If Not A God – What Exactly Can We Offer?
by Brendan F.
I joined AA in 1993 after 6 sessions with an excellent counsellor. The sessions were arranged by my employer after I admitted to having a drink problem. The counsellor suggested I was an alcoholic and I should go to AA. That simple! I was relieved but did have to ask about the God stuff. I knew about AA since childhood and assumed it to be strongly associated with religion. At the time, my counsellor, Nigel, gave me something useful enough that allowed me to park my unease. About three months into recovery a member suggested I make the “collective wisdom” of the group my higher power. This advice was helpful and practical for me. I loved AA from the start, I listened to so many members share directly and openly about the same fears, life concerns and general misery I had run into during my own drinking years.
So 27 plus years later and still sober I know it’s important that others get what AA has given me. I’m certain it cannot include any celestial creator. I was lucky to get a start that deflected me away from the insistence I must have a god in my life. That’s not to say I wasn’t hearing it at lots of meetings. My overall sense was that many had a genuine faith and shared it sincerely. Others of course, shared it with a fervour equal to a raging bull. On reflection, I sensed then and still do, these members stick with sobriety as the lesser of two evils, it has at no time held any attraction to me. If anything the opposite effect was felt. For me, such Calvinism lacked any warmth or appeal. I’m convinced it causes many to walk away who need good fellowship and support.
I should admit, I did harbour wishes to add to the collective wisdom notion. I understand now, this was probably more to do with some re-occurring need for fuller participation and acceptance but also a genuine admiration for the integrity of people I admired and grew very fond of. However, my rational mind has kept me an unbeliever.
I came out as an atheist over 12 years ago at one of my local meetings. A member who was then around two years sober (I believe he still is) shared directly after me, he proudly stated that the word god is mentioned so often in the big book that he could only reason from this that god must exist! The majority of members mumbled and nodded in some agreement. This illogical deduction left me in no doubt about my atheism. Spotting the obvious flaw with such a senseless argument must certainly undermine what is actually helpful and useful about AA. Around that time, I had just finished my first reading of the Richard Dawkins book “The God delusion”. That night I thought to myself (after calming down!), how many times did Dawkins use the word god? Applying the same reasoning, I should construe God does not exist! This prompted my journey into investigating how the supernatural became an accepted explanation for our human existence. It’s an excursion well worth the effort.
My passage in AA continues whilst always striving to stay sober. I still attempt to work out with greater certainty what’s best and most practical to keep me away from that first drink. As far as I can tell, its fellowship and then an ability to stay mostly honest and to ask for help when it’s needed. Yes, I cleared house and made amends at the start and I have kept in service. I was less successful at examining more deeply rooted problems. They came back to bite me at different times. I have wrestled with so many of life’s issues during my sobriety. Sometimes winning well and at other times falling well short of what might be considered a beneficial outcome. Was I unintentionally waiting for Zeus? My life and sobriety has richer value now but I didn’t have to wait so long.
I recently helped to start a new secular AA meeting in my area. I will always don my hat at what the co-founder Bill W and the earlier members started but now enough is enough. I would only ever suggest the Big Book of AA to someone as a historical document. I would never place it in the hands of any newcomer. It’s perhaps useful to illustrate where the narrative of a god took hold in AA and within the time and culture of 1930s North American history. The late Ernest Kurtz’s book, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, is helpful here. Bill W’s own account of his last patient experience in Towns hospital provides some useful hints and understanding when put together with other known facts. At traditional AA in the UK God plays little part in many meetings but the damage is done on entry with literature and practices strongly advocating we are a religious society.
The preamble along with traditions 3 and 5 play an ever increasing role in how I wish to present the fellowship to the newcomer. That’s just a small beginning and newcomers will still require a program. Attacking traditional AA is unhelpful and often offensive. What use is it to the member still shaking from the last bender? As atheists, agnostics or freethinkers we need to show how we can “solve our common problem”. How exactly are we going to do this? Let’s not have too many pillars in this, we will duplicate efforts needlessly, we might also unknowingly work at cross purposes. If we are to remain an integral part of AA (I fervently hope we do), how do we gain and keep a solid presence? How do we best introduce the many and varied secular/practical steps on offer? Can we confidently and with general acceptance have the traditions but without the inclusion of a god?
Now in 2021, AA freethinkers must take the opportunity to style an approach which is clear, simple and easy to understand. We must do this together. For my part, I will look for fellow freethinkers and particularly in the British Isles to think about a unified approach. Across the globe we need one or more high profile bases for exchange that can help pave the way. Some exist now and agreement to formally recognise these would be a great start. Fully agreeing it’s not god, can we approve together what it is we can and should offer the still suffering alcoholic.
Brendan F is a native of Ireland but has been living and working in the UK since 1987. He got sober in 1993 and is heavily involved in secular AAs establishment in his local area. He believes the Big Book should remain because of the difficulty in securing consensus on the needed scale of change required but that a completely separate publication for freethinkers is the best way forward for the fellowship.
Brendan lives in London with his long-term partner and 3 grown up stepchildren. This is his first article for any AA related website or publication.