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.

19 Responses

  1. Mary M says:

    Great essay Brendan from a fellow Irish (Cork). Out here in Newfoundland there is enormous tolerance in traditional AA for us heretics. A guy with 52 years++sober leads the way by usually saying he got sober with none of that God BS. So young newcomers feel comfortable immediately. I find the longer I’m sober (1986) the more I can speak up myself as no one dares tell me I will get drunk without God.

    Connection with other drunks is the most important part of our programme. And collective wisdom is where I have learned everything about sobriety.

  2. Eoin says:

    Eoin as an atheist member of AA. I identify with those who have tapped an unexpected inner resource. Its neither supernatural or a deity, just another working part of the mind that was not functioning during my drinking. Upon completing the Steps as laid out in the AA programme I became aware and conscious of this inner resource and there’s not much else really to say about it except that it is uniquely personal to me and keeps me sober.

  3. Joe C says:

    Very enjoyable Brendan. Thank you.

    Conscious contact with reality: that’s what AA offers me, anyway. Theists in AA might mean the same thing. Getting right with God maybe means the same thing to them as aligning my life and expectations with reality.

    Echoing what David W said previously, Living Sober is a secular, quiet voice in AA that starts from the first 40 years of experience from 500,000 AA members (first printed 1975). I spent some time looking one of the conditions that led to Big Book fundamentalism in AA, for my January Episode 55 Rebellion Dogs Radio podcast. We are 86 years old as a fellowship and it’s only been the last 35 years that such a large percentage of our meetings have become book-based; 12 & 12 in part, mostly Big Book. So the Big Book was four years of the best-practices of 100-ish members. That’s noteworthy. But 40 years and 1/2 a million people is obviously more substantial. And Living Sober has never threatened Big Book primacy in AA. Have at it Big Book studies. Until newcomers stop getting sober in your groups, I hope you keep doing what you’re doing. But there are many AA paths besides this popular 1939-based approach. This forum, essays like this, all describe this legitimate AA path.

    And the advantage Living Sober has is it isn’t sacred; it gets updated for language and references because it isn’t the “words of the co-founder.” It’s the experience of the rest of us. Living Sober is what more has been revealed. At about 25-50,000 copies sold of Living Sober each year, not even one member from 1/2 of AA groups buys one each year. Compare this to one Big Book sold for every two members, every year. Big Book sales have declined in the last five years from their million per year pace but the domination hasn’t been shaken. Living Sober continues to add new Doctors’ Opinions as it did again in 2012.

    The “programme” Brendan describes

    ” …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.”

    These are the ideas expressed in the 31 chapters of the Living Sober booklet. All supernatural aspects of AA are left to the companion piece, Came to Believe (1973).

    As David mentioned, I too believe that a more prominent role for Living Sober would widen our gateway and prevent more one-and-done AA visits. It’s not a perfect text of course, and it’s not a case for no more literature – the more the merrier. I expect, wider use of Living Sober would warm AA as a whole to more practical representations of what we know to be AA sobriety.

    Storytelling is AA’s only currency, ultimately. We are not experts; we offer folk-wisdom. And everyone has a story giving democracy to the newest and crustiest of members. Codifying our stories isn’t wrong. Making it authoritative… that’s what most of us object to, treating the experience of a few as instructions or a language to describe our problem and solution. So essays like this and sharing in meetings is how AA is transmitted. We hear it, we say it, we read it, we do it. With or without Steps, with or without higher powers, AA is staying sober and helping others achieve sobriety. The rest of what we assume to be AA, is just that, our individual or collective assumptions.

    Thanks again, for a great essay and conversation starter.

  4. Bill D says:

    Thanks Brendan, much appreciated on a cold and snowy Sun.

    I’ve had two ‘spiritual awakenings’ in the realm of alcohol: The first was on New Years eve, 1957 when booze promised a new way of life, cares and worries disappeared and I found new happiness. That promise wove strands as of a spider’s web slowly and relentlessly over the next 30+ years till I was bound as by the strongest chain. The second was arriving at the tables of AA totally defeated and greeted with care and compassion. Not by all certainly, some could care less that I was there, but by enough. By men and women that invited me into their lives and held hope for me, showed me how they stayed sober, became living examples of sobriety and we built a community.

