AA Needs to Grow Up

An adapted Buddhist quote: “I do not see any other factor that is as helpful to sobriety as this: good friendship.”

By Maureen H

The chairperson at the “As Bill Sees It” AA meeting selected the topic of “faith.” I have attended this meeting since my fourth day of sobriety, one of four separate meetings I have attended every week for the last year. The meetings are diverse in style and philosophy, and I consider them all “home.” The chair that evening pointed out that not everyone there believed in a traditional god (me) and asked that we focus on the role of the group as a Higher Power.  It didn’t happen that way.

The first reading included a St. Paul-like experience of conversion and a miraculous cure of depression. The second involved turning control of our lives over to God. The discussion that followed was entirely theistic, with some even ridiculing the concept that the group could be considered a higher power.

I thought carefully about what to share, or to simply pass. I have always been respectful to the deists, admitting that I simply had no idea about what was possible in that area. I have always stood and bowed my head during the Lord’s Prayer, and even participated out of respect and the realization that as a newcomer I didn’t want to assert myself. I am open-minded and read literature like “One Big Tent”. I do feel the responsibility to state, however, that the higher power concept can be framed in a different way for everyone.

Alternative 12 StepsI had found an agnostic sponsor and was working the Steps, using The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery, although my sponsor repeatedly (gently) reminded me not to mention that to anyone or discuss non-AA approved topics at meetings or afterward during fellowship.

I avoid the Big Book completely. After reading the chapter “We Agnostics” that assured me I would find God or God would find me, I never went back.

In retrospect, I wish I had done what I usually do at “God” meetings: breathe, meditate, and listen to the qualities of voice. But at this particular meeting I elected to share the quote at the top of this page. I began in the usual way of my practice: “The Buddha said…” And I was stopped cold.

“You can’t quote Buddha. It’s not AA approved literature. You can paraphrase, but not quote.” I was speechless.

I live in a coastal resort area. The majority of AA members are Christian retired upper-middle class white folk. There are no people of the Jewish or Islamic faith, and people of color or other ethnicities are essentially absent. I understand that differences may make these decent people uncomfortable and defensive, and lead to the safety and security of dogma. But rules about what is acceptable to say violate what I believe about AA – “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

Once, after sharing my concept of a higher power, I was told by a member of this group there were other places to stay sober if “God” in AA didn’t work for me.

At another group, the mere suggestion that we consider closing with something other than the Lord’s Prayer was rather violently opposed, with the same “If they don’t like it, they can leave.”

And yet, I have been attending this meeting since my fourth day of sobriety. There are two women there who practically scraped me off the pavement as I stumbled in hours after my last drink. I was fond of the regulars and looked forward to seeing them. I could not have gotten sober without AA.

But I fear there is no continued place for me in AA if I cannot share my deeply held spiritual beliefs and be treated with the same respect I offer others. My agnostic friends advise “speaking in code.” Isn’t that the dishonesty we try to avoid?

I find the discussions about choosing your own higher power disingenuous, particularly the one about “it’s not the words, it’s the principle”. Being told you will “come around” or “just try it” is demeaning, and the insistence that without accepting god one can never stay sober is simply untrue. The particular arguments in AA about choosing your own higher power are often circuitous, always coming back to a male deity. We cannot continue to hide behind “Higher Power” or “God as we understand Him.” Words are powerful. They do matter. They can make people feel unwelcome, disrespected, and ashamed.

I am often thanked after meetings for my courage in speaking up, and I wonder how much more difficult recovery must be for those who are afraid to say what they believe.

Secular AA meetings exist in larger urban areas, but the few here are an hour away and difficult for me to attend. A group of us – theists and non-theists – started a sangha (community) of Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist association, using the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path adapted for addressing addiction, including a daily traditional meditation practice. We are all active AA members, and consider Refuge Recovery an adjunct to AA, and Refuge Recovery encourages continued regular AA participation. None of us have decreased our AA meeting attendance. However, since this is not an AA-approved organization, I am told I cannot talk about it.

Tradition Five states: Each group has but one primary purpose: to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” I don’t understand how I can do that if I’m not allowed to discuss what is working for me and what options are available for non-Christians and non-theists.

Many of my professional acquaintances – doctors, psychologists, and social workers – have mentioned to me the reluctance of people to attend AA because of the “God thing.” Those that do try AA often never return to a second meeting. As we move forward, we must grow and change if we follow Tradition Five. Bill W. said as much in his later writings as he warned of the dangers of rigidity and conformity.

