Atheists Anonymous

by: James Di Fiore

Fact: In the last 15 years, the percentage of people who claim to be Atheists has grown from 8% to 16%, making them the fastest growing minority in North America. Let’s just hope most of them don’t drink heavily.

Recently, after coming to grips with my own possible alcohol problem, I decided to attend a few AA meetings to feel out if I was an addict or just a person who drank a bit too much. Truthfully, I still do not know the answer – but one aspect of attending these meetings stayed with me more than the horrible black coffee served free of charge. The entire AA mantra is built around God.

Now, I was raised Roman Catholic from a scholastic standpoint, but at an early age I dismissed the idea of god as just another fairy tale. It just appeared to be so implausible that i couldn’t bring myself to believe. I suppose you could say that i am a rationalist, but I am more of a left brained thinker and spend little time looking at science and mathematics. Perhaps a good way to describe my religious beliefs is through a term coined by Christopher Hitchens, one of the foremost intellectuals on the subject of religious history and secular rights on the planet. He describes himself as an Anti-theist – a term describing not just a disbelief in a supernatural dictatorship, but a complete contempt for the idea as a whole. If there is a god, Hitchens says, it would be the most disappointing realization I could ever fathom.

So imagine my disappointment when I arrived at my first AA meeting and listened to every last one of the members cite God as their main source of well being. The history of AA reveals that while the founders were staunch Christian fundamentalists, the definition of ‘higher power’ often referenced is apparently flexible enough to be at the discretion of the alcoholic. That sounds great, but when the entire room rises to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the end of each meeting, just before they break out the collection plates a la Sunday Mass, all bets are off.

It left me scrambling for a position regarding both my problem with alcohol and my wonderment as to whether or not an Atheist is able to seek help from AA without actually believing in a higher power. As it currently stands, AA is not a secular organization. It is an organization that, while helpful to many people, leaves Atheists out in the dark, challenging their belief systems in a way that holds their alcoholism hostage until they can readily admit that a God is what they need to get sober. I found the experience to be less helpful and more cult-ish, to be blunt.

In any event, I will continue to explore my own drinking habits and eventually come to a place where i am either completely sober or in control of my drinking. But I will be the first to say that while AA has helped millions of people, they seem to be leaving the fastest growing demographic on the continent high and dry.

Stay tuned on a future post where I explore the political consequences of Atheism.



  1. An atheist co-worker of mine regards me as a “budding atheist”.

    Like you and alcohol, I dabble in atheism, occasionally drinking from the god-less bottle a little too deeply. Atheism’s appeal is its dependence and its emphasis, on intellect, on science, on proof.

    Religion constantly tells me to avoid doubt, avoid curiosity, ignore the lack of proof and “live by faith” and just “believe” — but religion’s biggest downfall is its emphasis on the LACK of intellect.

    That’s where they lose me and I start reading Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens all over again…


    1. The term “religion” isn’t anywhere near as neatly defined as “that which is the alternative to science” as you guys seem to think. In Islam, for example, there has always been a HUGE emphasis on what we would still term scientific erudition in whatever form and level of development it existed. In addition, many shitloads of peeps of many shades of theisms are scientifically minded and see no reason to exclude the equally distinct possibility that the scientifically discovered world of observable phenomena (and its attendant sidecar of the theoretical) are ultimately mapping/making sense of a Grand Architect’s blueprint, so to speak, and applying the confirmed laws of the physical universe with ingenuity to progress technologically and intellectually.

      It seems pretty stupid to think that if someone believes that existence owes its origin to some Originator, he or she must also believe that it all happened magically—or that any of it bears any resemblance to pictures on chapel ceilings or in stained-glass windows. If this is the type of religious “thought” you have been exposed to, I don’t blame you for being “anti-theist.”

      Taking fringe lunatics, sure—“religion” “constantly” tells you the things you assert. However, I would take those people and their assertions the same way that a sober scientist would take a propagator of pseudoscience or junk science (or bookstore-bestseller science). But who in his or her right mind, despite being “religious,” would tell you not to have curiosity or doubt?

