Editor´s note: this article first appeared in High and Dry, newsletter of Seattle AA, in October 2004.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a big tent. Despite the emphasis on God and a Higher Power, there´s room inside for atheists and agnostics, as witness the three meetings listed in the Intergroup schedule.
It´s a stretch, if one looks closely at what the Big Book says. Even the chapter, "We Agnostics," is essentially an evangelical statement urging those who have no spiritual belief system to get one. For example, on page 52 of that chapter: "…we had to stop doubting the presence of God. Our ideas did not work. But the God idea did."
But not to belabor the point, it´s a stretch that many alcoholics-and drug addicts-have made with great success. They have come inside A.A.´s big tent and live there comfortably with their beliefs. Official A.A. welcomes them inside by listing their meetings.
Two of the meetings use the euphemism, "alternative format," to describe themselves, though the Tuesday 5:30 p.m. meeting at the Capitol Hill Alano Club also spells it out: "Atheist/Agnostic (Alternate Format)." At the Matt Talbot Center on Fridays at 6:30, the meeting is "The Edge-Alternative Format." Freethinkers at the Leif Erickson Hall in Ballard Thursday at 6:15 uses no other description, leaving it to the name to make the point.
These meetings are quite unstructured-no reading from "How It Works," no Serenity Prayer at the end. Dick M., who was interviewed for this article, opens Freethinkers with a "Statement of Intent" which says in part: "This meeting is intended to provide a comfortable forum for those recovering from Addiction to alcohol and/or other drugs regardless of any spiritual or philosophical beliefs." It then cites the Third Tradition: "The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking."
Dick was a hard-drinking combat soldier who served with the 99th Division in Europe and the 1st Cavalry Division in Korea. "All that booze, that´s why we won," he says. "We were all drunk." Still, he won the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantry Badge. "I must have done something right." A curious side note to his Korean service: he was in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, of Little Big Horn fame, and the regimental commander was Colonel Custer, the famed general´s descendent.
Stateside, he continued his military career until retiring as a lieutenant colonel. He then followed a career as an insurance broker for many years. He specialized in high risk clients like explosives haulers and the Alaska oil fields, and says proudly he never had to pay a claim.
Dick joined A.A. on Oct. 9, 1991. He credits his decision to quit drinking to being forced into therapy by the courts. No spiritual experience, just a growing realization that his life was on a destructive path. He´d been jailed as a result of a family fight before going into therapy, but otherwise stayed out of the clutches of the law. As a matter of fact, he says that "Sobering up wasn´t hard to do. But if they´d told me to give up cigars, that would be tough." Now 81, he still likes his stogies.
Freethinkers, where he serves as "secretary and coffee maker," limits its discussion to the First Step, with emphasis on the second half: "…our lives had become unmanageable." "We´re supposed to be agnostic and atheist," Dick said, "but anybody that feels they need help is welcome." Freethinkers makes no distinction between types of addiction. Drug addicts are as welcome as booze addicts.
Two other people were interviewed for this article. Sharon A. and Allan A. live in a nudist resort near Issaquah. Allan has 28 years in the fellowship, and Sharon will reach her 20th birthday Oct. 27. They met at Old Fremont some time before their marriage in 1995.
A.A. is not their entire life. As Sharon says, "I always wanted adventures, and now I have them." She drove the family van and two grandchildren 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Canadian Arctic this summer while Allan rode his BMW motorcycle. She used to ride too, until she suffered a back injury in her job as a truck driver for the Seattle Times. She´s retired now, but spent 25 years schelpping the region´s leading daily.
Allan´s a mechanic. "Whatever you do with tools, I do it." He´s been riding motorcycles since 1948, and has suffered his share of what he calls "gravel tattoos," but fortunately for him, his most serious mishap occurred when he was sober. He had a flat tire on the front wheel of his bike, but "made it to the shoulder from the diamond lane before I went down." He escaped with a broken bone in his foot.
Allan is a hard-nosed atheist. "I don´t consider any alternative belief system. I´ve been a crusader at times, and if people get in my face, we can get into arguments. But otherwise, I just go along. I´ve learned to bite my lip-somewhat." He goes to all three alternative format meetings, long ride though it is from Issaquah to Seattle. I asked him if he´d thought of starting a meeting in his area. No, he said. There used to be one called the Bare Facts, but it has folded.
Both Sharon and Allan reject the idea of a Higher Power. "People say you can use a doorknob for your Higher Power," he said. "If they´re that contemptuous of religion, why do they believe in God? That chapter to the agnostic [in the Big Book] is condescending and lying for those of us who do not believe in God. I ignore it and concentrate on the First Step and First Tradition."
"There are miracles out there and the world is a wonderful place," Sharon said, "but it is not supernatural. It´s a wonderful world without God." Allan´s spin is different. "There are no miracles, only things out there that I don´t understand."
So how did they find sobriety?
For Sharon, it was through Alanon. She´d been drinking heavily enough to pass out until she began dating a recovering alcoholic. She quit drinking and joined Alanon to support him. When they broke up, she was forced to look at her own powerful urge to get blind drunk. "I was not happy to realize I was an alcoholic. I fought it tooth and nail. I had to decide whether I could live life without needing oblivion."
She began attending meetings at Old Fremont with the Back Room Sickies. That´s where she met Allan. Her sobriety date is Oct. 27, 1984.
Allan came in though transactional analysis. "I´d been treating depression for a long time with alcohol, Finally alcohol stopped working. I still couldn´t escape the depression, so I went into analysis. When the counselor smelled beer on my breath, she told me to quit within a week or stop wasting her time. I knew I´d never make it if I tried to wait a week, so I called A.A. March 17, 1976, and I´ve never had another drink."
The depression never lifted, though. "Ten years ago, the year I met Sharon, I spent eight months in locked wards at Harborview. I warned Sharon I could commit suicide at any time." It was not until he found an anti-depressant called Wellbutrin that the depression lifted and "I became sane again. That drug was the most significant discovery of my life. But A.A. kept me alive, A.A. and motorcycles."
Allan has helped Sharon raise her youngest daughter. "I taught her how to take charge, to be a parent," he said, and Sharon agrees. "I was a doormat. The kids spotted the difference right away."
Sharon goes to a variety of A.A. meetings. "I usually keep a low profile, but I speak up when there´s too much focus on Christian dogma. I try to remind people that this is a program of inclusion, not exclusion. I prefer meetings like ours where you don´t have to think about how you´re going to phrase your comments. Unfortunately, though, I´ve had to be careful what I say in some A.A.A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics) too.
"That distresses me. What works for you is your business. Don´t force your beliefs on others. Share them. You don´t have to force feed it to them."