A Programme of Honesty?
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
My name is Suzanne. I am an atheist alcoholic. I came into AA at 54 years old – totally worn-down after 37 years of drinking. I chose my first group because it was only a short walk from where I lived. It had a strong Christian ethic and – as I now realise – a very fundamentalist approach to the programme. They even included the Lord’s Prayer at meetings, which is most unusual in the UK. After six weeks of attending those meetings I was still sober (good) but found that meetings were like a dose of unpleasant medicine (bad) so I switched to another group. I chose this next group because, again, it was only a short walk – in the other direction – from my home. Astonishingly, this meeting, too, had the Lord’s Prayer. A freakish coincidence.
With the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer in the same meeting I felt that something was wrong, but that I should keep quiet about it. I can’t say that I was aggressively atheist at the time. The Christian faith does not play a large part in the everyday life of most Brits so we are hardly ever required to express an opinion on it. It just seemed very strange that it was thrusting itself into my consciousness in my new venture of AA meetings. The references to “God”, “He” and “Him” felt like a strange throwback to the unthinking acceptance of Christian mythology of my childhood Sunday School days.
Strangely though, someone at that meeting introduced me to the Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion. Reading that was a light bulb moment. I switched groups again, and found one – walking distance again – which included an openly atheist member! This was progress. But I must say that, although I was beginning to think the unthinkable myself, there was always the very frightening and overwhelmingly loud voice of many people in the fellowship who would tell me it was wrong to go behind the text of the Big Book or to question what it meant. Also that it was wrong to question why we say prayers to God in meetings or why the Big Book constantly refers to God. And the punch line was always, “If you continue to question the programme in that way, you will drink again.” People would say “It’s a programme of honesty” but they would also say – bizarrely – “Fake it to make it”. I feel very uncomfortable faking a belief that a magical father-figure was managing my sobriety.
I tried for a long time to just keep my mouth shut in the face of people insisting that the words of the Big Book are inviolable and that we should not probe behind their meaning or teachings. But the rebel in me comes out once a year when I do my birthday share at my present home group. I feel that on that occasion I am allowed to express my honest opinion about how I got sobriety and how I keep it. What I say is that, for me, AA is as good as the people who are in it. It is the human fellowship of AA that keeps me sober. I can find no evidence, in my sobriety, of an interfering god who has played a part in it.
So last year, seven years into sobriety, and always with a nagging doubt lurking in my mind that there was something not quite right, or not quite honest, about my sobriety, I decided to be brave (or to put my sobriety at risk, as I was darkly warned) and work out what I really could accept from the Big Book and the programme, and what I could leave. I looked at the AA Agnostica website for the first time, and it was a breath of fresh air. People were confidently, and rationally, saying there things which I did not dare to utter because of the power of the BB Taliban. It is strange – Christian overtones are not unduly burdensome in most UK meetings (or maybe I, like many others, have learned to zone-out when they arise).
But I personally class religious beliefs alongside fairy stories, and I feel uncomfortable when fairy-stories and superstition are peddled as being an essential part of recovery. I have occasionally wondered what would happen if I announced at a meeting that it was the fairies who kept me sober. Would people respect my belief?
It is a delicate balance. Neither I nor other non-believers want to bring down AA. I know that it is AA, not Smart Recovery or any other similar structure that keeps me sober. AA works for me. But I worry for the next generation of alcoholics. In my early days I read the Big Book four times in a short period, hoping that it would transfer itself into my brain by osmosis and make me sober. I had misgivings about the tone of condescension toward women and non-Christians, and about the dated language and images, but mostly about the overtly Christian tone of the text. Yet it has taken me seven years to find my own voice and my confidence to challenge the prevailing dogma. People ask why most newcomers attend one meeting and never come back. Possibly it is because they are just not ready for it. But I also guess that the sight of all those references to God in the 12 Step wall-hanging, together with the references to God in the readings, are enough to make many newcomers think they have stumbled into a cult and so they run away.
As I write this I am in the process of setting up a Freethinkers/Atheist group in my home town in the UK. There are only four or five such groups in the whole of the UK, as far as I can tell. I want a group where people, newcomers especially, can speak truthfully about their interpretation of the AA programme. I want AA to adapt, modernise and survive. People look pityingly at me when I raise these issues – they seem to suggest that I am making this fuss because I am angry or afraid. I have given it a lot of thought. I find that the discomfort I feel in quietly acquiescing to something I think is false is in itself a disturbance to my sobriety.
I hope, when the new group starts, that AA in the UK can tolerate a tiny wind of change.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.