      There is a tremendous difference between having “faith” (belief on the basis of subjective, non-externally demonstrable experiential grounds) that there is a single point of sentient and non-sentient origination of the universe—“God”—and having “faith” that a passage of the Old Testament is somehow applicable today and should not be questioned.

      Perhaps my having looked into and thought about these things at length is unrealistic to expect anyone other than one who is naturally interested to do. But SOMETHING is afoot: we find ourselves in this state called “existence” and it’s kind of pretty fucking important to try to figure out just what is going on. I think it would be foolish not to implement—critically and intelligently, albeit un-jadedly—all the resources of science and history and cultural and religious philosophy that we have at our disposal.

      That’s why I drink so fucking much.

      Thanks in advance for tolerating a response longer than the blog itself. Love and kisses to you all.


  2. I’m not sure what to say to this. Are you put off that AA’s success is not available to those who reject the core, paradigmatic basis on which the system works? Perhaps the proudly touted “anti-theist” sentiment of automatic contempt hinders your sensibility on this.

    It’s a Christian thing. So what? It is very helpful to people who can buttress themselves with such values and teachings about the universe and humankind’s role in it, which includes their relationship to what they see as the Creator. In order not to alienate those of other “faiths,” they tone down the Christian focus and try to adopt a “neutral theism,” or at least one that’s as inclusive as the group’s members need it to be. However, they are not going to deny the roots completely just so that non-Christian members find it “fair.”

    But you were not taking the fight to them; you were just relaying your experience in trying AA and your thoughts about it. You were saying that the similarity to church is the primary reason for your alienation and, as such, the reason you are not planning on going back to another AA meeting to find out if you are an alcoholic.

    I’ve thought about going myself, but the thing that has stopped ME is the thought of committing myself to being around a bunch of emotionally clingy fucking people who can’t shut up about their weaknesses whenever I meet them in real life.


  3. It is less about feeling ‘put off’ and more about the fundamental staple of the organization that quite literally prevents Atheists from ever succeeding in AA. There is no way around this. None.

    That isn’t to say that AA does not help lots of people who either believe in god or end up believing – and that’s great…for them.

    Perhaps there is a need for another therapeutic organization that does not require users to have non-Atheistic beliefs.

    You have to understand – hearing a Christian prayer is equal to me hearing a Muslim prayer, Satanist, Jewish…whatever. I truly believe that all of them are are crazy and philosophically unproductive. So to then ask me, in the first of 12 steps…the FIRST – that I must believe in a higher power to succeed, they automatically eliminate me from succeeding.


  4. I’m not sure even a quote-unquote cold atheist can deem some of the great world religions as “philosophically unproductive.” One would have to be selectively ignoring a lot. I suppose that it’s unfortunate that often only the polar extremes get brought into consideration—the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades on the one hand and the saints and Mother Teresas on the other.

    Anyway. Of course believe or disbelieve what you want on the basis of what makes sense to you. I just meet many people who seem to have locked in on what I would call “grudge-atheism.” I worried that perhaps the anti-theist position might be more akin to that than something more … respectable.

    I almost commented before on the subject of “another therapeutic organization that does not require users to have non-Atheistic beliefs.” I think that is actually the salient point of this blog entry. I guess the advantage AA has over an atheistic counterpart is that in utilizing the “God” belief system, AA gives its members a huge common ground to replace their OTHER huge common ground (you know, alcoholism). So if you could find something like that not of the “God” nature that atheists could implement with a high success rate, then you would have a contender. AAA?

    Peace, broham.


  5. Actually, I think the more one learns about most religions, the more one doubts. Most of them, especially Christianity, are recycled stories from thousands of years before, told to people as a way of interpreting the stars. I am separating the Spanish Inquisition and Mother Theresa (who I still think was more of a brand name than anything else) and focusing entirely on the likelihood that such a god exists. I have not seen any ample evidence that supports the idea of blind faith.

