My Journey

Chapter 19:
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

Neil F.

On the 12th of April 1986, I drove from Toronto to Montreal and spent the evening drinking with friends. The next day, I visited my son from my previous marriage and drove back to Toronto. During the drive, I broke into a cold sweat and started shaking. I felt I was losing control of my mind and body. I was filled with shame and fear and I concluded I could no longer stand the pain of living this way. Something had to change.

I remembered what my doctor had told me during a visit a few months before. I told him a bit about why I drank, when I drank and was semi-honest about how much I drank. He told me that if I ever thought about having another drink, I should look into a program called Alcoholics Anonymous. At the time, I felt angry and humiliated. How insulting.

But here I was, just a few months later, in the same old pickle. Once again I had been drinking; once again I was paying the price. What was worse, my standby solution – quitting on my own – was once again a total failure. In a moment of desperation, I reached out for help; on April 21, 1986, I attended my first AA meeting. Thanks to the fellowship of AA and good inputs from other sources I have not had to pick up a drink since.

In retrospect, I had a problem with alcohol from the moment I had my first drink.

I was actually quite shy, did not feel like I fit in and wanted very much to be accepted. I was ashamed of who I was. While I was successful at almost every task I took on, I never felt competent and lived in fear of others figuring out that I was in over my head. Alcohol became my instant friend; it allowed me to relax, to be more outgoing, to be a part of life, and my fear could be put on hold. It was a key component of both my social and business life and I could not imagine being able to live a normal, successful life if I were not able to drink. It was this desire to fit in that always took me back to the first drink.

I was not a daily drinker. While there were occasions when I would drink several days in a row, it was more common that I would go several days without a drink. I was very focused on controlling myself and my life when I was not drinking but after taking a drink I lost all control of how much I would drink and what I might say or do.

I had quit several times on my own with success lasting up to several months. My downfall was always finding myself in a social situation where I convinced myself that to be accepted and to relax I had to take a drink. It seemed like all of my normal friends and business acquaintances drank. There was no one who shared my objective of not drinking.

AA offered a community of people that I could identify with and who shared the objective of not drinking and who in many cases had good long term sobriety. Not only were they sober, many of them were successful and they seemed to be happy. I wanted what they had. This community of like minded people, more than anything, was what was missing when I attempted to stop on my own.

But as an atheist, I really struggled with many of the 12 steps.

I do not see myself as being powerless over alcohol as in and of itself alcohol is just a chemical and has no real power to control me. It is my brain, not alcohol, that is the problem. I did not like life as it was and I found that at least in the beginning alcohol was a solution. Over time, alcohol became a habit; a solution to all problems. When I took a drink, I lost control but it was really my reaction to life and not alcohol that caused me to pick up that first drink.

When I came to AA, I suffered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body that always led me back to a drink. But, my experience since then has shown me that it was not a hopeless state; I could recover from this state and live a productive, meaningful life without alcohol.

The suggestion of using a Higher Power as an alternative to a god would have been fine except for the fact that when I read the Big Book it was quite clear that the expectation was that sooner or later I would come to my senses and accept the Christian God as my higher power. So, I don’t have a Higher Power in a Big Book or 12 Step sense. There are many things in the world more powerful than me, but there is no individual or group that I am willing to grant control over my life. I gain helpful input from many sources including AA members, AA groups, AA books and literature, Buddhist, philosophy, psychology and neuroscience texts but in the end I retain responsibility for what is a part of my recovery practice.

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.

While I did not find a higher power, I did find hope that I could recover as I listened to the experience of other members and read the stories in the back of the Big Book.

In the beginning I tried very hard to pursue the coming to believe route; I went to church a few times, I read the bible, books by CS Lewis, the Koran, some Buddhist and Hindu Texts but it didn’t work. As well, the “Fake It Till You Make It” approach seemed to contradict the recommendation that I get honest with myself.

Several books on Buddhism provided helpful insights into how to approach and respond to life. While I reject what I’d call the “woo” associated with claims such as rebirth and karma from past lives, I do find help in the “Four Noble Truths”, the “Eight Fold Noble Path” and the “Ten Perfections” and meditation. To me, these teachings and practices outline an approach to understanding my dissatisfaction with life and a process to bring about changes that help me live a good, happy life today. They are not religious in nature nor are they about the supernatural. As a result, these teachings inform the way that I approach the twelve steps.

