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AA Doesn't Work For Atheists/Agnostics

I recently decided that, after twenty years of heavy, almost daily drinking, and an incident that nearly cost me everything, I needed to quit my unhealthy ways and get sober for the first time in my entire adult life.  Though I had quit drinking for brief periods before, never had I approached the subject of quitting for good with any real sense of urgency or resolve;  only recently has it become evident that for me, continuing to drink will eventually prove fatal.  I had of course heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, and decided to give the program a try.  What did I have to lose?

I attended about three meetings with the same group in the beginning, not really understanding much of the colloquialisms bandied about or the inside references, but still desperate enough to stick around until I "got" it.  I identify as Atheist, and said as much in one of my first meetings in response to the frequent use of the words "God" and "Higher Power", but was assured that the "fellowship" was not a religious organization, and that the only requirement for membership was a desire to stop drinking.  Then, on the third meeting, the group addressed the Second Step, and I realized just how smugly and condescendingly AA treats the nonbeliever.

I was told that Atheists such as myself just Loooooved to shout about all the atrocities committed in the name of God, because in braying about said atrocities, Atheists such as myself could deflect attention away from our own moral shortcomings.  (WTF?  Atrocities AREN'T being committed by religious zealots right now, as we speak, all over the planet?  Atheists like me just mention them for the pleasure and satisfaction it gives us to point these travesties and injustices and brutalities out?)  I was told that Atheists like me are doomed because of our reverence for science above spirituality, and that my own best thinking landed me in the predictament I'm presently in.  (Hello?  First of all, when I want to avoid influenza or tetanus, I get inoculated accordingly.  I don't pray to God I don't contract either.  Secondly, I understand that I have NOT been using the "best" of my thinking where it regards my drinking.  I came to the group to get some help with that, thanks.)  I was told my lack of willingness to give my will and even LIFE over to the control of a Higher Power was insanity defined.  Which is pretty funny, when you consider that the same folks who believe that some Jew who got nailed to a 2'x4' 2000 years ago is actively micromanaging every aspect of their lives are also the ones claiming perfect sanity.  Go figure.

I left that particular group, and sat in on about two dozen more meetings over half a dozen different groups.  It was all the same message, just coming out of different faces.  What finally tore it for me was being told that I didn't have to believe in a Higher Power right NOW, but that one WOULD come to me eventually, as if that was a foregone conclusion...  as if my lack of belief is some cute little rebellious phase I'm going through and not something which I have carefully considered and feel as just as genuinely as the most devout of wide-eyed believers their own theistic convictions.

  Particularly galling is the (paraphrased) passage in the Second Step where some jackass smugly states that he knew someone who used to be the vice president of the American Atheist Society, who used to feel the same way I did, who converted(!!!eleventy11!)  Meaning what, exactly?  A better and more storied Atheist than me became a believer, so by extension, I should easilly be able to do the same?  Again, WTF?  I suggested to the group that if I were to make a similar statement with the roles reversed;  that I used to know a Baptist minister who wisely converted to Satanism or something and now leads a happy, hedonistic, free lifestyle without guilt or shame, that they would be incensed.   And they were.  And how.

I can understand why the Big Book reads like it does.  It's 74 years old, and like its' authors, is a product of its' times.  But this is 2009.  We know a lot more about the nature of alcoholism and other addictions than we did at the close of the Depression, as medical disorders, not moral failings.  Any present-day doctor who treated his or her patients with circa-1930's technology would be ******** of their license posthaste, and rightfully so.  Come to think of it, so would any doctor who advised said patient to "pray to God" for their healing.  Or any doctor who took a "one-size-fits-all" approach to medicine, period.

Right now I'm attending virtual meetings online with members of AAAA (Atheists/Agnostics in AA), as no such groups exist in my small, Bible-belt southern city of residence.  And the AA model does work beautifully, once all the childish superstitions, the learned helplessness and powerlessness, and the religious bigotry has been sieved out.  Contrary to what AA says, nonbelievers can and do get healthy and whole again without divine intervention:  AA in the traditional sense does not offer a wide enough umbrella for all faiths, or lack thereof. 

RedRover RedRover 36-40, F 56 Responses Jun 15, 2009

Your Response


There are many agnostic/atheist/free thinker AA meetings. I have been sober in AA for 26 years and 364 days today. AA does not state that nonbelievers cannot get sober. Bill Wilson noted that we have been there since the beginning, and were the reason behind the "as you understand him" language. Check out We had a convention last October -- it was a blast!

