Coming Out Atheist in Conventional AA

Closet Door

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:

  1. 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.
  2. That there is no single way to “get” the “program”.
  3. That the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

64 Responses

  1. Alison says:

    Hello in America

    I am an alcoholic. I never felt weird going to AA the first time and still do not. I went there in May sober and not feeling that I was a bad person but that I had an addiction. I felt comfortable and did not judge. I am still drinking and after an episode I asked someone to be my sponsor so I have started step 1. Luckily my sponsor does not follow the “big book”. How do I do the rest of the steps if I am an atheist? At present I am going to a few different meetings in Europe. The only person who has said she was an atheist has now told me she believes in fate! What do you do about the other steps? Would really appreciate some advice as I feel at present that everybody who I have heard share says it was God who saved them. Most of them appear to have not been nice people prior to drink or during there drinking years. I am just shitty when in drink because I have this addiction. I like going to the meetings and listening but can they just not see that is was not God who helped them but the people in the rooms who understood them and still talked to them after they talked about their drinking story years. It is not putting me off going but I may upset people if I say certain things. Any tips?! I have looked up here in UK and no non-godly meetings to go to as well as the traditional. I respect and feel how well you fellers have done.


    • John H. says:

      Hello Ali..

      You can find the UK AAAA meetings (there are a number of them) listed here:

      As to the steps the only ones I personally pay any regard to at all are the ones I allude to in the article (1, 10 & 50% of 12) the rest I leave alone. That’s just me though and others (even some professed atheists like myself) have other takes on this matter. It’s a personal decision in the end. Some even re-write (or buy non-AA books that re-write) steps to more readily suit themselves. I don’t do any of that but, then again, that’s what works for me but might not be what others need.

      You have it right about fellowship and meetings though. If you keep on that path (and, most critically, stay away from that first drink) you should be just fine no matter what anyone has to say (myself included) about those steps that seem to be of such concern (mysteriously so to this alcoholic) to so many.

      Best of luck to you over there.

  2. Reed b says:

    Your article is exactly what I needed to read right now. I am young, around 23, and I have been sober in the program before when I was younger, around 19, and I didn’t have enough self reliance to admit to myself that I don’t believe in a traditional god, even so, I was able to put together close to 2 years sober. But now that I am older, I don’t think I have the capacity to ‘lie’ to myself anymore regarding my beliefs in the what is perceived by many as divine.

    I am now newly sober, and I am very committed to continuing my sobriety… if I did it once, I sure as hell can do it again. But my problem is… I live in Franklin tn, just south of Nashville. It is as religious as it gets. In the past week, I have been to many meetings, and every single one, the members quoted the bible, referenced that the big book came directly from the bible, said Jesus was their only savior and it goes on. Luckily, I have one meeting, a big book study, which is basically just an open discussion, where they refrain from referring to religion. It got bad enough at the very first meeting I went to since getting back into the rooms that I left, just to avoid standing up and saying “you are lucky I have been in the program before, because if I hadn’t, I would never come to another meeting again because every single person that shares can’t refrain from praising your sobriety towards the big JC”. In hindsight, I wish I would have said something, because they could have very easily made an alcoholic never come back, ever.

    I say all that to ask this… What is the best way to connect with other like-minded people in the program, and potentially starting my own secular meeting?

    Sorry if that was wordy, but your efforts in your community is more than commendable… now you just need to move to Nashville.

    • Roger says:

      I’m sure John will respond as well, Reed, but one of the things you should do is click on the image below (also on the homepage of AA Agnostica) and complete the form “An Agnostic Group in My Community”. If there are others in Nashville looking for such a meeting, now or in the future, you will be connected with them. Best of luck!

      Agnostic Groups

      • John H. says:

        Good Morning Reed…
        Tennessee is tough ground for us but if you wanted a higher probability of success in finding like minded members being close to Nashville just might help. I would think that the climate around one of the Universities (Vanderbilt and the great Hospital there comes to mind) might prove to be useful. The closer you get to education the nearer you are to atheism. What about meetings in proximity to one of those more liberal communities? Have you checked some out up there? Rogers suggestion is great as well and you also might want to take a look at the wAAft site in CA and post something on their board. As a committed atheist I’m very lucky in that I’m old, crusty and live in a major East Coast center but rest assured that I regularly encounter some of the attitudes you confront down there and have had to make my own accommodations here (taking a deep breath helps) in order to stay centered in the program. My sobriety is more important than their comfort level (I’ve always stood firm about that) but facing a room full of bible belt Christians is something I haven’t had to do recently. Your courage inspires me and while you are unlikely to see me in the front row at Opreyland any time soon I (and thousands of others just like you) are right beside you in our fervent hope that you will stay the course despite those fairly extreme circumstances you describe. You are on the “front lines” and stepping up like you have at your age is truly remarkable. Don’t drink, go to meetings and stay true to yourself my friend.

  3. Pamela says:

    Same story… however, as a woman and a freethinker, I had to quit traditional meetings. It became too dangerous. 31 years of sobriety was too threatening to the California inland empire bible belt. We started a freethinking meeting over a year ago and it has been wonderful. Thanks for your article.

