I'm a recovering alcoholic, an atheist, and AA works. But, it ain't easy.

If you want to talk about it or anything related to recovery, I'm here to do that, in this forum and via private messages if you prefer.

I live in a big metropolitan area in the US, many AA meetings per week across the city, various flavors. And, that works for me because I can't deal with a strict religious AA group who must mention god in every sentence that they speak. However, even on good days I can get distracted by theists who interpret AA literature the same way fundamentalist Christians interpret the Bible.

I live in New York City, and we have lots of non-theists in the rooms. This helps a lot, as you might imagine. I feel badly for those of you who are living where there are fewer meetings and people. Been there, done that. It's tough, and I admire you if you must endure that.

For me, AA is a fellowship, contact with humanity that I would rather not have but realize I need in order to regain my balance after many years of drinking and drugging. I "do" Steps 1, 2 and 12. My program is a practical one, its primary purpose is to help me stay sober.

How about you?

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Replies to This Discussion

Hear hear! I too am an atheist in AA. I accept that I can't drink because something odd happens in my body's chemistry (endorphins or whatever) and that I need the help of others to stay on an even keel.
I would certainly prefer a secular group but can't find one. Therefore, AA.
I live in a small town in Denmark where there was originally one AA group and found that difficult because of the self-glad, smug and holier-than-thou attitudes I met among some people. I couldn't understand the slavish devotion to "The Big Book" as an omniscient oracle, never to be questioned. Neither could I come to terms with the contradictions. Honesty in all things except faith in a higher power, where I was told "fake it until you make it".
Luckily a new group was set up a few years ago, somewhat smaller but it proved to be a magnet for the slightly disgruntled and otherwise-thinking types. Some go to both but I've found that once a week is enough for me, if it's among good people. The majority still believe in some form of non-specific higher power but are much more tolerant than those in the larger group. So I've found a home.
It's hard to stay in balance in a theistic/deistic community but it can be done, even if only to spite the "God Squad" who insist that sobriety is impossible without divine intervention.
So good luck and fair winds to all of us who try to make progress with our feet on solid, rational ground.
"If you can keep your head when all around are loosing theirs
And blaming it on you"........
Pretty good stuff you're preaching there, Ian. lol. I think I am doing my program very similar to how you do yours, a version based on the slogan "take what you need, leave the rest." If I ever get pissed off and totally distracted by being in a meeting, I walk out; an AA meeting can be one of the things of my list of people, places and things that trigger bad thoughts. But, I like meetings, I like the contact with people, the love, and the potential for much more. I will be honest, I often get much LESS than I'd like, but I tend to isolate if I don't get my ass into a meeting. Isolation is painful and risky for me, as I said. Learned that through trial and error, alone I find it too easy to think the worst thoughts and behave badly. This leads me to a drink. So, for now, I'm using tools that AA has to stay sober and away from a drink.
Hey thanks. I am working on my fouth step for the first time. I just finished rewriting my third step prayer into something that is quite workable and godless. I couldnt have done it without fellow Atheist AAs. Thanks for the advice, the help and everything. Most of all thanks for teaching me that there is nothing more spiritual than one human being helping another.
Shannon, or anyone else...
I am just finishing the third step and have tried to adjust that prayer but am struggling- will any of you share with me your third step prayer? I feel like I am constantly doing battle to maintain my secular program. Everytime I say anything remotely spiritual I hear about how I am "coming along"...yeesh!
Sober though-
I second Carry's post - for the sake of taking the path of least resistance I just recited the book's 3rd step prayer with my sponsors, but it would be great to have a sort of secular mantra to use in its place. Hey, how about this quote from Frank Herbert's "Dune"? =)

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear... And when it is gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear is gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
I found an agnostic version of the 12 Steps, but as an atheist myself it works perfectly. There is also a Google Group just for atheists in A.A.

I have been sober more than 4 years (but atheist for 51 years!) and so I know how hard A.A. can be. A couple of weeks ago after I got done speaking, a woman with many sober days behind her broke out angrily, accusing me of "spewing hatred" in the room! Seriously! I told her if she wanted to speak to me about it after the meeting, I'd be happy to, but of course she ignored me afterward, instead.

I have two sponsors, after not having any for about two years. One of them is atheist, the other is just a man with a good head on his shoulders whom everyone seems to like, the way they dislike me. I needed to talk to them after that woman got angry, to see if I had done anything wrong. They were not at that meeting to hear exactly what I said, but since no one else seemed upset, my sponsors said it (probably) was her problem, not mine.

