Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
Apostate: Noun, a person who renounces a religious or political belief or principle. Synonyms: dissenter, defector, deserter, traitor, backslider, turncoat.
Looking back over my life, I have been always been part of culture or cult; my identity derived from the group philosophy whether family, nation, religion, sect, or recovery affiliation. My problem has always been a sense of self that depended on whatever group I was in, and being OK with it. Adopting and shedding labels has been a life-long process.
The firstborn (1948) of five military brats to a nurse and Navy medic, the higher powers of my first 16 years were mom, dad, the U.S. Navy, and the deities of the Roman Catholic Church, in that order.
Then the Sixties happened. Parental dysfunction, alcohol, sexuality, drugs, music, assassinations, the Vietnam War; world, social, and personal unrest all collided with my own self-centered fears to set me on a 28 year path of searching for a replacement of my childhood sense of ease, comfort and security. That searching included not only drugs and alcohol but a ten year stint in a fringe Christian evangelical fundamentalist group and various other beliefs, both western, eastern, and new-age; all mixed with alcohol and various drugs and behaviors. Add to that a 31 year marriage with one child, the first 20 years of which were soothed by alcohol and/or drug use, and the last 10 of which were nothing more than what some call dry, untreated alcoholism.
Alcohol was always within reach. Grampa’s home brew and wine as an altar boy were my first tastes of the heavenly elixirs. In high school I became a weekend blackout drinker all the while expected to be the devout Roman Catholic. Then I enlisted in the Navy due to my fears of being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Little did I realize that I had jumped from the frying pan into the fire, as they made me a medic. And medics, as you may not know, went with the Marines!
Fueled by my resentments about my parents’ imminent divorce and destruction of my childhood security and my fears of an uncertain future, I used the cloak of the virtues of the anti-war movement to protest my unrighteous involvement in it. The Navy was not impressed. So I resorted to less desirable means to get myself removed from their employ, especially after a fellow friend and co-worker was killed in action. I was willing to go to any length to save myself, even a lifelong label of being a gay drug addict. The military didn’t consider alcohol abuse or alcoholism a problem back then, at least not openly, so I couldn’t use that even if I had been aware of it.
Not long after my undesirable discharge and much more excessive use of alcohol and drugs of any kind I could get my hands on, I got religion again. It was 1970 and Jesus People were everywhere, militant and strange ones at that. I joined up with the Children of God and became intoxicated, as John Bradshaw described in Healing the Shame that Binds You, on righteousness. This is where I met my late wife and made feeble attempts at responsibility and relationship, all the while dependent on my addictive nature for relief or escape. But at the end of a 12 year experience with them, it was just alcohol and more fear and uncertainty.
Our son was born in ‘82 and more responsibility meant the need for more relief and reward and that meant more drinking. By 1992 I figured my alcohol use might be the cause of my then marital, financial, and mental distress. Actually, my drinking was becoming more problematic than my other stressors. Facing bankruptcy, divorce and unemployment, I went to my first AA meeting with a sincere desire to stop drinking and it worked. That desire, combined with the fellowship and comradery, displaced my need to drink. I got what I came for and stopped going to meetings after two months but read the books for the next ten years as my wife and life became more unmanageable without alcohol. I adopted lots of other issues to cope; mostly materialism, work-a-holism, affairs of the actual or emotional variety, smoking, and occasional pill popping.
I became extremely depressed, or as a friend said, “just depressing.” I didn’t know it at the time but that ten year span was my first and longest experience as a “dry drunk”, and I fully experienced the emotional lows that can be reached without self-medication. My family wished I’d return to drinking, when I’d seemed happier.
After reading tons of self-help, relationship, psychology, and new-age books, I went to a therapist on my own. It helped. Then my wife died and our only son began his tear into his own searching and left. Sober and alone for the first time in my life, I met a woman member of AA and went to a meeting on a date. I don’t know who was more desperate. After ten years without a meeting I felt at home again.
I got a sponsor, did the steps Joe and Charlie style (an old fundamental by the book way), got into service, some sponsoring, AA conventions and daily meetings; all the while being frustrated with the “god talk” and feeling agnostic but wanting to fit in and not make waves. I had always felt this conflict from the beginning in AA but was willing and desperate enough to sit with it or ignore it in order not to drink and be part of the fellowship.
Everyone was saying that step work was integral to my inner happiness and usefulness, so I listened to hundreds of speakers and Big Book thumper’s recordings and step studies. I wanted sobriety but I also wanted to sound good and be liked, as well as grow. After about five years sober I discovered Edward Bear’s series of books, starting with The Dark Night of Recovery, which had just the right amount of irreverence and free-thinking for me at the time. I closed many a meeting with, “Great Pumpkin, grant me the serenity…” Looking back, this is where I consider my experience with conference “unapproved” literature began to enhance my emotional sobriety and free-thinking.
While working the steps with other members, I began to finally put the steps and attendant prayers into my own words for myself as best I could and felt much happier about it. I found that the language of religion or the Big Book was insufficient to communicate the language of my heart. I think what turned the key for me was the line in the Big Book that says, “The wording was, of course, quite optional so long as we express the idea, voicing it without reservation”. It was liberating to take that to heart!
