The Wave of Religiosity


By Witek D.

A few years ago, at the AA Convention in Texas, I talked to a lady from New York, who was a member of the GSO staff. She knew about the rapid growth of AA in Poland (we have 2700 groups) and told me that, in her opinion, it was because we Polish people are believers. Believers in a religious sense.

I was surprised. Indeed, Poland is considered to be a religious, Catholic country, I said, but AA hasn’t got that religious connection. I was surprised, but now I know she was right. I clearly see that Polish AA is linked with religion, rather not officially but practically.

I’m writing “rather not officially” because some groups quite openly had organized workshops, retreats and pilgrimages at “holy” places for years. These very popular events usually connected with attendance in Catholic masses. They are not run by our GSO, but do a lot of harm to AA’s image.

TheismWhat’s more, I’m afraid, a quite new strong wave of religiosity is rolling through Polish AA now.

Some claim it’s not religion, it’s spirituality because we don’t talk about a particular God and our He or She is not obligatorily associated with the Church. But it’s a whitewash. Religion is a faith in God who intervenes in people’s lives, heals them or not, depending on His will, and to whom one has to pray. What we have in a large part of our AA is “theism”: non-institutional religion, not related to a specific denomination. But it’s still religion.

The vast majority of AA members (and I didn’t pay attention to this early on)  believe that God recovered them from alcoholism and they speak about it at every meeting. Sometimes they say that they don’t manage their own lives any longer but have turned themselves over to the care of God. What does this mean? It’s a declaration of deep religious faith.

This kind of faith is well beyond my agnostic approach. I can accept the idea of turning my life over to the care of a higher power, however we understand it, but I understand that I control my own mind and that managing my life on a day-to-day basis is my responsibility.

I often wonder how a newcomer feels when he or she hears in the Preamble at the beginning of the meeting that AA is not religious and nevertheless later on hears from most of the speakers that they have been saved by a personal God who has intervened in their lives. Probably some of them suspect that we are simply not being honest.

Here’s another example from a meeting. A young man, three years in AA, said: “I still have various fears, despite the program and my sponsor I still worry about my family, work, health …” Someone in the room raised his hand and suggested: “Apparently your contact with God is too weak. Correct your relations with your Higher Power and all fears will pass”.

Everyone nodded with agreement with how sensibly he had advised, but it made me feel bad. I wondered: Where am I, what am I doing here, what do I have in common with these religious people? What I felt was rather low spirits and embarrassment, and absolutely not an identification.

It’s true that no one rejects atheists at a regular meeting but also no one cares if we feel good. Quite often we don’t. We feel  instructed, discriminated against, sometimes scared and offended. For example, one AA group translated and widely propagated “Gresham’s Law and AA” which offends unbelievers, calling them cheats who dissolve AA’s program.

So far there are no secular AA meetings in Poland but we atheists and agnostics AA members definitely need them. We deserve this sense of community in our recovery, feeling connected, not strange and awkward, rather than like a person who, so far, doesn’t believe but in a while… who knows?

Fake ItWe all know this saying: “Fake it until you make it”. I’ve been sober for 23 years, how much longer should I fake it?

After articles I got from AA Agnostica and then translated and sent to friends I received many interesting responses: “Thank you for these important words, wonderful text, it’s good to know I’m not alone…” “At some meetings I don’t dare say I’m an atheist and then I feel like a fraud…” “Once when I said I was an agnostic I heard that there was no sobriety without God and I that didn’t know anything about spirituality… “

It was a wonderful feeling that I experienced it at the International Conference of Secular AA (ICSAA) in Toronto, to sit among people who prove by their attendance that it’s possible to get and stay sober without faith in a supernatural being. And to think: that’s what I have done too.

Some people I spoke to about secular AA meetings said it was a bad idea, a threat to our unity. Really? American and Canadian experiences show something different. On the contrary, secular meetings attract to the fellowship people who wouldn’t come to AA under any other circumstances.

And meetings for women, priests, policemen? They are like that too, not liked by everyone, but apparently, these people need them. For the same reason: it’s about identity and a sense of community. It is important that these, let’s say, special meetings would be not closed, so that everyone who needs help can attend. And a second thing: they shouldn’t be pushed out of AA, for example by being refused registration on Intergroup lists.