I do not use the word spiritual when I’m discussing my practice as I think that it is a word that carries too much baggage in AA. Many would conclude that I am talking about a religious experience or perhaps some new age experience so it’s a term I don’t use. Instead, by working my own version of the steps I am bringing about changes in the way that I approach and respond to life. In the past, I measured success in terms of money, power, position or prestige; today they are no longer high on my list. Today I am more concerned with my relationships with others. I want to avoid harming others while helping where I am able. I am no longer as selfish or self centred as I used to be. I’m a long way from becoming selfless but I have made improvements.

So how could an alcoholic who is an atheist, who does not admit to being powerless over alcohol, who does not recognize a higher power and who does not claim to have had a spiritual awakening get sober, stay sober and have good long term sobriety? First I did not want to die; I did not want to abandon my family and I was convinced that without change I would die. Second, I had the fellowship and the examples of recovering and recovered members that gave me hope. And third, when I could not accept the steps as written in the Big Book, I personalized them to create a process that I could follow and that has helped change me and reduced the likelihood of picking up that first drink.

My current personalized version of the steps is as follows:

  1. We admitted that we suffer from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.
  2. Came to believe that we could recover.
  3. Became open to changes in how we approach and respond to life.
  4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.
  5. Reviewed our inventory with another human being.
  6. Became entirely open to change.
  7. Humbly affirmed our desire to change.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became ready to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through meditation to improve our understanding of ourselves, our practice and our progress.
  12. Having changed as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principals in all our affairs.

Due to my fear of not fitting in, of not being accepted in AA, I was not open about my atheism when speaking in AA until after I wrote an article “Personalizing the Twelve Steps” that was published on AA Agnostica in January of 2013. This article was really my full disclosure of my atheism, my becoming totally honest. Prior to this, when addressing a particular step in a meeting, I talked honestly about how I did the step but I did not disclose the fact that I am an atheist.

My disclosure caused some pain, one person called me a few names, and one person fired me as his sponsor, some rolled their eyes when I spoke, but others realized that I hadn’t changed and still accepted me.

Coming out allows me to be honest when discussing my program. I do not wish to convert or de-convert anyone but I think it is important that others understand and acknowledge that it is possible to become sober and have good long term sobriety in AA without believing in a god.

Just over a year ago, two other members and I started our “Beyond Belief” meeting. It is an open AA Meeting, does not include any prayer, and uses readings from the book Beyond Belief to stimulate discussion. It is a great meeting attracting a small number of atheists, agnostics and even a few theists. We focus on our recovery experience.

Today my life is far removed from that seemingly hopeless state I was in when I first came to AA.

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.

8 Responses

  1. Brien says:

    I think on this site I have said this before, I think agnostic and atheists might not belong in traditional AA. AA is a spiritual program designed to help you find God yes that God. I hate feeling like an outsider in AA. I feel myself pulling away from my homegroup even though we just started back up. I am grateful that on Wednesday I attend an agnostic meeting One Big Tent, Friday LifeRing and I am going back to Dharma meetings.

    I had an AA member I really respect sit with me a few weeks ago and she knew something was up. I had said that I had not opened the BB since 3-20 and might never read it again. And she said have you read the chapter to the Agnostics. I told her in the 30 years I have been a member I have read it dozens of times and it is my least favorite chapter in the BB. My journey and my sobriety and IMO agnostics and atheists probably do not belong in traditional AA.

    • Fox says:

      As of 2015, 13 states have legally defined AA as a religion. Could be more now.
      There are thousands of religions worldwide. The hubris of “One Way” thinking is just silly and arrogant to me. Why would I even want to be like that; to fit in? I know some sincere Christians that I adore. They are extremely humble and consider an open mind a godly quality.

      Since my history with religion involved child violence and verbal abuse, the tone of AA was actually a powerful trigger. I would leave meetings filled with doom and self-disrespect. One day (a few years in) it came to a head and I had a horrific end-of-the-world hellbent craving to just die blotto.

      When I finally recognized this visceral response (thank you secular professional group therapy), and stepped away, I found a lot more peace. I also sidestepped a lot of unnecessary self-inflicted conflict.

      I felt I could trust myself to let it go. I appreciate the time spent there, I learned a lot and met some interesting and annoying people: just like any other school/class or club.

      Sometimes it’s easiest to say AA is the Imperial tool set, and my jet engines need metric. Both planes can get to the same destination.

      Thank you all for giving your valuable time to online discussions. I appreciate you.

    • Bullwinkle says:

      My sharing from when I first attended the AA fellowship / meetings over 5 decades ag , when in context, included that I’m an atheist. This is my criterion for Step 12. I’ve had push back occasionally over the years at AA meetings re: my atheism, but I set my boundaries immediately stating Tradition 3. If at rare times, this wasn’t enough for some, I’ve said, “respectfully all belief or non-belief is valid, as long as one’s belief isn’t injurious to others. If it’s injurious, it’s disrespectful.”