    I’m a life long non theist. Never explained, argued or attempted to excuse my beliefs or non-beliefs. I’m not an atheist. That (to me) implies a theology to be without. I’m just a reasonable man. Frankly, the so called god business didn’t bother me. I always shared that I was a non believer in the hopes that others could find hope that they, too, could find sobriety in AA without having to deny their own beliefs.

    Then in the mid 90’s I started to notice a shift away from tolerance and open-mindedness. I started to hear members tell new comers they couldn’t get sober without god. The doors were starting to get very narrow. Be sure, the cause of AA fundamentalist’s is not to return AA to some imagined state of purity that never did exist in 1939. The goal of those folks is to abolish the idea of AA as it attempts to exist today and rebrand it in the intolerant fundamental concepts of the Oxford Groups as they exist under the guise of the initiatives for change movement.

    Stay on the firing line and happy trails to all.

  5. Steve b says:

    I’m not in favor of a unified approach to replace the idea of a higher power or to substitute a new one for god. I’ve found, at least for myself, that I stay sober without concerning myself with such ideas. In fact, I’ve discovered that I’ve been able to stay comfortably sober for some months now by myself with no meetings, no program and no contact with other alcoholics except here and on another similar website.

  6. Doc says:

    I came into sobriety in 1969 in Nogales, Arizona. Since there wasn’t any AA in Nogales at that time, I spent my first 18 months as a loner. While I worked in Tucson, where there are lots of meetings, I didn’t start attending Tucson AA until after the Nogales group had formed. Since I worked for the University of Arizona, I helped organize some noon meetings on campus.

    Being an atheist (and being open about it) wasn’t an issue in the bilingual Nogales group nor in the campus meetings. In the regular meetings in Tucson, however, the need for the lord’s prayer and the Christian god was vehement.

    I left Tucson in 1980 and resettled in Montana. As an atheist with long-term sobriety, my presence in many of the meetings here is very threatening to those who insist that god is necessary to get sober. Fortunately, this is not an issue in the Native American group which reads non-AA literature in the meetings and holds sobriety sweat lodge ceremonies.

  7. Mike O says:

    I’d say fellowship. What I get most from Agnostic AA is a fellowship of others who are moving away from addictive behaviors and their “experience, strength and hope” (one of the maxims from AA that’s served me in good stead). The added benefit of “Agnostic” AA is that members are generally less tied to the more extreme and dogmatic elements of traditional AA and usually allow and encourage attendees to discover and pursue their own paths of recovery.

  8. Dan L says:

    Thanks for the essay Brendan. I appreciate that for many members of the Fellowship including their god in their recovery is essential and God is what they believe is the source of their strength.

    We in the secular world see the history of God in the modern era as being the longest on record game of Hide and Seek. Of all the amazing things discovered by science exactly none of them have been shown to be “magic” or “God”.

    As we learn more about how the brain works the various truths of addiction and recovery become more and more clear to us. We cannot know everything but we know in scientific as opposed to spiritual terms what addiction does and how and why AA can help us. To repeat Ernie Kurtz it is “Not God”.

    We like to use the phrase, “To thine own self be true.” In my view science doesn’t come with a “take it or leave it” tag. It is reality and recognising reality is probably my higher power. Traditional AA skips over a whole bunch of scientific truths and throws the whole process into the hands of a non-existent deity. We are told to “pray not think” and to ask God for guidance when there are practical everyday things that can be done to initiate and enhance recovery.

    Honesty, Open Mindedness and Willingness are the essentials for recovery and I associate exactly none of them with God or religion or “spirituality’. The AA fellowship has trampled the word “spirituality” to death so that it has zero meaning outside of the individual.

    And to me it all sounds silly.

  9. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed a wonderful essay Brendan – thank you for sharing it !~!~!

