This post was originally published on December 25, 2014.
One of the main obstacles to people coming into AA or any 12-step program is that the whole God thing stops many in their tracks before they have a chance to remember what they’re really trying to accomplish—that is, to stop drinking and taking drugs. I know that’s part of the reason I didn’t stick around the first time, and it’s probably the number one ideological issue that keeps people away from AA. But here’s the truth: AA works—even for atheists, as long as they’re willing to forget about the semantics of the “G-word” and take advantage of the rest of the program.
About six months ago, I went to a group anniversary where one of the guest speakers was an old timer named Eddie, and he said something that I wish more AA speakers who think like him would say for the benefit of newcomers. “You don’t have to believe in God to get sober,” he began. “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. I don’t believe in God and I just celebrated 25 years.”
I knew Eddie because he had been a regular in the shittiest of the shithole bars in the shitty section of town where we both grew up. He’s a few years older than me, but I remember looking at him when I was in my 20s and thinking, “If I ever get that bad, I’ll stop drinking.” And 20-plus years later, after nearly drinking myself to death, I did get that bad and I did stop drinking. Eddie was a guy who looked like he had wet brain by the time he was 30, and after hearing his story that night, I knew he got a lot worse. But now he was a 25-year sober atheist in AA, and he was talking about it in front of hundreds of people who were hanging onto every word as he carried the message about how he got and stayed sober.
The first time I came into AA, I came in voluntarily, because I thought I’d had enough (I didn’t). For the first few meetings, I identified with the speakers, but then I started feeling better, and everything started to sound like bullshit—especially the “Grace of God” stuff and the prayers. I grew up Catholic and just didn’t like it—no bad touchy priest stories, thank God…it just sounded like BS to me. I also had a cousin who became a born-again Christian and used to give money to disgraced (and disgraceful) preacher Jimmy Swaggart. He often had the look of the severely brainwashed, and I didn’t want to end up like him, even though he was sober.
I wouldn’t have called myself an atheist then, but I certainly had a dim view of anything religious. And the heavy-handed wording of the Big Book (with its “Creator” and “Him” references) certainly made it look religious to me. AA doesn’t ask you to believe anything that you don’t want to believe, but I never stuck around long enough after a meeting to have someone explain that to me.
But while the God stuff may have been the primary reason for me being turned off by AA, I also should mention that I didn’t stop smoking pot or taking pills, get a sponsor, join a group, ask anyone for help, or take any of the other suggestions. So I drank after about 60 days and took a vicious beating for four more years.
The next time I came into AA, I was so broken, I was willing to try anything, even (God forbid) prayer. I got sober, and for me, I honestly believe prayer had a lot to do with it. But that’s not everybody’s experience, and I know a lot of people who call themselves atheists that stay sober in AA.
Even though I didn’t want to pray when I came to AA, I wasn’t a bonafide atheist, since I sort of believed that something was possible. So I asked one of my friends who is a self-identified atheist (and a member of the local humanist community, which makes him a card-carrying one, I guess) what his experience was like coming into AA with all the God stuff.
Andy OD’d when he was 16 after a catastrophic history of drug and alcohol abuse, and was ordered to AA by the courts. He is now 16 years sober. This us Andy’s story:
I was a pretty solid and decided atheist when I came into AA, so the God part of the program was a big problem for me. I believed that anyone who believed in God was kind of stupid, so I looked down on religious people at that point in my life. But because I was court-ordered and had to have my slip signed, I had to keep coming in spite of my beliefs.
It was over time that I realized that I was a lot more similar to these old motherfuckers than I thought I was. And for me, it wasn’t the meetings—because I wasn’t paying attention anyway—or the steps or traditions or the Big Book or anything like that. The thing that got me was the guys that would grab me after the meeting, take me aside, give me cigarettes and just talk to me. They’d tell me their stories and joke around and bullshit with me, and I’d tell them my stories about my drinking and drugging and they’d listen. And that’s what got me to open up to the program, because I thought, “These guys are actually pretty cool.” That’s what made me want to start coming back, even after I got off probation after six months.
By that point, AA meetings were a part of my routine, and besides, I realized that I actually was an alcoholic and an addict. Eventually I started to listen at meetings, at least to certain people. For instance, if it was John or Richard or Ellie—people who I talked to in the parking lots or when we went out to eat after meetings—I knew they weren’t full of shit. And I started getting the message, “Don’t Drink. Go To Meetings. Keep It In The Day.”
I didn’t want to work the steps though, and one of the real reasons I didn’t want to was because of the God part. I didn’t believe in God, so I concluded that the steps were just a bunch of bullshit and I wasn’t going to do them. But when I was celebrating my first year, that woman Ellie, a woman that I had so much respect for, took me aside and basically told me that my sobriety was bullshit.
“You’re going to meetings and that’s great,” she started, “but you don’t have a sponsor, you’re not working the steps and you don’t have a service position. She ripped me a new one and added, “You need to start doing that stuff or you’re going to drink.”
I was really pissed that she had the nerve to say that shit to me, but it was the turning point in my recovery, because I realized she was right. I was stark raving sober. Right after that, I had a day in recovery that was just so shitty, where I felt like complete garbage and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to drink, but I knew I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. So I got a sponsor, which meant that I had to do the steps.
I told him I didn’t believe in God, but some of the things that he said really got to me. I read the “We Agnostics” chapter with him, and it actually made a lot of sense, especially the part about the pre-judging, and I started to have a more open mind. I also talked to this guy John, who I wouldn’t say identified as an atheist, but he certainly didn’t have a traditional view of the Higher Power. He said, “Instead of thinking of it as ‘God as you understand him,’ try thinking of it as ‘God as you don’t understand him.’” And that made sense to me because I no longer had to think of whether I believed in God or not. I just had to believe that there is something, whatever it is. And when it came to prayer, he said, “Just try it. You don’t have to believe in anything.” So I did, and it seemed to work.
I later went through a period where I didn’t call myself an atheist. I didn’t have an anthropomorphic view of a person who sits in the clouds, but there was a point where I did have an open mind, oscillating between God as “Group of Drunks” or “Good Orderly Direction,” so I just used that. And I started to pray and it worked. Not the “I want something” prayer, but “Give me strength to get through this situation” type of prayer.
Today, I’ve come full circle, and I’m back to not believing in God. In spite of this, I still pray, but it’s more about having an intention, and it gives me that five or 10 seconds that allow me to have that second thought, instead of just reacting.
And it works just fine. Even for an atheist.