You Don’t Need to Believe in Miracles

By Steve T.

At my first AA meeting, in Sydney, Australia, I cringed at the word “God” in the banners and clichés hanging on the walls. What if some of my smart alec university friends saw me here? I could imagine them sniggering.

But the idea that AA might be religious didn’t worry me all that much. I was quite sure religion was for weak-minded people. I had dismissed religion as superstitious nonsense when I was a teenager.  I was just here to pick up some tips about controlling my drinking. I’d soon move on.

I’ve seen some surveys done in Australia which looked at sober members in AA and found that 42 to 44 per cent of them got sober at their first meeting. That still amazes me. It took me about 200 meetings over 15 months before I was able to stay stopped.

During that time, I did everything I was told.  I joined a group, got a sponsor read all the literature and tried to be a good little AA member. But the longest I could stay sober was a week. I began to see that many of the people with good sobriety spoke of the importance of a higher power in their life.

So, that’s what I’d do: I’d get me some religion. I started going to church. I felt weird but I was determined to believe in God. Fortunately, I was also still seeing a wise psychologist who had steered me into AA. He saw immediately that my newfound religiosity was causing me problems.

“You’re trying to make yourself believe in God, aren’t you?” He asked me one day. “Yes,” I said, “I sure am. I’m determined to do it.” He sighed and said, “But trying to make yourself believe, shows you don’t believe, doesn’t it?

That took a little while to sink in but the truth of it was inescapable.

“Look at that Second Step,” he said, “it doesn’t say, ‘We gritted our teeth, clenched our fists and made ourselves believe,’ does it? No, it says ‘Came to believe’.

“Why don’t you gently explore the issues and keep an open mind? Choose some reasonable, open minded AA members and talk to them about it. Read some books on comparative religions. Most of all, just keep an open mind.”

It was good advice. I let go my determination to make myself believe in Christianity and started looking at various religions and philosophies of religious beliefs. I was particularly interested in Taoism, the ancient Chinese religion/philosophy of life.

I found the sayings of Lao Tzu gave me a great deal to think about and loosened the burden of self that was stalling my progress. Lao Tzu said things like: “The truth is not always beautiful nor beautiful words the truth.’ “If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.” “The wise man is one who knows what he does not know.”

The more I pursued this path, the more I came to see that for me, the higher power is simply the way the world works. The more I understand how the world works, how it flows without my efforts, the more I realise that my highest calling is to harmonize with this flow. Instead of wanting things my way, I learn to accept the way the world works.

I found I could easily “translate” the Steps into this way of thinking. Practising the Third Step becomes a process of learning how to go with the flow.  It simply means asking myself, how can I harmonize with this situation? What is the right thing for a person to do in this situation?

I have never asked this question without the answer becoming obvious to me. Keeping my self out of it makes it obvious what should be done. It’s my way of praying only for knowledge of god’s will for me and the power to carry that out.

However, underneath it all, I had nagging doubts that my “theology” was really a bit lame, a bit half-baked. I dreaded some intellectual sitting me down and exposing it all as poorly thought out claptrap.

* * *

A few years ago, I read several enjoyable books by the historical novelist, Robert Harris. I found one he wrote called Conclave. It was about the election of a Pope set in modern times. It certainly wasn’t my usual reading matter, but I felt Harris was a reliable author and was confident this book would be engaging.

It certainly was, the scheming and conniving of the cardinals was dramatic and exciting. The plot was complex and convincing. The central character was a good, honest cardinal who was torn by the many ethical conflicts he faced during the election.

The fascinating thing for me was that I could translate all his religious dilemmas into my own secular philosophy. Our thinking was, to all intents and purposes, alike.  Reading that book was quite a revelation. My way of seeing the world is every bit as practical and useful as a highly regarded theology.

And I don’t have to believe in angels, miracles or transubstantiation.

* * *

Australia is a much less Christian country than the United States. In our most recent census, 30 per cent of people said they had no religious affiliation. In the US, the figure is only 18 per cent. Even when people here say they belong to some religion, generally their level of involvement is low.