We all would like to have a choice, go once to one group, the second time to another. Also we Polish atheists and agnostics appreciate the strength of AA and want to be a part of this wonderful fellowship. We don’t want, not in the least, to split AA’s unity. We are the same – alcoholics – but we only understand in a different way the concept of a “higher power”. For us, it can be the wisdom of other alcoholics and/or ethical rules given us by our ancestry.

And let’s remember Bill’s W words:

…this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer may pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Page 167, 1957

Witek D. is 60 years old and has been sober since December 27, 1994. He has been living in a small town in the middle of Poland where he attends his home group, ”Compas”.

Active in AA service at all levels, in the years 2009-2013 he was a member of the Polish Board of Trustees. Witek openly talks about his agnostic views; just like Albert Einstein, he considers “…the idea of a personal God is a childlike one …which cannot be taken seriously”.

He is concerned with the fate of agnostics and atheists in AA and translates into Polish some articles from AA Agnostica and sends them to friends with similar concerns. He attended the last International Conference of Secular AA in Toronto.

Witek dreams about organizing in Poland international workshops with the theme, “Many paths to sobriety” or something like that, with attendance of agnostic and atheist speakers from abroad, and is looking forward to help and support from secular AA members.

16 Responses

  1. Bill C. says:

    This succinctly expresses the view I could never quite articulate!!

    Thank you.

  2. Wisewebwoman says:

    Very well said. I sometimes feel like an alien at my home group. Especially as I leave before the LP and miss out on fellowship.

  3. Don R. says:

    Well put! Thanks for sharing. It sometimes feels very lonely being Humanist in AA. Nice to know there are others who have long term sobriety in spite of the religiosity not because of it.

  4. SHARI S. says:

    I, too, try to leave before the “closing” prayer. I sometimes feel my sobriety is A PART FROM AA not a part of it.

  5. Olek says:

    As a member of Polish AA, I confirm Witek’s observations. Personally, I don’t recall any situations of being pushed out of meetings or publicly criticized – but perhaps I’m lucky in my selection of groups and meetings. Surely, there were many discussions (not during the meetings, but e.g. afterwards) when AA members tried to convince me to the “theistic” interpretation of AA Program, mostly when I started attending meetings (I’m not a newcomer anymore).

    It was not anything like condemning or ridiculing me (well, maybe a bit patronizing), but I remember the feeling of being alone in my viewpoint and unsure – can I really sober up and improve my life in AA, when literally all people I meet there claim that the only way is to turn my life to some god and totally rely on him? As Poland is a country where vast majority of people declare Catholicism, it is almost impossible to meet an atheist or agnostic at AA meeting, almost all AA members have their personal gods, either the Catholic one, or someone stripped from theological tradition, approved religious texts etc. but the same in principle (an omnipotent personal deity overseeing the world).

    That’s why a few years ago this website of AA Agnostica turned out to be a huge help for me – first and foremost by ensuring me that I can recover without denying my worldview, then by giving me the sense of community (that there are many other AAs like me) and, last but not least, by providing me ideas, inspirations and other food for thought about how can I interpret and work the Steps (because what I heard on the meetings was mostly useless to me, being too different from my views).

  6. Bob F. says:

    Hello Witek and everyone,

    Our recovery, as non-believers, is no less successful than that of those in our Fellowship, who put trust in and attribute this success to an historically traditional God or, as I have noted in a previous post, an externalized parental projection.

    But, regardless of what we do or do not believe as the source of our recovery, the fact remains that it – our recovery – is still an undeniable reality. As I also opined, in my previous post, the fundamental goal of recovery, in addition to relinquishing the use of an addictive substance or behavior, is developing an ever-increasing capacity for self-responsibility and accountability in our lives which, I further believe becomes the basis for experiencing the Promises. Given this ability to become self-responsible and self-accountable resulting from recovery, I would like to suggest that, perhaps, there is an internal human quality for healing that could be viewed as an inner ‘higher power’ which we agnostics also have.

