An Unofficial Introduction to AA for Nonbelievers
Most atheist and agnostic alcoholics assume that Alcoholics Anonymous is not for them based on what seems clear, that it is a religious program. If they haven’t been able to solve their drinking problem on their own, this can be a heartbreaking situation. However, there actually are atheists and agnostics in AA. And they are sober – some of them for decades.
Perhaps AA warrants a deeper look.
There are four obvious questions that that a nonbeliever exploring AA will naturally have:
What does AA have to say about what it takes to get sober?
If I need help, can I find it in AA?
Is it even possible for me to be a member of AA?
Will I be pressured to adopt certain beliefs?
One of these questions is easy to answer. We can plainly state that it is in fact possible for a nonbeliever to be a member of AA. Our third tradition says, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
But what about the Twelve Steps? Don’t they require belief in God?
In spite of the fact that AA is commonly referred to as a “Twelve Step program,” the Steps are only suggestions. They are meant to be helpful rather than obligatory. Many atheists and agnostics find ways to benefit from AA without relying on the Steps, while others find principles within them that are adaptable to a secular approach.
But how do we respond to the pervasive claim that it is impossible to stay sober without a higher power?
It is true that AA’s basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous (commonly known as the Big Book), contains a number of statements that nonbelievers will find dismaying. And many AA members treat the Big Book like a bible. However, what the Big Book says about itself is, “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize that we know only a little.” (p 164)
Not so tentative though is a carefully worded, unequivocal statement that was added to the Big Book after the first printing. (See Appendix II, pp. 567-568.) It is a deliberate and emphatic counter to the notion that sobriety depends on having a religious conversion experience or on believing in God.
It says that while many AA members have “spiritual experiences” that enable them to tap “an unsuspected inner resource” which they associate with an “awareness of a power greater than themselves,” belief in God or in any other higher power is not necessary as long as the individual “is capable of facing his problems in the light of our experience” and “does not close his mind to all spiritual concepts.” By spiritual concepts it means ideals like tolerance, honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.
So if God and the Steps are not necessary for staying sober, what does AA have to say about what is necessary?
There is one surprising yet simple answer. While the Steps are offered as suggestions, the Big Book is remarkably clear about one thing in particular: “We absolutely insist on enjoying life.” (p 132) The point is that putting together a life that is more satisfying and attractive than drinking is imperative. To the extent that AA contributes to that, it is helpful. Everything else is unnecessary baggage.
We often tell newcomers, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” Virtually no one joins AA because they like everything about it. Most people who end up in AA, whatever their belief or lack of belief might be, are here because they resonate on some level with the sentiment behind the self-deprecating aside that AA is “the last house on the block.”
The Preamble which is read at the beginning of most AA meetings says “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they might solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.”
In other words, everything you hear in AA should be taken for what it is – the perceptions and opinions of the individuals who express them. No one’s version of recovery is “gospel.” The underlying message of everything that is shared is, “This is what has worked for me, but I am confident that there are other approaches that work just as well.”
But why bother getting involved with AA? Why not take what you like, and leave AA?
For most of us, there is more to sobriety than what can be gleaned from a few AA meetings or from reading words on a page. The greatest part of AA’s solution is not something that can be communicated through words but is instead a profound people connection – an in-depth identification between flesh-and-blood human beings who have each experienced the demoralization, desperation, and defeat that comes with alcoholism.
Alcoholics who are different in every other way find an insoluble connection with each other through having found a common solution. It is a bond like none other. The bond between previously hopeless alcoholics is central to AA’s success. Without it, our words are meaningless.
The closest we can come to putting AA’s message of recovery into words would go something like this: “You are not alone. We are here for you. We can relate to the degradation, the shame, the isolation, and the hopelessness that accompany alcoholism. We have found a way out. We want to share it with you because we keep what we have by giving it away.”
Newcomers to AA are often told to focus on the similarities rather than the differences. This does not mean you have to fit into a mold, but instead that you don’t have to feel all alone in your difference. If you are like many of us, you know the pain of feeling like you don’t fit in anywhere. However embarrassing it may be, surrendering to the experience of fitting in with a bunch of drunks might be the one thing that can keep you sober, and we have found it is less embarrassing than continuing to get drunk.
Two of the main ways that AA is able to custom fit the solution to individual needs are the group and sponsorship. There is great diversity among AA groups. Each group has its own flavor. AA groups are crucial not only in fostering vital one-on-one relationships but also in providing a sense of belonging.
AA members are advised to find a “home group,” the AA group where you feel most “at home.” A home group builds a strong human connection that can be indispensible in recovery. Other group members know you by name and miss you when you aren’t there. It is important to find the right fit. A home group should feel welcoming, affirming, and safe. Some AA groups are more hospitable to nonbelievers than others.
A sponsor is an experienced AA member who tailors the AA program to your own life circumstances. It is up to you to pick the right sponsor for you. It is important to find someone who respects your values, appreciates your strengths, and wants to build you up rather than put you down. A sponsor is usually someone of your own gender.
We may not always be as effective as we would like in our welcoming efforts. We may not be able to connect with everyone, but surprising things happen in spite of ourselves. Receiving a critically needed hand up from someone you might cross the street to avoid can be uncomfortable, but that very experience provides the deepest insight into why AA works as well as it does.
Reaching across cultural, political, racial, socio-economic, and religious divides is the essence of the solution. Not only is difference OK, it’s an essential ingredient in the communication of AA’s true message. The message is embodied in a community whose shared identity is deeper than our dissimilarities, deeper than what can be put into words.
The very possibility of anyone finding sobriety depends on finding common ground around one primary purpose – carrying a message of recovery to alcoholics. There are not two messages, one for nonbelievers and one for everybody else. One of AA’s most central principles is “Personal recovery depends on AA unity.” Beliefs, values, and commitments that don’t contribute to personal recovery and to the solidarity that makes it possible are outside issues.
AA doesn’t tell anyone what to believe. That cuts two ways. Freedom of belief means that each of us is free to base our sobriety on recovery principles that are consistent with our own personal beliefs and values. It also means that AA doesn’t control what individual AA members say and do in their efforts to carry a message of recovery.
AA, being an organization whose main qualification for membership is that there has been a problem with alcohol, is going to be considerably less than perfect. Even those who come into AA with very mainstream beliefs about God do not always receive the affirmation, encouragement, and respect they might think they are entitled to.
None of us will ever feel completely accepted by everyone, but making an enlightened choice to practice acceptance with regard to the imperfections of others is contagious. It is a meaningful affirmation of a spirit of openness that benefits everyone. Atheists and agnostics, by our very presence, invoke AA’s highest ideals and model an inclusive norm for what an AA member looks like.
Being able to benefit from the “experience, strength, and hope” of pretty much anyone can be one of the most valuable ingredients of a successful program of recovery, but ultimately what matters the most is “To thine own self be true.” The AA slogan, “Live and let live” is not only about tolerance of others; it’s also about not needing permission from anyone to live your own life.
You can shape your own personal vision for sobriety around an identity that is about who you are and what you do believe rather than who you are not and what you don’t believe. Many of us find ways of being honest about our rejection of religious belief, while at the same time, keeping the main focus on what we have in common with others.
Celebrate your victories. Learn from your failures. Claim a position of strength and security for yourself, and stand tall. There is no need to apologize or be defensive about what works for you. The best argument for your approach is success. If it bothers you to hear people say that sobriety without God is not possible, take it as a challenge to prove them wrong by staying sober.
by John G.