Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
I sobered up in the Care Unit at St. Elizabeth Hospital on Chicago’s northwest side in June, 1982. Members of AA from the Logan Square Alano Club chaired three meetings a week in the ward room.
They emphasized three things – the cunning, baffling power of booze, the greater power of God, and the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. They stated they were powerless over alcohol and I nodded with understanding. I was powerless too. They told me to go to daily meetings when I got out of rehab and that seemed to be a good idea. They told me to work the 12 steps of the program and get a sponsor to help me do that. That also seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Finally they told me to get down on my knees and pray to God for help or I’d get drunk again.
That was a problem. I’d been an atheist since I was twenty. Now nineteen years later, people were telling me to go to God. I thought it was a waste of time but I didn’t want to start drinking again, realized there were things I didn’t know, and decided to follow directions for a change.
After the meeting where I’d been told to pray, I took the elevator to the chapel on the eleventh floor. The only light was the candle burning next to the tabernacle on the altar. I knelt down in the aisle and stared at the candle, waiting for something to transpire, for some change in my heart. Nothing happened so I cleared my throat and said, “If you’re there and you have something to tell me, I’m listening.”
The room was silent. The candle flickered but nothing else happened. That’s when I realized my sobriety was in my own hands, not God’s or anyone else’s. I got up a changed person. I’d bent my will to the wisdom of the program and despite my misgivings, done something I considered foolish because I was truly over alcohol and willing to go to any lengths to get sober.
I went back to my room, relieved that I wouldn’t have to become a holy roller to maintain my new-found sobriety, and looked through a Chicago meeting directory. I searched for meetings to attend once I was released from the Care Unit. I was dismayed to find most met in churches and seemed religious in focus, such as the Thursday Night Meditation Group, the Miracles Happen Group, the Came to Believe Group, and the Resurrection Group.
I complained about the seeming religious bent of the program to my counselor who shrugged and said, “It’s not so bad. Lots of people who think like you change their tune about God and come around in a few months. You know what it says in the Big Book in the chapter ‘We Agnostics’, right?”
“Yeah, patronizing and highly insulting,” I answered.
“Well, there’s an atheist and agnostic meeting on Mondays at the Second Unitarian Church. That’s Don W.’s meeting. You might like that. Tell him I said hello if you stop by.”
“I will,” I said, “thanks for the information.”
I left the hospital on Friday. Monday night I attended my first Quad A meeting.
I arrived at the church with a bit of trepidation and went downstairs to the basement where the meeting was taking place next to the furnace and the janitor’s utility sink. The room was filled with loud, raucous conversation and sounded like a late-night barroom. I got a cup of coffee and sat down at the back of room, careful to avoid the low-hanging steam pipes.
Smoke billowed across the tables (people still smoked at meetings in those days) and it didn’t take me long to figure out this was not a typical AA meeting where the recovering inebriates let go and let God. Here the members of the fellowship cursed profusely, labeled Ronald Reagan a fascist reactionary, and denounced religion as a delusional disease. I immediately felt myself relax. I was home.
Don W. sat at the head of a long table, tapped his lighter on the edge, took the cigar from his mouth, and called the meeting to order. “This is Quad A,” he said, “AA for atheists and agnostics and anyone else with a desire to stop drinking.” He was a small man with a gray goatee who spoke in an easy, soft voice. “We’re here to talk about alcoholism so let me start by telling you what it was like for me,” and he launched into his lead.
He explained that some people believe in God as a higher power or a power greater than themselves and that helped them stay sober. He said we didn’t have to do that. All we had to do was to recognize and acknowledge a power – any power – greater than ourselves. He said many people use the group or AA itself as their higher power.
“That’s cool,” I thought. “The group works for me.”
Don finished up by saying that God had nothing to do with his being a drunk and God had nothing to do with sobering up because he never met a god small enough to fit inside his head. He said it was us, the good people around the tables, who kept him sober and that we are why he kept coming back, because it was the only way he knew to deal with his disease.
Don’s message was calm, positive, and reassuring but when he opened the meeting to comments, it became clear that not everyone possessed his serenity. Some people expressed outrage, others confusion, and a number said they weren’t grateful to be alcoholics.
Paul V., a white-haired, cantankerous sailor, complained about the intolerance of the religious hypocrites in the program. Kansas City Len denounced the step Nazis as brainless brutes. Eva M. told us she wasn’t sure if she was an alcoholic and was just following court orders. Larry W., the bemused newsman, revealed how he’d kept a pint in his desk at the paper to help him write but that his writing had seemed to improve since he dumped the bottle and began to attend meetings. John T., a querulous lawyer, argued Bill W. couldn’t have it both ways – either alcoholism was a disease or the result of character flaws, not both. And Railroad Bill angrily noted that the only two things he was ever entirely ready for was to have sex and eat a good meal.
These were my people. Most were Boomers gone bad, 60s radicals overwhelmed by their addictions, but still disrespectful, defiant, verbal, and outraged. Most admitted to being dually addicted, many reported DUIs, and a few, like me, had spent some time in jail.
But there was energy in the room, a determination to stand and fight, not let alcohol and drugs overwhelm us, and Don’s calm cool at the head of the table assured us it was possible. He had been sober for years and had started this meeting in 1975, “so I could get together and not pray with a bunch of drunks like myself”. He reassured me that I could be a sober atheist and I kept coming back.
Week by week, Don told us many things. He agreed AA wasn’t a perfect program or organization but all we had to do was take what worked for us and leave the rest. He said the program was simple: don’t drink and go to meetings. He said working the steps was probably a good idea and so was going to ninety meetings in ninety days. He said having a sponsor helped many people but if you weren’t so inclined, that wasn’t necessary. “Don’t pick up that first drink,” he said, “go to a meeting, and you’ll be fine”.
When people got excited about God, denouncing him and his cohorts, his priests, and the congregations that gathered on Sundays to sing hymns and pass the collection plate, Don advised them not to get worked up. “We don’t need God to stay sober. We have each other.”
At that time Don’s Monday night Quad A meeting was the only meeting for atheists and agnostics in Chicago and I knew I needed more than one meeting a week to stay sober. I’d been a daily drinker and although I didn’t do ninety in ninety, during my first six months in the program, I usually made six meetings a week.
The Quad A group kept me grounded and when people claimed you had to get on your knees first thing in the morning and last thing at night or you’d be drunk again, I knew that wasn’t true. I didn’t have to pray. I had to attend meetings.
Sometimes I heard nonsense but I also heard a lot of good advice from both atheists and religious people about how to handle stress, anger, and the ups and downs of daily life, how to get along with others (a skill I always been too drunk to refine and develop) and how to live as a responsible, reasonable adult who didn’t need a drink to get through the day (or night).
When I told some people I was an atheist, they assured me I’d drink again unless I changed my ways and got with God. They were wrong. I knew that. Don had told me they were wrong and what he told me was true. I haven’t drunk again.
Don also had a great way to end our meetings. He’d say, “That’s it for tonight, so we’ll end in our usual way without saying anyone’s prayer”. There were nods and chuckles and people would drift off into the night with satisfied smiles on their faces.
We still end the Monday night Quad A meeting that way but we’re no longer alone. There are currently a dozen atheist/agnostic meetings in the city and suburbs, each one doing things its own way but still implementing Don’s basic philosophy: “Take what you need and leave the rest”.
That’s a flexible, effective approach to the program. It’s worked for me, kept me sober, and that’s why I keep coming back.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.