Alcoholics Anonymous, Without the Religion


By Samuel G. Freedman
The New York Times
February 22, 2014

Three floors above a Manhattan street of loading docks and coffee shops, in a functional room of folding chairs and linoleum tile, a man who introduced himself as Vic began to speak. “Today is my 35th anniversary,” he said. The dozen people seated around him applauded, and several even whooped in support.

By most overt measures, this gathering two weeks ago was just another meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, one of its multitude of meetings worldwide. At the session’s end an hour later, however, as the participants clasped hands, instead of reciting the Lord’s Prayer in usual A.A. fashion, they said together, “Live and let live.”

This meeting, as the parting phrase suggests, is one of a growing number within A.A. that appeal to nonreligious people in recovery, who might variously describe themselves as agnostics, atheists, humanists or freethinkers. While such groups were rare even a decade ago, now they number about 150 nationally. A first-ever convention will be held in November in Santa Monica, Calif.

The boom in nonreligious A.A. represents another manifestation of a more visible and confident humanist movement in the United States, one that has featured public figures such as Bill Maher, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Yet this recent trend within A.A. also marks a departure from the organization’s traditional emphasis on religion.

“A.A. starts at its core with honesty,” said Dorothy, 39, who heads the steering committee for the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International A.A. Convention. “And how can you be honest in recovery if you’re not honest in your own beliefs? If you don’t believe in the God they’re praying to, that’s not honest practice.”

(A.A. members hold to a tradition of not being identified by full name. I sat in on a portion of one secular A.A. meeting with the advance consent of the attendees.)

Seven of A.A.’s famous 12 steps refer either to a deity — “God,” “Him” or “a Power greater than ourselves” — or to religious practices such as prayer. The ultimate goal of sobriety, as the final step states, is to achieve a “spiritual awakening.” Besides the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer is a staple of A.A. meetings.

Many of A.A.’s foundational documents do simultaneously emphasize an open, inclusive, nonjudgmental attitude toward anyone seeking sobriety. The group’s basic text, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” notes that membership “should be an entirely personal affair which each one decides for himself in the light of past associations or his present choice.”

In practice, though, a religious tone became the norm within A.A. What it meant for alcoholics like Vic was an anguishing choice between sobriety and hypocrisy. To participate in a typical A.A. meeting felt to them like hiding, if not violating, deeply held secular beliefs.

Now 70 and working in the film industry, Vic began drinking on a Saturday night at age 15 when his parents left their New Jersey home long enough for him and several friends to drain a bottle of Southern Comfort. Not for the last time, his binge ended with projectile vomit.

It was also during Vic’s teenage years when he began to reject the Roman Catholicism of his upbringing. The first doubt came when a priest informed him that if he ate a hamburger on Friday, in defiance of the Catholic Church’s tradition of forgoing meat on that day, he would go to hell.

During all the subsequent decades of drinking, the closest Vic got to faith was what he puckishly calls his “foxhole prayer” — to make it through his hangover. Liquor led to cocaine, and one night in 1979, Vic’s dealer laid out something new, a few lines of heroin. Even through the ethereal haze, Vic was frightened enough to decide to go to A.A.

That first meeting, characteristically enough, took place in a church. “I was willing to try anything,” Vic recalled. “If they say to pray on your knees morning and night …” For his first several years in A.A., he did regularly pray, trying to reacquire a faith he thought sobriety required. Even after accepting the fact he still did not believe God existed, he kept attending meetings, feeling privately isolated despite the camaraderie and common purpose.

Glenn, a painter living in Manhattan, had a similar experience to Vic’s. When he first went to an A.A. meeting 27 years ago, he found himself confronted by religious language and ritual that he considered anathema. Desperate to stop drinking, he tried to fit in.

“They had this fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude,” recalled Glenn, 72. “This feeling that the religion will catch up with you. It worked in the sense that I got sober. But I got weary of it. It felt mindless.”

