The Stockholm Syndrome and Atheist/Agnostic AA – Are We Sometimes Identifying with Our Oppressors?

By John H.

In doing some basic research on Stockholm Syndrome for this piece I came across some open source quotes from Wikipedia that seemed to hit the premise (of the condition as it might broadly relate to some non-believing members of AA) spot on and I wanted to begin the article with the following two paragraphs as a jumping off point for discussion:
Stockholm Syndrome” is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages’ express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with the captors. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.
Stockholm syndrome can be seen as a form of traumatic bonding, which does not necessarily require a hostage scenario, but which describes “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.” One commonly used hypothesis to explain the effect of Stockholm syndrome is based on Freudian theory. It suggests that the bonding is the individual’s response to trauma in becoming a victim. Identifying with the aggressor is one way that the ego defends itself. When a victim believes the same values as the aggressor, they cease to be perceived as a threat.”
In some of my recent dealings with various members of the program and in a review of some of the literature and articles featuring non-believers in both conventional and special interest AA, it has struck me that in certain quarters it seems to be fashionable (necessary?) to be overly obsequious to various “official” AA bodies like the General Service Office (GSO), AA Grapevine and/or the various regional AA Central Offices and their associated assemblies and meetings. In addition, adopting quasi-religious practices that seem to be adapted from the Big Book/Steps seems to be in vogue as well.
By “overly obsequious” I mean (and as always I am speaking for myself as an individual member only) things as diverse as being concerned with the promotion of alternative versions of the 12 steps and expecting conventional AA’s to accept them, activities like “meditation” and “spirituality” for Atheists culminating in something called ,b>“Atheist prayer” coupled with moves for our groups to be somehow fully “recognized” and “embraced” by the various boards and bodies mentioned above. The fact is that, despite these impulses, we currently are trapped within the context of a religion drenched society where we are unlikely to win any popularity contests or positive votes by the governing bodies of what is clearly a faith based program.
Though, overall, in recent years the numbers of believers in the US has gone down slightly (Pew 2015 poll on belief ) we still live in a country where 89% of adults say they believe in god and 55% pray daily. While the future looks somewhat brighter for the Atheist in AA with fewer young millennials identifying as very religious (38% as opposed to 59% for boomers) we still live in the real world and have to understand that a large majority of believing Americans are going to view us negatively. This is not going to change no matter how vigorously we might “wish” for acceptance by the majority. With the leadership of AA skewing older this is even more negative with Baby Boomers born between 1946-1964 showing 92% believing in god, 61% praying daily, 74% believing in heaven and 59% believing in hell which is where most of us will certainly reside. Try taking Atheist/Agnostic principles in AA to someone 100% convinced you are going to hell.
Since this piece is purely in the realm of the theoretical it might be appropriate for me to share my own ideas as to why some of the above (and the wishful/fanciful thinking associated with those positions) has become evident within the confines of Secular AA.
As I explore some of the stories of my fellow members I find many old timers who went through many years of struggle in conventional AA before coming to terms with their Atheism/Agnosticism. I hear phrases like “hiding out”, “accepting it as written”, “adapting to the meeting” and “putting up with” culminating in the truly terrible “fake it till you make it.” This being followed by many instances of people, who’s true beliefs were finally revealed, being emotionally abused and/or shunned by fellow members in their conventional group.
I have an intuitive sense that, due to the emotional abuse I have mentioned, some sort of transference may occur in terms of what is acceptable/unacceptable in AA based on the conditioning that may happen as a result of many years of exposure to the conventional program without the benefit of regular Atheist/Agnostic meetings. There are also the real human struggles of people who come to the Atheist position slowly over a number of years. This is often combined with personal struggles that are outside of my own experience and I need to respect and honor those struggles even while questioning some of the results.
In my own case I came to the Atheist/Absolutist/Reductionist perspective at a very early age, had an understanding family that did not insist on religious observance when I rejected religion at age 12 and, 18 months after I came to AA, had the benefit of a wonderful Atheist/Agnostic meeting founded by two hard core Atheists that I have been fortunate enough to attend for going on 30 years.
So, are some of us victims of the Stockholm Syndrome as it applies to the “Powers That Be” in AA? Maybe, maybe not. What is clear to me is that there is an impulse amongst some of us to identify with individuals, processes, programs and ideologies that may not have our best interests at heart and (not so secretly sometimes as in the infamous Mt Rainer Minority Appeal to the General Service Conference in 2011 just wish we would go away and leave them to their Big Book and their prayers.
So, what to do? For starters there are some of us who might be viewed as either too “rigid” or too “hardcore” who you might want to listen to when the discussions about “alternative steps” and other so called “agnostic” self-help literature gets heated. When conversations about relations with GSO (and all its “Works” such as the Grapevine) and the very thorny issues that have emerged in some areas about the listing of Atheist/Agnostic meetings come up we might be a resource for you.
For example, it may become obvious that not putting up alternative “steps” or other non-AA literature on a web page or group site drastically reduces the possibility of conflict with your local “Central Office” and the unleashing of the hostility some of the local functionaries there may have for us. It could be that in most instances “less is more” when dealing with such entities and that we have absolutely no obligation to identify or interact with them except at a bare minimum level.
Identification with and seeking approval from our oppressors will only lead to frustration and conflict in the end. We should never attack or confront them in any way. It’s a losers’ game all around.
You may find that some of us just ignore all of these exotic ideas about AA reform and the functions of so called “service” entities and publications and focus solely on what we define as our Primary Purpose of not drinking, going to meetings and, whenever possible, helping another alcoholic. You could notice that when we put these other “outside” debates to rest that we have more time for the real word, reality based activities that save ourselves and others.
You may also discover that when you give up thinking about what the General Service Office or local AA entity is doing, put down your “steps” (except, of course, the irreducible minimum of step one), and leave the opinions, judgements and condemnations you may find in conventional meetings behind you can really stop caring about what others might think of the “quality” of your program. You could “come to believe” that the peace and quiet of that position is even more relaxing than “meditation” or, God Forbid, “Atheist Prayer.”

John H

John Huey’s student work of the 60’s-70’s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf.
After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has had poems presented in ‘Poetry Quarterly’ and in the ‘Temptation’ anthology published in London by Lost Tower Publications. Work has also appeared in ‘Leannan Magazine’, ‘Sein und Werden’, at ‘In Between Hangovers’, ‘Bourgeon’, ‘The Lost River Review’, ‘Red Wolf Journal’, ‘Perfume River Poetry Review’, ‘What Rough Beast’ and ‘Memoir Mixtapes’.  His full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017. Full information and Amazon links can be found at

3 thoughts on “The Stockholm Syndrome and Atheist/Agnostic AA

  1. Doug D says:

    John, thank you for the wealth of information you have published. Here is link to a CNN article “There are now as many Americans who claim no religion as there are evangelicals and Catholics, a survey finds” published on 04/26/2019.
    [Link deleted]

    Thank you for the discussion with John on AA Beyond Belief: EPISODE 114: WHO WE REALLY ARE – A DETERMINED ATHEIST’S VIEW
    [Link deleted]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *