An Austin Atheist Tells His Story in the AA Grapevine Magazine
October 2012: Finding Our Way
After being in and around the AA program for more than 30 years, I now have 17 years of continuous sobriety. I was not able to get sober and stay sober until I became honest with myself about “the God thing.”
Religion and church attendance had been a significant part of my early life. We lived across the street from the Methodist church that my grandfather had helped establish, and I attended Sunday school regularly. I frequently attended church with my grandfather and became a member when I was 12.
In junior high school I was introduced to the sciences and adopted them as my sources for understanding the world and myself. Math and the sciences were my primary focus in high school, and I majored in mechanical engineering in college. Church attendance was only at Christmas and Easter, if I went at all.
With marriage and children, church again seemed the thing to do. We joined a Methodist church, enrolled the kids in Sunday school, and began attending regularly. For me, it became just a good way to kill an hour until sports programming started on TV and the convenience stores could sell beer. When the kids were old enough to have the option of not going, we reverted to Christmas and Easter attendance. Asked if I believed in God, I could truthfully answer, “Yes.” However, I viewed the Bible as no more than a collection of legends and fables, and religious practices as having some benefit, but holding no real significance for me.
There was nothing unusual about my drinking history—for an alcoholic. From a few beers in high school, my drinking progressed until alcohol took control of my life. Finally, largely thanks to my doctor’s (a neighbor) and wife’s nagging, I consented “to do something about my drinking.” My doctor identified several treatment options, and I selected the one that sounded most compatible with my lifestyle. That I might be an alcoholic never entered my mind. I didn’t fit the profile, I thought. They put me in the backseat of our car with a six-pack of beer, and off we went. After a brief interview, I was admitted on the spot.
It was a total surprise to me that the treatment program turned out to be very AA-oriented. In addition to AA meetings held at the facility, we were transported to two or three other meetings a week, so I received a good introduction to the program.
When I was discharged, I was given a list of AA meetings in my small city. I started attending a couple of meetings a week and performing minor service work, but mostly just sat as an observer. The only thing I was doing right was not drinking, but I was a long way from being sober. That lasted a little over two years. Then I drank for four months and returned to the program after a brief “rehab refresher.”
Convinced that I had to get more serious, I started following directions. I read the Big Book, memorized its prayers, and recited them in my morning meditations. I joined a group and got a sponsor, studied the Twelve and Twelve, and worked the Steps. I attended at least five meetings a week, and did service work in my home group. Feeling good about my progress, I was confident my sobriety was solid.
Eight years later, domestic and job-related problems arose and I got drunk. After 11 weeks of drinking, I went back to the program totally demoralized. I was sure I had learned my lesson. A little over two years later, I got drunk again.
Feeling that I must be one of those “hopeless drunks,” I immediately started going to AA meetings again, but there was something very wrong. If asked, I could still honestly say that I believed in God, but God had no real meaning for me.
I stayed in and around the program for several months, but nagging questions kept haunting me. Was I constitutionally incapable of being honest with myself? What is it about AA that works, when the best theological and medical minds have tried for centuries to find a solution? Why would a loving God wait until Mother’s Day, 1935, to plant the seed that grew into the AA program when alcoholism has been a problem for thousands of years? What was it about that meeting between Bill W. and Dr. Bob that was so special?
All I knew for certain was that something had to change or I was going to start drinking again. In desperation, I finally got honest about “the God thing.” Only to myself at first, I admitted that I did not believe in God. That was the lowest point of my life. I was not drinking, but now I did not feel comfortable in AA either.
Fortunately, I realized there was one thing I did believe without reservation: AA works! In all those years in and around the program, I had seen too many “drunks” get sober—and stay sober. So, if there is no God, why does it work? I have found my answer, one that enables me to stay sober. AA works because only an alcoholic trying to stay sober can help another alcoholic wanting to get sober. It works because only a recovering alcoholic can identify with, have credibility with, and thus help another drunk. And the bonding that can occur between them is a spiritual experience! They help each other stay sober. That, I believe, is what really happened in Akron between Bill and Dr. Bob, and it is still how it works today.
