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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Can an Atheist be in A.A.?

"A.A. is NOT a religious organization. All members are free to decide on their own personal ideas about the meaning of life.”
from "A Brief Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous: What is A.A.?"


Alcoholics Anonymous was born in the first part of 20th Century in the middle of white, Protestant America. That's not a judgement. It's just an historical fact. Women had only been given the vote 15 years prior. Jews were being overtly discriminated against. Juvenile diabetes still killed nearly everyone who was stricken by it within months. The polio vaccine was still 17 years away. Indoor plumbing was a distant dream for many Americans, and daily baths were out of the question for the vast majority of us.

It was in that time in history that A.A. was created.

In 1934, Bill Wilson was hospitalized, suffering once again from acute alcohol withdrawal (which is often accompanied by hallucinations and delusions). He was also being treated with belladonna (a known hallucinogen in its own right). It was under these conditions that Bill had his now-legendary "white light" experience.

Should we be surprised? DT's and a fat dose of belladonna and Bill was - as we used to say - tripping his brains out.

Combining Bill's own experiences with the influence of the very evangelical "Oxford Group," A.A. was born as a nearly all male, nearly all white, nearly all Protestant program. Many of its early precepts came from the Oxford Group and were adapted to meet the needs of the new group which was in its infancy. Bill W. and Dr. Bob - A.A.'s founders - were both members of the Oxford Group until the 1940's.

It's interesting to note that one of the first A.A. members was Jim B. He was a self-described "militant agnostic." After an early relapse, he remained sober and outlived the two founders of A.A. Jim started meetings in Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Diego. His story was even included in the First Edition of the book, "Alcoholics Anonymous," the book generally referred to by A.A. members as "The Big Book." Some of his story can be found here: Sober for Thirty Years.

A few things have changed since those early days. Our understanding of medicine and science and public health and sanitation has grown exponentially. One might expect that even A.A. itself would have matured and grown and advanced during that time, and in many important ways that it has. It has certainly expanded its thinking with respect to the participation of women, racial minorities, and those of non-Christian faith. A.A. now has meetings which exclusively serve the LGBT community, women-only meetings, men-only meetings, meditation-based meetings, and meetings for young people. It's time that A.A. expand itself once again to more actively include and support those members who might not have a belief in things which exist outside of nature, or for whom "god" is not a reality.

"What about the steps that mention God?" is a question that's often asked.

In numerous instances in the Big Book and in A.A.'s own conference-approved literature, A.A. makes it abundantly clear that members are free to use whatever notion of "higher power" works for them. We are now seeing some of those members gather together in formal A.A. meetings aimed to support those with a non-supernatural understanding of "Higher Power." They have found that being in a meeting where they can openly discuss their doubts to be tremendously refreshing. Those members share their experiences of using a "Group Of Drunks" as a higher power, or how the "God of their understanding" is more like Nature than Neptune. Members are finding the love and support they require to get and stay sober can be found in the rooms of A.A., more often now than ever in a meeting for Agnostics and Athiests.

There is good news. A.A. now has meetings where atheists, agnostics, humanists, free-thinkers and rationalists can find their own key to sobriety. They are few and far between, but they are marching forward and carrying the message that there is hope for recovery for ANYONE who is seeking it. Here's a link to several meetings around the world.

If you are an atheist or an agnostic, there is room for you in A.A. Absolutely. Without question. And unapologetically.

“It would be unrealistic to assume that all A.A. members are spiritually inspired. Many, too, are not committed to a formal body of religious doctrine. But innumerable A.A. members—including those of no orthodoxy—say they have experiences the transforming power of sharing, caring, trust and love." 

And, “...the A.A. program of recovery is based on certain spiritual values. Individual members are free to interpret these values as they think best, or not to think about them at all.”

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