    • John H. says:

      Good luck with your meeting Pamela… Those CA “bible belt” people will be poorer from your absence. Sorry to hear of your discomfort out there but it sounds like you devised a solution that works for you.

  4. John F. says:

    John, many similarities in our stories. I am an atheist in AA and try to balance my philosophy of life with the god-centered AA approach. I do not want to go to meetings to argue. That would not help me or anyone else. But in the Akron/Cleveland area I saw a very religious attitude by some members that was simply Christianity. More and more I heard about Jesus at meetings, how we could not sober up without god, god (not AA) keeps me sober. The Lord’s Prayer became a ritual of a circle , hand holding, and answering that question ‘ who keeps us sober’ before affirming Our Father…. There is a total lack of concern for the new person’s confusion on spirituality. Never mind a lack of concern for anyone whose spirituality and beliefs are not founded in Christianity.

    I opened up as an atheist simply because I felt it would be good for AA. It would be good for the new person to realize there really are alternatives to a belief in god or any need to believe as others do on the subject. I tell the new person to focus on don’t take the first drink/drug, go to meetings, and talk to AA members. We have been in your shoes. We all started there, even if some religious AA’s have forgotten that they were new once.

    One by-product of being open about my concern for religion in AA is the support I get from many believers. They to have the common sense to see hitting new people with dogma chases people away. I think my speaking out has helped others to focus on telling new-comers they can and will develop their own spiritual approach in recovery. Which is what AA should be saying.

    • John H. says:

      Hello John…This stuff is getting out of hand and needs to be countered by rational, humane approaches such as yours. From what I understand the guy hustling this revivalist, “original” Akron/Oxford Group snake oil in an organized way is someone known as Wally P. at AA Back to Basics. This resurgent fundamentalist movement really is breathtaking in its stupidity and is gaining traction it seems. They really do want to take us back to the “golden” age of the 30’s and 40’s and there is support for this approach out there. Hopefully we will be able to restore some balance before AA as a whole is hijacked by these radicals and pushed back to a past that can only make it look more like “Bible Way Church” than the fine open program I first encountered in 1987. I firmly believe we can be instrumental in defending AA. How paradoxical is that?

      • John F. says:

        I like the term you used, paradoxical. I once wrote a letter to our Akron central office on religion’s growing influence in AA by stating it would be a paradox that in this area, where the seeds of AA were first planted, we may be seeing the seeds of its retreat planted. I think we agree that we owe so much to AA we cannot turn tail and allow the religious to hurt the new person. They are like the religious who want to ignore the Constitution and make this their Christian country, take over local school boards and prove Evolution is ‘ just a theory’.
        About two years ago I help start meeting called We Are Not Saints. No prayers or prayer requests (another bad idea in these parts). We recite the Responsibility Pledge at the end of the meeting. Although started by atheist/agnostics, half the group today are god believers. But we all are able to respect each others ideas on god. The believers don’t preach out of respect and the knowledge there will be pushback if they do. And the atheist/agnostics are not there to complain about religion. The last Sunday of the month is devoted to Steps 2 &3, to help newcomers know there are many paths to sanity and sobriety beyond Creator stories.

    • John H. says:

      You are a more evolved being than I am John. I recoil from Steps 2&3 “as if from a hot flame” and would be confounded by any sort of accommodation with those concepts. But this is a perfect example of how we adapt to local circumstances while keeping the doors of the program open to everyone. There are people amongst us who wish to limit our liberty and would create a theocracy in our Country if given half a chance. Our struggles here in AA are reflective of distress in society at large and I’m determined to fight to keep dogma (theirs OR mine) out of our AA life to the extent that I can. People out there like you fighting the fight give me continued hope.

  5. Andy Mc says:

    Hi John,
    Thank you for taking time to write such a great piece. I really appreciate yours and others valuable contributions through this website to my sobriety and I believe AA in general.
    Andy Mc

  6. Clark B says:

    Great article. I finally made it to AA at 46 years old, having first attended a meeting back in 1989. I did not want to join the “cult” as I saw it until my choice became join or die.

    Fifteen months in now and the “God” problem has become something I think about on a daily basis. Raised Catholic, 12 yrs of parochial schools, altar boy, etc… Having not really been sober for decades, I realized that I truly don’t believe in God, and it is both liberating and confining at the same time. Where I live in NJ it’s old school god driven AA. These meetings around here have been around for a long time, my Tuesday night just celebrated it’s 68th anniversary, so I think a lot of the “rituals” ie, always the Lord’s Prayer to close etc. have to do with the traditions of these groups and old-timers who make up an overly large percentage of the groups.

    I found this website, to my eternal relief.

    I like what you said about steps 1,10 and half of 12. I have a sponsor who I have to break the news to about my, what? I hate these labels, non-belief in a magical being? He’s religious and it’s gotten to the point where I have to tell him, instead of staying silent on the matter as I’ve done so far. I also need to get in to NYC to attend one of the agnostic meetings there. I need AA for the fellowship and have made many friends there doing service and just attending meetings, keeping my beliefs to myself.

