Questions with Answers from an Atheist in AA

By Eric C. from Lake Leelanau, Michigan

Question: How could anyone possibly work the 12 steps of A.A. without believing in a God of their own understanding?

Answer: Atheists and agnostics in A.A. work the 12 suggested steps in exactly the same manner as everybody else: imperfectly and to the best of their ability and understanding. As useful as the steps may be, the steps are only a part of what makes A.A. so great. Alcoholics Anonymous is more than what’s contained in a 75 year-old book. And A.A. is not really a “program” even though we do have a program of 12 suggested steps.

In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other. The human spirit evident in the fellowship of A.A. is far more powerful than any individual, and there’s nothing supernatural about that kind of higher power. There is compelling and verifiable evidence that human power does indeed relieve our alcoholism. Every one of the people we see around us at the tables of A.A. is human. We human beings help each other stay sober whether or not we believe in God. The “we” part of A.A is likely the most powerful asset we have.

Question: As it states in Chapter 4 of our Big Book: “Who are you to say there is no God?”

Answer: The question itself is misleading. Agnostics don’t claim to know that God does not exist; they simply don’t have the knowledge or faith that God does exist. Atheists or “non-theists” are not much different. With a few exceptions, even the most militant atheists these days do not assert “there is no God.” That’s because no one can prove that God does not exist just as no one can prove definitively that pink unicorns don’t exist. Based on the available evidence, the idea that there is no God seems far more plausible to an atheist than the idea that there’s an invisible supernatural being who intervenes in individual human lives. The descriptions of what atheists and agnostics supposedly think in most A.A. literature is just plain erroneous.

Question: If you don’t believe in God, then why don’t you just go out and do some more “research” in the form of more drinking until you’re hopeless enough to finally get down on your knees and ask God for help?

Answer: In fact, “out-of-the-closet” agnostics and atheists in A.A. get this question a lot. One is hard pressed to conceive of a more cruel, mean-spirited and destructive proposition that is more antithetical to our 3rd tradition. The “get God or die!” approach to recovery among some A.A. groups and individuals has doubtless resulted in more than a few deaths and has likely driven away far more newcomers than it has helped.

No, we’re not going to go out and drink so we can get that “Gift Of Desperation” (G.O.D.), thank you. We’ll just keep coming back and hope you will too. It’s also worth pointing out that many atheists and agnostics in A.A. were pretty hopeless when they got here and have already spent plenty of time on their knees asking for things like knowledge of God’s will for them and the power to carry it out – only to realize they were just talking to themselves.

Question: Why do you feel you need special, separate “We Agnostics” meetings of A.A.?

Answer: We Agnostics meetings are held for the same reason A.A. holds women’s meetings, men’s meetings, Native American meetings, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) meetings, and many other kinds of “special purpose” meetings.

Anyone with a desire to stop drinking is welcome to attend a closed We Agnostics meeting of A.A. The specific purpose of a We Agnostics meeting is outlined in a statement frequently read aloud at such meetings: “to maintain a tradition of free expression” when it comes to matters of spiritual belief. Many of us have found that when we share our experience, strength and hope as atheists and agnostics with rigorous honesty at certain A.A. meetings, we are sometimes subjected to rebuttal and open hostility before, during and after the meetings.

We Agnostics meetings are intended to be a safe place where anyone can be assured they can “find sobriety in A.A. without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their own.”

Question: If you don’t like what some A.A. literature says about atheists and agnostics and if you don’t believe in some important parts of our program of recovery, why don’t you just go out and start your own separate Godless recovery program?

Answer: Every one of us has a desire to stop drinking which allows us full and unqualified membership in Alcoholics Anonymous and every right to establish new A.A. meetings and form our own autonomous A.A. groups. The founders of A.A. were humble enough to write “we realize we know only a little,” and “our book is meant to be suggestive only,” and that more would be revealed as time went on. Besides, you can find an A.A. meeting practically anywhere you go –something that other recovery programs just don’t have. Despite its flaws, A.A. works for us. We will never leave A.A. or give up on it.

Question: Why do you want to change A.A.?

Answer: We recognize that customs and habits change slowly in A.A. and we may only be able to change ourselves. A.A. is changing far more slowly than the broader society of which it is a part. In the U.S., for example, our increasingly diverse population has been growing steadily, while membership in A.A. plateaued at about 2 million members in the early 1990’s, according to A.A.’s own survey data. Other recent studies have shown that when it comes to religious affiliation, the fastest growing category in the U.S. is “none.” Today, fully one-third of Americans under the age of 30 say they have no religion.

If they ever walk through the doors of A.A., they are probably happy to hear that “A.A. is not allied with any sect or denomination.” Shortly thereafter, however, they’ll likely hear a ritual recitation of “How it Works” that refers to a very specific kind of God no fewer than six times. At the end of the meeting, they may then be asked to join in reciting verses from the Holy Scripture of the Christian religion, the Lord’s Prayer. Many of them note the obvious contradiction, walk out and never come back.