What is an Agnostic?
Agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers in AA
When I was a newcomer to AA, I discovered two unfamiliar words. I heard them quite frequently at meetings. One was agnostic, and the other was atheist. I only had a limited understanding of their meaning. Some years later, the expression “freethinker” became popular in the fellowship. The first time I came across any definition was in The AA literature.
Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, had to say about atheists and agnostics. On page 28 of the “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” he states:
“Religion says that the existence of God can be proved; the agnostic says it can’t be proved, and the atheist claims proof of the non-existence of God.”
I found Bill’s explanation helpful and easy to understand. With this definition, Bill was able to “keep it simple.” When I began to write The Twelve Steps for Agnostics, I wanted to find a clear definition of agnosticism that I could present to the reader. I found three in various dictionaries. I quote them at the beginning of the book. I could see myself in them all.
Agnosticism: Three dictionary definitions
The view that absolute truth or ultimate certainty is unattainable, especially regarding knowledge not based on experience or perceivable phenomena.
The view is that the existence of God or all deities is unknown, unknowable, unproven, or unprovable.
Doubt, uncertainty, or skepticism regarding the existence of a God or Gods.
The word “Freethinker.“
The expression ‘freethinker’ is a relatively new word in AA’s lexicon of program expressions. What is a freethinker? What does the word mean?
Here is Wikipedia’s definition:
“According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a freethinker is “a person who forms their own ideas and opinions rather than accepting those of other people, especially in religious teaching.” In some contemporary thought, in particular, free thought is strongly tied with rejecting traditional social or religious belief systems.” Wikipedia
Based on those definitions, I am both an agnostic and a freethinker. I cannot fully identify with the atheist position. The interpretation of the AA program that I offer in “The Twelve Steps for Agnostics” is, in my view, practical for all three belief systems: atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers. No belief in any divine deity is required. I mention simple and realistic interpretations of powers greater than ourselves.
My agnostic-friendly sponsors introduced me to some simple and practical conceptions of powers greater than me; I could move forward with the program, which saved my life.
My own agnosticism
Here is a small excerpt from The Twelve Steps for Agnostics. As a recovering alcoholic, it was the best explanation that I could come up with:
“I have thought much about what being an agnostic means. I accept there are as many interpretations of agnosticism as there are agnostics. Everyone’s interpretation is personal and valid for them. Some of us embrace specific ideas that others reject. Being an agnostic is a very individual and unique set of beliefs. Just for the purpose of identification, here is my position on the question of God:
I don’t believe in God, but neither do I disbelieve. When it comes to God and whether he exists, I don’t know. I certainly don’t believe in the traditional idea of God presented in a human form as our Father. I never had a father, so this is an unknown concept. For those who have accepted God, their belief appears to be grounded in faith. It would have to be based on a direct experience if I believed in God. To accept the concept of God or any unseen and divine notion of a higher power, it would have to help me in my recovery daily.
To avail myself of this help and support, I would have to know that a power greater than me is real for me to surrender to it. There would have to be a concrete relationship for me to feel a connection. I have never felt any sense of a relationship between me and any unseen higher power. Therefore, I cannot use the God idea as a helpful recovery tool. To receive help with my powerlessness and unmanageability, a power greater than me would need to be tangible and practical. Ever since I was a child, I have had a problem with faith. Being a true “doubting Thomas,” I was always unable to believe in anything unless I could see, feel, and experience it.
Many people believe that God is love, which makes sense. If God is real, then in my mind, I can’t imagine him in any other way. Even this idea would not help me deal with the thought-disordered madness of my untreated alcoholism. I needed an altogether more practical conception of a higher power, a power I could use and apply to my recovery daily. It had to be a power that would help me to relax and take it easy. It would have to give me the confidence that I was being shown the way out of darkness, towards the light of recovery.”
If you identify as an atheist, agnostic, or freethinker, what is your position on the God issue? Can you use a conception of a higher power that is neither unseen nor divine? What are your ideas about a higher power? Is it keeping you sober? Is it helping you to enjoy and not endure your sobriety?