These questions and answers were created by a group of old timers from an Agnostic Meeting in California. Please feel free to use this information in any way you find helpful.
Q&A for the Newcomer
What is AA?
Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for A.A. membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. Alcoholics Anonymous is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. (copyrighted by the A.A. Grapevine, Inc., which publishes a monthly magazine in print and online.)
Why would I want to get involved with AA?
If you are having problems with alcohol or want to quit drinking and can’t seem to do it alone, the fellowship of AA may give you the support and practical suggestions you need. But I hear AA is a religious program, using religious language and customs. What if I don’t believe in that stuff?
Most of the founders of AA were probably religious, and so are many of today’s members, and you run into a lot of religious language in AA literature and sometimes at AA meetings.
However, the ONLY requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and there are many atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, rationalists, humanists, etc. who got sober in AA. Some of us have been sober for 40+ years, and are still active in AA. You can choose not to use any of the religious language. Lots of groups include a formal prayer or two in their meetings. Some of us join in, some just remain silent. We’ve even started over 430 Secular AA meetings of our own.
Is AA a religious cult?
No…… A cult is a group of people with dominant leaders who demand all of their followers’ wealth and time, and demand separation from former friends and family, among other requirements.
None of this is true of AA.
Many newcomers to AA are confused because they cannot identify who is in charge……… No one is.
Authority belongs to the group. The volunteers are referred to as “trusted servants”, to take care of cleanup, chairing meetings, business details, etc.
So, how do people join AA?
The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and some of us didn’t even have that at first. There is no membership application, no dues or fees, and no membership card.
You don’t “join” AA as you would join any other group. You’re a member if you say you are. You can attend a many or as few meetings as you choose. You don’t even have to say or think that you’re an alcoholic.
What are the rules in AA?
There are none. Even the twelve steps are clearly stated to be merely suggestions. You’re expected to act civilized at meetings, but we tolerate extreme behavior sometimes. You can even show up drunk, as long as you keep quiet and behave.
It can feel like there are “rules” at some meetings, but those will be the customs of a particular group or the opinions of individual members.
What are AA meetings like?
Every meeting is self-governing, and AA has absolutely no rules for how AA meetings are to be run. The important thing is that they are a way for people to get together who want to stop drinking and to stay stopped.
The best way to see what they’re like is to go to a few. You won’t find uniformity among meetings, but you may find common features. There may be 3 people present or 100. They may ask if anyone is new, in order to welcome you, but you don’t have to respond. You probably won’t be the only newcomer there. Some meetings are for women, men, LGBTQ, young people, older people, motorcyclists, or any of a variety of special interests, but usually anyone is welcome at any meeting. Ask if you’re not sure.
AA does not own any property. Even the national office is rented. Meetings are most often in rented church rooms, because churches have parking lots, bathrooms, tables, and chairs. But they can meet anywhere.
Meetings usually last about an hour. They can be any hour of the day, and any day of the week, and usually meet even on holidays. They may have a somewhat rigid format, or they may seem chaotic. Members volunteer for the various tasks like chairing, making coffee, etc. The atmosphere is usually informal and friendly, and you can tell some of the attendees know each other very well, while others may be quiet and not interact much. There will often be a fuss made over “birthdays”, I.e., significant lengths of sobriety, in months and years.
Meetings are labelled “open” or “closed”. Open meetings are open to anyone, whether they consider themselves alcoholic or not, while closed are supposed to be only for people who consider themselves alcoholic.
At some point, there will be announcements relevant to the group or AA activities in the area, and there will be a money collection. This is voluntary, and no one cares who donates what.
It’s traditional within AA to go by your first name only. This is intended to assure anonymity. AA members often know each other for years, and even become warm friends, and not be sure of each others last name.
Commonly, people put in a dollar or two if they can. The money is used for rent, coffee, other group expenses, and some is sent to support other levels of AA activity.
Usual kinds of meetings:
Discussion meetings – Either the chair picks a topic or asks for suggestions, then attendees talk about it. Cross-talk or one-to-one responses are usually discouraged, so it’s a series of individual stories or statements rather than a conversation. The chair may call on individuals to speak, or it may be voluntary.
