Atheists Chime in on Alcoholics Anonymous

To add to the current thread:

Frank B. writes at the Rationalist Association that even the godless can be saved:

If you are an atheist in AA and AA is your last-chance saloon, then you have to develop an authentic and powerful workaround to make sobriety breathe for you. Pioneering atheist and agnostic AA members fought long and hard to make it explicit that belief is not a prerequisite of staying sober. And I champion their bold lead. I do not participate in any of the prayers. I ignore any raised eyebrows. God is not looking after me and the Cosmos does not care if I relapse on cheap vodka or not. Outing myself as an atheist in AA proved to be an incredibly liberating act. It pared away any delusions or expectations of life. It gave me a way forward of simplicity and responsibility. It made me look deep inside myself for the answers. It made me embrace the strength and healing to be found in real unconditional human love and compassion.… It makes me take nothing for granted. Be simple. Live the moment. To not be afraid. And to know that by staying true to my disbelieving self and under no circumstance picking up a drink, a remarkable second chance at life is here to be lived.

A reader on the Friendly Atheist Facebook page had a very different experience with a similar organization:

After leaving an abusive marriage and going through a nasty divorce, I saw a doctor who prescribed me Xanax. Fast forward to my becoming addicted in an ugly way. I sought treatment, was medically detoxed, and sought out a group where I could stay clean.

Enter Narcotics Anonymous.

I was immediately shunned for my lack of belief. I was told numerous times I would never stay clean without a higher power. No one would sponsor me. It was a pretty low time.

I ended up going online and finding a person who had a similar situation. We helped one another in a loving, kind, and godless way to stay clean. Four years later and here I am: clean, healthy, happy, and still godless.

Those programs are evil. Who would tell a person who was struggling that they’d never make it, all the while talking about how great their higher power is? My experience is not unique. There are more of us and I am sure more have gotten the same treatment…

For groups so dedicated to helping people overcome they sure are a hateful judgmental bunch.

Feel free to send along your own experiences.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Bobbie Pires

    Anyone needing an alternative solution to AA only need to read Rational Recovery. RR often speaks of the conundrum of being atheist and being addicted. Rational Recovery is not a piece of literature. But it made sense to me. It told me I had the power. I was the one that fucked up. I was the one that could right things again. There was no magical higher power I could or should put my faith in. It told me I didn’t have spend the rest of my life in meetings or seeing life as a day at a time of always battling an addiction. Just understand how you got there and move on. I have not had a drink in over a decade.

  • Leon

    I’m impressed with the bit about AA, surprised by the NA one. I was under the impression that Narcotics Anonymous had a saner approach to the whole religion thing–but I guess like in any nationwide organization, each chapter will be a different experience. Shame on those pushers* of religion at that NA chapter!

    * (and I use the word deliberately)

  • ggsillars

    Each AA meeting is autonomous, it takes on the contours of its members. There are explicitly nontheist AA meetings (not nearly enough of them, but they do exist), and many meetings composed largely of theists tend to be very tolerant of people with different beliefs or no beliefs. One thing is for sure, if you encounter a meeting where people tell you you have to believe to get sober, don’t go to that meeting again, they’re more interested in pushing their own beliefs than in helping other people.

  • Bubba Tarandfeathered

    Anyone who tells you that you must believe in “gawd” to stay sober, is a frakken idiot. They have forgotten that at onetime their higher powers were the drugs or alcohol. Though convenient forgetfulness does seem to be a common symptom of being a christian. I couldn’t have stayed clean for the last 14 years with out being rational. I honestly believe that religion is just another drug equally if not more addictive and just as destructive to a person’s life.

  • Caroline

    Personally as a non-believer in the program, there are a lot of things about it that trouble. The “big book” of AA is basically your textbook. The first thing it has in there is a “Doctor’s Opinion” in which a medical physician specializing in addiction writes about the program. Here are some quotes to demonstrate certain things that Atheists would almost certainly object to: “In nearly all cases, their ideals must be grounded in a power greater than themselves, if they are to recreate their lives” (xxiv) “one feels that something more than human power is needed to produce the essential psychic change” (xxv).

