A Changing Landscape


By Joe C.
Rebellion Dogs Publishing

Once again the Pew Research group shows that the fastest growing choice for survey respondents to the question of religion is “None.” And the future is none – the largest number of irreligious are the youth.

Eleven per cent of Silent Generation (AA founders) are “none’s” while 17% of Baby Boomers, 23% of Gen-X and 35% of Millennials don’t buy into the “God could and would if He were sought”, assumption. From the chart below we see that while 86% of Americans start out Christian 20% have moved away from those ideas. While some switch to another theistic worldview, the majority of Christian losses are now voting “none.”


In Alcoholics Anonymous members has responded to the increased secularism with more agnostic/atheist/freethinker groups. Just as there were 37 Million religiously unaffiliated in 2007 and these nonbelievers grew to 56 Million in 2014, secular AA groups worldwide increased from 60 to 200 groups over the same time period.

Meetings 500 Apostates from churches have let go of their old ideas. It’s not that atheism is a higher level of consciousness over theism – it’s not. But more believers are switching than the other way around. (Remember in AA literature where it suggests, “We once thought like you,” was a good way to break through the barrier of a close-minded atheist “Chapter Four, “We Agnostics”)? Well now, non-believer are saying the same thing to theists.

Like mosques, Synagogues, churches and temples, these changes are mirrored in AA. Sure there are plenty of members who walk into AA and say, “I need help with my sobriety but keep your praying to yourself”, they arrive non-theistic and stay non-theistic. There are also some who faked it, maybe they made it for a while and maybe they didn’t, but after a time in recovery they are clearer and more confident about what they believe and it doesn’t include a prayer-answering, sobriety-granting creator of the universe. People who don’t believe in the 1939 God as we understand Him are feeling more comfortable saying, “Not for me, thank you.”

If you think Twelve Steps without God isn’t AA, that’s so five minutes ago.

While there are still bigots in AA and thank (their) god they are sober, you’ll have no better luck rallying anti-atheist sentiment in urban AA centers than you would gathering anti-gay-marriage support. Yes, there are some loud and obnoxious pockets but atheist-bashing is losing enthusiasm.

We’ll look at these stats more when we get to see the 2014 AA membership survey results this summer. I, for one, am curious to see if AA’s population has picked up from it’s 20+ year flat-line since 1992.

This post-theism isn’t just an AA trend. I was a guest speaker at West Hill United Church, a “barrier free” congregation as they describe themselves, led by Gretta Vosper, an atheist minister. They sing and “pray” although not to a creator god. They believe in Christian values but not the myths of the bible (Atheist minister praises the glory of good…). I was invited there to talk about both the heart-ache and heart-warming turn of events for non-believers in AA. Guest speakers is a regular occurrence at West Hill and on this Sunday in April, they wanted to hear about addiction and recovery in a secular vernacular.

Joe’s article is based on an article published on the Pew Research Centre website called: America’s Changing Religious Landscape.

Here’s a link to Joe’s website: Rebellion Dog Publishing.

Joe C. is the author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life and was one of the founders of the first agnostic AA meeting in Canada, Beyond Belief, which held its first meeting on September 24, 2009.

24 Responses

  1. Lon Mc. says:

    It’s good to see that the trend toward disbelief in society as a whole is in sync with AA’s micro-impact. I am grateful for Joe C’s higher visibility leadership to “carry the message” for those who might want to celebrate their own sobriety in the comfort of more easily digested rationality.

  2. Pat N. says:

    Thanks again,Joe. Good data as usual.

    I think many nonbelievers still have warm feelings toward churches, and might like to visit sympathetic ones. A good source is Progressive Christianity, which lists member congregations on their website. It’s affiliated with the Jesus Seminar, I believe, and Bishop John Shelby Spong, the scholar, is involved.

    Lots of paths out of the swamp and up the mountain.

  3. Thomas B. says:

    Excellent Joe — I especially appreciate your declaration that “It’s not that atheism is a higher level of consciousness over theism – it’s not.

