An Agnostic in AA

A History III

Fifty Chosen Articles:
Number Thirty-Six.
Originally posted in April 2017.

The struggle with “traditional” AA.

By Roger C

I went to my first AA meeting when I was in rehab back in 2010. It was a speaker meeting and there was a fellow on stage who talked about how he owed his sobriety to “the Guy in the sky”.

I thought, “Are you kidding me?” But, of course he wasn’t. I was soon to discover that there was a lot of God talk at AA meetings. That is the first thing that bothers we agnostics and atheists in AA.

I should say that I am not speaking for all agnostics and atheists in AA. Nobody can do that. But as the editor of the website AA Agnostica and having been heavily involved in secular AA meetings, I am in contact with many agnostic members and know that many of them feel and react much the same as I do.

But back to the God talk: the God that is talked about at meetings is often a Christian God, an anthropomorphic (created in man’s image – “Father”, “He” or “Him”) and interventionist (who can solve a problem with alcohol “if He were sought”) supernatural being.

That doesn’t work for me or other atheist alcoholics.

Most of us believe that what works in AA to keep us sober are two things: first, tapping an “inner resource” (see Appendix II of the Big Book) that makes us strive to be sober, and better, human beings. And, second, the fellowship. Going to an AA meeting and talking with others who understand the problem of alcoholism is a wonderful form of group therapy. The support of others (Step 12) plays a key part in our recovery, according to our more secular AA members, not a God.

The God talk might even be tolerable except for one thing and that is our second problem: we agnostics in AA are often not allowed to be honest at “traditional” AA meetings and even suggest that we personally don’t believe in this God. There is apparently an unofficial policy in Alcoholics Anonymous for non-believers at AA meetings that might well be called: “Don’t Tell”.

And if you do talk about your lack of belief, you will often be subjected to a rebuttal, or an outright attack. It is one place at an AA meeting where crosstalk will sometimes happen. Or you will be confronted after the meeting. When that first happened to me I was stunned. You see, I have a Masters degree and spent years at McGill University working on my doctorate in Religious Studies. I taught ordinands (women and men studying to be church ministers). I was the “resident atheist” at the Faculty of Religious Studies and was treated with genuine respect. Not so much in AA. Many agnostics and atheists are treated with disrespect in AA, if not outright contempt.

That’s a real problem.

And the last, the third problem, that many of us experience in AA are meetings that end with the Lord’s Prayer. To say that AA is “spiritual not religious” and then recite the Lord’s Prayer, well, that just doesn’t wash. The Lord’s Prayer is found in the New Testament in the Gospel of Matthew (6:5-13) with a shorter version in the Gospel of Luke (11:1-4). It was said to have been taught by Jesus to his disciples and is considered the essential summary of the gospels, of the religion of Christianity.

Because it discriminates against those with other beliefs or with no religious beliefs at all, the Lord’s Prayer was eliminated from public schools by the Supreme Court in the United States in 1962. And in 1988, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the “recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which is a Christian prayer… impose(s) Christian observances upon non-Christian pupils and religious observances on non-believers” and thus constitutes a violation of the freedom of conscience and religion provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That was the end of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in Canada.

Agnostics and atheists believe that the Lord’s Prayer does not belong at AA meetings. It’s fine at a religious church meeting but to say that AA is “spiritual but not religious” and then end a meeting with the Lord’s Prayer is a real contradiction.

After getting out of rehab, I went to a lot of AA meetings. And it got to the point where I just couldn’t stand them. Too much of the “God bit”. I realized I could no longer go to them and I was terrified I would start drinking again.

But, almost accidentally, I went one Saturday to my first ever agnostic AA meeting: Beyond Belief, in Toronto. It was, for me, a superb meeting.

When I got out I threw my hands up in the air and I shouted, “I’m saved!”

I have been going to secular AA meetings ever since. There was only that one meeting for non-believers in AA in Canada in the summer of 2010, when I went to Beyond Belief. Today there are more than twenty-five in five provinces. These secular meetings are now growing with great momentum.

These secular AA meetings – without any doubt at all – have been the main source of my sobriety. I know and feel that “I am not alone” and that I am free to express any doubts or disbeliefs I may have and that I can be totally honest.

