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.
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.