There are no restrictions on race, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or lack of them in the Responsibility Statement. If we follow the Steps in all our affairs, we cannot pay only lip service to it. No one is saying to “Throw out the Big Book” but we must welcome people with open-mindedness and compassion, realizing and accepting that our world is no longer like Bill’s. By encouraging open discussions, we can interpret Bill’s words into principles that are universal, independent of a particular spiritual belief system.

The Buddha said: “In separateness lies the world’s greatest misery; in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”

Maureen’s education was at Catholic schools, including college. Her aunt was a nun, and her father spent two years in the seminary preparing for priesthood. He approached the Church, but never his faith, with skepticism that influenced his only child. Early in her medical career, Maureen began to question the religious interpretation of the suffering around her. The challenges of her career, major depressive disorder, and a serious assault at work left her without a spiritual life of any sort for many years. She never developed her interest in Eastern philosophy until after she reached that point of desperation and surrender and faced her alcoholism.

During her first year of sobriety, she has used a multi-disciplinary approach to recovery, composed of four AA meetings and several hours with a sponsor every week, psychotherapy and medication, reading, yoga, and daily mindfulness meditation in the Buddhist tradition. This has been the most difficult year of her life. But as the Promises come true, mostly slowly, she knows that it has also been the best.


48 Responses

  1. Wojtek says:

    Hello, homeboys from Poland. I am a non-drinking atheist, and I would like to join your group. Please contact me. Greetings, Wojtek

  2. Andrew says:

    Thanks for your share. I feel your angst deeply and appreciate your openness.

    I find many “meetings” in AA clickish and very Christian oriented (although when pressed they will deny any such association) or New Age influenced. Long story short, after 13 years of sobriety I nearly despaired of ever finding an AA group to work with until a friend told me of Freethinkers meetings. Lifesavers! Oy! It was a breath of fresh air! There are two in my area and except for a Saturday noon meeting (where I got sober and people know me and my issues) I only attend those two. Group-think is very powerful and I often feel as if I am being strangled, especially when people drift into shares that only have anecdotal “God” experiences rather than staying sober one day at a time.

    I am also aware that each generation translates the current belief system according to the state of the culture they find themselves in and always looking back to the “”good ol days”. Same thing with AA. As you noted, in a white, middle class Christian area AA will show up as white, middle class Christian. Maybe not all attendees will be the above, but the tenor of the meeting will go that direction. Ack! To be human and a human with alcoholic/addictive tendencies! Yet it was through AA that I realized I could be alcohol free. That was my “psychic change”. I don’t have to drink anymore and I can do that without any fantastical deity to boot!

    Thanks again for your share,

  3. Peter G. says:

    I have lived in an area in Upstate NY where in order to attend a secular meeting the drive could be over an hour each way. I made it every week and was grateful they were there for me.

    At this moment I am traveling in South America and will be for five months, yes lucky me, meetings are difficult to find if they exist at all and if I was staying in one spot I would start one myself.

    I am grateful for this website and all the sober podcasts out there that help me keep sober a day at a time.

    Thank you
    Peter G

  4. John F. says:

    Thank you both. Aloha, John.

  5. Muirne says:

    Amen to all that. ? That’s exactly how I feel & I have no patience left to put up with it, respectfully or not. Why go out to a meeting that’s just going to unmake my day? I’ve been good lately trying to keep busy and not binging but sadly perhaps the last place you’re going to find me is at an AA meeting.

  6. Mike O says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Maureen. So much of it mirrors my own experience in traditional AA. While there is a formal approval of different belief system, there’s also usually a tacit understanding that as one “works the program” that a “spiritual experience” WILL BE the result of that work. Those who do not profess spiritual growth and development are often (condescendingly) alluded to as not having “real” sobriety (being a “dry drunk”, experiencing “sodryiety”, or other cute metaphors).

    It’s not JUST that traditional meetings are often uncomfortable for out and proud atheists, agnostics and secular people (which they often ARE and old-timers and regulars will also often simply lump together as “atheists” in the same way as if all LGBTQIA+ people are simply “gay”) but they simply don’t have any tools for those people to use to seek sobriety. I can’t tell you HOW many meetings I went to and how many sponsors I worked with where it was drilled into me that AA is a “spiritual” program, a disingenuous way to shoehorn religiosity into sobriety by calling it by a more vague and amorphous term. When I objected or even just questioned it I was usually told some version of “this is what we do here” and “this is the program of recovery that has saved millions of alcoholics before you. Do you think YOU know better? That YOU’RE unique?” Basically, they don’t know what to do with us and find us a threat to their understanding and worldview and so we are simply to be cast out until or unless we can confront what they see as our “ego”, “selfishness” and “self-will run riot” and conform.

