AA Officially Recognizes Atheist and Agnostic Membership in This Month's Grapevine

By Dorri Olds 10/11/16

In the words of Bill W, "an alcoholic is a member if he says so…we can’t force our beliefs or practices upon him."

AA Officially Recognizes Atheist and Agnostic Membership in This Month's Grapevine

AA Grapevine, The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous, has devoted its October issue to atheists and agnostics—a first since the publication’s 1944 inception.

AA members will tell you that the program is not religious, but it is spiritual. This causes some confusion, especially for those of us who prickle at the word "God," which is used throughout the 12 Steps and all of the conference-approved AA literature. The program is described in one book: Alcoholics Anonymous, which is often referred to as The Big Book (BB).

In the BB, much emphasis is placed on the understanding that "God" is a god of your understanding, meaning that nobody has to believe in anybody else’s idea of "God." Your god can be the sea, the sky, the AA fellowship. It can be "Good Orderly Direction" or "Group of Drunks." However, the confusion seems to lie in the mixed messages.

In the beginning of the BB, all of that is explained. But by the end of chapter 4, We Agnostics, the contradictions are glaring. The chapter concludes by implying how silly you were to ever doubt that there really is a deity taking care of you and the universe, and that if you are doing the program correctly, you too will see the light.

Of course that doesn’t negate the power of the program. The BB was written in 1939 and influenced by the Protestant Oxford Group in AA’s early days. You can read about that in "A Friend of Jim," a chapter from the book Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

From the October Grapevine’s Editor's Letter: “This month, our special section features stories by atheist and agnostic AA members, some who have many years of sobriety. One member quotes our co-founder Bill W., in a 1946 Grapevine, ‘… an alcoholic is a member if he says so … we can’t force our beliefs or practices upon him.’ In editing these stories, we honored the request of some authors to not capitalize the word God, which is our usual style. Bill W. intended Grapevine to be a mirror of the Fellowship. We hope these stories will shed some light on the joys and challenges of our atheist and agnostic members.”

AA Agnostica links to two of the issue’s articles. In "God on Every Page," Alex M. writes, “I thought back to that bleak day 10 years ago when I washed up into AA, still a bit tipsy, beaten into a state of reasonableness and literally dying to find a way out of my alcoholic addiction. As my head cleared, I started reading the Big Book, and since the word God seemed to be on almost every page, I thought I had to return to the Christianity I was raised under in order to get sober.” 

In "Open-Minded," writer Life-J remembers atheist newcomers who were criticized online in an AA chat room. The incident inspired Life-J to start a free thinkers’ AA group. There was great resistance to having them included in the Northern California AA meeting list, though.

We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers (WAAFT) will be holding their second biennial convention on Nov. 11-13 in Austin, Texas. Roger C. of AA Agnostica is facilitating a workshop, “The History of Agnostics and Atheists in AA.” Speakers include Chuck K. from Chicago, where the first agnostic meeting in AA was founded on Jan. 7, 1975, and Deirdre S. from New York City, where agnostic meetings began on Sept. 10, 1986. 

If you are able to speak on the growth of secular AA meetings on the West Coast—especially California—please contact Roger C. via email: [email protected].

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.