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Should Atheists
Attend A.A?

Natalia J. Garland

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Atheists are becoming more outspoken in our society. Atheism used to be regarded as a scandalous condition; a secret to be guarded in the recesses of the mind or a disclosure to be made only to the most trusted confidant. Perhaps a few university professors would publicly admit to atheism, or a few young intellectuals (or pseudo-intellectuals), but never the average person. Now that atheism is less stigmatized, it presents a question for alcoholic atheists. Should they attend A.A. meetings? Should atheists convicted of D.U.I. be court-mandated to attend A.A? If an alcoholic does not believe in God or any other deity figure, can the principles of A.A. still have a positive impact on sobriety?

The atheistic objection to A.A. seems to revolve around the development of a concept of a Higher Power, and the turning over of the will to this God of one's understanding. Is there, however, any A.A. objection to the atheist? Let's turn to the pocket-sized book, As Bill Sees It, to understand "The A.A. Way of Life" and particularly the A.A. attitude toward atheists.

When the Big Book was being planned, some members thought that it ought to be Christian in the doctrinal sense. Others had no objection to the use of the word "God," but wanted to avoid doctrinal issues. Spirituality, yes. Religion, no. Still others wanted a psychological book, to lure the alcoholic in. Once in, he could take God or leave Him alone as he wished.

To the rest of us this was shocking, but happily we listened. Our group conscience was at work to construct the most acceptable and effective book possible.

Every voice was playing its appointed part. Our atheists and agnostics widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief. (p. 95)


Provided you hold back nothing in taking the Fifth Step, your sense of relief will mount from minute to minute. The dammed-up emotions of years break out of their confinement, and miraculously vanish as soon as they are exposed. As the pain subsides, a healing and serenity are so combined, something else of great moment is apt to occur.

Many an A.A., once agnostic or atheist, tells us that it was during this stage of Step Five that he first actually felt the presence of God. And even those who already had faith often become conscious of God as they never were before. (p. 126)


Any number of alcoholics are bedeviled by the dire conviction that if ever they go near A.A., they will be pressured to conform to some particular brand of faith or theology.

They just don't realize that faith is never an imperative for A.A. membership; that sobriety can be achieved with an easily acceptable minimum of it, and that our concepts of a Higher Power and God--as we understand Him--afford everyone a nearly unlimited choice of spiritual belief and action. (p. 201)


I have had many experiences with atheists, mostly good. Everybody in A.A. has the right to his own opinion. It is much better to maintain an open and tolerant society than it is to suppress any small disturbances their opinions might occasion. Actually, I don't know of anybody who went off and died of alcoholism because of some atheist's opinions on the cosmos.

But I do always entreat these folks to look to a 'Higher Power'--namely, their own group. When they come in, most of their A.A. group is sober, and they are drunk. Therefore, the group is a 'Higher Power.' That's a good enough start, and most of them do progress from there. I know how they feel, because I was once that way myself. (p. 276)


Every man and woman who has joined A.A. and intends to stick has, without realizing it, made a beginning on Step Three. Isn't it true that, in all matters touching upon alcohol, each of them has decided to turn his or her life over to the care, protection, and guidance of A.A.?

Already a willingness has been achieved to cast out one's own will and one's own ideas about the alcohol problem in favor of those suggested by A.A. Now if this is not turning one's will and life over to a new-found "Providence," then what is it? (p. 328)
[End of quotes.]

From the viewpoint of A.A., there is no objection whatsoever to the inclusion of atheists. In terms of development of a concept of a Higher Power, the A.A. group itself, if only because it is sober and more experienced in coping with the problems of maintaining sobriety, can be regarded as a source of strength and hope. Turning one's will over to the group would mean listening to and accepting suggestions--all a matter of free choice on the part of the atheist. Paradoxically, to become willing to surrender the will is a proper use of the will. That which is turned over to the group (or Higher Power) is the delusion of control over an addictive substance and the insane lifestyle.

Let's turn to a good companion book to the other quoted above: Addiction & Grace. This book is written at a clinical level, suitable for social workers and counsellors.

Psychologically, addiction uses up desire. It is like a psychic malignancy, sucking our life energy into specific obsessions and compulsions, leaving less and less energy available for other people and other pursuits. Spiritually, addiction is a deep-seated form of idolatry. The objects of our addictions become our false gods. These are what we worship, what we attend to, where we give our time and energy, instead of love. Addiction, then, displaces and supplants God's love as the source and object of our deepest true desire.
[End of quote.]

Which came first: the addiction or the atheism? Some alcoholics do not believe in God, or have difficulty believing in the goodness of God, because of childhood abuse and the ravages of their alcoholism. Many alcoholics have lived through years and years of maltreatment and adversity: sexual abuse in childhood, beatings, rape, prostitution, AIDS, alienation from family, infidelity, loss of jobs and finances, homelessness, and failed attempts at sobriety. How can such individuals believe in the Christian's God of boundless love and mercy? Atheism, agnosticism, or simply doubt and confusion, should be regarded as understandable reactions and not as permanent choices.

What is the test of genuine atheism? Nobody can really make the decision for atheism without reflection on both personal fortune and disappointment, experience and observation of the world, study of various religious doctrines, and a conscientious commitment to conducting their activities without reference to God, a deity figure, or idols. It is highly unlikely that an active alcoholic could declare atheism with any clarity of mind. If the decision for atheism was made before the onset of alcoholism, then the possibility of A.A.'s spiritual principles, as tools for sobriety, should still be kept open. Especially as the disease goes into remission (perhaps by the time the alcoholic works Step Five?) and thoughts are more lucid, the recovering alcoholic must consider all options for maintenance of sobriety and a meaningful life. Let's turn again to Addiction & Grace.

In addition, full love for God means we must turn to God over and against other things. If our choice of God is to be made with integrity, we must first have felt other attractions and chosen, painfully, not make them our gods. True love, then, is not only born of freedom, it is also born of difficult choice. A mature and meaningful love must say something like, "I have experienced other goodnesses, and they are beautiful, but it is You, my true heart's desire, whom I choose above all." We have to turn away before we can come home with dignity.
[End of quote.]

The spiritual journey might include a period of unbelief or travel on other paths. A.A. seems to assume that unbelievers will eventually reach a point of minimal belief or a starting point of belief for further growth. However, it must be emphasized that atheist alcoholics are neither rejected nor evangelized. The beauty of A.A.--especially regarding improper use of the will--is that it is a program of suggestion and of reliance on the God of one's understanding. The only requirement is the desire for sobriety. Besides standard resources such as the Big Book and the Twelve Steps, there are many slogans (e.g. a day at a time, easy does it, live and let live) which can be adapted to individual need in order to achieve sobriety.

Atheists should be concerned about the recovery of atheist alcoholics, and not about legal victory over Christianity. If judges cannot mandate atheist D.U.I. offenders to A.A., and if there is no viable atheistic alternative in the locale, then those alcoholics are deprived of full opportunity for sobriety. The goal--and this may be difficult for both atheists and Christians to hear--is sobriety, not the perpetuation of atheism or religion. The decision for spirituality may reinforce maintenance of sobriety and deepen the meaning of life, but it is not essential for motivation to become alcohol- and drug-free. (Written 07/17/07: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2007 Natalia J. Garland