Virtually no one in AA would outright bar atheists and agnostics from becoming members, but there is more to actually including us than begrudgingly accepting our right to be members. Anyone who has ever been in a typical AA meeting knows that there is plenty of de facto exclusion. All the god talk and the frequent assertions that it is impossible to get sober without a higher power represent significant obstacles for atheists and agnostics. It is not enough to be able to sit meekly and silently in the back row.
The overall environment that greets nonbelievers is replete with mixed messages at best. A common response in AA to persons who have difficulty with the religious ambience is to say that AA is “a spiritual not a religious program.” Unfortunately that ultimately exacerbates rather than solves the problem. It is based on the illusion that AA's so-called spirituality rises above the limitations that characterize religion as we know it. The implicit message is that, while “their religion” is obviously flawed, “our spirituality” is unassailable.
Buying into AA’s open-ended concept of a higher power can at times feel like sort of a halfway house on the way to fully believing in God the Father and Jesus His Son. While AA’s ecumenical approach to theology may well make it possible for atheists and agnostics to carve out niches for ourselves in AA, actually inhabiting the space can feel fairly tenuous. One of the first things atheists discover is that the reason AA is so tolerant of atheists is so that we will eventually find God. It is obviously insulting to be magnanimously tolerated if it comes with being told, “Keep coming back. Eventually, you will either recognize the necessity of having a higher power or you will get drunk.”
When it comes time to actually working the AA program, it becomes clear that the problem goes deeper than can be fixed by linguistic and theological sleights of hand. While empowering each recovering addict to craft her own understanding of a higher power promotes a roomy and welcoming space and even encourages creativity, changing the terminology from “God” to “a higher power” is merely cosmetic. The terms are entirely interchangeable in how they are used in actual speech.
Nonetheless, whatever its shortcomings might be, AA actually gets a lot right. Its most significant assets are not inherently religious: refuge and encouragement for the hopeless, in-depth identification, community, practical wisdom about addiction, and sometimes just having something to do that doesn’t involve using alcohol or other drugs.
There is, not surprisingly, a proliferation of books on how to recover from addiction without God; however, these books generally either disdainfully reject AA or they present a rather superficial approach to fitting into AA and offer advice on how to work the AA program, often including a neutered version of the Steps. For most atheists and agnostics, the problem with AA goes deeper than the god talk. By the same token, many of us still want much of what AA has to offer. Merely ridding the Steps of their overt religious language in order to make them available to atheists and other non-Christians are inadequate at best. There is more involved in being a full participant in AA than getting around the god talk.
What is missing is an appreciative assessment of AA’s strengths accompanied by an uncovering of deeper principles of recovery that can work for believers and nonbelievers alike, an approach that is neither a knee-jerk rebuff of AA nor a tepid translation that invokes some sort of vague "nontheistic" spirituality, an approach that lies somewhere between the extremes of, on one end, expecting atheists to meekly fit in and not rock the boat, and on the other end, generating unnecessary and counterproductive controversy, an approach that goes beyond the question of how to get the most out of an extant AA experience, exploring the question of how an atheist or agnostic alcoholic can creatively intersect with AA and in so doing maybe even evoke a greater spirit openness and thereby enhance the recovery experience for everyone. Atheists and agnostics who struggle with addiction to alcohol and other drugs need recovery resources, but AA also needs to look at how to be more inclusive and more effective.
There is more at stake than wanting to do what it takes to save the lives of alcoholics who happen to be atheists or agnostics. The presence of nonbelievers can play an important role in making AA a truly hospitable place for a diverse set of religious and nonreligious beliefs. A lot has happened socially and culturally since the big book was first published in 1939. AA now has global reach. Cultural pluralism is a far more of a mainstream experience. Given rapid expansions in communication and mobility, seemingly incompatible worldviews are constantly in collision with one another. Intense polarization around religion and politics has reached a point where it undermines basic human decency and social cooperation. Achieving universal agreement on anything seems impossible. By the same token, our lives inextricably overlap, and that means finding common ground when we can. In the world outside AA, a secularist framework is absolutely necessary for purely pragmatic reasons. It is no less so within AA. We don’t get to decide who walks in the door or what particular issues they bring with them. We need to build a robust culture that can accommodate monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, pagans, agnostics, atheists, “nones,” and anyone else who has a desire to stop drinking. There are a lot of people who fall through the cracks.
Atheists have a significant contribution to make. At first, we can just “take what we like and leave the rest,” but eventually, if we are going to fully participate in the recovery experience, we have to have a strategy for sharing our own “experience, strength, and hope” in meetings when the topic is about God. It is not particularly productive to angrily challenge what is being said by the theists in the meeting; however, there are two significant assertions that sober atheists bring into the discussion. First, we can offer credible direct evidence in our own persons that the god question need not get in the way of finding lasting sobriety. And second, we can model the discipline involved in talking about the solution without taking the shortcut that relying on a higher power can represent. This shifts the center of gravity to a solution that can work for anyone.
We need to carve out for ourselves a habitable space where we are not “over against” but are instead “together with,” where we can come from a place of security, lead with strength, refuse to be marginalized, fully embrace the role of gracious hosts operating on our own home turf, and become a prototype for extending hospitality not only to those like us, but also to those who are radically different. Ideally, a time will come when nonbelievers are not a subgroup that is somewhat begrudgingly tolerated, but instead embody a new definition of mainstream AA, an AA that is more concerned about being truly effective than about preserving AA orthodoxy.
AA’s basic formula for success, though often neglected, very much depends on the idea that being united around a shared mission is more important than striving for correct beliefs. AA openly acknowledges that the very possibility for anyone finding sobriety depends on finding common ground around one primary purpose – carrying a message of recovery to alcoholics. There is a need for a deeper understanding of what constitutes a solution even when the solution for a given addict will not involve participation in AA. Carrying the message should not be reduced to membership recruitment.
Actively and boldly leading the way toward a “big tent” AA is a rising tide that lifts all boats, but the right to be protected from being forced to adopt someone else’s religious beliefs cuts both ways. If we expect tolerance, we need to work for tolerance rather than work against religion. The fact is that, for many AA members, having a higher power is central to their recovery experience. It is what works for them and what is meaningful to them. To deprive them of their own truth or to expect them to keep it to themselves would clearly violate the very spirit of tolerance that we ourselves expect with regard to our own differences from the mainstream. If we are condemning of other people’s beliefs and practices, we feed the claims that atheism is just another religion whose values get imposed on everybody else and that secularists are more dogmatic and intolerant than most Christians.
Putting up with a certain amount of religious trappings isn’t just about picking our battles. It is a piece of a larger strategy with regard to the end game of advancing a vision of AA that fosters freedom, creativity, intelligent dialogue, and peaceful coexistence. It’s about rising above the fray and placing the focus on a bigger issue than the personal demand that our sensibilities not be offended and that we not have to endure the indignity of other people’s insensitivity to our needs. It transforms the whole conversation. A robust commitment to broad-mindedness would redefine mainstream AA culture, reframe AA’s basic message, and offer a viable alternative to AA’s current default settings.
A true understanding of secularism doesn’t exclude religious points of view nor deny their inevitable influence in public life. The true goal of secularism is not for everyone to be magnanimous and “politically correct,” but is instead to create a cultural space where it is OK for everyone to be true to themselves. Minority positions have special importance because their voice being in the mix provides the opportunity to transform tolerance from a mere abstract commitment into a concrete reality. It is as important for minorities like atheists to put skin on diversity as it is for the majority to accept the minorities’ right to claim chairs.