John C. / WAAFTIAC
I walked into my first AA meeting in Amarillo, Texas in 1985, an unemployed, confused, and frustrated young man suffering from the cumulative effects of several years of too many cocktails accompanied by a large sprinkling of cocaine, speed, valium and marijuana.
Then in my late 20s, my mom forced me to attend the meeting, located in an AA clubhouse in a suburban strip mall. The room was filled with cigarette smoke. The walls were covered with folksy slogans - “Let Go & Let God” “One Day at a Time” “Live and Let Live”. The meeting opened with a moment of silence, followed by the “Serenity Prayer”. It closed with the Lord’s Prayer.
I was shaking with a hangover and felt revolted by the folksy bullshit everyone seemed to be spouting. My eyes fixed alternatively on the prominently displayed pamphlets with Jehovah’s Witness-style graphics on their covers, and huge, bizarre posters at the front of the room with “12 Steps & 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous”. The only thing I remember saying at that first meeting is the tired & true affirmation, “My name is John and I’m an alcoholic. This is my first meeting.” Someone piped in a response, “Welcome, you’re right where you belong.” I bolted for the door as soon as the meeting was over. Afterward, I remember telling my mom, “It’s a cult!” Her trite response, expressed in an irritated Texas drawl, was, “It’s not a cult, it’s a helping hand.”
Fast forward to 2016, I’ve lived in Paris (France, not Texas) since 1991, am sober almost 30 years & have a life far beyond anything I could have imagined before I stopped drinking and using drugs. I’m active in AA, and attribute long-term sobriety and the life I have to the many helping hands I’ve gotten from other AA members throughout the years. I do not believe in God, nor in a “higher power” that many AA members cite as having restored their health & sanity. AA is a form of ongoing group therapy that has given me a safe social outlet and the opportunity to build an entourage of sober friends, a kind of family.
Being an atheist in an organization with a religious dimension certainly has its challenges. Many AA members propagate a more or less fundamentalist approach to what they describe as the “program” of AA. This means, to some, a rigid adherence to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as an almost biblical reverence of the 1939 basic text of AA, the “Big Book”. The journey for me has been to sift through this nonsense while remaining sober. Early on, someone expressed this attitude as “Take what you need, and leave the rest.” Fortunately, no one in AA is forced to believe anything.
I’ve somehow found in AA a kernel of truth amidst the folklore. Alcoholism is, from the perspective of AA, an illness; the treatment is not drinking--not a sip, never. AA’s basic precept is total abstinence from alcohol and other mind altering substances. As AA’s Big Book states, “The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.” Fortunately for me, I was able to seize upon this concept and have not started to drink or drug again. I’ve often seen alcoholics and addicts who thought otherwise and continued to experiment. Many of them have indeed fulfilled the dire warning of the Big Book.
Atheists have been a part of AA from its inception. AA’s 3rd tradition states, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” This means that no one is turned away from an AA meeting, regardless of non-belief or other reason. In addition, every AA group is completely independent from other groups. Beginning in the 1970s, as a likely consequence of the secularization of Western society, AA groups for nonbelievers and other outcasts from more traditional AA formed. Today, these meetings are held in many cities in the US, Canada, and around the world. Atheists and those turned off by the quasi-religious experience of traditional AA, can take a look at AgnosticAANYC.org for a complete listing of secular AA meetings around the world.
In November 2014, approximately 300 secular AA members met in Santa Monica, California for the first worldwide convention of We Agnostics, Atheists, & Freethinkers in Alcoholics Anonymous. The convention offered speakers, workshops and panel discussions of interest to our community. The second convention will be held in Austin, Texas at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, November 11 to 13, 2016. The theme is: “Human Power Can Relieve Our Alcoholism. May You Find Us Now.”