An Atheist’s Twelfth Step



When we first get to AA, we can just “take what we like and leave the rest”, but eventually, we have to decide whether we’re even going to stay. And if we stay, we need to do what we can to get the most out of the experience. There is more to that than tip-toeing around the god talk and swallowing everything else pretty much as is.

The prospects for the atheist alcoholic shouldn’t be just having to endure the religiosity in order to have access to a few coveted crumbs under the table; we should be able to get what we need to thrive. Fully benefiting from what AA has to offer entails more than silently sitting in the back row.

Actually being a part of AA includes having a strategy for sharing our own “experience, strength, and hope” in meetings, even when the topic is about God. It is not particularly productive to just angrily challenge what is being said by others in the meeting, but there is more to sobriety than just learning how to fit in.

We need to creatively intersect with AA in such a way as to break down obstacles, thereby enhancing the recovery experience for everyone. We can be shining examples of what it is like to be accepting, encouraging, and supportive of anyone who is looking for the solution to the problem of alcoholism irrespective of what they believe or don’t believe.

But if there is no god, how do we account for AA’s success?

That can either be a troubling question or an invitation to enlarge and deepen our understanding of the recovery process. If we can satisfactorily answer the question, we are free to relate to AA on our own terms. And when we are told point blank by AA members that if we don’t find a higher power, we will eventually get drunk, we can just graciously decline their offer to help us with that. We can maintain a position of strength and security, refusing to be marginalized. We can see what they are saying for what it is, an opinion.

Attributing successful sobriety to God conveys the idea that getting God is a turnkey way to get sober. There are two obvious problems with that. First, there is the troubling theological question regarding what kind of loving god would choose to strike some people sober and not others. And second, it underplays the role that the individual alcoholic plays in her own recovery. Whether or not someone believes in God, they still face the same pragmatic challenges associated with cobbling together the day-to-day particulars of a sober lifestyle.

The fact is that AA is often ineffective even with those who firmly believe in a traditional god. This is largely due to how much mystification ordinarily comes with AA’s message. In particular, AA’s Twelve Steps place much of the recovery process in a black box, or if you will, a sort of an imaginary “God box.” The really hard stuff (i.e., my unruly will, my unmanageable life, the dilemma of my powerlessness, my need to be restored to sanity, and my stubborn character defects) is just “turned over.”

If many in AA get good results from turning things over to their god, it is because, first, surrender can break the vicious cycle that occurs when our own ideas about correcting a bad situation are only making things worse, and second, letting go of what hasn’t been working gives other possibilities a chance. Ultimately though, even believers need a more precise understanding of the solution than “Let go and let God.”

AA as a whole can benefit from greater clarity regarding down-to-earth strategies. For many, belief in God is a catalyst in a process that makes sobriety possible, but the process itself is all about tapping into “human power.”

Viewing AA’s solution as “God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves” is reminiscent of the old folk story about stone soup.  In that story, gullible villagers are tricked into providing all the ingredients for a big pot of soup by a stranger with a special stone that, he claims, can magically produce extraordinary soup.

Unfortunately, the story ends before some obvious questions are answered. Was there a “Wizard of Oz” moment when everybody realized that the stone possessed no special powers after all? Did it occur to anyone to ask the stranger for the recipe? Did those who enjoyed the soup learn anything about how generosity and social cooperation can produce a rising tide that lifts all boats?

For many in AA, belief in God orchestrates a process that makes sobriety possible, but the abc’s from “How It Works” notwithstanding, all the ingredients are contributed by ordinary mortals. Explanations do not have to rely on anything magical or supernatural. All the resources necessary for sobriety are already in the possession of average human beings. With a simple recipe that brings inspiration, commitment, skill, and coordination into the equation, the results can seem miraculous.

Atheists and agnostics can model what it is like to talk about the solution without taking the shortcut that relying on a higher power can represent. This considerably improves the signal-to-noise ratio, and it shifts the center of gravity to a solution that can work for anyone.