    I say all this with genuine respect and affection towards most of the AA community. I know these folks are just like me in the most fundamental of ways, as fellow addicts in recovery, and that they’re doing the best they can with the tools they have. It’s just unfortunate that they end up leaving so many potential people in recovery behind with their insistence on what’s becoming more and more clear to science and addiction medicine to be antiquated and outdated methodologies based on moralism and patriarch-based early 20th century notions of “spiritualism”. One of the most important slogans out of the many I’ve heard in my years in AA is the ones found on our chips that say, “to thine own self be true.”

  7. Marty K. says:

    Hi Joe K… I’m going on 27 years and I struggled with the God thing at first (2 years or so). My wife and I are both in AA in Tawas Michigan. There are a couple members who don’t go along with the traditional meeting structure but they don’t make a big thing about it and do take part in discussions they are comfortable with. I hope you can work around it because I do know AA did and still does work for me. Harvey, a friend of mine from Englewood, Florida always says, “Keep it simple, Put a plug in the jug, Find a Higher Power, and clean up your messes.” I added Keep going to Meetings. Good luck my friend.

    Marty K.

  8. Maureen says:

    You are absolutely correct about my use of deist instead of anti- theist. My husband pointed that out, too. Sorry!

  9. John F. says:

    Thank you for telling of your experience.

    I believe you might have misused the word ‘deist’ and meant possibly ‘monotheist’ as ‘Deists’ believe in a supreme being that created the universe but does not interact with it, meaning there are no miracles or answering of prayers or any interaction with its creation. Benjamin Franklin was one such deist.

    I think it is also important to note that after seven years of effort in Thailand, AA finally agreed to a new translation and publication of a Big Book in Thai language that removes the word ‘God’ and replaces it with the Thai language equivalent of ‘all things spiritual’ (sing sak sit) This is a very significant advancement of AA’s Tradition number 5 as the Thai government and Thai people in general believed that AA was trying to convert devout Buddhist into Christians and actively discourage the opening of Thai language meetings. This problem happens in almost every Asian country where Christianity is not prevalent.

    A general explanation that I have heard of the dichotomy between the East and the West religious beliefs is that the West believes in a higher power that exists outside of ourselves while the East believes in a higher power that exist inside ourselves.

  10. Joe K says:

    Thank you for your thoughts! I just celebrated 3 years on Sunday, and one of the things I’ve been wrestling with is that there is no place for me in traditional AA. I feel like I have to tiptoe around being an atheist or speak in code. I did start an agnostic meeting in NJ and that meeting is now a year old. I’m kind of torn between not going to AA (I do feel like I’m in higher power hell sometimes as someone mentioned). Or do I start to speak more openly at regular meetings to show people recovery can be done in a secular way? We have a couple of Noble Steps meetings in NJ that I like a lot which are a nice adjunct to AA.

  11. Muirne says:

    Thanks. Maybe I will think more about it. I appreciate your answer.

  12. Chad M. says:

    I continue to enjoy attending traditional AA meeting also, but that’s just me. One reason I attend (not the only one, or even the main one) is to share my experience as an atheist in AA, because newcomers may need to hear that. I try to remember that every AA group is different. In fact, the structure of AA is that AA as such doesn’t really exist, there are only AA groups, each with its own group conscience. There is an increasingly large number of secular AA groups etc. (In my opinion, the service organization of AA has not kept pace with reality, but that’s a different gripe.) For me, it would be a mistake to write off AA completely, because there are in fact millions of people enjoying sobriety because of the program. Their experience has something to teach me too. Personally, I do not want to react to my own religious trauma by rejecting anything that anyone who has religious convictions might have to say.

    I’m sorry that your experience of AA has been cliquish and not welcoming and overly religious or not accepting of different views. I have certainly experienced that at times in AA also. But I’ve also experienced that as I gained confidence in the worthiness of my own experiences, I was less defensive about sharing them, and not so worried about the minority who seemed bothered by my non-orthodox views on things.

