Through heat, sand and sniper fire, their AA group kept them sober to show up and do their jobs

By Eric C.
Traverse City, Michigan, USA
Copyright © AA Grapevine (October, 2017)

Not only are there lots of atheists with decades of sobriety in AA, there have always been atheists in foxholes.

A graduate of a Christian high school, I enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19. I had already discovered that the more I studied the scriptures and the more earnestly I prayed, the more I doubted the existence of any kind of God. I’ve rediscovered this many more times through the years.

Five years into what would become a 25-year career in the Marines, I was diagnosed by a physician as an “acute, chronic alcoholic.” A Vietnam veteran with an impeccable service record, I was hospitalized briefly and introduced to AA.

I was happy when they told me at my first meeting that AA is “spiritual, not religious,” and “not allied with any sect [or] denomination.” But my spirits fell when the meeting began with a prayer, followed by a ritual recitation that invoked the name of God no fewer than six times (“How It Works”). They then closed the meeting by saying the Lord’s Prayer.

It was instantly clear to me that AA was a religious cult in denial about being religious. So I didn’t come back to any meetings for years. In the meantime, on several occasions I almost died from my alcoholism.

My disease progressed through an additional five years in the Marines. The Commandant of the Marine Corps then ordered me to the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland, for treatment of alcoholism. At least two good things happened to me the second time I was hospitalized.

First, a long-sober Marine master gunnery sergeant who was a counselor at the treatment facility helped square me away on the Higher Power question. He pointed out that all Marines have the same Higher Power – the Commandant of the Marine Corps.

In addition, the master gunny noted that he and I had both been in harm’s way earlier in our careers. We talked about a phenomenon with which we were both quite familiar, something known as “esprit de corps.”

“Esprit” is the French word for “spirit.” And “corps” refers to a body of troops, in this case, our Corps of Marines.

We knew from hard experience that when the situation is grave, Marines help each other survive by working together. In fact, another favorite term among Marines, “gung ho,” is an ancient Chinese battle cry that means “working together.”

The master gunny and I had both been in situations where we and those around us were scared out of our minds. But we knew that when Marines support each other selflessly, we can and do overcome our fear. In doing so, we gain an ability to beat seemingly insurmountable and life-threatening odds.

We knew that the bond Marines feel with each other, especially in combat, is best described as spiritual. This is clearly not a supernatural power, but a deeply human power that has been proven throughout history to play a decisive role in turning potential defeat into victory on the battlefield.

“Esprit de corps is the same kind of spiritual power that AA has,” the master gunny explained. “People in AA call this power whatever they want.”

The second good thing that happened to me in treatment was that I found my first sponsor. I noticed him at an AA meeting they drove us to in a hospital van one evening. He was the one guy in the room at the end of the meeting whose lips weren’t moving when everybody else was holding hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

An atheist with 10 years of sobriety at the time, my first sponsor explained to me that even though much of the AA program borrows from religion, AA works just fine anyway, as long as you don’t drink, go to lots of meetings and take as many of AA’s suggestions as you can stomach.

Working the Twelve suggested Steps to the best of my ability wouldn’t kill me, my sponsor said. Even as an atheist, he explained, I could work the Steps exactly the same way everybody else works them – imperfectly and according to my own understanding.

Before my first year in sobriety ended, my career as a Marine rocketed into a new dimension. The Commandant ordered me back to college, where I completed my bachelor’s degree. Shortly after my second anniversary in sobriety, people were saluting me and addressing me as “sir.”

My attainment of officer rank led to a number of new and exciting assignments all over the world. Each time I moved, I found a new AA sponsor locally and tried to attend 90 meetings in 90 days. I also began sponsoring other men and got involved in AA service work.

During the Persian Gulf War in 1990, I was able to attend a few AA meetings at the Marine headquarters in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. However, I spent most of my time out in the desert on the front lines, where I enjoyed reading and re-reading letters I received from my many AA friends back in the U.S.

For the record, Marines don’t have “foxholes.” We call them “fighting holes.” While under fire during Operation Desert Storm, I observed an important difference between the atheists I knew and others who might be inclined to spend time on their knees praying for divine protection. I found that the atheists could be counted on to do things that are actually useful, like digging better fighting holes.

