An Atheist Speaks Out
By E. L. from Vermont.
This article was first printed in the AA Grapevine in May, 1962. Copyright © The AA Grapevine.
I AM an alcoholic and an atheist. I am addressing this to those alcoholics who have had trouble with the religious overtones in the AA program. But let me state first that it depresses me to think of what life would be like without AA.
It has been long on my mind to write this and now, after five years of sobriety, I think my brain is clear enough to make a statement which might be of worth to others.
To those who do not accept the idea of a supernatural being having a direct interest in each and every human, let me assert that there are people who do care about others. It has been my direct experience that it is always people – human beings with humanity – who have strengthened me when I needed help.
I admit that I need more strength than I alone possess to overcome the compulsion to drink. I receive this strength from the power for good that is generated in AA. I have interpreted the frequent mention of “God” in the Twelve Steps and elsewhere as this power which obviously comes from other humans. I hope this will help the alcoholic who is an agnostic or an atheist to be more willing to search for the way to sobriety that exists in AA.
After a year and a half of real sobriety (I had been trying to grasp the AA program for three years previously), I suffered a personal catastrophe. I am baffled by those well-meaning acquaintances who confidently assure me that God will help me to overcome my difficulties. I do not ascribe my dilemma to punishment for past “sins” nor do I have the vanity to think that a deity would choose me for martyrdom, but simply to the absurdity of life. Certainly it is ironic that I should have become crippled after a period of genuine sobriety and not during a bout of drunkenness. But it is nothing more nor less than that – simply ironic.
The complacency of those in AA who confidently assert that there are no atheists in AA is as ridiculous as the statement about there having been no atheists in foxholes. The clever clergyman who invented this fiction has my admiration – it is top flight Madison Avenue. Also, some of these members probably expect me to find my way into religion through my association with AA. I do not attempt to dissuade them from this hope because it is so very unlikely as to be not worth attention. I have been an atheist through twenty-five years of drinking and through the past years of sobriety.
In AA one frequently hears that some people “claim” to be atheists. I refrain from disputing this illogical and thoughtless remark – I let it pass. Obviously, the burden of proof is on those who profess a belief, meaning that Christians are under the obligation of proving their beliefs through acting out the precepts of Christianity, etc. Unfortunately, I find this rare, if not actually non-existent.
I have a deep belief in what I call human morality. I believe that evil impulses can be subordinated by decent actions. AA brings out impulses for good and this has tremendous force. In my opinion this sum total of action for good is the “Higher Power.” I interpret “higher” to mean greater rather than supreme as is implied in the phrase.
At this point I would like to quote the words of a Unitarian minister: “In a world that has lost, or is losing fast, any convincing concept of divine providence at work, of a personal God ordering the affairs of mankind, it is not necessary to assume that the only alternative to a man-cherishing universe is a hostile or satanic universe. There is the much more likely alternative of a neutral universe where man lives, hammering out his salvation without hope of heaven or dread of hell. Man can find that life has value, not because a divine father so ordains, but because the achievements of good men and women, laboring together with love and self-respect, are self-validating and self-rewarding.”
Please do not assume that I make any issue of my convictions. At meetings I let others find their own interpretations of AA. If this includes religion, good luck to them. I never attempt to dissuade them from beliefs which they have found to be of help in maintaining sobriety. However, I ask the same acceptance for those of us who wish to make a rationalistic interpretation of the AA program. I do want to say, though, that I am constantly surprised when an AA member, who professes to be a Christian, has no hesitation in making offensive remarks about minorities. I find this puzzling in church-goers and in AA members in particular. (By the way, are meetings in the South segregated?) After all, drunks also belong to a minority that is despised by the ignorant and uninformed. I am sure that atheists are not completely free of prejudices but, on the whole, I think they recognize the absurdity of prejudices and generally do not voice them. Believers do not seem to possess this reticence, however.
Many people have refused the help AA can give because of its quasi-religious flavor. It seems to me that if we really want to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety we should mean it by not putting obstacles in their path. I think the important thing is sobriety and not the acceptance of a dogma (which is impossible of proof).
It is entirely possible that many who come into AA have trouble with the program because, in spite of lip service to religion, they do not and cannot believe in a supernatural being. The conflict arising from a superimposed idea that they are required to accept a “Higher Power” in order to maintain sobriety, leads to unconscious revolt and reinforces the compulsion to drink. Who really has the arrogance to say they “know” or “understand” a God?
I don’t want to change AA. It works for me. I just want it to be more effective in attracting rationalists. Their membership in turn would help AA tremendously. Perhaps a pamphlet addressed specifically to alcoholics of this persuasion would have much influence.
For a period of over two years I was practically a loner, being able to attend only a couple of meetings a year. Fortunately, my wife has a good understanding of the problem of alcoholism (because of past association with a family group) and I was able to have almost daily discussions with her. Now, however, we have formed a group in this area which meets in my home, weekly.
I was not able to accept AA or the very real help it could give until I made a rationalistic interpretation of the program. I am still an atheist and see no reason why I should change my views at this time. But I am a grateful atheist.