An Atheist’s Experience in AA
My name is Paul, and I am an alcoholic. I am an atheist. I believe there probably is no God. I cannot prove there is no God, because it is impossible to prove a negative statement like that. I have been an atheist since long before I came to AA. I have a Higher Power. It is very tangible, and easy to understand, and to contact. It is the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I came to AA a beaten man, in February 1995. I am a very lucky, grateful person. I have not had a drink since that first meeting, one day at a time. When I came to that first meeting, the word God in the Steps, and subsequently when I read the Big Book did trouble me, but I was desperate. I went to lots of meetings, listened and read, and did not pick up that first drink. I started our programme of recovery. In the following years I realised that Bill W is very clear in the Big Book, he refers repeatedly to the God or Higher Power “Of your understanding”. The God in the Big Book is the God of Bill W’s understanding.
I had tried many times to stop, and to control my drinking. I could stop for a day, a few days and, 18 months before I came to AA, I stopped for three months. Each effort ended in failure because I was still in denial. I thought that if I really put my mind to it I was strong enough to stop. Each time I tried to stop I went back to drinking and it got worse. It was a terrible place to be. I believe that the first stage in my recovery was a deep down honesty, with myself, admitting that alcohol was controlling me, and there was nothing I could do about it on my own. I needed a power greater than alcohol, and greater than me – and I found that power in Alcoholics Anonymous.
When I honestly admitted that alcohol was controlling me, I also admitted that my life was unmanageable. Because if alcohol is controlling my life, then I am not, and my life is, by definition, unmanageable. To me that’s Step 1.
I am on a journey, and my appreciation of the 12 steps is evolving as I grow in the Programme. I need that regular conscious contact with the Fellowship to keep me sober, one day at a time.
Living Sober as an Agnostic
Before I came into the Fellowship I thought AA was a Christian organization. I also thought it was very old-fashioned. I tried psychotherapy and it did nothing for me. I tried other kinds of counseling but they didn’t work either. I was drinking to oblivion on a daily basis. AA for me was a last resort and proof of just how desperate I was.
The meetings seemed to be full of God – in the twelve steps, in the literature, in people’s sharing, but I didn’t care at the time because I felt I was in the right place. I was amongst alcoholics like myself and they seemed to be alright. It was only when I began to feel better and started to consider these mysterious steps that I wondered how on earth I was going to be able to do them without a belief in God. People in the fellowship told me my higher power could be anything – a number 19 bus if I liked – but that was clearly daft.
I settled on the idea of the fellowship itself as my higher power, while trying to stay open to the possibility of developing a religious belief, because the literature indicated that ultimately I needed to believe in God if I was going to stay sober. The literature seems to say that it’s ok to be an atheist or agnostic, but if we want proper sobriety and a happy life, eventually we are going to need God in our lives.
I know today that isn’t true, but at the time I got a sponsor and went through the steps with her, shared my step four with her and prayed with her. It felt hollow and untruthful but I did it because I thought that was what I was supposed to do.
My lack of religious belief sometimes made me feel I was on the margins of AA rather than properly plugged in, but I went regularly to meetings and service where I could.
Gradually AA worked for me despite my misgivings. I developed a conscience in AA and learnt how to be honest with myself and others. I learnt the value of service and how to make friends in sobriety.
I haven’t had a drink for 25 years and I am no longer waiting for my religious conversion. I am still an agnostic. I don’t know whether or not there is a supernatural power, but I can’t believe that there is and having a few years of sobriety behind me gives me confidence to be open about my lack of belief.
I am aware that it’s not so easy for others and I am glad that there are a few atheist meetings now where newcomers can share freely. I do have a practice which some people would describe as spiritual, although I wouldn’t call it that myself. I meditate every day and I think it helps keep me on an even keel, mentally and emotionally.
I was desperate to stop drinking and came to AA even though I hated the idea of it.
And it got me sober. I trust that if I look into my own heart, clearly and with humility and follow my instinct and my conscience I will do the right thing and my life will be useful and meaningful. If I am not sure, other alcoholics whom I trust will be able to help me.
There is a place for atheists and agnostics in AA; a way through to a happy, sober life and we should help each other to find it.
