Chapter 1: An Agnostic in AA

Chapter 1

I went to my first AA meeting when I was in rehab back in 2010. It was a speaker meeting and there was a fellow on stage who talked about how he owed his sobriety to “the Guy in the sky”.

I thought, “Are you kidding me?” But, of course he wasn’t. I was soon to discover that there was a lot of God talk at AA meetings. That is the first thing that bothers we agnostics and atheists in AA.

I should say that I am not speaking for all agnostics and atheists in AA. Nobody can do that. But as the editor of the website AA Agnostica for the last six years and having been heavily involved in secular AA meetings, I am in contact with many agnostic members and know that many of them feel and react much the same as I do.

But back to the God talk: the God that is talked about at meetings is often a Christian God, an anthropomorphic (created in man’s image – “Father”, “He” or “Him”) and interventionist (who can solve a problem with alcohol “if He were sought”) supernatural being.

That doesn’t work for me or other atheist alcoholics.

Most of us believe that what works in AA to keep us sober are two things: first, tapping an “inner resource” (see Appendix II of the Big Book) that makes us strive to be sober, and better, human beings. And, second, the fellowship. Going to an AA meeting and talking with others who understand the problem of alcoholism is a wonderful form of group therapy. The support of others (Step 12) plays a key part in our recovery, according to our more secular AA members, not a God.

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The God talk might even be tolerable except for one thing and that is our second problem: we agnostics in AA are often not allowed to be honest at “traditional” AA meetings and even suggest that we personally don’t believe in this God. There is apparently an unofficial policy in Alcoholics Anonymous for non-believers at AA meetings that might well be called: “Don’t Tell”.

And if you do talk about your lack of belief, you will often be subjected to a rebuttal, or an outright attack. It is one place at an AA meeting where crosstalk will sometimes happen. Or you will be confronted after the meeting. When that first happened to me I was stunned. You see, I have a Masters degree and spent years at McGill University working on my doctorate in Religious Studies. I taught ordinands (women and men studying to be church ministers). I was the “resident atheist” at the Faculty of Religious Studies and was treated with genuine respect. Not so much in AA. Many agnostics and atheists are treated with disrespect in AA, if not outright contempt.

That’s a real problem.

And the last, the third problem, that many of us experience in AA are meetings that end with the Lord’s Prayer. To say that AA is “spiritual not religious” and then recite the Lord’s Prayer, well, that just doesn’t wash. The Lord’s Prayer is found in the New Testament in the Gospel of Matthew (6:5-13) with a shorter version in the Gospel of Luke (11:1-4). It was said to have been taught by Jesus to his disciples and is considered the essential summary of the gospels, of the religion of Christianity.

Because it discriminates against those with other beliefs or with no religious beliefs at all, the Lord’s Prayer was eliminated from public schools by the Supreme Court in the United States in 1962. And in 1988, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the “recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which is a Christian prayer… impose(s) Christian observances upon non-Christian pupils and religious observances on non-believers” and thus constitutes a violation of the freedom of conscience and religion provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That was the end of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in Canada.

Agnostics and atheists believe that the Lord’s Prayer does not belong at AA meetings. It’s fine at a religious church meeting but to say that AA is “spiritual but not religious” and then end a meeting with the Lord’s Prayer is a real contradiction.

After getting out of rehab, I went to a lot of AA meetings. And it got to the point where I just couldn’t stand them. Too much of the “God bit”. I realized I could no longer go to them and I was terrified I would start drinking again.

But, almost accidentally, I went one Saturday to my first ever agnostic AA meeting: Beyond Belief, in Toronto. It was, for me, a superb meeting.

When I got out I threw my hands up in the air and I shouted, “I’m saved!”

I have been going to secular AA meetings ever since. There was only that one meeting for non-believers in AA in Canada in the summer of 2010, when I went to Beyond Belief. Today there are more than twenty-five in five provinces. These secular meetings are now growing with great momentum.

These secular AA meetings – without any doubt at all – have been the main source of my sobriety. I know and feel that “I am not alone” and that I am free to express any doubts or disbeliefs I may have and that I can be totally honest.