  13. Chad M. says:

    I love this reply. In recovery we are told to focus on the similarities not the differences. The similarities in all spiritual traditions, and especially in the experiences of mystics and the teachers who “bridge”, are striking, as all of your quotes make clear. I love what you mention about not imposing on others, but also expecting the same respect in return. It takes courage to keep being authentic and real when it seems some others are trying to shut it down. But other’s people actions are about them.

    I like the Max Ehrmann poem Desiderata, part of which says “Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.” In AA, I have experienced great homespun wisdom coming out of the mouths of people I would never have expected and it can often sound like some of the revered teachers. I can also hear a lot of BS. Sometimes I’m even the one I’m hearing, in both cases.

    In any case, this Website, posts like this, and comments like this give me hope as a member of AA. There is a larger recovery community that continues to grow and thrive that includes but is greater than AA. I believe in THAT kind of higher power. The collective experience of all the recovering people cannot be ignored, no matter how uncomfortable that might make some people.

  14. Chad M. says:

    Starting early in recovery, I also reflexively changed the words about God to other words, including “her” or “higher power”. I don’t think we can assume that young people will necessarily be less dogmatic even though there is such a high proportion of “nones” out there – after all, religious people continue to raise religious children, and if anything, in the face of uncertainty, underlying dogmatism can be more pronounced. It takes patience, kindness, empathy, and courage for us all to respect each other and not only listen but also speak up.

  15. Chad M. says:

    This is great! I am lucky to have had a pretty open-minded traditional AA group and I never got any guff for expressing my own understanding of a Higher Power. Maybe it was because I was raised very religious so I “got it” and I was always respectful, but I also had lots of very good reasons for being atheist (with respect to deistic understandings of God). I also became inherently attracted to Buddhism with its de-emphasis of gods and other-worldly concerns and its focus on what causes us to suffer and how to alleviate it, how much of that is in our own minds and in our own actions. This also is bound up with my recovery.

    I applaud you for continuing to speak up and I do feel that AA membership doesn’t require dogmatic agreement, nor does group responsibility require us to keep quiet about what is working for us, but I also do feel that more dogmatic traditional believers need to understand how tolerant everyone else is of them, and come to understand that is the reason they should be tolerant of others’ views – to give up that inherent desire to be right and in control which is often exaggerated in people with addictive personalities.

  16. Joe says:

    If you find a quote substantial or helpful, then simply say “I heard a saying once.” They can ask later Who said it. I thoroughly enjoyed your writing Maureen and sympathized with you all the way through.

    Congratulations on getting RR started there.

  17. Maureen says:

    Welcome to the Sangha. I also make the changes you do when I read. I’m glad you’re in a place where you can invite people to this wonderful adjunct. Read the RR book too. It’s full of wisdom and practical ways to stay sober and have personal growth.

  18. Ishmael K. says:

    Nice to meet you at RR and thanks for turning me onto this site. I agree wholeheartedly with your article and am sorry you have run into this attitude at meetings. I have been more fortunate in my encounters. I have read the 12 Steps at AA meetings and changed God to higher power and He/Him to Higher Power. I was not shunned. I’m not sure if they’ll ask me again to read the steps. And I have announced Refuge Recovery meetings at AA meetings and with no blow-back. Little by little and probably with the power of young people things will change over time. But, not unless we are willing to put ourselves out there as you have done.

  19. Witek says:

    Halfway around the world, in Poland, a few weeks ago, we started a secular AA meeting on Skype. Some of the articles from AA Agnostica we translate into Polish and discuss. Your text, Maureen, will be among them. Thank you for giving us hope and strength.

  20. Maureen says:

    Refuge is wonderful. Buy the book now; it will make you even more enthusiastic. It also helps you establish a traditional meditation practice using loving-kindness, compassion, forgiveness, etc. Guided ones are on the website. Welcome to the sangha.

  21. Maureen says:

    Oh, my! The Chapter to the Agnostic was the last straw; then I tossed the big book. The pamphlet “The ‘god’ word” is very dishonest. Isn’t it interesting that we all acknowledge the role AA played in early sobriety when we were desperate and how our growth and strength led us on a different path.

  22. Brian O. says:

    Great article Maureen. I was sober over 2 decades. I moved 150 miles to Sacramento and when I quit drinking the obsession to drink was lifted at a Buddhist temple where I got back into meditation. I attended LifeRing and Refuge Recovery meetings along with my AA meetings and found peace and sobriety. I am really involved in my AA group and have only attended AA for the last year and 4 months and it is starting to get to me again so I am going back to LR and Refuge Recovery where I can be with like minded people. I am lucky my AA sponsor does not believe in God but he is good at not caring what others think in AA, maybe I am to darn sensitive lol. I do not know. I do know I feel better at non AA meetings.

