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Square Pegs – Atheists, Agnostics and AA

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.

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