are in the middle (granted closer to his end of the spectrum).

    The scenario you describe with the Xian meeting is utterly astounding. That that is OK and AAAA meetings are not is unfortunately telling. It’s about the culture of AA rather than what is I think to be the true AA. Some would say “if it walks like a duck and swims like a duck, it must be a duck;” nevertheless, it is possible to experience that true AA I point to.

    I totally agree about democracy. Unless democracy has a robust culture that honors every voice from the minority, it is mob rule, which is often worse than totalitarianism. Ideally the group conscience overcomes groupthink by really paying attention to what each person brings the table.

  27. Dan L. says:

    Thanks for the educational post. We deal with the all too human need to order what is essentially chaos. What seems to be missed by our religious brethren (and how they would scream if the implied religion wasn’t Judeo-Christian) is that it is supposed to be chaotic as the article points out. A question that has come to my mind is where in all our literature and guidelines is there a protocol for banning, delisting, ostracising or shunning a member or group? I have not been around very long but I have read “our leaders do not govern they are but trusted servants” out loud at meetings a few dozen times. A lot of unwritten traditions have developed for no better reason than it was the way something was done once. This creeping institutionalisation was something the original AAs were intent on avoiding as the Real Traditions indicate quite clearly. We are faced with the old democratic paradox attributed to Plato: “Those who seek power are not worthy of that power.” Thanks again.

  28. Neil F says:

    There is no doubt in my mind that the traditions support the case for inclusion of non theistic groups in AA and your article does an excellent job of presenting the case.

    I think we all need to think how to best convey this message to those who may feel threatened by the inclusion of Atheist and Agnostic Groups. How do we overcome their fear and gain their acceptance? Well reasoned, logical argument is a valuable tool but it may still lose out to fear when considered in the group conscience.

    I think it is also important as individual atheists/agnostics that we are active members of the AA Community and that we participate at all levels of service as well as in non Atheist/Agnostic meetings. When participating I think it is important that I share openly about my beliefs and how I do the steps without getting belligerent and putting down what works for others. I want to be seen as a valuable, non-threatening member of the community who has good sobriety. I want to be an example of the fact that it is not necessary to believe in a god for an alcoholic to get sober, to have good long term sobriety and to make a valuable contribution to AA Service.

    Other members who know me and who have worked with me in service are less likely to fear me. As well, they are more likely to listen when I discuss the well reasoned arguments presented in this article.

    So thanks JHG. I will add your excellent article to my toolkit. It will help inform my thoughts in future discussions with AA members of all persuasions.

  29. Robert C says:


    Great article. I like it. It’s funny you are from the same state as Chris R, one of the most voiciferous people I have ever heard argue the God – Big Book – Back to Basics idea. I guess Texas is a big state.
    There’s an opposite example in Toronto where I go to CA, which uses the big book of AA as their text. Here, in CA, the God-centered message has reached a point where our area group voted to include a strictly Christian group into the meeting list. Not only does the meeting list not identify this group as a special CA group (ie, like LGTBQ meetings, women’s meetings, men’s meetings, etc.), but when I attended there one night to experience their message, nothing was said about addiction or alcoholism as a disease, there was no recovery literature, but everyone had a Bible, which we read from. A woman in attendance clearly had NO CLUE what she was in for, and at the end of the meeting, was taken aside and asked if she would like her demons removed and if she wanted to become free through accepting the “Christian” gospel. She stormed out of the room almost crying.
    The God-centred message from AA and the Big Book is selective reading and a selective view of history. As you well point out, Appendix II retracts a “God only” clause to the potential recovery of alcoholics.
    I also believe that our use of Roberts Rules of Order to produce democratic elections is somewhat frought with danger for our service groups, because the spirit of the Traditions is actually “benign anarchy,” a much more radical idea than democracy. Democracy is a “top down” approach in many ways(majority rules, etc.), whereas benign anarchy espouses individual freedom, and the inclusion of the quietist, smallest voice on important, pressing matters. Its application also entails profound reflection and patience – not ramming through decisions, which on important matters are usually the ideas espoused by the most vocal, extroverted members, and those already in positions of informal authority within the group.

  30. Ed S. says:

    Your essay reminds me of a recent Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal. She states that “Stress makes you social.” Stress is what led me to drink and then to relieve the stress I found AA Meetings. In AA meetings, especially We Agnostic meetings, my empathy is enhanced and I am more willing to help and support others and they help me. When life is difficult the stress response wants me to be surrounded by people who care about me. The loving people in AA are what helps me to stay sober, not some mysterious higher power.

  31. Eric T says:

    Thanks for a great post. I love this point: “The peaceful coexistence of radically different viewpoints with regard to everything except one common goal, staying sober, is what AA unity is about.”

    Not only did that diversity of viewpoints entice me to keep coming back, I needed to be exposed to many viewpoints OTHER THAN my own, to help me change my way of thinking, and change in that department was certainly required.

    Good to be sober today!

  32. John M. says:


    Methinks you know of what you speak! Wonderfully reasoned and written. Thanks so much for this.

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