I will start by giving the straight facts about AA. The program helps many, and adherents attribute their sobriety to it. I take them at their word. As I see it, whatever works, works. Nevertheless, AA is clearly a religious organization, steeped in Christian theology, with many of the meetings subtly reassuring the nonbeliever that he or she will, in time, come to pray on their knees, as I was so often told.

This approach is underpinned by the Big Book chapter entitled “We Agnostics.” It relates the central AA message: The group will accept atheists and agnostics, but unless they eventually accept a higher power known as “God,” failure is guaranteed. “Actually we were fooling ourselves,” the chapter asserts, “for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God. It may be obscured by calamity, by pomp, by worship of other things, but in some form or other it is there. For faith in a Power greater than ourselves, and miraculous demonstrations of that power in human lives, are facts as old as man himself. We finally saw that faith in some kind of God was a part of our make-up, just as much as the feeling we have for a friend. Sometimes we had to search fearlessly, but he was there. He was as much a fact as we were. We found the Great Reality deep down within us. In the last analysis it is only there that He may be found. It is so with us.”

The same chapter later relates a story in which an alcoholic asks himself, “Who are you to say there is no God?” That, indeed is the question, or one side of the question. I might just as easily say, “Who are you to say there is one?”

The Christian roots of the AA program are well documented and continue to bloom in its Edenesque garden. I need not repeat the evidence here. It is not my duty to condemn or refute AA.  Rather, I wish only to warn agnostics and atheists that — after the short honeymoon — they will not be accepted by the program unless they accept its language, which irrefutably cannot in any way be interpreted as secular. Just as an atheist and a fundamentalist Christian would be unlikely to maintain a successful marriage, so the atheist and AA are unlikely to form a lasting bond. Exceptions exist, but the AA atheist or agnostic has a big house to build in order to house that much self-delusion.

I shall write from my experience. After much well-meaning advice from friends seeking to help me overcome my hesitation to join AA due to the “God factor,” I thought I had finally found a way around the problem of what exactly my “higher power” would be.  It would involve the infinite universe and the nothingness atheists, especially, and, to a lesser degree, agnostics, face. I would give myself over to nothingness, “turning over” my problems and thereby finding a faithless faith.

More than anything, I sought comradeship.  I found it, at first.  The key to the AA meeting is the common bond between all addicts and alcoholics.  I do not dispute that this is helpful. Indeed, AA could start and stop with that assertion, providing a truly all-inclusive safety net. However, as in all movements, the initial idea of AA was quickly reduced to dogma and a reactionary stance.

I began with the intention to find what I needed and leave out what I didn’t. I discovered what I needed at my first few meetings, which was the simple sharing of common experience.  But during the fifth meeting, the 11th Step was discussed. “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.”

While the words “as we understood Him” are often used to support the contention that AA members can believe God to be anything at all, the discussion revealed every single member as understanding God in the very same manner.  All had always believed or later came to believe in a Christian  God.  All had fallen to their knees and prayed. Others nodded their assent.  Oddly, every member understood prayer, but many could not grasp the idea of not praying: Does not compute.

When my turn to speak arrived, I simply restated that I was an atheist.  I threw the bone that I “may change my mind — who knows? — but that’s how I understand things now. I don’t see why this stance should discourage me or anyone else from seeking help here.”  I wanted to add, “By the way, I can teach the basics of meditation in ten minutes,” but I left it there, not wanting to be reprimanded for starting a philosophical debate.

My message was met with weak applause and a few askance glances. “Here,” I thought, “comes the first argument.”  The honeymoon was over.

Immediately after the meeting, I was twice pulled aside and told that I would come to find what all the others had found.  It seemed I must find it, since they had found it.  Just as I find it incomprehensible that anyone believes in a benevolent God, so they find it incomprehensible that anyone doesn’t. I could point to the Holocaust and say, “That event caused many survivors to lose faith or even conclude that God must be evil.  Isn’t that rather strange behavior from a God expecting so much attention?”  They would point to me and say, “You may go, but you’ll come back when you hit bottom again.”

Now, I must give AA its due. Through discussions not involving God, I was able to see how I had undermined myself via self-deception. This was certainly an accomplishment for which I thank AA. The problem, then, begins and ends right there. For me, such discussions were enough. Leaving God completely out of the program would allow anyone to benefit from it. Replacing faith in a higher power with the acknowledgment that the mind cannot always be trusted would achieve similar results.  No one would be excluded or made to feel they were violating the basic tenets of what amounts to faith.

I relate this to a short fling I had with Catholicism.  This occurred in my early thirties.  I found a way around every aspect of Catholicism with which I did not agree.  I discovered authors like Graham Greene, who seemed to harbor so many misgivings regarding the Church that it was nearly impossible to categorize him as Catholic. Graham himself claimed that he was a “Protestant within the Church.”  I had reached a different conclusion: “I am a Catholic even if there is no God.”  Irrational as this claim may seem, I was quite satisfied with it and myself. Eventually, I lost my ability to trick myself around the sticking points of Catholicism and my own “clever” argument.