    I guess I’ve just been feeling my way around this issue, I couldn’t have predicted it would become such an issue with me, but it has. I would like to thank everyone here, it’s good to know there are others out there dealing with the same issue, and doing it successfully for so many years. I love being sober, and want more than anything to stay this way, so it’s good to know the key lies within me – not some magical being.

    • John H. says:

      Thanks for the kind words Clark… “The key lies within me”… That’s so wonderful! Truth to power that shows both courage and great insight. The great thing about AA is that no one (believer, non-believer, friend, enemy) wants you to get drunk and that core of support on that level is always there no matter what you say in a conventional meeting. As to the rest of it getting to AAAA in NYC occasionally would be a very good idea due to the long established traditions there (going back to the founding days of the fellowship itself) of welcoming both the Atheist/Agnostic and all sorts of other unconventional folks within the Fellowship. The kind of “cookie cutter” “one size fits all” BS you might find in other places is rarer there. Enjoy your trip to the City!

  7. Gordy says:

    Great article! I moved to a new area, and began attending meetings where, when called on, I’d comment on the topic. One time the topic was ‘Higher Power’. I shared that my HP was the group (GOD = Group of Drunks), or the cosmos, or the Big Bang, depending on how much power my higher power needed to help me at the moment. They laughed until I continued by stating that I was an atheist and using those concepts had kept me sober for over 25 years. Sudden silence.

    People are becoming at ease with the atheist among them. It seems to have a lot to do with my behavior, rather than my words. I don’t try converting them, so they don’t try to convert me. Live and let live, but be honest about how I’m living seems to work.

  8. Mark In Texas says:

    John H,

    Thank you very much for your well-written account of your “experience” in AA, and how you go about living true to yourself in your conventional home group.

    I came to about the exact narrative as your four points, an “out-of-the-closet-Atheist” in our Traditional/Conventional AA group in West Texas. Finding that particular narrative that summed up my understanding of things, took about 2.5 years in the rooms. This was before I “knew” there were lots of folks like me out there in AA-Land.

    What I came to back then, was your points 2, 3 and 4. I considered those to be the bedrock of Honesty and Tolerance within the group. Points 2, 3 and 4 remain with me today. I am greatly encouraged by seeing you (one with long term sobriety and experience in AA as an atheist) list these points.

    I spent the first three years in AA under daily attack from various types of “God” believers, BB literalists, and a cluster of AA Taliban. I kept coming back. There was nowhere else to go. Every day was a mixed bag of some positive encouragement from some, and horseshit from those mentioned above.

    I’m glad I stayed around. Today our “conventional” AA group now has three out-of-the-closet atheists, and about five agnostics. The gates have been widened, and “To Thine Own Self Be True” appears to be gaining ground.

    As an aside, our group closes with the “Lord’s Prayer.” Initially, I stood in the circle, held hands with others in an attempt to be a “part of.” I stopped participating in that religious exercise at about 2 months in AA. I did so due to intellectual honesty on the matter. I was the only one to do so at the time, and received a LOT of grief for it initially, but over time (after I developed a narrative about that non-compliance) others began to opt out as well.

    Last Sunday 11:00 AM meeting, there were 22 in attendance. 10 members circled up and prayed the Protestant “Lord’s Prayer,” and 12 members sat it out and continued doing nothing in particular.

    By taking positive, rational actions that are based in what is true about “me,” others, at least some of them, begin to step forward and become more honest about themselves. Odd, how that works out, but it seems to be the case here in my conventional AA group.

    Thanks again for your very encouraging essay! I’m definitely going to be passing this one around!

    Mark C.

    • John H. says:

      Thanks so much Mark…Hanging in there in West Texas! That’s remarkable and proof positive that standing your ground (determined folks out there) can pay enormous dividends both for the AA Atheist and other group members encouraged by a positive, forthright example. I salute you sir!

  9. Chris K. says:

    Thanks so much for this article! As an atheist, I have difficulty relating to my group, to discussion of God, faith, or ‘everything is as it should be’. I’m new to AA, with just over 7 months of sobriety, and I find the fellowship and shared stories in my group to be helpful, so there’s definitely things I get from attending. So reading your article has given me some feeling of peace knowing it’s okay to be a non-believer. Thank you!

    Vancouver Island, Canada

    • John H. says:

      Hi Chris…What a lovely place you live in. I haven’t been there in a while and look forward to getting back there sometime soon. You have some great people around in the Vancouver AAAA groups and I assume you have reached out to them. If not you should do so ASAP. You are definitely OK my friend and are most certainly doing the right things in your focus on fellowship and the centrality of sharing. If you keep going forward you can’t fail.

  10. John L. says:

    John H., thanks for your marvellously cogent article. I especially like your 5-point guidelines for sharing as an atheist in regluar meetings.

    I agree with your statement, “I believe that the time for such caution [not using `atheists’ in the name of a group] is now at an end.” (I also like “freethinkers”, “infidels”, and “rationalists”.) But we are fighting wars on several fronts. In Canada, nonbeliever groups can’t get listed, regardless of their names. In New York and California there is no problem. Here in the Boston area, the Central Service Committee has listed one secular group, but wouldn’t allow “agnostic” to be used in the name. The group is called “As We Understood”, which is pretty much meaningless; unofficially, it is known as the “God Is Dead” group.