    Many atheists would even find the chapter to the agnostic (which also addresses atheists as well) insulting. In reference to those tho come across the idea of a higher power and become distraught: “We know how he feels. We have shared his honest doubt and prejudice.” (45). This chapter claims that the alcoholic must merely conceive of a power greater than themselves, which seems to be an easy enough concept. It even makes the positive step of allowing this “higher power” to be personally defined; “as we understood him.” However, as you read on, you will find that for the purposes of the program, the literature specifically makes reference to this higher power in omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent terms. As a non-believer, I have big problems with conceiving of such a higher power. I am also told that I must connect with “Him” and have a “spiritual awakening.”

    Such things are very troubling to me, and I yet to find significant workarounds. However many times I have been told by other members to “take what you need, and leave the rest.” To those skeptical about the program, I will say that from my experience, the social aspect of the program and the support it provides might possibly be enough on it’s own to help non-believers stay sober. Just like everything else in our religiously defined society, you can probably take use of the program without compromising yourself.

  • TychaBrahe

    You know, it’s not just atheists. People who are not traditionally Christian are discriminated against by 12-step style treatment programs.–my-religion-wasn-t-allowed.html

    There are also many stories of Jews being told that their prayers for help will not be answered because they are not praying on their knees.

  • Richard Wade

    The amount of pain, failure, and death in addiction is difficult to describe.

    I’m very glad that secular alternative peer support groups are finally beginning to burgeon. It can’t come fast enough. When I was counseling tens of thousands of addicted people, the classic 12-Step programs were the only game in town outside of the individual and group sessions I could provide, and 12-Step meetings tailored for agnostics were extremely rare. It was very frustrating to have to urge my non-believing patients to go to whatever AA, CA, or NA meetings they could find, and try to ignore all the “God stuff.” I know that many of them tried a few meetings, were turned off by group leaders or senior members who laid the religious crap on thick, and disappeared. Weeks or months of my careful coaxing and nurturing was wiped out by a single encounter with a pious, self-righteous God salesman. Later I found out those patients had died.

    In early attempts to recover, a chemically dependent person is fragile, precariously balanced between the suffering and loss that drives him/her to seek help, and a seriously damaged tolerance for frustration or discouragement. Much of that is organic, not just psychological. They live right on the edge of saying “Oh fuck it all” and going out to drink-use themselves to death. It takes very little to discourage them.

    People in 12-Step programs who tell non-believing newcomers that they can’t stay clean/sober without a supernatural “higher power” are not just discouraging them, they’re killing them.

  • WallofSleep

    “I honestly believe that religion is just another drug equally if not more addictive and just as destructive to a person’s life.”

    Indeed it is. A narcotic of the mind for many. Anecdotal, but when my grandma could still drive, she would attend 3 to 4 services a week. And tough shit for anyone (heh, usually me) whose car broke down while she was about to leave for church. You better start hoofing it, ‘cuz listening to some jerk talk about Jesus is way more important than helping out a stranded family member.

  • J-Rex

    That’s what I really don’t get. Why would believing that you had no power over your addiction help you?

  • A3Kr0n

    Members say you don’t have to believe in God, but the prayers, the constant talk about how God saved this person, or that, and all the rest make it perfectly clear that you are not really fitting in with the group unless you believe in some higher power (who many say they choose to be God). People will tell you it’s OK to believe a tree is keeping you sober, and that’s just not right. Of course, the tree is just temporary, you just have to “fake it until you make it”. OK, I’m pissed all over again about this, as I was a continuous member for 15 years up until about a year ago. I’ll stop ranting now.

  • A3Kr0n

    Still, their Big Book mentions God 59 times. It also blatantly rejects evolution in favor of a creator in the chapter To The Agnostics.

  • A3Kr0n

    The fellowship of sober people kept me sober. My sponsor is still my best friend even though I don’t go to any meetings anymore. We’re going to get hair cuts and breakfast tomorrow morning.

  • Jesus Fucking Christ

    I believe that the whole god bullshit is even more harmful because it removes personal responsibility. I don’t know how many meetings I’ve been to where I’ve heard someone say, “I really wanted to drink so I decided to leave it up to god, he’s the one in the driver’s seat”. I just want to shake these people until they feel drunk from the brain damage incurred! If hadn’t found an atheist meeting, I guarantee I would be out drinking right now. Two years sober, by the way.

