Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
My father got sober in AA in 1952. He drove two hours round trip to the nearest city to attend the only weekly meeting in his region. I was five, but I have no memories of my father as a drinker. He didn’t try to frighten us kids away from alcohol, but he did tell us that AA was the place to go if we ever “got into trouble” with booze. As far as I knew, my father had never lied to me, so in 1984 I took his advice. I was 37, and I had been unsuccessfully trying to control my drinking. At my first meeting, I felt hopeful. I realized that I could get sober in AA. Though I saw no one at that meeting who seemed “like me”, I identified with at least one thing each person said. After the meeting, a scary looking guy came up to me and said: “Just don’t drink, even if your ass falls off”. That I understood his warning as sage advice certainly speaks to how ready I was for AA.
In the small town where I got sober, I ran into God problems almost immediately. My first roadblock was The Big Book. I couldn’t stand it. It struck me as a self-help book for Christian men from my father’s generation. I am a woman, a feminist and an atheist who came of age in the 1960s, not the 1940s. The Book was not written with me in mind, and no matter how hard I tried to twist the language to make it fit, it didn’t.
The second roadblock was The Lord’s Prayer. One of my regular meetings closed with that prayer. At first, I didn’t recite the prayer, not because the words offended me, but because I don’t believe them. A few well-meaning people urged me to “fake it ‘til you make it”. I didn’t want to bring negative attention to myself, so I decided to conform. I felt in my gut that if I was going to keep coming to AA, which I absolutely had to do, I needed to avoid alienating myself from the people whose help I needed.
After my first anniversary, I got a sponsor. Like all the AA women I knew, her higher power was God. In fact, she had just converted to Catholicism. She was, fortunately, willing to allow me to work the Steps without trying to force me to define a higher power for myself. She told me not to worry, that she understood that “some of us take longer than others”. By the time I got to my 5th Step, I was trying to be opened-minded. I thought maybe I should give the higher power thing a try. I had met a lot of people who seemed happily sober. And while I was grateful to be sober, I was certainly not happy during those first couple of years.
I began my exploration with a book of daily readings, consisting of an AA-related reflection, followed by a prayer. Although I tried to approach this sincerely, saying the prayer made me feel like a phony, so I gave it up. I also met with a professor of theology, a friend of a friend. She gave me interesting things to read, from many monotheist traditions, and we met once a month to discuss them. I found many of the writers intelligent and persuasive. Still, I was not persuaded. By my third year, I decided I had given God an honest try, and I returned to my former belief (or nonbelief). I didn’t share my decision with anyone because I didn’t know anyone I thought would accept it. I remember I felt lonely about that. I had a family and a demanding job. Otherwise, I might have looked outside my town for some meetings with like-minded women.
By the time I’d been sober six years, I was going to only one meeting a week. I appreciated my sober life. I liked the person I had become, and I never had a desire to drink. I also hadn’t changed my ways in AA. I was friendly with only a handful of people. I didn’t go to retreats, or listen to tapes, or join in AA social events. After I completed the steps, I drifted away from my sponsor, and didn’t look for another. Though I was respected in meetings as someone with solid sobriety and a good message, I was rarely asked to sponsor, perhaps because I wasn’t an insider. Also, I didn’t usually reach out to newcomers because I didn’t feel I could be honest about my atheism. It’s hard to guide someone through the Steps and avoid the God talk and I believed newcomers were better off if they could fit in. In 1994, when I was ten years sober, I had a new relationship and began skipping my Sunday morning meeting. In a few months, I drifted away.
In 2004, after a decade away from AA, I returned. I had experienced a number of losses, and I thought meetings might chase away my despair. It worked. I soon felt better – more hopeful, more energetic. I was, however, disappointed to see that AA was still conservative. At that time, many newcomers were calling themselves “cross-addicted”, and they were meeting resistance. Some of the members, mostly “old-timers”, claimed that AA is for alcoholics only. Though the label “cross-addicted” was never banned, those who used it knew they were being tolerated more than accepted. I was twenty years sober, and I still didn’t know another AA atheist.
In 2005, I moved to another small town in a nearby state. The town was politically progressive, so I assumed that would spill over into AA. Not so. If anything I found meetings to be even more structured with less opportunity for free discussion. Fortunately, I finally did meet a couple of fellow travelers, Thom and Dominick. We began to talk about the need for a meeting for agnostics and atheists. Thom researched agnostic AA meetings online and printed out some materials, including an alternative form of the Twelve Steps. We were good to go. We named our group “We Are Not Saints”. We spread the word, at first, by announcing it at other meetings. Though we heard some grumbling and rumors of opposition, we had no trouble getting the meeting listed. Our group has been meeting for several years with a steady attendance of 10-15, many of whom are newcomers.
After 30 years, I can unequivocally say that I owe my sober self to AA. I doubt I would have made it through my first sober decade without going to meetings. I am cheering the current movement of freethinkers for challenging conservative AA. In 2014, my buddies, Thom and Dominick, attended the first AA convention for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in Santa Monica. They returned beyond enthusiastic about the potential for this new movement.
If it succeeds, and AA begins to welcome and accept agnostics, atheists and freethinkers, countless suffering alcoholics who see AA as a religious organization will begin to lead sober lives, finally comfortable in the rooms of AA.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.