By Eric C.
This article was initially published in the Camel Courier, the newsletter for District 11 (Area 34) in Northern Michigan.
In October of this year, a federal court ordered the State of California and a treatment center working under contract for the state to award nearly $2 million to a man who declined to participate in a 12-step recovery program because of its religious nature.
The man had been imprisoned for his refusal to engage in activities such as prayer that were required by the 12-step treatment center. The federal court determined that the man’s religious freedom rights under the First Amendment had been violated. Similar cases have been springing up all over the U.S. in recent years.
The court rulings may eventually affect the ability of courts throughout the U.S. to sentence people to attend AA meetings and may inhibit the flow of newcomers into the fellowship. This is not yet a matter of settled law; and Michigan is not located within the federal district where the most definitive court ruling was recently made.
AA’s General Service Office in New York is acutely aware of the recent court rulings, according to its manager, Phyllis H. At the first-ever We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention held last month in Santa Monica, Calif., Phyllis acknowledged that several recent court decisions around the U.S. have found that AA is in fact “religious” and not simply “spiritual” as A.A. has long asserted.
Those determinations were based primarily on language contained in the Big Book and other AA literature as well as the practices of many AA groups around the U.S. and treatment centers offering 12-step recovery programs.
“We don’t want to do anything that makes people think that AA is a religion,” Phyllis said. She added that the GSO and its attorneys were paying close attention to the court cases, but no official A.A. action is contemplated because the court cases are an “outside issue” and “the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy”, according to our 10th Tradition.
You may have seen last month’s We Agnostics and Freethinkers International A.A. Convention listed in the AA Grapevine’s official calendar of AA events or even seen announcements about it right here in the Camel Courier. I had the honor and privilege of joining about 300 fellow AA members from all over the world at the convention, Nov. 6-8. AA members from as far away as Australia, Turkey, France and Spain attended along with contingents of recovering drunks from Canada and roughly half of the 50 United States, including this alcoholic from Michigan.
With 31 years of continuous sobriety in AA, I felt like a newcomer among some of the convention attendees who had years and even decades longer in sobriety than I do. Most significant, however, was the fact that almost none of the AA members who attended the convention believe in God. That includes me, of course.
Atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular humanists – no matter how they label themselves – these men and women are living proof that AA can and does work for any alcoholic who meets the only requirement for membership in AA, a desire to stop drinking.
Like all other AA conventions, this one featured a variety of speakers, panels, workshops and discussion meetings. Panel topics ranged from spirituality to relapse, to varying interpretations of the 12 suggested steps.
One panel consisted of a report from four atheist/agnostic members of AA who had served as official delegates to AA’s General Service Conference. Workshops focused on issues ranging from AA literature to meditation, to suggestions about how to start “secular” AA meetings and groups at the local level.
In addition, AA meetings throughout the convention were non-stop. The meetings were hosted by various We Agnostics AA groups from around the world and were conducted just as they would be at home to demonstrate the meetings’ various formats. Discussions often focused on issues the We Agnostics groups faced in dealing with other AA groups and their local AA service structure.
With 33 years of sobriety, Phyllis H. was the convention’s honorary speaker. The presence and participation of the manager of AA’s General Service Office at the convention underscored the legitimacy and support the We Agnostics movement has within AA as a whole. Quoting AA co-founder Bill W., Phyllis credited atheists and agnostics for “widening the gateway of recovery for all regardless of their beliefs or lack of belief.”
A keynote speaker at the convention was considered a controversial choice by many of the atheists and agnostics present. An ordained Episcopal minister, the Very Reverend Ward Ewing for nine years served as a Class A (non-alcoholic) Trustee with AA’s General Service Office and is a Chairman Emeritus of AA’s General Service Board. The Rev. Ewing did not disappoint. “I am strongly opposed to religion creeping into AA,” Ewing said. “There is only one criterion for membership in AA and we have to keep these doors open wide.”
Ewing acknowledged that certain parts of AA literature are at best condescending towards atheists and agnostics if not downright disparaging of them. These include Dr. Bob’s story in the Big Book in which Bob says he feels “sorry” for atheists and agnostics whose “intellectual pride” prevents them from accepting God. Of course, Dr. Bob was sober only a few years when he wrote those words compared to today’s atheists and agnostics in AA, many of whom have been happily sober more than 10 times longer than Dr. Bob was.
In addition, Chapter Four of the Big Book, “We Agnostics” is, ironically, quite offensive to many atheists and agnostics. For example, in the so-called “chapter to the agnostic” Bill W. flatly asserts that God “has come to all who have honestly sought Him.”
However, the experiences of many thousands of honest, open-minded and willing-to-believe atheists and agnostics in AA since 1939 have proven that Bill’s assertion is simply false.
“I have never liked Chapter Four,” the Rev. Ewing declared. Ewing’s declaration was met with relieved laughter and thunderous applause from some 300 atheist and agnostic alcoholics listening intently to his address. “This is the first gathering of AA I have ever attended where I felt I could openly admit that; and it feels great!” Ewing added.
During a business meeting at the convention, a board of directors and officers were elected to form a permanent, non-profit organization which will fund and administer biennial conventions of atheists and agnostics in AA. It was decided that the title of the organization should include the word “atheist,” so the new name of the organization is the” We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention.”
A second biennial convention is already being planned for 2016 in Austin, Texas.
About the Author: Eric C., who has 31 years of sobriety in AA, resides in Lake Leelanau with his wife, Gail C., who has 24 years of sobriety in AA. They have two teenage children. Eric has worked as a local newspaper reporter since 1998 following a 25 year career in the U.S. Marine Corps as a combat correspondent and a public affairs officer. He is a veteran of Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and Somalia.
The featured image for this article is a photo by Alyssa S. of the piers along the waterfront in Santa Monica. It was taken while she was taking a moment to reflect while at the convention.