A Programme of Honesty?

Chapter 8:
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

Suzanne M.

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.

A doctoral dissertation – “Experiences of Atheists and Agnostics in AA” – is based on the book Do Tell. For more information click on the above image.

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.

Do Tell! [Front Cover]This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

The paperback version of Do Tell! is available at Amazon. It is also available via Amazon in Canada and the United Kingdom.

It can be purchased online in all eBook formats, including Kindle, Kobo and Nook and as an iBook for Macs and iPads.

10 Responses

  1. Pat N. says:

    Good for Suzanne. There are a handful of secular meetings in England (don’t know about the rest of the UK), and I’ve been lucky enough to attend some of them. But she’s right – the UK meetings in general are far less aggressively Christian than in the USA, so there’s less demand for secular meetings. It’s amusing that the UK, with a state church, is far less religious than the USA.

  2. Doc says:

    The concept of a god or higher power is like the color yellow on a life raft: it helps some people find safety. The problem comes when people insist that it is the color yellow that keeps the raft afloat, ignoring the fact that some people are colorblind and others are floating happily in their lavender, or pink, or whatever-colored rafts.

    I’ve been sober for more than 50 years and have been quite open – i.e., vocal – about being an atheist. I also realize that my being an atheist and talking about it is very frightening to many people who feel that there is only one way to stay sober.

  3. Adrian 'Ray' Evans Sr. says:

    I have written a book, praising AA in general for my sobriety. However, one chapter is denouncing the archaic protocol of AA. I let go with both barrels of my Atheism by telling ‘how it is’ with this alcoholic enjoying 37 years sobriety without any make-believe god. My book is titled THE GIFT… that keeps on giving, alcoholism. It is available on Amazon and in ebook form. Visit my Facebook page, Adrian Ray Evans Sr.

    The Gift

  4. Brendan says:

    Great article. I’m certain there are a good number of secular meetings in The UK. Certainly since covid took hold even if only on zoom or similar platforms. It’s important a strong clear line of communication is established between these groups. So can I start with suggesting Rainham Agnostics, atheists & freethinkers on a Saturday morning 11am (UK time). Pop in if only to let us know of your own groups existence. We should certainly register at GSO York. If it’s permissible I can share Rainhan’s details with any reader if you email rainhamaamtgs@gmail.com. Let’s count on each other and for freethinkers who have yet to come.

  5. Mark P. says:

    Thanks Suzanne, it is my intention to start a physical atheist group in Birmingham, UK when all this is over. I went to one 60 miles from Birmingham last year and was horrified by the anti traditional AA diatribe I heard there. This will not happen at the new Birmingham group.

    • Ray B says:

      Mark, I’m a neighbour to your north. I’d be keen to support your new group, especially if it discourages the anti AA rhetoric. Ray B

  6. Stuart says:

    Brilliant article Suzanne. I’m 31 years sober, I prefer to call myself a “freethinker” only because I prefer the word to atheist. I’m not keen on zoom meetings but it has introduced me to secular AA, so I attended one here in the UK. I was far from impressed to say the least; American ones welcome all, the one here I attended was anti-traditional AA. After all, it was people, non-judgemental ones that helped me get sober, and people and service have kept me sober since.

    Where can I find details of “good” zoom freethinkers meetings in UK?

    • Brendan F says:

      Hi Stuart. Zoom secular meetings tend to be new or at least a lot of members are new to attending secular meetings. Newer attendees would seem to “rant” against traditional AA (not all of course) for what seems to be an expression of relief and in part to give qualification. That’s of course just my opinion from having helped start a meeting this year. They settle down to become great meetings for all. Please email us at rainhamaamtgs@gmail.com and I can send you the zoom details. It is growing into a strong meeting with much regard shown towards Traditions 3 and 5.

  7. Roger N. says:

    Fantastic article Suzanne. I came into the fellowship late in life and wholeheartedly agree with all of your earlier misgivings about the BB, the ‘honesty’ and then ‘fake it to make it’, dishonesty almost! and using the term ‘Christian mythology’, I really like that. The Secular meetings on Zoom have aided my recovery with added enthusiasm and I no longer feel ‘bogged down’ in traditional AA whilst respecting its foundations. To add to Brendan F”s comment regarding the Rainham (Essex) Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers meeting, which started on Zoom in May, I have the privilege of being the Secretary of the meeting and you may be assured of a warm welcome along with any other members who would like to join us.

  8. Mike B. says:

    Thanks Suzanne, your experience mirrors mine in many respects. None of the UK meetings I attended used the Lord’s Prayer, that would have sent me heading to the door never to return without a doubt. I too was seven years before reaching breaking point, most milestones in my life can be measured with the same period. I considered starting a secular meeting here in the East Midlands, having taken on board the go back out and you’ll drink again line at face value. My point of no return was squaring the program of honesty line with fake it to make it. I was tired, and meetings left me restless, irritable and discontent in a way I wasn’t before walking into the room for the meeting. I’ve now not attended a meeting for well over two years and have not relapsed. Like others here, I have no beef with AA, its meetings, or anyone who benefits from them, or who attends from a duty to give back. I spent two years losing my craving, and desire, to drink, and five years giving back. That’s a deal I can live with. In the end, the religion wore me down and spat me out. I still live by sound AA principles and carry the message to the best of my ability. I have considered secular zoom meetings, but realise I’m at a different position in life right now.

    The message I give to friends I used to know in AA when I meet them and hear they have left meetings and cannot face returning because of the god thing is to trust in their sobriety and never rule out returning, preferably long before picking up again. I fully expect to attend meetings somewhere again one day, currently I’m driving along with a full tank on a road where fuel stops are a long way apart.

    I discovered that attending meetings when they were clearly having a deleterious affect on my mental health was worse than going. I was faking it to not make it. There are almost zero resources out there for those of us who need a break but have swallowed the going back out and drinking line. This is another myth which traditional AA finds useful, but which might damage non-traditional members.

    I would never counsel anyone who benefits from meetings to stop attending, merely point out that, as long as you believe in your sobriety, taking a break is possible.

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