Coming Out Atheist in Conventional AA
By John H.
Washington DC We Agnostics Group
One of the more difficult challenges facing a non-believing member of Alcoholics Anonymous is in how to approach the fact of one’s non-belief in a conventional AA meeting.
In this article I am addressing myself primarily to self-identified Atheists as a lifelong “militant” member of that widely reviled sub-group both within and outside the Fellowship. Some so called “Agnostics” (I can never quite figure that one out in terms of knowing one’s own mind) or even “Buddhists”, “Unitarians” or “Secular Humanists” (whatever that means) may find some useful information in this piece but my primary concern here is with the Atheist.
My own journey in this context began on January 3, 1987 which is my sobriety date. Like many who first enter the rooms of AA, I was truly desperate and at the “end of my rope” having reached the final stages of 23 years of drinking with few emotional resources remaining and on the verge of suicide.
A still mysterious impulse toward self-preservation propelled me to seek out my first meeting in downtown Washington and I was very lucky to encounter a few old friends and acquaintances who had made it to the “rooms” before me. The universal opinion seemed to be something like, “What took you such a long time to get here?” and from the very first it was obvious that on the most fundamental level I was “in the right place”. I was fortunate in immediately realizing that it was necessary for me to make an iron clad decision about my drinking (First Step/Stop) based on my total loss of control at the end of my active alcoholic adventures. Additionally, I saw that AA was a daily program (One Day at a Time) and that I need to show up (Regular Meetings) and share. It also quickly became obvious that helping another alcoholic was a cornerstone of what AA was all about.
These simple structures were easy to understand for the shaky newcomer I was in those days and the tenor of my first few meetings was so liberal due to the downtown DC demographics that I never got the impression that AA was a “cult” or otherwise affiliated with the religious institutions in which most meetings seemed to take place.
It wasn’t long after the fog began to lift that my first “pink cloud” descended and an overwhelming relief that I wasn’t dead was combined with a sense of profound gratitude toward AA. I actually thought something very much like “These people are so good. How could they ever be wrong?”
Imagine my shock when I began to understand what comments like “Don’t worry you’ll get it”, “Fake it till you make it”, “Everything is the way it’s supposed to be”, and the all-purpose, “I prayed about it” actually meant. I went regularly to a meeting on Sundays where “How it Works” was read before every meeting and finally, in depth, listened to the words as well as the ritual unanimous (except for me) chanting of the last line, “That God could and would if He were sought”. Fortunately for me I sometimes was able to deal with this by re-titling this passage in my mind as “Not Necessarily How it Works”.
What an order! I just could not go through with it. Ridiculous, condescending, foolish, ignorant of all fact and evidence to the contrary. I was in despair. The pink cloud evaporated.
Eighteen months in I was truly on my way out the doors of AA and I am in the eternal debt of my dear late friends Maxine B. and Tom J. who founded our DC “We Agnostics” group in September of 1988. I was at the very first meeting of the group and have been in attendance (except for periods overseas) ever since. It saved me from “How it Works”, the “Chapter to the Agnostic” and, most of all, (except for Step One, Step Ten, and 50% of Step Twelve) the fundamentalist Oxford Group pabulum of the rest of the “Holy Twelve”.
A matter of great debate at the inception of our DC group involved the inclusion of the word “Atheist” in the group name. At that time it was the group conscience that the word “Atheist” was a lightning rod of controversy that we needed to avoid. I believe that the time for such caution is now at an end.
Unlike some in Atheist/Agnostic AA I have always found it useful to stay connected with my conventional noon meeting in DC where I have a 28+ year history and have developed close friendships over the years. I’ve also had (to one degree or another) the privilege of working with a number of my fellow alcoholics there.
Early on, after the founding of the DC Sunday We Agnostics group, I made a decision to become vocal regarding my atheism when appropriate at my conventional noon meeting. By vocal I mean that whenever I hear something that sounds at all definitive or dispositive regarding prayer and meditation, vague notions of “spiritual experiences”, the third and eleventh step or, worst of all, the egregious story in the Big Book regarding acceptance known as “Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict” where “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake”. I raise my hand, identify myself as an atheist with long term sobriety and point out (calmly mostly but sometimes not when thinking about the passage above) variations of the following:
- That there are a number of AA members (though a distinct minority) who don’t have any concept of a conventional god or “higher power”, don’t resort to prayer and still happily maintain productive and sober lives.
- That there is no single way to “get” the “program”.
- That the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.