  2. Kenneth P. says:

    Neil, have you found an atheist sponsor? I was fired a couple of years ago by my traditionalist sponsor whom I had for the 9 years since I retired and relocated to a new city. He did not like my atheism (“You just don’t have an open mind”) or the fact that I take medications to control chronic depression and anxiety (“You should not be taking drugs that affect you above the neck”). I feel like I am in the Big Book/Bible belt of AA in Wisconsin.

    The other atheists in recovery that I know of here have about 5-6 years of sobriety at most but I would like to have someone in the neighborhood of my 23 year.

    If anyone else has suggestions, please feel free to comment.


    • Bullwinkle says:

      Kenneth P writes>>> If anyone else has suggestions, please feel free to comment.<<>> He did not like my atheism (“You just don’t have an open mind”) or the fact that I take medications to control chronic depression and anxiety (“You should not be taking drugs that affect you above the neck”). I feel like I am in the Big Book/Bible belt of AA in Wisconsin.<<<

      As with your former sponsor, I’ve been hearing that same dysfunctional rhetoric for over 55 years. This is not in the Alcoholics Anonymous text, which is the suggested program of recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings / fellowship is not the suggested program of recovery. The open minded would read the text and comprehend this.

      Not long after I first attended the AA fellowship / meetings, I heard the same ignorance re: psychotropic drugs, from some that were addicted to smoking tobacco, which is the #1 cause of death. This would be like telling someone that’s talking lithium for bipolar affective disorder, that they’re not sober, while the nicotine addicts are sucking on cigarettes.

      The nicotine addicts will argue that nicotine isn’t mind altering and nothing could be further from the truth. Nicotine is as addictive as heroin, both are alkaloids. I’ve known many heroin addicts that had a more difficult time kicking nicotine than heroin.

      • Kenneth P. says:

        Thanks Bullwinkle. Smoking is an excellent analogy. Appreciate you bringing that to mind. Be well.

    • Neil F. says:

      Hi Ken

      I have been thinking about your question for the past few days, and I find it somewhat challenging to respond as I don’t have a simple answer. Sponsor seems to mean many different things to many different people. I do not have what many might consider a traditional AA sponsor, someone who listens to all of my concerns and helps keep me pointed in the right direction. I’m just not interested in having anyone tell me how to live my life.

      Early in AA, I did have a number of sponsors who helped introduce me to the AA recovery process and the ins and outs of AA organization. As well, they helped me through a couple of Step 4 experiences. I appreciate their efforts as they had good intentions and much of what I was told helped, but, the end result was my conclusion that the AA process as described by the Big Book and traditional AA members was not for me.

      So, today I have many people that I might look to for insights on what their experience has been with particular issues, what has worked for them and what has not but I draw the line at receiving advice or direction. I want to understand experience; I do not seek direction.

      There is a non-religious member who I identify as my sponsor today but we have rarely talked or even seen one another over the past couple of years; he has primarily been the person who presented me with AA birthday cards. If I wanted some insights regarding life or AA experience, I expect he would be the first person I would seek out.

      But, I do not limit myself to gaining insights from my sponsor, long term or atheist members. Often the life experiences of more youthful or even religious members can provide great insights. In particular, there are several youthful members and one long term born again christian member that come to mind.

      If I have a serious life experience, I have and will continue to seek out professional advice. When receiving professional input, I happily receive it as advice and usually act on it. So, I take my legal problems to a lawyer, my medical problems to an MD, etc. And if I were in need of counseling, I would seek out the input of a psychologist or perhaps a psychiatrist.

      When acting as a sponsor, I try very hard to not give advice. I share what my experience has been and what my understanding is; I try to help people understand what some of their options are and to decide what they will do to get sober, stay sober and live a good life. Almost all of the AA members I have sponsored follow a traditional AA process. I have never been successful in convincing anyone to be an atheist; perhaps because when sponsoring, I don’t try.

      So, there you have it. Some of my views on sponsorship.

      Here’s wishing you good long-term sobriety and a wonderful life.

      Neil F.

      • Bullwinkle says:

        As an atheist, I’ve shared my experience based on how I took the 12 Steps with those who chose to call me their sponsor. I don’t call myself a sponsor. The cult like aspect of some AA Fellowship’s, are those that share about sponsorship in the context of the numbers they sponsor, it’s a status competition.

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