The Power is in the Process


Chapter 23:
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

John C.

I started drinking at 30 years old. This was because my father was an alcoholic. He was not a bar drinker, but he came home every night and terrorized the family. At 14 years old I made a personal oath to never drink. I went to college, grew my hair long, was an art student, and played guitar in a psychedelic rock band, but using alcohol or drugs was something I never did. Back in the 1960s it was assumed that anyone, with long hair and who played guitar, drank a lot or was on some kind of drug. No one ever questioned me about my secret personal oath.

In my 20s I had odd jobs and obsessed over playing scales correctly on guitar. At that time in my life I didn’t perform as a musician, I was just fascinated by the mathematics of music.

At 30 years old I moved to San Francisco, far from where my father had died five years before, and one day someone handed me a drink. I guess I felt sufficiently separated from my earlier non-drinking life, and my fathers drinking, so I had my first drink.

Drinking had an immense affect on me. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I became a daily drinker on the day of my first drink. I could now look people in the eye and with my new found confidence I got a good job.

I was working as an electronic technician, drinking until late at night and then, with no hang-over, going into work the next day. Sometimes I would be in a black-out until 10 AM. I would “wake-up” at my desk at work or out in the field repairing equipment. But everyday at 5 PM I would start to shake and sweat and I knew I had to get a drink as soon as possible. It was a strange lifestyle, but I felt it came with the territory of me now being a drinking man, something I could never see giving up.

This went on for three years until my first AA meeting. My boss at work called me into his office around 5 PM one day and in the silence we could hear the ice rattling in my soda cup. He told me I had to get my act together. Then a girlfriend told me that she had been to Al-Anon and they told her I should go to AA. So I went.

My first impression of the meeting was good. People were laughing and telling wild stories. As I sat in the meeting I could feel my attitude and perspective changing. I was identifying with the stories. By the end of the meeting I thought this was really cool, I belonged here, and I didn’t want to drink anymore.

But then I looked up on the wall and saw the 12 steps, god this and god that. I was an atheist and my heart fell, this was never going to work for me.

I became an atheist in the third grade when I was sent to Catholic school. I didn’t believe anything they were telling me. I was a reader of Popular Science magazine and to this day I believe that everything has a scientific explanation.

I left that first meeting with AA members chasing after me, telling me they were positive there was a god and I needed to believe in him. I thought I would never return. After a short home detox I didn’t drink for two weeks, but then started drinking again.

For the next three years I would try to prove that I could fix myself. I tried Antabuse, but drank on it. I had two drunk-driving arrests and also spent a couple of nights in drunk tanks. Once my job sent me out of town where I ended up in the local drunk tank. The owner of the business I was working with had to bail me out. I even went back to AA meetings a few times, with no intention of working the steps, but to get that collective spirit of not drinking. It would give me a week or two of drying out. One time I realized that I was about to have 30 days, but drank on the 30th day because I didn’t want any official connection to people who believed in the supernatural.

Finally in March of 1982 I was on a nasty drunken weekend and was fired from a job the following Monday. I had drank that morning and I went into work drunk. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

At AA meetings I had heard that, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” This was the key. After a four day home detox I marched into an AA meeting with the idea, “This AA thing does not have to be about belief”. I am somehow going to make this work.

Having gone to meetings off and on for three years I could see the science behind how the program worked. People use god-belief when they don’t understand what is really going on. The AA program with its meetings and 12 steps works very well, but the majority of members are under the delusion that a supreme being has cured them of alcoholism. When I realized that I could utilize the program without having to follow this philosophy of god-belief, I felt a new freedom.

Carl Jung the Swiss psychiatrist had used the term “collective unconscious” and when I heard that term I knew right away what it meant. Once when I was in college we had an impromptu snow-ball fight with 200 students that ended up out on the main highway through town. Here I was in the middle of a major highway blocking traffic and throwing snow-balls at cars. This was something I would never do on my own, but in the group of students it felt like the natural thing to do. I remembered back to my first AA meeting where this same feeling of power came over me. My unconscious connection to the group changed my thinking. And the fact that I didn’t intentionally change my own thinking is why this process is called a spiritual experience. It was something happening that was beyond my control.

