We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention – Day 1

Convention

It began not with a whimper but a bang.

Some two hundred delegates gathered on day one of a truly historical event: the first ever international convention for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in Alcoholics Anonymous.

It was Thursday, November 6, 2014 and the convention was at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Santa Monica, California.

The first day was made up largely of speakers, ending with the first keynote speaker, Marya Hornbacher. What follows is a brief summary of what they had to say.

Joe C. – Founder Beyond Belief, Toronto
By David B.

There is no “they”, there is just “us”. This AA’s respect for believer and non-believer alike deepens his engagement in the fellowship.

Joe C. who, before the opening of the WAFT Convention, was overheard to say: “I wouldn’t describe my speaking commitment as a keynote,” delivered just that – a keynote address fitting of the many gathered here on this momentous occasion to share in fellowship and understanding.   Joe went on to talk about what so many of us are now proud to be part of: “This idea that came up in one hundred coffee shops in one hundred different towns.”  What’s most special about today, Joe noted, is that somebody did something about it, and launched the first-ever We Agnostics and Free Thinkers International AA Convention.

“We are people not divided by message, but by language,” Joe eloquently observed. And with an admirable air of humility, Joe explained that he felt worthy of kicking off the convention, but not essential, as he shared the enthusiasm for all those associated with this conference, encouraging the momentum to continue by adding:  “You can’t stop social change.”

Joe’s experience, strength, and hope can be summarized in his humble admission that “All I’ve done is mirrored what I learned, not what I know.”

Thanks for kicking off the first-ever WAFT today, Joe!

Joan C. – Founder, We Agnostics, Maui, HI
By David B.

This AA member always felt like she didn’t fit in, until she found acceptance and understanding in her no-prayer home group.

Joan C. grew accustomed to being put off by some of the religious talk in AA, especially when she overheard longstanding members welcoming a newcomer by impressing upon them the non-negotiable message that they must find God. But not anymore.

When she now hears such opinions shared, she offers up the simple question: “But what about Joan?”  Joan has been an exception to that axiom for 45 years.

Having struggled in her personal development, explaining “I wanted to be the object of pity at all times.” While feeling constantly like an outsider, she developed four children by the age of 24 that anchored her, but didn’t offer a complete solution.

“AA is for people with a drinking problem who are otherwise normal, so she again did not initially fit in. Things changed at one of her first AA meetings, where she read and embraced a sign on the clubhouse wall that read:  “we care.”  It was then that she began to lose that feeling of not belonging, believing for the first time that she needed AA to keep herself sober.

“As long as I’m doing something (to enhance my AA recovery) every day, everything will be ok,” Joan believes. And she no longer experiences feelings that she doesn’t fit in, thanks in large part to We Agnostics meetings.  Joan’s unassuming philosophy is to do the best she can every day, a feat she accomplished with honor this very day.

Tim M. – We Agnostics, Los Feliz, CA
By David B.

This AA’s recovery began when he learned to honestly express without fear and reticence what he truly believed and felt.

Tim professed not to be an expert on alcoholism and doesn’t exactly know why he drank the way he did. He shared he was raised by warm and loving parents who were generous with their time.  He never felt like he didn’t fit in, and struggles when he hears of others who have experiences this dilemma for their entire lives.  Tim’s point?  He had no excuses, and the only logical conclusion he could draw that still holds true today is that he drank simply because he liked getting intoxicated.  Tim knows this with certainty, as evidenced by the fact that his drinking persisted even when being perpetually frightened, ashamed, and completely alone in his thoughts and world.

He was able to step out from behind his mask when he found AA and began to reconnect with his feelings. Tim believes that it was when he learned to listen, something he did instead of talking in those first several months of AA, that he discovered his feelings. “That’s when I became a feeling human being for the first time in a long time.”  These emotional states have been nurtured through his attendance at We Agnostics meetings.

Tim shared that his attendance at We Agnostics allowed him to feel human honesty and compassion at work, and “that brought me alive in my recovery.” It’s clear that these sentiments resonate with Tim this very day, as he encouraged WAFT Convention participants to stand up and make ourselves clearly heard.  “Share what you honestly feel and what you honestly believe,” Tim encouraged, in a perceptibly heartfelt and authentic way.

