Sober with no god

Sober with no god

How a nonbeliever got active, found his place in AA and has stayed sober for 26 years

Grapevine Oct 2016

As an AA member who is a nonbeliever, i.e., one who does not have a god in his life, I’m grateful to be continuously sober for 26 years since my introduction to AA at the age of 53.

At my first meeting, I became hopeful that I could stay sober because inspiring, healthy and happy people shared about their drinking and their recoveries. That hope turned to skepticism, however, when I read “Higher Power” and “God” in the Twelve Steps, and then to downright dismay when the Lord’s Prayer was used at the end of the meeting. This was clearly religion in disguise, a rigid way of belief, I thought. Still, something powerful was happening to me; perhaps hope was coming my way after all. I was determined to have sobriety in AA without being false to myself. I persevered despite the admonitions in our literature of the necessity of believing in a god and the belittling of my nonbelief in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Early on in my sobriety, I read “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book, as well as modern descriptions of the disease of alcoholism in other books. They provided logical explanations of what was wrong with me and helped me to come to terms with my alcoholism. I also read widely about treatments for alcoholism and became encouraged about my chances of staying sober in AA if I “got involved in AA as much as I had drunk,” for my drinking had become almost all day, every day.

I found the original six Steps in some of our literature and some letters that our co-founder Bill W. wrote. They did not have a predominance of God in them and I was able to do the Steps. They required that I give up on any notion of control over alcohol, that I take inventory, confess faults to another, make amends to those harmed, carry the message and find the willingness to take these actions. Whenever I read our textbook, Alcoholics Anonymous, I substitute (in my mind) AA for God or Him or I substitute a proper noun such as Creative Intelligence. With these substitutions, the writing makes sense to me. One might say that my Higher Power is AA. I tend to say it’s the love and grace that exists in AA for the newcomer.

I eventually did the suggested Twelve Steps, so that I could teach them to others. For the Third Step, which involves a prayer, I analyzed the meaning of the words and found that I could move on to the rest of the Steps to achieve the purpose stated in the prayer. The same goes for the Seventh Step. I can do the three actions mentioned in the Eleventh Step of our textbook without praying: At the start of each new day, I look to see what I can do for others; during the day I pause when confused or agitated and restart the day if necessary; and at the end of the day I constructively review my actions of that day.

Over the years, some of my AA friends have come to describe me as a Big Book atheist, and there’s one who calls me “the most spiritual, open and well-read atheist I’ve ever met.” I don’t argue with anyone about belief or nonbelief. I know firsthand that the program of action outlined in our textbook can be effectively taken even without a belief in a god. That’s what I say when I tell my story: I do not have a god and do not pray. I say I can be in good spirits without taking spirits.

I do use a wide range of spiritual readings (including many of the books that Dr. Bob had on his bookshelf) as inspiration to examine my life, to act morally and to love others by serving them with patience, kindness, generosity, humility, courtesy, unselfishness and tolerance. I practice these principles in AA by having a sponsor, going to meetings almost daily, attending a Big Book meeting once a week, taking the Steps and being an active member of a home group. I take to heart Ebby’s imperative admonition to our co-founder Bill that we can “perfect and enlarge” our “spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others.”

I’m involved in sponsoring men, going into jails and prisons for AA meetings, going into hospital detoxes and rehabs for Twelfth Step work, being on the local answering service list, having my name as a contact for some nearby rehabs, corresponding with and sponsoring inmates through Corrections Correspondence and carrying the AA message wherever I go around the world. I’ve served as GSR for my home group and DCM for my district. I was once the spiritual speaker at our area convention.

Until my retirement in 1998, I continued to teach and changed 180 degrees in my approach. In my final years of drinking, the classroom had been a stage where I displayed my knowledge. During sobriety, my focus gradually changed from what I knew to concern for what the students did not know. I once attributed booze as the source of the creativity I demonstrated in my professional work. To my surprise and delight, I found that in sobriety I developed a source of creativity that was spontaneous and intuitive rather than forced.

