Atheists and Agnostics Step Into The Light in AA

Atheists Beings

“The continuing use of the Lord’s Prayer in a group that tries to tell people it is ‘spiritual not religious’ is why words like ‘hypocrisy’ were invented.”

By Dillon Murphy
Published on October 16, 2016 in The Fix

Can agnostics and atheists finally be part of AA?

Is AA changing? Is the fellowship becoming more accepting of its atheist and agnostic members? Well it certainly is a good sign that the October issue of the AA Grapevine monthly magazine is devoted to this underrepresented group. With stories like “God on Every Page”, “Coincidentally Sober” and “My Search”, AA’s Grapevine finally allows for us non-believers to be a part of the very thing that got us sober. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room for most of us and it’s time we were given a voice in AA literature.

The October AA Grapevine issue also precedes the second We Agnostics, Atheists & Freethinkers International AA Convention. It will be held in Austin, Texas, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Friday through Sunday, November 11-13.

“The first convention was held in 2014 in Santa Monica, California, and was a huge success with, on the final day, 300 participants from 40 states and 13 different countries. The convention featured speakers including Reverend Ward Ewing, former chair of the AA General Service Board; Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power; as well as a variety of very diverse and compelling panels and workshops,” according to Roger C. who will be at this year’s as well.

It’s a great opportunity to express ourselves and our stories in recovery while using the fellowship and creative approaches to the steps.

Mostly, we don’t talk in traditional meetings. We stay out of the discussion or offer practical advice as we do in Living Sober, the only AA-approved literature that doesn’t mention god at all. I, like many agnostic members, share my atheism by simply never referring to a higher power at all. I keep my talking points to a very simple free-of-nonsense identification with the speaker, which goes something like:

I can’t drink normally or safely.
I had no hope.
I came into AA.
I started helping make the coffee; it gave me self-esteem.
I started to live each day without drinking which seemed impossible and now my life is changed for the better.

But mostly, at traditional meetings I just stay quiet as do a lot of my non-believing brothers and sisters.

We can talk and listen freely at the few meetings Intergroup lists as “agnostic.” In New York City alone there is now at least one in every borough. There are also the meetings that Intergroup has just started to list – humanist meetings, freethinkers meetings – some still need to stay a secret society within what is supposed to already be a secret society. This is New York City I’m talking about. There are too many states with no agnostic meetings, and god and how the General Service Office (GSO) wants us to understand “him” is the only reason why.

What happens to this non-believer when I travel or I have to leave a group that I can be myself in? I shut down. There was a brief period where I would argue, but that all changed when I started going to my agnostic meeting and the closing refrain of “live and let live” started to loop in my head. It is only in agnostic meetings that this simple wisdom, this simple message of love and tolerance, is used in lieu of a “prayer.”

Roger C., the manager of AA Agnostica, was part of the Toronto group that got “booted out” of Intergroup for using secular steps. He reminded me of what AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson wrote on page 81 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age – that “these steps are suggestion only.” Roger started his own meeting in an area in Hamilton that was much more accepting.

Hope AA

Can agnostics and atheists finally be part of AA?

“The idea that we take a book written in 1939 as gospel (pun intended) has got to go,” Roger C. says in reference to the book Alcoholics Anonymous. “I won’t force my beliefs on the newcomer and neither should anyone else. I know people that are dead because they couldn’t stand the traditional meetings.”

Is there hope for change?

He told me that despite the fact that the secular movement really had to “push” the GSO to publish this issue of the Grapevine, it’s a good step. Since the Grapevine’s start in 1944, they have published a total of 44 stories by atheists and agnostics, the first being in 1962. Roger told me that the Grapevine and AA General Service are compiling all those stories and finally releasing a book called Atheists and Agnostics in AA in 2017. He’s also very enthusiastic about the upcoming convention in Austin, Texas next month. “Change will happen, but not quickly.”

After all, the Lord’s Prayer is still commonly used to end meetings and that is something that makes me just want to leave AA altogether. I have to remind myself that I’m here to help another and that while my truth may be unpopular, it is mine, and one doesn’t have to believe in god to be sober. Roger puts it simply, “The continuing use of the Lord’s Prayer in a group that tries to tell people it is ‘spiritual not religious’ is why words like ‘hypocrisy’ were invented.”

I asked two traditional meeting makers and an agnostic meeting maker about the Grapevine cover story. John S., who takes the traditional approach and identifies himself as a Christian says, “I really don’t think atheism is any problem at all in AA. It seems to me that the foundation of the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions is a desire to adopt a set of principles and live by them instead of clinging to ego” (self will run riot).

Reliance on a concept of God may make that easier for some people because it gives them something seemingly concrete to surrender to. But it can make it harder – maybe even impossible – for others if they are told that a God concept is essential. And I just don’t see that it is… If a person is simply willing to focus on the principle embodied in each step (e.g. powerlessness, humility, acceptance, etc.), the fact that God isn’t part of the equation really isn’t important – so long as they don’t think they are the center of the universe and everyone else revolves around them, their wants, their needs, their desires.