The salient fact is that AA’s most significant assets are not inherently religious – in-depth identification, community, a last resort basis for hope, practical wisdom about addiction, and sometimes just having something to do that doesn’t involve using alcohol or other drugs.

Atheists can push the envelope by going beyond debating religion and beyond the intellectual dimension in general. We can simply endeavor to provide recovery resources to alcoholics that will enable them to live lives of integrity, achieve a sense of wellbeing, and maintain a sober lifestyle that is in accord with their own values. Many of us know the despair that can accompany having to make a choice between pretending to fit in and being ostracized by the people around us.

At the end of the day, we are simply recovering alcoholics. We’re in AA for the same reason that anyone becomes a member of AA. We simply want to be able to stay sober.

Ideally, a time will come when nonbelievers are not a subgroup that is begrudgingly tolerated, but instead epitomize a new definition of mainstream AA, an AA that is more concerned about being truly effective than about preserving AA orthodoxy.

The best way to hasten that future is to carve out for ourselves a reasonably comfortable niche where we are not “over against” but are instead “together with”, where we can confidently embrace the role of gracious hosts operating on our own home turf and become a prototype for welcoming not only those like us, but also to those who are radically different.

Actions speak louder than words. Some or all of the following might be helpful:

  • Use humor, especially self-deprecating humor, to put people at ease.
  • Share a positive message of recovery that even religious believers can relate to.
  • Share your own experience, strength, and hope in a way that invites an empathic understanding of how atheists and agnostics experience AA.
  • Build relationships with other members of the group, focusing on similarities and responding to differences graciously.
  • Establish strong interpersonal boundaries. (Don’t argue when being accosted, but do push back or just walk away. We are standing on solid ground when we insist on being respected not only as equal participants, but also as contributors.)
  • Don’t read silence as disapproval or distancing. (They may just not know how to respond to what they don’t understand.)
  • Always assume that there is someone in the meeting who needs to hear that they are not the only one who feels the way they do.
  • Reach out to individual newcomers (or anyone who is struggling) after meetings, taking care to avoid ambushing them with an agenda, but instead assuring them that, however different they might feel, they are not alone.
  • Introduce topics like “Live and let live” and topics from the Traditions like the necessity of keeping the focus on a solution that includes everyone who has a desire to stop drinking and the importance of staying away from outside issues and affiliations.
  • Participate in the group conscience (and don’t just focus on your pet issues).
  • Look for opportunities to do service work.
  • Prove the detractors wrong not only by staying sober, but also by embodying an attractive version of recovery.

Our attitude can turn the tables on the advocates of a religious approach. The message we have to carry represents a better understanding of AA’s core principles and a more robust solution than what is commonly espoused by AA members. It is a more realistic and straightforward accounting of AA’s success than “God doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”

JHG attributes his having become less rather than more religious during sobriety to AA’s spirit of theological experimentation. He was a Methodist minister when he got sober but, through an honest assessment of his actual experience, reached a point where he could no longer support the belief that his sobriety depends on higher power. He is currently working on a book for nonbelievers in AA and is seeking collaborators in the project. Visit his website AA Nonbelievers for more information.

29 Responses

  1. Thomas B. says:

    What an incredibly powerful grand-slammer, or last second interception at your own goal-line that wins the Superbowl . . . 😉

    Thanks so much JHG — you most adroitly express where much of my thought and experiences living secular recovery the past several years have evolved. This article should be read by all of us who want to stay in AA, not in anger or fear of believers, but in cooperation with them to achieve our common primary purpose, whether believers or nonbelievers, “to stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety.”

    Just yesterday at a regular traditional meeting packed with urbane, some weird even, Portlanders, a good number of whom are ardent believers, I made a comment about why I keep coming back to meetings in my 43rd year of recovery through “the grace of AA,” because from the very beginning I have experienced H O P E — Hearing Other People’s Experiences. That’s what has kept me coming back all these years, and I accept I need AA as much today as ever I did when I started coming in 1972.

    I also believe deeply in living up to the principle of our Responsibility Declaration and want to be an example to others, especially newcomers, that one can get and stay sober, thus living a successful recovery without belief in any god/goddess of any religion.

