Agnostics and the AA Program

By Witek D. 

We agnostics and atheistic members of AA are sometimes criticized for changing the content of the 12 Steps. It’s partly true, but we MUST do it! We have to do this in order to stay in AA and to implement its program honestly.

We modify the content of only those Steps that are “impassable to us”. Let’s take, for example, Step 7: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.” “Him,” written with a capital letter, means an extraterrestrial being, a God, who intervenes in people’s lives, removes defects, heals alcoholism and other diseases, according to his unfathomable will.

Well, agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, skeptics, liberal humanists, however we may call ourselves, do not believe in such a God.

This step, in its original form, is impossible for us to make. We can pretend that we practice it as written, cheat ourselves and others, or omit it. Both ways are incompatible with honesty, which we clearly should regard as an essential element of a sober life. What is wrong with the content of Step 7 in this secular version: “With humility and openness of mind we are looking for a way to eliminate our shortcomings”? Doesn’t it sound sensible? It contains the humanistic belief that we people are personally responsible for our lives, and we can and must face our flaws.

We take personal responsibility but that has nothing to do with isolation. We want to benefit from the help and support of other people, AA groups and the entire fellowship. We don’t believe that SOMEONE will do it for us, but someone, in the sense of other people, can help us. We avoid magical thinking that “God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves” if only we pray long enough. We know that all AA is saturated with such theistic thinking, but we accept the right of all people to believe – or not believe – as they wish. At the same time, we are asking the traditional majority in AA to accept our disbelief in such solutions.

An acceptance that will allow us to feel fully like members of AA.

We want to be part of AA as its secular, liberal, minority stream. We think that together we could help more still suffering alcoholics. Acceptance, however, means more than just saying “you have the right to exist.” It is also an opportunity to organize secular AA meetings, to publish literature written by agnostics, and to make the necessary modifications to the 12 Steps enabling us to implement this program realistically.

So far, we agnostics in Poland have only one online meeting and no official literature, but we want to believe that alterations are possible. When? Time will show.

Recently I heard from one of the members: perhaps, instead of changing Steps, you could change your views? It would be safer. Really? This is my answer: It is probably easier to die when you believe that something will be there later, so that many of us, confronted with the end of our existence, would choose to convert to a religion. It’s very human and understandable.

On the other hand, it seems more honest and brave to be able to say: I am responsible for my life, for my good and bad deeds. I don’t blame anyone for anything. I don’t believe that “someone” will heal me from alcoholism, but also don’t accuse that “someone” of all the terrible evil that has happened in the world and still happens.

But what about life after death? I think that very few reasonable people believe in a heaven in which we will meet our loved ones and live forever. In happiness and joy, singing songs praising the Creator. Maybe I’m wrong? I don’t believe in it anyway.

Stephen Hawking

The two greatest scientists of the last 100 years, Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking, wrote that from the first nanosecond of the Big Bang almost all further history of the universe is known and follows precisely the rules of physics. There is no sign of any interference from God. The question is, who caused this first explosion and who planned it all? Here is a place for a higher power incomprehensible to our human mind which provided an impulse to start, but that’s it: no subsequent interference in the fate of the world and people’s lives. No particular intervention in our deeds and no requirement for prayers or specific behaviors. Agnostics, like Einstein, Hawking or me, can believe in such kind of power.

Summarizing, I consider myself an agnostic, and I think I would like to stay in this position. Another bonus of being an unbeliever is the real pleasure that comes from reading articles shared by other unbelievers and posted by AA Agnostica.

Witek D. 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, “Compass”. For several months he also has had another home group: ”AA in AA”,  “Agnostics and Atheists in AA” (an online meeting).

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 and just like Albert Einstein, he considers “The idea of a personal God is a childlike one… which I cannot take seriously”. He is concerned with the fate of agnostics and atheists in AA, tries to translate into Polish some articles from AA Agnostica and sends them to fellows potentially working on their recovery and includes them on the Polish website: AAwAA (In English: Agnostics and Atheists in AA). He attended the International Conference of Secular AA in Toronto in 2018.


7 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Dziękuję Ci bardzo, it is good to see that Don Kichot is sober and tilting windmills in Poland. Poland’s most recent and influential heroes are a man from the catholic church and a devout member of that church. It isn’t an easy path.

    Your story reminds me of my story but you write it better and your passion shines through. Something that helped me find a little peace was that I sought out other, atheists, skeptics, humanists even if they weren’t in AA. It helpe me not feel so alone outside of AA. The atheist groups I found go to movies, have picnics and we do things for others that need help. What makes our help good is we don’t pray for them and have no motive but to help. I will search here in the States for a Polish speaking humanist so maybe you can Zoom meeting in Polish.

    Życzę ci szczęścia

  2. Bullwinkle says:

    I can relate, Doc, my first AA meeting was in 1965.

