AA is spiritual, not religious, now hold my hand while we recite the Lords Prayer

Recovery from addiction is life-saving. That's good. In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous there is a pamphlet called, "Do You Think You're Different?" Everyone who struggles with addiction has a hard time owning up to the fact that the tail now wags the dog, that they are powerless over a process or substance that is making their life unmanageable. At least this is how the abstinence based recovery programs speak of addiction: A recreational behavior or substance use becomes habitual to the point of dependency of a physical and emotional extent. This popular worldview of addiction is shared by the American Medical Association and many of their counterparts in the developed world.

There have been "moderation management" programs that counsel addicts into practicing their own bottom line, self determined limits for controlled use. I am a recovered addict myself and I subscribe to the abstinence model that suggests, like a pickle can never become a cucumber again, an addict like me can't return to recreational use of alcohol or drugs. I personally don't doubt that moderation management(MM) has success stories. It only makes sense that there are more than one way to solve a problem. However, all I see is the MM failure that relapse into full-blown addiction and then come crawling into a 12 Step program to try another approach. But again, it only seems logical that this system of addressing addiction has some success stories, too.

Back to AA's "Do You Think You're Different?" pamphlet. It is a collection of stories of alcoholics who arrived at the doors of AA and said that AA couldn't work for them because they were different. There are stories form young people, the GLBT community, atheists, agnostics and various visible minority groups. The point that the pamphlet makes is that alcoholism doesn't discriminate. It doesn't care who you know, how much money you make, what your IQ is or your race, creed, gender or sexual orientation. The other point of the pamphlet is that the principles of the 12 Steps can be applied to anyone who is open-minded, honest and willing and that AA is made up of all types.  That is true and it isn't.

AA was birthed from 1939 religious, sexist, racially segregating, homophobic America. The fellowship of AA has adapted to the changing attitudes outside of the doors of our local AA meetings, but some systemic discrimination still pervades AA culture. A 2011 survey AA did of its own members shows that AA is 65% male, 85% Caucasian, middle age, middle class with token representation of non-Christians, visible minorities and youth.   AA isn't sexist, racist nor religious. Yet as any organization may face, reification and dogma has led to many of the practices in AA meetings still steeped in mid-20th century, middle-America culture.

AA has a modest staff on non-alcoholics and almost all of the work is done by AA volunteers. There is no human resource director who monitors human rights issues within the groups. Some of the groups are what might be called special interest groups. There are secular meetings, called, atheist & agnostic groups or freethinker groups. There are GLBT groups put on by and for queer culture. There are women's groups, young peoples groups, men's groups and even groups for alcoholic lawyers.

The first time AA meetings voted on the issue of allowing African American alcoholics membership, the members voted against it. Now any such objection would be condemned. AA struggled with their first female members and gay groups, too. As America struggled with embracing pluralistic culture, so did Alcoholics Anonymous. The issue of theists and skeptics all being one big happy family has bent but never broken AA. Despite the obvious Christian overtones, AA has suggestions but not a single rule. There is even a pervasive attitude that atheism is a form of intellectual stubbornness and many newcomers who don't believe in god face proselytizing or fear-mongering from the more zealous members. There is a chapter in the Big Book of AA called, "We Agnostics." It is far less of a wholehearted welcome and more of a stark warning. It stops short of insisting that god-consciousness is the only path to recovery but insist that no member serious about overcoming alcoholism should close his or her mind to all spiritual concepts.

Part of the systemic discrimination is a folksy notion that AA's "God of our understanding" is inclusive. Anyone here would find the suggestion that our health and welfare was predicated on our ability to seek the grace of an omnipotent being. "God of our understanding" might have been cutting edge for 1939 but it doesn't reflect today's secular society. Many one-time AA members have gone on to form their own recovery based secular fellowships. Some like SOS (Secular Sobriety) use the peer to peer model and others (Life Ring, or SMART Recovery) use a quasi-trained moderator approach.

