Article Thumbnail

How Atheists in AA Climb the Twelve Steps Without a ‘Higher Power’

Sobriety sans God

“If somebody told me that chair was God and I would stay sober if I believed it, I’d try to believe that shit,” says Eric, a 57-year-old alcoholic who’s been sober for 29 years. He’s speaking to a room full of mostly elderly alcoholics who are either nodding their heads or nodding off. It’s a Friday night, the parking situation in this part of town is beyond shoddy (“I got to try to find some way to get out of that $6, man,” grumbles one attendee), it’s raining and the general mood is one of sleepy desperation. “Fuck it, I just want to stay sober, man. I didn’t care because it was hurting so bad. I was desperate,” Eric continues as he leans back in his chair, teetering on the edge of gravity’s rope. “I go to all type of meetings, man. People getting sober in all the meetings, man. Narcotics Anonymous, AA. I don’t care, man.”

His belief, lack thereof or tendency to weave back and forth between the two, is typical at this We Agnostics of Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, taking place inside of a fluorescently lit hospital conference room in Hollywood. Interestingly, according to one of the group’s members, the first We Agnostics meeting, co-founded by Megan D. and Charlie P. in 1980, took place in a different room of this same building.

To the uninitiated, this secular AA meeting seems the same as any other: It’s included on the list of official AA meetings based in L.A., and statistically, the secular gatherings are counted no differently to the regular ones when assessing their success in keeping members dry (traditionally, this success rate hovers around 5 to 10 percent). Functionally speaking, the only noticeable difference is that they don’t recite any of the AA literature at the start and instead dive straight into sharing stories.

“We don’t say the Serenity Prayer, and we don’t say the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the meeting,” one of the attendees tells me. Instead, at the end of the night, the participants hold hands as they would in any other AA meeting, count to three, and in some cases, chant one of AA’s simple slogans: Live and Let Live. On other occasions, some secular groups will recite the Responsibility Declaration, which according to secular AA Outreach Chair, Joe C., is a sort of secular AA mantra.

Subjectively speaking, of course, there’s “more rational and reasoned scientific thinking in the We Agnostics meeting, in the sense that there’s no talk of miracles,” according to one of the meeting’s (anonymous, naturally) attendees. “The fact that the person has gotten sober isn’t a miraculous event. The person got sober, generally speaking, because alcohol beat the heck out of him or her, and the body could no longer take that punishment; and that it’s within the force of nature to opt for life. Plants and animals do that. They always opt for life because that’s the nature of existence.” Hence, he attributes sobriety, for most alcoholics, to a noticeable improvement in their life’s conditions rather than their faith in a higher power.

Somewhat ironically, the group’s name, “We Agnostics,” is derived from the title of the fourth chapter of The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which mainly details the reasons why the original founders of AA, Bill W. and Dr. Bob Smith, decided it was better for their recovery to go forward with God rather than without him.

“Yes, we of agnostic temperament have had these thoughts and experiences. Let us make haste to reassure you. We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.”

Divine belief may seem like a core pillar of the Twelve Steps, with the second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh steps including the need to believe in a something greater than one’s self. But such steadfast convictions weren’t unanimous amongst the original cast of AA founders, who were part of the New York-based group in 1935. Led by Jim Burwell and Hank Parkhurst, two atheists who wanted “God” removed from the book, the so-called “radical” faction of AA’s founding members wanted a psychological book to attract the alcoholics to AA. According to, this battle between the conservative and radical factions raged on for a year until Bill partially relented and a compromise was reached, resulting in four extremely important changes to the Twelve Steps:

1) Substituting the phrase “a Power greater than ourselves” for “God” in Step Two.

2) Modifying the word “God” to the phrase “God as we understood Him” in Steps Three and Eleven.

3) Eliminating the expression “on our knees” from Step Seven.

4) Adding the sentence, “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery” as a lead-in to all the steps, so that they became only suggestions.

In spite of Burwell and Pankhurst’s best efforts, it should be noted that the word “God” still appears 132 times in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and God (by one name or another) is mentioned 281 times in total, per Nonetheless, it’s largely accepted that the only real requirement for membership to AA is a desire to stop drinking, a sentiment further articulated by one of the more devout atheists in the We Agnostics group, who recently celebrated his 20th sober year. “The beauty of the program is that it’s very open. And it isn’t only open, but it’s pragmatic. There are no paradigms, there’s no scientific theory that’s to be proven,” he explains. “Tolerance is an extremely important feature of Alcoholics Anonymous; to be tolerant of others — and of their differences — and to be accepting of others.”

The member goes on to point out that even the founder of AA wrote an article dealing precisely with this issue. “He said he pitied himself for having been overly Christian in his approach. In the beginning, they came out of the Oxford group, which was a Christian evangelical group, and they were pushing that. Their prayers were all prayers that are Christian, and even their readings. But Bill W. later realized that, that was an error because there were a whole bunch of alcoholics, especially on the East Coast back then, who were agnostic or outright atheist. And they were chasing away, or pushing out, alcoholics who needed help.” He finishes by arguing that alcoholics don’t have to believe in a god, or in a higher power in that sense. “They just have to realize that they have to smash the ego and to become humble to be able to lead a decent life,” he says.