We need to remember that AA, with or without God, does not cure us of our addiction to alcohol. If we were truly “cured,” wouldn’t we be able to drink normally? AA gives us the hope, the will, and the tools to live without drinking—but only for one day at a time. It gives us a philosophy and the support for living a life that is healthy, happy, joyous and free. That does seem like a miracle, especially to a suffering alcoholic.
There are now six [now eleven] “free thinkers” meetings a week in our city. It started with the “We Agnostics Group” and three or four drunks showing up. Today, we have three groups meeting in different parts of the city and often have over 20 recovering drunks in attendance. We continue to grow in membership and in acceptance in the greater AA community. Our meetings follow the usual formats: we have both open discussion and literature study (Big Book and Twelve and Twelve) meetings. The main difference is that there are no prayers. We read Appendix II from the Big Book at the beginning of our meetings and close by reciting the AA Responsibility Declaration: “I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.”
There are “freethinkers” groups all over the country with increasing numbers of sober agnostic and atheist drunks, proving that there is a choice. In working with newcomers, we stick to the basics and encourage them to work the Steps, but also to find their own understanding of a “power greater than themselves.”
So, to all AAs, please judge us “freethinkers” by the quality of our sobriety. We are not trying to tell anyone not to believe in God. What we do believe in is working for us.
—Jerry S., Austin, Texas
Prayer At Meetings
This is an article I found online many years ago that many have found helpful and enlightening. The link is no longer good but the words still have power.
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either the chemical dependent person, a spouse, or significant other.
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Prayer At Meetings: A World View
The Cyber Sot
ne of the many paradoxes of AA is that while we are not a religious organization, nor are we affiliated with one, we sure take our meeting prayers seriously. If you don't believe me, suggest that your home group change the prayers used at meetings.
Prayer at meetings, specifically the Lord's Prayer, is a long-running "hot" topic that crops up on a regular basis at AA meetings around the world. To many AAs, the 12 Steps may be, as the Big Book puts it, merely "suggested as a program of recovery," but the Lord's Prayer is mandatory.
Here's what sober AAs-Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists, Mormons, American Indians, atheists and pagans-have to say about it from around the world, from Ireland to India and Australia to New Zealand. Here too are some thoughts about closing meetings with the Responsibility Declaration, a practice that is growing. The Declaration, or Pledge, we will see later, focuses on what AA is all about.
Surveying AA is like counting grains of sand during a hurricane. Instead, this is an e-mail sampling of responses to some fairly simple questions: What prayers do you use at your meetings? Why? They were sent to AAs and groups around the world.
Nowhere in the Big Book does it say "how" to hold a meeting. Instead we have what some people say is "tradition." Well, we have 12 Traditions, and the prayers we use at a meeting are not in any of them.
There are numerous arguments for keeping the Lord's Prayer, dating back to the fact that our founders were Christians and that we are, in some respects, a stepchild of the Oxford Movement. But Bill and Dr. Bob pulled Alcoholics Anonymous out of the Oxford Movement because it was more concerned with converting people to Christianity than getting them sober. It was also a Protestant movement closed to non-Christians, and even Catholics.
If you want to hear more of the arguments, bring it up at your home group. Doug C, reports that in New Zealand, "they usually start and finish with the Serenity Prayer and that's it. No other prayers are used that I'm aware of. That's probably because in New Zealand in my experience most AAs stress 'God of their own understanding,' so other prayers might be regarded as inappropriate. But that's just my experience."
Andy K in India says "There are numerous views about what should and should not be read at the meeting. However, one thing we all agree upon (something rare in AA) at meetings in Calcutta is the Serenity Prayer. To the best of my knowledge all the meetings in West Bengal use the Serenity Prayer at the beginning and at the end of the meeting." Krishna I., of Bangalore, India, says that the Serenity Prayer has been translated into eight other Indian languages, and is used throughout the predominantly Hindu and Buddhist country.
American Indian meetings normally use the Prayer to the Great Spirit (see below).
Myles W. says most groups in Toronto, Canada, begin with the Serenity Prayer and end with the Lord's Prayer, but "Some start with the Serenity Prayer and end with the Responsibility Pledge," also called the Responsibility Declaration.