  • lliu


    The Church has 2000 years if violence and hate behind it. Now just because the new pope gave some half-assed lip service to everyone else who inhabits the planet, we’re supposed to be best buds? No thanks.

  • slaq

    It’s simple really.

    Vulnerable people make the best converts.

  • Ibis3

    I get the impression (disclaimer: as an outsider) that not only is the whole “higher power” thing problematic, but the indoctrination of dependence upon *the group* is akin to an addiction. The message is: You are powerless. You are sinful (the 12 steps seem to all be variations on: you are diseased, corrupt, and have done wrong). You will fail unless you come to meetings. You will fail unless you submit to us. You will fail unless your life is lived on our terms. It’s very much a cult. There doesn’t seem to be much science involved, not much rationality about the addict’s situation and what can be done to overcome it (for example, treating it as a medical problem and, in many cases, self-medication for a mental health issue). It’s very black and white: YOU WERE BORN A SINNER, and we have the only answer (THERE IS NO CURE; YOU WILL BE A SUPPLICANT FOR EVER). Blech. It’s just Christianity with different wrapping paper and less genocide and overt misogyny.

  • ecolt

    My atheist boyfriend actually found AA’s reliance on a higher power to make it harder to stay sober – by putting an external force in charge he could basically make the excuse that it wasn’t really his fault when he relapsed. For him, he also found meetings largely unhelpful (he says that when he wanted to drink the last thing he needed was to be around a bunch of people who talked about nothing but drinking). AA’s belief that to be sober a person cannot use any mind-altering chemicals was also problematic – he is disabled and in constant pain so he does need something to treat that (while he used to self-medicate with alcohol he’s now on a prescription painkiller, which as a narcotic is at odds with AA’s dogmatic stance on what constitutes sobriety) and finds a small amount of marijuana to be helpful in lessening the anxiety that often made him drink. By AA’s standards using these substances and not handing over responsibility to a higher power means he’s doomed to failure, but he’s had far more success by essentially doing the exact opposite of what AA says is necessary.

    Instead of using a higher power as an excuse, he has taken full responsibility for both his drinking and what he has to do to stay sober. Instead of going to meetings, he talks to me or his best friend (also a recovering alcohol and drug addict) and focuses on how sobriety has improved his life and relationships. Using Buddhist teachings (meditation to promote mindfulness, which is not conditional on any belief in a deity or any kind of specific mythology or cosmology) he has looked inward to examine the causes of his alcoholism and what he needs to do to stay sober. Mindfulness allows him to not only be aware of when he’s thinking about drinking, but also to refocus his mind on why he wants to stay sober instead. For him, the only way to stay sober is by taking full responsibility for his actions and state of mind. He realizes that no one, be it a “higher power” or another person, can keep him sober but himself, just like no one else was responsible for his drinking in the first place. While he is from a family that made him both genetically and environmentally predisposed to alcohol abuse, he acknowledges that he made the choice to drink even after seeing the effects it had on his family members and that now he’s making a choice to be sober.

    AA never worked for him; every time he used that as a way to stay sober he began drinking again within months. But by taking full responsibility for his actions and mental state, the exact opposite of what AA’s belief in a higher power teaches, he’s stayed sober with virtually no desire to drink. Instead of the constant fight AA expects sobriety to be, he’s actually become repulsed by the idea of even being around alcohol. I’m not saying it’s always been easy, but rejecting AA’s idea of a higher power and instead focusing on his own choices and state of mind has been far more helpful to him than meetings and prayers ever were.

  • ecolt

    A close friend of mine who was in AA (now sober for over two years) joked early in her recovery that AA just replaces one addiction with another. She was talking about how there is always coffee at meetings and everyone she knew who went to AA drank caffeine continuously. It’s just as easily applied to religion, though. Instead of needing alcohol or drugs to get through your day, they tell you that you need a higher power. Just like an alcoholic can’t function without booze, an AA member can’t function without a deity (and a cup of black coffee).

  • Robster

    The spanking new (though quite mature) pope is developing quite a veneer of humility. A veneer is all it is though, he still hates gays and Africans, still believes the jesus nonsense, still believes he’s eating and drinking the baby jesus at church on Sunday and in his case, probably doing the make the wine and crackers into jesus failed magic trick to boot. This is still a silly deluded old man who’s spent his empty life believing in and selling absurd nonsense as if it actually means something and is in some way significant. Pope Frank is more of the same old, same old, only in sandals not red booties.