    • JHG says:

      The best way to communicate a message that is deeper than the god talk is to reach out to those who are radically different from us and form a bond that is stronger than the fear and the enmity that would divide us. Personal recovery depends on unity. And that unity is grounded in agreement on one thing, the importance of carrying the message to the still suffering alcoholic, a message that is necessarily deeper than our differences. Relationships don’t begin with understanding; they lead to understanding.

      • Joe C says:

        Relationships don’t begin with understanding; they lead to it. I hope I remember you when I next repeat it. Damn that’s good wordin’. Thomas, JHG, the rest of you I am “in a relationship with,” I feel that I leave here a better man.

  2. Rich H says:

    I strongly agree with JHG. I want to have a non-confrontative, loving relationship with the rest of AA, as much as possible anyway. I heard early on that the most spiritual thing an AA can do is help another alcoholic. I have over a dozen sponsees, half male, half female and I constantly put my hand out to newcomers and those struggling. Not tooting my own horn here; just living a life where no one can criticize my commitment to sobriety within the program of AA. Its kept me sober for a long time now and I am a proud atheist.

  3. life-j says:

    Thanks JHG, a great article, and I’m working thru your blog too.

  4. John S says:

    I like this article and I largely agree with JHG. I’m taking a break from traditional meetings for a while. We have enough WAAFT meetings in the Greater Kansas City area that I don’t need to attend other meetings if I don’t want to.

    This is by no means permanent, I plan on participating fully within the fellowship, but I’m a little worn out from dancing around the religion in AA for now. Before reaching this God burnout stage that I’m in, I was going to a lot of traditional meetings. My practice would be to share about what I believe, not what I don’t believe. Most of the meetings I attend are discussion meetings based on AA literature. In the past I would interpret the reading in a way meaningful to me and then carefully share in such a way that I don’t appear controversial, but this practice has me worn out.

    The truth is that I love AA and I feel real compassion for my fellow alcoholic regardless of what they believe and I hate being in a position of having to disagree or to be different. This is why I need a break. I want to experience AA without the outside issue of religion. I don’t want to feel the pressure of having to decide if I will join them in prayer or not. That’s what has me burned out at the moment, though I recognize this is only temporary.

    Sorry for the negativity. Normally this is exactly up my alley to be more tolerant and gentle towards my religious friends in AA. Maybe it’s the crappy sub zero weather here today.

    Thanks for the article. You all knock it out of the park all the time. This is my favorite recovery website.

  5. Joe C. says:

    “Actually being a part of AA includes having a strategy for sharing our own ‘experience, strength, and hope’ in meetings, even when the topic is about God.”

    Great essay and the comments here are just as good. All your “together with” points are sound and this statement above resonated with me. I get complacent about going to mainstream meetings. I understand why so many don’t. But as great as our growing WAAFT groups is, we need to be part of the larger conversation, too.

    Where I fall short on getting out to my old ritual of meetings, I am at least active in service. CERAASA (Canadian Eastern Regional AA Service Assembly) is February 20 to 22nd in Mississauga (suburb of Toronto). I see a 9:15 Saturday panel called, “AA Diversity – Our spirit of inclusivity” and some of us in the region ought to be there. In a city with a history of bigotry, I hope this isn’t a lets-pat-ourselves-on-the-back indulgence of self-congratulatory euphoria.

    But as you also say, JHG, we ought to get involved in all the issues, not just our pet-peeves. Thanks JHG, from JHC.

    • Dianne P. says:

      Nice “attraction” (guilt?) rather than “promotion”, Joe. John and I will be there.

  6. Gerry R. says:

    Very nicely done and long needed! Thanks for the helpful essay!

    Just as one can “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” our crowd sometimes initiates or exacerbates our separation from “mainstream A.A.” by appearing to attack (however well-intentioned) the deeply held theological and religious beliefs of the majority. I’ve come to believe that does more harm than good. At most A.A. meetings I try to keep my “alternative A.A.” comments rather short and non-combative, such as:

    I love A.A. It saved my life. And for any newcomers who, like many of us, don’t share a belief in the traditional notion of God, please rest assured that A.A. works just fine for all of us. When I was new they suggested that I just put another ‘o’ in the word. Working to continually turn my life over to goodness and love has kept me happily sober for over 26 years. And part of that dedication means I work at respecting other members’ theological views even when I don’t share them. I wish we all did.