  23. Meredith says:

    Thank you so much for putting into words what I have felt for decades. I have always been a searcher, but these paths I’ve taken in sobriety have never led back to the Big Book male construct – “God as we understand him.” Thankfully, our city now has secular, atheist/agnostic AA meetings as of four years ago. Attending them, and practicing my own form of spirituality, I am more able to also attend traditional meetings and filter out what feels wrong. But I go for the newcomer, because so many are off-putted by the evangelical zeal sometimes exhibited. The Chapter To the Agnostics is especially offensive to me. It said to me, in essence, that someday I will join the flock and embrace this fundamentalist belief. Almost 41 years later, I can say that this alcoholic never has. I am an agnostic with a spiritual meditation practice, period. I find no need anymore to search outward for that Pie in the Sky.

    I owe AA for my (especially early) sobriety, and I suppose there’s been growth in my personal coming to peace with it all.

  24. Marj says:

    Thank you so much for writing Maureen!

    With trepidation I stopped attending traditional AA meetings in my area a few years ago as I approached my 30 year mark of continuous sobriety. I knew my head would explode if I heard the religious piece at meetings that claim not to be religious one more time. After 30 years of hearing and saying ‘meeting makers make it’ etc I had concerns of straying too far. I stay in touch with close friends outside the halls. I feel this is a safety net for me. Fast forward a few years to now. I absolutely made the best decision. I feel I have finally come into my own. AA saved my life. I will be forever grateful.

    I just learned we have a refuge recovery program starting at the kinda new Peer Recovery Center around the corner. I cannot wait to become involved in this meeting. Maybe these groups will be popping up all over? One can hope!

    My best wishes to you for a safe, joyous and free journey…

  25. Maureen says:

    How brave of you, holding on to your center. I’m so happy that new groups are available for you. AA talks of “white knuckling” through sobriety without AA, but some of us do that with AA as it stands now.

  26. Jabu says:

    Thank you so much Maureen! It’s as if you were reading my thoughts and my life in AA. I have been in AA since September 1989 and have never relapsed. In my country (South Africa), if you are not religious or don’t believe in God, you are in trouble.

    I was always the odd one out. People wanted to “convert” me at all costs by shoving god down my throats. I have resisted it for the past 30 years and have stood firm that I do not believe in God. Yes, it has brought me enemies. Despite the fact that AA has been in my country since 1946, it has been stuck in 1939 for all those years.

    I still attend AA traditional meetings regularly. Sometimes seven times a week. In 2018, I was saved from my predicament when I discovered a new Agnostic group in Johannesburg. This group was only formed in 2017. I am grateful for the support I got from these members. We started another group and now they are there in South Africa. At least something is happening. All these years I have refused top bow to pressure.

  27. Maureen says:

    I once worked with the Navajo, and have admired the power of their beliefs. It sounds like the Lakota are equally strong. I love the way you meld both Buddhism and your traditions.

  28. Maureen says:

    I found it so comforting to learn that there were people out there like me! I’m glad you found us.

  29. Liza says:

    What an inspiring essay Maureen. Thank you. And thank you to all the responding posts. It’s all so helpful.

    In AA I was told I was doomed to drink again unless I found my god or at least, my higher power. The ideas of dropping to my knees in the morning and at night, faking it to make it and reciting the big book as prayers – didn’t work. I was scared. Where was my higher power and the white light of god’s protection that others described? It was suggested I use the power of the AA group as my higher power but (huh?) that just didn’t make any sense. I felt like a fraud. So I went to meetings less frequently, then I stopped attending and I relapsed again. And again. Each time to return to AA even more ashamed and fearful than the time before. I was an outsider. I couldn’t speak about what I was feeling. Then a couple months ago a member of my local AA meeting spoke up about mindfulness and meditation. That a new meeting based on Buddhist principles was starting in my neighborhood. He was quickly shushed by the group but I heard him!