If you don't have a sponsor, get one. Find someone who "has what you want", or at least someone you like and can get along with. Two of my earlier sponsors were very Christian, but had no problem with my atheism, so don't think your sponsor must be atheist or agnostic. Read the 4th and 5th step in the agnostic version, and realize you can do it that way. And good luck to you.

Curtis C.

I'm a recovering alcoholic from Kailua Kona, Hawaii where Aloha Mana is my home group, sober since 8 December 2002 and I am an atheist. I struggled for a long time--about 10 years--in and out of AA, drunk and drunker, hating the program, hating the "bumper-sticker philosophy" hating the the religiosity, hating people who could be sober when I just could not. I kept letting the "Christards", as I called them, chase me out. Couldn't abide their sanctimony, hypocrisy and ignorance.

At least that's what I told myself.

I went from being a University professor, internationally-known scientist and well-respected member of my community to a homeless drunk in the streets in, really, rather less time than you might imagine it would take.

I bounced around, homeless, drunk, miserable and alone for a couple years and finally decided to get my shit together. I went back to AA because I knew it worked for many--even for some atheists. I determined that I was not going to let a bunch of ignorant and superstitious people keep me from sobering up and becoming a productive, respected member of society again.

I went to AA, found an AA-nazi sponsor (on purpose) who understood my beliefs and was willing to work with me anyway--between his deep knowledge of the program, our growing bond of friendship with each other, and my determination to get and stay sober, I have managed to forge a program that includes all 12 steps and that works for me, does not make me feel like a hypocrite, keeps me sober and keeps me honest. For about 6 1/2 years.

I have never been happier with my life or with myself--and a lot of it is because of the program I work and the people in AA who have become my friends.

I have a number of atheist sponsees whom I love and worry over, as well--but the people who mean the most to me in the program are the men who came before me, the older men who listened to me, talked to me when I could hardly make sense, loved me even when I was an unlovable drunk, accepted me because I was a drunk like them, even if I didn't share their superstitious delusions--and was not shy about telling them how ignorant they were. These are the very guys I yelled at, stomped out of meetings because of and flipped off, calling them "Christards" and "Taliban Republicans" when I was drunk and angry and frustrated that they could stay sober and I couldn't.

What it comes down to is I couldn't get sober until I was ready, willing to get sober. Then, once it was important to me, I was not going to let anyone get in my way. As I grew spiritually (NOT religiously) and became happier, I found that I could be loving, open-minded, accepting and non-judgmental of those who, as far as I am concerned, believe some pretty stupid shit. I learned I could put aside how I felt about their beliefs and treat them as fellow human beings--after all, it was ME making me angry, not them; it was ME standing in my own way, not them.

Sure, there are fo-real christards at meetings out there, Big Book Thumpers who are narrow-mined, ignorant and seek attention through trying to control new comers' beliefs. Sure, they annoy me a lot--but so do the AAs who are always talking about "How 'bout them Broncos, anyway?" or the guy who always seems to be smoking in non-smoking meetings, people who insist on sharing for 20 past the end of a meeting, people who whisper to each other while someone else shares, the girls with Daddy Issues who seem to sleep with all the willing men in a group until they decide to go get drunk again--there are all kinds of people in AA who annoy me.

But you know what? They are all recovering drunks, just like me; they are all just trying to get through life, one day at a time, doing the best they can with the tools they have--just like me...and they are all people who, even if I don't like them very much, I love.

And that's how I stay sober--because if I let my irritation with their stupid religious fanaticism Or other obvious, unfortunate shortcomings) turn to resentment, if I let them get in the way of my serenity and peace of mind, then I am well and truly sunk.

But just like drinking, it's completely my choice.

Today, I choose to be sober, to be loving, to be accepting.

And an atheist.
Thanks for posting Larry. I don't wear my atheist status on my sleeve at meetings for a couple of reasons - I'm attending meetings to try and learn how to lead a sober life, not to debate the existence of God with other drunks. Also, I don't think my lack of beliefs is necessarily anyone else's business - there are people of many different religious stripes in AA, and if they aren't compelled to disclose their beliefs I don't see why I should be compelled to disclose my lack of them.
Thanks for posting, Dr. Don! Your feelings and experience with AA are very similar to my own. I wrestle with the God concept quite a bit, but for now my concept of a "Higher Power" is sort of an amalgamation of reality, other people, nature, creativity, and what I call the Higher Mind (essentially, trying to think on a different perspective than just "me, me, me!" all the time).