On many occasions, when sharing at an AA meeting I have described myself as an atheist or agnostic. I have never had another member come up to me later and complain or try to show me the error of my ways. I’m careful not to disparage my religious friends and I feel plenty of respect for their beliefs.

I remind myself that there are smarter people than me who believe in a religious idea of God and there are smarter people than me who don’t. I’m comfortable with my idea of a power greater than myself. It has kept me sober for 40 years.

I don’t want to be part of a debating society, but I worry greatly about the many people who take a brief look at AA and say, “Sorry, not for me, I’m not religious.” They are repelled by the idea that AA is just another religious group and has nothing to offer them.  What a terrible waste. We owe it to them to show them a way around their objection.

Steve T. has been sober since 1980. He describes himself sometimes as an atheist, sometimes as an agnostic. He almost gave up on AA because he thought it was just another religious group.  But he stuck around long enough to arrive at a philosophy that allows him to be deeply engaged with the fellowship while keeping clear of religious beliefs. Steve was an Australian General Service Trustee and a World Service Delegate. He is retired and lives happily with his wife of 48 years. They have three children and four grandchildren.


15 Responses

  1. Philip says:

    I worry greatly about the many people who take a brief look at AA and say, “Sorry, not for me, I’m not religious.”

    As long as our main body of literature talks of the “Father of Light who presides over us all”, “the living Creator”, “God’s ever advancing Creation”, “a Creative intelligence”, “our Maker”, “Him who presides over us all”, “the All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence”…

    As long as being open minded is so that we can admit “the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe” and so we can all envision, “the Great Reality – their loving and All Powerful Creator”…

    As long as meetings end with a Christian prayer or the Serenity Prayer and a rousing “Amen”…

    Of course non-believers will hurriedly depart from their first meeting never to return or not turn up to begin with.

    It’s easy for myself who has found a refuge in AA by “translating” or changing the steps, passing over the literature and ignoring the “God Squad”, to forget all the drinking alcoholics who needlessly die because they see no home for themselves in AA.

    This may not have apparent in the 1930’s but now many countries have majorities who subscribe to no-religion and no doubt numbers are substantial.

    Until the literature is changed the ethos of religion and God will continue to dissuade people from joining and getting sober.

  2. Tim S says:

    Great post. I’m speaking at a treatment center tomorrow via Zoom and plan to quote some bits (with credit). Thanks. I’m a newcomer compared to many of you, only sober since 1985, but I can relate. I’m in a known left/liberal area of the country and don’t feel overly hammered by AA or xtian orthodoxy. In fact, the only places I’ve heard X mentioned is in meetings elsewhere, as a visitor, and in County Cork, Ireland, during a couple of hiking trips and I’m inclined to give a little slack to sober Irish folk, especially since at one meeting I couldn’t understand a word they said anyway. With one exception, a circuit speaker whose orders are a significant and necessary part of his story, most of the clergy I’ve met in my own groups have been very low key about their affiliation and they’re usually outed by others. I can manage church basements and parish halls fine; not so much, groups meeting in the sanctuary with a giant cross on the wall. None of my sponsors have been pushy about g*d, quite the opposite, and just one group elder who had a hard time letting go of the topic for me personally. (Not too much later, I left his group; we’re friendly now, but I don’t turn to him for advice or guidance.). Bottom line for me is that I tend to find where I need to be, like water seeking its own level, but when I was newly sober it was painful. I’ll finish with this, which I emailed my treatment program counselor a couple of weeks ago when I discovered he was still in the business:

    “Thirty-five years ago tomorrow, I had my last drink. I still quote you when you told me during my after-care planning, that “the only thing that worked for us was getting involved in AA.”  (That might be a misquote but it’s what I remember hearing.)  “For us” was critical, and profound.  It let me trust y’all in a way I never could have had it come from a staff psychologist or chaplain who was not herself a recovering alcoholic.  In other words, an absolutely perfect 12th Step.


