Conclusion: Who We Are

Conclusion: Who We Are

One of the favorite quotes I came across in early recovery was the following: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782)

Jefferson might well have added, “You can get sober with a God or without a God. So what?”

Exactly. No broken legs. No pockets picked.

This is a reality that conventional AA needs to come to understand. It has to stop insisting that a Higher Power – whom many choose to call God – is an essential part of recovery and sobriety. It has to stop suggesting that if you don’t get that, you will get drunk.

Plain and simple. Or the future of AA is not good.

That has been put very gently.

My very favorite quote about AA is from Bill Wilson. It was part of a talk he gave to the 1965 General Service Conference in New York. After thirty years, Bill was now able to perfectly define and describe the fellowship he had co-created thirty years earlier. Here is that definition:

In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views. Let us instead accord to each other the respect that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way towards the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.

A kinship of a universal suffering.

The full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy.

Let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views.

The respect that is due to every human being.

Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive.

Each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.

So who are we alcoholic agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in the rooms? Well, the correct answer to that question is very simple:

We are members of AA.

As we so declare.

And many of us are inspired to work to help AA do what it must do in this twenty-first century. And that is to move forward, to drop some of the “very bad dogma” (Bill W) so often prevalent in the rooms of AA today. We shall do this work so that the hand of AA will always be there “when anyone anywhere reaches out for help”.

For that we are all responsible.


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

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Conclusion: Who We Are — 30 Comments

  1. Imagine a diverse AA that someday would see an open atheist, an agnostic, a Christian fundamentalist, a Buddhist, a you name it, all living in open acceptance of one another as human beings with one basic thing in common despite their various points of view, in the same meeting .

    Imagine an AA meeting where all of these perspectives could be heard without rancor, or condemnation. Perhaps that is not possible. Yet, my little home group has shown me that individual honesty and tolerance can grow slowly, sometimes haltingly, over time.

    Imagine a conventional AA meeting where honesty and tolerance are in fact realized by the majority. Now that would be something to celebrate.

  2. Bill W. did say, “we only know a little.” I don’t think he intended for AA to become somewhat of a religion. To change is heresy! When I first got sober in June of 2007 I thought I had had a spiritual awakening via Jesus. One day I realized there was a God and that he would help me. I happened to be in a Christian recovery homeless shelter at the time so I accepted that God was the Christian God. Over the past decade, being an avid member of AA, I have done a lot of research on religion and Bill W, the other fellowship that is a spinoff of AA , etc. I’ve come to believe that there is a creative intelligence out there. We didn’t come from nothing. However I’ve come to believe also that people choose to stay sober. God really has little to do with it. When I chose to stay sober, life started to change. Yes, AA must change. AA is repetitive and hasn’t updated itself since the 1930s. Judging from the writings of Bill W, he was not in agreement that his Big Book be dogma. He was openminded. AA is not. There are also a lot of other paths to recovery out there. AA is not the end all be all of staying sober.

  3. 2018 and so much good progress but much less than it could and needs to be. I’m a 52 year old Irish man, living in the UK 30 years and 24 of them sober. I’m fed up hearing people say “I have a personal God of my understanding” and they go out and get drunk. They say this as they feel they have to. It’s time the theists stopped forcing their beliefs on others. AA will not serve the many unless it grows up and works closer with the facts and science. The Big book needs a brave rewrite.

  4. The reality is that AA is deeply rooted in Protestant theology. I grew tired of members insisting that AA is not a religious program and finally broke away to look for other avenues for recovery. As far as am I concerned one of the main culprits is the Big Book, especially “We Agnostics” which places an expectation of belief on the agnostic and makes them basically second-class citizens within AA. It also promotes condescension and ridicule from believers and converts. AA? No thanks.

  5. While I dismiss the idea of God in the biblical sense, I am convinced of the need for a complete psychic change (at least in my case). The appeal to some agency other than my own was problematic until I realized that that agency was already part of my internal make-up (an “unsuspected inner resource”), and that I could claim it as my own. And yet, I find it useful to also give it “otherness” so I don’t confuse it with my everyday thinking.

    • Thank you for posting that very helpful thought, Dan. I like the idea of different levels of the ‘reliability’ of my inner resources!

      In group outpatient therapy, the main thing was getting us to stop and observe our thinking. That detachment is such a strong tool for getting out of the way of the running bulls of thoughts like “drinking might be OK now”. I know better, but that thought still shows up. But now I see it as a passing breeze, not a great idea whose time has come!

