The Atheist Embedded

This is the second chapter of the book: Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous by Adam N.

The Atheist Embedded

Like it or not, the religious viewpoint predominates in Alcoholics Anonymous. An honest reading of the primary text is enough to convince anyone. The chapter entitled We Agnostics, for example, is not a welcome embrace so much as a sales pitch intended to draw non-believers gently into the fold, towards the inevitable end of their being convinced. The stated goal of the book is to guide us toward the kind of spiritual awakening which will solve our drink problem and put us on a better path. From the point of view of the more devout religious members, this means to get us to god consciousness.

Hard as it might be to tell based solely upon my arrogant, atheistic ranting, I have seriously tried throughout my life to put on religious garb. I have lived and worked all twelve steps, numerous times, reciting the various step-prayers associated with them for decades; gone to numerous Catholic retreats; joined Unitarian churches; studied Buddhist belief, behavior, written word and visual art; practised yoga and meditation; read Aquinas and Anselm, Tillich, Buber, Thich Nhat Hanh and many more, studiously immersed myself in every drop of approved AA literature and recovery oriented self-help works, from Emmet Fox to The Road Less Traveled, that I could get my hands on; practised daily prayer and meditation for years; prayed to icons of Sakyamuni & Maitreya, Saint Francis, Jesus Christ, The Christian Cross, to giant redwoods, the ocean, to door knobs, and, perhaps most importantly, the ever infamous Porcelain God. You name it, I’ve tried it.

In spite of my very best efforts, I am unable to be convinced of god, spirit or soul. Perhaps that formative first decade of life, being raised from birth in an entirely atheistic environment, was definitive. But, fortunately, I am in good company. Many excellent and devout persons, from Milarepa to Muhammad to Mother Theresa, have grappled with faith, have struggled with doubt. Many good and wise people have also given up the struggle, have contentedly embraced life as non-believers. What I am proposing is the unconditional acceptance of this latter alternative. This is the viewpoint with which I am most comfortable, which seems right to me.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Alcoholics Anonymous. I truly believe it is the best game in town, as far as beating alcoholism and drug addiction is concerned. Today I am a grateful, active and involved participant, having attended AA meetings for over half my life. Yet I have always grappled with the religious components of AA. At best it’s been ‘fake it till you make it’. Yet all along I’ve been plagued by the nagging sense that I had joined a mind numbing cult whose membership requires a 40 point drop in IQ.

I have been able to achieve lasting sobriety through AA. But I have had to do a lot of reading between the lines along the way. I’ve had to make sense of religious language. Like a spy forced to remain in a foreign land, I’ve had to learn the interpretive skills necessary to survive, to understand their experience in light of my own. I’ve become adept at translating what is said so that it makes sense from a humanistic, secular and scientific point of view.


The following is a series of reflections based upon my years of experience as an atheist embedded in Alcoholics Anonymous. My claim is that god is optional, not required, for a successful recovery program. But you will get seriously chewed out by some well meaning, protective old timers if you talk like this at an AA meeting. The fact that the thoughts that I am articulating here would be considered blasphemous if spoken aloud at a meeting, well, that’s why I’m writing this essay. My hope is to see atheism normalized within the recovery community. Atheism should not be stigmatized. We should not have to hide our beliefs, to ‘come out of the closet’ and risk being ostracized. But the truth is that atheism is mostly just tolerated. The most common response we encounter is a charitable smirk implying that, if we hang on long enough, we will eventually “come to believe” as the theists do.

A further point worth considering, however, is whether we might be more effectively of service, reach more suffering alcoholics. We might save more lives. There may be millions of alcoholics and addicts out there suffering and dying while we sit comfortably in the rooms of AA proclaiming its effectiveness. I will not cite the various studies which have thrown this confidence into doubt. The reader can easily find them for him or herself. Suffice to say that, as a matter of fact, the number of alcoholics who come to AA and remain long term is much smaller than the number of potential members who stay away from AA altogether, or who come to AA and don’t ‘get it’. If we truly care about the alcoholics who still suffer, if we truly wish to be of service to others, we have an obligation to be open-minded about exactly what message we are carrying, its effectiveness and accessibility.

I firmly believe that, while the religious emphasis may indeed be beneficial for some, it sends away at least as many as it saves. Many of these go on to suffer the horrid fate, the ‘hell’ if you like, that only addicts and alcoholics can know. We sober members remain in the rooms, patting each others’ backs, consoling ourselves with the thought that the man or woman will return ‘when they are ready’. ‘If the god thing scares them away, alcohol will beat them back’, we like to say.

We also like to say ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. But don’t such self-congratulatory recitations merely serve to salve our feelings, consoling those few of us who do ‘get it’ so that we do not have to face the hard, stark possibility that recovery methodology might be made roomier, more all inclusive? If god is truly optional, we may be unnecessarily turning away people who need and want what we have. We then compound this sin by consoling ourselves with the a posteriori rationalization that ‘they weren’t ready yet’. As recovering alcoholics, certainly we are familiar with this process of erring, then subsequently rationalizing our behavior. This was a primary modus operandi for us for years, and we all know it did not automatically cease when we put the plug in the jug.

