Carrying the Message to the Nonbeliever
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
By Nell Z.
“The first time I came into an AA meeting, I felt right at home.”
I have heard this shared at group level time and time again. I can imagine the sensation of peace and relief that this discovery of belonging must bring for the alcoholic who immediately feels “at home”. Unfortunately, this was not my experience.
My name is Nell, I am an alcoholic, and the first time I came into an AA meeting I felt like I had to squeeze past God to get through the door.
Let me back up, so as not to create the assumption that AA was the initial cause of this discomfort. I have been an agnostic since childhood, so I’ve felt out of place as long as I can remember, even when among others who shared my abilities and interests. My parents raised me to believe in God, and everyone in the world around me seemed to share in this view, so I did what we alcoholics do best: I pretended from very early on. I was worried that if I didn’t pretend, I wouldn’t fit in, and I wanted so desperately to belong. I pretended to believe in God until my parents checked me into a Christian-based residential treatment center. I left the first day, and after that, the cat was out of the bag.
I spent the next decade under the influence, in and out of meetings on court cards, telling people that AA was never going to work for me because of “the God thing”. The truth is, I just wasn’t ready to stop drinking. Then one day, all of a sudden, I was. I got the gift of desperation. I realized that I was done drinking, but I had no idea how to stay sober. I had no answers. All I knew was that there were millions of people in AA who had done it before me. I was willing to do anything it took, and if it meant I could avoid a tragic alcoholic death, then I would figure out some way to believe in God if that was what I had to do to stay sober.
No successes, not even small ones, have arisen from attempting to turn myself into a believer. No matter how I have tried to shape and redefine God into a concept that satisfies me enough so that I can believe, my efforts are always in vain. It is like trying to cram a square peg into a round hole; it will never fit. I want to believe, I really do. I just can’t. A fellow AA nonbeliever once suggested to me that maybe we are missing the “God” part of our brains. This seems like an entirely likely explanation, since I become frustrated by trying to believe, much like a patient with aphasia becomes frustrated when trying to speak. He won’t be able to, no matter how hard he tries, because the structure is simply not intact. “Higher Power” was of no help to me either. There are lots of powers greater than me. To choose one seemed negligent of the rest, and to call it “mine” seemed unnecessarily possessive.
Step One was easy enough. I qualify as an alcoholic; of this I am absolutely sure. Fortunately, during the last of my many incarcerations, I had an experience that removed my obsession to drink. It was a “moment of clarity”, a cognitive shift, or a psychic change, if you prefer. As an agnostic, I did not try to explain this in terms of either God removing my obsession or a chemical change in my brain. I was just grateful for the experience. The important thing for me to remember is that if I want to continue living, I have to acknowledge the fact that I am one of those people who cannot drink no matter what.
Step Two proved to be a bigger challenge. My sponsor instructed me to construct a God of my own understanding, and I called her each night in tears, unsatisfied with my designs. They were ridiculous, flawed, and implausible. My knowledge of existence is so limited that I felt it much safer to avoid speculation entirely. One thing’s for sure though: If I create God, I’m bound to get it wrong. I’ve been making a mess of things my whole life. And what was the point of this silly exercise, anyway? I know I’m not in charge. I know there is very little in this world that I have any say in. I am just a grain of sand on the beach, an insignificant speck of dust in an infinite universe.
Then she said a brilliant thing to me, words that I’ve since repeated to many newcomers. “Honey”, she said, “if trying to have a higher power is making your recovery worse, then stop”.
So I did.
Just as none of us share the exact same environmental upbringing or biological hardwiring, everyone’s spiritual journey is different. In AA, the journeys that are often spotlighted are those of the atheists and agnostics who come to believe. The long-term atheists and agnostics often remain unidentified, hiding in the shadows, scared to express their take on spirituality. What about those who come in as nonbelievers and retain their skepticism? What about those who come in unsure, only to discover they are atheists? Beliefs are fluid and forever changing, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. But one thing is certain: they do not progress in one direction along a continuum. Not all of us “come to believe”.
The sensation of being uncomfortable in my own skin and in AA continued throughout my early recovery. When I spoke my truth at meetings, I was often chastised, sometimes even at the group level through cross-talk. I heard a seasoned old-timer brag at several meetings that he refuses to sponsor men who don’t believe in God. One woman told me that if I didn’t come to believe, I would surely relapse. I tried not to take offense to this; relapse is still a “yet” for me, and the future of everyone’s sobriety is uncertain anyway. Still, I felt out of place, so I sought out other nonbelievers.