      I think that is a fundamental difference between myself and the AA theory. I don’t expect any one or any thing outside of myself to keep me sober. I just can’t call the consequences of my own confusion and procrastination about alcohol “god’s will”. In fact, while I was “letting go, and letting god”, I did exactly nothing to quit. Indeed the euphoria of the first few glasses of champagne made me feel closer to that ‘oneness with the universe”. It is only by coming to terms with being on my own that I started to do responsible things to get my head on straight.

      Our neighborhood has a tool library. We can share and borrow what we need without paying the full price for each one. I see this as a resource like that. Thanks all

      • I thought the way it worked was that anything good that happens in recovery gets credited to god and anything bad that happens to you is your own fault, while only bad things that happen to other people is god’s will?

  6. Well, “when anyone anywhere reaches out for help”. I found that nearly two years ago when my time became limited due to employment that NO ONE IN AA EVER REACHED OUT. I am now 3 and a half years stone cold sober without ANY help from AA. Perhaps you forget that the majority of the AA members have more than just a problem with alcohol. They prefer to conduct pity parties and prey on others (no pun intended).

    • How exactly did you reach out for the help you so badly needed? I’m not assuming anything and I acknowledge it’s your experience.

      • I have no use for AA. The help I “so desperately needed” came from my own spirit. Don’t forget that AA is filled with people who are deeply flawed to begin with. As am I. However, I stand on my own two feet and don’t need the “help” provided by people who rely on some unseen “sky daddy” or those who profess to be concerned about the “poor, suffering drunk” but never pick up the phone.

    • I certainly do. I have PTSD from growing up in religious violence, genetic depression and ADD too. The blaming and nonsense of AA retriggered a lot of trauma for me. I would have nightmares! I found that I spent a lot of energy reacting to insipid AA slogans instead of focusing on building my own solid plans.

      I will say that the first few months of sobriety, when everything is pretty raw, and I felt so much shame, that it was very good to hear from a wide variety of people. It helped me to clarify what sounded intelligent to me and what didn’t. After awhile, the things (like confession & religion) that I had rejected irritated me. I don’t want to waste time on it. I want to spend my time constructively. It’s better for me to be PRO active than anti-supersticious.

  7. I see no difference between the agnostics dissing members because they have a belief in a higher power than AA’s dissing people because they do not. My problem having been to agnostic meetings is that they go out of their way to rant against AA should anyone dare to mention “God”.

    • That is simply not true. I have been going to agnostic AA meetings for years and that is not my experience. We by and large take a Jeffersonian approach to a belief in God and are respectful towards all those present.

      • > We by and large take a Jeffersonian approach to a belief in God and are respectful towards all those present.

        I love Jefferson, but not the pickpocket quote. To say that it does me no harm for my neighbor to believe in one god or twenty is just to say that his belief doesn’t matter to me. That’s not respectful of his belief. It fails to engage it as a serious worldview. Besides, we know that it does do us harm. Believers vote and raise kids, and they have oppressed us with those techniques for centuries. Religion is a gigantic fraud. We can’t just practice Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

        Check out Sam Harris, or Wm Clifford in his Ethics of Belief. Looking the other way on religion gives it cover.

        Now, I get that it might be a smart political stance toward believers. You could say that for the purposes of recovery we should bracket the whole issue. But it’s not an honest or respectful stance. I’d like to shoot for much more. It would be a shame if all atheists accomplished in AA was equality, as if it doesn’t matter whether one is a believer or an atheist! It does matter, and for us to be true to ourselves, we have to share why it matters. And we have to speak plainly so that other atheists will be able to identify.

        The detente with religion benefits only religion. Ingersoll said there is no harmony between religion and science. Well, there’s no harmony between religion and morality, either. Religious people can be moral, but it’s always despite their religion, not because of it.

        “There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

        ― Robert G. Ingersoll

    • >I see no difference between the agnostics dissing members because they have a belief in a higher power than AA’s dissing people because they do not.

      The difference is in the positions being dissed. Believing in God is one position. Not believing is another. So, if we bash one position, it is because it doesn’t fit our values. That’s the difference. Goodness knows believers have openly bashed the atheist position forever, and they should, because it doesn’t fit their values! Why practice a double standard?

      My problem having been to agnostic meetings is that they go out of their way to rant against AA should anyone dare to mention “God”.

      Well, the Big Book rants against atheists. But of course we should not silence it because it was the honest sharing of those members. So, we can take it or leave it. If you have a problem with something someone says in a meeting, just let them talk and ignore them. They have as much right to speak as you do, and their sharing might help someone else, if only themselves.