How could I talk about or pray to a god I honestly did not believe existed anymore? So, I have discarded the mythological and gone for the tangible. The group itself, its collective consciousness, the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, the principles of the “we” factor, and the expansion of that idea to include not only AA but all of humanity, are all powers greater than me. Also, the idea expressed in Appendix II about an “unsuspected inner resource” that we are all born with has marked my path.
By 2011 I had read Waiting: a Nonbelievers Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher and realized I was agnostic and still felt out of step and distanced by all the god talk and prayers in the fellowship. I didn’t realize I was finding my own voice and language. And I have found this new language everywhere. I had heard it a long time in the background and had been drawn to it but felt separate from it, or that it was not inclusive or approved of, or less than, with regard to the more religious aspects of the fellowships and program. I’ve found it not only in religions but mythology and philosophy, in fable and folklore. The difference is that I’m OK with not having to gravitate towards the belief in anyone else’s mythology as I am expected to do in the chapter to We Agnostics in the Big Book. I feel that as an agnostic, atheist, or realist member of AA, I’m finally being part of a whole that is inclusive. I am being honest with myself and others and sense a profound equilibrium with that. The need for a few drinks that others take with impunity is no longer necessary to feel this way. Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t care what I do or don’t believe because it is not allied with any faith, sect or denomination, although you wouldn’t know it at some meetings.
When I discovered Beyond Belief by Joe C. and AA Agnostica in January of 2014, I realized I was also an atheist to at least a degree. My apostasy has grown by degrees just as my former beliefs did, and of course, are being replaced by new beliefs which I’m sure will also change. I still find it difficult to sit still in meetings parroting steps and traditions, trying to translate meaningfulness only in my head, faking it, feeling internally divided and untrue to myself and others, rarely meaning anything I said. I was letting AA become another cult to me. I acknowledged a growing sense of indignation and anger, a desire to stand up for what I felt, especially after reading about the prejudices that were occurring elsewhere regarding delisting of agnostic and atheist meetings by “governing” AA intergroups.
At this point I remember exploring many books on atheism and feeling a sense of loss, grief, and fear of the unknown. A lot of fear. Fear of what it would be like to be without a god, capital G or not. Fear of what others would think and say. A blank screen was in front of me psychically, waiting for me, and no one else, to fill in the picture.
The screen remained blank.
It was frightening and still is at times but it has now become more challenging to explore what I really think and feel is most meaningful in each moment. The beliefs of others had dominated my thinking for so long I felt as though my own thinking muscles had become atrophied and crippled. I still find myself reaching outside of myself for information to describe what I think, feel and believe, and there doesn’t seem to be any way around that. I have to accept that, but can recognize it as not necessarily me.
In June of 2014 after six months of stewing in that discomfort, I and a few others started our own open group of Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists, Agnostics and All others. (Yes, that’s 5 A’s.) I did it for me and because of the several alcoholics who have died in my community in recent years. They were atheist, agnostic, or terribly oppressed and self-loathing Christians. I want others who feel as I to have a place to come and share their innermost selves, including and especially their doubts, without shame or fear of being rejected or coerced into believing in somebody else’s traditional outlooks.
What it’s like now? Now I want to (and have to!) explore all of my thinking, instincts and motives with the freedom, challenge and responsibility that I find in the principles of the steps based on my own understanding and wording which is continually evolving to meet current needs and feelings. Confirmation bias is hopefully kept in check by steps five and ten’s suggestions to check my views with others.
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces
So begins a poem by May Sarton. Those words for me represent the ease and comfort as well as depth and weight I have so long sought and continue to yearn for. I have grown tired of wearing other peoples’ faces. I want to know myself as well as others. Does identity formation ever stop? I don’t think so. As I have heard in the rooms, “I have a yearning disability”. Only it’s not a disability, it’s just human. It’s a normal human instinct, a thirst. To desire connection, food, shelter, companionship, and security is the root of human development on one hand and the root of addiction on the other; normal instincts versus instincts gone wild.
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “When you adopt the standards and values of someone else… you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being”. The challenge is keeping my own integrity while making said values and standards my own. This is the trial and error process of being a human being and what Ernie Kurtz called the “spirituality of imperfection”. Emotional sobriety is my current and continuing frontier. It has to be. These squirrelly things called feelings are in a confluence with my thinking and behavior more than anything else. They seem to be intimately attached to those instincts mentioned above. They are acutely reactionary and defensive and seem to transport me out of the moment more often than not. Flights of fantasy into the future whether fearful or pleasurable, or regrets and remorse over the past; both keep my emotional sobriety date at about five seconds ago.
But that’s OK. Length of sobriety of any kind is, as I have heard, a bankrupt currency by itself. Depth and breadth of sobriety is what I’m interested in.
My name is Kit G. and I have been un-continuously sober for 66 years and today is the first day of the rest of my sobriety.