Perils Facing Agnostic AA

AA Agnostica V

By Vic L.

My sense is that there are three dangers that we in agnostic AA face and that make us uncomfortable. So I will take a deep breath and jump in.

Purity fears

As a rule, we AA members who attend agnostic AA meetings do so to avoid “the god stuff”, otherwise we would attend traditional (non-agnostic) AA meetings.

Enter the purists. Occasionally I detect an atheist who might express a certain disdain for agnostics, or vice versa.

Is this really necessary? Aren’t we confident enough in our own (non) beliefs that we don’t feel a need to attack those who differ from us? Are we attending AA meetings to promote our specific world-view? I was taught that AA does not proselytize, but leads through example. I would think that that philosophy extends not only to people outside the rooms, but within the rooms as well.

Such thinly sliced interpretations can sow the seeds of disunion and the ultimate death of agnostic AA. This is the “we and they” of tribalism that ironically is usually spread by organized religions.

I feel that in meetings we would be better off if we largely stayed ignorant of each other’s specific understandings of all things cosmic, and identify ourselves as part of a “nonbelievers” big tent. I am perfectly happy to be in AA meetings with people who think differently from me, but who choose not to express those differences out of respect for all. Let’s not bicker among ourselves about the nature and quality of our non-belief.

I’m reminded of an old joke. In New York City there is a cliché that Jews can be argumentative and often disagree with their rabbi over theological issues and sometimes leave their synagogue in a huff.

After many years a stranded Jew is found alone on a deserted island. His rescuer asks, “What’s that straw hut over there?” The Jew says, “Oh, that’s my synagogue.” To which the rescuer asks, “Then what are those other two huts?” To which the Jew says, “Oh, those are the other synagogues that I used to belong to.”

Some in AA are not threatened by those of us who do not link their drinking and/or sobriety to a god. Some others, however, are going to be offended no matter how respectful we are. They are “Big Book Thumpers.” I speak specifically of groups like the Pacific group in LA and the Atlantic group in NYC that define AA religious fundamentalism.

The “S” Words

As part of “the god stuff” I also include the “supernatural” (that which is beyond reason). So at the risk of contradicting myself… I find myself reluctant to say the other “s” word… but here goes: “spiritual”.

Many use this word as a poorly veiled reference to god. AA has a long history of linking the “spiritual” with “god”. Although “spirituality” in not part of the AA triangle (Unity, Service and Recovery), AA literature is littered with references to “spirituality”. In addition to the condescending Chapter 4, “We Agnostics” of the Big Book, the newly issued so-called “agnostic” conference-approved AA pamphlet is titled, “Many Pathways to Spirituality.” Traditional AA is simply not prepared to countenance non-belief or other-belief.

We are stuck with Bill W.’s “blinding light” experience that believers often refer to in order to confirm the “necessary” link between god and sobriety. Interestingly Bill’s description of that pivotal event on Page 7 in Chapter 1 of the Big Book (“Under the so-called belladonna treatment my brain cleared…”) is rarely cited. Nor is the description of belladonna, which commonly induces powerful hallucinations.

In addition believers claim that getting sober in AA is somehow a “miracle”, ergo god is at it again. I would argue that there is a collective “power” in meeting and exchanging personal histories with fellow alcoholics. We human beings are, after all, social creatures (solitary confinement is now being described as “cruel and unusual punishment”), and something empathetic happens when we share our experiences with each other. And we also strongly relate to stories.

Whether it’s the surroundings of Sedona, the power of crystals, or the Harmonic Convergence, a belief in things spiritual is by definition not rational, but something else. In fact the term is so vague and “spirituality” can refer to so many different things that it has become meaningless.

When many people inside and outside of AA experience something inexplicable (the love for another, an eerie coincidence, or even consciousness itself) they claim that it is “spiritual” instead of “I feel it but I don’t know what to call it”.

I am not of the conviction that if something is unknown then I should invent an answer just to make myself feel consoled. The astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, when pressed to give a name to “dark matter” said that he called it “Fred” because as a scientist he doesn’t know what it is and refuses to go beyond that ignorance.

Similarly, because I refuse to name something that I don’t fully understand doesn’t mean that I am an unfeeling, heartless, and sterile human being. The same things equally move me that move most people. I just don’t ascribe those feelings to some mythological or sacred power.

Some might conclude that hope is one of the reasons why religion is so popular: that is because religion can be very comforting. When a six-year old asks, “Mommy, are you going to die?” or worse, “Am I going to die?!” mommy can say, “Yes, we are both going to die, but if we live our lives according to, say, Jesus, we will be together in paradise for eternity”. As I said, an unproven hypothesis such as this can be very reassuring.

But we non-believers in AA prefer to attend meetings where such teachings are absent.

I moderated a panel at the first WAAFT convention on 7 November 2014 in Santa Monica, CA: the title was “Is Spirituality Compatible with Agnostic AA?” The panel participants were: Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, The Reverend Ward Ewing, former Chairman of AA’s General Service Board (Non-alcoholic) and Roger C., founder and host of AA Agnostica, the nexus of all things agnostic in AA.

The discussion was heartfelt and varied. Listen here. (Unfortunately questions from the audience are off-mic.)

