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.