Thursday, March 31, 2011

20Questions about AA Freethinkers and Agnostics

For years of my sobriety I was a closet atheist.  Fake-it-until-you-make-it was a fix-all suggestion from my sponsor which came into play with almost every area of transition to sober life.  Acting as-if helped me find my value system and break from my narcissistic alcoholic ways.  Twenty years later I was still feigning belief in God. 

Because I thought believing and belonging (to the fellowship) were synonymous, I kept my doubt to myself and danced around God-talk with anecdotal avoidance.    As I became more comfortable with my disbelief and speaking about it, I found more AA members that don`t practice AA with a God-conscious focus.  I have found AA meetings that were secular and over the last five to 10 years there has been heated discussion between liberal and conservative members.  It`s an important and emotional discussion that continues around coffee pots.  Here is my own experience in the form of the most asked questions I have faced, or dare I say, ``concerns`` in what I will call: 20 questions about We Agnostics of the 21st century.

1)  Isn’t shunning God a form of intellectual pride?
 Dr. Bob closes his Big Book talk with “If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you.”  This is a divisive statement. It was a statement that was reasonable for the times.  If Dr. Bob knew the scores of sober agnostics in our midst today, would he have used more inclusive language?  Some atheists feel smugly superior, just like some believers do. Most doubters and nonbelievers want everyone to be welcome as equals in the fellowship, not being expected to adopt anyone else’s belief or deny their own. 

2)  We Agnostics is a chapter devoted to you isn’t it?
The Big Book suggests that disbelief is a dangerous form of self-will and a one-way-ticket to relapse.  Some of our members take exception with the idea that their God-free efforts are second-rate. Today, doubters and atheists are counting days, years and decades of continuous sobriety. 

3)  Don’t Agnostic meetings change the words in the 12-steps?  That’s against the rules so that can’t really be AA.
Some meetings use a “God-free” adaptation of the 12-steps and others don’t.  There are no universal conventions among agnostic meetings.  We are autonomous like any meeting.  The 12 steps are important principals.  We stay firm on principal and flexible on method; the wording is not sacred.  We work step without imposing a deity.   If AA was created in the 30s ½ way around the world and Bob and Bill were Buddhists the language would have been quite different but they could have come up with 12 steps to recovery and enlightenment that would have worked just as good as the Big Book first edition wording.  Our experience is that the steps work as a secular exercise.
Non-believers speak a different language than believers.  We take the same steps to recovery.  The action isn’t significantly different – just the wording.  Think of agnostic steps as AA in a different language – when a hand reaches out for help, we want the hand of AA always to be there – no matter what the language.

4)  Aren’t you afraid that General Service will shut you down? 
AA service works as an upside-down pyramid scheme.  Groups are at the top. All levels of service are below with General Service Office at the bottom, serving the groups and service structures above. GSO doesn’t dictate rules to meetings; it works for us and conducts business on our behalf.  We have traditions, not rules so there is no enforcement, punishment or banishment. 
Some Intergroups have discriminated against free-thinker/agnostic groups and won’t print them in the directory.  Maybe they have lost sight of the intent that AA is a mosaic, not a melting-pot.  General Service has greater commitment to Tradition and autonomy.

5)  If we let agnostics and atheists change the steps won’t that open the door to any number of forms of mutilation of our sacred program?  Woman will want the patriarchy out of AA.  Young people will want to refer to God as we understand the dude.
So what if they do? I heard a member proudly declare that a woman’s meeting wanted to change the steps to gender neutral, “but we shut them down.”  He thinks AA was saved from ruin.  I don’t. 
AA didn’t allow African Americans to join AA at one time.  The idea of Gay friendly meetings being recognized in meeting books was once controversial.    Young people’s Groups had some hurdles to cross to be accepted as an AA sub-culture but still part of the whole.  I remember when some AA’s thought churches going non-smoking would be the end of carrying the message.  None of us are comfortable with change.  But AA has adapted before and if and when it stops adapting, extinction is inevitable.

6)  Why isn’t AA good enough for you the way it is?  AA has been so successful – why mess with it?
AA works. How successful we are, is fodder for lively debate.  It’s not unpatriotic to expect more from your country.  It’s not divisive to suggest that AA can adapt to acknowledge people getting sober in AA without God.  We know we are a small subculture.  We don’t want all of AA to change. We exercise our tradition-given autonomy to speak our truth in an authentic way and to extend our hand to newcomers who believe as we do.  That is no threat to AA’s survival.  Rather, we expect our population to grow as fewer newcomers take a pass on our way of life because of our dogma and practices of the steps with a God-centered interpretation.

7)  There is no 12-steps without “God as we understand him.”  How do agnostics stay sober?
Ours is a program of action.  It isn’t what we believe and it’s not what we think that gets us sober.  It’s what we do.  Agnostic steps demand the same workload.  Without a God-consciousness there is less delegating, so maybe it’s more work.  Agnostics face the same hurdles as anyone else in recovery and we have the same experience, strength and hope.

8)  How do you do Step 2 and 3 without God?
“Came to believe and accept that we needed strength beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity” is one of the alternate interpretations of Step 2. It’s not poetry, but it is authentic to many of us.  Again, there is no Agnostic Central Service so many free-thinker groups have drafted steps from scratch while others use agnostic steps that have been around for a while.
Higher power, inner power, power of example – for every member of AA our belief is as individual as our finger print.  There aren’t two camps of AAs: Believers and doubters. Each one of us has a unique way of practicing each step.  Some agnostics articulate the third step as “The key is letting go.  I let go and don’t know.  I just let go.” Others see Step 3 as learning to accept life on life’s terms.

9)  How do you do you work Step 5?
If we are being brutally honest and someone else (a human) is present, it doesn’t really matter what other force is listening.  We still get the benefit.

10) How can there be a Step 6 without God?
We prepare ourselves for change in Step Six.  Like anyone, we look forward to a life that is less encumbered by our short-comings.  Most of us don’t expect a force or deity to grant us anything – not serenity, sobriety, wisdom or courage. Buddhists claim that enlightenment comes from within. We learn from those around us and we commit ourselves to better living.  “Faith without works is dead” is maybe a oft misquoted bible passage which suggests acting good is better than praying to be good; doing the next right thing is more of what Step Six asks the non-theist than asking for the strength to do the next right thing.  Values, our own values, our own inner voice guides us.

11) Step 7 is about Humility.  Can you be humble if you’re not a servant of God?
Humility is a universally accepted principal and practice that all AA’s believers and doubters adapt to as part of sober living.

12) Step 11 is all about prayer and meditation.  Who do you pray too if you don’t believe a deity is listening?
Free-thinkers meditate.  Mindfulness is another tool, like meditation, that fosters awareness and peace.  AA literature espouses the virtue of meditation.  A lot of the talk in the 12 & 12 about meditation is really more about prayer.  Some of us pray.  The secretary of my group calls himself the “praying atheist.”  The benefits of prayer are anecdotal perhaps but they do suggest that putting problems, goals and insights out there, out-loud sometimes, is a positive exercise for sober life.  For some of us, we meditate, some pray, some don’t.

13) Bill Wilson said, “Either God is everything or he is nothing, what shall it be?”
Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”  Both are alienating statements.  No one has to prove what they believe any more than defend a favorite color.  We need not resolve the questions of the universe.  It’s good enough that everyone respect each other. Nobody’s beliefs are contradictory to the principals behind the 12 steps.

14) How do you practice the traditions without God?
Only one tradition mentions God.  Tradition Two suggest that where there is democracy (group conscience) that there is God’s will.  I think we all believe in the very democratic style of AA and all the other traditions are spiritually based secular concepts that are hard for anyone to argue with once they have studied them and seen them work in practice. 