After 10 years without alcohol, Glenn ordered a glass of wine and spent the next five years suffering from what he wryly diagnoses now as “the merlot flu.”

Soon after resuming A.A., though, he heard about a meeting designed for atheists. Though he found that group dogmatic in its own way — more concerned with criticizing religion than with reinforcing sobriety — he subsequently discovered a meeting for humanists and freethinkers.

In its “fellowship of concerned, loving people,” he said, he found a secular version of the “Higher Power” to which A.A. literature refers. Humanist A.A. groups also have drafted their own nontheistic versions of the 12 steps. Instead of needing divine assistance for recovery, for example, one step states that “we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.”

By now, Glenn has sponsored seven humanists into A.A. He regularly attends three secular A.A. meetings each week. Similarly, Vic goes to four nonreligious A.A. meetings weekly. Those seven meetings are among the 13 currently operating in New York, according to the website, which itself was formed only in 2002.

Deliberately or not, secular members like Vic and Glenn seem unable to resist a certain brand of wordplay. Speaking of nonreligious A.A.’s legitimacy, Vic put it, “We’re kosher.” As for the effect, Glenn said, “It’s heaven.”


28 Responses

  1. Don B. says:

    Hi Beth,

    Our meeting’s name is “Freethinkers of the Low Country”. We meet at the Unity Church, on Leeds & Dorchester, at 6:30 pm on Monday evenings. So far, the meetings have been useful, interesting, and very cordial. Plus, we have access to the kitchen, and can make coffee.

    Initially there was a lot of criticism of our meetings, particularly because we are using the Agnostica version of the 12 steps, and there was a push to take us off of the meeting schedule for Charleston. We’ve had visits from our Area rep, out of Greenville, District rep for our district, and many others who were critical and curious. In EVERY case the individuals left with a different impression of what we were doing, and as far as I know, there is no longer any effort to take us off the schedule list. And I believe that the folks who were initially critical, now understand what the true meaning of “Freethinker” really is.

    Come join us, and by the way I know a few Beth’s in the Charleston AA circles; I bet I know you.

    Regards, Don B.

  2. Beth says:

    I am curious to know as well. I live in Charleston as well.

  3. Roger says:

    The “Chris” referred to by Don, for those who don’t know, looks after putting people in the same area in touch with each other after they have completed the “An Agnostic Group in my Community” form. It’s a big job – a lot of people fill out the form – and Chris does a marvelous job in helping people start agnostic AA meetings – everywhere in North America.

  4. Don B. says:

    Thanks for your encouragement, TiffK. And I’m just beginning to realize how many non-believers there are in SC. Chris connected me with two others in the Charleston area, and we are currently making arrangements to get together. Also, another nonbelieving friend of mine in Charleston, has let me know that she knows of at least 8 or 10 others who would be interested in an agnostic meeting!

    And if you want to hear something ironic, one of the guys that Chris suggested I contact, turns out to be a guy that I sponsored in the mid 80’s!! Can you believe the coincidence?

    Keep in touch, and I’ll let you know if anything does kick off here. You might want to drive down for a meeting.

  5. TiffK says:

    Don’t give up hope Don B. I’m in Columbia and would love to have an agnostic AA meeting here. There are more of us in SC than we think!

  6. Michael W says:

    Don, I too got sober in South Carolina, (Myrtle Beach). I moved to New Mexico many years ago where I started to develop my relationship with that power that is greater than I am. I only speak with people about “God of my understanding” when asked. I believe that all of us are bound together and as such all of us hold my answers. Finding people in AA who even remotely share the general ideas about “God” is very difficult but I do share that my idea of god is not religious. I learn more and more about the power that drives all of us, every day. I understand more about the power of the universe every day and I do believe the universe talks to all of us. I also don’t worship anything or anyone. I have found that being open to anyone allows me to know what my next answer is. Unity and service are a common language in AA. I find that my service helps others who struggle with the concept of a religious god. One day at a time my brother.

