Square Pegs – Atheists, Agnostics and AA

It’s unfortunate to begin an article with a caveat, but I think it may be a good idea.

Concerning religion, spirituality, personal philosophy toward recovery that involves faith in the supernatural, or whatever you choose to call it: this writing doesn’t exist to insult or degrade or detract from anyone’s personal belief systems. Discussion of agnostics and atheists in Alcoholics Anonymous is not, and should not be, a threat to your program.

This writing exists because so often we hear from newcomers that they don’t believe and that they can’t possibly resolve participation in AA with that lack of belief. Someone will walk into a room and read the steps, noting how often the word God or the importance of confession and reconciliation are mentioned. It’s easy to understand why people think this is a religious program.

The more annoying among critics will often even call AA a cult. A fringe belief this is not. That doesn’t mean these people are correct, but it does mean that we need to be honest with people who are new to the program how religion and spirituality factor into their adherence and progress. In the past, there have been very public instances of specific AA groups who operated in such a fashion, but it’s important to note that they were the exception rather than the rule.

I’d hope that we can all agree that welcoming everyone into the program – and leaving the only requirement for membership as a desire to stop drinking – is one of the most important things we can do. And I’d also hope we could agree that the newcomer is the most important person in the room. This is an article for the newcomer.

When people talk about AA, it’s said to be spiritual, not religious, but in my experience (I will repeat that, in my experience) it’s only the religious who tend to say it’s spiritual; mostly everyone else thinks it’s religious, and some to the point of extreme belief. I am not a religious person, but I am confident in stating that I believe AA – as written – is an inherently religious program. That doesn’t mean you have to practice the program in a religious manner. A dollar bill has “In God We Trust” written on it, but I doubt anyone has given up using money because of the connotation.

The history of 12 step programs bears this out; Buchanan’s Oxford Group introduced the 12 step premise, and any argument that they weren’t religious fundamentalists is foolish. This, however, is a fact of history. It is not a fact of what AA is in the present. The unicycle was based on the wheel, but they serve different purposes (though I would argue a unicycle serves absolutely no purpose).

It’s important to address the religious history of AA, because ignoring it or marginalizing it or attempting to obfuscate it is an exercise in deception. From the Big Book itself, we’re told to avoid the topic of religion with newer members because we “.. might prejudice them. At the moment we are trying to put our lives in order. But this is not an end in itself. Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.”

Again, I’ve introduced something that some may consider to be controversial, but if you’re noticing the pattern here, I’m going to try to make this palatable for the atheist or agnostic who wishes to join our program. There are two important things to consider about that quote: first among them, it was written in the 1930s. Discussion of religion was common.

The second thing to note is that it does state an intent to be of service to God, but also “the people about us.” Is there anything inherently wrong with being of service to the “people about us?” Leaving aside the religious component of the statement, it simply stresses the need for an altruistic goal – hardly controversial.

There are, of course, several other examples of overtly religious behavior in the history of AA. The same could be said of any organization. AA is an organization comprised of by people from all races, creeds and colors. No one meeting is the same, and though general directives are issued from a central office, AA is relatively free of the normal bureaucracy of an organization its size would endure.

There have been meetings in the past whose religious behavior (or, in some cases, quite the opposite) have made national news. Often these cases resulted from the people within those groups distorting the true message of the program to suit their own needs. There have been cases in past where even the United Nations became involved in certain groups’ refusal to accommodate religious freedom.

It’s quite easy, but very cheap, to snipe at AA in this manner; how easy would it be to do the same to PETA or the NFL? Large organizations do have problems from time to time, but in the case of AA these were not systemic problems, nor were they representative of the organization as a whole.

Where does that leave us? Do atheists and agnostics have to make the program work for them? In some ways, yes. Everyone who participates has to find a personal way to make the program work for them. Religion, or lack thereof, is simply another component where the member must decide to “take what you need, and leave the rest.”

With all of that said, are atheists and agnostics thereby forced to work a second-tier version of the program, interjecting semantic corrections as needed when confronted with text and speech that is objectively religious? I don’t personally think so. I recognize the religious words and notions that come up in the course of any given meeting for what they are: someone else’s beliefs.

I have my own belief: if I want to find a way to have a fulfilling and joyous life free from addiction to alcohol, I’m going to have to work this program. I don’t need to believe anything else.


  1. ✝️ Keith F

    Interesting and valid points here. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I can’t help but grapple with the exclusive claims of Christianity as compared to the inclusive nature of AA. The third tradition states that the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. This is not the case for faith in Jesus Christ as the son of God. His claims that He is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the father except through him are unavoidably exclusive. The only requirement for membership in God’s Kingdom through Christ then is faith in him alone. This makes the higher power concept null and void apart from Christ for the Christian. So how do I reconcile these two competing statements of purpose with each other being a Christ follower and a member of AA? And how do I not alienate anyone who does not believe that Jesus was and is the savior of the world and the son of the living God? I guess I don’t. And that makes for an uneasy conversation with the “nonbeliever” in these rooms. It is impossible to avoid offending another person’s sensibilities while accepting and proclaiming belief in Jesus Christ. At the same time, if his claims are indeed true, than where would I be if I didn’t acknowledge or even give credit to the one who God sent to die for my sins? This, of course, assumes that I am a sinner separated from God in need of saving. That is really the question then that needs to be answered. Am I able or sufficient within myself to rise above my human condition? And if I don’t need a savior is there even a human condition to begin with? What really is the point in a higher power or a program that relieves alcoholism if there is no such thing as sin or separation from God. If sin or moral depravity are just human constructs than selfishness and hurting others must be social constructs as well. As it says in the Big Book, “were our contentions true, it would follow that life originated out of nothing, means nothing, and precedes nowhere.” But the reality is that AA is inclusive and the higher power concept wide open to interpretation. My personal belief is that it is intentionally so because we do acknowledge a need for saving and that we all need to start somewhere other than ourself.. It is no surprise to members that AA honors the third tradition while simultaneously proclaiming that “no human power could alleve us of our alcoholism and that God would and could if he were sought”. If, indeed, we agree with our own moral ineptitude than we also must agree that there is a higher purpose. Furthermore, ineptitude necessitates and demands the need of a savior. That being said, it comes down to an openness and willingness to be wrong and acknowledging that a loving a God did provide a way for us to reconcile with him and others. Does this mean that most are working a second tier system of recovery if they do not accept that Jesus did die for their sins? That is a big pill to swallow. I believe that God will be found if he is sought. But most follow the path of “contempt prior to investigation” in this regard. Religion gets a bad rap and rightly so. Many innocent lives have been lost in the name of religion for reasons set up by humans to justify unspeakable acts in the name of God throughout history. But what if religion and a reconciled relationship with God are not synonymous? What if there are no righteous requirements to complete to be made right with a creator? Faith then, without any other requirements, is enough. Faith then, like AA is all inclusive and is how the most stubborn among us make a start toward finding God. It is, in my humble opinion, enough for God to then do the rest if we are just open to the possibility that we are wrong.

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