A Reverend at the Agnostic AA Convention

Rev. Ewing

By Joe C.

There is nothing surprising or unhealthy about the debate that we see about speakers, procedures and policies for this inaugural We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention (WAFT IAAC). Being the first of this scale, the decisions made are magnified. It’s not just what the impact is in 2014 but also, what is the precedent being set?

Some of us feel an added pressure: the scrutiny (be it reality or perception) that nonbelievers are subject to within AA at large. Some of our fellow AA members are fearful, dismissive or outright hostile towards us. To what extent should we try to win AA at large over? To what extent should this be about us doing our own thing with impunity? These are some of the questions still being debated among us.

We don’t have to get it perfect; in fact we can’t. History decides which decisions will be our good ones and bad ones. Mistakes will happen and they will be our teachers. I have been on both sides of the outcomes of votes I felt strongly about. Everyone gets their say; not everyone gets their way.

I have been involved in AA conference committees off and on from 1977 to the present day. Then there’s Regional Service Conferences, District and Area committees, Public Information, Treatment Centers, and my own home group business meeting. Every committee is a bit different. Serenity is tested as committees see tears, finger-pointing and resignations. Yet, most committee work is warmth, dedication and the foundation of friendships that last a lifetime.

So, should a non-alcoholic, ordained minister speak at an AA convention for atheists and agnostics?

Let’s look at this.

In his unique capacity as long-term Class A (non-alcoholic) Trustee, Ward Ewing has been a devoted friend to AA for a long time. The Chair of our General Service Board is always a non-alcoholic. [1] Like an Al-Anon and Alateen speaker at an AA conference, circumstances permit friends of AA to our podium.

Does his capacity as AA establishment add insult to injury? Some of us have felt let down or betrayed by, not only the religion we grew up in, but by AA as well. Is it insensitive to our more traumatized members to invite the enemy inside our gate?

In a moment I will let Ward Ewing address that directly. He is sincerely empathetic about the trauma of religious dogma. It isn’t a stretch to think that over the years he’s sympathized with those of us who feel unheard or nearly written out of AA’s accounts of recovery.

The bigger question is what do we want the WAFT IAAC to be? The resistance that some of our fellows have expressed isn’t a personal attack on Ward Ewing. Should our sacred space be limited to just the right type of freethinker? What is our policy regarding the rest of our fellow AAs? Will our door be closed to them? Are they to be observers only or able to participate as welcome, rights-bearing equals? Alternatively, do we want to emphasize that all who come have freedom of expression and no one will be sneered at or looked down upon? We all have our thoughts about these questions but we don’t have a consensus on these issues. It’s hard to imagine that all these questions could be anticipated ahead of time. If we consider WAFT IAAC as a process and not one single event, the group conscience will anticipate as best it can but ultimately adapt to issues that come up and get dealt with – from one conference to the next.

WAFT IAAC Logo

Click on the image to read a statement by the convention steering committee on Ward Ewing as a keynote speaker

We’ve covered some concerns; let’s look at the upside. There is a certain diplomacy achieved with Ward Ewing as our guest. This makes a statement, a message in and of itself. “Agnostics and atheists welcome the Reverend Ward Ewing” says two things: “Of course we are Alcoholics Anonymous; just ask our friend and GSO Chair emeritus Ward Ewing,” and “For we agnostics and freethinkers, love and tolerance is our code.” It’s not a publicity stunt. We are being the AA we hope for – inclusive and united, better together than divided.

The general AA population won’t blink an eye at a past Chairperson of the Board addressing an AA audience. Neither rule nor protocol is being compromised to invite Reverend Ewing to the microphone. To some extent it ought to garner a higher degree of legitimacy. Of course, we don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to call ourselves an AA group; AA was thoughtfully designed in anticipation of groups just like us. Unity has a plasticity that uniformity could never muster.

Having gotten to know Ward Ewing over the last few years, I can say that he will not preach his brand of salvation. Not because he’s in our house now. Ward Ewing has been a guest in the rooms for decades. He’s a chop the wood/ help with the dishes kind of guest, here in AA. He’s willing to help and open to learning.

What does Ward Ewing have to share that’s so important?