    At WAFT meetings or in informal conversations I can be more thoroughly candid about my views. Among other thoughts, this entails pointing out that in the mid-1800s a group called the Washingtonians was even more successful in overcoming alcoholism in the relatively short ten or so years they existed than A.A. was in a comparable period of time, and they weren’t at all based on any religious “higher power” concept. Rather it was just people working closely together toward a common goal, meeting, discussing, helping and supporting each other in staying sober and leading happy and constructive lives.

    The Big Book says they wrote the book to “show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered.” But that’s not completely accurate. Bill W. didn’t create the twelve steps (which were based on the six processes of the Oxford Group) until he was already writing the book in 1938. Between 1935 and 1938 although Akron A.A. remained an religious-based Oxford Group, New York members’ later reminiscences of what they really did ran something more like this: “We admitted alcohol had us licked. We got honest with ourselves. We got thoroughly honest with another person, in confidence. We made amends for all harms we caused others. We worked with other alcoholics. And we prayed to whatever God we believed in to help us with all this.” (See, e.g., A Fragment of History” by Bill W., July 1953 Grapevine.) Those six “steps” seem a pretty far cry from the much more God-based version of 1939.

  7. kevin b says:

    Had one of those funny moments at a meeting yesterday.

    One of the commenters said that among the people that he sponsored, it was always the “intellectual” types that didn’t get the spiritual or the god stuff and would fall off.

    I didn’t even go there with all of the people who do believe in the god stuff and fall off; I simply said that I was one of the intellectual types that he was describing and I’ve stayed sober (at least this time around). and I further stated why I’ve stayed sober (The Group and some Step work).

    I wasn’t nasty about it or anything. But I do think that if there was someone newer than myself who was in the rooms and not accepting of the god stuff, they really needed to hear that.

  8. Fred B. says:

    This post by JHG is a most profound share of both how we understand and accept AA w/o god. I almost deleted it but by reading it and the two previous posts this day will instead be one of the most spectacular days of my life (78 yrs). Last August, I turned forty years of getting and staying sober in AA. I would like so much to be able to be instrumental in starting an atheist and agnostic group here in Panama City Beach, Florida. Thanks. Fred.

    • Tommy H says:

      I thought I was the old fart on the list, having turned 75 last fall, Fred.

      • pat n. says:

        I was born the year Bill W. got sober – 1934. My parents had already gotten sober – without the 12 Steps!

        Age is a number, old is an attitude. But I do wonder when the wisdom is going to kick in.

  9. Tommy H says:

    “Atheists and agnostics can model what it is like to talk about the solution without taking the shortcut that relying on a higher power can represent. This considerably improves the signal-to-noise ratio, and it shifts the center of gravity to a solution that can work for anyone.”


    I tell people I’ve managed to stay sober for the better part of three decades with a higher power that isn’t supernatural. Since that is my experience, there is not much they can say.


    • Adam N says:

      The above quoted paragraph was the part I liked best, too. This whole essay is great stuff, JHG. Thanks for putting such insight into words. Really excellently articulated what I try and get to, the walking of the fine line, mutual respect, maximally being of service to others like ourselves, being a good example of godless sobriety, and keeping the focus on the core operative principles rather than mythology. Thanks!

