Atheism and Alcoholics Anonymous

**Disclaimer: Every AA group is different. Every AA meeting is different. Every person’s experience of those meetings is different. What follows are my reflections of the patterns and themes that I see in the part of the world I’ve been going to meetings.**

I’ve been to a number of different gatherings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I’m still having a difficult time with the “higher power” concept, and the frequent prayers, and the nearly constant talk of God in some meetings.

Now, to be clear, no one is telling me what to believe when it comes to God or a higher power. But many are clear that belief in a higher power is required when working the steps. And although I have essentially chosen “community” as my higher power, there are a number of places where the Christian history is just too thick to cut through. Its kinda hard to explain, so let me try to illustrate with a metaphor.

Imagine AA is a method for teaching people how to cook. There are a couple of canonical books that were written 50+ years ago, and everyone loves the recipes therein. And also imagine that AA meetings are potluck dinners where people share the dishes they’ve made from these recipes. Maybe they’ve reinterpreted the recipes, or given them their own flair. Some meetings will make one recipe a week (everyone makes the same thing, and talks about what it was like to make the recipe), whereas other meetings will have dishes from a lot of different recipes.

Now, lets say you’re a vegetarian. No problem, everyone says. We won’t make you eat meat. You can substitute any protein you like in the recipes.

One meeting is all about Chicken Parmesan, and the standard refrain is that you can eat just the cheese and the tomato sauce. Just put the chicken aside. The omnivores in the crowd don’t seem to understand that the whole dish has chicken throughout, and you can’t just pick it out.

Or another meeting is about tacos. Some people bring beef, others chicken, and you can bring beans. That recipe works OK without using meat. Some people might point out that beans have protein, and meat has protein, so, they’re pretty much the same, right?

And the strangest part about some potlucks is that they start with a shrimp appetizer, and end with a ceremonial jello toast. So you just stand there, politely waiting for them to finish. The shrimp appetizer is in the canonical cookbook, but the jello isn’t which seems a little weird. But hey, we live in a jello-eating culture, so what’s so bad about it? Many people don’t even realize that vegetarians don’t eat jello.

As an atheist in these meetings I do my best to, as the frequent refrain goes, take what I like and leave the rest. The biggest problem is that in many of the texts atheists and agnostics are treated like lost souls, or children who haven’t quite grown up yet. Consider this excerpt from chapter 4 of the big book, which seems intended to welcome non-believers:

We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.

Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him.

See what they did there? The author seems to think that atheism is born of prejudice, rather than a logically considered and carefully examined viewpoint. They also couldn’t “fully define or comprehend” this thing, but they’re unequivocal in calling it God. And despite what people say about “you can define your higher power as anything you want,” the chapter meant to bring non-believers into the fold specifically says that you’ll have to be willing to believe in a monotheistic deity to reap the benefits of the program. The whole chapter feels like it was written by someone who thought they understood non-believers but was actually a believer themselves.

A passage from the frequently-read how it works also makes no bones about the requirement to believe in a mono-theistic deity:

Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power—that One is God. May you find Him
Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.

Again, despite frequent exclamations that your “higher power” can be anything you want, it is frequently referred to as a) an individual thing, b) that is male, c) that listens to prayers, d) responds to supplications for assistance, and e) is omnipotent. Sure, I can define my “higher power” as “a community of people who support me in my recovery”, but I have to do some mental gymnastics at every meeting to either ignore or translate the readings.

Fortunately, there are some openly secular AA meetings, but they may be hard to find. My local AA service organization has a nice directory of meetings all over town. They even make it easy to search for GLBT-friendly meetings, men-only meetings, women-only meetings, in addition to those offering baby-sitting, and wheel-chair access. But there isn’t a way to search for or filter secular meetings in the listings. I’ve sent a message to the group asking them to add that in, hopefully making it easier for people in my area to find secular meetings.