Here’s a little of what Ward Ewing is on record for saying. The first, is from The Grapevine (April, 2010) His topic was “Spirituality and God Talk.”

Many newcomers, if not most, are put off by the talk of God and God’s will and turning one’s will and life over to God as we understand him.

As I listen to people’s stories, I find much of that discomfort comes from the damage religion has done to the alcoholic who is still drinking. Many come bearing loads of guilt that has been reinforced by churches that are all too ready to judge, advise and condemn. However the judgment comes, to the person still struggling with alcoholism, it is fuel for resentment, guilt and despair. Then to walk into a meeting and hear God-talk! …those who do not have a traditional theistic view of God hear language about a god that sounds very traditional. If one is an atheist or an agnostic, it can be difficult to hear all this language. The first premise in theology is that God is beyond human understanding. God is not an object like an apple, or even a person. We who are religious need to be more conscious that we speak of God in allegorical language. We must always welcome those who find this language unconvincing.

When talking to another about alcoholism, the suggestion of singular worldview is neither humble nor helpful. Ward goes on to describe how his own brand of freethinking might separate him from other spiritual leaders:

I am an ordained Episcopal priest and head of one of our denomination’s theological seminaries. I only ask that you not assume I am identical with every religious leader you have ever known. I have serious difficulty with the idea of defining who’s in and who’s out; we can’t see into the soul of any human being. But the greatest difficulty I have with the institutional church is with the claim of knowing the truth.

Anyone who has studied theology knows that ‘truth’ has changed dramatically over the ages. This claim to know the truth plays a central role in the churches’ developing a view of us versus them. At its worst it has led to witch hunts, inquisitions and persecutions; at its best it leads to hypocrisy and arrogance. I believe it is this claim that encourages within religion the desire to control and the spirit of perfectionism.

Ewing suggests that arrogance is unbecoming in Alcoholics Anonymous. The same standard would be true from Intergroup Offices as it would be for you and me. He defines Higher Power “within the AA Fellowship means simply that which keeps one sober.” Ewing concedes that “religion and spirituality have been issues for the Fellowship” but that “the spirituality of AA has remained pragmatic.” The WAFT IAAC website has a link to his entire article. [2]

Later in 2010, Ward Ewing attended the International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous in San Antonio Texas. He then embarked on a tour of Regional AA forums around The USA and Canada. He shared with AA members that while he appreciates that many AA members in the southern USA are deeply religious, he would prefer if we could keep religion out of AA. Ward was surprised and a little bit shocked to see us reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the world conference in San Antonio. “Is this not sending the wrong message to the world?” Ward asked.

I assure you that Rev. Ewing will greet us with nothing to attack or defend. Ward’s experience, strength and hope includes extensive experience with the inner workings of our General Service Office. Ewing was a tremendous advocate for a new spirituality pamphlet that would include the stories of atheists and agnostics. It was as heartbreaking to him, as it was to many of us, that this would-be pamphlet draft got sent back for revision in 2013 instead of sent to the printer on route to literature tables in AA around the world.

For those of us who prefer a harmonious and inclusive Alcoholics Anonymous, Ward Ewing is a better advocate for us than if Sam Harris joined AA. Which of the two men would have more credibility with our fellows who would rather show us the curb? It’s great that we can unite in solidarity but when our message resonates with AA at large, tensions will diminish and more alcoholics will be reached.

A word about our new and current Chair – Terrance Bedient comes from an employee assistance background, not theology. As a professional, Bedient was introduced to AA in 1975. Mr. Bedient is well acquainted with Ward from working together through the years. As is the custom of AA’s lowest ranking officer, [3] during critical issues the new Chair will draw upon the experience of the Board Chair emeritus, such as Ward Ewing. In the Fall 2013 editions of AA’s Box 4-5-9, Bedient shared with AA, “The key issue facing AA is membership growth and engagement.”

If we are the gracious hosts that I expect we will be, and should Ward Ewing have a positive experience at WAFT IAAC, I expect he will be reporting to Mr. Bedient that a good way to “increase growth and membership engagement” is to reach out to AA’s nonbeliever population.

Just me typing out-loud, that’s all. I say hate the game not the player. Shall we judge others by their stripes or by their deeds? I think it’s great that the committee asked Ward Ewing. I think it’s exciting that he agreed. Time will tell but my gut-instinct is that we will find a friend in the Reverend Ward Ewing.