For me, as for many other agnostics in AA, it’s the fellowship that makes the difference. It’s the frequent “remember when” stories that help to keep me from going back. It’s learning so much from others about how they are able to deal with their alcoholism and to maintain their sobriety, truly, “one day at a time”. It’s the understanding, caring and support of the people at these AA meetings. Back in rehab, and in my early days and months of recovery, the word “gratitude” meant nothing to me at all.

Today I experience it every single day.

AA is meant to be here for all who reach out for help. We are a “kinship of universal suffering” as Bill Wilson put it and we need to let everyone who attends an AA meeting know and feel that they are welcome, regardless of belief or lack of belief.

A History of Agnostics in AAA History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.

It is also available at Amazon Canada and at Amazon United Kingdom.

You can also get a Kindle or ePub version at the BookBaby BookShop. After you pay via credit card or PayPal you can get an ePub or Mobi and download it immediately.

It is also available as an iBook (for a Mac or iPad).

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19 Responses

  1. Steve V. says:

    Groups aren’t compelled to only have “conference approved literature”. Groups, being autonomous can have any literature they see fit at their meeting.

  2. Anthony S. says:

    Hi friend. I feel the exact same way about expressing my unbelief in ancient fairy tales in meetings here in Hawai’i. I share sometimes that education, logic and reason is my higher power. Mostly I believe in the “ACTION” part of my sobriety.

    The question is how can we remove the god talk out of AA or at least “The Lords Prayer” being that it is clearly a religious prayer.

  3. Boyd P. says:

    The LP is contrary to AA’s mission of inclusiveness, see the 3rd tradition and Responsibility Statement among many other cites; but to declare such and then insist on immediate change is hubris, a character defect common among alcoholics. Many of the more effective strategies for needed change are being worked out here. Thanks to everyone for their contributions.

    And there is hope for inclusive AA in Southern Oregon, though it might not be immediately apparent in the meeting guides. I am thankful the interventionist higher power type AA was here when I needed it. Stumbling around in the fellowship eventually revealed many kindred agnostics. My sobriety depends upon all types, curiously.

  4. Tim M. says:

    Starting an AA Freethinker meeting has many benefits and I urge you to find one or two others and just do it.

  5. Peter T. says:

    Anne: Why not start your own AAFT meeting? Hundreds who have felt like you, did just that. Including me – becoming part of the “WAAFT” network and being of this service has recharged my sobriety.

    How to Start a Meeting.

  6. Wisewebwoman says:

    Thank you Roger for holding up the torch and lighting it.

    Murray it was 20 years ago when I proposed dropping the LP at the annual group inventory meeting of the Tuesday Streetsville​ group. The horror! Recently a dear AA friend made the same motion and horror ensued once again. It’s even more rigid.

    Out here in NL I look around to see who’s not saying the LP at the end of the meeting and find likeminded. We’re few and far between and I was attacked by a 45 year member recently. Cross talk is allowed when it comes to the defence of the invisible cosmic housekeeper.

  7. Thomas B. says:

    Ah Roger, so grateful to read the first chapter. My experience was the reverse of yours in that when I was gifted with recovery in New York City in the early 70s, there was not nearly the emphasis on the necessity of “the God-bit” as being the only way to really get sober if you were a “real alcoholic.” Yes, some meetings were more “God-oriented” than others, but there were many meetings where the emphasis was on, “Don’t drink, go to meetings, help others” within the AA Fellowship.

    It was when Jill and I moved to southern Oregon in 2011 that we encountered the rigidity that “only God could and would if He were sought.” That’s when we experienced the overt prejudice and terror that we were going to ruin their AA — we were shunned and shamed for our non-Christian beliefs.

    Thanks you again, good friend, for all the work you continue to do to widen the gateway so that any alcoholic with belief, with different beliefs or no beliefs can reach out their hand and get help from AA.

  8. Anne says:

    I echo the relief of attending my first AA aaft meeting with a loud hurrah. I felt free and really happy in AA for the first time. A move, however, brought me back to Virginia which is so very traditional AA that it’s intolerable for me. I wish I had an aaft group nearby. Still sober though which is the bottom line and no desire to drink.

  9. Tim M. says:

    The no endorsing is part of our Freethinkers meeting too.

  10. Roger says:

    This is part of an Agnostic AA Preamble read at many of our meetings, Martin:

    In keeping with AA tradition, we do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.

