A Programme of Honesty?


Chapter 8:
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

Suzanne M.

My name is Suzanne. I am an atheist alcoholic. I came into AA at 54 years old – totally worn-down after 37 years of drinking. I chose my first group because it was only a short walk from where I lived. It had a strong Christian ethic and – as I now realise – a very fundamentalist approach to the programme. They even included the Lord’s Prayer at meetings, which is most unusual in the UK. After six weeks of attending those meetings I was still sober (good) but found that meetings were like a dose of unpleasant medicine (bad) so I switched to another group. I chose this next group because, again, it was only a short walk – in the other direction – from my home. Astonishingly, this meeting, too, had the Lord’s Prayer. A freakish coincidence.

With the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer in the same meeting I felt that something was wrong, but that I should keep quiet about it. I can’t say that I was aggressively atheist at the time. The Christian faith does not play a large part in the everyday life of most Brits so we are hardly ever required to express an opinion on it. It just seemed very strange that it was thrusting itself into my consciousness in my new venture of AA meetings. The references to “God”, “He” and “Him” felt like a strange throwback to the unthinking acceptance of Christian mythology of my childhood Sunday School days.

Strangely though, someone at that meeting introduced me to the Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion. Reading that was a light bulb moment.  I switched groups again, and found one – walking distance again – which included an openly atheist member! This was progress. But I must say that, although I was beginning to think the unthinkable myself, there was always the very frightening and overwhelmingly loud voice of many people in the fellowship who would tell me it was wrong to go behind the text of the Big Book or to question what it meant. Also that it was wrong to question why we say prayers to God in meetings or why the Big Book constantly refers to God. And the punch line was always, “If you continue to question the programme in that way, you will drink again.” People would say “It’s a programme of honesty” but they would also say – bizarrely – “Fake it to make it”. I feel very uncomfortable faking a belief that a magical father-figure was managing my sobriety.

I tried for a long time to just keep my mouth shut in the face of people insisting that the words of the Big Book are inviolable and that we should not probe behind their meaning or teachings. But the rebel in me comes out once a year when I do my birthday share at my present home group. I feel that on that occasion I am allowed to express my honest opinion about how I got sobriety and how I keep it. What I say is that, for me, AA is as good as the people who are in it. It is the human fellowship of AA that keeps me sober. I can find no evidence, in my sobriety, of an interfering god who has played a part in it.

So last year, seven years into sobriety, and always with a nagging doubt lurking in my mind that there was something not quite right, or not quite honest, about my sobriety, I decided to be brave (or to put my sobriety at risk, as I was darkly warned) and work out what I really could accept from the Big Book and the programme, and what I could leave. I looked at the AA Agnostica website for the first time, and it was a breath of fresh air. People were confidently, and rationally, saying there things which I did not dare to utter because of the power of the BB Taliban. It is strange – Christian overtones are not unduly burdensome in most UK meetings (or maybe I, like many others, have learned to zone-out when they arise). But I personally class religious beliefs alongside fairy stories, and I feel uncomfortable when fairy-stories and superstition are peddled as being an essential part of recovery. I have occasionally wondered what would happen if I announced at a meeting that it was the fairies who kept me sober. Would people respect my belief?

It is a delicate balance. Neither I nor other non-believers want to bring down AA. I know that it is AA, not Smart Recovery or any other similar structure that keeps me sober. AA works for me. But I worry for the next generation of alcoholics. In my early days I read the Big Book four times in a short period, hoping that it would transfer itself into my brain by osmosis and make me sober. I had misgivings about the tone of condescension toward women and non-Christians, and about the dated language and images, but mostly about the overtly Christian tone of the text. Yet it has taken me seven years to find my own voice and my confidence to challenge the prevailing dogma. People ask why most newcomers attend one meeting and never come back. Possibly it is because they are just not ready for it. But I also guess that the sight of all those references to God in the 12 Step wall-hanging, together with the references to God in the readings, are enough to make many newcomers think they have stumbled into a cult and so they run away.

As I write this I am in the process of setting up a Freethinkers/Atheist group in my home town in the UK. There are only four or five such groups in the whole of the UK, as far as I can tell. I want a group where people, newcomers especially, can speak truthfully about their interpretation of the AA programme. I want AA to adapt, modernise and survive. People look pityingly at me when I raise these issues – they seem to suggest that I am making this fuss because I am angry or afraid. I have given it a lot of thought. I find that the discomfort I feel in quietly acquiescing to something I think is false is in itself a disturbance to my sobriety.

I hope, when the new group starts, that AA in the UK can tolerate a tiny wind of change.

Do Tell! [Front Cover]This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

The paperback version of Do Tell! is available at AmazonIt is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom.

It can be purchased online in all eBook formats, including Kindle, Kobo and Nook and as an iBook for Macs and iPads.

14 Responses

  1. Jeb B. says:

    He actually wrote “Those of us who have spent much time in the world of spiritual make-believe have eventually seen the childishness of it.” It is in The Family Afterward (Chapter 9 of the Big Book) on page 130. He then goes on to talk about G-o-d, which only works for me if I use the image of my innermost self, which I believe the book is supposed to trick me into finding, because “It is only there that He may be found.” (page 55)

  2. suzanne says:

    Suzanne here. Thanks to everyone for your kind comments.

    Yes – I like to say Dog at the start of the serenity prayer – and I also call my own dog “The Dog of my Understanding”.

    The new – ish meeting in the UK is in Bristol – in the South West. We started in April this year, and it is doing well. We get about 12 people at an average meeting, and it is really pleasant – anything more starts to feel crowded, because we all have so much to say.