If you don’t share my enthusiasm, take some time to listen to Ward Ewing talking to delegates, DCMs and GSRs a few year ago: Unity Day 2011.

———-

[1] From the alcoholic and non-alcoholic Trustees to choose from, AA has always picked a non-alcoholic. One of the reasons for this is there would and could be no Fellowship-wide embarrassment if our Chairperson got drunk. Secondly, non-alcoholic Trustees can have their picture in the media without violating our own Traditions. This is a big deal to reporters at times like the International Convention. Non-alcoholic Trustees bring a dispassion or objectivity to each issue that our alcoholic Trustees can’t muster. As Ward Ewing himself has said, “The AA Trustees seem to line up pretty quickly on one side of the issue or the other. Non-alcoholic don’t have a horse in the race; we are one foot in—one foot out, on each issue that comes up.”

[2] Spirituality and “God-Talk”

[3] The Chairperson of the General Service Board is considered the trusted servant at the very bottom of AA’s inverted triangle of service, serving all above, from the board to the conference, to the committees and AA groups and members.

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Comments

A Reverend at the Agnostic AA Convention — 38 Comments

  1. It appears to me that Rev Ewing is a freethinker so why not welcome him with open arms. We are only doing what AA as a whole should have done many many years ago.

    • He believes in God. He’s pretty cool for a religionist, but I thought that the term “freethinker” referred to the opposite. I may be wrong.

      • My agnostic and “Freethinker” AA group, while mostly being made up of those of a natural (not super-natural) worldview, does attract theists and deists. Everyone seems as “in the right place” as anyone else. Svukic, that’s a good question you raise: what does “Freethinker” mean? Without defaulting to a Wiki-hint I would use the world “pluralism.” I think a Freethinker is comfortable with their worldview and gracious to those who have diametrically opposed worldviews.

        To others I suppose the meaning is “free” from the norm, not following the majority view (which in North America would be monotheism).

        I don’t know what would attract any theist to the home group (agnostic) I attend but what little I have heard on the topic of what believers get out of our meeting is “less dogmatism” “less arrogance” and sometimes, “less cliche laden discussion.” One member said that they never doubted God but that didn’t always keep them sober so turning it over wasn’t sufficient. They were at our meeting to get fresh ideas.

        Most practical topics of sobriety are secular in nature anyway but the rare time “my higher power,” “praying to God” or some other traditional theistic belief is expressed in our group, it’s never sneered at nor criticized. If they catch themselves and apologize, there is often light, understanding laughter.

        The $64,000 question is what is WAFT IAAC to be? Is it a sanctuary of alternative thought where traditional (theistic) perspectives are silenced or shown the door? What about AA members who are on the fence? Some haven’t made up their mind one way or another. Others grew up and embraced the sobriety granting, prayer answering god of AA and they are losing faith. Are they to bite their tongue until they are Freethinking enough to embrace apostasy with conviction?

        There is a line, maybe for each of us, to which we are perfectly comfortable on one side and uncomfortable on the other side. How dogmatically or liberally will WAFT IAAC set a code or definition of “Freethought.” My friends sometimes tease me that my brand of liberalism more fictitious than realist. Romantic notion, I think is one term that gets bandied around. I expect we can’t please everyone. My hope is that whatever we decide, love and tolerance is our code. My self-image has me way too cool to be an optimist, but I am afraid I am.

      • According to the definitions I’ve seen, the following describes a freethinker best, IMHO.

        “A person who forms opinions on the basis of reason, independent of authority or tradition, especially a person whose religious opinions differ from established belief.”

    • You have hit on a point that has troubled me ever since I became involved with the WAFT movement in AA. When we claim for ourselves the descriptor “free thinkers” we also convey the implication that others are not free thinkers. I have not found the WAFT community as a whole to be noticeably more free thinking than the rest of AA as whole. There is a great deal of oppositional us-against-them to be found in much of our rhetoric. That, of course, is the opposite of free thinking. True free thinkers have to acknowledge that there may be (are) other free thinkers who do not think what we think. That’s the whole idea.