    “I came to XXXX as an atheist, I left as a skeptical agnostic, I soon realized that I was right the first time. I didn’t come out as such in meetings until around 20 years – although much earlier with sponsors and mentors.  While still in treatment you suggested I take a look at Rational Recovery.  I did, but nope, not for me.  By the time I left I realized I’d be better off bending the BB to fit me, while striving not to feel unique, than trying to find an alternative program. I’ve stayed sober in AA, and “regular“ AA at that. (I gave “secular AA” groups a committed 6-month trial awhile back but stopped those too because they didn’t feel like “real“ AA.) People (Christians, mostly) still occasionally try to get me to read “We Agnostics” and/or Appendix II with an open mind and they still don’t understand when I don’t have a conversion experience. I just sigh. The debating society isn’t part of my program, usually.  … I go to 2 or 3 meetings a week, sponsor folk, do group and Intergroup service and always have, and work what might be called a “casual” program.”


  3. Larry g says:

    What a gentle and beautiful article. Really liked it. I’m hoping AA can provide an optional alternative version of the first 164 pages. I know that it was undertaken to do that very task a few years back but the effort stalled. Not sure why. Anyways if AA could actually get the steam up and get that written in a gender, theistically, and culturally neutral way, it could go a very long ways toward getting AA growing again (as it has not had a census increase since 1990). I can’t tell you how many folks I have known that dipped their toe in AA and fled in horror for its lack of inclusiveness and tendency to be a bit dogmatic re: Bill Wilson’s writings as well as an organizational culture that is deeply white, Male, and Christian. We can do better.

  4. steve b says:

    Good article. I too have been sober for 40 years, and I agree with most of what you’ve said. But I don’t like to use the term “higher power” to describe any part of what I do to stay sober, not only because it plays no part, but also because for me it’s an ugly religious term.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Steve and Roger for posting it….

    I too have been very taken with Taoist thought and philosophy. Several years ago, Roger turned me on to a wonderful daily reader of Taoist philosophy, 365 Tao. It, along with Joe C.’s Beyond Belief, are part of my morning Quiet Time. I’m also rereading Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, which is the first book I bought when I was in early sobriety….

    Presently, I am living in Tucson Arizona, where AA Meetings are greatly influenced by another self-proclaimed fellow Tucson and AA Historian, Wally P. who does workshops all over the world teaching adherents how to do all 12-steps in four sessions; he claims from his research this is the way Dr. Bob and the Akron folks did it in 1946. In many ways meetings are more cult-like with acolytes quoting long segments of the Big Book – mind you, only a tad smaller than the Bible – and expounding upon them with all of the certainty of medieval scholars arguing over how many angels rested on the head of a needle. It is most tedious for this person who was gifted with recovery in New York City in 1972, where the formula was DUGTM&HO — Don’t Use, Go To Meetings and Help Others; of course, this provides me ample opportunity to practice AA’s “Code of Love and Tolerance”for which I am most grateful, even if at times when it is muttered through gritted teeth !~!~!

    Joe, I suggest you goggle Wally P. and his Back to Basics webpage – he, in addition to the Joe & Charlie Workshops and Dick B. from Hawaii, are the primary sources of AA’s current devolution into rampant Christian fundamentalism.

    • Doc says:

      I was a part of a small group that used the Tao 365 for meeting topics.

      I also spend the 70s in Tucson AA and was active in Intergroup there.

  6. Heather C. says:

    Thank you, Steve, for your clarity and insight. You’ve inspired me to take another look at Lao Tzu from the context of alcoholism.

  7. Dan L says:

    Great essay thanks. When I came in not too long ago I tried a version of the “Fake It ’til You Make It” religion. It rapidly became “Fake It ’til You Can’t Stand It Anymore”. I was very fortunate and was rescued by long sober atheists – and some believers who pointed me to those sober atheists. I found I would not attribute my progress to an unseen puppet master when I knew why the things I had done made me feel better and allowed me the emotional strength and maturity to live happily without ethanol.

    I had been educated in science and had been an atheist or igtheist or oddtheist since childhood. Having the ability to stay sober certainly feels like a miracle but is a result of willingness, hard work and – above all – the patient help of my friends in AA. Not a miracle.