    The largest number of those working the Program have been conditioned to attribute causality to an external source, i.e. ‘God’ and it is this externalization that I see as reflecting a deficit in self-responsibility and accountability. So, I am further suggesting that this innate human capacity for healing may be what some spiritual belief systems have called the ‘God within.’

    Before closing let me say I also very strongly believe that Fellowship, in and of itself, is tremendously powerful and is what, I think, activates the inner higher power we all have. It is a sad commentary, on the Program or most of its adherents, that there is such little respect given to the founders’ own recognition of spiritual diversity, in the Big Book’s qualification in saying “God as we understand’ him/her/it.

    In recovery,

    Bob F.
    Tucson, AZ

  7. Arlene says:

    I no longer say any prayers during or after. When I chair a meeting and the Serenity prayer is part of the format, I ask the secretary to start the prayer.

    Was suggested by Jimmy B in my home group to look up word god in the dictionary. My dictionary had several descriptions and the one I chose was “the chief Object of my affections” which is AA was then still is.

    Sobriety date 5/9/69
    Arlene J San Diego CA

  8. Henry H. says:

    Words have no value / definition unless an individual and / or tribe / group agrees on the value. For over 40 years, I have shared at AA meetings that I’m a non-theist which is a soft non- threatening way for some AA fellowship members of sharing that I’m an atheist. That is, some, not knowing the definition of non-theist don’t react, as they could when hearing atheist, yet non-theist and atheist are the same.

    I share that if it weren’t for the atheists and agnostics, that the 12 Step wording structure would not be as it is, specifically Steps 3 and 11, “God as we understood Him”.

    Then I share by suggesting that those that don’t understand this read “As Bill Sees It”, Page 95, Spiritual Kindergarten, it reads “Our atheists and agnostics widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”

    I also share that AA meetings / fellowship is not the suggested program of recovery, that the 12 Steps is the program as it states on page 59, “Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery”. That the 12 Steps tenets is First Century Christianity and although I believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, but being an atheist, I don’t believe in the resurrection or that Jesus Christ is the son of God.

    Sharing my story in first person singular, as suggested in the AA text, Chapter 7 “Working with Others” has helped agnostics and atheist AA fellowship members as reported to me by them.

  9. Tom says:

    When my niece could no longer live with her addiction and took her life, long time members to console me offered the opinion that she just could not find God. My answer was “Maybe it was God’s responsibly to find and comfort this young lady”.

  10. Bob k says:

    There are some shockers in the essay. First I was taken aback that there are 2,700 AA meetings in Poland. It may be provincialism on my part, as AA seems like such an American institution.

    The second stunner is the penetration of Roman Catholic religiosity into AA. Our society is clearly meant to be infiltrated by, and infused with, Protestant religiosity.

    I mean, WTF!!!! They had better not be reciting the Lord’s Prayer with that bullshit Catholic ending that leaves out the Power and the Glory!!

    • life-j says:

      Hmm, I never knew about that. I always thought that by saying that power and glory stuff we were building up god’s ego way more than it could handle, he’d probably wind up being real arrogant after hearing it for a thousand years, and the kind of god I would want would certainly be humble, someone I could take a good example from, so it wasn’t going to work between us. But maybe the catholic god is really not the same one I was raised with, he can’t be both humble and arrogant at the same time, well, I dunno, maybe since god can do anything he can do that too. But I guess I’ll have to look into being a catholic. It’s just that all that talk of purgatory and hell is a bit uncomfortable, so I dunno.

  11. life-j says:

    Witek, thanks, and good to see you in Toronto. One sometimes gets the feeling Poland is more catholic than Italy. And then right across the water you have my people who, it seems most of them couldn’t care less.

    Anyway, that feeling of isolation is really hard, and I’d say it took a full 10 years before the god people stopped pestering me to find a god, maybe even 15 with a few of them.

    I couldn’t fake it until I made it. I had already been faking it all my life, didn’t seem to do me much good.