In meetings I call this my "Higher Power" for two reasons: I think that all of these things are more powerful than I am, and these things are not necessarily a part of me (most of them, anyway). It might sound a little metaphysical for some people, but it's working for me, at least so far. I agree with Dr. Don that it is possible to have a spiritual experience without being mired in superstition / religion. Hope this is helpful!
Hmmmm this is a bit disturbing--if you are expecting anonymity on this site, don't. It is crawled by Google. I just did a Google search for my name (I know, I know..."vanity surfing"--unhealthy feeding of the ego...but, it's Saturday and, what the heck...) and one of the things that turned up was my last post.

I don't really care, I'm very public about my recovery, but some others here might be counting on a level of anonymity that just isn't there.

Hey everyone,
I just found this group this morning. Total serendipitydoo. I have been considering leaving a 12 step based recovery life for some time now.
I have been sober 6 years and am very much involved with AA and service work. I consider myself knowledgeable about AA, and am by no means a stupid person. I am probably on the low bottom scale as far as alcoholism and drug addiction goes. I started using frequently in the 3rd grade. Barely made it to junior high and never went to high school. I am on disability For PTSD and find that it is difficult most of the time to manage my life. Just wanted to give you an idea of where I’m coming from.
I live in the southern religion of the Midwest. Wouldn’t quit say it’s the buckle of the bible belt but pert near. I understand that AA is all over the world, and I have been to meetings all over the country, and get that there is a huge cross section of beliefs in the fellowship of AA. My sponsor is an atheist, my service sponsor is a reki healer, my partner is a pagan, and I am leaning towards Buddhism at the moment.
I have read the big book; AA comes of age, and many other books about AA. I admit that suffering from a mental disability my perception of this information may be skewed, so I try as best as I can to keep an open mind. I just really don’t understand how one can be an atheist and at the same time prescribe to a belief system that is centered in the idea of one God or higher power that can overcome the disease of alcoholism, and that no human power can achieve this. It seems to me the entire process is centered on that Idea. When I read the chapter to the agnostic, what I get is, if you have the problem of being a non believer here is how you can get over that problem to become a believer so that you can work these steps, and achieve the spiritual experience necessary to recover from this disease. The whole program is based on that idea. I m not talking about the fellowship just the program its self, what is written in the basic text of recovery the “big book”.
I have been too afraid to just walk away from AA, because it was so awful for me when I was using. I am afraid I well end up in prison or stuck in a mental institution for the rest of my life. So every week I go to meetings work on my amends, inventory. Work in the prisons with guys getting sober. And stay awake all night crying wishing I had the courage to pull the trigger. I just can’t force myself to believe that there is a god of any sort out there. It just doesn’t make sense to me every instinct I have tells me that doesn’t make sense. I don’t think my mind is ever going to fit into the AA construct. And I am scared to death to just stop going because I might go back to using.
And yet there are intelligent people who seem to think the same way I do, who are involved in the recovery process. And at the same time don’t believe in some monotheistic way of thinking. And seem to be happy and at peace. I have to believe that someday I can get to that place. And be at peace. Weather it is in AA or simply on my own. I am hoping to find similar people here, maybe Ill read something and the light will come on, and all of this will finally make sense.
I can even send you my cell number if you want to actually talk to me about this.
Aloha, Tom, I'm Donnie from Hawaii...

I read your story with both joy and sadness; joy that you have found sobriety and peace for 6 years and sadness that you have not yet found the serenity that many of us atheists find in 12-step programs. You are NOT alone in being conflicted, depressed, angry.

Look--I can only speak for myself, OK? But from my viewpoint, first you have to understand that for a 12-step program to work, you do NOT have to believe in, or even search for, a god. There aren't any, so don't waste your time. Your instinct is spot on, trust it on this one. The useful concept here, is trying to get the alcoholic out of is self-centered universe and into one where he realizes he is a small, but vital, part of something bigger. Finding the joy n participating in something larger, rather than feeding your own ego-gratification with drugs and alcohol.

For me, that is the AA group, the love we share and the help we bring others. That's enough forme, doesn't have to be some great Harry Thunderer, Cosmic Muffin or Burning Bush. Simply knowing I'm a part of something larger, that needs me to function, that needs me sober, is enough.