Tim concluded by inviting attendees to “Please take this message from here and keep this thing going.” Hear, hear!

Michael B. – London, UK, Angel Group
By Erin J.

Michael B. from the London, UK Angel group shared his message with convention attendees about the higher power of Alcoholics Anonymous. A particular highlight for me was his message about the value of meetings as a vehicle for subtle transformation, beautifully narrated through a story about how certain behaviors and actions that were at one time acceptable and passable behavior for him transformed over time, with frequent participation in the AA program.

Michael also discussed the value of his relationship with his AA sponsor and provided attendees with insight into the value of a collaborative sponsor/sponsee relationship rather than an authoritative one. A powerful statement he made when discussing his sponsor was that throughout their relationship, he “learned a little about him, and a lot about himself”. It really struck me how important it is for me to work with someone who asks questions and teaches me how to think for myself in non-destructive ways, and really validated my own relationship with my sponsor.

He also spoke of relapse and through his experience I was able to deepen my understanding of how important freethinking is in meetings, particularly in relation to upholding the “primary purpose” in meeting rooms which often prevents people from sharing their experience with addiction in general. It was an incredibly powerful experience to relate to Michael’s story.

Deirdre S. – Webmaster, Agnostic AA NYC
By David B.

This AA had to know how much she was hurting herself before she could stop hurting herself.

Deirdre began by thanking event organizers and participants, as “this event became a success when the doors opened today and we all came together.”

Deirdre analogized her experience of addiction problems to that of a big, sticky ball, in that life becomes manageable only when we don’t add more stuff that attaches to that ball. Deirdre’s experience was that the logic of alcohol – that voice that exclaimed at exactly the riskiest moment “Yes! This alcohol is the solution to my problems!”- progressively consumed her, from convincing her it was normal to sleep in her college dormitory’s restroom, to telling her that she just couldn’t go to AA because of all her dirty laundry, to finding herself straddling two subway cars violently purging herself of the vile poisons she had earlier consumed.

It was not until she stopped drinking – the strength and hope of her experience – that she learned that abstinence would prevent all of these illusions from driving her behavior. The voice then began to instill in her the thought:  “This is going to kill me.”

And as fate (?) would have it, Deirdre walked into an Agnostic meeting to hear an individual share the message that saved her: “This isn’t about God. It’s about showing up and reaching out to others and being of service.”  This simple call to action allowed her to accept the real solution to her drinking, which she lives today through service, allowing her “to be there for friends and family in ways that she couldn’t have before.

Ann H. – We Agnostics, Santa Monica, California
By Erin J.

Ann H from We Agnostics Santa Monica shared a message about love, compassion and tolerance. She described her first experiences in the AA program and how her lack (or hesitance) of belief was defended in the AA rooms by a fellow member (a believer) who felt compelled to defend her right not believe. There are so many people in Alcoholics Anonymous who are open, compassionate and tolerant and I thought it was wonderful that she was able to demonstrate that to us through sharing a positive experience.

Ann also walked us through how she was able to work the steps as a non-believer, and in particular described her willingness to trust in Alcoholics Anonymous, and in “reasonable, rational thinking” as a higher power.  She shared her discovery of the Agnostic movement within AA, and how powerful it was to find like-minded people. Her understanding of spirituality in AA was translated through the Zen proverb “chop wood, carry water”; meaning action was the spiritual experience. Giving rides to people, supporting newcomers and helping people get through challenges in life.

She shared that AA had given her the freedom to be honest about her beliefs in a way that wasn’t mean, ugly or combative and that for her tolerance meant that we as agnostics / atheists / freethinkers needed to show tolerance to people who do believe, not just expect it to be shown to us.

Marya Hornbacher – Keynote Speaker and author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power
By Joe C.

Marya H closed out the first day of We Agnostics & Freethinkers International AA Conference. To those who know her, Marya was as poetic, prepared and thoughtful as we’ve come to enjoy. She was sincerely delighted to be part of this humble bit of AA history.  Marya’s story of one is one of being entirely ready when she ran thin on alcoholic bottoms, she was sincere and willing to do what might work — regardless of the suggestions compatibility with her worldview. She acknowledged that the language of the Steps (ie: the God stuff) doesn’t talk to all of us and certainly falls short of giving answers. While she sees that people stay sober praying and turning it over, she also saw those who, despite great conviction, got on their knees, prayed and heart-breakingly returned to drinking over and over again. Marya H needed to learn to understand the Steps in a way that met here where she lived.

