Secular People in AA

By John S

Back in December, I was contacted by a reporter who wanted me to help him with an article he was writing about secular people in AA. I don’t think he ever published the article, at least not yet. I ran across the questions he sent and my answers to them, and thought I would go ahead and post them here.

1. Your name, title, and affiliation as you want it to appear in the piece (just to clarify your relationship to AA Beyond Belief).

My name is John S, and I am the host of the AA Beyond Belief podcast and the founder and webmaster of the AA Beyond Belief website. AA Beyond Belief is a community of AA members who walk a secular path to sobriety within Alcoholics Anonymous.

2. Any of your own personal history with addiction, like what substance, for how long, and how long you’ve been sober.

I am a recovered alcoholic. My sobriety date is July 20, 1988, so I have been sober for over 32 years. Alcohol was my drug of choice. I didn’t get involved with other substances. I first recognized that I might have a drinking problem when I was 19 years old, but I didn’t seek help until just before my 26th birthday. I sought help in AA, and I’ve been happily sober ever since.

3. Are secular/atheist/agnostic 12-step groups at odds with the step that refers to “turning our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” or is there a way to be an atheist and remain consistent with this step?

I can’t speak for every secular AA member or group. However, I have talked with a few hundred of them over the years. We have also conducted surveys on our website, so I understand the agnostic and atheist community within AA as good as anyone.

AA groups are autonomous and can do as they wish, but AA groups don’t generally take a position on any of the Steps. It is up to each individual to determine for themselves what the Steps mean to them personally. Some AA members, secular or otherwise, don’t bother with the Steps at all, but most of us do, and all of us, whether we believe in God or not, have to interpret them. We have to ask ourselves what these things mean to us personally as an individual.

When I was a newcomer in AA, even before I realized that I was an atheist, I understood Step Three as a decision. Many people focus on the part about turning our will over to God, but they forget the most important part of this step, in my opinion. That is we, make a decision. We make a decision to change and that can be done by working the rest of the 12 Steps. Those of us with a secular world-view respect the experiences of our more religious members who rely on their faith to make this change. However, there is no reason that we can’t make the same decision without a belief in God.

The way that I see step three is “We made a decision to change”. I don’t need to turn my will over to something that I don’t believe in and there have always been many loving people around me who will help me when I need help. I didn’t go through the steps alone. Other people helped me.

Believers and atheists in AA who work the Steps have more in common with each other than not, and they have similar experiences with the Steps. The 12 Steps are practical. There is a phrase in the Big Book that I like which describes the Steps as a “practical program of action.” As an atheist, I focus on the action I take, not on what I believe. However, I would never suggest that my understanding or my way of expressing my experience should be the way for everyone. The only difference between the experience of a believer and nonbeliever when it comes to the Steps is how they describe the experience. I learned that from the former Chair of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Rev. Ward Ewing. He was a non-Alcoholic trustee of AA and is a supporter of secular AA members.

4. What was the impetus behind the creation of AA Beyond Belief? Was it just so nonbelievers would have somewhere they could go to work the steps, or is there more to it than that?

There is another website called AA Agnostica that publishes articles written by secular AA members, and they have been doing this for almost ten years now. A little over five years ago, the person who runs that site thought he would retire and asked me if I would be willing to start a new website to carry on his work. I agreed and decided that with the website I would also have a podcast. It turns out that the person from AA Agnostica never retired, but we continued with AA Beyond Belief none-the-less.

I do this as a service, but it is a labor of love. My experience with the website and podcast has been transformative, and I’m grateful to have this opportunity and participate in such a supportive community.

AA Beyond Belief provides a space for secular AA members to share their experience in recovery. AA works primarily through the sharing of personal experience. When somebody recognizes their own story in that of another person, it can be incredibly comforting to know that if that person who had the same experiences as me could get sober, then maybe I can too.

5. Why do people who are not believers need their own space to work the steps?

Alcoholics Anonymous is a brilliant organization because there isn’t a top-down hierarchy that insists all AA groups operate the same way. Each group, as I mentioned before, is autonomous. For many years, decades, there have been special-purpose groups in AA. There are AA groups for medical professionals, for young people, for LGBTQ+ people, for pilots, women, and men, and there are special-purpose groups for agnostics and atheists.

It is helpful to have these groups so people can be with others who understand them. I like to go to secular AA meetings because I am around others who understand me and my approach to recovery in AA. I have had some negative reactions from believers in meetings, as have other nonbelievers, and it can feel uncomfortable when groups close with the Lord’s Prayer when you are an atheist. However, for the most part, other people in AA are accepting of us. They just don’t understand us as well as we understand each other. The same is true for the LGBTQ+ community or young people, or medical professionals.

