“When I went to AA, there was too much religion in AA.”

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen 

Roger C. is the Founder of AA Agnostica. I did not know about it, so I decided out to fill in my ignorance. Here we talk about his life, AA, the 12 steps, God, and the foundation of AA Agnostica.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is your personal background?

Roger C.: I grew up as a Catholic. My parents were Catholic. I went to church regularly. At about the age of 19, I remember this well. I realized that people that I thought understood everything about the world, like the Catholic priest and my parents, didn’t understand the world.

I even at the time wrote a little essay about spiritual pygmies. I set out to discover the meaning of life and the world on my own. I did various things to achieve that. I became a Transcendental Meditation teacher. I spent time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Europe.

I ended up going into the faculty of religious studies in McGill in an attempt to explore the nature of existence and the meaning of my life and the meaning of existence itself. That is what I did.

Jacobsen: How did you find the AA community as well as the AA Agnostica community?

Roger: Over time, the existential angst of my existence led to my drinking. It was to numb myself. It was a form of dulling things out. So, I drank, and drank, and drank. In fact, probably, times when I was the drunkest was most often when I was at the faculty of religious studies at McGill.

Eventually, after drinking for close to 40 years, I realized with the help of a few friends that I was going to die, so I stopped drinking. I was tossed into rehab. I quit drinking. The rehab facility that I went to had a lot of connection with AA, so I started going to AA meetings.

While I was at the McGill meetings, I was the resident atheist. I didn’t believe in the Christian God: “Our Father who art in heaven.” When I went to AA, there was too much religion in AA. The suggested program is the 12 steps. 6 of them refer to God or Him with a capital “H” or a higher power, capital “P.”

Many of the meetings ended in the Lord’s Prayer. I couldn’t stand it. My exploration of the world as I understood it until then was that this was non-sense. After about 6 months, I thought, “I am going to start drinking again. I can’t keep going to these meetings.”

I almost accidentally went to a meeting for Agnostics and Atheists AA. I did that for about a year of sobriety. That’s not true, about 6 months. I went to the meeting of about 20 or 30 people. They went around the table.

They shared and talked about different topics. There was no God. I went out and said, “I’m saved.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Roger: It turned out to be what I needed. I needed to be in a group of people and share and be honest. So, that’s what did it for me. I have been involved in the secular movement in AA for, well, quite some time. 6 years ago, I started a website called AA Agnostica, which was for non-believers: atheists, agnostics, freethinkers in AA.

Wow! It took off. People would come to it. There is a slogan in AA, “I am no longer alone.” They would come to it and feel no longer alone. Things developed, I am not claiming to be the creator of this wave.

Not just in AA, but across the world, those who are considered Nones. The movements grew: when I first started, there were 70 meetings for atheists and agnostics (AA). Today, there is well over 400. There have been two international conferences.

In 2014, one was in Santa Monica, California; in 2016, there was an international conference in Austin, Texas. In 2018, the International Conferences for Atheists and Agnostics in AA will be in Toronto.

It is a growing movement. It is a popular movement. It is a huge relief that this movement exists for a huge number of people. So, there we have it.

Jacobsen: Does your experience reflect many, many others that you have met or read about with respect to AA and alternatives to it?

Roger: I have certainly met a number of people who have the same feelings as I have. In the Big Book, the book called Alcoholics Anonymous, the first 164 pages talk about God a lot and how God is going to be the source of our recovery.

In fact, in a chapter called “How It Works?”, there’s a section that ends, “Probably no other power could relieve our alcoholism, but God could and would if He were sought.” There is an enormous number of people who buy that or should – at all – because it’s not true.

We tap inner resources and other people. Most people in AA and in the secular areas say that the major factor in recovery is fellowship and support of other human beings and who understand the problem and how to help you deal with that problem.

We in secular AA celebrate the many, many paths to recovery because every human being will be unique in how he or she manages to put aside the alcoholism and put aside the addiction and to live a life without drugs or alcohol.

So, I think there is an enormous group of people and it is growing all of the time. There is a traditional AA that is highly religious. They don’t call themselves religious, but I mean if you end the meeting with Lord’s Prayer you’re religious.

Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of AA. He realized at some point that the religiosity in the 12 steps that have God or a Higher Power, or Him, in them 6 times (6 out of 12 steps). The religiosity in the 12 steps and the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was a problem for people. 20 years after writing that book, which was written in 1939. Many people still treat it as a Bible in AA.