    This reminds me of one of my favorite songs from my way back callow youth, Dave Mason’s “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy. There’s only you and me, and we just disagree.”

    I also appreciate the point you make about the difference in urban settings when compared with small town, rural areas of North America. Recently, my wife and I have stopped going mostly to meetings in our small-town, provincial hometown on the Oregon seacoast and mostly go to our secular meetings in Portland. Even when we go to traditional AA meetings in slick, hip, cool and always weird Portland, our longtime sober recovery is much more respected and appreciated than it is in our small hometown of Seaside, where we are shunned for our non-belief by some members of our former home group .

    Looking forward to reading more about your upcoming trip to the AA Archives and analysis of the latest AA membership survey.

    • John H. says:

      Not to sound contrary (perish the thought) but if Athiesm is not a higher level of consciousness than Theism I don’t know what is… It’s like saying that Darwin is on the same level as Creationism or that Bleading was superior to Antibotics. Seeing the world as fact based rather than demon haunted is definitely and absolutely at a higher level of consciousness. We need to stay with and live by the facts rather than some other folks comfort levels.

  4. John O says:

    It is a common misconception that the “no religious affiliation” or “none’s” don’t believe in God or are “unbelievers”. That is false. This Pew Research survey says that 31% of the “nones” said they were agnostic or atheists. (And then some agnostics believe in god/gods).

    Many of the “nones” are “spiritual rather than religious” or believe in a god or gods and/or the supernatural, and fit right in with A.A.’s religion.

    The same survey also found that 7% of the population identify as agnostics or atheists (up from 4% in 2007). So we’re still in single digits.

    • Duncan says:

      Yes John O but it is also true that many who go to churches don’t believe in a God. In fact I have a cousin in Texas who thinks he may be an atheist but because of the mainstream opposition there he continues to go to Church.

      • John O says:

        Yes, many atheists in the pews. Many do so to accompany their believing spouses and/or for the children. However, in classifying people, Pew Research doesn’t ask what church they attend, but rather how they see themselves – “agnostic, atheist, or nothing in particular”.

        I was forced to attend church in military school. But I never self-identified as anything but an atheist.

        Here’s something from a separate survey of the unaffiliated (aka “nones”) done by Pew Research along with PBS in October 2012 “‘Nones’ on the Rise”:

        Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%)… more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day.

        No doubt some of these categories overlap, but that 68% of the unaffiliated believe in God is the key point in my mind as far as who would be comfortable in a traditional AA meeting and who would prefer an Agnostic/Atheist meeting.

    • Duncan says:

      John O I think you make some very good points but I don’t think it explains the situation, say in UK, where the number of confirmed atheists is so much higher than those in North America, and where going to church is almost seen as being quaint.

      My father was an atheist but he was not so stupid as to point that out. He knew that census and stats were used for many purposes.

      I really want AA to be the way it once was in UK, but for that to happen we need, in particular, the USA to lead the way.

      • John O says:

        Wow! I didn’t realize there was so much fear of survey takers in the U.K.! Particularly in a country with so many confirmed atheists … that if Pew Research or its equivalent in the U.K. called up, that a significant number of respondents would be afraid to say they were atheists or agnostics or didn’t believe in God.

      • Duncan says:

        John O, It is not about fear but more about being out of place in society. I am talking about 40-50 years ago when we were in the same situation as the USA is now with your lower number of atheists etc.

        We had equivalents of your McCarthyism and it just did not pay to be seen as out of step and of course that was what census information was about.

        I am sure that many many more Americans don’t believe than figures show, but maybe I am wrong.

      • John O says:

        Duncan – I too believe that counting people who label themselves agnostics or atheists almost certainly undercounts those who don’t believe in God (or gods or prayer-answering favor-dispensing spirits or whatever). I would guess that a significant number of non-believers eschew labels like “agnostic” and “atheist” and pick another – for example, “nothing in particular” gets them counted in the “unaffiliated” category.

