by life-j.
Copyright © AA Grapevine (October, 2016)

I got sober, initially on my own, on February 20, 1988. But I realized after a couple of months that it would only be a matter of time before I would drink again if I didn’t get some help, and since I was close to broke, AA was the only option.

I knew only a little about AA, and certainly all the god stuff was a surprise, but I stayed. I think I stayed because at my second or third meeting I got to sit next to this really big guy who talked about being scared of people, and that was something I could relate to. I was scared of people too. This guy probably saved my life, and he will never know it. I felt like I’d come home, in spite of the god stuff, and AA has been my home until just a couple of years ago. I still come several times a week, though it doesn’t feel like home the way it used to.

I never made a secret of being an agnostic, or perhaps an atheist; it doesn’t much matter to me what we call it. But I also didn’t find much reason to talk a whole lot about it.

Then about six or seven years ago, I found myself attending online AA rooms, and there I would often see newcomers getting badgered with a need to find a god, until they left in a cloud of protests and disgust. I did not have it out with the old-timers who did it, but it made me more and more uncomfortable.

This is the original image used on the Grapevine with life-j’s article.

I then stumbled upon the group AA Agnostica, and I got quite involved there. One day a newcomer walked into our local fellowship and announced that she was an agnostic. I decided then and there it was time start a meeting for unbelievers. So I started collecting materials, and then went to our local intergroup and announced that I was going to start a freethinkers’ AA group. I figured no one would have a problem with it. It was after all liberal Northern California, right? But though there seemed to be a small favorable majority, it was put up for discussion for the following meeting whether this meeting could be listed in the schedule – even though it says on the schedules that meetings are listed at their own request and that it doesn’t constitute endorsement. A couple of people were especially against it, and started gathering the votes against it. I held out bravely, but eventually gave up the fight 14 months later.

This whole experience radicalized me way more than I ever wanted to be. I would much rather have been left to just go about my business, focus on my recovery, help the few agnostic newcomers who come my way, along with helping any other newcomer that I can, and have us all be one big happy family. But it feels like the unity has now been lost for the sake of top-down uniformity.

These days, I find myself antagonized by any mention of god, at least to the extent it is presumed to be on my behalf too. And I’m aware that there is considerable support for this uniformity from a number of other intergroups and individual members around the country that have decided to start governing AA. The book Daily Reflections is forever a thorn in my side now. It is read at the beginning of many AA meetings, and it seems like no matter what the beginning quote is, it ends up being a talk about god. And as the Daily Reflections go on and on about it, so do I. I’m sure there will be old-timers who say that it’s just because I have only been sober for 28 years, and more will be revealed.

On the other hand, one agnostic, 43 years sober, finally came out of the closet and I started talking about it. She had been hiding very cautiously all those years. At some point I may settle back down, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. I fear that the “more” that will be revealed is how AA is becoming ever more fundamentalist in spite of the fact that people with “none” for a religion are on the rise in the general population, the general population is on the rise, and AA is shrinking. We need to get back to open-mindedness, love and tolerance if AA is to not eventually shrink into becoming a quaint relic from the last century, or just one more obscure religious movement.

There needs to be room for unbelievers in AA, instead of them just sitting on their hands in meetings while members talk endlessly about god. Unbelievers should be fully appreciated members of AA, with everything we have to offer. I’ve done a lot of service work of every kind in my time in AA, and I now know many other agnostics – with double-digit time in this program – who, like me, have dedicated themselves more to doing service than the average member.

I do want to say that I’ve been rewarded with a good life. AA saved my life, no doubt about it. However, I just no longer have this fuzzy feeling that I’m part of the tribe, though there are a few open-minded believers who go out of their way to try to make me still feel part of.

Bill W. always stressed inclusivity, and as he got older and his sobriety matured, he got to be ever more open-minded about agnostics in AA. We did start our Freethinkers’ Group, in spite of not being listed, and I have to announce it everywhere I go. Intergroup, our new governing body, wants to keep us out, yet our meeting falls way, way inside the following parameters outlined by Bill W. in Grapevine in 1946, when he was 11 years sober:

“Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA Group. This clearly implies that an alcoholic is a member if he says so; that we can’t deny him his membership; that we can’t demand from him a cent; that we can’t force our beliefs or practices upon him; that he may flout everything we stand for and still be a member. In fact, our Tradition carries the principle of independence for the individual to such an apparently fantastic length that, so long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our recovery program, even anti-each other – these rampant individuals are still an AA group if they think so!”

life-j urged the Grapevine to publish material by secular members of AA and his is one of the best articles in this year’s October magazine, “Atheist and Agnostic Members”.

On September 7, 2014, AA Agnostica published an article by life-j called A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics in AA. There is little doubt that this article played an important role in this year’s decision by the Board of the Grapevine (and then the  General Service Conference) to publish just such a book in 2017, even though it initially refused to even consider life-j’s proposal: see No Grapevine Book for Atheists in AA. Clearly reaching out to the Grapevine – and persistence – had its rewards.

10 Responses

  1. Edward says:

    Thanks to all of your collective experiences. Looks like I’m nearly ready to speak at my home groups next group meeting, Coral Room in Miami. Ed L.

  2. Roberta says:

    You know what, I’m very much inclined to agree.

  3. life-j says:

    Hmm, I guess it is important to leave room to also talk about the 13th step…

    Couldn’t pass that one up.

    Anyway, good to hear that attitudes are softening up everywhere. Spring thawing by fall equinox!