Use of the declaration is growing.
Jay S., a sober Jew in Connecticut, says that "The meetings I've been to in Jerusalem open and close with the Serenity Prayer. Here in Connecticut, about one third of the meetings I go to use the Serenity Prayer, the rest the Our Father. If they use the Our Father, I just say a silent prayer while holding hands."
Maxine U., a sober Jew in New York, echoes the sentiments of P.J., a sober Muslim in Jakarta, Indonesia, when she says: "In some ways the Lord's Prayer is a political statement. My biggest objection to it is the fact that it is irrevocably attached to a particular religion and AA is supposed to be completely neutral when it comes to religion." Maxine goes on to say that she would feel the same way "if a Jewish prayer was adopted."
Another sober Muslim, in Prague, in the Czech Republic, writes that his group opens and closes with the Serenity Prayer, "and there is no controversy.
"My Personal [repeat PERSONAL] opinion is that no Christian prayers ever have any place at an AA meeting. The Lord's Prayer is a Christian prayer and a religious prayer. I have nothing against Christians or Christianity. My parents and my sister are Christians and wonderful people. But I wouldn't feel comfortable facing Mecca and kneeling and pressing my head to the floor at the end of an AA meeting either. That is Islam, not AA. If I want to do religion, I do it on my own time. AA meetings are AA time, and the Serenity Prayer does the job quite well."
Elena, a former Californian now living in Athens, Greece, says, "We use the Serenity Prayer as well as the Lord's Prayer. We have an English speaking meeting as well as Greek speaking meeting. Ninety percent of Greeks (like myself) are Greek Orthodox and firmly believe in God and in prayers in and outside of AA."
Jack H., in Cork City, Ireland, says "I haven't ever come across any problems with regards to the prayers, but then again Ireland is 100% a Christian country (Catholic and Protestant)." But in that same bath of e-mails, came this reply from non-Christian Bob. B., in Northern Ireland. He says that at one meeting he attends, different members are sometimes asked to lead the Lord's Prayer. "While I will respect their group conscience, as a non-Christian, I will not join in with the words of this prayer, and if asked to lead, then I would have to decline and run the risk of offending many. "Religion, I believe should not be practiced in A.A. as it is another cause, and certainly in Northern Ireland it has always caused controversy."
Mireille U., in Belgium, Erik B, in Norway, and Poul in Denmark say the Serenity Prayer is the prayer of choice. Sometimes the Promises are also read from the Big Book. It's the same in Rome, says Stephen S., who adds, "Once in a while, if a visitor from the U.S. decides unilaterally to use the Lord's Prayer, we do that. But it is not our choice at all. Strange for the home of the Pope, eh?"
Arthur in Australia writes: "Commonly in Australia, the Serenity Prayer is used to close a meeting, either holding hands or not. The Lord's Prayer is used by some groups but these are relatively rare in my experience. "I personally don't participate in these rituals which are not in keeping with my spiritual practice, and while I get odd looks from some people, I haven't been thrown out yet, and after a while most come to respect my right to abstain from what, for me, would be hypocrisy.
"At times, not participating makes me feel, passingly, a little alienated from the group which is the usual argument used by those against the use of prayers. Today, however, I am a recovered alcoholic and my reason for being at meetings is to spread the message of my E. S. & H. (Experience, Strength and Hope) to the alcoholic who still suffers and if in some ways I don't agree with rituals the group chooses to engage in that is of minor importance."
David, in Darwin, Australia, says, "We only say the Serenity Prayer and those who do not believe in a God replace that word with one of their choosing. No other religions are mentioned, and no other religious prayers are spoken. We do however pray for people in the fellowship."
Joel P, in Tokyo, writes that in the English-language meetings in Japan, "We open with the Serenity Prayer and close with the Lord's Prayer. We had an Orthodox Jew here awhile and closed with the Serenity Prayer while he was here. He was an inspiration to the group with solid sobriety. His request to change the prayer was a unifying act as we all prayed together."
