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.