  4. life-j says:


    Laytonville, a village 3 hours north of the SF Bay Area. It is Thursdays at 4 pm at the Grange hall, 1620 Branscomb Road.

    And to report on our success so far:

    6-10 people came from our local metropolis of 20,000 the first dozen meetings or so, then they got tired of it, it is after all a 50 mile drive from Ukiah to Laytonville, and several of them are quite old, both in years of sobriety and age. It wasn’t unusual to see cumulative sobriety of 200 years.

    Since then it was me and the newcomer mentioned, every week with an occasional other person or two for about a year, until she moved to a town a hundred miles away.

    Since then I have mostly sat there by myself, though once a month or so, a newcomer would show up once.

    Last week we were 3. Today we were 3, a newcomer who came back for his second time since last week, me, and an oldtimer who has been attending with some regularity once every couple of months.

    When I was newly sober, a woman in a meeting told about how she had started a meeting somewhere in Japan, and sat there alone for a half year before the first other person showed up, and I took that sort of dedication to heart, so sitting there by myself and reading some of our agnostic literature through a second time does not bother me.

    And of course I’m happy when someone else shows up.

    The truth of the matter is that a mostly redneck town of 1200 people is not the very best place to start a meeting such as this. But I’m just not going to let Intergroup get the better of me. I have gone back as the regular Laytonville Fellowship’s Intergroup rep since July, and little by little I am elbowing my way toward bringing it up again. And meanwhile my campaigning is bringing some people over on my side. The current grapevine is sure to help. I have made up a couple of pamphlets, one I call “As Bill ALSO Sees It” with quotes supporting our case, and another with some freethinkers meeting readings and reference material. And one from the service manual with quotes about democracy and decision making. There is also a CD from the Pacific Regional Conference in Spokane WA, where a number of past trustees speak out as/on behalf of agnostics and atheists which I will be distributing next time. Roger, caould we maybe post those? Maybe others can use them?

    By comparison, I went to a meeting in Petaluma about a year ago, a town of 60,000, and they had a thriving meeting of about 15 people.

    On a personal note, I am happy to live in a small town on 5 beautiful acres, and realize I can’t have it all.

  5. Helen L says:

    This month’s Grapevine issue is an interesting coincidence.

    I have been sober 31 years, the last five years self-identifying in meetings as a recent atheist convert.

    I got ignorant cross talk comments from some prejudiced members. And some even tried to interfere with my 12 step work with my sponsee’s. But a few are very close friends who can handle it and support me.

    However just this week my homegroup in Greenwich CT just agreed to my volunteering to lead our step discussion meeting for 13 weeks. I”m sure some of them are wondering what if any spiritual experience an atheist could offer them. I hope to leave them pleasantly surprised!

  6. Roger says:

    There is also this great – but very brief – article by a contributor to AA Agnostica:


    No worshipping for me

    By Marnin M.

    I work a secular program, omitting the religious aspect (as I see it) of AA philosophy. Try as I could, “acting as if” just did not cut it for me. I was being untruthful. The power greater than myself that restored me to sanity was death. I did not want to die at age 35 and it was going to happen if I did not change direction.

    I do not worship the Big Book. I read it as literature, documenting what the early AAs thought and did to stay sober. Similarly, the Steps are a guide to sobriety. The word “miracle” is not part of my vocabulary. I believe we dismiss our ability to grow and change when we use this word. Hard work, dedication and emotional growth are part of my language. I do not think that divine intervention occurs when a member loses the desire to self-destruct via alcohol any more than when they relapse. The Serenity Prayer works fine for me as a vital tool for living. Never having been on my knees to say the Third Step or the Seventh Step Prayers, I am sober and happy nonetheless.

    My personal payback occurs when I answer the phones at our intergroup office or make copies of tapes or CDs to give away to members. Payback also occurs when I go to speak, sponsor an alcoholic, or simply attend and share at meetings. If I did not go to meetings at age 80, how would any newcomer know that the program works for me?

    In a sea of many religious AA members, it’s often lonely being secular, but I have to remember that without AA I would be dead. I owe my life to this program and the many sober members I’ve met and interacted with for all these 45 years.

  7. Arlene S. says:

    If possible I would like to find where your group meets.

  8. Thomas B. says:

    A wonderful article, life-j. Congratulations, for be included in this special GV issue with stories by Agnostics and Atheists.

    I was so privileged to work with you, Roger and others to first petition the Grapevine to publish a special interest book consisting of the some 40 articles previously published in the Grapevine since 1962. When the GV Board voted against it, I was also grateful to work with others in Area 53 and Area 58, etc. to pass resolutions to request that such a book be published by the Grapevine. I am exceedingly pleased that this was approved earlier this year by the GV Board and also endorsed by the General Service Conference in April.

    I eagerly await for it, hoping it doesn’t meet a similar fate that bedeviled (pun intended) the pamphlet “Many Paths to Spirituality.”

  9. Bob K. says:

    As something of a wannabe writer, I am conscious of style, flow, clarity of expression, etc. and life’s piece gets A+’s in all of those categories. What a beautifully crafted advocacy for our cause.

    I am green with envy, or possibly from a tuna sandwich at lunch that was a bit off.

    Fabulous job!!


    bob k.

  10. life-j says:

    Roger, thanks!

    And I’m quite happy with it myself too, but I have to say another article in there which I really like, and which speaks to another really important issue in fundamentalist AA philosophy is “Coincidentally sober” – short as it is, it really captures how the author doesn’t, but most AAs do take ordinary coincidences as proof of a god working in their lives – the god of parking spaces we all know so well.

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