All programs have found some success, again there are many ways to skin a cat or dry out a drunk. AA is still home to many atheists who's quality of life and service to the community is equal to any member. Some are out of the closet and some dodge the "am I or aren't I" question. There is still some coaxing to talk in AA language. Instead of a creator God, why not the acronym of Good Orderly Direction or use the fellowship as a higher power, the Group of Drunks acronym? But why talk of god at all if you don't believe in one? For one reason, you don't stand out from the crowd if you talk the language. In some AA quarters the encouragement to adherence borders on cult-like. In other groups no one cares less what other members believe or don't believe.

In my own little Ontario (Toronto Canada) there was flair up between AA agnostic groups and a few dogmatic theists. Our agnostic group adopted a secular reading of the Twelve Steps at our meeting and we posted it on our website. The Pharisees said, "You can't do that. You're not AA if you change the words." There is no such rule but with a little help of some politicking literalists and the greater apathy of AA as a whole, they were able to get the Toronto Intergroup to de-list the agnostic groups, taking their listing out of the Toronto group list and removing their voice from the Intergroup floor.

This act of bigotry is very un-Canadian and it made the front page of Canada's most read daily, The Toronto Star. Oh the wonder of unintended consequences. The story was picked up by CBC radio which invited three members of the blasphemous group onto a popular show called Tapestry and the result is the two groups are now five groups. Each group is still part of AA World Services but still not part of local AA politics. Because of the Internet, AA Toronto Agnostic Groups are easier to find than ever, thanks largely to all they attention they got due to an effort to silence them.

Funny, isn't it? There are over one hundred groups for atheists and agnostics mostly in North America (where most AA meetings are anyway). Sometimes our liberal society shows a tendency for the majority to dictate terms to the minority, but these don't often last. AA faces some difficult times negotiating the 21st century, like any organization. One of the founders, Bill W once said:

"Let us never fear needed change.  Certainly we have to discriminate between changes for the worse and changes for the better.  But once a need becomes clearly apparent in an individual, in a group, or in AA as a whole, it has long since been found out that we cannot stand still and look the other way.  The essence of all growth is a willingness to change for the better and then an unremitting willingness to shoulder whatever responsibility this entails."

Joe C

More atheist recovery blogs @

Rebellion Dogs Publishing


Views: 366


You need to be a member of Atheist Nexus to add comments!

Join Atheist Nexus

Comment by Luara on December 2, 2013 at 9:26am

Much of the AA literature is written in an external locus of control language "no human power could relieve our alcoholism; God could and would if he were sought."

There is a problem with people trying to "white-knucle it".  Self-control as most people understand it is top-down, and what I saw as the message of the 12-step groups I went to, is that top-down isn't going to do it for you, things like experiencing your buried feelings and social support are. 

self-control is under-rated and the supernatural is over-rated in a lot of the AA literature.

That's just an opinion.  We don't know that supernatural beliefs don't help some people with alcoholism or in other ways.  Religious people talk about the benefits of their beliefs a lot, with alcoholism or with other things - actually that's their main argument for religion.  Without having a good reason to discount what they say, it makes sense to take them at their word. 

Comment by Joe C on December 2, 2013 at 8:53am

Hey Tim, congrats on the 4 years.Olympia and Seattle have agnostic AA groups. Also if you ever go south, I don't know where Newport is, but Portland has a group of like-minded folks too.

Here's the world directory http://www.agnosticaanyc.org/worldwide.html

Luara, self-control is under-rated and the supernatural is over-rated in a lot of the AA literature. Newer 12 Step fellowships aren't as bogged down with dogma. Online Gamers Anonymous for instance has only been around since 2001 and their language is what one would expect - contemporary. But AA's widening-the-gateway crowd is sometimes seen as a threat to the preserve-the-integrity-of-the-message crowd.

Psychologists say that we as individuals are more inclined to either an internal locus of control or external locus of control. Much of the AA literature is written in an external locus of control language "no human power could relieve our alcoholism; God could and would if he were sought." that's pretty ELC - I am powerless over addiction and only an external agency can save me.  Pretty spooky, I know.