    Now I’m an enthusiastic member of that local Refuge Recovery. I am learning through mindful meditations and Buddhist principles to trust: yes, to trust myself again. That my mind is the source of my addiction and suffering but my mind is also the cure. With compassion, self-inquiry and patient investigation I can heal years of habits and behaviors. I still go to AA meetings and now find them comforting and familiar. I take what I want and breathe through the rest. It is the path of recovery that needs to be found – not the higher power. We walk that path together.

  30. Jim says:

    I got sober in AA in 1991. I think I’d always been a seeker and I remained one after I got sober. I had been to Pentecostal churches before I got sober, one time I answered the altar call. I was at a low point and I did get some temporary relief. After I got sober I tried going to one of these churches but was turned off by the hypocrisy and exclusivity. I tried really hard to be a believer but could never quite buy it. Later on I got into Buddhism and then Native spirituality (I’m part Native).

    In 2011, I stopped going to meetings and my sobriety grew stronger and my horizons widened. I did attend Refuge Recovery for a bit and also a Wellbriety Circle. I find the two to not be incompatible. I went back to meetings about four years ago, mainly because I moved to this small town and wanted to make some social connections.

    Last night I went to a meeting, which I rarely do anymore, but I guess I went because I was bored or something. The topic of the meeting was willingness, which in usual AA parlance means “believe in God or die drunk.” Accordingly, the discussion swung around to agnosticism. In AA agnosticism and atheism are almost dirty words and are used derisively. Those who express agnosticism or atheism are treated condescendingly because those views threaten the predominately Abrahamic influenced “God in a box believe in our God or else” rigid and dogmatic thinking. This despite the words from their own book: asking the reader to lay aside prejudice and honestly ask him or herself to come to their own conclusion about what they mean to the reader, meaning, as my sponsor explained to me “Think for yourself, don’t let me or anyone else tell you how to believe or think. Find out for yourself.” Or “even though it is impossible to fully define or comprehend that power which is God,” which to me is agnosticism. The word agnostic simply means one who does not know.

    How can anyone claim to wrap their mind around the immensity of the universe and the primordial power that spun it into existence? I know I can’t. But I can’t deny the creation which is before me. Nor can I deny the sense of being connected to that.

    The Lakota have a term “Wakan Tanka,” which means “The Great Mystery,” a circle whose circumference is everywhere and nowhere and at which we are always at the center. Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ (All Are Related) is a phrase from the Lakota language. It reflects the world view of interconnectedness held by the Lakota people. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, a non-theist, teaches about “interbeing.” Haudensaunee people say “Ogwehoweh neha,” “we are all connected.” Christian writer C.S. Lewis wrote of the church not made with hands that is everywhere and nowhere. Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of an experience he had in downtown Louisville during which he experienced a sense of connectedness with everyone that he saw. Johann Hari says that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, but connection. So, when it came my turn to talk, I said what I said above, adding that I don’t impose my beliefs on anyone, nor do I take kindly to another imposing their beliefs on me. If it helps you, great. If not, discard it. If it fosters that sense of connection, great, because to me sobriety is about (to paraphrase John Trudell) life and honor and responsibility and connection. It is is about thinking and not believing.

    I am not attacking anyone’s beliefs. If it helps you maintain sobriety and adds meaning to your life, great.

  31. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for your well-written post Maureen! Here’s my favorite part: “Tradition Five states: ‘Each group has but one primary purpose: to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.’ I don’t understand how I can do that if I’m not allowed to discuss what is working for me and what options are available for non-Christians and non-theists….As we move forward, we must grow and change if we follow Tradition Five.”

    In the 6 months of traditional meetings I attended newly sober this past year, I felt like I was surrounded by people stuck in the past, using antiquated language and concepts for experiences as fresh and as present as sobriety. There was an incongruity that was incredibly uncomfortable if not insulting and even damaging. I love this powerful Secular AA community and really believe it’s a vehicle for change! It’s time for change! And sharing about how we’ve been wounded by traditional AA is an important step.

  32. Maureen says:

    And frustration is one of the things we don’t need, especially when we are desperate for help and feel so damaged.

  33. Maureen says:

    Love the last comment. I’ve never heard any of those things (because they’re not in AA approved literature), just god and our father. I occasionally ask people to pretend all AA meetings rejected a christian god. The literature assured you you would lose your belief if only you pretended for a while. You were not encouraged to talk about your beliefs, and God groups were ignored as a possibility. It rarely makes for a conversation.

  34. Maureen says:

    Absolutely. I would never dismiss someone’s progress. I just want the same in return.