    • Mark In Texas says:

      John L,

      Thank you for a word from Boston. I’m interested in hearing the story of why a group could not have “Agnostic” in the name and get listed in the Boston area. Were you involved?

      • John L. says:

        Mark in Texas, No, I wasn’t involved — am just relating what I’ve been told. Very likely a “We Agnostics/Freethinkers/Atheists” group could now get through. Secular AA groups is an idea whose time has come.

        Yesterday I gave a 20-minute talk at a regular AA group in Harvard Square. Being in a good mood, I gave an unabashed atheist-AA rap. No-one got upset, and there was a very spirited discussion afterwards. At least five people identified themselves as nonbelievers.

      • Mark In Texas says:

        Thank you John,

        I wonder if those involved could come aboard here, if they are not already, and describe those events. Like I said, this is an interesting “story.” It is surely part of this long struggle.

  11. Cay says:

    Hi godless John,

    Thanks so much for posting your story. I am an atheist is small town Florida and AA here feels more like a church revival than any kind of recovery. I found the god stuff unbearable and finally got sober on my own outside of AA.

    I battled alcohol addiction depression and PTSD for 30 years and like you there was some part of me that wanted to survive. Sure wish I could have met somebody like you back in the late eighties when I first was trying to get sober.

    I recently went to a couple of conventional meetings. Before the meeting I announced I was an atheist in a polite way and asked if there were any others like me. I was told by the group leader that he was sure there were but it’s not talked about then people avoided me like the plague. I really feel the strong point of AA is the fellowship and plan to start an atheist meeting.

    • John H. says:

      Good luck in a small Florida town Cay. I used to travel around down there for work many years ago, attended some local meetings, and know very well what you are facing. Just keep displaying the courage you so admirably display, don’t drink and keep going to meetings. I wish you well.

  12. Christopher G says:

    “godless Chris”. Thanks John. Like the sound of that. Think I’ll use it for introductions.

  13. John S says:

    I identify personally as an atheist and on the spectrum, I would say that I’m a stong atheist in that I’m very sure there is no God and I live accordingly. However, it has not always been this way for me.

    I was never a churchgoer, never belonged to any particular religion but when I was 25, I found myself in AA and I unwittingly made AA my religion and the Big Book was my bible. Had you asked me if this were the case at the time, I would have answered of course not, AA is a spiritual program not a religious program.

    When I took the third step with my sponsor, we both prayed together on our knees, turning my will over to God and as I sponsored others, after they had thoroughly studied the book and realized the depth of their self-centeredness, we also on our knees prayed together.

    For some 25 years I practiced the AA religion and people accepted me as a fellow member of the cult…. I mean fellowship. i am no longer that person and its been difficult to come out as the new me with the new ideas and attitude. so instead of dealing with that, I helped start a meeting for agnostics and atheists here locally and I now have a home in AA.

    I agree with John H. That it’s important to remain engaged with the greater fellowship and attend traditional meetings. I haven’t been doing that for several weeks and have exclusively been goin to agnostic meetings. I will one day return to my old home group and be honest with how I feel. I’ve been doing that at other levels of AA for example district meetings, but I have yet to do that at my old home group where I have so much history.

    I think it helps that other atheists come out and it’s good that we have our own meetings to support each other, all of that together is giving me the strength to be more true to my beliefs or lack thereof.

  14. Laurie A says:

    There was a sign on a cage at a zoo: ‘This animal is dangerous – if attacked it defends itself.’ I rarely say I’m an agnostic at an AA meeting, except if someone comes on strongly about God (‘You’ll drink and die if you don’t find God’ etc). Like you, John, I think I then have a responsibility to point out that it ain’t necessarily so. Or, if a newcomer sounds confused about the God talk I might share my understanding and experience of practicing the program. I’m a ‘so-called agnostic’ because I don’t know if there is some supernatural power. It seems most unlikely and I agree with Bertrand Russell, ‘There may be a brown earthenware teapot on the far side of the Moon – but the chance is vanishingly small.’ In any case, wrangling over ‘theological abstractions’, as Bill W. called them, is a barren cul de sac. My sponsor says laconically, ‘I think I’m an agnostic but I’m not sure.’ He has an open mind, one of the essentials of recovery according to the Big Book (Appendix 2). ‘Just resign from the debating society … all you need is an open mind.’ (Step Two, 12+12).

  15. bob k says:

    I continue to be both amazed and delighted at the high caliber of writing that appears on this site, week after week. Only a couple of years back, Roger, in clear desperation, used to call me regularly begging for content. “Do you have ANYTHING for Sunday?” has transformed to “I may be able to squeeze you in on the third Wednesday in August.”

    I liked this essay, and I liked it a lot!! One of the great strengths of this website lies in having such a wealth of capable contributors. Today’s effort easily meets that standard.

    I was two decades sober by the time I encountered my first heathen AA meeting, and as a fully out-of-the-closet “REAL” atheist, conventional AA can be a challenge. Over the years, I think I’ve learned some diplomacy in honestly expressing the viability of a no-god approach to recovery, while only rarely going to war with the support group. It is surely unwise for newcomers to spend the bulk of their time in debate. Internal churning severely detracts from a quest for sobriety.