I guess is doesn't surprise me that atheists think they're smarter than the principles of the12-steps. After all, alcoholism is a spiritual disease. It's all stinkin thinkin from people who are diseased enough to think they know it all - but don't.

I am sure you believe that your comment is calm, reasoned, logical, and mature.
Let me tell you a secret.

It is none of those things and does nothing to develop the debate

It varies from area to area, but NA is generally more open atheists. The basic text is less old-fashioned than the big book, and the new Living Clean book has a great section about recovery in NA for atheists. There is no way I could tolerate AA in small southern town. One of the greatest gifts of recovery getting to live in reality. Deluding yourself with notions of an deity is just another form of delusional addict thinking. Reality, honestly, open-mindedness, willingness, and a phone full of numbers is higher power enough for me.

I'm not an atheist or agnostic, my "problem" with A.A. came after I sincerely did the steps as described in the Big Book as a lot of the fellowship were caught up in behaviors I wanted nothing to do with. Mostly having to do with hookers and sex in general, besides which I owed it to myself to be a part of the human race and enjoy a life outside A.A. and after the experience I had with the steps I no longer believed in the "Group Of Drunks" belief or the A.A. belief system in general and had better things to do with my time than get caught up in all the egos and posturing at meetings. Putting me first canceled out the 12th step automatically. I have since fired A.A. as a higher power and thrown out the Big Book like one having no use for a guru anymore.

I am also a recovering alcoholic. When I started I was a Christian and AA did not sit well with me, because I saw a person in AA make up their own God to satisfy the 12 steps. I'm 6 months sober now and no longer believe in God for a few reasons. The point I would like to make , as someone who has seen both sides is that the anger in your writing, and the way that you scrutinize the beliefs of the religious. Is the same as the way AA treats Atheist.

You make a good point, dontknow. I came into the program as an atheist, but now consider myself agnostic. Atheist's seem to believe all organized religion is harmful. But in AA, I have seen how a belief in god has helped many stay sober. How can you deny that? However, the program is not really accepting of anything outside of the Christian faith. The SAY any higher power will work, but I feel those are only words. As if a substitute for god is temporary, while you wait for the miracle.

I am curious about your change in beliefs.

Good for you for sticking to your program of recovery. I respect you for sharing this.

Hi Guys,
Been a Heavy addict myself...It's been 5 years now since I am sober and given up completely... I really wish to help others come out of their addictions be it atheist or non-atheist...What Really helped me was Yoga...The Dependency on Substance abuse was completely removed..I found that in just 3 Months of Regular Practice I was able to keep off...please try googling for sudarshan kriya..its a yogic breathing changed my life...I had been a source of misery for myself and my loved ones..but all that changed once the addictions were I am here to say that freedom from addiction is here to cure one completely...i realized that this breathing technique has already helped millions of people around the world and is now medically proven to reduce dependency on substance abuse ...I hope the same for you guys as well...believe me there wont be any relapses...Take care

I was doing pretty good on my own, but recently relapsed and decided I could make good use of the meetings, as my community is quite small at the moment. I am running into the same problem you speak of. There are tons of meetings, but none catering to the atheist community. I live in Madison, WI, home to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, alas, no luck. I went to 2 meetings about 19-20 years ago. I couldn't take al the godspeak while trying to speak freely. I could really relate when you spoke of the 'cute' aspect of atheism. It is exactly like that. Very condescending, as if they know something you don't. It makes my skin crawl, and not at all welcoming. Anyway, thank you. It was a bit relieving to read.

I so enjoyed your story. It was so eloquently written and very thought provoking. I am a year sober, but unlike you, I DID lose everything first.. I'm glad you got the message before that happened with you. I've been to meetings over this past year but I feel out of place and wonder "where is MY pink cloud?" that I keep hearing about... Take care..

Very glad to hear you have stayed sober for a year.

Whatever group it is, the group's purpose is very simple: to be of some assistance in helping every member stay sober.

Thus, everyone takes something different out of every single meeting. The pink cloud is that you have been sober for one year.

When you get those feelings of being out of place, focus on the positive benefits you have got and still get from the group.

And hang in there.

I was an AL ANON e read that the program fits for all. I said in many meetings that I'm Atheist anda my Higher Power was the program. But the groups (mine and others that I visited) didn't respected my convictions. They said that everyone could be Al ALANON, including Atheist, but it wasn't true. Finally they treat me like a difficult case. I felt sad and alone. My husband didn't go back to AA meetings and I don't see him since 2011, november, when he appeared in a AL ALANON meeting after drinking all night. I asked Divorce and it broke my heart. I loved him so much but I couldn't accept live with a monster (when he drinks he becomes a monster). I must respect myself, but it really broke my heart. Forgive me for my terrible English.

