AA Officially Recognizes Atheist and Agnostic Membership in This Month’s Grapevine

In the words of Bill W, “an alcoholic is a member if he says so… we can’t force our beliefs or practices upon him.”

By Dorri Olds
Published on October 11, 2016 in The Fix

AA Grapevine, The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, has devoted its October issue to atheists and agnostics — a first since the publication’s 1944 inception.

AA members will tell you that the program is not religious, but it is spiritual. This causes some confusion, especially for those of us who prickle at the word “God,” which is used throughout the 12 Steps and all of the conference-approved AA literature. The program is described in one book: Alcoholics Anonymous, which is often referred to as The Big Book (BB).


The October issue of the AA Grapevine.

In the BB, much emphasis is placed on the understanding that “God” is a god of your understanding, meaning that nobody has to believe in anybody else’s idea of “God.” Your god can be the sea, the sky, the AA fellowship. It can be “Good Orderly Direction” or “Group of Drunks.” However, the confusion seems to lie in the mixed messages.

In the beginning of the BB, all of that is explained. But by the end of chapter 4, We Agnostics, the contradictions are glaring. The chapter concludes by implying how silly you were to ever doubt that there really is a deity taking care of you and the universe, and that if you are doing the program correctly, you too will see the light.

Of course that doesn’t negate the power of the program. The BB was written in 1939 and influenced by the Protestant Oxford Group in AA’s early days. You can read about that in “A Friend of Jim,” a chapter from the book Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

From the October Grapevine’s Editor’s Letter:

This month, our special section features stories by atheist and agnostic AA members, some who have many years of sobriety. One member quotes our co-founder Bill W., in a 1946 Grapevine, “… an alcoholic is a member if he says so … we can’t force our beliefs or practices upon him.” In editing these stories, we honored the request of some authors to not capitalize the word God, which is our usual style. Bill W. intended Grapevine to be a mirror of the Fellowship. We hope these stories will shed some light on the joys and challenges of our atheist and agnostic members.

AA Agnostica links to two of the issue’s articles. In God on Every Page, Alex M. writes, “I thought back to that bleak day 10 years ago when I washed up into AA, still a bit tipsy, beaten into a state of reasonableness and literally dying to find a way out of my alcoholic addiction. As my head cleared, I started reading the Big Book, and since the word God seemed to be on almost every page, I thought I had to return to the Christianity I was raised under in order to get sober.”

In Open-Minded, writer Life-J remembers atheist newcomers who were criticized online in an AA chat room. The incident inspired Life-J to start a free thinkers’ AA group. There was great resistance to having them included in the Northern California AA meeting list, though.

We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers (WAAFT) will be holding their second biennial convention on Nov. 11-13 in Austin, Texas. Roger C. of AA Agnostica is facilitating a workshop, “The History of Agnostics and Atheists in AA.” Speakers include Chuck K. from Chicago, where the first agnostic meeting in AA was founded on Jan. 7, 1975, and Deirdre S. from New York City, where agnostic meetings began on Sept. 10, 1986.


6 Responses

  1. Scott says:

    Tom, I went for 6 1/2 years without drinking and without going to a meeting of AA. I too believe that my alcoholism is as much a physical condition as a mental or spiritual one. However, I have accepted that there are things in the meetings that are worth overlooking, including the problems I have with the entire God idea. I am always bothered by the people who tell me that if I stop going to meetings I will drink, or that we are never truly recovered. I know that as long as I do not take the first drink I am as close to living a “normal” life as I could hope for.

    But there is something, something greater than myself and my ideas that I get from the rooms of AA. I might never have a spiritual awakening, or accept the idea of a deity, but I accept and embrace those who have and do. Good luck to you, stay strong, and sober, because that really is the miracle.

  2. Tom C. says:

    Thank you all for fighting this fight. I’ve been mostly silent about this, but I’ve had the same experience I’m sure you all have had. I’ve had the same feelings of resentment and embarrassment about meetings that closed with the Lord’s Prayer — do I join in and be a hypocrite, or do I intentionally ostracize myself? I usually end up just sneaking out before the prayer, which doesn’t help me connect with the group.

    I attended a few freethinker meetings in my area (Seattle), but they mostly seemed to be embittered atheists complaining about AA and trying to prove how “silly” god was. I don’t need either of those — I do enough whining for twenty people, I don’t need others’, and I’ve already made up my MIND about “god.” There just wasn’t much support there.

    So ultimately I decided AA wasn’t for me. I’ve been maintaining a tenuous grasp on sobriety. I’ve “come to believe” that I simply — for whatever reason — cannot drink like “normal” people (whoever THEY are…) can, and the only choice is complete abstinence. Unlike what the AA program seems to espouse, I don’t think this is because of “character flaws,” I just think it’s something biological.

    I am able to maintain my sobriety through an iron self-will, reminding myself — every time the thoughts pop up of how “nice” it would be to have “a beer” (like it’s EVER been just “a beer!”) that that is about like saying how “nice” it would be to have “just one bottle” of rat poison. It may not be instant suicide, but it is still suicide, and a long, slow death at that! Without some belief in a “heavenly afterlife,” I definitely don’t want to die, and certainly not in the slow, agonizing spiral of madness and despair that is addiction.

    So — I’m kind of long-winded, forgive me — thank you for your work. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to come back to AA. I don’t know if I’m intellectually “wired” to “surrender” my free will to a group. But I DO know that making that choice would be exponentially easier than trying to “surrender” my free will to a “god” I don’t even believe — never really have, even when my parents forced me to go to Sunday school — exists.

  3. Jeb B. says:

    Our increased visibility in Alcoholics Anonymous is surely going to help more formerly disenfranchised addicts and alcoholics to find the way out that we can offer, both a welcoming and empowering fellowship and program.

  4. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, Roger . . .

    The publication of this “special interest” issue of stories by atheists and agnostics in the GV is a most important milestone to insure that AA lives up to it’s stated intention of being all-inclusive for all persons, with or without belief, who meet the Third Tradition’s only requirement for AA membership, a desire to stop drinking.

    It is a concrete demonstration by the GV that it totally abides by AA’s Responsibility Declaration, promulgated in 1965, that the hand of AA will be available to “anyone, anywhere who reaches out for help.”

    It’s been a long time coming since 1976, as you point out in your email announcing the Fix article.

    It will be interesting to see if this is a one-shot deal, or if there will be other special GV issues for the growing numbers of atheist and agnostic members, to include those with radically different belief systems from the convention Christian orientation of most North American AA meetings.

    Time shall tell . . .

  5. Phil E. says:

    AA’s official recognition through the GV of free thinkers in the program is good news indeed. Will the rank and file meetings go into denial about the subject?

  6. John F. says:

    I came into AA on May 1, 1970 at the Laguna Beach Canyon Club! I have been sober ever since. The fact that Southern California stressed sobriety rather than bringing you to GOD kept me sober! Religious dogma seems to be challenged more and more as time goes by. AA needs to grow if it expects to meet all alcoholics needs. For me, “as you understand him” and the door knob approach made the difference. AA should be about sobriety rather than bringing members to GOD!

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