    Today I maintain an active participation in “both” AA’s.

    John’s exceptional essay was especially valuable to me today, as I have spent much of the last two weeks researching, and writing about, some of AA’s religious friends – Sister Ignatia, Fathers Dowling and Pfau (author of the Golden Book series). There is some irony in that these professional God-folk were, on the whole, less dogmatic than the average newly converted and newly consecrated AA fundie!

    Anyway, the characters I’ve been studying are in many ways quite compelling, and I must confess that I was being drawn toward the light. Thanks to John, and his fine essay, I have been snatched back into the darkness where I belong 😉

    bob k

    Please buy “Key Players in AA History” – I’m down to my last case of Kraft Dinner.

    • John H. says:

      Hi Bob…
      I’ve been meaning to write you. Thanks so much for your post!
      You will be happy to know that your dear friends at Amazon dropped a copy of your fine book off to me a week or so ago and it has been the last thing I read at night for some days now. The late Ernie Kurtz did me a great service in early sobriety with “Not God” and you have followed in his footsteps with your finely researched “bite sized” overviews of our rich history. Without context we are in the “void” for sure and the true background of our founders and their influences give us the clarity and wisdom of discernment necessary to base our own beliefs on within the confines of the traditional program. I would highly recommend “Key Players in AA History” to anyone who wants to find out where we came from in order to more rationally chart where we might be going.

  16. Steve says:

    I was seriously thinking that I was destined to fail if I could not get this whole God thing. That if I didn’t “Get It” that I would perhaps last a little while (I have done 2 years on my own before) but that I would eventually fail.

    I’m 50 years old. I have read the bible. I have read the Quran. I attended church for many years, as a child and teen. I simply don’t have that belief, and frankly, I am happy that I am who I am. (Well, except for the drinking part.) 🙂

    I have a wife and two late teen kids. I can’t afford to fail at this, and I will be grateful to the end of my days that there are people whom I can share my beliefs with and who understand.

    Finally, I could not be more grateful that I have my on-line atheist sponsor – these 12 steps, tuned for the agnostic/atheist, finally seem achievable.

  17. Mac M. says:

    Nice job, John. I suppose I’m known as Atheist Mac here inAjijic, Mexico where Jane and I spend our winters. I make my beliefs very public ans will not tolerate remarks like –no atheists in foxholes. As you remember, I’m a retired Navy fighter pilot. The more we come out of the closet – especially those of us with 30+ years, the sooner this ignorant crap will die down. Just look at what the gay movement did.

  18. William P. says:

    Thanks John. I have fond memories of joining your group in its earliest years and my sobriety of nearly 27 years owes a great deal to you, Maxine B., Tom J. and the other members of the D.C. group. Although I cannot claim to be a card carrying atheist or agnostic since I do have a habit of slipping back into “spirituality’ (whatever that may mean!) I am convinced that, like rock climbing, the path to sobriety (hard indeed since it is a struggle with oneself) is easier and safer with the help of others in recovery and with some of the tools used in AA (such as “easy does it”, “don’t try to change what you can’t change, but you can change yourself”, “one day at a time, one step at a time, even one hour at a time if that’s necessary”, “help others but don’t boss them around”). And this conviction that, at least for me, it’s safer and easier to have help from others is my “higher power”. What a great privilege it was to have the help and insight of the D.C. “We Agnostics” group.

    Bill P.

  19. Tommy H says:

    “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.”


    Good stuff

  20. Alyssa (soda) says:

    Hello godless John 😉

    I wish you were in the rooms of AA before my relapse. When you are a young woman in her early 20’s and you are a true atheist, you may run for the hills, like I did.
    I was fortunate enough to experience my pink cloud in we agnostics in Toronto, however, I know that other young newcomer atheists also run for the hills before they realize there is another way.
    I appreciate your list of things to say. I feel like this is a skill that needs to be practiced, like you said, we need to learn from the movements of other oppressed groups. Your list shows how one can practice assertiveness, calmly. hahahah.
    I like how Thomas B calls himself a spiritual atheist. For a while I didn’t know what to call myself because the term atheist sounds off putting. But I’m cool with it now. It doesn’t matter what they assume. But imagine those young people who will never walk through the door. There is a lock. And perhaps they don’t want to unlock it because they don’t know there are others like them.

    Thank you very much, Alyssa

    • John H. says:

      Thank you Alyssa!
      I envy you. When I was in my 20’s I was sitting on my bar stool at the Admiral Benbow on Connecticut Avenue in DC dreaming my dreams that could never come true. I was 38 when I came in (66 now) and always marvel at our younger friends who make it in early and thus save decades of decline and damage for themselves and others. Keep to your own path, don’t drink, go to meetings and before you know it the grey hair will come! No one has power over you if you find the power within yourself.

      • Alyssa (soda) says:

        Lol. Got sober at 30 after relapse. I’m 33 now. I hope to carry my atheist pink cloud forever. Of course ur gonna say 33 is young. Hmmmm. I want to emphasize my luv of the 12 steps once getting beyond the god language.