Almost every prayer in the Big Book and the 12/12 (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) works just as well if you simply take the word God out if it. The best example is the St. Francis Prayer. The principles embodied there are purely secular. For example, a person might very well want to live a life in which he consoles others rather than seeks to be consoled. That person has an “other-focus” rather than a “me-focus,” and that’s all the spirituality that matters. As long as the person believes that he is part of something bigger than himself or herself, spirituality – or “connectedness” if you prefer that term – is possible.

I have come to believe that reliance on a rigid religious conception of God might, in fact, be an impediment to recovery because it can get in the way of that type of connectedness / spirituality. Although my sample size is not large, I have found it much easier to work the steps and traditions with non-believers than with those who come from a strong religious background.”

Vic L., an agnostic, says, “The article was a step in the right direction. For the past few years I have, by and large, restricted myself to agnostic meetings (because luckily I live in New York City where we have 16 agnostic meetings). I just don’t want to listen to others’ religious beliefs. It’s not the end of the world, but I’d rather not have to go through that. By the way, I feel the same way about people expressing their NON-beliefs at agnostic meetings! As with politicians, it is certainly permissible for ALL attendees at ALL AA meetings to share anything they want. I just feel that it’s in poor taste. As the moderator of the “What Is WAAFT” panel, I look forward to discussing this and other matters at the convention in Austin.”

Jenn W. found her sponsor by hearing her speak on how she changed the patriarchal god of the literature.

What initially attracted me to my sponsor was hearing her share at a Big Book meeting with criticism of a section of the literature that can be particularly harmful to any members who’ve experienced childhood or sexual abuse. A lot of my story revolves around using drugs and alcohol to cope with various forms of abuse because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to have a voice, so hearing her share candidly like that was a big “aha” moment for me. When reading the literature with my sponsor, we change “Him” to “Her” and “He” to “She,” and in doing so I definitely feel more connected to the message and to the concept of a higher power. In literature meetings, I make sure to share about this, and about certain other sections of the book that I find problematic as a woman in the program, because I want female and female-identifying newcomers to know that they are allowed to have a voice, that there is a place for them in this program.


The October issue of the AA Grapevine.

I am hopeful that this month’s AA Grapevine will be a strong start to major change and acceptance.

The pieces on the theme of non-belief are surprisingly practical. No bait-and-switch, as is often the case when it comes to GSO AA literature. There is no “come to Jesus” moment stuff. There are interesting and intelligent approaches to the steps. Mostly the stories feel true and void of the usual nonsense that the literature is filled with. It’s nice to feel like I can help because I want to.

Knowing that down and dirty, low bottom recovering drunks like myself get sober without the hocus pocus of a supernatural being is my truth. If it’s yours too, then that’s what you need to share.

Live and let live.


9 Responses

  1. Peter T says:

    Olec: Your version is perfect English. Just as a matter of interest, the Kingston Beyond Belief meeting, and The Broader Path Group in nearby Odessa, use this version:

    I seek the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

    It is a fine way to end a meeting.

  2. Eric T says:

    Right on! So grateful to be sober today, so I can finally see these improvements in print without thinking I’m hallucinating. Safe 24 y’all!

  3. Mike H. says:

    The Lords Prayer, or sometimes the Serenity Prayer, is often used to end meetings. We have formed a Secular AA group, but we have trouble finding something to end our meetings; prayers, of course, are unacceptable. Any thoughts or suggestions?

    • Roger says:

      In my experience, Mike, most secular AA meetings end with the Responsibility Declaration.

    • Sasha Lee says:

      Mike, Happy Heathens in Colorado Springs, CO format suggests a few, chair’s choice. The most frequently chosen is “The meeting is now over.”

    • Roger says:

      The very first agnostic AA meeting ever in New York City, started on September 10, 1986, ended its meetings with “Live and Let Live”. And today the meeting still exists and that is still how the meetings are closed.

    • Olek says:

      Personally I really appreciate the contents of Serenity Prayer, but as an atheist I use a modified version like:

      Today I search for serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

      Not sure if it’s correct in English, which is not my native language.

    • Mke B says:

      We end our men’s closed discussion meeting with a minute of silence. No prayers, circling up or chanting. Just a short time for quiet personal reflection, gratitude, meditation or prayer. It is always a matter of personal choice. I believe it should be whether a traditional or secular AA meeting. We don’t label our group one way or the other although I am the only avowed atheist in the group.

      Mike B.

  4. life-j says:

    And now a couple of comments about Austin:

    I sent an e-mail to WAAFT, and whoever answered doesn’t live there and doesn’t know the first thing about Austin, but thought maybe there was one person among the organizers, who lives there. So why choose Austin?

    And I asked in my e-mail about maybe getting put up by someone, and she said they had gotten a few requests like that, and maybe I could ask around. Yea right, how do I ask around, when there is nobody in Austin involved in this?

    I called the Crowne Hotel or whatever, and got a corporate office somewhere else, and they have the hotel booked, and they of course couldn’t tell me about another nearby hotel because they are also in a different city.

    I’m pretty inept at this, I would actually like to go, and have had enough work these last two weeks to where I feel I can swing it, but even booking a flight feels beyond me. I can probably pull that off, I have done it before, but then there is all the rest, I have no idea where to pick a hotel, how to get there. Why is there nobody in Austin involved in helping people get there? WTF? Who picked Austin?

    I admit I hate traveling anyway, all the bullshit in the airport, etc doesn’t help. Anyway, I just feel overwhelmed.

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