Listening for the Reality


This article was printed in the AA Grapevine in 1991. That’s a long time ago, and yet it still resonates today. That definitely makes it a sign of an unresolved problem within our Fellowship.

By Anonymous
Copyright © AA Grapevine (April, 1991)

When the twelfth stepper who took me to my first meeting arrived, I told her of my atheism and of my fear that maybe AA wasn’t the answer for me. She said that AA’s teachings are suggested, and the only requirement was a desire to stop drinking. She told me I could believe or disbelieve; I could accept or reject; I could find my own philosophy and make my own decisions. But above all, I could stay sober if I didn’t drink and worked toward changing my behavior and the attitudes that kept me a drunk.

I did not drink again, I have gradually changed, and the reward has been almost nineteen years of sobriety in AA. I am still an atheist. Except for some condescension (”What a shame you don’t believe”) or some assurances that I would one day find God, my atheism has been met with tolerance.

Non-believing members from other places tell me a far different story. They describe being told that they must learn to believe in God or they cannot get sober. They tell about sponsors who quote the Big Book, saying that the way to work AA is prescribed and includes God. They are told to get with the program as written or they are doomed to drink again. Their sponsors say, “Pray and act as if you believe.” These nonbelievers say that those experiences have placed a wall between them and AA and they don’t know what to do about it.

I don’t have the great conflict with philosophy that these people describe to me. The reception I got was the key, perhaps. I was welcomed by someone who told me that AA could work for me. I heard no prediction that I would fail unless I found God. The past few years I have gotten some further understanding of how and why AA has worked for me despite my atheism.

I learned to see my lack of belief in God as an advantage rather than a hindrance to recovery and to working AA’s program. The first advantage I saw was in rephrasing some aspects of the program. I looked for the principle of each Step, reworded it in nonreligious terms if necessary and used that as a guide for living. Other nonreligious members describe similar solutions. What an advantage over taking the words literally! Each translated meaning ends up ideally suited to my individual needs. In fact, those atheists I know with long-term sobriety often have less conflict with accepting life’s circumstances than many who are devout believers.

Another advantage is that I have a greater feeling of participation in my life than I would if I believed an outside entity was running it. Part of the reason I came to AA in the first place was because I had felt so out of control and so much a victim of outside influences from which there was no escape. These feelings had left me suicidal. In my interpretation of AA principles, I play a responsible role in my own destiny, not just a bit part.

Often, believers imply that if I don’t rely on a Higher Power, then I must automatically assume self-omnipotence. On the contrary, I don’t think that I am controlling outside circumstances. I recognize the uncertainty of the future and of others’ behavior and I admit my inability to predict or determine all outcomes. I do think, however, that I have some ability to affect outcomes of anything in which I directly participate.

I sometimes err deciding what I can affect and what action is appropriate, but with experience and advice I learn.

Many people who believe, wonder what atheists do when tough times befall us. To whom do we turn if not to God? I turn to friends and reason and experiences of the past. I now think, based on previous events, that the odds are I will get through whatever comes in my life until it ends. Some people say in meetings that “I trust God not to give me more than I can handle.” I do not assign all life events to the work of an unseen something or someone who distributes situations (as tests, perhaps) to struggling humans. I accept that some adversities simply occur in normal living and I try to make the best of them. My view of those events which benefit our lives (often called miracles in AA) is similar to my attitude on misfortunes. I think that not all events can be explained with respect to a reason or purpose. They are simply random phenomena – the luck of the draw.

A large percentage of occurrences, however, are the result of cause and effect and the causes that effect sobriety seem obvious. When I stopped using alcohol which distorts thoughts and emotions, a healing process began. When I went to meetings, associated with sober, sane people, and incorporated their way of living into my own actions, the logical result was an improved life through sobriety. Recovery is inevitable, not miraculous, under such a course. It would have been a miracle if the chaos of alcoholism had not abated and my life had not improved.

In retrospect, I see there are at least five points that have enabled me to stay in AA as an atheist. 1) I don’t defend or explain the reasons for my atheism. I just state what I do to stay sober. 2) I don’t attack the beliefs of those who are comfortable with the idea of God. 3) I haven’t abandoned AA because of the jargon that muddles the ideas with terms that offend me. 4) I work out translations of ideas so that they are compatible to my thinking. 5) I try to work within AA to show by example that sobriety and atheism are not mutually exclusive. I have a personal commitment to that and I think it helped me not to drink early on and it helps me still.

