The Wave of Religiosity

Fifty Chosen Articles:
Number Thirty-Eight.
Originally posted in October 2018.

Poland is considered to be a religious, Catholic country.
Nevertheless, the nonreligious movement in AA is growing.

By Witek D.

A few years ago, at the AA Convention in Texas, I talked to a lady from New York, who was a member of the GSO staff. She knew about the rapid growth of AA in Poland (we have 2700 groups) and told me that, in her opinion, it was because we Polish people are believers. Believers in a religious sense.

I was surprised. Indeed, Poland is considered to be a religious, Catholic country, I said, but AA hasn’t got that religious connection. I was surprised, but now I know she was right. I clearly see that Polish AA is linked with religion, rather not officially but practically.

I’m writing “rather not officially” because some groups quite openly had organized workshops, retreats and pilgrimages at “holy” places for years. These very popular events usually connected with attendance in Catholic masses. They are not run by our GSO, but do a lot of harm to AA’s image.

What’s more, I’m afraid, a quite new strong wave of religiosity is rolling through Polish AA now.

Some claim it’s not religion, it’s spirituality because we don’t talk about a particular God and our He or She is not obligatorily associated with the Church. But it’s a whitewash. Religion is a faith in God who intervenes in people’s lives, heals them or not, depending on His will, and to whom one has to pray. What we have in a large part of our AA is “theism”: non-institutional religion, not related to a specific denomination. But it’s still religion.

The vast majority of AA members (and I didn’t pay attention to this early on) believe that God recovered them from alcoholism and they speak about it at every meeting. Sometimes they say that they don’t manage their own lives any longer but have turned themselves over to the care of God. What does this mean? It’s a declaration of deep religious faith.

This kind of faith is well beyond my agnostic approach. I can accept the idea of turning my life over to the care of a higher power, however we understand it, but I understand that I control my own mind and that managing my life on a day-to-day basis is still my responsibility.

I often wonder how a newcomer feels when he or she hears in the Preamble at the beginning of the meeting that AA is not religious and nevertheless later on hears from most of the speakers that they have been saved by a personal God who has intervened in their lives. Probably some of them suspect that we are simply not being honest.

Here’s another example from a meeting. A young man, three years in AA, said: “I still have various fears, despite the program and my sponsor I still worry about my family, work, health …” Someone in the room raised his hand and suggested: “Apparently your contact with God is too weak. Correct your relations with your Higher Power and all fears will pass”.

Everyone nodded with agreement with how sensibly he had advised, but it made me feel bad. I wondered: Where am I, what am I doing here, what do I have in common with these religious people? What I felt was rather low spirits and embarrassment, and absolutely not an identification.

It’s true that no one rejects atheists at a regular meeting but also no one cares if we feel good. Quite often we don’t. We feel instructed, discriminated against, sometimes scared and offended. For example, one AA group translated and widely propagated “Gresham’s Law and AA” which offends unbelievers, calling them cheats who dissolve AA’s program.

So far there are no secular AA meetings in Poland but we atheists and agnostics AA members definitely need them. We deserve this sense of community in our recovery, feeling connected, not strange and awkward, rather than like a person who, so far, doesn’t believe but in a while… who knows?

We all know this saying: “Fake it until you make it”. I’ve been sober for 23 years, how much longer should I fake it?

After articles I got from AA Agnostica and then translated and sent to friends I received many interesting responses: “Thank you for these important words, wonderful text, it’s good to know I’m not alone…” “At some meetings I don’t dare say I’m an atheist and then I feel like a fraud…” “Once when I said I was an agnostic I heard that there was no sobriety without God and I that didn’t know anything about spirituality… “

It was a wonderful feeling that I experienced it at the International Conference of Secular AA (ICSAA) in Toronto, to sit among people who prove by their attendance that it’s possible to get and stay sober without faith in a supernatural being. And to think: that’s what I have done too.

Some people I spoke to about secular AA meetings said it was a bad idea, a threat to our unity. Really? American and Canadian experiences show something different. On the contrary, secular meetings attract to the fellowship people who wouldn’t come to AA under any other circumstances.

And meetings for women, priests, policemen? They are like that too, not liked by everyone, but apparently, these people need them. For the same reason: it’s about identity and a sense of community. It is important that these, let’s say, special meetings would be not closed, so that everyone who needs help can attend. And a second thing: they shouldn’t be pushed out of AA, for example by being refused registration on Intergroup lists.

We all would like to have a choice, go once to one group, the second time to another. Also we Polish atheists and agnostics appreciate the strength of AA and want to be a part of this wonderful fellowship. We don’t want, not in the least, to split AA’s unity. We are the same – alcoholics – but we only understand in a different way the concept of a “higher power”. For us, it can be the wisdom of other alcoholics and/or ethical rules given us by our ancestry.

And let’s remember Bill’s W words:

…this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer may pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Page 167, 1957

Witek D. is 63 years old and has been sober since December 27, 1994. He has been living in a small town in the middle of Poland where he attends his home group, ”Compas”, and the online group AAinAA.

Active in AA service at all levels, in the years 2009-2013 he was a member of the Polish Board of Trustees. Witek openly talks about his agnostic views; just like Albert Einstein, he considers “…the idea of a personal God is a childlike one… which cannot be taken seriously”.

To visit the Polish secular AA website, click on the image.

He is concerned with the fate of agnostics and atheists in AA and translates into Polish some articles from AA Agnostica and sends them to friends with similar concerns. Witek attended the last International Conference of Secular AA in Toronto.

