Can Atheists Be Part of AA?

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This is Mary’s story

I sometimes wonder if only atheists think this is a big deal. For those that believe in God, the language about “higher powers” and spirituality probably flies right by. They can get right to the meat of it and stop drinking. But for me, the first time I read the twelve steps, I just about had an allergic reaction – everything about it screamed religion to me.

God, or higher power, or a capitalized “He” appeared in six of the twelve steps.

But I was trapped. I’d reached a place where the alcohol was going to win or I was – and if drinking won, I’d likely die because of it. There didn’t seem to be much choice for me but to keep my mouth shut and bear with it.

If you aren’t an atheist, I can give you an analogy to help you understand how it feels. It feels the same as if you were in a culture where your beliefs were reviled and everyone around you just “knew” something you thought was bogus. Think Muslim in a Baptist church, or Lutheran in a synagogue.

How religious is AA?

For all the dodging about “higher powers,” for an atheist, AA comes off as pretty religious. At my first meeting, they opened it with prayer. The Lord’s prayer as far as I know, with a bit of customization at the end where the sobriety prayer was tacked on.

Then there’s what I read as a false attempt to win me over: the chapter in the Big Book, “We Agnostics.” I read it as a flagrant conversion ploy that said between the lines, “To get sobriety, you have to get religion.” Nuts. As if alcoholism wasn’t enough, I was being asked to believe in something I didn’t.

I stuck with it and after just a few meetings had done the first step and gotten a sponsor. I’ll call her a provisional sponsor, because we split after a month. She moved to the west coast and, although we tried for a bit online, we just grew apart.

Right away, I told Lucy my doubts. How being an atheist might be an impediment for me and prevent me from working the steps successfully. She had me read the Big Book chapter. She tried to help me find a higher power I could accept. I never really did.

Staying the course

What started happening, at least for me, was that the religious language became less abrasive to my ear and I began to accept my own interpretation of what was being said. There was no doubt that the people I met believed, and no doubt they relied on their faith in some circumstances to help get them past a crisis.

I began to adopt a couple of “outs.” The first was thinking of the consequences of drinking as a space-filler for my higher power. Thoughts about losing my kids or another stint in jail would be refreshed as immediate and dangerous consequences of starting up again. And I bought into the community aspect of the group as well as my next sponsor, an older lady who confessed to me that she wondered if there really were a God or not but preferred not to argue about it.

I have to say, she opened my eyes a bit there. When Bette asked me how I dealt with all the religious references I ran into on a daily basis (things like “In God We Trust” on the money) I told her I pretty much ignored them. Her response was, “Do that.”

Finding an atheist sort of spirituality

Bette also helped me realize there was a kind of spirituality on offer, even for a skeptic like me. There was an undeniable power in going to meetings. Despite not believing in God, I could readily identify with the stories and the struggles of those around me. They had been hurt by demon drink as much as I and needed help as much as I did. This was alcohol addiction face to face.

Strangely, it was this deeply human side – the agony and the struggle to stay sober – that inspired me, not anything to do with ideas about God. For me, the people I met (and still meet) are heroic and inspirational. No God required.

This was a kind of humanistic spirituality I could buy into. Men and women doing their best in the worst of circumstances and helping each other while doing so.

What others called spirituality, I call psychology. That doesn’t make it any less powerful or less useful.

Resources

It wasn’t until I’d been in AA awhile that I discovered others – many others – had trodden the same path. Here are some online resources I found worthwhile:

We Agnostics -- a site that talks about AA and religion.

The Atheist AA Blog -- no longer updated, but still very good first hand experiences.

Waiting, A Non-Believer’s Higher Power is a book written about atheists in AA.

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