Within two months I was on a pink cloud. I was going to meetings everyday and had many AA friends. At one year a sponsor found me. He accepted that I was an atheist.

Step 2 for me was seeing that people were getting sober in AA. The power greater than myself was the effect of the AA group and the AA process. It was the cause and effect of identifying at meetings and working the steps, a natural phenomenon within the realm of human behavior.

Step 3 for me at that time was religious talk, but I understood it to be an affirmation of moving forward with my life. Starting to do a 4th step was an indication that I had accepted the 3rd step.

With my sponsor I did a 4th and 5th step. This brought about a real sense of freedom and a feeling of belonging in the AA fellowship.

At two years sober I also joined Overeaters Anonymous and at that point I realized what Steps 6 & 7 were about. We need to get into action to get rid of our character defects.

Making Step 9 amends was painful, but inevitably very healing.

Also at 2 years sober I got a job working as a technician on a movie project that took place in a winery up in Napa Valley, California. On the first day the director of the movie announced that anyone could have a free bottle of wine everyday after work. I was suddenly struck by the fact that I didn’t have the desire to drink any wine and here it was even free wine. Something had happened to me over the past two years that completely changed my attitude and perspective.

I met my wife Linda when I was still drinking. After I was sober a year we got married. Being in a relationship is where I quickly learned about the 10th step. I needed to make amends whenever it was necessary to maintain a happy family.

I never really thought about step 11 until I was 20 years sober. It has such a religious tone it seemed unnecessary. But I realized that it was about us being happy, joyous and free. We need to get an idea about what action is necessary for us to be happy, joyous and free. Sometimes it is helping others, but it could also be going back to school or taking a few classes in something we are interested in. Today I go to a weekly AA meditation meeting.

At three years sober Linda and I moved to Los Angeles where for 20 years I worked in a business I had always wanted to work in. We even had an AA meeting on the lot where I worked. I sponsored other alcoholics and for 23 years answered phones at our AA central office. I always enjoy the opportunity to explain the AA program to other atheists.

We raised two daughters who grew up with program parents. Someone asked one of our young daughters once what an alcoholic was and she responded that alcoholics were people who went to meetings. We have had many 12 step program friends over the years and many wonderful social gatherings.

In Los Angeles I also found an AA meeting called We Agnostics. It had been started in 1980 by an alcoholic named Charlie P. Most atheists dislike the AA Big Book chapter We Agnostics, but Charlie said he chose that title so the meeting would get listed at Central Office.

The meeting was very raucous and high spirited with around 40 people attending. My first time there I heard someone shout out, “I don’t read the Big Book and I don’t trust anyone who does!” Wow! That was a refreshing change from other meetings I thought. Many of the AA members there had long-term sobriety. For many years now this and other We Agnostics meetings have been an interesting gathering spot for us sober freethinkers and a nice relief from the god-believing meetings.

I am now retired, but still work at many creative projects. Linda and I still enjoy going to AA, Al-Anon, and other 12 step meetings.

I believe that we all get sober with the same power greater than ourselves, but myself and many others don’t see that power coming from supernatural beings or divine intervention. The power is in the process. What got me sober was the experience of meetings, the action of inventory, amends, and service, and the spirituality of the human spirit.

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 Amazon. It 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.

12 Responses

  1. Lise says:

    Thank you for the speedy reply. Yes, it really captures something wonderful… I also love The Man On The Bed, painted by Robert M. and apparently done for The Grapevine in 1955. Both paintings depict what I think is the crux of AA… community, fellowship, mutual support… you are not alone.

  2. Roger says:

    Hi Lise. The painting is called “The AA Meeting” and was done by Brian Stewart. As he reports, “The meeting house I painted here is in South Minneapolis and features the usual cast of characters sharing their experience, strength and hope. The painting portrays the giving of a medallion for another year of sobriety, a very special event in the life of a recovering person”. More details are available here: Large Paintings by Brian Stewart. It is a very impressive portrayal of an AA meeting. Roger.