Some years later, I found myself in Somalia in the midst of a civil war characterized by sectarian violence, famine and human suffering on a Biblical scale. Even though we could find no sign of a “loving God” anywhere in Somalia, I and a few other military personnel formed a group conscience and decided to start holding AA meetings in beautiful downtown Mogadishu.

Our little group opted to meet outdoors in the shade of a tree because of the heat. That turned out to be a mistake. Our first meeting was broken up by sniper fire. Although the sniper was clearly a lousy shot, we decided to change locations.

Our second meeting was broken up by sniper fire too. At that point, we decided to move our meeting indoors behind concrete walls and simply ignore the heat. It was our group’s little joke that we closed our meetings “in the usual manner” by all shouting, “Incoming!”

About a year after returning to the U.S., I married a woman I’d met in AA who is also an atheist. We had two children before I retired from the Marines. Today, our kids are grown and doing well.

As of this writing I have 33 years of sobriety in AA and my wife has 26 years. Our lives are as happy, joyous and free as anyone we know in our Fellowship.

But some in AA still “feel sorry” for atheists, just as our co-founder Dr. Bob said he felt about unbelievers in the Big Book. Some too remain convinced that those who say they won’t believe are “belligerent” and have a “savage” mind, as co-founder Bill W. asserted in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

My original atheist AA sponsor, with whom I remain in touch, has 43 years of sobriety in AA and is still clearly a thorn in the side of some of the bleeding deacons in his own home group.

In recent years, I’ve a played a role in organizing a couple of secular “We Agnostics” meetings of AA in my community. I’ve also tried to be more vocal at other AA meetings about my lack of belief in any kind of God, especially the miracle-working supernatural being that Bill W. and Dr. Bob believed in.

If AA is to survive and thrive in a world where increasing numbers of people, especially young people, are leaving religious beliefs behind them, as I did, my hope is that we will open the doors of our Fellowship a little wider.

Eric's TalkEric is an active member of AA and has attended both secular AA international conferences (Santa Monica in 2014 and Austin in 2016). A few years ago he gave a talk about secular AA in Traverse City, Michigan. It was posted on AA Agnostica on March 18, 2015 and you can listen to it right here: Eric’s Talk – Our We Agnostics Meeting.

20 Responses

  1. Bill D says:

    Eric!! HOORAH!! How’d I miss this? Getting to be quite the slacker lately I am. Excellent piece my friend. Hoping to get to T.C. area soon and will make point of sharing a table or two with you.

  2. Texas Buckeye says:

    Re: Your mention of “God Delusion.”

    You might also find this of interest: A History of God… author Karen Armstrong… spend seven years as a Catholic nun… she left the nuns… was originally mentioned in TIME magazine, issue Sept 27, 1993, with the article “How Man Created God.”… Me? After years of traditional meetings, found an atheistic group… will have 35 years this November… am a very grateful member.

  3. Eric C. says:

    I want to thank everyone who had such nice things to say about my piece. I, too, am a little surprised they published it, in addition to being pleased and encouraged. I originally submitted it for the October 2016 edition which focused on Atheists and Agnostics in AA; but better pieces were published instead. I did submit two smaller pieces for the current military-focused edition in hopes that at least something of mine would make it in. The two shorter pieces I submitted for the October 2017 edition focused on (a) the “esprit de corps” concept and, (b) having a couple of AA meeting shot out from under me in Somalia, which I had titled “Incoming!” I was happy to see that my whole original piece was published instead, albeit a year later than expected.

  4. Eric C. says:

    I’m not a big fan of “Higher Power” either – but it’s the term they use in AA in a half-assed and unsuccessful effort at being inclusive. It’s kind of like the word “spiritual.” I won’t let religious people co-opt every definition of that word as implying something supernatural or divine. Similarly, I define my own HP as something totally natural and human. Why do I use the “HP” at all? Because AA does, and I want to be included in AA not separate from AA even though I fundamentally disagree with many of its suggestions as outlined in 1938 in the Big Book.

  5. Eric C. says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment on my Grapevine article, Bill.

    I agree with Mike B., below, that you would do well to pick up a copy of the God Delusion in which Richard Dawkins does a good job of parsing the differences between atheists, agnostics and others. As you know, you may be the only agnostic a lot of people have ever met at an AA meeting and therefore, you may “represent” agnostics in general whether you mean to or not. It’s good for anyone who professes agnosticism to understand how those terms are being used more broadly.