  • ecolt

    That’s great advise if you live in an area that has a lot of groups to choose from. For people living in less heavily populated areas (which also tend to be the most heavily religious areas) it’s not an option to just find another group because there’s only one or two to chose from. In my hometown there was only one AA group and they met in a church. From what I heard from people who had gone, the group was heavily Christian. There were only two or three other groups in the whole county and most had similar membership. To find a more accepting group, a non-theist or even non-Christian would have had to drive at least an hour away. So while you can say people just shouldn’t go to a meeting where people focus on god, the reality is that many people don’t have any other option.

  • ecolt

    Most 12-step programs follow a similar approach to AA. Even if their specific literature is more sane, the steps themselves are usually pretty much the same, including the whole surrendering to a higher power bit. NA’s 12 steps are the same as AA’s, and most of them revolve around a higher power and specifically name it as capital-g-god. The bit about “as we understand him” is lipservice to religions that don’t have a single male deity and a lack of belief, according to them, pretty much ensures failure.

  • Randay

    Cheech and Chong had a skit where they meet an ex-druggy who wanted to talk to them about Jesus and said in a somewhat stoned voice something like, “Man, I used to be fucked up on drugs, and now I am fucked up on Jesus.”

  • Orson Sedmina

    Thank goodness I live in Ontario, Canada where our medical system advances quantitative study on actual physiological and psychological treatment of substance addiction. Although AA and similar groups are available in my area, so are the services of, where clinically trained councilors use empirically proven methods to help combat substance abuse and addiction. I have gone through counselling myself, without a whiff of any superstitious-speak (which would have been highly disheartening to the others in my group as well considering their varied and multicultural backgrounds). I found that the single most satisfying, substantial, convincing and effectual aspect of the group was the clinical evidence that was presented by the councilor that convinced me and my fellow group members of the validity of the methods of treatment. When thought of in a mental and physical health perspective, addiction treatment returns vastly better outcomes – all without mention of any sort of superstition.

  • Luke Allport-Cohoon

    because by giving in to a higher power you are given the strength to overcome the addiction. basically, the message is that you are too weak on your own to fight addiction.

  • Smokey Butts

    Not to mention the “gauntlet of cancer” you have to walk through to get into the meetings; of course I refer to the miasma and cloud of cigarette smoke from the addicts all puffing away, substituting one addiction for another.

  • Kirby_G

    And lets not even get into Narconon, which is a Scientology front.

  • Jason Harris

    I also share the same experience with AA and the addiction community in general. I suffered horribly with alcohol and prescription medication addiction as well as borderline personality disorder. For a span of 2 years I was hospitalized nearly 20 times including over 10 different stints in detox and mental health units. I had also done 2 stints in long term rehab facilities but almost all of those programs taught nothing but Christianity. During my stays in treatment I meant people from all walks of life and heard stories of rape, addiction, abuse, violence and other scary things and saw many bad things too. Seemingly the only answer for all these horrible things was it simply was no more than Gods Plan. It didn’t matter how terrifying life became for most of the people around me because God loved them and since it was all God Plan there was no talk of bettering yourself because God was going to do it and when you relapsed you just said sorry to God and carried on. I was very open about my Atheism and in one outpatient program I was in, I was refused the certificate of completion even though I had attended all of my doctors appointments and group meetings because I would not swear on the 12 steps of AA. After that I had entered a 30 day treatment facility and quickly found out that it was all Christian based. I was casted out and treated like trash basically, I had asked an employee at the facility for more paper work or even extra written work of any kind in place of having to attend prayer and was told if I didn’t believe in God that I could just believe in my walkman and pray to that. From that point on they had done everything they could to make it miserable for me and they did, I eventually left early because the conditions of the facility were too much. I had gotten in with the behavioral health unit at a local hospital and luckily was paired up with younger professionals who didn’t demand religion, it took some time but now I am over a year sober with no rough patches and have done it without a single therapy session or AA. I have so much more I could say and offer on this topic but I wanted to say thank you for this piece and for others stories because I have been there as a non believer and I know the feeling of being the odd one out and it’s not good but we can always change for the better and that change comes at our hands and our minds not in wishful thinking.

