When I first met Erica in March of 2015, her confidence was shaken, her sobriety was fragile, and she was facing a life or death situation. She needed to stop drinking, and having experienced past success in AA, she felt it was still her best hope. Yet, something was different this time, and it frightened her. She no longer felt that the AA program could work for her. You see, when Erica came back after a long relapse, she realized that she was an atheist, and the “God Talk” in meetings made it seem that sobriety was out of reach. The feelings of hopelessness that brought her back to AA only intensified, and she was afraid, and she was angry.
Not feeling comfortable in the rooms of AA, she started looking for a new group, and as she browsed the meeting directory on our Central Office website, she ran across a group named “We Agnostics”. Intrigued, and not knowing about secular AA, Erica came to our meeting and immediately felt as if she had come home.
Today, Erica is sober, confident, and secure. She has an understanding of the Twelve Steps that work for her, and she is comfortable at any AA meeting—even with the “God Talk”. She’s an open atheist in Alcoholics Anonymous, and she has been a tremendous ambassador for our group, helping bridge the divide between secular and traditional AA.
Her transformation was incredible, though not at all uncommon in AA. It’s what happens when we recover when we experience an entire psychic change. Paraphrasing Doctor Silkworth’s words from the Doctor’s Opinion, “Our old ideas and attitudes are replaced with a new set of conceptions.” This is precisely what happened with Erica.
Watching other people recover and to share in their happiness is one of the great joys we experience in AA, and that’s how it’s been for me to watch Erica’s recovery. One day at a time, one meeting at a time, she shared her experience with us, and we with her, and together we stayed sober. That I think is the magic of AA, and it’s true for the believer and nonbeliever alike. Since AA’s beginning, there has never been any doubt, that one alcoholic sharing his or her experience with another, is the true essence of Alcoholics Anonymous.
While attending meetings at our group, Erica met other nonbelievers who were staying sober, and this gave her something she badly needed—hope. And hope is everything for an alcoholic in early recovery. She got a sponsor and went to work on the steps. At that time, many of us were reading Marya Hornbacher’s Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, and I remember that Erica in particular loved this book. It gave her a way to make sense of the steps as a nonbeliever.
Inspired by Marya’s book and other books as well, Erica wrote her own version of the Twelve Steps. I remember the night when she brought them to the meeting. She was absolutely beaming with happiness. I think the breakthrough of knowing with certainty that AA could work for her was a relief, and this showed throughout her entire countenance.
Erica knew that if she was going to recover, she would need to rely on resources beyond her own power. This would include AA as well as other outside resources, and out of necessity, it would also include traditional AA with its prayers and “God Talk”. She learned to look past the small differences and to instead focus on our shared experience, and the actions that we undertake through the Steps.
I share Erica’s understanding that in AA, the action is more important than belief. In Bill’s Story, in the Big Book, there is a line that reads, “Faith without works is dead… and how appallingly true for the alcoholic!” This perhaps is even more true for us nonbelievers. Though we may have “faith”, or if you prefer “trust” in AA, we need to do the work, otherwise, it’s meaningless. Erica is doing the work.
Coming out as an atheist in AA can sometimes be a difficult proposition. There’s a fear that the group won’t accept us, and it goes against our grain to defy the majority view. It’s so much easier to just go along, but like Erica and many of us have found, we simply can’t just go along. We need to be honest when we share in meetings, we need to be who we really are. Erica came out slowly over time. She tested the waters and over the course of a year, she was finally fully out as an atheist at her new homegroup. The experience was positive for her, and she now has friendships in the program with people of faith. She respects their views and they respect her’s. Nobody is trying to convert or convince the other.
Erica’s participation in traditional AA has done a lot of good for our secular AA community here. The Freethinkers AA group in Kansas City may not even exist, if not for Erica going to another group and telling people about We Agnostics. She’s also done a lot to educate people at her current home group about secularists in AA, and many of them attended the recent anniversary celebration for our groups where they heard Roger C. talk about the history of secularism in AA.
I admire Erica for courageously coming out as an atheist in traditional AA, and for serving as a great example for secular AA. It was a genuine pleasure to sit down with her at my kitchen table and to talk over coffee about her journey.
I hope her story inspires and helps someone out there who may be listening to this podcast.