      • John H. says:

        Should have read your post a bit closer I guess but still stand with those comments… I’ll trade ages with you! Maybe God will provide!

  21. Jeb B. says:

    What an encouraging article. It took me years of AA recovery to eventually become comfortable and secure enough with myself to finally be open and honest in meetings about my nonbelief. However, that self-honesty has become one of the most liberating and empowering things in my life. At around 15 years I stopped saying the Lord’s Prayer, mainly for the sake of newcomers, and slowly worked through my home group to use only prayers found in AA literature. At 35 years I had the courage to help found a legitimate meeting with no distinctly religious practices, meaning no prayer to Yeshua, Wakan Tanka, Zeus, Oden, or other human concepts of a higher power. For me, this is the real AA, open to all and excluding none, whether by intention or neglect. Visit and submit a story.

  22. life-j says:

    Glad you found us, Steve.

  23. life-j says:

    John, thanks for this well written piece. Works for me too, being an ‘agnostic’.

    What being an agnostic means to me is that I get people off my back. If I call myself an atheist I have (apparently) taken a position which needs to be defended – “how can you be sure there is no god?” – as an agnostic I can say “no I’m not sure” (and frankly don’t give a flying ****). So it is pure convenience and pragmatism for me. Much like what much of the rest of the program is for me, and, sounds like, for you too. we take what we like, and put up with the rest.

    Not necessarily silently, and yes, most of all we are not silent about it because there may be another doubter or non-believer in the meeting who needs to hear what we have to say. I finally ‘came out’ strongly when a newcomer walked in who identified herself as an agnostic right there. A beautiful young woman too. So over the next couple of years it got to be up to me to coach her in the program because she could not find a woman sponsor who wouldn’t push the god stuff on her. Thank god I’m an old man is all I can say. She did nothing to make it easy, to put it mildly. We’re all a mess when we come in. But she’s finally in rehab right now and have had the good fortune of finding a woman atheist sponsor there. I’m glad I hung in there with her.

    Even so, there was enough pressure felt from the meeting to where she would often talk about having a hard time finding a higher power. Peer pressure is rough, and i guess that’s why I often find myself stepping out in more force than I really want.

    • Hilary J. says:

      I can really relate to that, life-j. I too am firmly agnostic. I don’t know, and I don’t believe that any human knows, whether there’s a god, and I see no point in arguing about it.
      Tonight at a Grapevine meeting, we read a story about step 4 called “No stone unturned”, in which “godlessness” is described as a character defect. I shared that I am agnostic and don’t consider that a defect, nor a shortcoming that needs to be removed. I have achieved almost 4 years (and counting) of continuous sobriety without a higher power, and that’s reason to be proud, not ashamed.

  24. realneal m. says:

    I got sober in DC (mostly Northern Virginia) in 1984. I don’t remember them reading “How it works” at any meeting that I went to. As far as I can remember, this whole back to basics movement that seems to be so prominent now just didn’t exist at any meetings that I went to. It seems now, that maybe AA in general was going through a very liberal period. When I went to my first meeting they gave me a “Living Sober” book and the book “Under the Influence.” I am not sure when I got my first BB, but I don’t think it was in the first year or so. I did not go to meetings for at least 10 years from the late 90’s through 2010. When I first went back, it was pretty religious, but I now live in rural SW Virginia, so I would not have expected anything else. Until a couple of years ago, I had no idea that this whole fundamentalist movement was so widespread. What the hell happened! They are driving the young people away! When I came in there were TONS of young people. Maybe there still are other places, but not around here. This really bothers me. I am not an atheist fundamentalist and I really don’t bring up my non-belief very often, but the people who know me know who I am.

    • Holley S. says:

      I live in Northern VA and have attended meetings everywhere between Leesburg and Alexandria since 2002. How it Works is read in 95% of meetings. The Lord’s Prayer is recited at the end of 99% of meetings. I hear the Lord’s Prayer more than the Serenity Prayer. There have been at least four rounds of Back to Basics in Alexandria in the last year. The only We Agnostics meeting I have been to, in Falls Church, has anywhere from one to five people in attendance regularly and is, frankly, a very depressing meeting. I am shocked at how fundamentalist the meetings are in NoVA considering its more liberal viewpoint compared to the rest of the state.

      • John H. says:

        Hello Holley,
        I seldom cross the river except to go to one of the airports so I can’t speak to that meeting in that I have never been to it. We would be happy to see you any Sunday at the Hill Center in DC but it’s clear that Northern Virginia could probably use more input from the AAAA community over there.
        Parenthetically I have had more than one Christian conventional member tell me that the use of the Lord’s Prayer in AA meetings makes them uncomfortable. Group conscience meetings are called to address such things and you might be surprised at the reaction if you raised the issue.

  25. Gary L. says:

    A wonderful humanistic treatise on what has been for so long a scholarly concept – you write with the creative fury of a tornado with a pen in its hand John.

    One would think that an organization dedicated to the well being of both individuals and in the greater sense – families – communities – countries – worlds – would make space for every conceivable take on the fire that arcs between the quick and the dead. It seems to me no one is immune to the interpretive attraction of origin and whether it’s god or the spirit in the Earth or nothing at all that awaits. What is relevant – what we do have – all we have is right now and our chosen circle of friends.