      • soberguy: You clearly have a well-developed belief/nonbelief system and you write well. Would you consider expanding your commentary into a full article to be published on this site?

        I, for one, would enjoy reading it.

    • Tom, while in here, among ourselves, we will often tend to express our distaste for religion in a somewhat un-bashful manner, I have rarely seen anyone being disrespectful to anyone else for their own personal belief in a god, no matter how unappealing it may seem to a non-believer personally.

      It is one thing to not believe (or to believe), and hold that as one’s own conviction – and then to put down another person for theirs. I have never seen a non-believer put down someone who does have a god, at least neither to their face, or publicly at a meeting.

      On the other hand I have both seen, and personally experienced personally targeted put-downs from religious people of the non-religious.

      I do not have a problem with anyone else’s god, or their beliefs, or their program. But I have a big problem with OUR program. The one we share. The one where we sit in a meeting, and read god stuff *on my behalf* as if I believed in it, as if the god stuff applied to me, and can help me.
      When I speak up against it I in most, but I’m afraid not all cases, I do preface my comments with that I do not have a problem with other people having a god within and without their program, that that is not my business, my business is only what the program, and some of the religious members will try to impose on me.

      And I do speak up – how else are we going to change anything? Every time the daily reflections are read, if it talks about god, I speak up against it. I speak against it being read on my behalf, for me. Sometimes religious people in the meeting talk about their god or higher power. While inside I scream at it, I politely and respectfully keep my peace. But if someone starts talking about what “we” need to do or believe in, I will speak up. There is a big difference in whether a person expresses their personal belief (which we should always respect, even if we personally find it ludicrous) or they get on a soapbox and tell the world how to work the program. When that happens I may talk a bit about what I think are the essentials of recovery: honesty, openmindedness, willingness, humility, service, living by the golden rule, and perhaps that so far I have not met anyone, even among non-believers in AA who don’t subscribe to those, so why don’t we keep the program that simple?

      • While I will always attempt courtesy at AA (or anywhere else), I have to admit to really struggling with ‘respecting’ the fundies. Their RIGHT to believe whatever; I respect that entirely. But respect them? Do I respect people who believe in unicorns and a flat earth? Oh hell no! I think they are delusional, suckers, brainwashed, supersticious, and easily mislead. I can’t relate to their generic advice because they just don’t have credibility to me. Oil and water.

        I probably didn’t hide those feelings from my face well enough. I am a terrible liar. Quit trying a long time ago.

        Decades later, I still carry physical scars from religious abuse. Those attitudes are dangerous, manipulative and predatory. I’m pissed when anybody tells me to respect those who perpetuate what is the oldest con in the world. Really appreciate other posters here telling it like it is. It is not a victimless crime. Makes me examine what other cultural crap I have unwittingly absorbed to the detriment of everyone.

        I am probably still sober in spite of forced f2f AA, not because of it. I’m the one who decided to stop drinking and accepted the terms of treatment. Now that part is done with. And a couple of years in, I don’t even think about it constantly. But thanks to this site I have an intentional opportunity to check in with my sobriety status in a constructive way.

    • I have never heard an agnostic insist that someone find a Higher Power or face death from alcoholism–something often circulated within AA.

    • Hi Tom,
      I’ve not found that to be “true” generally speaking. My guess is that if one goes to an “agnostic” meeting and hears such from an individual, then it is probable that individual is in a state of “detoxing” from the standard fare of abuse, denigration and utter distain of nonbelievers, especially “atheists” in Conventional meetings.

      Take a little trip down to Boca Raton, FL and attend the “We Agnostics” meeting there that has been going since the late 1980’s. That date makes this group one of the granddaddy’s of “secular meetings.”

      I had the opportunity to spend the last two months of 2017 in South Florida working. I visited two “secular” meetings and two conventional groups.

      At neither of the two “secular” groups did I hear anyone “ranting” against “AA” or “believers.” In fact, I noticed “believers” at both secular meetings.

      Seeing a “believer” or two at the secular meetings in Florida reminded me of my visit to a Quad A (AAAA) meeting in a Chicago suburb some years ago. In that case, there were two Roman Catholic fellas there who preferred hanging with secular sobers in an AAAA group than in Conventional meetings simply because they separated their religious beliefs from living sober, and were tired of the near constant Protestant evangelism they were exposed to in “conventional AA.”

      Damn, we all had a lot of laughs together…believers and nonbelievers….

  8. Statements like Bill made at the convention are lost on most in AA. In my home group it is all about God and Jesus Christ sometimes I feel like an outcast. Thankfully I have found 3 Buddhist Recovery meetings in Sacramento and LifeRing meetings to supplement my AA meetings.