Just about then, the child abuse scandal broke, and with it my faith finished collapsing.  It had been waiting to fall, and reassurance that the guilty priests proved the exception to the rule of good priests failed to convince me that I could, or should, restore a bridge that would crumble into the river below regardless of repair.

For AA to work, one must either completely accept its basic tenets or find some way to believe its central proposition despite one’s rejection of it, just as I had done near the end of my Catholicism. I am glad that some are able to do the latter, for many maintain sobriety within the program.

Others, like myself, may be as humble as any Christian and believe in transcendence (a scientifically proven phenomena, i.e., a literal state of mind provable by brain scans and other methods).  However, we cannot trick ourselves around praying, nor fail to detect the contradiction between AA and what we disbelieve. We cannot say, “We are not religious but spiritual.” We cannot accept the view that anyone, anything or any force watches over and protects us.

In short, those finding a home within AA meetings do well to make their beds there.  Those finding the same beds uncomfortable should resist complaining to the hotel manager and simply depart. If that person insists upon complaining, the manager will state that the traveler “shall find no better bed in the world, and you should thank God on your knees for having such a bed. Why, if you leave, you’ll come back. Until then, enjoy sleeping on beds of nails and knife-like rocks. You’ll be back, all right. You’ll return to see that this is the best and indeed only bed in the world.”  Such a traveler may remain a traveler; better to keep moving than fool oneself that a place in which one does not belong is the best and only place in the world.

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PAUL A. TOTH's Airplane Novel, already a Midwest Book Review Reviewer's Choice and the 9/11 novel, is available now. His other novels include Finale, Fishnet and Fizz. Click here to visit his sites.

4 responses to “AA: Not the Only Way”

  1. Carl D'Agostino says:

    Sober 8 years in AA . BA and MA religious studies/history. I agree with you whole heartedly. But the old AA’s deny this vehemently. “Take your Bible to Church and your Big Book to . meetings and churchy stuff is forbidden here in south Florida meetings.But they refuse to believe how religious it really is . The 12 steps can be found in John Calvin as a way to salvation. It says God 134 times in first 164 pages of Big Book. Last page at p164 says we shall be together in the Spirit and ends with a benediction. Capital S for spirit means part of Trinity. Says “…but there is one and that one is God, may you find him now.” The higher power is in chapter to agnostic but rest of book uses God, God, God. Yes and look at roots of founders. Ohio, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans land of the Second Great Awakening. 10 commandments(12 traditions) and 12 steps to recovery are on wall. We have two prophets, and the fools don’t even know the Lord’s prayer we say at end from 5th Chapter Mathew ; “And Jesus instructed his disciples to pray thusly…..

    So my experience is that they deny all connection with religion and sit in one of the most gospel oriented self help groups that exist. Daily reflections and24 Hours(not approved AA) are read in most rooms and the message of each is clearly Protestant flavored with Christian Science. Prayer St. Francis, Catholic, Serenity Prayer Reinhold Niebhur Catholic theologian, 3rd step and 7th step prayer Catholic. And they pass the basket at the end – case closed!

    I have to respectfully listen to the rants of a drunken atheist but if a person shares about the wonderful healing power available through Jesus, they run him out of the room. They adamantly deny the fact of your first paragraph and can’t see the truth of what you say at all. It is astonishing. I believe the very Christian founders were very careful not coming off as Christian to leave door open to all, but today’s membership has no toleration for any religious talk. They are incapable of seeing the self contradiction.

  2. Paul A. Toth says:

    Dear Carl:

    Very interesting points. Thank you for the comments. My experience has been a little but much more limited. I’ve been to several AA meetings, but the one to which I committed the longest ran a very Christianized meeting. Obviously, this varies from town to town, meeting to meeting. I know atheists who attend AA, and I know of some Christians who believe AA leaves God too far out of the picture. In a way, I sympathize with AA; they can’t please everybody, so they end up not pleasing a lot of people. This is why, to me, more choices are necessary in recovery and one of the points of my article. I’ve absolutely nothing against people whom AA help, and I’m clearly not as familiar as you are with the various shades of religious involvment (especially since I come from a nonbelieving perspective), but I do think it’s the job of therapsist and counselors to point out that choices do exist. I am sure there are MORE religious groups, as well as completely areligious groups. My particular group SMART Recovery, takes a neutral stance; it’s not based on spirituality, but it also does not reject those who take that viewpoint. In fact, some attend SMART AND AA. However, I’ve yet to attend a live meeting; in fact, I will start the first live meeting in Sarasota come July. At any rate, I respect your views. I have to agree that AA does seem to want it both ways, and by doing so, offends both you and me, even though we come from opposite ends of the spectrum, in some ways.

  3. Denton Morrison says:

    I would like to find an alcoholic’s support group for atheist/agnostics in Sarasota, FL.

  4. matt says:

    great article. are you sober? are you not an alcoholic? just wondering. thanks

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