        And as you have suggested, some just choose the faith they were brought up in, or which church they go to for whatever reason.

        It would sure help to know exactly what questions Pew asked and in what order.

        My concern, and my impetus for my original comment, is that some media (and message board) accounts cite the Pew survey as showing that 22.8% of American adults don’t believe in God or don’t have any religious beliefs, based on that number of “unaffiliated” in Pew’s results. I just wanted to correct that misimpression. Perhaps there are 22.8% or more who don’t believe in God etc., but that’s not what the Pew survey says.

        Besides the Pew results that I have cited – for example that 68% of the “unaffiliated” believe in God – I have read a number of other literature on the “unaffiliated”, also called the “nones”, that show similarly. For example, Free Inquiry Magazine occasionally delves deeply into this subject – the “nones” and what percentage really do believe or don’t believe in god and/or the supernatural.

        I am a hard-core atheist, and I would dearly love to believe that non-believers are into double digits percentage-wise. But I have yet to see any evidence for that that holds up to a little scrutiny.

  5. John O says:

    As for A.A.’s population being flat-line since 1992 —

    Virtually all face to face groups and organizations are declining as people spend more and more time socializing on the Internet. Robert Putnam back in 2000 in his book “Bowling Alone” documented this phenomenon, and this was when the web was still in its toddler-hood if not its infancy, and “social media” was not yet a phrase.

    Back in 2000 — Remember dial-up? Compuserve and AOL forums? Windows 98? You’ve Got Mail? (Dec. 1998)

    I heard on NPR (9/23/13) the average American who owns a smartphone and/or tablet spends 2 1/2 hours a day on them

    The average American over 50 spends nearly 2 1/2 hours per day on social media – AARPtheMag 12/13

    People need to count A.A. groups of all types — online as well as offline — before drawing conclusions about its decline or demise. Failing to do so is like counting the declining population of horses and concluding that people are walking more (ignoring those funny contraptions called automobiles).

    • Roger says:

      Your comment, John, is insightful and accounts for many things, except one, of course: the remarkable growth in the number of F2F agnostic meetings in AA.

      • John O says:

        Thanks. As for the growth of F2F agnostic meetings in A.A., a good explanation is that the proportion of the U.S. population identifying as agnostic or atheist went from 4.0% to 7.1% in just the 7 year period from 2007 to 2014 – that’s a 78% increase in the proportion so identifying. In just 7 years. So its not at all surprising that F2F meetings of alcoholic A&A’s in AA more than overcame the headwind of the growing Internet.

        I think there are also other factors in the past decade or two — non-believers are coming out of the closet more and more. I think we may be at a tipping point, just like the gay marriage / gay rights movement was 10 years ago.

  6. Joe C. says:

    Nice comments. I ditto the idea that it’s not who’s right and wrong; that turns philosophy into a zero-sum game – crazy. I also ditto the trouble with stats. They paint an outline, not a picture – so to speak.

    This Pew survey is all about how people identify – not what they believe. It uses the same questions from seven years ago. AA’s population in 2007 was 2,045,000 and USA population was 227 Million. In 2014, USA pop was 245 Mil so for AA to keep pace as a percentage of USA population (because over half of our members live there) we would have to have been over 2.2 Mil for the end of 2014. But then, as has been suggested, how does AA stack up against any other congregation, organization, etc. Maybe we should measure AA membership with attendance at pubs. AA population is difficult to measure at best but many of the online members aren’t formally associated (members of) the groups they frequent.

    The Atlanta head-count will tell us something, although we can speculate as to what. 1995 was the best attended World Conference for AA. It went up every five years from 1950 until ’95 and we haven’t surpassed that number since. But how many people would log-on instead of showing up?

    Another interesting comparison (in the Pew study) is that over the seven years in the survey, fundamentalism (Evangelical Christianity) is on the rise. This is normal, I think, that as the world around you grows more secular, beating the drum harder is a natural reaction. It’s worth noting that just as WAAF meetings ( I don’t like the T because Freethinker is one word) are on the rise, Back to Basics meetings are growing at the same clip.