As far as Japanese langue meetings are concerned, Yukie writes: "Most Japanese AA Meetings in Kanto (including Tokyo) area close with a Serenity Prayer sitting at their seat, not standing hand in hand. But some groups don't say any prayer at all, to say nothing of Lord's Prayer. In some area such as Kyushu, almost of the groups in the area don't. At one group I visited in Tokyo, they omitted "God" from the first line of the Serenity Prayer."
Carolyn B, of Minneapolis, writes that many area meetings "still use the Serenity Prayer to open and the Our Father to close," and some use the Responsibility Declaration. "There is one group which opens with the Third Step Prayer (on their knees!) and closes with the Responsibility Statement." Her home group opens and closes with the Serenity Prayer. "We had a few members who were not Christian and who expressed discomfort with the Our Father as a closing. So we decided that since there are so many prayers available in Alcoholics Anonymous which are unifying, it ill behooved us to cling to one which was divisive, and we voted to stop using the Our Father."
John P, in Texas, says they use the Lord's Prayer because it is traditional, "dating to the earliest meetings in Akron and Cleveland. I have never heard it challenged as a practice in Texas, though, as would be expected, the question is sometimes raised on the Left Coast (California)." Claims that use of the Lord's Prayer has never been challenged are quite common, even though, as we have seen, it continues to be challenged around the world, not just in California.
Jeanne G., a sober pagan in the Los Angeles area, says her home group, Pagans in Recovery, closes their meetings with their own prayer (see below). These responses, and those I don't have room to quote, show that there is room for variety in AA, but not according to all AAs. I once heard a member declare that he "knows" that if we don't address God by His "correct name," He will not listen our prayers.
Many pro-Lord's Prayer arguments remind me of my days as a reporter in the '60s, covering the Civil Rights Movements. I would regularly interview white men and women who just didn't understand why "uppity" black's were so upset, and wished that they wouldn't "rock the boat" by demanding their rights. I heard the same sorts of arguments when I covered the feminist movement, but then they came from men-both white and black.
Telling non-Christians they "shouldn't be upset" by the Lord's Prayer, or that they should "learn to live with it because it's part of the program" shows a certain amount of thoughtlessness, intolerance, self-righteousness and even arrogance.
If you really want the program Bill and Bob started, all members must be like them: white, male, married, never-divorced Christians with specific college degrees-either pharmacists and doctors, like Dr. Bob, or stockbrokers with law degrees, like Bill W.-who were born in Vermont and first belonged to the Oxford Movement.
The foreword to the 1939 first edition of the Big Book says: "The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking. We are not allied with any particular faith, sect or denomination, nor do we oppose anyone. We simply wish to be helpful to those who are afflicted."
Prayers you say in private, or at your Church, are between you and your Higher Power. What you say at an AA meeting affects the entire group. Insulting people with a prayer they do not believe in, or making them feel apart from instead of part of is not "helpful." It violates the spirit of the 12th Step: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs."
The message is recovery, not Christian prayer. And the message I want to leave my meeting with is the one spelled out in the
"I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want AA always to be there. And for that, I am responsible." Other prayers used in some AA meetings:
Prayer to the Great Spirit
O' Great Spirit, Whose voice we hear in the winds, and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear us!
We are small and weak. We need your strength and wisdom.
Let us walk in beauty, and make our eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make our hands respect the things you have made and our ears sharp to hear your voice.
Make us wise so that we may understand the things you have taught our people.
Let us learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.
We seek strength, not to be greater than our brother, but to fight our
greatest enemy- ourselves.
Make us always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes, so when life fades as the fading sunset, our spiritsmay come to you without shame.
Prayers from Pagans in Recovery:
"Let us join in a circle of silent meditation for the purpose of sending
love and healing to the lonely and suffering that wish to find us."
Closing prayer, the Circle Chant: "I am a circle, I am healing you. You are a circle, you are healing me. Unite us, be as one. Unite us, be as one."
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe and to accept that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to entrust our wills and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to ourselves, without reservations, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.
With humility and openness sought to eliminate our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
Sought through meditation to improve our spiritual awareness and our understanding of the AA/Al-Anon/Twelve Step Way of Life, and to discover the power to carry that out.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.