  10. Darris says:

    Thanks, JHG, for the great post. After attending some Free Thinkers meetings for a while after being in AA for a number of years (and disliking the very premise of the PROGRAM “powerless, god, steps, sponsor”, etc.), I realized that I was basically just over the whole thing. I finally grew tired of telling myself that I needed a lifetime of any type of meeting to remain sober. That was a “lie” that was pounded into my head by being part of the traditional AA in the first place. I did so much research and realized that most people will just grow out of their addictions by the age of 45. Others just quit and are not the “dry drunks” smug AAers make them out to be. At age 50 now, I had a moment (and I won’t say “Moment of Clarity” because that phrase makes me cringe) whereby I was simply just done with making my life about discussing alcohol. The first many years were about drinking it and the next many years were talking about and listening to others discuss not using or using alcohol. I imagine what it would have been like if Bill and Bob had just organized a support group without any type of disease or religiosity that allowed people to initially learn skills and then go off and live their lives. They could come back and check in if they chose to do so, but the support group was not set up like “Hotel California” – You check in with a drinking problem, and you never leave without first deprogramming a head full of mostly lies and pernicious garbage from non thinkers. Friends and family have stated that I seem so much better and happier now that I am no longer in any program of any sort. I just don’t drink. Period. Darris.

    • Fred B. says:

      Thanks Darris. You just described my story. Have a great day. Fred.

    • John H. says:

      This is a great article with a number of practical thoughts about the way things really work long term in AA. I commend Darris on the happy exit from meetings and apparent success in doing so but in my 28+ years of observing folks in meetings (both secular and conventional) I have found, more often than not, that people who report “slips” most often begin their story upon their return with “And then I stopped going to meetings….”. Call me a “superstitious” Atheist but I have never felt like trying this out and don’t feel that my personal circumstances would be enhanced by a program exit. I have known several people with 30 years or more who “retired” from meetings and stayed sober but many more who’s stories were not so successful. Anyway, I’m “stuck” with so many good AA friends of various philosophical bents that I don’t want to lose those connections. Just a personal view despite the fact that I could happily live several more lifetimes without hearing about how someone “needs” to get on his or her knees morning and night and all the “good orderly direction” they get from their sponsor!

      • Andy T. says:

        I have the same observations of those who go back out after long term sobriety – stopped going to meetings. I have stopped meetings twice in my sobriety and both times ran my life into the ground operating on self will. I do believe many non-alcoholics come to AA and believe they are alcoholics due to ignorance in statements like, “nobody gets here by mistake”. But then when those people stop meetings or don’t work steps and are still sober, they never consider that they may have had the power to quit on their own all along.

        • John H. says:

          Agreed… But just to be clear I have been in AA and NEVER worked the so called “steps” except for 1,10 and 50% of 12 and have never had a problem with happy long term sobriety… I never say I’m “good” just lucky!

      • Lon Mc. says:

        I think that “and then I stopped going to meetings” and the “slip” often are a package deal which go hand in hand without one necessarily causing the other. If anything, the “slip,” at least mentally, may well antedate walking away from the meetings. I also think that a solid sobriety with deep conviction is resistant to slips whether one continues to go to meetings or not.

        • John H. says:

          For a period of four years living in Moscow between 2005-2009 I had no meetings and did not have a problem staying sober under some fairly extreme circumstances in a place where the near pathological abuse of alcohol is the rule. I know that it’s possible to stay sober without meetings. It’s just that for “this” alcoholic my life is more comfortable with rather than without them and I am increasingly (particularly after that great experience in Santa Monica last November) determined to give something back to a Fellowship that has given me so much despite its many defects and irrational founding documents and structures. In that I don’t know, with any degree of certainty, the effect of stopping meetings on another member and the disasters I have seen in the lives of people who have done so it’s not something I could suggest to anyone though I absolutely refuse to dispute the reports of others who say this has done them no harm.

    • life-j says:

      I often think of AA’s history in the context of society as a whole. I think in many ways the rockefeller dinner was the crucial point. If AA had been radical in any real sense of the word, rockefeller would have squashed it like a bug, and yes he could have, let’s have no illusions about that, instead, since it was a religious program, and non-denominational at that, he would have concluded that it would never pose any sort of threat to the world order he stood for, quite to the contrary, most people of the day that got sober in AA wound up being the kind of folks he really liked, and wanted more of. Thus his support, if only moral, not pecunial, to any great extent, anyway. And thus it has been ever since. Being apolitical isn’t only what has allowed us to get along, but also has allowed us to not wander down the road where we would get infiltrated and all that stuff we would have been subject to if we had made it a big part of our program that it is all the ills of capitalist society that are causing all the alcoholism. Thus all the mysticism in the program has caused it’s very survival, and will also contribute to keeping it on the straight and narrow, and defend its survival on those grounds.