    Based on my atheism, I’ve been criticized by the AA Fellowship for my approach to recovery. As part of my honest self-appraisal, when it’s warranted, I share with the fellowship, that meetings/ fellowship is not the suggested program of recovery. Also, what’s suggested is outside help, of which psychotherapy helped my recovery. If meetings/ fellowship was the suggested program of recovery, I probably would have died long ago.

  3. John B. says:

    Witek: Thanks for giving us an international flavor to AA Agnostica. I especially like your emphasis on personal responsibility. If I was the English teacher at Warsaw High School (Indiana) in Kosciusko County (Indiana) I would have to give you an A++ for this essay. Just playing with you! Marvelous piece of work! Thank you! John B.

  4. Pat N says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Witek, which I certainly share. It must be challenging to maintain your integrity and nonjudgemental attitude in such an ostensibly religious culture. Maximilian Kolbe, the priest killed by the Nazis, is one of my personal heroes because of his humility and practical compassion. I see those same virtues in many of my AA friends and acquaintances, both traditional and secular.

  5. Chad M. says:

    Thank you for this article! I came into AA in an area that is pretty traditional, pretty religious, and I was (and am) a mystical atheist. It didn’t take me long to learn that it was up to me to be honest about how I was wrestling with a step like this one, and that I didn’t have to change my language or my views to conform to others’ understanding. I naturally resisted it.

    But, I also saw so many similarities in my essential stance towards this step and the ways that more religious or traditional theistic believers expressed themselves about it. Saying things like ‘if you pray for potatoes, you’d also better pick up a hoe.’ It’s more like ‘trust the process.’ I can be aware, I can put in effort, but some part of the results are still not entirely me, not entirely mine. Something happens TO me when I participate. I view these as natural processes, whether they are psychological, social, whatever, but nevertheless it’s not my efforts alone that will get me to health. Of course, coming to a recovery program is already me admitting that. I realized I didn’t have to get caught up in trying to control that mentality that “He” is going to wave his magic wand and remove them for me – almost no one believes that, even among the “AA faithful.” I was setting up a straw man in part because I like to have one foot out the door, feeling like I don’t belong.

    I also thing of a lovely woman I knew with long-term sobriety who had done many things she was very ashamed of when she was young and drunk. Abandoning her family. Running. Hitchhiking and taking up with whoever. What have you. She helped me understand the idea of grace, God’s forgiveness. I think of it as self-forgiveness. Nevertheless she epitomized what a person can look like when they truly feel forgiven, truly have forgiven themselves. She was religious but never talked about it much, except when the idea of forgiveness came up, and how working through the steps and doing Step 4 & 5 with a sponsor helped her understand that “god had already forgiven her, now she could forgive herself.” I still don’t see an external supernatural being doing this, but nevertheless the utility of the belief was evident to me. And at the end of the day, as a non-theistic person struggling with shame and regret, it was evident to me I had to find a way to experience that “grace”, that certainty that I was OK, to really forgive myself. In part by working through the steps, and in part by just letting some things go that were and are beyond my control. I think this is how a lot of people mean it when they talk about these steps.

    For me, I can hear what I think people are trying to say, but theistic language always is a distraction for me and I have to do a lot of translating. Nevertheless it is a beautiful thing to see how people can be transformed by the program of recovery, with or without any god in their personal belief system. I think for a lot of people the “god” they actually find is the one that AA itself gives them – a community, an approach, a practice, direction, teaching, improvement, and a sense of not having to do it alone.

  6. Lance B. says:

    I like the clarity in saying some of the 12 are “impassable for us”. I’m sure the word should be impossible, but all I’ve been able to say to others and think for the last few years is that I’ve never really done the steps. At that point I’ve sometimes been smitten with arguments that I have too, and I acquiesce that I have indeed come to believe that I was powerless over alcohol. There are other parts of steps I’ve thought about (used?) and tried to grow from.

    But what I really think made it possible for this hopeless drunk to get and stay sober, was having a room full of people who told interesting stories and kept me busy while hoping to feel more like I’d always wanted to feel while not using alcohol. Several of the cutisms became meaningful and significant to my recovery. Silly little things like “polevaulting over mouse turds”. Or even a few of the slogans on the wall.

    Thanks Witek, for additional clarity into the solution for guys like me who cannot unsee the truth.

  7. Doc says:

    As an atheist with long-term sobriety (51 years), I have had to “re-write” the steps so that they work for me. While the number 12 has magical and religious meaning for many people, I don’t feel that I need 12 steps. For some of us, few steps seem to work, while, on the other hand, there are some people who have added steps. I was at an agnostic/atheist meeting in Olympia, Washington, where they had 23 steps.

    While I feel that an accurate and honest self-appraisal has been important to my sobriety, I don’t feel that this should be limited to “sins” or to morality which has been imposed by some deity.

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