6. Anything else you’d like to add?

Atheists and agnostics have been part of AA since it’s founding. Hank Parkhurst, one of the original AA members, was an atheist, and we may not have the Big Book if not for him. Jim Burwell, also one of the early members, was an atheist and is credited with widening the gateway in AA by insisting that the steps read “God as we understand him,” or “higher power.” Secular AA meetings have been going on since 1975 and today is well established and accepted by the fellowship at large.

Our primary purpose in AA is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. We don’t care what they believe or don’t believe. Anyone with a desire to stop drinking is welcome at an AA meeting, secular or otherwise.

On February 22nd of this year (2021), John retired the AA Beyond Belief website. He was very interested in continuing to do podcasts, his rather favorite activity. So he launched a brand new website called the Beyond Belief Sobriety Podcast. To date there have been over 200 episodes of John’s podcasts.


12 Responses

  1. John Runnion says:

    As I’ve told you personally, John, this is a great piece. Thanks for permission to pass it on.

  2. Bob K says:

    Not surprisingly, John has very nicely articulated the case for the secular option within AA.

    The websites and have been invaluable resources over the years. It’s time for someone to step up and start a new version of something similar.

  3. k says:

    Sounds good Bob, I’ll sign up when you start a new version of something similar.

  4. Tommy H says:

    Really well done, John. Thanks for posting it.

  5. Tim S says:

    Thanks; this is great. I only regret not having discovered you all much sooner instead of having had to work my way through my first 20-25 years of sobriety in AA as an atheist on my own.

    Later, it was suggested to me that I be more open about being an atheist when speaking, something that I had shied away from, as a 12th step issue. Others who have reached this stage will recognize that reactions can sometimes be challenging or harsh but I can let 36 years of continuous sobriety and demonstrable changes for the better in every relationship and virtually every other aspect of my life speak for themselves.

    • John S says:

      My experience is similar to yours with the exception that I didn’t realize that I was an atheist until I had been sober for 25 years. I would have described my religious affiliation or belief as “none” which was the truth since I wasn’t raised in any religion. However, when I got to AA, I found myself conforming to the norms of the group. I guess it worked, but eventually, as I grew in my recovery, I had to speak out. Unfortunately, when I came out as an atheist to my home group, it wasn’t well-received by everyone, so I left that group and helped start a secular AA meeting in my community.

      Over the last six years, I think there has been more acceptance for secularly formatted AA meetings or special purpose groups for agnostics and atheists. I believe that sharing our stories as nonbelievers at traditional AA meetings, as you are doing, is a great way to demonstrate that we atheists or secularists exist in AA and we can stay sober without needing a so-called higher power.

      Thanks for your comment. This reporter was writing for a religious publication but for some reason, the story was never published, or for all I know, it was never written.

  6. Doc says:

    I came into AA as an atheist and 52 years later, I’m still an atheist and I’m still sober. Many of AA’s steps are irrelevant to my sobriety. It has been important to look beyond the wording of the steps and examine the principle which they attempt to express.

    I should also point out that I also don’t believe in numerology and so the number 12 has no special meaning for me.

  7. Vic Losick says:

    Well done!

  8. Megan W Moyer says:

    Thank you, John. I love it when you say that you always understood step 3 as a decision. I agree and am grateful for your input.

  9. Dan H. says:

    I am especially pleased to see that the entire piece was devoid of negativity and bashing of old-school religiosity in AA. This is a message I would gladly share with a skeptical newcomer.

  10. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, John, most excellently well done !~!~!

    I’m most grateful for the necessary work you & Roger have done for the secular AA community as well as for AA as a whole over the years. I’ve been a devout agnostic/atheist for the past 25 or so years, partially a result of my Jesuit education at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I was taught to religiously question everything…;)

    I’m most grateful for my continuing recovery a day at a time in my 49th year in AA. BTW, I define myself as recovering, not recovered, which I hear from time to time in the rooms, since I knew a couple of “old-timers” with plus-25-years of recovery, who drank again & died miserably in New York City, where I was gifted with recovery.

  11. JOHN F. says:

    Not sure what a pingback is but just wanted to thank you for reaching out to us for comments as to what you were going to turn over to possibly a non-AA reporter. Personally, I think all of your responses and most of all the comments I’ve read are excellent and encourage me to read more of the various posts that are non-negative in all three of the websites mentioned.

    Aloha always, John

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