Sorry for my bad English, but I loved your text and I need to talk with someone that thinks like me. I was an ALANON member. I attended meetings for one year and three months and I worked for them.
I decided to try the program because I discovered that my beloved husband (the person that I most loved in all the world) was an alcoholic and AA member during 18 years. We married in 2006 and before decide to accept to marry him I asked if he had problems with drugs or alcool because my first husband had problems with drugs and it resulted in a terrible divorce. He answered what I wanted to hear:" NO". Infortunatly he didn't tell me about AA. In 2010, December, he decided to drink again and I saw a monster beside me.
I went to AL ANON because I read that it was for Atheist too. I'm Atheist. But I discovered that it is not true. They treat me exactly as you said: as if it is a kind of mental illness or phase (forgive my poor English, please). I felt that is was not for me because they talk all the time about God and Higher Power. I attended meeting in many groups and cities and all were the same. That is no place to me there. I loved the program but without God or Higher Power. Congratulations! Sylvia (Brazil) - I was the same...until we made a new place for us.

AA doesn't work for everyone, and it is clearly stated on the Big Book that it is not the only method. As for you being an atheist, that's your decision, but for an atheist you seem to have a set opinion of organized religion. You speak about Jesus, and in AA there is NO talk about jesus. They talk of a higher power, who many call God, but the God of your understanding, not some religious god.
AA isn't for everyone, and doesn't claim to be. But if you have tried everything else and still couldn't stay sober, then AA is there.
I'm sorry the group you attended was so condescending towards you and your beliefs. Every AA group has the right to run their meetings the way they choose, and many so called AA groups do more damage than good. It is unfortunate, that's why there are traditions to follow and many groups do. There is a huge difference between the "program of AA" and the "fellowship of AA" and unfortunately, you happened upon a group that appears to be more about fellowship than the program.
I've been sober almost 18 years now, thanks to the program of AA and the 12 steps and traditions.
You are absolutely correct, AA isn't for everyone.
It really does require one to be honest, open minded and willing. There is NOTHING about doctors or drugs or any other form of medicine in the program, that is left to outside entities, where it belongs. AA does work, if you do the work. One doesn't get sober by assmosis.
I personally know scores of people from many many forms of religious beliefs and non religious beliefs (agnostic) that have been completely successful in AA, because they did the work. One doesn't have to believe in God to get it, God can be "group of drunks, good orderly direction, anything you want it to be" but it does require an open mind, some willingness and a desire to change. Nothing changes if nothing changes.
Every 12 step group in the world, including the one you joined online, AAAA, is based on the original 12 steps of AA. Like everything else, when some people don't agree to the program being offered, and it doesn't work for them because they don't want to do the work, they modify it and adapt it to for themselves. If it works for you, "our hats are off to you". Whatever it takes for you to be sober is fine.
I wish you the very best in your endeavor to stay sober, and I pray to my higher power for you to be successful. Alcoholism is a subtle foe, and has taken down many a person, I hope you are not one that looses the battle.

AA didn't work for me either for various reasons. I'm not good with dogma, slogans, etc. I'm not a follower. I'm an independent, free-thinker and free-spirit. I found at one point I was really good at delivering the message that they fed me without really believe it just to fit in and then I would relapse. I eventually did obtain sobriety but it was independent from AA. I developed my own program that seems to work for me. And to think all those times that i was told that if I didn't attend AA I would die!!! That AA was the only way to recovery!

I just read "An Atheists Twelve Steps To Self Improvement" by:Vince Hawkins, If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it! I have been going to meetings off and on for the past 8 or so years, and have always relapsed, because I usually stop at step 2. I am an atheist, and that is something that will not change. But Vince puts everything into a great, non religious, perspective. He has his own definitions of prayer, spirituality, and finding a higher power. He goes as far as to say, atheists like ourselves need tangible evidence for anything, especially something that can be as life saving as the 12 steps. I personally can go to meetings, leave my personal beliefs (or non beliefs I should say) out of the general discussion. I have many friends in the program that I can talk to about these things, and most actually seem to want to learn from me! They see me as stronger in my recovery due to my lack of dependence on a god (not trying to sound self righteous here). I am glad I have discovered a way of working the 12 steps in a secular way, because they are a great way to live a better life

I am with you on some of the things I don't like about AA. There are SMART meetings in person and on line that I like. There is also something call mindful recovery which hits home for me too. MBRP or mindfulness based relapse prevention. You can Google these there's a lot of info out there on the net. And if you need to vent there's always EP.