  7. Michael W says:

    I have never seen it either. Very interesting in that it helps explain some of the observations I have made over the years and that I have always believed we need to think of ourselves as human first.

  8. Tommy H says:

    I spent the first nineteen year in Baton Rouge A.A. and never attended a mtg that didn’t end with the LP. Mtgs I’ve attended in Vermont, Quebec, and Kentucky, where I now live, have all ended with it. The only exception has been the noon mtgs in Bloomington, Indiana.

    Much of the secular A.A. related literature I’ve read has shown a lot of anger and that doesn’t speak well of the communicators.

    One way I have dealt with the bleeding deacons is pointing out that the Big Book does not insist that one’s higher power be supernatural and that it says that you can find the great reality only deep within yourself.

    I also say that grace doesn’t do you a bit of good unless you get off your butt and do something.

    We have at least three secular A.A.s here in my little town and we get along.

  9. George S says:

    You’re most welcome Alyssa…..

  10. Alyssa S says:

    Thanks so much!!!!! 🙂

  11. Dan J, n Tx says:

    I’m always amazed of our fellowship and the power it gives to all that desire freedom from the jug. I’m 50, right at half my life in AA, continued sobriety; I’ve seen dramatic change in the last two decades of our fellowship to be all inclusive. I do have a higher power, not the one most would agree with, but works for me, and I’m glad to see the support and unity as portrayed here.

  12. George S says:

    I would be surprised if you found a meeting with an agnostic format in SC. I live in NJ and only know of one such meeting in the entire state. If anyone is interested it’s located in Jersey City. I have attended, but unfortunately it is 90 miles from my home. I have however been able to build a small network of AA friends who share beliefs like my own. I noticed when I opened up about my beliefs, people started asking me questions, and then shared that they felt much the same as I did. Having this site has also opened doors to new AA friends.

  13. Don B says:

    Mary was quite lucky – so many meetings in NYC!

    Does anyone know of such meetings that might be within driving distance of Charleston, SC? If I wasn’t afraid of being stoned, I’d start one here myself.

  14. Mary F. says:

    Where do I find an actual physical meeting in NYC?

  15. Wayne M says:

    I’m not sure why but this article,for me, conveys the agnostic message better than all the others that have been mentioned or reproduced here and in other locations. (And that is saying something on its own.) It may be that it does seem to see some light at the end of the tunnel and that light is hope.

  16. George S says:

    I don’t know if you have ever seen this article by Dr. Silkworth – Slips and Human Nature – but I thought you might find it of interest. It addresses slips and his thoughts on the alcoholic mind.

  17. Alyssa S. says:

    I really like how you keep referring to the three stages of change. Makes a great deal of sense.

  18. Alyssa S. says:

    Love it!! Love to keep my spirituality separate from my journey in recovery. Because I’m fairly new (Terrible Two’s), I can’t imagine being in the closet about my beliefs as some of these fire hazards around here;) must have been a challenge for all those years.
    I like the part about how he found the atheist group dogmatic in its “criticism of religion, rather than focus on sobriety.” For us newcomers we greatly need your words of wisdom to keep us on ship. I really don’t want to slip again. Especially at this stage. My muscle tissue has gotten rid of the alcohol. Took 365 days and my body is still recovering. Now to focus on repairing this alcoholic mind. I really like the 3rd step from agnostic 12 steps “made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us and similar to that the humanist & 12 statements (not all of them) from SOS.
    Back to sober talk thanx:)

  19. Don B says:

    Thank you so very much. It is so refreshing to know that I’m not the only one struggling with this problem.

    I am still attending a “traditional” AA meeting in the deep south – Charleston, SC – and I have yet to find a non religious meeting within an airplane’s flight.