- That the steps and “Big Book” are filled with suggestions only and the only thing I have personally encountered that seems irreducible and essential is doing something very much like step one in order to gain access to a decision about your drinking.
- That AA is not the sex police, moral arbiter, central repository of any of the virtues or the evaluator of others behavior that some of our more devout brethren seem to imply it might be when talking about their holy steps and the revealed wisdom from the so called “Big Book”.
I love AA as anyone might who believes, as I do, that the DC groups saved my life, but am totally at odds with the adherence to lists of twelve step rules hanging on the wall and the obsession with “defects of character” that bedevil so many new (and even older) members and are used as a wedge by hard core believers to extract some sort of (mostly gentle) compliance with a “party line”. I just won’t have it and tell them so.
The underlying reason for this activity is not for ego gratification (though I possess a Wilson size ego) or to just hear the beautiful sound of my own voice. I have found, on many occasions, people who approach me after a meeting and tell me how much I helped them with my comments, that they feel the same way but couldn’t, for some reason, express it for themselves.
There are many new members who feel “lost” in the rooms of AA because they think they are being asked to subscribe to ideas and states of mind that just aren’t compatible with theirs. I always assure them that this is not the case and that there is a place for them in AA no matter what. I tell them, in essence, that it’s OK to disagree.
I also tell them that AA is what it is and that we are unlikely to change the underlying tenets of the program in any kind of fundamental way. I have a strong personal belief that the Fellowship at large will NEVER change either the Big Book or Twelve Steps to my liking. It’s up to me to adapt and function within this context and always call the reality of the situation the way I see it.
After all most of us are in America where (according to the latest Pew Research poll) atheists make up only 1.6% of the population, agnostics come in at 2.4% and “nothing in particular” is at 12.1%. The rest claim some sort of religious affiliation.
In a 2006 University of Minnesota Study reported on by the American Sociological Association, researchers found that despite an increasing acceptance of religious diversity, atheists were generally distrusted by other Americans, who trusted them less than Muslims, recent immigrants and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society”. They also associated atheists with undesirable attributes such as criminal behavior, rampant materialism, and cultural elitism.
In an environment such as this an atheist in AA is a minority within a minority who needs to learn a lesson from other movements and ongoing struggles such as the Civil Rights and Antiwar movements of the 60s, the Women’s Movement of the 70s and the Gay Rights struggles that arose from the Aids Epidemic of the 80s and 90s.
We need to say what we mean, mean what we say and stand up and be counted for our own preservation while remaining respectful and productive members of a lifesaving fellowship who’s real first principles, (don’t drink, go to meetings, help another alcoholic, love, service) really ARE above reproach.
However, I don’t go to the weekly step meeting of my conventional home group each Wednesday in that it would turn into an unproductive exercise for everyone concerned. I never look for a fight in AA unless the struggle comes to me which indeed it does when I encounter members who seem to imply that there is really only one “spiritual” program and that all variations inevitably lead to drunkenness and death. God being somehow linked with the “lash of alcohol.” Pure fantasy.
At the end of conventional meetings I sometimes hear the refrain of (before the serenity prayer) “Who brought us here today?” The answer is supposed to be “God”.
I feel a responsibility to my fellow atheists and other non-believers to clearly say (with a raised voice if necessary) that the answer definitely does not need to be God.
AA is too fine a Fellowship to be abandoned. I have developed rich friendships with AA people I disagree with about virtually everything but those first principles of love and service. I would never have had these opportunities if I had not stood up. I’m positive that I would have felt defeated and left AA despite the great risk that would involve. In short, AA is worth the struggle and I won’t live in fear.
Instead of ostracism and separation I have found over the years a great deal of (sometimes grudging but mostly genuine) respect while having been of some service to people who may have otherwise been driven away by some of the tenets of the program.
In some AA circles in DC I am referred to as “Godless John”. This is done mostly with good humor and even some affection on occasion. The bottom line here is that I would far rather be known as “Godless John” than “Idiot John”!
John H is one of the founding members of the We Agnostics group in Washington, DC that has been meeting continuously for over 26 years. You can read a brief history of the group here: Washington DC We Agnostics Group History. As a sales and government relations consultant, John has travelled to over 80 countries in his sobriety and has never found it necessary to drink in any of them including Russia where he lived and worked for over four years.
The WAAFT convention in Santa Monica in November of last year awakened a desire in John to more vigorously try to give something back to the Fellowship and this article is a small step in that direction.