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. 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. 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.


  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

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