    • John O says:

      On F2F meetings of A.A.s overall and the per-capita issue — between 1992 and 2014 the U.S. population went from 256.51 million to 318.68 million — a 24.2% increase. For the per-capita rate of participation in A.A. to stay the same — given that F2F meetings have been almost exactly flat in terms of millions of people — requires only that 24.2% of A.A. participation has shifted from terrestrial to online in the past 22 years.

      I have no figures to prove that is what happened, but it’s not a stretch to me to think this (and more) is what has happened.

  7. Stephen R. says:

    Forty-three years sober. The lesson to be learned for myself. Converse in meetings about traditions and concepts. All are entitled to their beliefs or lack thereof. I bow out for the hand holding and Lord’s Prayer and it’s uncomfortable but for the better. My beliefs today are personal. In my area 86 district 14 I can’t say I have been judged or shunned. At times complimented even. I think younger people are more open to stay when Religion under the guise of spirituality is not prevalent. Fellowship while gaining confidence in belief or its absense is of utmost importance. The challenge for the bigots -and they are there – is to suspend judgement. Each group is autonomous. The events in Toronto and elsewhere as to the shunning of groups by intergroup followed by the anonymity violation of that self-righteous clergyman well yes, I judge that as wrong. In principle I judge that as a misguided action by people who should know better. However it shows in my own life I need to work more as to forgiveness and lack of judgement as stated above. Best regards.

    • Duncan says:

      I agree Stephen. However we should look at the 12 Steps and say that they are not AA,but just a part of it. In fact they are more a product of the “Industry of Alcoholism” than AA.

      I never joined a 12 Step Programme but I did join an AA Fellowship. I don’t join in with the holding of hands etc and some of the newer things I now see in AA, some very typical of evangelist movements.

  8. John S. says:

    That was an interesting article. This is totally anecdotal and unscientific, but the group where I started almost 27 years ago has fewer meetings now than when I started, so it certainly didn’t grow. In the last year that I attended meetings there, we would get newcomers here or there but not consistently and most did not come back.

    At our agnostic AA group that started in August 2014 with two members meeting once a week, we now have over thirty members meeting three times per week and we get newcomers at almost every meeting and most come back. The excitement and energy is with the agnostic AA meetings, just from my totally unscientific observations.

  9. Adam N says:

    I was so pleased when I first heard about these latest findings by Pew research. It pleases me so much to hear about the growing number of atheists and agnostics. I got such a warm feeling of happiness and hope. It is such an exciting time to be alive. So many good things are happening in our world. This is just like icing on the cake! I felt giddy. Like it was Christmas, which, I guess, is a little weird for an atheist to say, I suppose, technically…

  10. life-j says:

    I don’t think that someone who has become agnostic or atheist will go back to become a religious person. Once you have seen it, you can’t unsee it. The people that come to AA and get all religious are the ones that “turned their back on god” – they had never actually stopped believing.

    As for whether being an atheist is a higher consciousness than being religious or is really a function of what the consciousness consists of, not whether it is religious or not. As baseline I would like to once again roll out GB Trudeau: “Situational science is about respecting both sides of a scientific argument, not just the one supported by facts” – having realized that there is no god is surely a more logical and sensible position than believing there is one – but one can be the the coldhearted, nihilistic, arrogant sort of atheist that the fundamentalist christians have nightmares about – or one can be what in the end amounts to a spiritual sort of person, however negatively loaded that term is for some of us, just like one can be either an arrogant, unyielding, judgmental sort of christian, or one can be the humble sort who has embraced ones own destiny as a believing person, one who loves even atheists, but without judging them and believing they will wind up in hell.

    So it’s not that atheism is a higher level of consciousness than theism – it’s not even about that. Atheism is certainly a logically more defensible position, but any one particular christian person may have a higher consciousness than any one particular atheist – and vice versa.