  8. Doc says:

    I got sober in 1969, coming into AA as an atheist. About two years sober, I became more open about being an atheist who was staying sober without god(s). Following one of the first meetings where I identified as an atheist, a man approached me and indicated that not only was he also an atheist but he had decided to quit AA because there were no other atheists in the meetings. He stuck around and soon there was a small group of us, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers. I think it is important for people to know that sobriety doesn’t require a god, higher power, prayer, or miracles.

  9. Karl J says:

    Great article, so true. There are a lot of people thanks to the pandemic who have time to think , it is my hope that reflection will promote some change.

    In an overview of the AA program the one thing that stands out for me is in the preamble, “ not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes.”


    “How it works” the next reading proceeds to not only marginalize people with mental issues, but also inform you that your only hope is “the One who has all power – that One is God. May you find him now. And just to console the new comer at the end “(c) That God could and would if He were sought.” This is a contradiction (I won’t say hypocrisy).

    Now I understand human nature to be overjoyed having found something to improve and bring peace into their life and want me to have that same benefit, but when there is only “THE WAY”, overlooking freedom of choice and thought never has and never will be an option.

    Fake it til you make it in a program supposedly based on honesty with one’s self is the last thing an alcoholic needs trying to obtain and maintain sobriety.

    For me the Ghandi approach to A.A. is tolerance and unwavering inclusiveness change from within, one group one meeting, one drunk at a time. (Yes I am a drunk in remission one beautiful day at a time.)

    As a parting thought I heard a person say, “We are not a body with a soul (conciseness), but a soul in a body.”

  10. Joe C says:

    Steve T (and others). I’d like to talk more. I am researching the emergence of fundamentalism in AA. I barely got here ahead of you, 1974 in my first meeting and sober by 1976. No one was thumping big books and no one was bad mouthing either. I knew someone read it but I didn’t know who; no one quoted it. People prayed but it was a formality not a devotion. I didn’t think anyone took it seriously. By the time you came in I was emerged in Young People’s AA. My peers were focused on a better future for AA, not regaling the past glory. It wasn’t until the 1990s as I left young people’s, now in my 30s, and being more part of AA mainstream that I noticed for the first time, Big Book meetings and within 5 years, it was Big Book weekends a la Joe & Charlie variety. After 11 years sober I read the Big Book by going to these meetings. It was interesting enough but when I heard the gushing of how members owed their sobriety to being taken through the book by a loving sponsor… that’s fine, but it wasn’t my story. I grew bored but only understood the zealotry as the badmouthed “watered down AA” in group-speak cliches.

    So I am finding in my research that AA is very regional and some meetings are way more religious, some are more dogmatic and others more spontaneous. I got sober in Montreal and my move to Calgary landed me in a very different AA culture and Toronto was different than both.

    I’d love to hear from long timers all around the world to hear personal observations: is AA the same as always, have you witnessed a growing fundamentalism? Or if you got sober in the last 30 years, what kind if diversity did you find in AA. Did we bend to your needs/meet you where you’re at or was there a push to conformity?

    This goes out to Steve and anyone reading. If you could/would, contact me at the email below. Thanks again Steve and Roger; as you can see, you got me thinking.

    • Oren says:

      Hi Joe. I don’t see an email address anywhere with which to contact you. I’m a long-timer, sober since 1973, freethinker and agnostic all that time. Yes, the culture and tone of AA meetings have changed a lot in my part of the world (Michigan, USA, specifically Upper Michigan). I’ll contact you if I get your email.

    • Pat N. says:

      Same here in WA State, IMO. Weird dichotomy-much more fundamentalism in regular meetings, plus the emergence of these cultish groups, but at the same time, secular meetings are thriving and multiplying.

      My first home group, in a socially/politically conservative area, included a priest and a nun with well-established sobriety. They may have mentioned their own spirituality, but I don’t remember them ever “Godtalking”, the way too many people do now.

      • Doc says:

        My first home group included the local parish priest. He never wore the collar in meetings and made a point of letting people know that they were not to call him Father in the meetings. He never did the “god talk” that I hear today.

  11. Whit R says:

    Good post.

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