    Which is manifestly enough for me.

    Thank you John – your thoughts are like clear water in an oasis where the thirsty find relief.

  26. wisewebwoman says:

    My evolution to atheism was a process and I remember an atheist with the soubriquet of “Godless John” at a Toronto meeting many years ago and thinking, with a slight tinge of envy: “How brave he is in the ace of dying a drunk” as I had been brainwashed into believing the inevitable fate of someone who didn’t believe in the Invisible Cosmic Housekeeper. But of course he didn’t.

    I kept my atheism to myself for fear of being shunned especially where I live now as it is a small indoctrinated community of religious church-goers.

    Thanks for your excellent take on it all.

  27. John M. says:

    John H., this is fine piece of writing with many a neat turn of a phrase. Thank you so much; it was a sheer joy to read.

    It is said in the quasi-organized movement, People in Recovery, that by our silence we let others define us. You have spoken, identified yourself, and in the end, as you indicate, have found “sometimes grudging but mostly genuine” respect among even your fellow traditionalist AAers.

    By standing up for who you are, and by demonstrating your love and service, you help to break down the biases that define atheists as immoralists who are not to be trusted.

  28. Joe C says:

    I always enjoy what you have to say, John. It was counted among one of my great pleasures to meet you at WAAFT IAAC in Santa Monica. It is good for us individually, and a meaningful contribution to the fellowship, that atheists attend the mainstream meetings. I understand why some don’t; if one feels persecution in the presence of zealous believers then avoid sittuations that trigger negative feelings. But I don’t find religion contageous nor offensive. If I was in Yankee Stadium, why would I be surprised by all the Yankees fans? Still, l would know that there are a few there rooting for the visitors.

    Even if only 2% of AAs are atheist, that’s 40,000 of us. If it’s half that, 20,000 is a sizable force. Add to that that we will have more than our share of the next generation of newcomers among our skeptical ranks.

    John, you make a great argument for just accepting AA as it is and simply speaking your truth unabashedly. I do not think I am there yet. Maybe my reformer tendency is a lingering addiction to chaos. I say that because your case for acceptance looks more peaceful than my life.

    Thanks again for an engaging share.

    • John H. says:

      Thanks for your kind remarks Joe. Your service in publishing and speaking out on the larger stage is much appreciated.
      The event in Santa Monica did get a few of us “old heathens” out of our caves and into the CA sunshine. Was good for all in attendance.
      I’m not “anti-religion” as long as they are not trying to put my head on a pike and short of those extremes we should all be able to (sort of) “get along”.
      As I say in the article I don’t think our brothers and sisters at the GSO, Grapevine, General Service Assembly, etc. will ever substantially modify their devotion to their old ways and codified errors of judgment as regards non-believers in the core literature. I prefer to take them literally and leave them to their own devices though I do realize the need of some members for alternative, written guidelines to help them on their way. I just don’t happen to be one of them. As my favorite Jewish/Christian saint said before his conversion, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

  29. Adam N says:

    Wonderful contribution to the movement. Thank you, John. This atheist very much identified with everything you shared. My daily battle is between my desire for fellowship and the life sustaining human connection my conventional AA meetings offer me on the one hand, and my need, as an atheist, “to thine own self be true”. To walk that fine line I generally try to keep my mouth shut, enjoy the brotherhood, then come home and write and read more ‘free thinking’ materials. We just started our first atheist friendly AA meeting here in my home town very recently. Thank God!!!

  30. John F. says:

    At the regular poorly attended business meeting of my Ridgway, Colorado group, two members voted to censure a fellow member for “hugging” a newcomer! This share pointed out that the program does not endorse “sex police”! I have 44 years of sobriety and have just sat by. The member has not come back to AA. Shame on me!

    • Jack S. says:

      Yes – I was not aware this plan was hatched at a business meeting! Wow – I am a bit stunned with this news and have never seen this type of “gang mentality” in any other AA groups I have been a part of. Well – we can at least attempt to right this wrong.

  31. Russ H says:

    Thanks for this essay, John. It is very well written. How we atheists present ourselves in conventional AA meetings is an important topic. Since discovering the agnostic/atheist subgroup of AA one of the startling realizations for me has been how aggressive and strident our rhetoric can sometimes be regarding our beliefs. I decline to read “How It Works” when asked because, for me at least, that is not how it works. When a meeting discussion becomes dominated by insistence on faith in the divine I also will speak up to voice an opposing viewpoint – and have found that sometimes people are grateful. This can be done in non-confrontational ways. We certainly are not going to change anyone’s mind about such matters but we may, at least, help make a new non-believing person feel more comfortable and more likely to keep coming back.

  32. Thomas B. says:

    Outstanding, John — thanks so much . . .

    I was gifted with recovery in Manhattan, NY and encountered the same liberal, non-sectarian method of recovery, “Don’t use, Go to meetings, Help others.” And my gratitude to AA and feeling of duty to be a voice for other nonbelievers motivates me not to leave AA, as many do due to the increasing dogmatism and religiosity.

