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Austin Cline

Comment of the Week: Atheism vs. Alcoholics Anonymous

By January 1, 2013

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Can an atheist be a part of Alcoholics Anonymous? Is the AA program compatible with atheism? Some think so - there are atheists who are part of AA, and that seems like a clear demonstration that atheism and AA are compatible, at least on some level. But how is that possible, when AA requires belief in a god?

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Granted, Alcoholics Anonymous only requires that one believe in god "as we understand him," but so long as that god is indeed a god, that is contrary to atheism. As soon as one "understands" this god to be something other than a "god," then it's compatible with atheism but it's no longer, strictly speaking, really compatible with Alcoholics Anonymous.

The "god" of Alcoholics Anonymous, everywhere the subject is discussed in AA literature, is pretty much the god of traditional western monotheism. It's not explicitly the god of Christianity and there is no Jesus, but it's clearly designed to be compatible with traditional Christianity and Judaism, if not also Islam. Note, for example, that it's always male.

Philip writes:

"The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking" - Therefore anyone, atheist or not can be a member.

However, it is impossible for an atheist to follow the clear, specific directions as laid out in the AA Big Book or the Twelve Steps.

The reason is that the Big Book, very clearly defines God as The Creator. In the chapter, "To the Agnostic", it clearly gives the example of looking up at the sky and in awe realising that there must be a supreme creator. The books is very consistent and repetitious in describing God as The Creator.

The other reason is that Step 3, requires a belief in "God as we understand him". So you have a choice of "A supreme being as we understand him", "The creator of the universe as we understand him", etc. Look up God in a dictionary, any dictionary.
It is not possible for an atheist to believe in a God of any understanding. If he did, it wouldn't be a God, it would be something else.

[original post]

It seems to me that any level of compatibility between atheism and Alcoholics Anonymous is weak at best. There is probably a very good argument for the idea achieving "compatibility" is only done through compartmentaliztion and rationalization, not because the two are truly compatible.

What do you think?

January 2, 2013 at 10:50 am
(1) Greg says:

The compatability is pretty weak, especially in AA vs. another program like NA. AA tends to be much more conservative and firm in all their rules, and they rely very heavily on tradition. There are some “warm and fuzzy” AA groups, but they’re the minority. So, if an atheist, or someone who views “god” or any type of divinity differently, happens to mention these things, they typically get shunned. Which almost always drives those people away.

NA is a little different. Its a lot more liberal and accepting. While they still read the steps with those problematic things like “God as we understand him”, its pretty much accepted in those groups that you needn’t believe in any god like that at all. They typically say you just need a higher power, and most non religious atheists just accept the groups of NA as their higher power. A group of people is typically “better” than an individual, so they put their trust in them.

This does not mean atheists, or even people not of an Abrahamic faith, do not have issues in NA. In some areas and some groups, the people are so overwhelmingly Christian, or Jewish that its stifling to be a part of the program. This is why I wish more people would take in interest in SMART. It offers a non religious, or even spiritual, approach at addiction recovery. I left NA because I felt stifled by all the Christians trying to convert me and smothering me in their culture. I was there to get sober, not to praise Jesus.

January 2, 2013 at 5:53 pm
(2) Barb says:

I guess the only question that comes to my mind is are you going to be a drunk atheist or a sober atheist. As a member of AA for 25 years; sober for the last 23, I don’t recall reading, discussing, or being informed of the statement that introduced your second paragraph:
“Granted, Alcoholics Anonymous only requires that one believe in god “as we understand him,” I’m afraid if that were true I would have died a long time ago. There are many sober atheists as well as agnostics in AA. I have had the pleasure of knowing a young man who believed in many Godesses. In fact he claimed to see them and talk to them. Although the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous maintains much of the original writtings of 1935 as well as the twelve steps and 12 traditions there has been a great dea of growth in concept. With great respect for our founder Bill wilson, when was the last time Bill sponsored anyone?.

January 3, 2013 at 4:10 pm
(3) Austin Cline says:

I don t recall reading, discussing, or being informed of the statement that introduced your second paragraph

Then you weren’t paying close enough attention.

January 3, 2013 at 2:46 pm
(4) Grandpa In The East says:

AA is incompatible with atheism. The End. Unless of course you are a closet atheist who really wants to fit in,


Hope this link works. If not read some of Cliff Walker’s Web site



January 4, 2013 at 3:41 pm
(5) Keith says:

AA does not require belief of any kind, including belief in God. The only requirement to join AA is a desire to stop drinking, as stated in tradition #3. The 12 steps are only suggestions, they are not requirements (pg. 89, AA “Big Book”) There are no requirements in the program, whatsoever, other than a desire to get sober.

In fact, the book “The 12 Steps & 12 Traditions” describes AA’s earliest atheist, Ed, who was allowed to stay in AA in spite of his frequent, strident criticism of any talk of God.

from pg. 143-144 of “The 12 & 12″:

“… AA’s other group received into its membership a salesman we shall call Ed. … Ed was an atheist. His pet obsession was that AA could get along better without its “God nonsense”. He browbeat everybody, and everybody thought that he’d soon get drunk–for at the time, you see, AA was on the pious side. THere must be a heavy penalty, it was thought, for blasphemy. Distressingly enough, Ed stayed sober.
The elders led Ed aside. They said firmly, “You can’t talk like this around here. You’ll have to quit it or get out.” With great sarcasm Ed came back at them. “Now do tell! Is that so?” He reached over to a bookshelf and took up a sheaf of papers. On top of them lay the foreword to the book. “Alcoholics Anonymous”, then under preparation. He read aloud, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Relentlessly, Ed went on, “When you guys wrote that sentence, did you mean it, or didn’t you?”
Dismayed, the elders looked at one another, for they knew he had them cold. So Ed stayed.”

January 11, 2013 at 4:29 pm
(6) AnnieM says:

I’m a sober atheist who lives in a conservative rural area; being a non religious aa member is not possible for me here. I have tried online groups and the level of pressure to conform is overwhelming. I resent the idea that I have to read and adhere to their “big book” (bible), worship their patron saint (bill w) and repeat their prayers. No thanks! If someone tells me I’m going to drink again because I refuse to conform to this group, respectfully, I think they’re projecting. There isn’t one road to sobriety set in stone. We *all* need support but honestly, the cognitive dissonance of being forced to hear how “god” is saving people from their own destructive behavior doesn’t work for all of us.

January 11, 2013 at 11:33 pm
(7) barry w.bruington says:

I have been an opiate addict for half my life 25 years, been to prison for possession of heroin. I have been in forced treatment many many times, In my last 30 day forced treatment session there was a question in a work book we had to complete. It said describe god as you believe in him her it, this was not the exact question but close, anyway I said I did not believe in god or gods period. I was called into my counselors office over my answer to this question, there were 2 other counselors in the room at this time, after a few minutes of talk it became clear that unless I believe in some higher power I may not get my certificate of completion which I needed to show a judge. So I gave in an faked it, saying ok I believe in nature as my higher power and it was said ok thats like the native amercan beliefs. The day I left I put a long letter in my counselors mail box on universe, solar system, and planetary evolution, I read much on cosmology and astronomy, and watch the science channels universe, through the wormhole, and anything to do with space. I had my certificate in hand and was on my way home by the time my counselor would read this. While I was in her office and being questioned about my atheism, my counselor asked me If you dont believe in god then who do you think made our world and how did all of us get here ? At this time I started telling her how our world came to be yet soon I felt it was not going well and I would have to give in to a god to get my certificate so I did. Had I been in a different situation and not needed this certificate so badly I would not ever have given in.

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