  • CanadaGoose

    Your best hope is to try and get sober in a big city. Right after I started going to meetings I ran into a friend who gave me good advice on how to get past the religious stuff. New York City had some atheist/agnostic meetings and a number where the attendees were mostly atheist/agnostic. This was many years ago (1980s). When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area meetings that weren’t overtly religious were harder to find but I did.
    I don’t attend meetings any more.

  • Pjay (Patti) Pender

    Yes, yes, but why would anyone think this made sense? What it REALLY does is allow the drunk to abdicate responsibility.

  • Octavia Guerra

    I am speaking as someone in recovery, with almost nine months clean. I identify as an atheist and am a part of NA. When you admit that you’re powerless, you’re not abdicating responsibility. You’re admitting that you’re powerless to control the disease of addiction. Addiction is not a manifestation of a weak will – it’s a medical condition ( If anything, after admitting that you cannot control your disease (which seems like it would be obvious, but cultural misunderstandings of addiction keep the addict blaming him- or herself for “failing”), you finally START taking responsibility for your actions, which is an integral part of 12-Step programs. One of my favorite mantras that I picked up is “I’m not responsible for my addiction, but I am responsible for my recovery,”

  • Octavia Guerra

    I can’t disagree with you more strongly. I’m in NA and an atheist, and the “God of your understanding” is not just lip service. I find it incredibly frustrating that so many comments on this topic are speaking from a rudimentary or cursory understanding of what’s involved (with no experience or education), and taking words that are used (like “God”) at face value, rather than analyzing what they mean in context. To me, that kind of armchair theorizing is just as bad as Christian pastors spouting off that “they know” what the Bible means because “God” told them.

  • Octavia Guerra

    That’s horrible that they took a name so close to Nar-Anon (which is a support group for family members of narcotic addicts).

  • Octavia Guerra

    I am in NA and identify as an atheist, and struggled with the concept of the Higher Power until I realized that “the group” or “the program” were explicitly identified as interpretations of a Higher Power. That was incredibly liberating – the Christian God has no place in my recovery, and that’s part of the program. I conceptualize my higher power as “community” (or “fellowship”) generally, and “sisterhood” (community with women) specifically. I believe that the use of “God” in NA and AA aren’t the result of attempts to proselytize, but are the result of limitations of our language. Religion has co-opted spirituality in a such a way that “praying,” “faith,” and “belief” are all words with heavily religious connotations, even though the concepts that underpin them are not necessarily religious. Congratulations on your sobriety.

  • Octavia Guerra

    I would really encourage you to read the literature of NA (I’m more familiar with this) and see if it changes your views as expressed above. Addiction is a complicated disease and, based on my experiences with it, I believe you may not understand what’s involved. I have never been to an NA meeting in which “this is the only way” is espoused – in fact, one of the basic tenets of NA is to pursue a policy of “attraction, not promotion.” Recovering addicts I’ve met in the program are among the most humble and self-aware people I’ve ever met anywhere – they’re not about to force their solution on anyone, and take great pains to explain “this is what works for me, it might not work for you, you have to figure that out for yourself.”

  • bickle2

    All these organizations are centereed around replacing your drug of choice with Jesus. That’s how they operate. They’re simply pushing an endorphin high instead of an exterior chemical one. Someone I know went to a hospital based group (secular hospital). I don’t know if it was free, but I know that it was not grounded in religion

  • donsevers
  • MickeyMadison

    I love that last quote!

    In my experiences as an alcoholic and addict when you try to “fix” yourself THAT is when you have the most difficult time with addiction… Most addicts are that way because they have anger or dislike towards themselves… the disease itself is conflicting in that while it is a physical issue it affects your mind.

    Compare it to Alzheimer’s… many people with Alzheimer’s begin the disease by being told they are stupid or beating them selves up because they can’t recall things… How does someone with a condition like that get better by trying to “fix” it through self will. Once one (or their family) accepts that this is something that WON’T go away (as much as we all wish it would) that is when healing, coping and moving forward can begin… By accepting who you are.

    My favorite mantra: “Our idea of ourselves keeps us from the truth of who we are.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

  • MickeyMadison

    Buddhists believe that power is in oneself and not external deities right? Kind of amazing how it is one of the most respected Eastern belief systems (by Westerners) while Atheism, which is very similar in many ways, is so looked down upon.