For me, as for many other agnostics in AA, it’s the fellowship that makes the difference. It’s the frequent “remember when” stories that help to keep me from going back. It’s learning so much from others about how they are able to deal with their alcoholism and to maintain their sobriety, truly, “one day at a time”. It’s the understanding, caring and support of the people at these AA meetings. Back in rehab, and in my early days and months of recovery, the word “gratitude” meant nothing to me at all.

Today I experience it every single day.

AA is meant to be here for all who reach out for help. We are a “kinship of universal suffering” as Bill Wilson put it and we need to let everyone who attends an AA meeting know and feel that they are welcome, regardless of belief or lack of belief.

A History of Agnostics in AAThis is Chapter One of the book A History of Agnostics in AA which can be purchased at Amazon US.

It is also available at Amazon Canada and at Amazon United Kingdom.

For more information about the book, click here: Review: A History of Agnostics in AA.

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For a PDF of this article, click here: An Agnostic in AA.

11 Responses

  1. Will B says:

    Hi Everyone, I currently live in the south of Spain and have been attending AA meetings for a while. Spain in a fairly Catholic Country so “the god bit” here is very pronounced to say the least. I tried AA down here in 2018 and left after about 4 months because of this. Does anyone here know if there are any non god AA style meetings in Spain?

  2. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    The millions and millions of poor folks who tried desperately to quit drinking but couldn’t stay stopped were merely a “No Matter What” away. Such a simple solution, but they all missed it, I guess.

  3. Leslie says:

    Because AA is about acceptance and the Lord’s Prayer is a barrier for those who want to join and participate but do not believe in the Lord (or praying). That is the whole point!

    Maybe there should be religious meetings separated from more secular meetings (like religious schools and public schools).

  4. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    Blacks weren’t allowed into early meetings…why not continue what our founders did? Your comment needs to go back to the drawing board, I’m afraid.

  5. Bob b says:

    The Lord’s prayer was recited by the early members…why not continue what our founders did.

  6. Brien O. says:

    Hi Karl, I have been going to LifeRing for about 8 years. I moved to Sacramento from San Jose and found 3 right away but then covid hit. But for now it is all zoom 7 days a week. Like a breath of fresh air.

  7. Frank L says:

    Hi, I facilitate a Sunday meeting from 6-7 in Minneapolis named ‘We Agnostics of Uptown.’ Always glad to see a new face. Frank

  8. bob k says:

    We’re relatively fortunate in Metropolitan Toronto that traditional meetings are not as “Godly” as most other locales.

    The clinging to “The Lord’s Prayer” is remarkable, especially in the light of the “we’re spiritual, not religious” mantra. How many intelligent newcomers left after a meeting or two thinking “These people are stupid.”

  9. Thomas says:

    My AA home group, where I presently live in Tucson and to which I go 2-3 times a week, primarily because it is a meeting that generally has considerably less “god-talk” than other meetings in Tucson. I purposefully sit opposite a large poster on the wall which reads “Love and Tolerance is our code!” to remind me, such as I needed yesterday when the chairperson chose to end the meeting with “the Lords Prayer”, of the essence of our “spiritual not religious” program !~!~!

  10. Leslie B says:

    I feel the exact same way in Al-anon meetings Roger!! All the references to God that I hear is such a turn off to me. It comes from my Catholic upbringing during the time of the rise of the Feminist movement – I took a hard turn away from that religion and have never desired to go back. I just don’t believe much of what is taught and discussed there. I would love to find some secular Al-anon or even secular Nar-anon meetings because I still see the benefits of many of the tools offered in these rooms, along with the peer support. Do any of you know of such secular meetings for friends and family members?

  11. Karl H says:

    I have to wonder how many are aware of an entirely secular alternative organization to AA? LifeRing has been slowly growing since its inception in 2004 in California, and is growing into a world-spanning organization, with members in New Zealand and Japan and throughout Europe and the UK. No real ‘program’ requiring a ‘sponsor’ to ‘guide’ a member through, and just one step: “Don’t Drink No Matter What.” Crosstalk at meetings is *encouraged.* A good LifeRing meeting looks like an animated conversation among friends… because that’s exactly what it is. It’s not hard to find, give it a google!

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