      • We should not confuse “freethinker” (one word) with the process of “free thought”. [Merriam-Webster: The former is "one that forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority; esp: one who doubts or denies religious dogma." The latter is "unorthodox attitudes or beliefs; specif: 18th century deism."] The WAFT movement is essentially our forced response to some of the oppressive actions taken against us by religious fundamentalists within AA. “True freethinkers” in AA lie on only one side of the fence. This comment is not intended to be divisive; on the contrary it is intended to offer a better understanding of the reality of the situation in order to better able us to find a constructive unity within our fellowship.

      • Perhaps, but the actual effect is that our “freethinkers” moniker is divisive – at least that has been the feedback that I have received. The fine points of definition that you point out are lost on most reader, my self included.

      • “There is a great deal of oppositional us-against-them to be found in much of our rhetoric. That, of course, is the opposite of free thinking. True free thinkers have to acknowledge that there may be (are) other free thinkers who do not think what we think. That’s the whole idea.”

        Right on Russ. Unity accepts duality. The essence of the spirituality of imperfection.

        He drew a circle that shut me out —
        Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
        But Love and I had the wit to win:
        We drew a circle that took him in.
        -from Outwitted by Edwin Markham

        It seems we’re challenged as to who can be more loving and tolerant of each others’ views and beliefs. Sometimes I think it’s all about belief/unbelief and rights, when really it’s all about love and tolerance and service. My ego gets such a boost out of being right and such a bust out of acceptance, whether from mine or someone else’s experience.

  2. My immediate reaction was and continues to be positive toward this invitation and it’s acceptance. And I have printed out Joe C’s wonderful article discussing the arguments for encouraging such an invitation.

    But I also would like to thank Reverend Ewing for accepting the invitation. It is a lot of work to prepare a worthwhile talk (at least for me). And he is doing it willingly and probably on his own time and money. Isn’t that a wonderful thing for him to do for us and for AA?

    I also heard Reverend Ewing speak at the West Central Regional Conference held in Rapid City, South Dakota two years ago. There too he was inspirational and in no way offended my personal atheistic world view.

    So, thanks to the committee for inviting him and for being willing to take a stand which some people might dislike.

  3. I like the idea of having Ward e speak, and I hope/presume that Marya H is also still speaking, not knowing what’s keynote and what’s something else.
    Thanks Joe for this insightful well balanced piece.

  4. As an atheist alcoholic I have been greatly excited by freethinker meetings but it has been a phase in my development. Now my ideal meeting would be a mixture of views among tolerant, open minded alcoholics of all persuasions so that we can have a worthwhile chat among friends with different standpoints. Freethinker meetings may still be a means to that end. But a reverend at the conference, if he is open-minded and accepts there may not be a god, is a great idea. Anyway, I have already bought my ticket to attend. Vince, author of An Atheists Unofficial Guide to AA.

  5. What does Rev. Ewing think of AA Literature? As a Atheist that is how I decide about most people in AA. If a member thinks that the Literature is essential to becoming sober, I move away from them.

  6. If a church group, in a spirit of respect, warmth, and brotherhood, invited a prominent agnostic speaker to headline their convention, knowing that she/he would reflect their CORE values, I would applaud them.

    I think most of the folks who helped me get sober were probably believers with various degrees of commitment to their religions. They didn’t talk about it. I do know they were committed to their sobriety and to helping me with mine.

    If our looseknit WAFT community ever became as rigid/dogmatic/exclusionary as the intergroups of Vancouver, Toronto, et al, I’d run from it.

  7. There is a lot of goodness and truth in this post. I think the choice of keynote speaker shows wisdom, courage, and the spirit of inclusivess that we seek from AA at large.

  8. I think it is a better than a great idea. “Be the change you wish to see” (I’m not sure I got the quote right)
    I want to know that they are not the enemy. I don’t want to be the enemy.

  9. Thank you so very much – I agree with everything you said, especially this quote which we all should pay attention to:

    “There is a certain diplomacy achieved with Ward Ewing as our guest. This makes a statement, a message in and of itself. “Agnostics and atheists welcome the Reverend Ward Ewing” says two things: “Of course we are Alcoholics Anonymous; just ask our friend and GSO Chair emeritus Ward Ewing,” and “For we agnostics and freethinkers, love and tolerance is our code.”