I’m fortunate that my family stuck by me. I have grandchildren who have never seen me drunk and know me as a loving and kind grandpa. I have students who are grateful for my teaching. I have a host of friends both in AA and in community service work. I believe that I have all of these things as a result of being an active AA member. My AA life is a testament that it’s possible to be an active AA member who is sober with no god.

Bill M., Ithaca, N.Y.

Atheists and Agnostics Step Into The Light in AA

A repost of an article from the website, The Fix,  Oct 16, 2016

By Dillon Murphy  10/16/16

“The continuing use of the Lord’s Prayer in a group that tries to tell people it’s ‘spiritual not religious’ is why words like ‘hypocrisy’ were invented.”

Is AA changing? Is the fellowship becoming more accepting of its atheist and agnostic members? Well it certainly is a good sign that the October issue of the AA Grapevine

Can agnostics and atheists finally be part of AA?

The Grapevine monthly magazine is devoted to this underrepresented group. With stories like God on Every Page ( every-page/), Coincidently Sober and My Search, AA’s Grapevine finally allows for us non- believers to be a part of the very thing that got us sober. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room for most of us and it’s time we were given a voice in AA literature.

The October AA Grapevine issue also precedes the second We Agnostics, Atheists & Freethinkers International AA Convention. It will be held in Austin, Texas, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Friday through Sunday, November 11-13. Tickets can be purchased and rooms booked here: WAAFT IAAC. (

“The first convention was held in 2014 in Santa Monica, California, and was a huge success with, on the final day, 300 participants from 40 states and 13 different countries. The convention featured speakers including Reverend Ward Ewing, former chair of the AA General Service Board; Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power; as well as a variety of very diverse and compelling panels and workshops,” according to Roger C. who will be at this year’s as well.

It’s a great opportunity to express ourselves and our stories in recovery while using the fellowship and creative approaches to the steps. Mostly, we don’t talk in traditional meetings. We stay out of the discussion or offer practical advice as we do in Living Sober, the only AA-approved literature that doesn’t mention god at all. I, like many agnostic members, share my atheism by simply never referring to a higher power at all. I keep my talking points to a very simple free-of-nonsense identification with the speaker, which goes something like: I can’t drink normally or safely I had no hope I came into AA I started helping make the coffee it gave me self-esteem I started to live each day without drinking which seemed impossible and now my life is changed for the better.

But mostly, at traditional meetings I just stay quiet as do a lot of my non-believing brothers and sisters. We can talk and listen freely at the few meetings Intergroup lists as “agnostic.” In New York City alone there is now at least one in every borough. There are also the meetings that Intergroup has just started to list—humanist meetings, freethinkers meetings—some still need to stay a secret society within what is supposed to already be a secret society. This is New York City I’m talking about. There are too many states with no agnostic meetings, and god and how the General Service Office (GSO) wants us to understand “him” is the only reason why.

What happens to this non-believer when I travel or I have to leave a group that I can be myself in? I shut down. There was a brief period where I would argue, but that all changed when I started going to my agnostic meeting and the closing refrain of “live and let live” started to loop in my head. It is only in agnostic meetings that this simple wisdom, this simple message of love and tolerance, is used in lieu of a “prayer.”

Roger C., the manager of (, was part of the Toronto group that got “booted out” of Intergroup for using secular steps. He reminded me of what AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson wrote on page 81 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age—that “these steps are suggestion only.” Roger started his own meeting in an area in Hamilton that was much more accepting.

“The idea that we take a book written in 1939 as gospel (pun intended) has got to go,” Roger C. says in reference to the book Alcoholics Anonymous. “I won’t force my beliefs on the newcomer and neither should anyone else. I know people that are dead because they couldn’t stand the traditional meetings.”

Is there hope for change?