    I live in Tucson AZ, where meetings have been heavily influenced by Wally P., who offers “Back To Basics” workshops all over the country based, he contends, on information he found in the Akron AA archives about how Dr. Bob and the folks in Akron did it in 1946. There have been several attempts at starting a secular AA group in Tucson, but all have failed. Folks in my Tucson group, which is the most secular that I have found in Tucson, not only quote the Big Book they read long portions of it as part of their “shares” – this gives me ample opportunity to practice our code of “Love and Tolerance,” a poster of it from which I sit opposite to remind me to be compassionate and tolerant… 😉

    I was privileged with my former wife to have been a co-founder of the “Beyond Belief” secular AA group at the Portland Alano Club several years ago; when we left Portland in 2016 it had some 50 folks regularly attend our Sunday morning meetings. Since then some seven other meetings have sustained themselves in Portland, mostly consisting of college-educated folks in their 20s and 30s.

    I intend in the next couple of weeks to establish another secular AA meeting in Tucson where the University of Arizona is located with a woman who recently outed herself as an atheist at my home group. Hey, it’s how I can best be of service in Tucson AA….

    • Bill D says:

      Always good to have your input Thomas. By the way… isn’t it about time to trademark ” !~!~! ” =))

      Happy trails to all.

      • Thomas B. says:

        Naw, Bill, I wouldn’t want to pay a lawyer for doing the necessary legal work to get a trademark — besides, as an ex-hippie, it would be much too yuppie of me to do
        it… 😉

    • Pat N. says:

      Thomas: When I was in Tucson a year ago, there was a secular meeting weekly at the district AA office, w/ about 10-15 attendees. Is it no longer active?

      • Thomas B. says:

        Pat, the local AA district office has been closed due to the Covid situation — hopefully when it opens up again, the secular meeting will start up again…

        Good to communicate with you again…

  10. Harry C. says:

    You pose the question Brendan: ‘if not god, what exactly can we offer?’ I’m just outside Glasgow and never had a drink since ‘a long time ago’ when first coming into AA. I often pose the question ‘what has god got to with addiction or recovery from same?’ I kept my atheism quiet in my early days. So desperate to resolve my dilemma and finding an insight that if I didn’t resolve my drunken lifestyle then my chances of resolving any of my other pertinent issues would be zilch. The consensus within AA brought me to agnosticism and I went back to Chapel looking for this god they were feeding to me. I gave up quickly, a few weeks only, and returned to the sanity of my atheism and trust in my own thinking.

    It’s been that way ever since; the AA foundation of abstinence and the exchange of fellowship and support from within AA. That’s what I took but it ‘offered’ me much more, much more that I’ve set aside as I became more self-empowered in sobriety. I recall standing outside a ‘fundie’ meeting one evening having a coffee with a few others, mostly strangers to me. One guy made the statement “Sobriety isn’t enough for me, I need it all, the people, the programme, the power.” I passed a comment that for many alcoholics they’d give their right arm to get sobriety and without it they have nothing. That little exchange made me realise that AA offers each of us what we need, maybe even some of us what we want; you know, the new partner, the new car, a roof to call our own, a spiritual experience(!), a sponsor of any shade and sort, a Bigga Booka to learn and recite back, a Step or 12 into understanding of ourself and not forgetting to recite back to those ignorant of ‘self’ and the AA way, etc, etc.

    Yup, AA has many things for the many of us who come along. If your group considers the same question as I do, ‘what’s god got to do with alcoholism ..?’ maybe consider dropping god/hp entirely from the menu of recitations and let the attendees find what they’re looking for in your meeting, remembering the golden rule. I returned and I stay because I know the value of sobriety today and that is achieved continuously by my choice of abstaining and the fellowship of those I encounter within AA. We’re not all looking for the same things but surely we agree that we’re all seeking sobriety through abstinence. ? Maybe not! ? ? ???????

  11. Karl H says:

    Hey Brendan… check out “The Dancing Wu-Li Masters ” by Gary Zukhov… if you liked “The God Delusion,” you should love this one!

    Agreed re: God in AA. Traditional AA is an artifact of it’s founding era, and because it HAS worked for so many, traditional AAers are loathe to tinker with something that works. It’s unfortunate that they can’t/won’t see that many are driven away by the overtly religious overtones.

    Reading from the literature at a 12 & 12 or a Big Book meeting can be painful… it’s like listening to badly written and poorly delivered dialogue from an old black & white movie from the 30’s or 40’s. The phrasing and idioms are archaic, and quite probably all but meaningless to younger folk. Hard enough to stay sober at that stage without trying to decipher archaic and God-centric language on top of that.