Currently (2022) in Poland, there are three agnostic groups: the oldest, AAinAA, meets online and two others meet in-person. The nonreligious movement in Polish AA is slowly growing.

For a PDF of the article, click here: The Wave of Religiosity.

9 Responses

  1. Mike O says:

    I really related to this article. AA is full of nice people, well-meaning people, but people who have little to no other language except for the “spiritual” one. The program is stuck in a mid-20th Century American mindset, when the big movement was getting people along various Christian denominations, particularly mainline Protestant ones, together for a common purpose. It was a world where having a Baptist and a Methodist coming together in the same room, much less including Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc., was still significant. Having a non-denominational program was for the time quietly revolutionary, but seeing beyond “spiritualism” in general, particularly with regards to atheism, was still very rare. I remember my grandparents talking about how they had never even met or seen a self-proclaimed atheist until they were well into adulthood. Grounding AA in “spiritual principles” was seen as a universal language because back in the 1930s and 40s it was still hard for many people to know or understand people who didn’t believe in God. Now, well into the 21st century, secularism and atheism/agnosticism is on the rise, especially among the young, and AA appears more and more to be this curious throwback, this archaic model of recovery. In a world where there are so many more tools to use and resources to draw from, relying on a “Higher Power” and a necessarily “spiritual” way of life is becoming more and more dated at the same time most Old-Timers become more and more rigid about the orthodoxy of the Big Book, the Steps, and the “program”.

  2. Bullwinkle says:

    I’ve been around the AA fellowship for over 5 decades and respect those that are faith based, that is, unless their believe is injurious to themselves and others.

    As the saying goes, “if you spot it, you’ve got it”. The realization of this is what created FOR ME compassion Those whose behavior is injurious, were themselves injured, that’s how they learned abusive behavior.

  3. Victor says:

    You said: “They are not run by our GSO, but do a lot of harm to AA’s image.” It is my understanding that GSO/GSB does not “run” dictate groups or meetings. So much so that whenever a major issue in AA arises (at the group/meeting level or sometimes legal level) – the common response is “we have no opinion.” Makes me wonder what terrible event is around the corner that will make them have an opinion?

    You said ““theism”: non-institutional religion, not related to a specific denomination.”” I never thought about this as still religion, but you may be right. I’ll have to put further thought on this.

    Someone earlier mentioned the word “God” in our literature and the Lord’s Prayer are Christian based. I agree. I’d also add the Serenity Prayer. I have finally chosen not to participate in those recitals. But, I am acutely aware of being watched as my lips don’t move, so I have reverted to lowering my head to not be seen. And that, feels like a lie, like I’m not being true to myself or honoring myself as I am and what I believe (or don’t) today. Because of this and a couple of other reasons I have had thoughts of leaving AA in the past 2 years.

    Ever since Covid happened, I feel my eyes have been opened to what AA is from the group/meeting level to the GSO/GSB, etc. I don’t know if it’s the starkness of facing each other, as opposed to being in a physical space where I see the backs of the majority, depending on seating. Online, we are all right there, facing each other (the opposite of the in-person face-to-face), seeing and hearing everything that I like and don’t like (probably not only of others but of myself as well). So where does that leave me in AA, when coming at me, facing and hearing is other people’s religion, racism/bigotry, sexism, conformity, etc. I know there are probably more places in AA that would welcome me now, than there were anytime between 1940-1980. But finding those groups feels like finding a needle in a haystack. If I have to do something else to stay sober I will. The day I have to say “A.A. doesn’t work for me anymore,” will be a hard day. I also wonder, if things don’t change in AA, will AA split – would that be better for all, as long as we continue fulfilling our primary purpose. I don’t know. I don’t know. All I know is, too many times I walk away from an AA meeting feeling gutted.

  4. Lance B. says:

    Hi, Sue;
    I don’t suppose you will look in to these comments again, but I presume you are aware of our small secular AA meeting in Miles City (145 miles from Billings). While I’m at it, one day several years ago when I happened to be away, I was told a couple of secular people from Columbus (only 200 miles away) has shown up but the people present had not thought to get their names. Our meeting at 10AM Sundays is listed on the website and has been functioning regularly since January 2015. I would be amenable to Roger giving you my e*mail should you desire it.

  5. Anthony says:

    I really think the word “God” should be entirely removed and replaced with just “Higher Power”. To me in some texts it implies “Jesus Christ”. Not a Higher Power of my Understanding but a God of a Christian understanding.

    For me to make the program a “Spiritual” program, I block out every “God” in the Big Book.

    I was also told that I shouldn’t substitute Higher Power for God when I read the readings and saying the Lords Prayer is a BIG no go. Its a Christian prayer. I believe there is a higher power but it’s not a Christian god.

  6. Sue V. says:

    Thank you Witek. My name is Sue and I live in Billings, Montana. I tried starting an agnostic meeting here and it did not fly. It is true that I feel like a “fraud” many times in meetings. I have moved to Women for Sobriety program which is not 12 step based and have found my tribe. Wish I spoke Polish as well as you speak English!

  7. Debra S. says:

    Many US courts are wrong about many things. This is one of them.

  8. Vic Losick says:

    Several US courts have declared AA to be a religious organization.

  9. Murray J says:

    Thanks Witek! I especially like the word community. I spent decades in traditional AA. It was only when I found secular AA that I truly felt a sense of community. And for the record my home group, Beyond Belief Suburban West in Mississauga, resumed in person meetings on March 9th.

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