This article first appeared in the October issue of Grapevine, the monthly magazine of Alcoholics Anonymous.
By Eric C.
Not only are there lots of atheists with decades of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous, there have always been atheists in foxholes.
A graduate of a Christian high school, I enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19. I had already discovered that the more I studied the scriptures and the more earnestly I prayed, the more I doubted the existence of any kind of God. I’ve rediscovered this many more times through the years.
Five years into what would become a 25-year career in the Marines, I was diagnosed by a physician as an “acute, chronic alcoholic.” A Vietnam veteran with an impeccable service record, I was hospitalized briefly and introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous.
I was happy when I was told at my first meeting that AA is “spiritual, not religious,” and “not allied with any sect or denomination.” But my spirits fell when the meeting began with a prayer, followed by a ritual recitation that invoked the name of God no fewer than six times (“How It Works”). The meeting closed with the saying of the Lord’s Prayer.
It was instantly clear to me that AA was a religious cult in denial about being religious. So I didn’t come back to any meetings for years.
In the meantime, on several occasions I almost died from my alcoholism. My disease progressed through an additional five years in the Marines. The commandant of the Marine Corps then ordered me to the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., for treatment of alcoholism. At least two good things happened to me the second time I was hospitalized.
First, a long-sober Marine master gunnery sergeant, who was a counselor at the treatment facility, helped square away for me the “higher power” question. He pointed out that all Marines have the same higher power — the commandant of the Marine Corps.
In addition, the master gunny noted that he and I had both been in harm’s way earlier in our careers.
We talked about a phenomenon with which we were both quite familiar, something known as “esprit de corps.” “Esprit” is the French word for “spirit.” And “corps” refers to a body of troops, in this case, our corps of Marines.
We knew from hard experience that when the situation is grave, Marines help each other survive by working together. In fact, another favorite term among Marines — “gung ho” — is an ancient Chinese battle cry that means “working together.”
The master gunny and I had both been in situations where we and those around us were scared out of our minds. But we knew that when Marines support each other selflessly, we can and do overcome our fear. In doing so, we gain an ability to beat seemingly insurmountable and life-threatening odds.
We knew that the bond Marines feel with each other, especially in combat, is best described as spiritual.
This is clearly not a supernatural power, but a deeply human power that has been proven throughout history to play a decisive role in turning potential defeat into victory on the battlefield.
Esprit de corps
“Esprit de corps is the same kind of spiritual power that AA has,” the master gunny explained. “People in AA call this power whatever they want.”
The second good thing that happened to me in treatment was that I found my first sponsor. I noticed him at an AA meeting they drove us to in a hospital van one evening. He was the one guy in the room at the end of the meeting whose lips weren’t moving when everybody else was holding hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
My first sponsor, an atheist with 10 years of sobriety at the time, explained to me that even though much of the AA program borrows from religion, AA works just fine anyway, as long as you don’t drink, go to lots of meetings and take as many of AA’s suggestions as you can stomach.
Working the Twelve Steps to the best of my ability wouldn’t kill me, my sponsor said. Even as an atheist, he explained, I could work the Steps exactly the same way everybody else works them — imperfectly and according to my own understanding.
Before my first year in sobriety ended, my career as a Marine rocketed into a new dimension. The commandant ordered me back to college, where I completed my bachelor’s degree. Shortly after my second anniversary in sobriety, people were saluting me and addressing me as “sir.”
My attainment of officer rank led to a number of new and exciting assignments all over the world. Each time I moved, I found a new AA sponsor locally and tried to attend 90 meetings in 90 days. I also began sponsoring other men and got involved in AA service work.
During the Persian Gulf War, I was able to attend a few AA meetings at the Marine headquarters in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. However, I spent most of my time out in the desert on the front lines.
Atheist in fighting holes
For the record, Marines don’t have “foxholes.” We call them “fighting holes.” While under fire during Operation Desert Storm, I observed an important difference between the atheists I knew and others who might be inclined to spend time on their knees praying for divine protection. I found that the atheists could be counted on to do things that are actually useful, like digging better fighting holes.
Some years later, I found myself in Somalia in the midst of a civil war characterized by sectarian violence, famine and human suffering on a biblical scale. Even though we could find no sign of a “loving God” anywhere in Somalia, I and a few other military personnel decided to start holding AA meetings in downtown Mogadishu.
Our little group opted to meet outdoors in the shade of a tree because of the heat. That turned out to be a mistake. Our first meeting was broken up by sniper fire. Although the sniper was clearly a lousy shot, we decided to change locations.
We chose to move our meeting indoors behind concrete walls and simply ignore the heat. It was our group’s little joke that we closed our meetings “in the usual manner” by all shouting, “Incoming!”
Sober for 33 years
About a year after returning to the United States, I married a woman I’d met in AA who is also an atheist. We had two children before I retired from the Marines. Today, our kids are grown and doing well.
As of this writing, I have 33 years of sobriety in AA and my wife has 26 years.
But some in AA still “feel sorry” for atheists, just as our co-founder Dr. Bob said he felt about unbelievers in the Big Book. Some, too, remain convinced that those who say they won’t believe are “belligerent” and have a “savage” mind, as co-founder Bill W. asserted in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
My original atheist AA sponsor, with whom I remain in touch, has 43 years of sobriety in AA and is still clearly a thorn in the side of some of the bleeding deacons in his home group.
In recent years, I’ve a played a role in organizing a couple of secular “We Agnostics” meetings of AA in my community. I’ve also tried to be more vocal at other AA meetings about my lack of belief in any kind of God.
If AA is to survive and thrive in a world where increasing numbers of people, especially young people, are leaving religious beliefs behind them, as I did, my hope is that we will open the doors of our fellowship a little wider.
Eric C. is an FFRF member who lives in Michigan.
Copyright © AA Grapevine Inc. October 2017. Permission to reprint AA Grapevine Inc., material does not in in any way imply affiliation with or endorsement by either Alcoholics Anonymous or AA Grapevine, Inc.