  35. Maureen says:

    Thank you for the work you are doing! I know my doctor friends are surprised to hear about secular AA and other options. As I said above, we need to do our best to let as many people know as possible, but especially doctors, judges, short term-rehabs, etc. Showing the many roads we travel maintaining sobriety

  36. Muirne says:

    I totally agree with you Maureen & the other comments for the most part. I have to say I absolutely do not like anything to do with AA now as it seems to me to be less about alcohol and more about arguing about whether there is a god or not & and whatever the ‘elite little club’ says is so. I don’t think they want newbies at all, it’s their private little group with their rules or get out. Disgusting attitudes! I’m not drinking today but it’s certainly not because of AA.

  37. Nice opening share and great comments that follow; thanks. I went to my first Life Ring meeting; I always wanted to go, I get stuck in my patterns some time. As a matter of fact there are a few places I’ve been to a Refuge Recovery (sometimes called Dharma Recovery now in some places, I believe) but it was always when out of town. Maybe I’m more open to new experiences when I’m on the road. I always feel busy and overwhelmed at home. But anyway, I feel like I’m part of a team and while I felt part of the AA team 10 years ago or so, I feel like I’m part of the people in recovery team. It’s always awkward going to a new 12-step fellowship or another mutual-aid group. But I’ve never been to a meeting that I found to be counter-productive. And as you’ve articulated Maureen, there is nothing disloyal to AA by attending or starting another peer-to-peer group.

    You mentioned that professionals – who meet addicts/alcoholics on the front line – have concerns about sending patients to what might be a religious AA meeting. One of my goals in outreach, a subcommittee of ICSAA, is to reverse the reality that secular AA is the best kept secret in recovery. I’ve done more global things like speaking at NAADAC (National Association for Treatment Professionals) and more local things like working with the Ontario Physicians Assistants Program which facilitates addiction treatment and monitoring for health care workers in the Provence. One of the unintended consequences of a member starting an agnostic group in a well-known treatment center here in Toronto, is doctors are sent there and they become aware of secular AA. There is now a discussion about how to house secular AA meetings in at least one other treatment center in Ontario.

    Others are doing this same work in corrections facilities. We have a secular AA business card and there are a couple of trifolds in circulation. If anyone else is working at raising awareness about secular AA, I’d love to hear about. More can be done at the local level I think, eyeball to eyeball, one relationship at a time than ivory tower schemes. So – on the side topic of cooperation with the professional community – these discussions have a way of motivating useful, progressive actions. Thanks for speaking up.

  38. Jeff P. says:

    The thing I try to remember is that AA is a Christian program, no matter what anyone claims to the contrary. For some, these notions of a redeeming, Christian god are essential to their ability to confront the mistakes of the past and to begin to live a different way. After screwing things up so badly in our addictions, most of us would prefer to let someone else do the driving for a while. Many of these folks are still grappling with their accountability for what has happened and are panicked about screwing things up yet again. What more comforting antidote for these concerns than a forgiving God, willing to forget everything and take over management of our day to day lives? The point is that many people in AA need this belief in a Christian god because, for them, there is no other path to sobriety. Those of us that have transcended this metaphysics should rejoice, while always remembering people come to such realizations in different ways and at varying rates. Some will never get there. But if we are truly sincere about helping other alcoholics achieve sobriety, then being tolerant of the need of others for an omnipotent Christian god is part of the deal. AA did not choose you; you chose AA. Be glad you are not in need of a fatherly protector and let those that are, have at it. There but for the grace of their god go you.

  39. Steve b says:

    You have written a nice article, Maureen. AA is like religion because it’s reluctant to change. After all, if a group thinks that its form and rules and beliefs were given by god, doesn’t it make sense to think that god knows what’s she’s doing, and that therefore it’s best to leave her creation alone, unchanged, in its perfection? I’ve now got almost 40 years of sobriety, and I find myself reluctant to attend AA much anymore. I usually don’t identity much with other AAs, don’t work the steps, and certainly feel that having a “higher power,” or a substitute for one is a complete waste of time. I often express my beliefs at meetings. No one stops me, but I can tell that quite a few people don’t like what I have to say.

  40. Chris L says:

    I think that as one evolves and gains sobriety/clean time, they gain a much better sense of self, self-esteem, clear thinking, and the ability and courage to determine whether or not staying at a particular meeting works for them. Like Maureen, I went to multitudes of meetings before I found a mix that worked for me. I still mix it up 2.5 years later, because I am still evolving.