It’s this sort of laissez faire approach to the Twelve Steps that explains the current proliferation of secular AA meetings writ large. “At the turn of the century there were under 50 secular AA groups in the U.S. and Canada,” says Joe C. “Now there are closer to 500 of them.” He attributes the increase to the demand amongst millennials, who tend to be more secular-minded. “[Plus,] closeted agnostics and atheists coming out of AA shadows,” he says. “Some have altered the Twelve Steps to a more humanist approach. There are at least 40 or 50 versions that I know of, secularizing the Twelve Steps.”

For many of the attendees, secular AA groups are a refreshing respite from the “higher power” doctrinal inundation that’s common at most other meetings. “As I said before, I didn’t leave the Catholic church in order to become a fundamentalist Protestant,” explains another member of the group, who’s been sober for 31 years. “For me, what I’ve found in the meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous is the spirit of human compassion. It’s not God; it’s you. It’s the willingness of people to come into this room and speak honestly and lend a hand to me, still down in the bottom of that pit, that has marked my recovery. That’s what my recovery is.”

Even amongst the We Agnostics group members, there’s plenty of spiritual overlap — whether they’re “faithless” or not. A woman in our Friday night meeting, for example, emphatically thanks God on several occasions as she counts her blessings aloud. At a Tuesday night meeting the next week, several attendees make it known to the rest of the group that for them, believing in a higher power has genuinely helped their recovery. One woman in particular explains that while she appreciates listening to the stories of the vastly agnostic group, she can’t imagine anyone not saying a prayer when they’re drowning under a wave. Another woman quickly interjects to point out that she’s nearly drowned six times, and she’s never once said a prayer to some bearded man in the sky to save her life, but this mildly contentious exchange — more testy than combative — is the closest thing to conflict that I witness.

Perhaps the person who best articulates the group’s ethos is actually a new member, a young man who’s been sober for 22 days. He explains in a muffled tone to the rest of the group that what he appreciates about this particular AA meeting is that it’s for everyone, regardless of personal religious beliefs, including those who may be “spiritually on hold.”

To that end, several of the We Agnostics attendees tell me that they still frequent all sorts of AA meetings. “When I participate in the regular AA meetings and I’m asked to share, participate, read or whatever, I let [my atheism] be known, especially if I see that the meeting is leaning a bit too heavily toward the miraculous and toward the necessity for the belief in a god,” he says. “When I see that the meeting is leaning toward that, I’m always concerned that there may be some people in the meeting who are agnostic or who have a question mark, who aren’t convinced that such a thing exists, because of their scientific training, their convictions, their ideological convictions or whatever; or because they’re Buddhist, or because they’re Zoroastrians, or they don’t have those kinds of beliefs.” And so, on those occasions, he wears his atheism more boldly. “I was atheist when I came in, I’m even more so today,” he adds.

For a group of individuals who are, in some cases, radically opposed to belief in any sort of higher power, there’s still some surviving loyalty to that oft-inescapable human trait of believing in something, even if not specifically worshipping a god. “I feel like I got so many chances,” explains Eric. “I was asking my brother, ‘Remember that time that girl stabbed me in the eye?’ She stabbed me with a broken stent, but she only cut the eyelid. Man, I got both my eyes today. Maybe I was meant to see. Then after that, somebody stabbed me in the back. He was two inches away from my spine. Maybe I was just meant to walk.”

For Ralph, however, an alcoholic who’s been sober for 22 years, his conviction isn’t based on any sort of determinism or predestination. Instead, for him, the sort of ritualistic adoration often associated with a formal deity takes, at least for this evening, an aromatic form. “Smelling rosemary helps me stay present,” he tells me, raising a tiny branch of the herb to his nose and letting slip a modest smile. “I made a lot of really irrational, absolutely crazy decisions that a logical, rational, scientifically inclined skeptic shouldn’t be making. I came to understand that there is a power, and that power is called nature. That power is called life. That power is called living in accordance with optimization formulas for good living, for enhanced living and for purposeful living. If I deviate from that, I end up being a miserable son of a gun.”

Before AA — before accepting the fact that he had a drinking problem — Ralph admits that his behavior as a drunk was that of “an insane person.” “I think that’s really the third step,” he says. “Turning my will and my life over to the care of God really means that I stop fighting everything and everybody. Ever since I slowed down and I let people merge into the traffic in front of me whether they had their signal on or not, nobody has ever cut me off.”

Ironically, although he’s now accepted the idea of a higher power — whatever humble or mundane form that takes — it’s Ralph’s belief in tolerance, especially as it pertains to sobriety, that cleanly sums up the secular approach to AA. “I have no problem with any of the steps, including the step that says, ‘Came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity,’” he says. “I go along, but as part of the support of the group — as part of supporting my fellows who are believers.”