Especially I try not to trouble myself with the language of the program. Sometimes I am uneasy when people talk about God’s will or when they suggest I pray, but I try to tune that part out. Instead I listen for the reality of what they are describing. I keep working on doing what makes sense. After all, sobriety is the real goal of AA principles and Steps, and it is gained by acting as rationally as possible in all situations, whether or not God is in the picture.

For a list of agnostic-friendly articles that have been published by the AA Grapevine, you can click here: A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics in AA. There are also links to the Grapevine articles which have previously been posted on AA Agnostica.

21 Responses

  1. Brian H. says:

    Just want to say I appreciate what you are doing and I admire your courage. Personally, my gut leads me to belief in something bigger than me but even with that I bristle at the churchy feel of many meetings I attend. My concern is for the still suffering alcoholic. I brought a fellow to a meeting not long ago who like many these days was not raised in a religious tradition. His comment to me after the meeting was, “What’s with the Lord’s prayer?” He’s still drunk.

  2. Tim says:

    Excellent article, almost renews my “faith” ;-). The thing is, I used many of these “work-arounds”, I think you’d call them, and find I resent having to work-around anything, when all I’m trying to do is be rational. If a god construct were used as a baby-step towards eventual self-reliance, okay. But what I see is its furthering and institutionalizing, further dependance and delusion. I literally feel dirty participating in it. There are no real agnostic meetings in my neck (red) of the California woods. Grateful to find this site and maybe find connection with other locals that haven’t “come-out”. Thanks.

  3. Charlie M. says:

    Calling the AA office for the first time and offering the fact that I was an atheist and I did not like the God references in AA the voice on the other end stated “Don’t worry about that just worry about not picking-up the first drink.” That made sense to me but I didn’t get serious about stopping until some years later.

    I’ve now been sober in AA for over 33 years and almost all of that time has been spent in two large American cities. I heard many things along the way that kept me in the rooms and I understood that I was important to “identify and not compare” and to “keep in the middle of the boat.” Bristle and cringe at some of the pious and proselytizing continues but something I heard early on at a meeting made sense to me and I’ve always used it: “The AA program is like an adjustable wrench – it will fit any nut!” Believing it gave me some humility and practicing it has allowed the Steps to work for me.
    Lately, encouraged by AA Agnostica, I’ve began to speak out about the rigid stance of AA as a whole towards the atheistic and agnostic community in the rooms and especially in an age when religious practice, especially in urban areas, is not as strong. In the city I live it is generally accepted and understood but I’m sure it scares the bejesus out of the fearful alcoholic who believes he/she will be injured by association with non-believer’s much as the homophobe cringes from the gay and lesbian community. I do believe we need to continue raising the issue and point to it’s importance in keeping more people in the rooms. I don’t believe we need to continually harangue or point out contradictions or unscientific statements in the Big Book like some atheists want to deride the similar absurd things in the Bible. It is better to groom the present horse then beat the old one.

  4. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Roger, thanks so much for posting this article. It certainly demonstrates that AA has always had to some degree an us vs. them dynamic between ardent believers and those of us who are not. For what it’s worth, it’s not we that discriminate against them or try to proselytize them to convert to our beliefs, but vice versa — oh well . . . 😉

    Our challenge is to “accept the things we cannot change but change the things we can” by speaking respectfully — without ad hominem attacks against those who don’t respond in kind to us — our experience, strength and hope of recovery in AA without belief, which is exemplarily demonstrated in this excellent article.

    Joe C’s inventory of “Agnostic” panels at recent AA International Conventions, along with the poor excuse of the 2014 conference-approved pamphlet to “tell our stories”, demonstrates that the current trend in AA, overly influenced by the “Back to Basics” folks, is to regress to a mythological misunderstanding of what AA was like initially in Akron. Yes, it was much more oriented to readings from the Bible & the Upper Room, a Methodist devotional periodical, and quiet time, but during the 40s and 50s, under the influence of Bill’s spiritual, not religious, evolution, the spread of AA throughout the country became much less doctrinaire in nature. This liberalization of AA away from the pietistic, evangelical style of Akron AA continued generally from the 60s into the 90s. There has always been ardent big book thumpers as demonstrated by the widespread popularity of Clarence Snyder retreats as well as the Joe and Charlie tapes during the 70s and 80s.