      • Thomas B. says:

        A most perceptive point, life. Indeed, Rockefeller would have “squashed AA like a bug” had it deviated too radically from his liberal, but nevertheless, Christian views. Thanks.

  11. Wally K. says:

    Here is another fine article on using the AA Program and on being a valuable member/participant! Of course, part of my praise is vanity – JHG closely nailed my interpretation of AA and the program. I am speaking at a local rehab in a couple of days and so the article is doubly valuable, assisting my pre-talk introspection and preparation.

    Here in western Idaho, lots of newcomers are secular. Some are non-believers, and some simply want to work secular steps and leave the more highly viscous aspects of “religious” AA alone. These newcomers are not all young, but they tend to be educated, well read, bright enthusiastic professionals, and often still students. Our group’s message is very positive and tolerant. We avoid bashing the fundamentalist Big Book thumpers. We value the manner in which the Twelve Steps work as a recovery “machine” and how they can be interpreted to increase their effectiveness for all types of users.

    I do see strong evidence that by the 1960s, if not before, Bill Wilson saw this aspect of the program. If he could have caused a revision to the Big Book and 12 X 12, we may not be so concerned about the inane fundamentalist infestation that is parasitic to the vigor that is otherwise attainable for our program. Our key literature is overtly dated, addressing the Christian, white, heterosexual, male, low bottom alcoholic to the near exclusion of all others. The second half of the Big Book really does not fix this issue. Becoming more obvious today is the Big Book’s lack of understanding of the complexity of our compulsion that is familiar to today’s recovery professionals and informed laypersons. Obvious too is its childish attempt to give a nod to science and reasoned thought, or to reflect on other applicable aspects of human progress during the past 80 years. Can we say “obsolete” or perhaps “time-worn”?

  12. Lisa McInnis says:

    Reading articles like yours reminds me to sloooow down, reread, and think a bit more. I’ve only recently signed on here at AA Agnostica but am filling up quickly with much “higher-power or not” reviews. And I get it, god no god is a huge neon sign over the rooms for me.
    Your article explored options of thought. Conscious and deliberate. Thanks for the reminder of all the good stuff. Lisa

  13. Jack S. says:

    I agree with you on this. I have not been going to meetings because I am fed up with the god thing and after 14 years sober – I would rather spend my time doing other stuff. I live in a small town so there is only one group here.
    I feel that the fundamentalist AA people – who believe the big book was “divinely inspired” and not ONE word of it should ever be channged to keep up with the modern world – are killing AA. Don’t see many young people (except the court-ordered) anymore. AA now has a reputation of being a Christian group. I would think so as well if I were new – as most meetings are in churches… with all the Jesus stuff up on the walls.
    AA is not the only way to get and stay sober but the old-timers say so. I feel just fine not going to meetings. Liberating really.

    • Sam M says:

      Jack, I fully get your frustration with the god-talk in meetings – as most on this website must surely do. But I can only imagine the feelings you have contending with no meeting options & the complete absence of variety due to living in a small town. I’m fortunate to have gotten sober in Atlanta & have lived my entire sober life (19y) in big cities (Atlanta, Louisville, San Antonio).

      However, as several have made comments in this thread, and is frequently advised in meetings everywhere, regular attendance at meetings is helpful & valuable for millions of recovered alcoholics, especially those with long-term sobriety.

      Not only for you, but more importantly for the considerable number of people you could be of service to, sharing your success in AA is for many a vital aspect maintaining the serenity, healthy perspective and other benefits sobriety brings us. AA sustainability and growth as an organization is dependent on sharing of the personal experience like yours.

      If nothing else, stay connected to AA online. But I encourage you to take a stand for other rational, secular minded people in desperate need of recovery. The law of statistics ensures they exist in your region. You may be the only Big Book they ever see!

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