    I do not attend traditional AA meetings anymore because I have outgrown them. I got what I needed to learn about the BB basic concepts and tools, and now I never read from the BB anymore nor attend those meetings. I also attend Dharma (formerly Refuge Recovery) and I find that works very well for me, partly because it is completely devoid of God talk.

    In Summary, it was a matter of hanging in there (i.e. traditional AA) till I was able to learn the tools that helped me stay clean, and then move onto the fellowships that supported and was aligned with my philosophy.

  41. Tere O says:

    Maureen – thank you. I love you and hope your year improves. I have found that sometimes the crap stuff becomes gold … and a lot of times it is just crap. And that is life – the ups and downs. Much love and peace to you. Thank you for sharing.

  42. Richard S. says:

    I really appreciate this article, I used to take my grand-daughter to her meetings and felt worse after spending the evening with a bunch of smokers relishing in the “good” ole days. I will do it myself and now it’s easier since I found AA Agnostica, even though it’s not meeting with others it has been the program for me.

  43. John L. says:

    Maureen, you have my sympathy. I’m amazed by “You can’t quote Buddha.” — which itself is appallingly quotable. I myself would never attend an “As Bill Sees It” meeting, given my lack of admiration for the man and his ideas. I suggest that you keep going to groups that include people you like. You might avoid “spirituality” topics and instead talk about what works for you — the 24-Hour Plan, the Fellowship, diet, exercise, reading (Buddha), what your last week was like … whatever. I can’t imagine you would be silenced for talking about such things. Others might pick up on this, realizing that Big Book talk is BORING.

  44. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    After years of consideration, my conclusion regarding the meaning of “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” and the tag-on “as we understood Him,” is that the phrases can be translated to “You don’t HAVE to go back to attending church.” Presumably, HE won’t care about that.

    This was 1939 America, folks!! Religious diversity was Baptists, Congregationalists, and Methodists ALL getting along. If you are a good theist, you need not accept the full spiel of the Christian faith. We’re neutral on that.

    We will now close with the Lawd’s Pray-uh!!

  45. Bob K says:

    We are offered to choose our own conception of God. Having grown up in North America, my conception of God is very much like that found in the Big Book. I rejected all of that about 50 years ago. Playing a game of “fitting in,” I’ve had a run through the doable steps by SUBSTITUTING for God. Do NOT tell folks that you substituted for God. They don’t like that.

    It would be idiotic, on the other hand, to profess that I believed my substitutions – the AA program, or “Group of drunks” – were God, would it not? They’re resources.

    It’s unfortunate that “higher power” (no capitals) was not used throughout the literature. That’s workable for almost all. The folks who say “My Higher Power is God,” could say “my higher power is God.” Only the tiniest difference, and only perceptible when written. It took me about ten minutes in AA to see that “Higher Power,” “Power greater,” “Great Reality,” and the like, was just a good old-fashioned “bait and switch.”

    “It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning. I saw that growth could start from that point. Upon a foundation of complete willingness I might build what I saw in my friend. Would I have it? Of course I would!” (BB @ p. 12)

    Re: shutting down “The Buddha says…”, I have to side with the chairperson, assuming “Martin Luther says…”, “Jesus says…”, or “Thomas Aquinas says…” would also get cut off.

  46. Robert says:

    I sometimes feel trapped in an AA world of higher power talk. It gets on my nerves and I keep telling myself, stay cool, whatever works, etc but I can’t help but wonder why people cling to the original text as gospel given how long ago it was written and how conditions and understanding have evolved since that time. It is frustrating.

  47. Courtney S. says:

    I so identify with this well thought out post. Thank You Maureen!

    I no longer attend traditional AA meetings. My serenity had been crushed completely by the intolerance. After 23 years of desperately trying to find a path that would allow me to continue in AA, I had to face the fact that I was sicker after the meeting than before I even walked in. I am so grateful for the SecularAA online meetings. I live in a very rural area of the US and there are no alternatives to AA… except my computer!

  48. Pat N. says:

    Thank you Maureen. You express very well what many of us feel. And congrats on completing the most challenging and what I hope will be the first of many, many years of joyful sobriety. After several decades in AA, I can assure you that it gets even better, and sometimes quite surprising. And thanks for speaking your truth at meetings. I can almost guarantee you are reaching some real listeners, and you are encouraging them to continue to use the fellowship as they find a path out of the swamp and up the mountain.

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