    Early in my own AA “career,” I simply decided to use the word “God” as a place-holder word for my own concept of a “higher power,” in this case, the fellowship of AA members supporting each other, and also a mish-mash of personal beliefs (hopes, more than firm beliefs, actually), and things I’ve read that resonated strongly for me. I don’t take “God” to mean the white-bearded caucasian angry and vengeful male Judeo-Christian Deity that is associated with those two religions… it’s just a noise that means “what *I* believe.” It’s a work-around, but it serves. I live in a rural area where “God” is a strong presence, and I’ve yet to catch even a hint of a secular meeting. Toying with the idea of starting one, and am still figuring out how to go about it.

    I agree that fighting against traditional AA is counterproductive; the goal on both “sides” should be to help people recover from alcoholism, not to win an argument. If God doesn’t work for a new member, we need to be an alternative, their “safety net.” Bickering and squabbling does nothing but make both parties look unattractive to newcomers, and as you said, what difference does it make to someone who’s still dealing with what they fervently hopes is their last hangover? Walking into an argument is not a promising beginning. Focus should be on the newcomers, and on maintenance of established sobriety…. not on who’s approach works “best,” or who is “right” or “wrong.”

  12. Bob K says:

    I’m guessing that this is Brendan from “The God Word” panel at the virtual ICSAA Conference on December 5th. You folks did a fine job with that. The question in today’s essay title is a worthy one – very important as we move forward.

    Too much time in the meetings of secular AA tends to be devoted to what we don’t like about traditional AA meetings, literature, etc. My friend Gabe from London says he prefers conventional meetings, to some degree at least, because there is more focus on offering a solution to newcomers.

    As a newcomer, it very quickly became apparent to me that I was not philosophically attuned to AA’s “turning to God” methodology. Nonetheless, I had a serious problem to deal with. There are more options today than there were thirty years ago, so I was compelled to “play the cards that were dealt to me.” Over the years, I have gone digging through the religious language to find psychological nuggets that have been of value.

    What have I learned from AA?

    1) That total abstinence is the only option for drinkers of my type.
    2) That I need the help of others to maintain sobriety.
    3) There is great value in self-examination. That’s an age-old bit of wisdom.
    4) Sharing my dark secrets makes them less ominous.
    5) I benefit from making amends to others.
    6) Many good things come from involvement in the community of like-minded others.
    7) Long term sobriety is not immunity.
    8) Trying to be a better person is not a terrible idea.

    We definitely need to be offering more of a message than “Just Don’t Drink – No Matter What!”

  13. Sherman A says:

    Thanks Brendan. I relate very much to your story. I quit drinking in 1994, so we have similar timelines. I too was advised to attend AA by a good counselor. I had a good sponsor who told me not to worry about the ‘god stuff’ and just use the fellowship to stay sober. My home group was LGBT, so the god rhetoric was minimal since so many of us have been god-bashed most of our lives, particularly here in the American South.

    It was a huge relief to also find a secular group, where we don’t have to interpret AA thought and literature. I love AA. I am alive today because of it, but I was secure in my atheism not to be intimidated by anyone telling me I had to believe a certain way. Twenty-seven years of sobriety tells me that it works, even without god. I too would not hand a big book to a newcomer, but I would give them ‘Living Sober’ – lots of practical advice with very minimal mention of god. One good book that I enjoyed about god and humanity is ‘God – A Human History’ by Reza Aslan.

    Again thanks for your story.

    • David W says:

      We frequently read from Living Sober in our weekly 3pm Tuesday Zoom meeting in Toronto. When we were able to have in person meetings, we would freely give it out to newcomers.

      My home group is currently drafting a proposal to ask our area 83 delegate to recommend at the upcoming General Service Conference that Living Sober be made available no charge as an online pdf on AA.org in the same way the Big Book and 12 and 12 are. Currently it’s only available for purchase. If any groups that would be open to considering a similar proposal in their area, it would help the cause.

      It’s certainly a better choice to put into the hands of a newcomer who may be put off by the religiosity and archaic writing of the BB and 12 and 12.

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