    Once relatively new in the program, 3-4 years maybe I was invited to speak at a meeting, and spoke openly about not being a believer, and did not pick a topic for discussion, said talk about whatever you need to talk about, well first person who put up their hand said, well why don’t we talk about god, and it appears they all thought that a splendid idea. Nobody felt shy about being offensive to me, yet when I talk about being an agnostic it I an simply trying to hold my ground, and at least my first 25 years, tried to word it in such a way that it would be as little offensive to believers as it could be. Well, apparently what it took was to go into combat mode, speak up against the god stuff every time, and eventually the god people, most of them anyway have realized that maybe if they tone down the god talk I will tone down the agnostic talk. But they still read the daily reflections, which sets off the meeting on a god course. We’ve got to get rid of that book.

    I’m starting to feel like it’s getting time for this old AA soldier to go home and rest, but it’s hard to do when everything that is read in meetings is offensive.

  12. Lisa W. says:

    I am not ashamed to be an atheist and I make it a point to bring it up at meetings. I do this so that anyone new to the program, who may share the same beliefs, doesn’t feel overwhelmed with the religious overtones of the program. I mention the book, Waiting A Nonbelievers Higher Power, by Marya Hornbacher. I share how this book helped me get over the religious language in the steps so that I could work them more effectively. I feel it’s my responsibility to be true and open so that newcomers, who may be leery to return because of the religiosity, understand that this program can work for them. And if believers get upset about what I say, then it may be time for them to do the steps again.

  13. Guy H. says:

    Yes, more and more I feel that religion is a narcotic of the uneducated masses. “We thought we could find an easier and softer way…” which is a higher power “but we could not”.

    I will no longer hide my disbeliefs from people in AA. I have started a secular meeting. One Big Tent is a very good try at giving Atheist some ink. But there are a few contributors still clinging on to the crutch of higher power.

  14. MikeB says:

    Thank you Witek, I reached a point over the summer where the realisation that faking the possibility that I might one day wake up and accept the possibility of the existence of anything even approaching my fellow home group members understanding of a higher power to make it was far more damaging to my sobriety than walking away to let them get on with it with my continuing love gratitude and friendship.

    With six beautiful years of sobriety under my hat, more than three without any thought of taking a drink, I was exhausted from what I consider to be the wilful misinterpretation of the steps and traditions on a moving scale which seems to become more entrenched and more extreme among believers according to number of meetings attended weekly over a longer period of time. At merely six years and a couple of meetings a week I was merely cannon fodder to be used as an example of one who wasn’t working hard enough.

    After about a year of meetings, still bruised and disoriented, I was asked regularly to share at meetings, this tailed off the closer I came to achieving the reprogramming of my brain required to achieving what I describe as recovery. It has been well over two years since anyone invited me to tell my story, and having attended between 200 and 300 meetings in that time I have heard as many accounts of lives saved by external deities, and not one from an atheist or agnostic. I don’t think that this is deliberate, or even conscious discrimination, my suspicion is that my sense of detachment has been visible to others long before I became aware myself. No one ever asked me to sponsor them either, so perhaps I’m just not the AA kind.

    Over the summer, having decided to practice my programme with honesty and to step away from what I consider to be the circular logic and wrong thinking I have listened to over and over again in meetings to the point I can take no more, this blog has been a blessed lifeline to a vision of sobriety I can relate to, and I have learned so many interesting things here as well.

    If I had an atheist or agnostic meeting nearby I would support it, at the moment I am not inclined to start one, after three months on the outside I am enjoying the sensation of stepping off the bridge I’ve crossed to a rich life in sobriety.

    Many I’ve seen have not been so fortunate, many have simply walked out of their first or early meetings having announced that the god thing is not for them. I’m glad to have stayed, I’m sad at the realisation that my experience is considered less than that of others by many in the fellowship, but to me the discovery of a life – beyond my wildest dreams indeed – in sobriety is priceless.

    I intend to return to meetings intermittently, and practice the principles I’ve learned as best I can, just without the god stuff.

  15. Nancy K. says:

    Very interesting Witek and well written. I’m honored to have visited your lovey home in that small town. I’ll always remember the butterflies in the back yard. Thanks for being such a gracious host to my sponsor and me while we were in Poland.

    I wish you well in sobriety.


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