    We really would like to see you more often at our two secular AA meetings in Traverse City. There are a very small number of us keeping those meetings alive, especially our meeting for newcomers. We would love to see more direct support from respected long-timers such as yourself.

  6. Mike B says:

    Hi Bill.

    Thanks for your interesting comments. I accept that there isn’t 100% certainty in scientific data proving god does or does not exist; ergo your point there are only agnostics by definition.

    Science does however overwhelmingly support the atheist belief that the god of theists could not be a reliable scientific conclusion.

    One of the books I found most helpful in my beliefs as an atheist is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins believes, as well as most if not all atheists that science proves conclusively that god does not exist.

    Just my thoughts anyways.


    The God Delusion

  7. Mike B says:

    Hi Norm.

    Thanks for your comments and I too would like to meet you and any other secular AA member coming through our small town. I moved to Oliver in May 2011 (just over 6 years ago) so not likely I was here when you were and our men’s group just celebrated it’s 3rd anniversary in Sept.

    If you want to contact me go to Area 79 BC/Yukon. Click on Find A Meeting and go to the Fellowship Group on Thursday nights in Oliver BC. You will find my name and phone # as the group contact person. Would like to hear from any of you.

    Talking about prayer circles and group praying – Two weeks ago I attended another local AA traditional meeting and was verbally assaulted and nearly physically attacked after the meeting by a bible thumper and big book literalist for not joining their prayer circle and closing serenity prayer. Apparently in his opinion I was guilty of destroying AA unity.

    I told him to go home and research AA’s code of love and tolerance and whether AA unity means uniformity.



  8. Norm R says:

    Mike, I don’t know if we met when I attended AA in Oliver, some 7 years ago, but I should very much like to make your acquaintance — and to attend your group.

    In Ancient, Free and Accepted Masonry (I am a Freemason), atheism is considered grounds for rejection or ejection. Fortunately, no one asks me to draw and colour, or describe my concept of”God” and I relish the fellowship of good men, while privately meaning “God as I understand God” (usually my Inner Power). I “fit” better in Freemasonry than I do in AA, where they claim that I should feel safe, while continuing to feed me bullshit about a (Christian) “god”, without whom, I’m told, I can’t get sober! Because I refuse to hold hands to say the LP, I’m practically banged by some “leaders”. ?

  9. Mike B says:

    My name is Mike, alcoholic, sober since March 1990.

    Thanks Eric for talking about your experiences in life before and after achieving sobriety. I can identify with so much of what you shared.

    I was also in the military serving 3 ½ years in the Canadian army as a junior officer in the artillery (7 mile snipers). My 1st gunnery sergeant sobered up the year I enlisted and he started the 1st AA group at Canadian Forces base Shilo, Manitoba. Today he has over 50 years of sobriety and is a power of example to many.

    I am grateful never to have heard the call, “incoming” but am aware of the dangers you write about (seen and heard the business end of howitzer fire many times). Never was in a theatre of war and ironically totally unaware and in denial of my future battle with alcoholism.

    An open atheist in AA I have heard many times in meetings that, “there are no atheists in foxholes”. It is my experience that most of those experts have no idea what a foxhole is let alone have dug one. I tell everyone there are many atheists in foxholes; we just dig our holes a lot deeper!

    The biggest thing I identified with in your story is the, “Esprit de Corps” you talked about in the military. I still stay in touch with my classmates even though 50 years have passed since taking my honorable discharge. One of the closest things I compare to military esprit de corps is the fellowship of AA. How? Our lives and sobriety depend on each other! I especially find this esprit de corps /fellowship in my home group which is a closed men’s discussion group. The group is called the “Fellowship Group” because we believe that AA fellowship is the most important single thing to help alcoholics attain and maintain contented sobriety. Although not a secular AA group it is close enough for me to call home as an atheist. Our meetings open with a full minute of silence and reading of the AA Preamble. No reading how it works, daily reflections, promises, traditions or group chanting, prayer circles and prayer. Most of our 1 hour meeting (55 of 60 minutes) is filled with one drunk sharing their experience, strength and hope with others. We have been operating for just over three years and there has never been a meeting I remember when someone went home without an opportunity to talk. We occasionally run overtime to accommodate all. We ask everyone to keep their talks to 3 minutes or less. Talks longer than 5 minutes are mostly bullshit anyways whether in military or civilian terminology. We end our meeting with AA related announcements and a final full minute of silence. Time permitting the chairperson will do a short reading from the BB (chapter 3; More about Alcoholism, p 30-31).

