Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sobriety Without "God"

Alcoholism is a terrible scourge. Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded in 1935, has been of tremendous benefit in helping people recover from alcoholism.

Unfortunately, AA does a lousy job of meeting the needs of atheists. It provides a very God-centered program of recovery.

If you go to enough meetings, you'll spot a few people who never talk about God, and even a very few who identify openly as atheists. Atheism is certainly tolerated, but it's not encouraged.

The real problem is not the social and philosophical discomfort of being an atheist in AA, which turns out to be relatively minor. The real problem is that when drunks come through the door of an AA meeting and hear all the "God talk," a certain number of them bolt out the door again, never to return.

Some of those people grit their teeth and get sober without AA. But some of them don't. It's a statistical certainty that some of them get drunk again, get behind the wheel of a car, and kill people. It would be naïve to say that AA has no complicity in those needless deaths.

Nothing whatever can be done to change this. AA was founded by a conservative Evangelical Christian who firmly believed not only that God had gotten him sober, but also that the only way to recover from alcoholism was by "finding God." To a large majority of AA members, the idea of recovery without God is simply inconceivable. AA is completely non-denominational, but theism is the lifeblood of the program.

Atheists who want to get sober do have options, including Rational Recovery (RR) and the Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). They're smaller and harder to find than AA, but they do provide invaluable alternatives for atheists.

Unfortunately, the legal system in the U.S. typically sends drunk drivers to AA. The courts are actively supporting an avowedly theistic organization, and in effect steering people toward church attendance.

My own belief is that one of the essentials of recovery is a strong support group of sober people. AA has a solid presence in almost every town in the U.S., which makes it a great place to go when you're seeking support. But you do have to be thick-skinned enough to put up with a certain amount of "God talk."


Eric Haas said...

“Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded in 1935, has been of tremendous benefit in helping people recover from alcoholism.”

I was under the impression that AA actually had a very low success rate.

Jim Aikin said...

You'll note that I didn't say "tremendous benefit in helping almost everyone recover from alcoholism." It has been of tremendous benefit to some people, that's beyond debate.

Statistics are hard to come by. I've read one study that concluded (on the basis of no very concrete data) that the success rate of AA is about the same as the rate of spontaneous remission -- about 10%. But if you look at the glass as being half-full rather than half-empty, that study suggests that without AA, 10% of drunks would get sober (on their own), and now 20% get sober (because there's a place they can go). Surely that's a good thing.

Personally, I feel AA could do a lot better if the program were reorganized on the basis of what has been learned about alcoholism in the past 50 years -- and that would include getting rid of the God-talk. But it's the nature of organizations, and of conservative organizations especially, that they resist change.

Denise Beck-Clark said...

As indicated in my own blog, I believe that the God piece works for as many people as it does in AA and other 12-step programs because it's a replacement of one addiction for another. God, for many people, is a comforting addiction, providing meaning and explanations for their suffering, and something they can turn to each day which is not physically harmful and is also legal and culturally sanctioned.

Eric Haas said...

“…that study suggests that without AA, 10% of drunks would get sober (on their own), and now 20% get sober (because there's a place they can go).”

I don’t think so. I think it says (assuming the data was adequate to draw any conclusion at all) that an alcoholic has the same 10% chance of recovery regardless of whether he attends AA or not. That doesn’t add up to 20%. That study is not the first place I’ve heard the claim of a low success rate for AA, but right off-hand I don’t remember where I’ve heard it.

Anonymous said...

The AA has low sucess rate where as it can gain some good sucess rate in the future.i hope it and surely it will.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I appreciate the article and relate to it. I would love to be sober and have community with those who have a common foe, but alas the language, riddled with Christianity, pushes me away time and time again toward yet another bender. It's true. I appreciate you mentioning the other organizations which I will research.

Curtis Edward Clark; Dean said...

At one time, AA had an extremely high success rate, because its members would go out and find alcoholics who were at their "bottom," then within a matter of 24 or 48 hours walked them through all 12 steps, including getting on their knees and praying to God to remove them of their obsession. There is scientific proof that praying does something to the mind that makes the act of prayer work in a psychological manner. The science does not--and cannot--prove that praying to God is actually heard by any God. That is where faith comes in.
But because modern AA organizations have backed off from such aggressive means of converting practicing alcoholics into sober alcoholics, the success rate has fallen dramatically. Now it only works for someone who, all by himself using his own will power, finds it within him or herself to want to be sober. The "fellowship" of being a member is a good force for many, because they find they have others with the same problem to talk to.
It is that fellowship that works for me in AA. I am openly atheist, and I talk about atheism in my groups.
I, too, write a blog. January 1, 2009, I published "God, Prejudice, and Alcoholics Anonymous" at You can also find it posted on Scribd, where it is now winding up on many readers' Favorites List.
I hope it helps other atheists understand AA.
Curtis Edward Clark

atheistAA said...