One day, I discovered a group of like-minded individuals who also suffered from alcoholism and held an AA meeting in a non-prayer format. There, I finally found comfort and a sense of belonging. For the first time, I was home, and it was such a relief to be among people who shared similar views. Many of them had multiple decades of sobriety, and they showed me how to stay sober in ways that made sense to me.
Because of the integral role that this meeting format played in my early recovery, I felt compelled, with the help of other atheists and agnostics, to start a meeting of the same format on the Monterey Peninsula, where such a meeting did not yet exist. We called it “Freethinkers”, which is the name adopted by various other non-prayer AA groups throughout the nation.
Getting our meeting listed on the schedule through our local central office was no easy task, however. It was a year-long battle of votes and re-votes, principles and personalities clashing. We were treated as a separatist movement, which reaffirmed the growing conviction I had that atheists and agnostics in AA are often devalued, marginalized, and suppressed. This was most aptly illustrated by a question asked of me by a member of the steering committee: “Why does your group even want to be on the schedule?” He seemed perplexed, genuinely baffled by something that struck me as so simple and obvious. We want to be on the schedule because we are alcoholics, we are members of AA, and we want to be treated equally among AA groups. Most importantly, though, we want to carry the message.
The spiritual principles of AA, such as honesty, open-mindedness, willingness and brotherly love, can be practiced by anyone, God-believer or not. Some say that AA works for the people who want it. Others say that AA works for the people who need it. I say AA works for the people who DO it. For me, AA is a program of self-improvement. When it comes to my humanity, my sobriety and my recovery, I prefer solutions that are tangible, practical, and achievable to those that are magical, abstract and elusive.
I equate my spirituality to my humanistic journey toward genuine human connection, service, love, and kindness, and the direct practice of the principles advocated by AA. For me, spirituality has nothing to do with beliefs. It has only to do with action. I achieve spiritual fitness through the things that I do (and avoid doing) with the goal of being the best possible version of myself that I can be in any given moment.
In my eyes, AA is a wonderful program with idealistic traditions that are often warped in their execution by imperfect human beings.
A conclusion that I have reached, based on my continued stay in AA and the endless variety I observe in personalities around me at meetings, is this: The program of Alcoholics Anonymous can work for anyone, anywhere, and under any circumstances. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or haven’t done. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you believe. It doesn’t matter what sort of trials and tribulations you have to walk through in sobriety. Take what you want and leave the rest; the program works if you work it.
In trying to find a higher power, I was trying to fix something that isn’t broken. I am who I am, and in a program geared toward rigorous honesty as a spiritual ideal, “fake it til you make it”, or otherwise pretend to believe in something that I don’t, is counterproductive to my recovery. I am happy, joyous, and free when I practice spiritual principles. This formula applies to everyone, believers and skeptics alike. There is no “maybe” with respect to AA being a spiritual program. It absolutely is, by my definition, and is open to everybody, with the only requirement for membership being a desire to stop drinking. Everything else, from the steps to the clichés and clever quips, are pure suggestion. The popular myth, that AA is a religious cult or demands a belief in a higher power, needs to be dispelled, and I believe that the agnostic meetings help accomplish this.
Before I discovered the “Freethinkers” meeting, I was straddling the threshold, wondering if it was really true that I could use AA to stay sober without having to believe in God. I shudder to think of how many relapses may have followed had I not found that meeting on the local schedule and decided to attend. I had to first feel comfortable going to meetings before I could enjoy going to meetings. It took this initial experience, this softening of the blow in the form of a non-prayer meeting, to squeeze through the door past everyone else’s God and anchor myself into the seat, exactly where I belonged.
I enjoy going to meetings of all sorts now… prayer or non-prayer, church or Alano club. The forum and the format no longer intimidate me; I finally found somewhere that I fit in. As a naïve newcomer, I honestly thought my rejection of God put me in a very small minority. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
All other factors aside, whenever there is a desire to stop drinking, the answer to the question, “Can AA work for me?” is a resounding YES. I am an agnostic and a proud member of Alcoholics Anonymous. And, until the day arises when I decide to lift a drink to my lips and destroy my life for a second time, I’m not going anywhere.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.