He told me that despite the fact that the secular movement really had to “push” the GSO to publish this issue of the Grapevine, it’s a good step. Since the Grapevine’s start in 1944, they have published a total of 44 stories by atheists and agnostics, the first being in 1962. Roger told me that the Grapevine and AA General Service are compiling all those stories and finally releasing a book called Atheists and Agnostics in AA in 2017. He’s also very enthusiastic about the upcoming convention in Austin, Texas next month. “Change will happen, but not quickly.” After all, the Lord’s Prayer is still commonly used to end meetings and that is something that makes me just want to leave AA altogether. I have to remind myself that I’m here to help another and that while my truth may be unpopular, it is mine, and one doesn’t have to believe in god to be sober. Roger puts it simply, “The continuing use of the Lord’s Prayer in a group that tries to tell people it’s ‘spiritual not religious’ is why words like ‘hypocrisy’ were invented.”

I asked two traditional meeting makers and an agnostic meeting maker about the Grapevine cover story. John S., who takes the traditional approach and identifies himself as a Christian says, ”I really don’t think atheism is any problem at all in AA. It seems to me that the foundation of the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions is a desire to adopt a set of principles and live by them instead of clinging to ego (self will run riot). Reliance on a concept of God may make that easier for some people because it gives them something seemingly concrete to surrender to. But it can make it harder—maybe even impossible —for others if they are told that a God concept is essential. And I just don’t see that it is… If a person is simply willing to focus on the principle embodied in each step (e.g. powerlessness, humility, acceptance, etc.), the fact that God isn’t part of the equation really isn’t important—so long as they don’t think they are the center of the universe and everyone else revolves around them, their wants, their needs, their desires.

Almost every prayer in the Big Book and the 12/12 (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) works just as well if you simply take the word God out if it. The best example is the St. Francis Prayer. The principles embodied there are purely secular. For example, a person might very well want to live a life in which he consoles others rather than seeks to be consoled. That person has an ‘other- focus’ rather than a ‘me-focus,’ and that’s all the spirituality that matters. As long as the person believes that he is part of something bigger than himself or herself, spirituality— or ‘connectedness’ if you prefer that term—is possible.

I have come to believe that reliance on a rigid religious conception of God might, in fact, be an impediment to recovery because it can get in the way of that type of connectedness/spirituality. Although my sample size is not large, I have found it much easier to work the steps and traditions with non-believers than with those who come from a strong religious background.”

Vic L., an agnostic, says, “The article was a step in the right direction. For the past few years I have, by and large, restricted myself to agnostic meetings (because luckily I live in New York City where we have 16 agnostic meetings). I just don’t want to listen to others’ religious beliefs. It’s not the end of the world, but I’d rather not have to go through that. By the way, I feel the same way about people expressing their NON-beliefs at agnostic meetings! As with politicians, it is certainly permissible for ALL attendees at ALL AA meetings to share anything they want. I just feel that it’s in poor taste. As the moderator of the “What Is WAAFT” panel, I look forward to discussing this and other matters at the convention in Austin.”

Jenn W. found her sponsor by hearing her speak on how she changed the patriarchal god of the literature. “What initially attracted me to my sponsor was hearing her share at a Big Book meeting with criticism of a section of the literature that can be particularly harmful to any members who’ve experienced childhood or sexual abuse. A lot of my story revolves around using drugs and alcohol to cope with various forms of abuse because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to have a voice, so hearing her share candidly like that was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. When reading the literature with my sponsor, we change ‘Him’ to ‘Her’ and ‘He’ to ‘She,’ and in doing so I definitely feel more connected to the message and to the concept of a higher power. In literature meetings, I make sure to share about this, and about certain other sections of the book that I find problematic as a woman in the program, because I want female and female-identifying newcomers to know that they are allowed to have a voice, that there is a place for them in this program.”

I am hopeful that this month’s AA Grapevine will be a strong start to major change and acceptance. The pieces on the theme of non-belief are surprisingly practical. No bait- and-switch, as is often the case when it comes to GSO AA literature. There is no “come to Jesus” moment stuff. There are interesting and intelligent approaches to the steps. Mostly the stories feel true and void of the usual nonsense that the literature is filled with. It’s nice to feel like I can help because I want to. Knowing that down and dirty, low bottom recovering drunks like myself get sober without the hocus pocus of a supernatural being is my truth. If it’s yours too, then that’s what you need to share.

Live and let live.