    Thanks again Eric for your story. I consider you a kindred spirit! The fellowship of AA saved my life and continues to keep me sober.

    Mike B.
    Oliver, BC.

  10. life-j says:

    Eric, thanks for this excellent article. Not only is it well written, but I am really glad to hear from people who I in my prejudiced mind would associate with all manner of conservative causes – and for starters be proven wrong on at least one count. And I’m glad to see this entirely unapologetic piece in the Grapevine. People in the greater AA with all their (different than mine) prejudices need to see it too. This is the stuff that brings us all closer together. Thanks again.

  11. Bill G. says:

    I believe there are only agnostics in AA, period. Just as the rest of humankind has not believed or disbelieve. It’s the puzzle of the human condition. Either position is unqualified by science. Believe or don’t, the name of the game is not to take that first drink even if your ass falls off.

    Born again cosmic naturalist , doaist & agnostic: Bill G. Traverse City Mi

    Thirty-nine years clean and still going to meetings and not participating in closing with Lord’s Pray. Let them do as they wish but it’s not my cup of tea!

  12. Charlie M. says:

    Very good article. Strong, to the point and matter of fact. I also am an atheist, honorably discharged vet and served 14 years as a merchant sailor. I staggered into AA knowing I was an alcoholic but not knowing what that really was. I was also an atheist but didn’t know what that really was. By staying sober, staying in the middle of the AA boat, and being of service I came to understand my atheism more completely (my “high power” is time) and what an alcoholic is (someone who has no control over his or her drinking). i agree whole heartedly with Eric that for the Fellowship of AA to grow acknowledgment and acceptance of atheist’s getting sober, staying sober and helping to grow the Fellowship of AA must be acknowledged and accepted by those “guardians” of AA. It just makes political sense.

  13. Bobby says:

    I’d love to know you, Eric. Thank you for your service, and thank you for your story. Cheers! Bobby.

  14. Oren says:

    Very fine article, Eric. Using the Marines’ “esprit de corps” as a way of illustrating the power of human bonding and cooperation riveted me. Thanks for all you’ve done. I am so pleased to see that this was published in the Grapevine.

    Oren (44 years and counting)

  15. Gerald says:

    Very insightful article. I hope to pass some of this info on to newcomers who may be a bit uncomfortable with the “bleedin deacons” in AA. I hope that they will continue to take the suggestions of AA with this thoughtful article in mind.

  16. Ron says:

    Higher power again? Why does a person have to use that concept which is supposed to be a suggestion? It comes from one god so it is not higher powers. A Christian program that is in denial that it is. I just wish people would quit pushing HP or suggesting ways to adopt that concept.

  17. Pat N. says:

    Thanks, Eric, for your service and for your story. “Esprit de corps” is excellent as an explanation of spirituality. We’re all in this together, secularists and believers alike.

  18. Eldon M. says:

    Well stated, Eric.

    After 20 years serviced in the USAF, including a tour in Vietnam, I too found AA and, after several years at “Traditional” meetings, I found an Agnostic group… and am VERY comfortable there… and for the record, I’ll have 35 years this coming November 16th.

  19. Kit G says:

    Great post, Eric! I see this is also in the October issue of the Grapevine. It will be a great topic of discussion at our next Grapevine meeting!

  20. John L. says:

    “Esprit de corps” is a wonderful phrase to describe how AA works. It describes the feeling I get in AA meetings, whether a home group or a group I’ve never been in before. Whether we know each other or not, whether we like each other or not, we hope with all our hearts that all of us will all get and stay sober.

    The friend who brought me into AA said that in the past it had been almost impossible for alcoholics to stop drinking, but that it can be done with the moral support of other people. I think that “esprit de corps” is an even better way of saying “moral support”.

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