I came here looking for a group of people who have LEFT AA. But for those of you who asked, here is a link to anonymous online meetings. I also had a problem with all the religious stuff in AA. And after really reading the steps, I remarked at a meeting once that it would be impossible for an atheist to succeed with the AA program. I was told that I was "judgemental and practicing discrimination"! :-o Uh...ok. But the steps CLEARLY require a person to give over his/her life to GOD. And if a person is absolutely convinced there IS no God, then it only follows that this program would not be appropriate.

One only needs a higher power, and by that you only need to realize that you are not the center of the universe! by the sound of your post, this program isn't appropriate for you, it's about helping others, and realizing it's not all about us, maybe you should do a bit more research before making such an ignorant claim, thanks

I do not think Ashley's claims are ignorant at all, gnostick66.
I have struggled immensely with AA's idea of a higher power. I know damned well I am not the center of the universe, but I refuse the "door knob" answer. I have been told at countless meetings to "wait for the miracle." I do not believe in god. Yet, I am asked to say prayers at every meeting.

I am an alcoholic. I have seen actual photos of how my brain reacts to alcohol. I can pray all day, but that will not change facts. Do I want to be sober? You bet. But some of us don't think praying is the answer.

It isn't impossible for an atheist to succeed, it just takes a little bit of open mindedness, I am an atheist, I don't believe in god. If you are going to meetings that are actually following the ideas of AA, you have a choice to say prayers or not! I would recommend reading anything written by Vince Hawkins, He puts it in to perspective very well. I refuse to have a sponsor at the moment, because I know, they will not understand my atheist beliefs, and the book I just read "An Atheists Twelve Steps To Self Improvement" has helped a lot as a supplement to the meetings I attend. There is a different version of the twelve steps, the secular version, that removes the higher power and god aspect...Seriously, after reading this book, I didn't find god, but I have a much better understanding of how to work a secular program from an author that obviously knows what it's like! He still uses the terms spirituality and prayer, but explains a different way of thinking about them! If you are serious about a program, you can make it work. Good Luck

Here you will find a lot of useful information, this book has completely changed my program!! Not trying to be preachy, but I am really excited about sharing this with other atheists in recovery!

I really appreciate the reading suggestions. I am not totally dissing AA. You will not find a better support system anywhere. And for now, those people are my "higher power." I stand and hold hands with them at the end of each meeting, but do not say the prayer.

I completely understand, I don't say the prayer either...and I leave god out of the serenity prayer. I say the rest of it as a reminder that I am not in control of everything.

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I have never been a religious person either and im still not, but i still go to meetings. Like you though, i to didnt really understand everything at first, but i kept going, and one day i got it! I felt that higher power!! and im still not talking about god! AA taught me that by being a better person, and following the steps throughout my own life, I could acheive that "higher power" I just "feel" like a different person now, and the more good that i do the more i feel the higher power! Its satisfaction, love and happiness and its a powerful feeling :)

This story is fantastic. But damn it, RedRover, where are you? I would love to talk, but see you haven't been around for awhile. :-(

Such bravery to state you are an Atheist at your first meetings! I can just imagine the faces in the room. I am also frustrated with the idea that being a non- believer is some "rebellious phase.". I have been told that I think I am "too smart for the program." Huh?
The only way to survive alcoholism is to surrender my life and will to God. And if you don't believe in God, you can make ANYTHING your Higher Power...even a doorknob. Yes, I was told that I could, and should, surrender my power to a doorknob. Just believe! Sure. And cancer patients are meeting at Home Depot now, Aisle 9.

Anyway, I would never in a million years discourage anyone from going to AA. You cannot find another support system so readily available 7 days a week. And it is free. I have met some amazing people in the rooms. And that is what I need. So for now, when they say "God" .....
.... I say "Group Of Drunks."

Thanks for sharing, RedRover ;-)

God works for me personally as part of the equation--however, I have trouble with the whole 12-step approach and its dogmatism/brainwashing. I'm a believer but I hate the schematic, pseudo-scriptural way things are laid out. I have no interest in apologizing to people I may have hurt 25 years ago, for example. I'm sure they have forgotten about it long ago and are glad to be rid of me if we are no longer in touch (through Facebook!). I also have no desire to latch on to some "sponsor." I just have never encountered anyone I would want to have "in my face" over personal matters. I'd rather talk to God about many issues than some artificially-selected stranger.