15) Aren’t you going to kill newcomers by inviting them to dismiss God?
It sounds crazy but I have heard members say just that when they learned we were starting an agnostic meeting in my city.  We were amazed how many people found us online or in the directory and were drawn to our AA group.  Many had been introduced to AA in treatment but felt that regular attendance would be contrary to their core-beliefs.  They like our meeting.  We encourage them to go to other meetings and take what they like – leave the rest.  We tell them, “belief in God isn’t contagious and having someone waving a proselytizing finger at you is not very likely.”  We aren’t looking to dictate to anyone about personal belief.  Everyone is welcome at our meeting, like any other.

16) How do you run a meeting?
There are no prayers at our agnostic meeting.  We close with the Responsibility Pledge.  Other groups change the “Serenity Prayer” to a credo by just leaving out the word “God.”  Sometimes we have a speaker, once a month we read a tradition from the 12 and 12 and discus it.  Most of the time we read a chapter from Living Sober – a secular, common sense approach to getting and staying sober.  Other meetings vary from discussion, step study to speaker.  We have a GSR and we participate in all levels of service like any other meeting such as working in PI and treatment centers.

17) What does Appendix II in the Big Book mean about spiritual awakenings of the educational variety?
The first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous gave the impression that sobriety came only from a God-conscious experience but that notion is erroneous.  Many of our awakenings are secular events born of an open mind and honest exploration. The point is that mental, physical and spiritual recovery is wide open to interpretation.  In Middle America in the mid-20th century, being open minded may have meant both Catholics and Protestants putting their differences aside.  Today it means so much more.

18) What do words like Free-thinker, humanist, doubter or realist mean?
Why can’t a devout Christian or Jew consider themselves liberal or freethinkers?  Of course they can.  For our purposes, “freethinker” is defined as someone who considers the immaterial world, the question of a deity or the hereafter, open ended. 

19) Aren’t you afraid of what you’re doing to AA as a whole?  You will face considerable opposition.  The mere thought of how you conduct yourself is blasphemy to many a strict AA member. 
Some of us will smile and say, “Blasphemy is a victimless crime,” but we know where our opposition is coming from.  Concerned souls love AA and want to protect it so it will be here for them and newcomers.  Through the traditions there are dark warnings that AA’s survival requires vigilance and stewardship.  The classic literature also says that “more will be revealed,” suggesting that AA will be subject to change.  Adaptation is a cornerstone to survival.  We agnostics love AA and care about our future, too.

20) How can someone find an agnostic or Free-thinkers AA meeting?
If you live in a metropolitan centre there may be an agnostic meeting where you are – spend some time with us.  Everyone is welcome.  If you live remote and finding a meeting is improbable, there is an online meeting and community that I am part of and I expect if you do a web-search, you’ll find more.  If you want to start a meeting, has maps and lists for finding secular meetings + formats for running meetings.

I am not speaking on behalf of anyone.  These are actual questions I have been asked and answers in my own words, based on my own experiences.


  1. this is cool:

  2. Drink of fresh water, thank you! I can't tell you how refreshing and reassuring your words are - good for you for having the courage to change!

  3. Right on! I am so relieved to see this! Thanks so much. I am looking forward to meeting some of you in Santa Monica this November!
    Lonely AA Agnostic in Tucson, AZ

    1. I'm in Tucson too. There is one meeting very small.

    2. I'm in Tucson too. There is one meeting very small.

    3. Boston Laura... our one meeting in Tucson has now gotten to be a pretty good size! We are currently discussing starting Nos. 2 and 3, one of which will be a women's meeting. Try us again! We meet Thursday nights at Central Office at 5:30. Lonely no more! Mary G.

  4. What a refreshing and encouraging view of AA and recovery this piece provides! It is a message that every so-called believer and doubter should read and digest, because it clearly encourage all to recognize the breadth, depth and variety of AA experience, strength and hope. "No one person speaks for AA as a whole," but together we are more than we are individually. In October 2014, we started Freethinkers in AA meetings in Denver, and are now a thriving and diverse group of honest and action-focused men and women, committed to the fellowship and program of Alcoholics Anonymous and to one another. It works, it really does!