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.
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.