  3. Lise says:

    I discovered this gem of a book shortly after returning to AA from a 3 year relapse precipitated by the death of my husband. It helped enormously but I still kept my atheism a secret and tried to ‘work the program’ the traditional way. Eventually I left AA and drank again for 3 years. I returned recently after the death of my Father… but only under the condition that I am completely out as an atheist… that I find and attend secular meetings and share openly in meetings my experiences as an atheist in recovery. I am so glad to see that things are changing in the world of AA, slowly but seemingly more quickly in recent years… just having this website is a real lifesaver!

  4. Lise says:

    Please, does anyone know the name and source of the painting that accompanies this article?
    Many thanks

  5. Jeb B. says:

    Another great story to which I can relate! After years of living in the spiritual makebelieve during my drinking years, something Bill spoke of in the Big Book, it was important for me to recognize that what Bill outlined was an entirely pragmatic process for self-empowerment. Learning the process and how to use it on a daily basis has produced an amazing journey like yours. Letting go of old and useless ideas was the most challenging and ongoing thing for me, but essential for learning anything new. Now that we have a couple of nonreligious AA meetings in Denver, I am hearing more and more evidence of the solution working without imaginary friends. Yes, it really works!

  6. Frank B says:

    I could really identify with your early atheistic thoughts. I was also very young when I realized that an unseen diety powering all the world just didn’t make sense. I have read the wonderful book “The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality” by Andre Comte-Sponville. In this book he talks about his difficulty in believing that he could trust a god that stays hidden from him! After I stopped laughing, I realized that is the reason why I am an atheist! Comte-Sponville also believes that the human need for connection is a healthy basis for spiritual practice and there is no need to create a mythical god to explain spiritual phenomena. Very helpful. I am now a member of a We Agnostics group in Portland, ME and we are increasing in size and diversity. It is a wonderful thing to be able to speak freely about non-diety centered spiritual growth.
    Frank B.

    Atheist Spirituality

  7. Tom D. says:

    Wonderful story. Once again I’ve heard (read) many elements of my own journey of twenty-nine years sobriety in AA. I would like to take a moment to address the notion of “blackouts.” I’ve often heard it stated at meetings of those among us who have experienced “blackouts” of how fortunate they were that they had caused no harm during the “blackout” (or that god was looking out for them at the time). Folks, please, let’s dispel the myth that we were somehow functioning in an unconscious state during this time. What we “blackout” is the memory of the events during the “blackout”. God or good fortune not withstanding, we were as conscious of events during that time as at any other during our drunken reveries; we just lost the memory.

  8. Lance B. says:

    An exquisite description of my feelings in AA and about not drinking. Thank you.
    As what has happened on a regular basis here at aaagnostica, someone has put into words things I’ve been unable to see while the words of “how it works” and other big book ideas kept reinforcing my confusion. Once I stop drilling incompatible thoughts into my head, and get help in seeing my truth, I feel gratitude and pleasure in knowing all you cool atheists. And I grow.

  9. Maureen says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have been struggling so hard with the God thing. My sponsor told me to read pages 1 to 164 of the Big Book. I had before, many times. This time I just couldn’t. I started feeling hopeless. Frightened and doomed. So I googled AA Atheist and found a wonderful sight Giving me ideas of a power greater than myself. Reality is one. Spirituality is the rooms of AA. Then I read your essay. I am just not sure about praying. I can’t do that either. So I think I will substitute meditation for praying. Again, thank you.

  10. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks so much, John — I resonated deeply with your story.

    For years I’ve used the slogan TTP, “Trust The Process,” sometimes repeating it endlessly like a mantra to calm myself down in moments of stress and distress.

    I also greatly appreciate how you follow the generic humanistic and ethical principles of AA’s steps in Fellowship with other agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. To me, this is the essence of How It Works !~!~!

  11. Phil E. says:


  12. Micaela S. says:

    Great essay. I agree with everything you wrote.

    Micaela S.
    (fellow atheist with 10 years of continuous strong sobriety in AA)

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