Marya reflected on a sober, second thought of what other call the miracle of sobriety, “I think we sober up by some measure of chance, some measure of hope, some measure of sheer desperation and some measure of faith in the possibility of a new kind of life.” For her, getting past this nebulous spiritual idea the Steps were practical actions that were reasonable enough to apply. We are told of principles to live by and a message to carry to others; but Marya draws attention to the fact that while living by principles and carrying the message are essential, neither the principles nor the messages are defined.

Marya does not know or pretend to be close to finding or connecting to God of any understanding. “What I do have is the utmost faith in that I don’t know; I won’t know; I can’t know what the powers that be may be… I don’t get God but I do know awe and wonder and grace. I do know that I am grateful to be here and I do know that I am lucky to have found AA in you.”

I think that’s how we all felt at the end of day of the first International meeting of nonbelievers in AA. We felt lucky, grateful to hear a day of speakers from the UK, France, Canada, Hawaii, New York, Chicago and from the host-state, California. During refreshment breaks we met others from all around the world who had been through what we had been through in alcoholism and in recovery. I know I did.

Sometimes I find myself lost in the seeming minutia of AA’s history and turning points: it was nice to be part of AA history for a change. It would not surprise me that, while the individuals may be of smaller consequence, by the 100th anniversary of AA, this historical day will be remembered as a meaningful turning point in AA. Many of the two to three hundred that gathered felt this modest shift in the direction in AA’s future. Marya’s talk expressed this hope that AA is and will progress.


The next international convention for we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA will be held in Austin, Texas.

Following Marya Hornbacher’s talk, a business meeting to elect a new WAFT IAAC Board was held.

The four officers of the new Board will be:

Chair: Dorothy H. (incumbent)
Vice-chair: Alex K. [Berkeley]
Secretary: Pam W. (incumbent)
Treasurer: Dianne P. [Toronto]

The seven members at large will be:

Jesse S. [Reno, Nevada]
Nick H. [Austin, Texas]
Michele B. [Alta Loma, California]
Stuart S. [Atlanta, Georgia]
Jane J. [New York City, New York]
Don F. [Vermont, Florida]
Ken S. [Melbourne, Australia]

All of the board members were elected by acclamation.

It was also decided at the business meeting, to add the word “Atheist” to “We Agnostics and Free Thinkers (WAFT)” and, as noted above, to hold the next convention in Austin, Texas.


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We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention – Day 1 — 12 Comments

  1. Wish I’d been there! I especially liked Roger C.’s description of John C. (founder of three WAFT meetings in Paris, France). He reminds me of Jim Burwell in his passionate insistence of inclusion for atheists. Sounds like it was a great opening day!!!

  2. Just getting over the jet lag from the trip back home, and wanted to express my deep gratitude to Dorothy, Pam, Alex, Megan, Roger, Joe, and all the many many others for wonderful convention. I’ve just fallen in love with about 275 people! I’m bringing back a phrase I heard Deirdre say: Making the circle wider without breaking the bond!

  3. Just to clarify, I had to stop hurting myself first before I could see how much I was hurting myself.

    And I did not get the message at an agnostic AA meeting, but met an Irish bartender at a regular old basic AA meeting at the 14th Street workshop in NYC. He said that Step One wasn’t about God, it was about stopping drinking, going to meetings and helping another alcoholic.

    Thanks all for being there at the conference. Let’s make certain that the 2016 event will be just as wonderful.

  4. A special thanks to John C – standing up for atheists in AA. I look forward to the day when the very mention of our orientation doesn’t provoke some sort of argument over whether or not we will be officially acknowledged. Kudos to the business meeting for doing “the right thing.”

  5. This space is amazing. Thank you all for taking the time to write these up for those of us who can’t be there.

  6. I am so excited! I will see you guys in Austin! Can’t wait to get involved and be of service. Keep in touch!

  7. Sounds so great. Wish we could have attended, too – living on SSI makes it hard to travel, but these reports are a wonderful idea.

    Thanx to all who made it possible!

    john
    sd 4/4/81