    However, as John H. discussed here on May, 17th Back to Basics and Other Threats to AA since 1998 or so the trend has been to radically change AA into a narrow, doctrinaire “God-centered Christian” approach only. This certainly was the motivation for delisting our groups. Another radical revisionist is Led by Wally P. and Dick B., they have influenced much of AA throughout the hinterlands of North America.

    My sense is that the divide between believers and those of us who believe differently or have no belief shall increase for the next couple of decades. Once, however, the huge cohort of us Baby Boomers dies off, I have great hope that younger, more secular generations of alcoholic addicts in AA, skilled in the use of social media, will bring about another period of sustained growth in AA, characterized by a renewal and regeneration of practice in accordance with our traditions and most of our history.

    I am encouraged by the rapid growth of secular AA throughout North America. This week both secular meetings in Portland, Oregon experienced new records of attendance at our meetings, 28 at Secular Sobriety on Friday and 41 at Beyond Belief this morning. AA Agnostica literature sales in both groups are increasing.

    We just have to stay the course and keep “trudging our road to happy destiny.”

    • Johnny says:

      Beautifully written and worded thanks from nevada , So looking forward to aa agnostica meetings starting here…

    • cwwj says:

      As a “believer,” I too am appalled by the activists who would narrow AA’s outreach in the belief that they are somehow returning AA to its roots in Christianity. Forgotten is the simple fact that AA, early on, escaped from those roots simply because the Oxford Group was just “too religious.” These few (and I believe their numbers are shrinking) would have us return to a “golden era” that never was.

      And hats off to the secularists who have recognized the power and wisdom of the 12 steps to personal transformation and have adapted them to a program that does not contain the language that has long disturbed many of them.

      But while I am urging my fellow believers to abandon any dangerous attempts to overturn 80 years of outreach to people of all faiths and no faith, I also urge our atheist and agnostic members to view with tolerance those who have embraced a “higher power.” Some posts here show the same intolerance for the believers as the radicals of AA are showing toward the non-believers with their “Back to Basics” nonsense.

      AA is truly a big tent. While I welcome the emergence of secularist groups such as AA Agnostica, we must always remember that our tradition of unity guides our actions. Ridiculing people of belief, speaking with condescension of the “God talk,” and often smugly dismissing the spiritual, undermines that unity of purpose that we cherish and that has safeguarded us for 80 years against dissension and division.

      It should not be forgotten that 94% of all Americans believe in God, a Creator, a Spirit of the Universe, or a Higher Power, and that hasn’t changed since Gallup started taking that survey back in the 1940s. Not all of these people are cranks, nut-cases, fundamentalists, or radicals. Most are mainstream Americans, with families, jobs, responsibilities in their communities, and live lives of love and service that our program asks of us.

      Live and let live is one of our slogans. Let us, on both sides of the aisle, respect that idea, and try to love one another.

  5. Neil F. says:

    Excellent article. Thanks.

  6. Rod says:

    I really enjoyed the article, especially the first of the five points”….I don’t explain or give reasons for my atheism”…. a very pragmatic approach.

  7. Dan L says:

    Beside all the irrationality of religion both in general and in particular what has bothered me from Day One was the magic thinking and reliance upon a Higher Power to change something that I must so clearly change myself if I am to survive. No “higher power” got me in this mess and no “higher power” was going to get me out. I was suffering from an identifiable disorder with several workable treatments which were not necessarily mutually exclusive without the “god thang”. So out it went. I sought for some rationale that would allow for a magic power but ultimately found it to be completely redundant if I were willing to change and learn. In my opinion (please!) reliance upon a higher power is willful denial of my own power and as a result does not really make me stronger at all but in fact makes me stupider for that. There is a strength in stupidity which actually runs the bulk of the human universe. I choose not to hand my will over to it, thank you very much. I do not wish to be overly abrasive but so many of the flat out claims of our sacred BB are just not true.

  8. boyd p. says:

    What is the reason the article is persuasive and timeless? The author focuses on the common nature of our sober journey, avoiding invective language. The five points are utilitarian, incomplete, flawed and at the same time inspired! I dare not say from what source the inspiration comes. There are so many true answers.

  9. Joe C. says:

    A great benefit of being a subscriber to digital Grapevine is having access to every article ever published. June L. from El Granada, California who wrote this article was quoted in Grapevine’s “quote of the day” May 16th.