    So, yes, “believers” are welcome at these meetings. And they can express their beliefs. I have seen this happen, very comfortably, at a number of secular AA meetings.

  11. Murray J. says:

    Great book Roger. I ordered and received it last week.

    When I was in treatment 20+ years ago I was introduced to AA. One of the first questions for me was how do you handle the god stuff? “Take what you need, find a higher power, make the group your higher power” etc. The group was, is and will be an entity greater than the sum of its parts and that works for me. I also believe in the power of sharing a journey. When I heard about The new Beyond Belief Suburban West group in Mississauga two years ago I was the third or fourth member to join. It’s like I’m starting all over in recovery. What a refreshing change! I love the regular members and newcomers like last night.

    A couple of months ago I introduced a motion at my traditional AA home group to ditch the Lord’s Prayer and replace it with the Responsibility Declaration. Why? To widen the gateway. Four in favour twelve opposed. The scary thing was the fear on people’s faces that somehow this motion threatened their recovery? Fear of change? But the Streetsville Action Group had a similar debate and it passed.

    Small steps can lead to bigger changes.

  12. Tim M. says:

    It was January of 1987 when I was introduced to AA via an hospital rehab in Erie, PA. I had an angry wife and needed to hide out for awhile.

    Through the help of many men and women in AA I learned how to live a sober life. I tried to conform to the notion that I needed a higher power and revisited the faith of my father’s faith but after a year of so I had had enough.

    My own experience with the 12 Steps, done as well as I could, and without a “belief” in God or any interventionist higher power, many meetings and again, the help of others has shown me how to live without drink or drug.

    Our local Rochester NY Freethinker meeting started in February of 2016. After the Atheist/Agnostic AA Meetings vs GTAI and AAWS results late last year and early this year we have begun reading the steps again. This time we took the time to rewrite them to suit us. And this is still something we can revisit. Being autonomous again is a great thing and I thank our Toronto champion for fighting the good fight.

    Here is how we see the steps. Understand that we don’t all think about the steps the same way.

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol —that our lives had become unmanageable.

    2. Came to believe that the wisdom of other abstinent members could help to restore us to sanity.

    3. Made a decision to follow the steps as a path of recovery.

    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

    5. Admitted to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

    6. Were entirely ready to address our defects of character.

    7. Humbly overcame our shortcomings.

    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted.

    11. Sought through meditation and self reflection to improve our integrity in all areas of our lives.

    12. Having had an awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

    I appreciate this site too.

    Glad to know that I am alcoholic.

  13. Martin M. says:

    I was wondering. Is talk of belief in God welcomed at these meetings? Or is there an unofficial policy there as well?

    Or are agnostic/atheistic alcoholics more tolerant?

  14. Archer Voxx says:

    Hi Roger,

    I really enjoyed your post – Chapter 1 – An Agnostic In AA. Great work!! I will be ordering the book as soon as I hit the POST button below.

    Archer Voxx (co-conspirator and author)

  15. Bryan T. says:

    Great job Roger. Thanks for all you’ve done!

  16. Steve V. says:

    Good article Roger!

    I myself don’t mind the God talk that much and if it were only that, I would likely still go to “regular” AA meetings. It’s the expectation of conformity, the rigidity, the narrow-mindedness, the contradictions and the many, many false things that are said in meetings are the things that drove me away. The belief by many AAers that AA is really the only way to get sober and that for some, going through the Big Book and developing a close relationship with God is the only “true” way to have “real” sobriety are just a few of the attitudes that turned me off. Our secular meeting in Windsor, like the one’s in Toronto, we talk about anything and everything related to sobriety. We discuss things at our meeting that’s not normally talked about in other AA meetings. So really, for me it’s the “freethinking” aspect of Agnostic AA that appeals to me the most. The belief that there are many paths to sobriety in AA and outside of AA is our key belief.

  17. Roger says:

    It is not “Conference-approved” literature, Ed. And that issue – and the censorship that it brings to AA – is dealt with in A History of Agnostics in AA.

  18. Ed L. says:

    Just trying to catch up here, is this publication AA approved literature or will it get push back if introduced in my homegroup ?

  19. William C. says:

    I don’t mind the god talk.

    It is the assumption that I don’t get AA that pisses me.

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