    I think if someone comes into AA and gets sober thoroughly following the path outlined in the BB that becomes their truth hook line and sinker and I fully understand. An agnostic member can be seen as a threat to their beliefs and their sobriety.

    • I’m in my 25th year of continuous sobriety thanks to AA and others. It’s 2018 and time the fellowship took a deep breadth and accepted that in this world of so many people, we alienate millions with god. Tolerance is one thing but why accept anything clearly refuted by logic and science. AA must be honest and brave.

    • If I am not mistaken, the convention that Bill spoke at ended with the LP ironically, which just goes to show that AA’s widening of the gateway is incremental and very slow and well behind the times.

  9. Well stated. Puts truth into clear word. It also includes my favorite Jefferson quotation. Would that more firebrand theist members understood this. Possibly AA meetings should open with Jefferson’s words.

    Best wishes for the new year.

  10. However many/most of the fundies pay no attention to facts other than “their” facts – one of the reasons why I at 26 yrs sober – pretty much boycott mainstream AA (except for pot lucks, LOL) and I am somewhat OUTSPOKEN if prevoked by a fundie. Once had a fundie jump up and offer me a fight in the parking lot – I told him – touch me and go to jail – he walked – LOL.

  11. I honestly don’t hold out much hope Roger. Many “mainstream” 12 Step people I know will not change their attitude in spite of the fact they’re shrinking in a growing population and younger people are even less likely today to embrace the “God idea”. I hope I’m wrong but their attitudes are firmly entrenched. I don’t think people like you ought to stop trying – I just don’t hold out much hope. I’ve had too many interactions with these people over the last year or two that leaves me feeling very skeptical they’ll open up – even a little bit. Again, I hope I’m wrong.

    • Steven, I hope you’re wrong too. The main problem we’re faced with is how do we salvage the whole structure which helps alcoholics? It would be so nice, and tempting to simply abandon ship and go to LifeRing, SOS, whatever, but first of all, all the other programs are small, the nearest LifeRing meeting is 2 hours away, the nearest AA meeting is 6-8 minutes away, second, while there is limited hope allright, if we don’t stick around and fight it out, the most likely outcome is that AA will just wither away in its own ignorance. If we fight it, we may be able to help it save itself from itself, and I have actually had a pretty good experience with that over the last couple of years. people are getting more openminded even if they don’t necessarily let go of their own personal beliefs, which of course they are entitled to keep anyway, just as I keep my own lack thereof.

      So let’s get out there, and be outspoken, we’re not only doing it for ourselves (meaning non-believers) we’re also doing it to save the whole structure of availability.

    • Hi Steven,

      You wrote: “I honestly don’t hold out much hope Roger.”

      I understand this sort of pessimistic posture. I’ll say I’ve felt it at times over the last 8 years in conventional AA as a “out of the closet atheist.”

      I staggered into AA at 54 years old, having been a drunk for 30 years. I had been an Evangelical believer for about 20 years, and had been an atheist for 15 years by the time I was finally done, and knew I needed help to stay sober. There were, and are, no other options in my small city in the West Texas Bible Belt. It was conventional AA or nothing.

      My honesty about me being an “atheist” brought its own reward, or was it punishment? LOL. A sort of “Holy War” started on about my 4th meeting when I asked an apparent “expert,” “How does an atheist do the Steps?” An honest question. The answer was screamed in rage at me. “You better get God, mother***ker, or YOU! ARE GOING TO DIE!!!”

      That holy war ran the gamut from daily cross talk to “the atheist” about God, Higher Powers, and Prayers to several verbal public threats to physical violence in meetings, to three physical assaults.

      Honesty about me…. I was immediately aware that “Honesty” appeared to be a one-way street in “AA.” The response to my question led me to think it might be more difficult to exist in AA than to stay sober. And it was that way for about 2.5 years at which point the holy war began to die down some…

      Yet, I doubled-down on Honesty about me, AND Tolerance for the other person to have their path, and their “story.”

      Over time that “Honesty” about me, and “Tolerance” for the other person to have their gig, their language game, has seemingly “widened the gates’ away from the kind of nonsense I put up with for the first few years of “AA.”

      Today, we have several secular, agnostics, atheists, etc. in our group, and no longer do folks hear screamed or otherwise, “You Better Get God or You Are Going to Die!”

      That religiosity, conformity, authoritarianism is long dead now. It took just a few folks being open, honest, and attempting to live in Tolerance for the other person….

      Is it perfect? Heck no. There is no such things as “perfection.”

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