You're correct: AA does a lousy job of meeting the needs of atheists. So here in Kalamazoo, MI I started an AA group for atheists. It is registered with AA International as a legitimate group. I also started a Google group
And since I'm a writer, I wanted to do a web site on the subject called "The Atheist AA"

And to Eric Haas: Yes, AA has a low success rate because they don't operate the way they did in the first decade. In the first years they sought out members and indocrinated them. That worked well at getting people sober. The indocrination has largely stopped, and people must now find their own reasons for being in AA and for remaining in AA. For some people that is a difficult thing to do. The way AA is operated today is very much different than in 1935/45.

Anonymous said...

can anyone tell me of a non-religious aa meeting going on anywhere near towson md? If so contact thanks

David H said...

It's all well and good to debate the success of AA but for me the real question is where else Atheist alcoholics can go? I'm not seeing anyone offering alternatives.

Anonymous said...

The success rate of AA, by their own research and admission is 3-5%.(Sober after one year of attending AA meetings.)

Now sober for 8 years, I went into my first AA meeting as an agnostic. I got a "higher power" which I have since realized was myself... and am now back to rational (call it agnostic or atheist).

Although I live in a large metropolitan area, there are no secular recovery meetings close by. Thus, I still attend AA, for the contact with other alcoholics.

AA could absolutely to better if it were reorganized on the basis of reason, and fact ... but that is not to be, because it is a cult, by definition.

atheist AA said...

Do what I did if you have no secular place to go--make one! As I said in an earlier post, I helped create an atheist A.A. group, and the New York office (GSO) gave it a registration number. That surprised me, but I was grateful. Don't expect a huge gathering unless you live in a large city and really publicize the group on a large scale among the other groups. But it can be done, and it's my favorite meeting.

I also started a Google group for atheist AAs. Click on my name to go there.

Anonymous said...

It's a nice thought, (which had already occurred to me) ... create my own group. However, I know of no atheists in my club house or home group. The closest thing I have found is a few buddhists, which is a philosophy I am not particularly interested in either.

Anonymous said...

Now that I am a member, will my email address be visible/searchable when I post? I notice in the group, I can see members email addresses.

Still posting anonymously in the mean time. Thanks.

Atheist AA said...

Starting your own group is slow going. You have to be upfront enough to admit to the at-large AA community in your town that you are atheist, and that you are starting your own group.

You won't get many people to show up at first, but then a core group will begin to show up every week, and along with them a few who just want to check your group out and see if you are for real.

And when Anonymous on Jan 14 said he is now a "member", did he mean of my online Google Group? Yes, as a member you can see the email addresses. No one else can.

Anonymous said...

It is not necessarily easy for an alcoholic atheist to hang around with the despised 'G' word on the wall long enough to realise that they are welcome to define their Higher Power in anyway that works. There is a whole atheist sub-culture in 12-step programs that allows them to do the steps with a G.O.D. of their understanding, ie Groups Of Drunks/Druggies (the fellowship), Great Out-Doors (Nature, the Universe), Good Orderly Direction. Here in inner-urban Melbourne, Australia , I rarely hear God talk and most people seem to define their Higher Power in non-theist terms which reflects the wider local culture, whereas other parts of the country you do hear God talk which again reflects the local culture.

Anonymous said...

Whatever it's origin may be, I found AA to be as far from Evangelical Christianity as imaginable.

The 12 steps speak of a God "as we see him", and does not include ANY dogma as to who that is,or what he wants us to do.

I almost puked when I read the steps the first time. Not until I heard people share their experiences, I realized this had NOTHING to do with religion.

It is about fellowship with other alcoholics, deflating one's ego, rigorous honesty, and living in the present, not the past or future.

It's true that the God talk may prevent some people from sobering up.

Then again, if the the fear of being indoctrinated weighs heavier on a person than the desire to stay alive, that person probably isn't going to get sober anyway.