    When a person comes for the first time, they are always a bit surprised at what they are allowed to say without eyebrows being raised. We do not have the Steps or Tradition banners on the wall, we do not read from the BB. If we don’t have a speaker we read from the aaagnostica literature – not conference approved! We don’t have any prayers – not even the serenity prayer. We end the meeting with a silence, and people can read the Declaration of Unity, silently, or the Responsibility Pledge. Then we go for coffee and carry on talking…

    As we say here in Bristol – “It’s Lush” (meaning – really good) I am so pleased to be here at the start of the turning of the tide.

  3. Roger says:

    Hi Lisa: There are five agnostic AA meetings in Seattle. You can find them right here, on the agnosticAAnyc website. Best wishes! Roger.

  4. Lisa says:

    I HAVE TO go to “sober support” groups for two to five years: that is how the local court gets around mandating religion. The ones that fit my schedule are AA, what a surprise. I have actually come to enjoy most of them and look forward to what I can glean between the commercials for the cult aspects. It’s a lot like going shopping, in a way. Hunting and gathering is hard-wired in my brain. Just new ‘prey’: sobriety.

    The people who are honest about their own lives, in their own words, really have something I resonate with and I am so grateful. Those that just quote the brainwashing stuff have less to offer, to me anyway. That’s fine. I am happy to be sitting for a bit. Sometimes the cookies are the only useful part. Mama tol’ me there’d be days like this. No big deal, not like it was at first.

    So I humbly offer a few things that help me stomach all the self-righteous religious silliness:

    1. I don’t give them any money. I heard AA has $10 million in the bank – they don’t need my nickels. My parent gave religion the equivalent of a college education for me – so no guilt here, whatsoever. If you take issue with this, feel free to up your own AA donation.

    2. When/if I participate in the serenity mantra/affirmation/motto, I say “Dog… (as in “a loving dog, as we understand him”). I CAN HAVE the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, THE COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN” (which includes how I work MY, uh, ‘plan’- OMG I almost said “program”! gack! the brainwashing IS ceaseless) etc. Nobody has heard it yet, and it makes me smile, hee hee. I consider it an antidote. Fact is, a HUGE reason I stay sober is to stay alive for pets that I adore and depend on me. That’s a powerful incentive, not a “Higher Power”.

    3. I don’t have a sponsor and don’t intend to. Yes, you can do that! “Ain’t nobodies business, if I do…” ‘Tain’t the law. I avoid a bazillion ghastly arguments that way. I came to this conclusion after putting a note in the donation basket “looking for secular sponsor” with my email attached and seeing the chair THROW IT OUT. Fuck ’em, if they can’t take a poke.

    4. And, of course, I do my own version of a ‘meeting’ right here! I’m HERE and trying to contribute what I can in return for all the good I have received reading the comments. Thanks, everyone.

    We are not alone as long as we can meet here.

    Anybody in Seattle?

  5. Andy Mc says:

    Hi Suzanne, thank you for sharing. Keep up the great work…you are not alone, we are the many and our numbers are growing! Andy.

  6. Roger says:

    Hi Tomassina: The quote is from page 130 of the Big Book. And of course, as is often the case with Bill Wilson, he immediately contradicts what he has just said in the following sentences. Roger.

  7. Tomassina says:

    Hi Jeb,
    I wonder if you could tell us where we can find the words of Bill’s that you quote in your comment ? I’ve never heard them before.

  8. Jeb B. says:

    What a wonderful example of willingness, honesty and open-mindedness, all quite contrary to the “act as if” and “fake it till you make it” talk at many meetings. It took me many years to finally give up pretending for the sake of acceptance. When I finally became comfortable with the reality of AA being a program of action, I was able to give myself permission to not participate in any kind of prayer/asking to an imaginary, external, interventionist being for which I had no evidence. However, the actual process of living the steps daily helped me to find the “unsuspected inner resource,” inner wisdom, I needed to solve my problems. I found the religious approach and expectation to be just another distraction, what I think Bill meant when he wrote “Those of us who have spent much time in the world of spiritual make-believe have eventually seen the childishness of it.” Been there, done that! LOL ?

  9. Wade R. says:

    “I know that it is AA, not Smart Recovery or any other similar structure that keeps me sober.”

    I submit that while a social gathering like AA may assist in your living intoxicant free, it is your choice to not drink in each ‘mind moment’ that keeps you sober.

    You or I don’t ‘need’ AA to stay sober. Cheers!

  10. Jenny T. says:

    Suzanne, where is your group? The only agnostic/atheist meetings in the UK I can find are in London and Derby. Both too far south for me to travel.

  11. Chuck D. says:

    Hi Suzanne: I can relate to what you shared. I live in Vermont and left AA after 22 years or so. Most of that time was spent being a “believer”, and now, I am not. I returned to meetings a few months ago and am trying to filter out most of the god talk and utilize the core principles of each step. It has been challenging. The serenity prayer is said and the lp is said at the end. I’m trying!

  12. Pat says:

    How lucky you are to have AA Agnostica close to you. I am in the US where Christianity is around us everywhere. I can’t stand to go to meetings because of all the praying and God references, and those who insist that even though I got sober myself (13 months now) somehow God was involved in it because ‘He works in mysterious ways’.

  13. Fred K. says:

    Thankyou, Suzanne, for the inspiration. Keep fighting the good fight!

  14. wisewebwoman says:

    Thank you Suzanne for this post which resonated with me. I find my tolerance for the holy, Xtian, patriarchal rituals of AA diminishes as I age and I come here for the sanity.

    I was told at one meeting to work a 4th on my “resentment” towards religion or I would get drunk.

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