    And that is not really for any one of us to judge, but whether religion is rational or not IS.

    So I would take a humble atheist over a humble christian any day, but I’d often take a humble christian over an arrogant atheist. As for the arrogant christians, and unfortunately thats the ones there are most of, they’re the ones who are scary, the ones that in the end rally to murder in the name of god’s love, and I do believe that just as we are growing in numbers they are growing as well.

    The polls referred to do fail to ask a question like whether a person has switched from being a wishy-washy christian to being a born again, prosletyzing,radicalized christian, because that represents as much of a shift as whether a person has gone from being a conformist religious person or wishhy-washy doubter to becoming a non-believer. Many of the young people that choose “none”, or many of the still out there drunks simply can’t be bothered, and that’s why they may be religious at heart while still choosing “none”.
    And just like there are radicalized believers there are radicalized non-believers, many of the latter to be found here, and having become so because of the former, though frankly I would gladly have settled for wishy-washy non-believer if I could just have been left in peace in the first place. After fighting with Intergroup for more than a year I don’t know if my hackles will ever lay down again. Not good for my conscious contact with nothingness, but so it be.

  11. Richard S. says:

    We are slowly getting past the god(s) and prayer(s) bit, now it is time to start getting past the 12 steps myth. There are only two important steps, 1 and 12. The others are just dressing. I got myself drunk, I got myself sober and I keep myself sober. Been doing that for 27 years now by recognizing that alcohol is a higher power over me.

    • Joe C. says:

      If Myths are things that other people believe but I don’t, I have enough work at minding my own misconceptions or possible misconceptions.

      Without any scientific basis, I call myself an incurable alcoholic. There is no gene or blood-test or f-MRI that can confirm this belief I have. Some will say, “Addiction is over; take Neltrexone and drink moderately.”

      So maybe my diagnosis of my incurable alcoholism is my world-is-flat-ism or a myth. I can’t defend against a sound argument that my belief is anecdotally based.

      If I die living this “myth” what will I have lost – a couple of cocktails over the Superbowl with friends? If that’s the best anyone can offer, I’ll keep my myth. For starters, if I’m right, then the consequences are… well we know what they could be.

      The Steps may be a placebo. However alternative therapies for addiction, such as CBT, look an awful lot like AA’s Steps. I don’t believe in a god or that I have moral failings that divine help can lift from me or a lot of what’s in the Steps.

      I expect that I am wrong about half of what I believe. I wish I knew which half. What’s great is pluralism. I defend anyone’s right to put their trust in a two-Step program, twelve-Step or a half-Step variation. I have seen many cases of two-Stepper success stories, twelve-Step success stories and some pretty imaginative variations on the menu.

      What I think of in a post-theist AA isn’t that believers have been proven wrong and atheists have been vindicated. Rather, we’re in an era where someone can unabashedly choose to approach sobriety with a different worldview, or a different modality.

      The interfering God belief is still #1. It’s not falling out of favor in, or out of, the rooms. But in the same way lesbian/gay-marriage doesn’t make a mockery of hetero-marriages, in most urban areas anyway, my atheism isn’t any threat to AA or anyone in AA. They cling to their myths and I to mine.

      • John H. says:

        Well Joe..
        I wish I could be as relative and humane as you are about our various “belief” systems but I just can’t. Right (logic) still seems to be right and wrong (illogic/superstition) still seems to be wrong. I just cant equivocate. It’s not in me and I’m (sort of) sorry I guess.
        As to the “myth” of my own incurable “condition” (I have always had severe difficulty with alcoholism as a disease entity on par with things like cancer) the personal evidence I have for that is so strong, and the number of wakes and funerals I’ve attended for other alcoholics and addicts so large, that it does (at least in my mind) approach scientific verity when compared with, for example, things like the “virgin birth”, Scientology, Christian Science or the infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad. As to the 12 steps I won’t even mention them. It’s just too frustrating to begin to address that myth.

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