    However, I’ve used science to deal with the problem. I’m a firm believer in a creative force of the universe (not to be confused with intelligent design), and I absolutely believe that this force is so far beyond my imagination, and anyone else’s for that matter, that I cannot possibly conceive of it’s nature. I’m certain it’s not “human natured”. When the prayers come along, as they always do, I just substitute in my mind, what I believe for what I’m saying. I still feel like a hypocrite, but I do want to stay sober, and I don’t believe I can without AA. Fortunately, I do have some friends who believe (or don’t believe) the same way that I do, and we have our own little sessions.

    BTW, if there are any followers of Lao Tzu (The Tao Te Ching), you can always substitute the word god with Tao. I do it often. To me it makes far more sense.

  20. steve b. says:

    The author notes that the Lords’ Prayer is the norm in most AA meetings. I’ve been sober for 17+ years. Got sober in New Orleans and now live in the Southwest. I have always attended meetings regularly throughout my sobriety, and always go to meetings when traveling. I do not find that the Lord’s Prayer is the norm. The norm I’ve found is closing with the Serenity Prayer. I’m not sure where the author compiled his information, but I find it inaccurate. I do not search out meetings based on how the they end. Like many in AA say, “Take what you need and leave the rest behind.” For the record, I’m not “religious,” but I do practice the 11th step on a regular basis and have my own concept of a Higher Power.

  21. Jeff M says:

    Right on brothers! I’m tired of feeling out of place at heavily religious meetings and of listening to fellow members speak for me as if our beliefs are identical. Good to know I don’t have to choose between sobriety and hypocrisy! Too bad there aren’t more agnostic meetings north of the gta where I live, but hey – progress not perfection!

  22. Roger says:

    Right on, Pat. And for those of you who don’t know – I didn’t – IMHO stands for “In My Humble Opinion.”

  23. Pat N. says:

    I’m sending this article on to my many nonreligious friends in AA. So many outsiders’ stories of AA are sensational or maudlin, but this one is right on target. It DOES help to know one is not alone – that’s why AA works in the first place, IMHO.

  24. larry k says:

    Every time I read a post that is from or about the larger fellowship of weery wanderers I have a strong sense of community and commraderie knowing I am not alone.

  25. George S says:

    Great article! I recall hearing, “If you don’t believe, make believe, cause you have to start somewhere”. I did just that, with the hope that I would eventually develop and fit in AA. I did in fact eventually get sober and remain sober since June 10, 1984. When I’m attending an AA meeting that begins to sound like a church service, I share that my experience is sobriety without a belief in a god. This is “my truth”, which some AA’s are less than happy with. Though I would prefer people to like me rather than not like me, I am not willing to live a lie to do so. For me, AA is about getting and remaining clean and sober. What you believe or don’t believe is your choice.

  26. Joe C says:

    This is really nice to see; it is kind of an Agnostic Jack-Alexander pat-on-the-back. We know that change faces three stages – people will ridicule and dismiss, then they will become aggressive and punitive and the final stage is to accept the change into the fabric of the culture as if it’s obvious.

    This article has a tone of the third stage, which for me is really good news. That said, I don’t think there is anything about agnostic AA that is an evolution or alteration of our Fellowship. Inclusiveness and artistic liberty has always been liberally assumed. But, just as true, is the difficulty, in certain pockets of our society, to embrace the full diversity of AA expression.

    Like other coverage in the press, this is an outsider’s view. If I read it correctly, he sees us as AA first, nonbelievers second. Isn’t that one of the great arguments against agnostic AA – that the newcomer would be confused or the essence of the program would become watered down? This article, if not proof, is an example anyway, that this concern is unmerited. It seems obvious to this writer that we are AA and like any AA group, we conduct ourselves as we see fit, mindful that our impact on AA as a whole would be mostly positive.

    This is heart-warming in every way.

  27. angela says:

    Want to thank everyone who has made this site possible. After drinking steadily since my pre-teens, at 51 I finally hit my bottom and have been sober for 14 months! The biggest hurdle “besides putting down the bottle” has been the references to god. I like the meetings and have found some awesome people where I go but I still am having a hard time breaking out of my shell, so really appreciate having this site available.

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