What is an Agnostic?

September 28, 2021

By Andy F

Categories: Atheists, agnostics and freethinkers

Agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA

When I was a newcomer to AA, I was introduced to two unfamiliar words. I heard them quite frequently at meetings. One was agnostic and the other 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.

This is what Bill Wilson had to say about atheists and agnostics. He makes a statement on the subject on page 28 of the “Twelve steps and twelve traditions”. It is in the chapter on step two:

“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.”

12&12 Step Two, p.28

Personally, I found Bills 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. They are quoted at the beginning of the book. I could see myself in all of them.

Agnosticism: Three dictionary definitions

  1. The view that absolute truth or ultimate certainty is unattainable, especially regarding knowledge not based on experience or perceivable phenomena.
  2. The view that the existence of God or of all deities is unknown, unknowable, unproven or un-provable.
  3. 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 actually mean?

This is how Wikipedia describes it:

“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 the rejection of 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 effective for all three belief systems; atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. No belief in any divine deity is required. Simple and practical interpretations of powers greater than ourselves are offered.

When I was introduced to some simple and practical conceptions of powers greater than me, my life was saved; literally!

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 really 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 accept certain 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 just 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 that have accepted God, their belief appears to be based on faith. If I believed in God, it would have to be based on a direct experience. To accept the concept of God or any unseen and divine notion of a higher power, this higher power would have to help me in my recovery on a daily basis.

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 type of an 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. This kind of 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”.

Excerpt from “The twelve steps for agnostics” available on Amazon


If you identify as an atheist, agnostic or freethinker, what is your position on the God issue? Are you able to use a conception of a higher power that is neither unseen nor divine? What are your own ideas about a higher power? Is it keeping you sober? Is it helping you to enjoy and not endure your sobriety?

In fellowship

Andy F

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