You say you do service work in prisons. Why? Obviously you get some sense of fulfillment or of completion of duty from it--perhaps even joy and satisfaction? There it is. That's all there is. Is that enough? It is for me, I think that's pretty lofty and grand, helping those poor bastards (as I wish someone had helped me), but you have to answer this for yourself. If it's not, find something that is.

Next realize that there are things in the Big Book that are a complete crock of shit. (I KNOW! BLASPHEMER! Right?) Bill W was an egomaniac of unprecedented scope and a control freak. A lot of what's wrong with AA literature is directly the fallout of not using an impartial editor. As an example, look at the first 3 editions of the Big Book; there is a story that's called "Join the Tribe!". Ostensibly written by a recovering Native American, it's overtly racist and shows a deep lack of understanding of Native American culture, history and dignity. It even begins with the salutation "Ugh!". Can you imagine? You couldn't get that crap into print in these days. Bill wrote it himself, imagining what it would be like to be a recovering Native American alcoholic. It's wholesale fabrication, although loosely based on real experiences as related to, and interpreted by, Bill W. It's insulting to Native Americans and an insult to recovering alcoholics everywhere.

The point is, Bill also wrote "To the Agnostic", not being and never having been, agnostic or atheist and, as I mentioned, it has absolutely no empathy of understanding for our viewpoint. Bill simply had no concept of atheism. As an adult, her clearly didn't believe in Santa Claus...would he have even thought to suggest that adults must believe in Santa to recover? Of course not, but for those of us who have seen behind the myths and superstitions of religion, it amounts to the very same thing. That's what "believers" fail to realize about atheists---there's no going back to belief--else you were never really an atheist.

That chapter is the worst, least helpful chapter in the book after "To the Wives"--you want to start a war? Ask a bunch of wives of alcoholics if they found ANYTHING in that chapter insightful in the least, useful or enlightening. Basically it says "Let him be a self-centered drunken oaf until he decides to get sober all by his little self and then let him go overboard with AA and ignore the family...just be a nice little lady and feed him, keep his house clean and soon all will be well". It's complete shit, any woman will tell you that, so will any self-respecting female member of Al-Anon. Apparently Bill's wife Lois was so incensed that she wasn't allowed to write the chapter and at how awful Bill's chapter turned out, that she nearly left him.

So the Big Book is not gospel, it's not divinely inspired (as I've heard claimed), it's not even terribly well written--in fact, it's deeply flawed and quite contradictory, philosophically. But it works, it's filled with love and beauty and good advice and, well, it's not perfect but it's what we have, deal with it.

Finally, I would say that your recovery is up to you, no one else. I let my resentments towards bible-thumpers and new-age spiritualists hound and badger me out of meetings for a decade--as a result, I did not recover as quickly as I might have. They are just people, too; flawed (perhaps deeply flawed) people. they don't have the answers anymore than you do, they are searching, too. That they have found something that keeps them sober is grand--don't you go messing with them.

But by the same token, you do not have to take their "Come to Jesus" crap or their "But you must believe in Something!" badgering. They don't know what's best for you, fer chrissakes they are an ignorant and superstitious lot! Why would you take ANYTHING they said seriously? Why would you let a bunch of superstitious people threaten your precious sobriety? You recognize how awful life was BEFORE AA, so don't let these savages chase you off.

Finally, you mention something deeply troubling to me, Tom. You mention "wishing you had the courage to pull the trigger". I've seen this too often in recovery. Please don't. I have rallied at Bill W for his ego and ignorance and bad advice, but he also said some deeply, deeply wise things. One of them I have taken to heart is this: "Cease fighting everyone and everything". You are still fighting the god-battle, Tom--you are letting a god you clearly and correctly don't even believe in live rent-free in your head! Stop fighting this battle. There is no god, you recognize that. You don't need god for recovery or AA, millions of us recognize that and live happy, serene lives in recovery.

You can, too; start today.

Just let it go, realize there are a lot of people out there more ignorant and superstitious than you are and they "need" their god crutch. Love them, accept them, but do not feel you have to emulate them or listen to them, OK? Never try to change them. It's evil for you to screw with their sobriety that way, right? So it's also evil for them to screw with your atheist sobriety. Don't let them.

Tom--all this chat here, contrary to our 12th tradition, is indexed by Google, so I won't leave you my phone number. Give me an email address and I'll write and we can chat, OK? I want to hear how you are doing.

In the meantime, here's a question I have for you...how does a guy who admits to not having much education come by such great writing skills? I'm a retired university professor and I have had graduate students who could not write as well and effectively as you do...

Stay Awesome-



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