In spite of my ego, I am not one to say that all this talk about god, religion or spirituality is right or wrong. What the hell do I know, really? I am simply sharing my experience as a non-believer in my efforts to make sense of and employ the main concepts and practices. I write this essay as a project to help me get clear on all of this for myself, to come to terms with the gap. But, as I write, I gain hope that others will be aided by this interpretive narrative, that these kinds of thoughts might make the contemporary recovery methodology more accessible to those who are similarly unable to buy the religious slant of Alcoholics Anonymous.

A second edition of Common Sense Recovery is available at Amazon.


22 Responses

  1. Christopher G says:

    My thoughts as well. Lately I’ve been describing Bill Wilson and the BB as the “shotgun approach”. He is using scattershot language, duplicitous and contradictory, in an effort that seems to be along the lines of trying to please everyone or reach everyone or both. It sure ain’t the gospel but there’s something in it for everyone if you care to sift through it. His disclaimer always tests my tolerance: “do not let any prejudice you may have…. stop you from asking yourself what it means to me.” Quite a lot of liberty there.

  2. Andy S says:

    If the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, then why does sobriety become dependent on finding a Higher Power ?
    As far as I can see, it clearly states in the Big Book that the whole purpose of the book is to help you find a power greater than yourself..there again, words like ‘suggested’ and ‘probably’ allow for flexibility in How it it seems pretty ambiguous anyway..just some more thoughts. .

  3. Andy S says:

    Hi everyone,
    The lie starts with Step 1..I am not powerless over alcohol..I might have lost the ability to choose, but can relearn how to do that..Step 2 is where we are gently led by the nose into magical thinking..obviously, if we don’t have the power not to drink, then we need some help eg a support group..the term Higher Power stands alone..God is introduced along with Him and we’re only at Step 3 ??
    Just some thoughts..
    Andy S

  4. Joe C says:

    Adam, it was great to meet you at We Agnostics & Freethinkers International AA Conference. You are a fellow traveler that I am richer for knowing. To expect more from our country is still patriotic. To be critical of one’s community is not a lack of loyalty. There is a saying around the rooms, “I would rather step on your toes that walk on your grave.” It speaks to the idea that sometimes the most loving thing to say or do is not always welcomed.

    It was a thrill to hear Rev. Ward Ewing quote from your book as part of his address to WAFT IAAC. Your writing gave one of our Class A Trustees hope for AA. I expect your book will have the same positive impact on many alcoholics as well.

    And to many of my other fellow travelers who make this a regular stop in your AA week, it was great to meet so many of you in Santa Monica. Austin Texas, 2016 baby – home to our next bi-annual conference; hope to make it and hope to see many of you there.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you, Adam, for this heartfelt explanation of your long experience within AA, which has coincided with a long and futile search to find and experience the “spiritual” aspect of the AA program, one that is not garbed in one religious cloak or another.

    I, too, for most of my life due to the gift of sobriety I’ve experienced within AA been engaged in a “searching and fearless” quest to find the God of mainstream AA. Like you, I conclude that I am an atheist, albeit one who still prays – not because I believe there is any IT out there to zap me a miracle that corresponds to my perceived need, but rather out of ingrained Pavlovian habit and to calm myself down… 😉

    I am so grateful to have met you and the some 300 others of us WAAFTs who gathered together in Santa Monica. There we shared “our experience, strength and hope,” demonstrating to ourselves as well as the rest of the AA world that we can, indeed, continue to recover within AA, not separate or apart from it.

    I look forward to continuing to “trudge the road of happy destiny” with you and other WAAFTs in the coming days ahead…

  6. Christopher G says:

    A new action for me at yesterday’s meeting was that when I was asked to lead the closing in a prayer of my choice I said, “I’m an atheist, I haven’t got a prayer.” (Chuckle.) Followed by “But I will lead you in the Serenity Wish or Affirmation”, which I was allowed to do, saying, “We have the serenity to accept… etc.” Since then I have mulled other responses, such as, just quoting Shakespeare’s, “To thine own self be true, and as surely as night follows day, I can’t be false to anyone”, or “Live and let live” and “Love and tolerance of others is our code” and the Responsibility Pledge. I haven’t reached Roger’s level of expression yet regarding the LP or other god prayers, but I do remain silent and look for other silent ones, yet hold hands as a symbol of community.
    Also, Adam, I just wanted to express how much I identify with your story and feel very comfortable re-reading it. I would like to bring up portions of it now and then as topics of discussion for our meeting and will have it in my tool kit in assisting others who ask for help regarding this prevalent dilemma. Thank you.

  7. Andy L. says:

    My current go-round in AA is my fourth over twenty years or more, precisely because of the constant hammering of goddism. This time, I’m finding ways to translate various concepts into things I can work with, and ignoring the rest. Hey, more opportunities to practice acceptance! Yay!

    Thanks for putting your experiences and observations down in writing, Adam. Without people like you, and all the resources on this here newfangled internet thingy, I’d still be in the same boat I was in before.