    What more could or should be said?

  10. Have we lost our minds? “Our” primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety. We are alcoholics in this mutual-help program. AA conventions may have non-alcoholics talk but they are not the main speaker. The reverend Ward may be a great human being and support our cause, but he is ancillary to the program, our primary purpose, AND is not an agnostic or atheist. He should not be the main speaker. It seems that whatever discussions have been had or committees adjourned in review of decisions already made are self-congratulatory claptrap. You people cannot be serious.

    • Not only does Ward Ewing have impeccable credentials within the service structure of and support for Alcoholics Anonymous, he has demonstrated that he has given much of his life to helping the alcoholic who still suffers, and further he has done it with efforts to cull out the sometimes disruptive fundamentalist cult religious convictions. Unless your goal is to separate “we agnostics” from “religious AA,” to downgrade Rev. Ewing would be passing up an opportunity to bring more unity (not uniformity) to our fellowship. It is important to make our first international convention convey a positive message, and not be seen as showcasing a source of conflict between AA’s white-knuckled proselytizers and AA’s non-believers that seems to attract the cynicism of our often sensational lay press.

      • Thanks Lon, In my 77 years, I’ve learned a lot from Catholics, Buddhists, Moslems, Atheists, Agnostics, and of course, my brothers in AA. I hope that I will never close my mind to an opportunity to learn more. And that’s one of the reasons I plan on going to the convention; there is so much to learn in our brief visit on the lovely little world.

    • Hi Jim,
      Lost our minds? Time will tell. We’re all here because we’re not all there. Are we doing something unconventional? Yes, I, for one, haven’t lost sight of that. Will it prove to be a worthwhile exception or open a can of worms, we don’t know yet. As you point out, while it isn’t unprecedented to have a non-alcoholic Trustee who serves or served AA speak to an AA member crowd, this does stretch the boundaries. Why do it now? Looking at this man’s track record of encouraging tolerance, a fair playing field for AA and focus on principles not dogma, this makes a compelling case to which I say, “Let’s do it and see how it works out.” I am not reckless; I expect it to work out great.

      Does it set a rule-bending, rationalizing standard to which any primary purpose-testing idea could be argued for? Well, I think we have to be mindful of that. Like I said, anything we do will include what history recalls as strokes of genius and bad ideas. Should we play it safe or push our luck? That’s always the question.

      • Joe,

        By way of indirect, though no less shameless, promotion for your website, Rebellion Dogs Publishing, let me just say that I LOVE this phrase: “Less dogma – more bite!”

    • Jim,

      You put, “Have we lost our minds?” Maybe, maybe not. The decision might be dead wrong. The decision might be spot on for the overall message we freethinkers wish to promote in calling AA back to tolerant roots. Time will tell.

      What if the decision turns out to be dead wrong? We learn something, we are then given the opportunity to think more deeply, and modify.

      What is right and wrong at this stage in the game anyway? The entire project is “unprecedented.”

      I think I get your response, though. My first thoughts when hearing who was selected to speak in this slot were WTF? My reasons were a bit different than yours, but the initial impression and conclusion was similar.

      One of my thoughts was, while this particular theist is quite liberal in his theological orientations, he is still a Christian theist. It should also be remembered that this particular guy is one who is also rejected by the dogmatic, fundamentalist, Big Book literalists. It will make no difference to those folks who is picked to speak at this unprecedented event. The war for the ‘soul’ of AA will continue unabated.

      Another of my thoughts about this fella was, “I don’t need to be given a Christian baptism/permission/blessing, so I can justify my existence in AA, and I damned sure don’t want one.”

      The first of my thoughts will hold true. The second one, I realized, was simple, knee-jerk prejudice.

      I’ll take the long, historical view. No doubt we agnostics, atheists, freethinkers will make mistakes along the way. On the other hand, anything we do will help “widen the gates” for those who still suffer.

      And for that, I am profoundly grateful.

      MIT

  11. “God is not an object like an apple, or even a person. We who are religious need to be more conscious that we speak of God in allegorical language. We must always welcome those who find this language unconvincing.”

    Said none of the AA’s opposed to us, ever.

    • I believe that your quote from Rev. Ward is probably the most revealing of his comments. And you are absolutely right; I have never heard the opposition say anything that resembles it.