    Being an Anti-Theist means that the idea of god, under whatever religious sect, is a negative one to me. The Bible is far from being merciful, not to mention extremely violent, and in many ways commands the reader to both fear and love god. To borrow another Hitchens quote, “The idea of a celestial dictator who can hear my thoughts, tell me what I can eat or who i can have sex with, is not my idea of anything beautiful whatsoever.” I simply feel better believing that i will not have to worship an entity when I die. And even if i somehow manipulate my idea of god as some sort of universal energy instead, it is still a stretch for me and seems irrational.

    In any event, AA is just like church. You hear sermons about suffering, you say prayers and praise god, recite the Lord’s Prayer and give money to people putting collection plates in front of you. I see it almost as the equivalent to the missionary groups who offer starving Africans some food if they convert.


    1. Fair enough on the last point. I don’t remotely disagree.

      On the first mentioned, of course the opposite has been the case with me, as you know. But I guess I look at the pinnacles of the teachings and never put much stock into the historical claims. As such, I have absolutely no interest in the Old Testament as a work of religious thought, and the “Bible” you referred to seems to be the Old Testament. So we’re not even talking about the same thing as we come to our disparate views.

      Anyway. It’s time to get off the toilet probably.



  6. oddmanic
    I just stumbled on your story here and was amazed that I had just asked the following to a AA group I subscribe to. Interestingly enough, there have been no takers for 20 hours. The silence is almost deafening. I thought I would just share it as i can agree with much you (and others) say here.
    But not all………

    Atheist took me to Atheism.
    In Wikipedia it says “….position that there are no deities.
    So just to be sure, I had to click on deities which took me to “god”.
    Of course that sort of ticked me off. Still.
    Can you believe it? Old habits?
    Within that article is the word deity again.
    That took me to “…supernatural immortal being.”
    Aw, geezz, I can’t win here.
    The word “Being” is my issue and while I could never presuppose to describe to you my HP (no I’m not an atheist, although now I’m a bit confused with the terminology), I’m pretty sure it would not include the word “being”.
    Further down I was somewhat appeased with other descriptions.
    The whole purpose of this diatribe is actually a question.
    Has anyone ever had contact with an AA with solid, content sobriety that is proclaimed true total Atheist?
    I know some people say it is an impossibility, but I’m not too fond of that word either. Particularly now that I have seen the definition is so broad.

    Sober for 29 years thanks to the principles learned in AA.


  7. Hi,

    How fortuitous I found this blog. I had a compulsive gambling addiction upto 2006. I was and still am agnostic as I think atheism is itself a negating term and agnosticism captures the quintessence of seeking and inquiry to even question the presuppositions and effectiveness of atheism, the certainty of (scientific) truth, and that it doesn’t take itself that seriously:)

    The compulsion to gamble took me to a space of desperation and I opted to go to a rehab run by the salvation army. In my first meeting with older sober members one commented that atheism makes it very hard to become abstinent from addiction, and later another older sober member said that he was in a phase of not believing in a god. Within the twelve step program there is flexibilty in that they accept all comers to the meetings.

    During my 8 month stay in rehab i fought the indoctrination to a salvationist christianity and walked out prior to my “graduation”.

    In my time out of rehab i had slipped and relapsed at times into the same old negative habits BUT on my last days prior to leaving the rehab one of the counsellors gave me a photocopy of a website regarding NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programing)

    I went to a Master Trainer and had done some changework with him and I can affirm that in over a year I have spent only $15 in gambling. Make of that what you will.

    I guess if you’re an atheist of the rationalist persuasion NLP may be more appealing than AA as it is based on psycho-linguistics (a little more academically minded than religion) and if your trainer-change worker is good, it will impact positively on your thoughts, feelings and experiences around your relationship to alcohol intake.

    What I personally like about NLP is that its notion of truth is not logocentric, truth is proven by affectiveness. The trainer will use the whatever works, works approach, so that even if you were a christian looney, the nlp change worker would deal on your level to get to the keyholes of the unconscious where the changework takes place.

    I wish you the best and thanks for the interesting blog.

    Bon chance 🙂


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