Some of the literature, like Appendix II which tries to better explain "spiritual awakening" as more of a gradual, educational experience than a white-light miracle, use language like, "Many of found that we tapped an unsuspected inner resource..." which is more in keeping with the taking responsibility and pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps look at recovery.

It is true that most who come to AA, first tried to control or arrest their alcoholism by themselves and failed. Where I got sober (Montreal Canada) there was an ad in the paper that said, "If you want to drink and can, that's your business. If you want to quit and can't, that's our business. Call AA..."

I don't think "power of example" or learning from others is a supernatural experience. Although lots of members still see their recovery as being touched by God, I expect more and more newcomers will be atheist, agnostic or some creed that won't settle for a 1939 language to describe their malady or solution. There will always be traditionalists, moderates and radicals I suspect. I, for one, am curious to see how AA, NA and some of the other older fellowships will adjust to a more secular world.

Joe C



We Agnostics
Fellowship Hall
407 SW 10th St. (at Canyon Way)
Saturdays at 6:30 - 7:30 PM


We Agnostics
Portland Alano Club
909 NW 24th Ave
Saturdays at 5:30 - 6:30 PM

Comment by Luara on December 2, 2013 at 5:11am

Ppl tell me to pray or give it to god and I just give a wry smile and say thank you.

I would hate having to keep silent about something important like that. It seems very oppressive.

any change brought about on a person will ultimately source From The Person Himself

But the point of AA is that people come to them having tried to control their drinking and failed. 

If faith is "pretending to know things you don't know" - there is no reason to think that pretending is never a good thing to do! 

The idea of AA seems to be to seek help from something other than one's self-control.  That something other doesn't have to be supernatural.  But recovery could be aided by pretending there is something supernatural helping a person. 

Comment by Tim Bales on December 1, 2013 at 5:24pm

Thanks for this. I am coming up on 4 years sober and I have always kept my belief to myself. I do not tell people that I am an atheist.  Ppl tell me to pray or give it to god and I just give a wry smile and say thank you. I take and give what I can. One drunk talking to another is how I simply keep it. I have met truly great people in the program and I believe we have mutual respect. If someone questions my recovery, I simply state "What keeps me sober, may get you drunk." And vice-versa. I work MY program how I see fit. I would love to hit some free thinking meeting but we have none around here. So I make do, all the while, thinking rationally.

Comment by Lillie on January 17, 2013 at 2:58pm

I have been attending AA meetings now for a good many one day at a times.  I have never had a problem with theists.  In fact, I have been in many meetings where the use of "God" as a Higher Power is promptly clarified for the newcomer to include non-theism.  You don't have to say the Lord's prayer.  You can just leave at that point or wait outside if you want to chat.  I am sure in larger places you do have access to a variety of recovery meetings but in my small town, we only have AA.  I wish everyone worldwide would wake up to the negatives of religion but I don't think it will happen in my lifetime.  I guess we will have to somehow coexist but I don't have to like it.

Comment by Joe C on January 17, 2013 at 2:20pm


I think the cause of a conflict of creed in AA is that sober atheists are a threat to AA literalists. If, to the literalist, only divine intervention can relieve the obsession to drink, then the presence of sober atheists is a problem. In fact it may threaten a rigid worldview.

Most atheists I know who are happy being sober draw on inner power or higher purpose if you want or need to talk in AA language at all. While the majority of AA members could care less what someone else believes or how they stay clean and sober, it's hard not to notice the passive aggressiveness between the the more adamant member of both sides of the spectrum; religious members who proselytize and atheists who poke fun of theism, likening it to a belief in tooth fairies or spider man.   

Comment by Loren Miller on January 16, 2013 at 9:23pm

My problem with basing any kind of recovery on a putative "higher power" is that, in the final analysis, any change brought about on a person will ultimately source From The Person Himself.  No supposed "higher power" has any mechanism to intervene, interact, or influence ANYONE, regardless of belief system.

There Is NO "Higher Power."  If you're going to do something, do it yourself or don't bother.

© 2019   Atheist Nexus. All rights reserved. Admin: The Nexus Group.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service