    It’s only been within the last year after starting a wAAft meeting in Portland, OR, which has grown nicely the past year, that I have begun to speak out as an atheist on the strength of my 42 years of longtime recovery. In the urban area of Portland, I am much more respected than when my wife and I first moved to a small, fundamentalist city on the rural coast of Oregon, where we were shamed and shunned. Now, there are a growing number of atheists who join me in outing themselves as atheist at traditional meetings I attend — strength in numbers, I suppose.

    I appreciate you admitting that at times it’s a struggle to “say what you mean, but not to say it mean.” I am often challenged to live up to our code of “love and tolerance” especially when it is not extended to me by some of the more ardently obnoxious believers.

  33. Steve says:

    Really important stuff. THANK YOU.

    – 7 weeks in and trying to find my way without cringing every time God is espoused.

    • Laura says:

      Hi, Steve–
      It helps me to remember when people go on about their god that, while it may sound like it, they are not selling me anything. What they are usually saying is ‘This is what saved my life’. It’s all they know. It does get easier with time, hang in there.

      • Steve says:

        Hi! 9.5 weeks in and I really believe that the only thing that has kept me here is 1) having my agnostic on-line sponsor and 2) reading the things that you guys write, and knowing that you’re there and you’ve seen success.

        I did something petty this weekend. But I did it with my wife, so … I can just claim that it was her (obviously) terrible influence.

        I’ve been telling her that the on-line meetings I frequent are kinda killing me with the God stuff. So to give her a little taste of it, I said to her, “Ok – let’s set a timer, tune in to a meeting and you’ll see how long it takes for someone to talk about God.” And we did. Three meetings at various times, tuned in and … 2 meetings were around 90 seconds and 1 took 2.5 mins.

        YES – I am aware that this was petty and not overly cool. But I talk to her a lot about what is good and what is bad in my recovery, and I wanted her to really see what I meant. And let’s not forget – it’s all her fault anyway. Even if it was my idea. And me logging in. And me talking about it. 🙂

        Regardless, the net result even surprised *me* ! There really is a lot of God talk. And yes, I can translate and so on, but it gets tiresome.

        And then – I am watching a meeting and the chairperson comes out with the “I feel sorry for you” reading. Yup – that one pissed me off. You feel sorry for ME? I kinda feel sorry for YOU! But at least I have class enough to keep those thoughts to myself and to show you enough respect to not denigrate your beliefs.

        Anyhow – it’s late and I am running off at the mouth (keyboard) here. THANKS for being there. THANKS for showing that it can be done by people like me. THANKS for having the courage to say so. And THANKS for my still tender, fragile sobriety. I truly don’t think I would have been able to stay if it weren’t for you.

        • John H. says:

          Hello Steve..
          What can I say… After nearly three decades they still drive me mad sometimes with their insipid reliance on what doesn’t exist.. It goes with the territory in America my friend.
          One thing is certain and that is that YOU define YOU.. They don’t .. It’s you that have to be true to yourself and in that fact there is strength. Stay the course just like you are doing. Stupidity can exhaust you from time to time but it can’t do you in. Alcohol surely can but a strong firm heart along with the help you are getting from your friends can most certainly keep it from you both today and tomorrow.

        • John F. says:

          I assume the ” I feel sorry…” is Dr. Bob’s story. What man was closer to his god while in the Oxford group? He prayed and begged his god to save him. He prayed with other Oxford members to relieve him of his obsession. They prayed over him. Night and day. Result? Drink, drink drunk. His superstitions failed him.

          He meets another drunk named Bill. He feels understood for the first time. They learn that by helping others they help themselves. Face to face, in the flesh. So who does he give credit to? The god who failed him so miserably all those years. He got sober and could not admit the superstitions failed. It is sad how god stuff dominates otherwise rational human beings in AA (and out). I work hard at not letting it get to me and simply carry the message AA works if you work it no matter what superstitions you believe in or don’t believe in.

          • Tommy H says:

            From what I have seen, Dr. Bob was not a spiritual person but a rigid religious one. He said the obsession to drink stayed with him for over three years.

            This is further confirmed for me at least with the last paragraph of his story in the Big Book.

          • John H. says:

            Lets let Dr. Bob Smith Speak for himself when it comes to the Steps…

            It is fitting at this time to indulge in some retrospect regarding certain fundamentals. Much has been written; much has been said about the Twelve Steps of AA. These tenets of our faith and practice were not worked out overnight and then presented to our members as an opportunist creed. Born of our early trials and many tribulations, they were and are the result of humble and sincere desire, sought in personal prayer, for divine guidance.

            As finally expressed and offered, they are simple in language, plain in meaning. They are also workable by any person having a sincere desire to obtain and keep sobriety. The results are the proof. Their simplicity and workability are such that no special interpretations, and certainly no reservations, have ever been necessary. And it has become increasingly clear that the degree of harmonious living that we achieve is in direct ratio to our earnest attempt to follow them literally under divine guidance to the best of our ability.

            This is from the September 1948 Grapevine. In case there was any doubt about where he was really coming from in terms of “religion” and AA. “Tenets of our faith”, “divine guidance”… I take the good man literally at his word.

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