As with any group, you have to assimilate what holds true for you, contribute as much as you can, and remember that basically you are on your own. You are responsible for your own sobriety, whatever that entails. I have learned quite a lot about staying sober from AA. Another group that could help those who object to God-talk is SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety). Just Google it to find links.

is there a link for an agnostic/ atheist AA meeting online?

I was a diligent atheist for years. I really have no idea what "god" is, but I just stay open to the idea that some how I am part of something greater than myself. That's it, I don't complicate it.

Thanks Red. I just came from a speaker meeting at the close of which the speaker identified himself as an atheist. Sour looks around the room, of course, attended that disclosure, but for me it was a breath of fresh air. The lip service to the non-theist is so patently disingenuous, and the christian theology so

Hiya - Totally understand every word you say. I'm an alcoholic and everything you mentioned above went through my mind also. Also don't believe in god. Especially a religious God. Went to AA but couldn't believe in fairies just cause they said I had too. Hit rock bottom Christmas 2011 and went back to AA. Decided to get a sponser and do the steps. I was told just to believe in something more than myself even if it was just the meeting and the people in the rooms. So I did. I cleaned house. I changed my attitude. Was led to believe the world is not out to get me and that I have to trust other people. I'm not just sober anymore. I'm alive for the first time in many years. My point I suppose is this. We all have different paths to follow. If some people need a god to make them recover thats their path. Follow your own. I'm following mine and its leading to all kinds of awareness and today I am able to cope with life. I certainly couldn't before. Theres absolutely no point in being right is there? I have friends there now and yes - some of them are idiots! But thats life! Embrace it all. Good luck xx

Three year old post, but I'll comment anyway. Also a non-believer, also an atheist. AA was definitely difficult. I don't pray. I don't think of God. I don't particularly like when people try to convince me to. AA people ultimately scare people like us away. We're not doing our program right, we're not letti g ourselves be helped, we're just not DOING it right. Psh. People in AA are crazy anyway. I mean, I get that none of us joined because we were so good at managing our lives, but some of those people are downright crazy. They need shock therapy, not meetings and cheap coffee and big books.<br />
<br />
My sponsor used to make me read the chapter "We Agnostics" every single night before I went to bed. And I did.<br />
<br />
Still left AA.

As you indicate, if you take God out of the equation AA *does* work for atheists and agnostics. <br />
In 2012 in many parts of the US and in London, England, there are a fair number of secular meetings. And loads of other meetings have a decent contingent of atheist and agnostic members who exist in harmony and friendship with the believers.

In Chapter 4, Bill says that atheists and agnostics can never recover.<br />
We know his story: after drinking a quart of rotgut whiskey every day for years, he was back in a hospital ward: a hopeless drunk. They tried a dangerous experimental cure:belladonna. <br />
Bill saw God and never drank again. He then began his mission: an alcoholic's only hope of maintaining sobriety depended upon getting a miracle from God as he did - delivered every morning - but only if you ask him for it "just for today." This Higher Power makes no sense unless that power means God.<br />
Many believe in an invisible diety watching us, listening to our thoughts and providing a daily remission of our incurable illness. I am not superstitious. Science shows that you don't need God to be good. You don't need God to stay sober. You don't have a spiritual affliction. You have an addiction. You can beat it. Your higher power is your Rational Mind. Use it. No pain. No gain.<br />
I've been in AA for twenty years and I love it.

I have been sober for 25 years in AA and I flat out tell them "I came here to stop drinking.. I did not come to sit around these meetings talking about god for the rest of my life. I also let them know if you do now want to listen to me go to any Step 3, 7 or 11 meeting because I won't be there. Luckily, here in Los Angeles, there are Agnostic/Atheist meetings which I started attending at 18 months in. I do believe it is unfair to the newcomer who has to listen to the religiousity, the way I did. If you really want to **** AA off, like I sometimes do, just mention "It is no wonder the success rate hovers around 5%". They will just say nobody knows, but like Charlie Sheen says it surely isn't a level to take bragging rights.<br />
<br />
Spiritual Al<br />
Los Angeles

This question is for the Atheists in AA. The AA Literature describes Atheists as being the worst kind of people. Do you just ignore this? For me it makes me wonder about the mindset of the people who thought up AA.<br />
<br />

After 11 years of A.A. I frequently feel like quitting now. Not that I want to drink, I don't want to hear about god all the time. That's why I'm here. I'm looking for some sanity online. I keep going to meetings because they work for me, and I hope to have the guts or just stop giving a damn to tell people what I really think about their god talk. Namely, I think they're causing great harm to A.A's primary purpose, which is to carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers.<br />
I'll keep looking for that online meeting<br />
THX.<br />
-Andy K.