  12. Joe C. wrote, “Unity has a plasticity that uniformity could never muster.” Joe’s “strokes of genius” continue to show up in his contemporary writings. His given support for having Ward Ewing be a keynote speaker at the WAFT-IAAC is a superb piece that appeals to reason and humane purpose. Thanks, Joe.

  13. Wonderful, Joe — thanks so much for your non-judgmental, well-balanced article. I especially resonate with your belief that the Rev. Ewing attendance as a keynote speaker offers more credibility for us non-believing members of AA than a sober Sam Harris would, especially with our more fundamentalist believing members, many of whom would still perhaps prefer to kick us to the curb.

    I also strongly agree with your sentiment that we are walking the walk of “Love and tolerance of others is our code,” and not just talking that high-sounding, idealistic talk.

    I am most grateful that Pam and Dorothy along with other members of the WAFT:IAAC steering committee had the wisdom to invite Rev. Ewing to be the keynote speaker at the inaugural WAFT IAAC gathering of sober, non or differently believing members of AA — Thank you again !~!~!

  14. When Rev. Ewing’s term as Chairperson of the General Service Board and Class A Trustee ended he gave a farewell that I hope will stay with me forever. Among the many points that he made was the remark that as a fellowship we may need to challenge the principle that “Good is the enemy of the Best”. I’ve heard that phrase used to rationalize not taking an action at all levels of AA service. Rev. Ewing made the point that even if the members of the General Service Conference did not substantially agree that the content of the draft pamphlet on spirituality was ready for publishing that we missed an opportunity to make a start on a much needed pamphlet.
    Questioning our motives for rejecting the pamphlet he went on to say that the AA fellowship was in danger of transitioning from a movement that is deeply attractive into an institution that regulates its membership with rules and dogma. He pointed out that all movements run this risk and there was work to be done in AA to stay away from rule making, either formal or informal.
    Rev. Ewing is an inspired choice as keynote speaker for the convention.

    • Sarah, Devon, Tommy, Christopher,Therese, Ed, and Tom – you folks are the magnificent seven, all truly free spirits!

  15. I would not want to exclude anyone based on theology or association with religion. I would prefer to have a thoughtful, well-rounded overall program and seek the best speakers to fill the slots. Someone who has been on the Board seems reasonable. The closemindedness of the non-free thinkers in AA has been a painful issue for me, I would hate to reciprocate with that same smallmindedness.

  16. I think the potential political mileage and boost in public impression amongst AA as a whole by having the vicar “over for coffee”–considering his overall tone this far–outweigh the objections of the more “fundamentalists” non-believers in our ranks…

    … And to those who might not like what a speaker might or does indeed say, I say “Welcome to an A.A. meeting.” :D

  17. Thank you so much for this, Joe. I enjoyed your entire post – as usual you show sensitivity, wisdom and grace. (If I weren’t older than you, I’d call you an old-timer given your wisdom and many years of service.)

    The key to what we atheists, agnostics, and free thinkers have always been asking for is said so succinctly by you here: “We are being the AA we hope for – inclusive and united, better together than divided.”

    I too have heard Ward Ewing speak – at our Ontario Regional Conference two years ago (I think you and Lisa sat a couple of rows behind me) – and in everything he said, and the way he said it, I felt validated as a true member of AA and I felt supported in our WAFT message to widen our gateway to all who suffer from alcoholism, regardless of our beliefs in any form.

    He really is a generous and humble man; he also has a wonderful sense of humour – he probably needed it as the Chair of the General Service Board!

  18. I would have more of a problem with him not being an alcoholic. ;)

    “Contempt prior to investigation.”

    ” . . . most of the alcoholics . . . were still childish, emotionally sensitive, and grandiose.”

  19. Thank you for your continuing efforts. You help those of us who are novices in this “new way of thinking” to find a voice for our innermost thoughts. You make a somewhat scary departure from mainstream thinking a smoother path on the road to happy destiny.

  20. I support the choice of Rev. Ewing for a keynote speaker at the conference. It is always a great idea to have our allies remain close and be able to share their view. I believe that Rev. Ewing is one of that rare and almost lost breed of truly non-discriminatory and open-minded persons.

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