He stopped believing in God—and started believing in the life AA had given him
I got sober in AA in June 1987 and have remained sober ever since. Before coming to AA, I didn’t think much about God, except that I knew I did not believe in the Christian God. When I first came to AA, I was afraid my uncertainty about God would prevent me from staying sober. My first sponsor was a devout Christian but told me to not worry about it: “As long as you don’t think you’re God”. I have always remembered that because that is exactly what I thought when I was drinking.
During the early years of my sobriety, I investigated a number of religions and Christian denominations, but none of them ever felt right. I always found the more I followed a particular set of religious practices, the more confused I felt about God. After the first year or two of sobriety I stopped praying because I never felt any different when I did. Because I did not pray, or regularly attend church, my spiritual life wasn’t similar to most other peoples’ in the program, and I often thought I must be doing something wrong. The longer I stayed sober, though, the less I worried about not knowing exactly what God meant to me because what I was doing in AA worked. I stayed sober and every aspect of my life – work, family, personal relationships – improved. My belief in God settled into a vague belief in karma, thinking that what goes around comes around.
For the next 23 years I would always say at meetings that I believed in God, but wasn’t sure exactly who or what God was. I nevertheless strove to practice the AA principles in all my affairs. Specifically, I tried to:
• Always tell the truth.
• Treat others as I wanted others to treat me.
• Admit my mistakes promptly.
• Make amends when I did something wrong.
• Perform service work, both in and out of AA.
• Remember I was not God.
All of these practices come directly from the Big Book, working the Twelve Steps and attending meetings. I never questioned my belief in God because I was afraid I might get drunk if I did. At the same time, I increasingly felt like a hypocrite at meetings. I said I believed in God but did not really have a sense of God in my life. Finally, in early 2010, I felt safe enough in my sobriety, and troubled enough by my hypocrisy to begin really questioning whether God exists. With a little study, I soon realized that in fact I was an atheist and no longer believed in a supernatural God. The people in Alcoholics Anonymous were my higher power. I still believe that what goes around comes around but now attribute it to my good and bad actions rather than some kind of cosmic law.
After deciding I was an atheist, I continued to go to meetings. When Step 2 was discussed I talked about becoming an atheist after more than 20 years of sobriety. People always looked away when I said this, and no one ever smiled and nodded as people do when they identify with what you’re saying. This made talking about my atheism at meetings difficult. However, the discomfort was worth it when Alan, a newcomer, approached me after one of these meetings and said he was also an atheist and unsure AA could work for him if he did not believe in God. He was encouraged by my story and I’m happy to say I still see him at meetings and he’s still sober.
After hearing from Alan, I began to wonder if others like him were scared away from AA without giving it a chance, and whether I could do anything to help them. I regularly attend a conference in my area and last March I offered to lead a workshop on being atheist or agnostic in AA. I was hoping five or six people might attend. Instead, more than 20 people came. Virtually all of them said they did not believe in God and had really struggled to find a way to work the Twelve Steps without betraying deeply held convictions.
One of the people at the workshop said there really ought to be a meeting for atheists and agnostics in AA. The conference is in a large metropolitan area, but there are no meetings specifically for atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers. After the workshop, we collected names of people who might be interested in starting a meeting, and in May a group of us started “Sober Atheists and Agnostics”.
The meeting opens with a moment of silence for the still suffering alcoholic and closes with the Responsibility Pledge. In every other way it is a typical closed AA meeting. We read the Preamble, “How it Works” and the Promises exactly as written and the group is registered with AA World Services. The biggest difference between “Sober Atheists and Agnostics” and other AA meetings I have attended is no one looks away or acts uncomfortable if someone says he or she is an atheist or has doubts about God. Admitting to being an atheist or agnostic is just not a big deal.
Helping to start an AA meeting for atheists and agnostics is the best AA experience I have had in years. I feel more connected to AA than I have in a long time and feel I am helping other alcoholics who might otherwise never get sober in AA. I’ve now been sober over 30 years and I am happy and grateful that, instead of getting drunk when I stopped believing in God, it has renewed my faith in AA.