The God Word
Whilst I respect that many AA members believe in a God of their understanding, I cannot conceive of a supernatural being that resides in the sky, has human characteristics, especially those of the male gender, and organises me and everyone else as if it were a master puppeteer. And yet I have no difficulty in accepting a power greater than myself, and that such acceptance is vital to my continued recovery. I guess that makes me agnostic, but I don’t like to be defined by labels, although I do use it when in the presence of someone who is struggling to find a power greater than themselves.
The power of the AA group is undoubtedly greater than myself, and involvement with this power is vital to my continued recovery: as Aristotle said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. But in my daily life outside of meetings, and indeed to practice the “God Steps”, I need a different conception of a power greater than myself. On page 55 of the Big Book it says: “We found the great reality deep down within us”. Through the practice of daily meditation I sense, beneath the mental chatter and the fleeting bodily feelings, a deep sense of calm and peace, from which I draw strength to be able to deal with all that occurs in my daily life (“the power to carry it out”, as it says in Step 11). This I identify as my true nature, which is common to all of us. It is also, for me, the great reality that is referred to in the Big Book, is beyond all concepts and labels, and defies all attempts at description.
These three articles (out of a total of ten) are part of a 24 page pamphlet approved by the AA General Service Conference in Great Britain and published this month. It is called “The ‘God’ Word: Agnostic and Atheist Members in AA”. If you are in the United Kingdom and interested in obtaining copies you can get contact information at this website: Alcoholics Anonymous (Great Britain).
Requests for a pamphlet written by and for atheists and agnostics have been ignored or rejected by the North American General Service Conference for the past forty years. In 1976 an AA trustee wrote that such a pamphlet “is needed to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification”.
A few will argue that a Conference-approved pamphlet published by AA in 2014 on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, Many Paths to Spirituality, is a step in the direction of being inclusive of non-believers in AA.
That’s not, in fact, the case.
The pamphlet was clearly not written by an atheist. There are no stories in it written by atheists or agnostics, which was the request originally made in 1976. In many ways, “Many Paths to Spirituality” is an insult to those with their own beliefs, or lack thereof. It has a Jew reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It ends with an atheist doing the steps “just as they are written in the Big Book”. Yeah, right: with God, or a variation of God, in six of the 12 steps. In short, the many paths mentioned in the title coalesce into one religious path and a rather archaic one at that: the path of Christianity as it was understood by an evangelical Oxford Group in the 1930s.
There is hope, however. Last month, October 2016, the same month “The ‘God’ Word” pamphlet was released in Great Britain, the AA Grapevine published an issue devoted to non-believers and it contains six stories by “Atheists and Agnostic Members” of AA. Moreover, the North American General Service Conference has agreed that the Grapevine publish a book of stories by atheists and agnostics in AA; stories, about forty of them, which had already been published in the Grapevine magazine beginning in 1962. You can get some idea of what that book might look like right here: A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics in AA.
Is that enough? No, not at all.
But it’s a start. We atheists and agnostics in AA are still made to feel like outsiders and “deviants”. We still feel denigrated and rejected. Meetings that end with Lord’s Prayer don’t help. The fact that groups are booted out by Intergroups for having their own secular version of the original steps – God forbid! – doesn’t help. AA needs to move forward. Publishing a Conference-approved pamphlet written by atheists and agnostics in AA would go a long way towards legitimizing anyone, anywhere who reaches out for help and who has a desire to stop drinking. Such a pamphlet would require the support of roughly two thirds of the 93 Area delegates representing local AA groups and members across Canada and the United States and would go a long, long way towards making we agnostics and atheists – once and for all and after forty years of efforts – feel like “full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification”.
Will it happen? Will AA move forward?
We will continue to do our part to make it happen. The growth in the number of agnostic AA meetings (recognized or not by local Intergroups or Central Offices)… Websites for agnostics and atheists, at some of which we share our own experience, strength and hope… Conventions (first Santa Monica and now Austin and possibly coming in 2018: Toronto)… Non-Conference approved literature…
And, encouraged by what we have recently seen in AA in Great Britain and in the AA Grapevine, we are hopeful.