    This article created quite a buzz. At the 1995 AA World Convention in San Diego the first ever We Agnostics panel was on the program. In Montreal in 1985 they didn’t have such a panel and looking at all the programs from 1950 to 1980, I see that 1995 was a first. Chairing the 1995 panel was Jacque F, from Montreal (Pointe Claire QC), and an AAWS Trustee. Merl E. from California and Mel D. from Sober Agnostics Groups, Thursday Night in the Upper West Side of New York City shared. With time remaining time, Jacque asked if there was a female agnostic who would like to come up to the front and share. Linda F. of Arizona talked. There was time for comments from the floor and someone mentioned what a game-changer this very article was for him. He had several copies with him, happy to share them with his atheist/agnostic fellows.

    Five years later another New York agnostic, Bob would chair the Minneapolis (2000) We Agnostics panel. Gwen from Miami, Richard from Ohio and Fred from Vancouver shared that, while they didn’t have Agnostic/Atheist groups in their home towns (in the year 2000), they all found a way to fit their doubt/skepticism into their local AA. Fred was sober since 1952 and the other two panelists sobered up in the late 1970s.

    BTW, Who was at the 2005 Toronto Conference?

    While I was there (here) I didn’t catch the We Agnostics panel and I’d love to talk to someone who was there. In 2010 the We Agnostics panel wasn’t what AAagnostica types would call “our cup of tea.” It was a by-the-(big)book panel of ESH that included conversion from doubt to theism. It closed with a rousing version of the Lord’s Prayer. I’m sure it suited many but, like I say, it wouldn’t have been our cup of tea.

    I wait with anticipation as to the Atlanta version. I know it’s on the program. The program was going to print while I was in New York last week.

    I had lunch with a couple of past-Trustees who are on panels. One is called, “More Will Be Revealed.” I’d go to that if I was in Atlanta… just a few weeks away.

    • life-j says:

      Joe, I think we have to expect a backlash, and the We agnostics panel will be a conversion seance.
      As we come out of the closet in numbers the back to basics people will see how more important than ever it is for them to redouble their efforts so the program does not get diluted, and the religious folks who make up the conferences and conventions will do the same to try to stem all this heathen nonsense.

    • Laurie A says:

      I attended a standing room only fringe meeting of atheists and agnostics at the 1990 Seattle world reunion.
      Also, BTW, I don’t think Grapevine ‘rations’ agnostic/atheist stories, but they can only print what they receive. And I don’t get the impression that Conference is ruled by born-again fanatics, e.g. no Joe and Charlie literature has ever been Conference-approved. Let’s not get paranoid folks.

  10. Mike says:

    I wish Grapevine published more stories like this. It seems that most of the (relatively few) Grapevine articles dealing with atheism/agnosticism end up with the author ultimately having a religious “conversion” of some sort or another – but rarely one who, as in this story, achieved long-term sobriety while maintaining his/her lack of belief.

  11. Ken P. says:

    Thank you for this article. I have been sober for 17 years and an “out” atheist for three years. Having moved to a new community a year ago, I got a new sponsor. He does not believe that true atheism exists or that I can stay sober without a “spiritual solution.”

    I will give him this article because it says what I have been telling him, only stated much better.

    • Garry B. says:

      I have been sober 30 years and am an atheist. I do not believe it is any of a sponsor’s business what you believe or you do not believe.
      The only philosophy which threatens someone if they do not do some particular something is a religious one. I have the right to believe whatever I want while wishing all others in the program all the best in their own beliefs.

  12. life-j says:

    What an unusually well written article. Well, most things you post are well written, but this one just seems to include everything, and say it with unusual clarity.

    Well one thing it does not address is of course that our program is going down a wrong path these years, and it needs to be corrected, somehow, if AA is to survive as anything but a quaint 1939 relic.

    I had cancer surgery a while back at one of the foremost hospitals in the country. When I went in there I said, could you please do my operation the way they did it in 1939? They gave me an odd look, and said, but that will probably only give you a 5 or 10 % chance of surviving this. Nah, I didn’t, but it does show how absurd it is when people cling to the scripture of the big book as the final word on how to live, or for that matter a book from 300 AD.

  13. John F. says:

    Big Book Foreword, page XX: “Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization”!

  14. larry k says:

    Thanks for the nugget!

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