  8. boyd p. says:

    What I have in common with others, including the natural world, is much larger than our differences. A grand idea I can’t resist. We all breath the same air. We all die. All is vanity.

    Yes Adam, the flawed AA fellowship has moments of unity. Service is about expanding those moments, embracing conflict and finding steps forward.

  9. Adam N. says:

    It is certainly true that my lifelong relationship with AA has had many moods and many different states of mind. I guess I can only ask you to search your heart and your memory. Have there been times over the course of 20 or 30 years where you have felt frustrated, alienated and surrounded by dullards? There have certainly been those times for me. Have there also been times when you have felt profound love, deep and real love for every single person in the room at that moment, like you had come home to a family you didn’t even realize you had, and that you could actually glimpse the reality of loving every single person in the world exactly as they are? I have felt that way at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as well. Perhaps you have felt something like that as well.

  10. Roger says:

    You know, Brien, Adam does indeed criticize AA in the last sentence of the fourth paragraph of The Atheist Embedded. Over the course of my mother’s life I said some ferociously unkind things about her. But, you know, I still loved her. Weird, huh?
    Sometimes we just have to let things go.

  11. Brien says:

    I was edited for my comment on this.
    4th paragraph last sentence and yet you still love AA after referring to AA in this manner

  12. bob_mcc says:

    I think that this might be a bit of a shift from the topic thread here, however, I just discovered this website and really enjoyed his perspective on the requests for prayers. I hope this will give you some food for thought.

  13. Adam N. says:

    One new technique I am considering employing is to refuse to read offerings which have religious content. The opening paragraphs of “Chapter 5”, culminating in “God could and would if he were sought”, is read at several meetings I attend. Perhaps few more than the secretary might notice when I say “No, thanks. I do not read religious material”, but, who knows. Over time, maybe it will catch on. I don’t know. What do you guys think?

  14. Jack says:

    This is exactly my thoughts and how I have used the AA program during my 44 years of sobriety. I don’t wish to go to war with anyone, I just want AA to be open to every alcoholic. I have watched this program grow over the years and feel sure that agnostics and atheists will be included in our recovery!

  15. Tommy H says:

    “But I have had to do a lot of reading between the lines along the way.”

    Don’t we all?

  16. John M. says:


    This is so sensitive and thoughtful and really a comprehensive narrating of your own quest to make sense of what, on the surface, appears to so many as doable only within the parameters of AA’s religious language.

    As you have related to us, you have “tested” out the various avenues of religious/spiritual experience and have come to settle on your way: an honest atheism which, I believe, you have “earned” as your own rite of passage, and the right to claim for yourself an atheism and not just an agnosticism.

    It was a pleasure to meet you, Adam, at the WAFT convention this past weekend and hear you share at the various workshops and meetings, and talk with you briefly. It’s always much more fulfilling to meet the living, breathing human being who one previously knows only through the author’s written word.

    I must say to the readers of this post/his book that Adam is as gracious, sensitive, thoughtful, and modest (humble) in person as he comes across when reading his book.

    The work he has put into thinking through the issues is really a labour of love for AA as an “organization,” his fellow alcoholics of all stripes (and on all paths), and ultimately a magnificent “Yes” to life itself.

    This is a truly embedded and embodied rendering of your journey which you are so kind to share us. Thanks so much!

  17. Chris G says:

    Yes, Marnin, we have inquiries from West Palm and Jupiter. Your comment here ties them together; I’ll get an email out right away to see if they will share contact info with you and each other. This is how agnostic meetings start!

    If there is anyone else in that part of FL that wants to get in on the act, just fill out the form at the top left of these screens – the one in the blue box called “Want an agnostic group in your town or city”.

  18. marnin m says:

    Chris C,

    You have read my mind.

    Every time I refer to AA as a remaking of the Oxford Movement’s religious philosophy and procedures my fellow members protest that AA is not a religious program.

    I am going on 80 years, sober 44 in AA and I will continue making waves at my meetings for as long as I live.

    Thanks for your post,


    PS I live in Hobe Sound, Florida. Any one of you readers live in this area. Tequesta, Jupiter, West Palm Beach, Pt St Lucie ??

    I would love to start am Agnostics meeting.

  19. life-j says:

    This book is truly awesome.

  20. boyd p says:

    The silent folks are apparent to those who are interested. I have enjoyed many such affirmations and presume the feeling has often been mutual. There are many paths. Thank you for yours.

  21. Roger says:

    Of course, you are free to do what you want, Boyd, but I don’t find your behaviour very helpful to the “non believers of what ever ilk”. He or she won’t even notice you. I remain seated, which is easily noticed, and makes very clear that saying the Lord’s Prayer is a violation of the “Spiritual not religious” principle of my fellowship.

  22. boyd p. says:

    In order to resist all the theist ramblings, persevering atheists must, of necessity put up their defenses. Today, my own journey finds me not one of them, but respect for the “mysteries” in my life require tolerance and humility. So, during the closing of meetings I participate by holding hands in a circle, reminding me of community throughout human experience, remaining silent, hoping my example may help non believers of what ever ilk to return, and find what is useful for them. Just don’t take that first drink.

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