Speaker meetings – One or two persons, often not from that group, are asked to give a more extended account of their own experience: what it was like, when they drank, what happened to start them changing, and what it’s like now. There may or may not be time left for others to share.
Study meetings – Reading part of an AA book and then discussing the section read.There is often some religious reading or language used, varying widely among groups. Commonly, this includes a recitation of the Serenity Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer/Our Father. This is often a challenge for us nonbelievers. Some dislike it so much they stop attending, but some just ignore it or go along with it. A common motto in AA is, “Take what you like and leave the rest.”
There are over 430 meetings started by non-believers, with no religious content. A list of them is at: Secular Meetings
What is the “Big Book”?
It is Alcoholics Anonymous, published by the first few members in 1939, and still considered the core text of AA. Its primary author was Bill Wilson, with input from the two existing groups in New York and Akron.
It is universally respected within AA. Some members treat it almost as sacred scripture, even though the book itself states clearly that it is not the final word on recovery from alcoholism. Some phrases within it are commonly quoted, and some members know which content is on which page. Other members have never read it, or seldom refer to it. There is no one way to use or look at the Big Book.
A section called “How It Works” is read at the start of most AA meetings. It contains the famous Twelve Steps, Six of the steps refer to “God” or “Him”, and the whole section leads to the conclusion that “God” is the answer to alcoholism. Needless to say, this is rejected by nonbelievers.
What are the Twelve Steps?
These are the guidelines which most of AA considers the heart of its recovery process. Although the Big Book itself says they are only “suggested”, they have become essential ingredients in the minds of many members, and there are strong reactions within the fellowship if they are slighted or criticized.
How do non-believers like me deal with the religious parts of these Steps?
Many non-believers find wisdom and guidance within the steps and just adapt them to their own beliefs. They use the Steps for guidance, just ignoring the God references. There have been many revised or alternate sets of steps written by AA members, Please refer to the “Resources” and Links tabs on this website for help.
What’s a “sponsor”, and do I need one?
A sponsor is a more experienced member whom a newcomer can ask for more individualized, personal guidance in getting sober. It is entirely up to the newcomer to choose and ask someone to sponsor him/her. It is traditional for the sponsor to be the same gender as the sponcee. Having a sponsor is not required, but is generally encouraged. Some of these relationships last for years.
How many meetings do I have to attend?
None, unless a court or treatment program requires it. (Someone, usually the secretary, at AA meetings will usually sign attendance slips, but they are not affiliated with courts or treatment programs.) The common wisdom is for a newcomer to attend many meetings, including different ones. This gives extra support in the difficult early days of sobriety, and exposes the newcomer to many different members and styles within AA. “90 meetings is 90 days” is a common recommendation but not a requirement.
How long do I have to attend meetings?
As long as you want. Some people don’t like AA at all, and only attend their first meeting. Many attend for a few weeks, months, or years. Some of us stay involved for decades because we like the people and atmosphere in AA-it helps us continue to grow.
What is Al-Anon?
Al-Anon is a fellowship of persons whose lives have been impacted by someone else’s alcoholism, usually family members. Their goal is to improve the impacted people’s lives, not to change the alcoholic.
Is there any more to AA than the meetings?
Yes, and like the meetings, participation is up to the individual.
Local meetings band together in “districts” to do things like organize jail meetings, keep a supply of literature, and publish a meeting schedule. Districts are united within an “area”, usually a whole state, and areas are part of the annual General Service Conference. None of these has any authority over its member groups. Decisions are made by the group itself, called “group conscience”.
In many communities, there are AA-oriented clubs, often called Alano Clubs. These are private organizations, usually incorporated, and not part of AA formally. They are created to provide a space for meetings. AA groups and AA itself has a tradition of not owning anything (maybe a coffee pot), in order to avoid any possible dissension over property.
Local AA groups may put on social/recreational events, like picnics, topic workshops, dances, camp outs, conventions, etc. These are not a formal part of AA.
Are there other organizations that might help me stop drinking?
Yes : Secular AA ; LifeRing; Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS); SMART Recovery; Women for Sobriety, and others. They all have websites, and people are getting sober in all of them. Their only drawback is that they are relatively small, with relatively few local groups. AA’s big advantage is that there are meetings everywhere. Where can I learn more about AA? Is there something I can read or someone I can talk with confidentially?