Bill Wilson ~20 years later in 1961 in a Grapevine article titled “The Dilemma of No Faith” wrote, “In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking with this sort of unconscious arrogance. God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.”

I am now with roughly 7 years of sobriety and 6 years of operating a website of interest to people. Atheists and agnostics in AA around the world. They will certainly affirm the emphasis on God has been fatal for a number of people who will just go into the meeting and be confronted with the 12 steps and the idea that your only way of getting sober is God.

They will walk about the meeting and never come back. Some of them…some of them don’t survive. I think, for me, [Laughing] and for where I am at and from the faculty of religious studies at McGill, one of the things I learned there and strongly believe is that don’t care what you believe.

I really do not believe. What I really cannot tolerate is if you try to force those beliefs onto other people, the thing about AA is that you insist that you have to…findGod. I don’t mind if someone believes in God and as a result stays sober.

I don’t believe in God and I stay sober. I don’t try to force my view on anyone else. I don’t want them to force their view on me. That’s an important part to me about dogmatism.

Jacobsen: Of the narratives in your time that you have come across in AA or AA Agnostica, what has been the most emotionally moving, whether positive or tragic?

Roger: For me, the most positive thing, and this has a little bit to do with going to the conferences in Santa Monica and Austin, the support you receive from other people. They are delighted to be with you and share their views and aspirations and hope.

The things in their lives that keep them sober without having to be dishonest in any way. The whole element of honesty to me is a kind of grace in life. [Laughing] I like using words like that.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Roger: What I am getting at, after several years sober and realizing that I still hadn’t figured out what my life is all about or what existence is all about, that I can still respect who I am, be who I am, and I can be and share and live and work in a constructive fashion with other human beings.

To me, that is it. The honesty has been the most compelling, the most moving, the most dramatic, the most powerful part of being an atheist or an agnostic in AA and being with other people who aren’t going to attack me as a consequence. That’s it.

Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Roger: Actually, no, that’s the summary of what went and is going on. What I want to do, AA Agnostica, the website I created has done, has created 8 books by 4 people in recovery. They are secular and are for atheists and agnostics. One is called Do Tell.

There are fifteen by women and fifteen by men. It describes their life in recovery without God. For me, as I go forward, I look for constructive and productive ways to help other people and in doing so to help myself.

That would be my conclusion. It is very much an AA idea. It is the 12th step if it were. We share it with others in the hopes of helping them. That is what the website and books are all about, to reach out and to be of use to other human beings who have problems with drugs or alcohol.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Roger.

Roger: Alright! Thank you, Scott.

Image Credit: The Blue Diamond Gallery.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

4 thoughts on ““When I went to AA, there was too much religion in AA.”

  1. According to the independent research, 12 Step, abstinence only programs have, at best, a 5-7% success rate, suggesting that they do more harm than good. God or not, it seems like a bad idea to endorse them at all.

    • AA has a poor record of getting people sober if they don’t want to get sober. Many who come to AA do so under duress, pressured by courts, parents, spouses or employers.

      People who walk around the gym once looking at the equipment don’t get fit from that. AA had helped millions to get sober, and the 12 steps have been copycatted by dozens of other groups, so millions more have been helped to overcome problems with cocaine, gambling, heroin, overeating and other compulsive behaviors.

      The real stat for those with a degree of commitment is around 30%.

  2. Secular AA has been personally very helpful for me; I’m having a better that 5% success rate (lol). In 2009, an AA meeting for atheists and agnostics started with some local Toronto members who rented a room at OISE (U of Toronto). Roger was one of the early newcomers to that Thursday night group, Beyond Belief.

    He liked it so much, he started his own We Agnostics AA meeting in Hamilton and in Ontario, there are meetings sprinkled from Windsor to Ottawa. Halifax/Dartmouth has a meeting. Major cities in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have secular meetings, too.

    An AA slogan is, “If you want to drink and can, that’s your business. If you want to quit, but can’t, that’s our business; try AA.” AA is never on a membership drive; it’s there for those who want it. For a list of atheist/agnostic/freethinkers meetings, check out http://www.secularaa.org

    The Beyond Belief meeting at U of T now meets Monday and Saturday, too. While the more religious variety of AA is still popular, more of these God-free, prayer-free AA meetings are popping up across North America every week.

    Thanks to Scott and Roger for this thoughtful article.

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