Marya Hornbacher, claimed “…I label it spiritual because it is where I have to let go of ‘I know this, I don’t know this.’ And so it does fall into the category of a mystery to me…” and much more New Age mumbo-jumbo. Reverend Ewing averred, “I really firmly, firmly believe in the importance of keeping religion out of this fellowship…” yet he describes spirituality as something that can’t be defined. Roger C. was spot on when he said, “…I’ve come to the point where I reject the word ‘spirituality’…The word is old and outdated…”

My sense is that AA reflects the larger US population and I would also argue that the recent Pew poll, which suggests a noticeable decline in the number of self-described believers as well as a corresponding increase in the number of self-described “nones” (none of the above),  really reflects those who shun organized religion yet maintain firm beliefs in spirituality. The implication is that those in the rooms of agnostic AA who are “none” are tired of all the clichés and platitudes of organized religion in traditional AA. As with all who “have a desire to stop drinking” they are more than welcome in agnostic AA.

The problem for me arises when “spirituality” (remember, something that is without evidence, that is non-rational) is claimed to be somehow different than the assertions of major religions yet must be accepted as “real” or “true”. Perhaps these expressions of belief would better resonate in traditional AA meetings.

It is my belief that in fact the use of the term “spirituality” is not compatible with agnostic AA and should be put to one side, if not completely rejected.

Religion bashing

I think we can all agree that agnostic AA is AA. I also understand agnostic AA to be non-religious, not anti-religious. Mind you, agnostic AA meetings were formed because many AA members were non-believers, and the religious aspects of traditional meetings made them feel ill-at-ease.

Ironically I too often hear at agnostic AA meetings a religion-bashing rant. I get just as uneasy hearing someone describe their personal, non-religious take on existence as I do when I hear god talk at traditional AA meetings (even if I agree with the agnostic’s universal understandings).

That said I am convinced that every attendee at every agnostic AA meeting may express any religious or non-religious view they may hold (with the exception of hate-speech, and at most meetings, cross-talk). But aren’t we at agnostic AA meetings because we’d rather not hear “the god stuff?” Isn’t religion bashing, or bashing those who believe in religion just another form of “the god stuff?”

I can excuse the newcomer or the new refugee from traditional AA, but I don’t quite understand why anyone else complains. We are, after all, at an agnostic AA meeting! Whether it’s the newcomers to agnostic AA or the refugees from traditional AA who rage they usually can get over their anger when they realize that agnostic AA is just AA sans the almighty. And we will never know the exact number of alcoholics who have shunned or quit AA because of religious dogma.

As some of us have painfully learned, given the society in which we live it is very difficult for non-believers to come out as such to family and friends. Most of us are born into a religion. To abandon that religion for disbelief is seen as treachery by many family members. And I would guess that many of us have still not come out entirely to all. It is sometimes even more difficult to come out to our friends in traditional AA.

I am firmly convinced that non-believing purity, belief in the spiritual, and anti-religious fervor run the risk of permanent cleavage within our numbers. Not wishing to sound like scold, or Rodney King (“Can we all get along?”) I fear a schism looming unless we remain respectful of each other and keep our personal beliefs just that, personal.

So I encourage one and all to put that potential divisiveness aside and just get on with getting and staying sober, and helping other suffering alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

© Vic L. MMXV All Rights Reserved.

__________

Vic L. is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City. His anniversary date is 11 February 1979.


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Perils Facing Agnostic AA — 66 Comments

  1. I come from a mindset you don’t know and I don’t fully understand either. But I get this: I’m not going to drink or drug today. Bill G. Michigan clean date 9/15/1978. By the way I love the fellowship. It saved my life!

  2. Great article Vic.

    I find the same God bashing along with AA bashing in my Life Ring meeting. It gets tiresome but hopefully in time that attitude will be tempered. I quit AA one year ago this month and it has been a very tough year but the last meeting I went to the topic was God at Work in Your Life! Well I left and have not been back.

    To John S. Dr. Bob said love and service is to be our main focus but is that another contradiction found in the BB? Because Dr. Bob was also a Bible thumper who felt sorry for non believers.

    Sometimes I feel my head is going to explode trying to find harmony in recovery so I end up staying home and that is not always easy.

  3. It seems the author of this article bashes spirituality because “‘spirituality’ can refer to so many different things that it has become meaningless”. To me, that is the beauty of AA “spirituality”. I can say that, for me, helping another person is a spiritual experience and that puts me on the same plane as the person who has a spiritual experience with his god. If anybody wants to quibble with that, I don’t really care, Have fun. I’m OK with the word because AA says I can define it for myself.

    And I don’t care if Bill W was on Belladonna when he had his “white light” experience. That doesn’t make it any less spiritual. I have had equally spiritual experiences on LSD and no one can take that away from this atheist. The difference between Bill’s experience and mine is that I know it was chemically induced.

    • Thank you Vic, also Rich. Everyone has a view on spirituality. Mine is that spiritual is simply connection.

      I used to connect with people through alcohol and that worked until it stopped working and I disconnected and went into isolation.

      I connect now through my home group, the fellowship, working the principals and the steps of the program. As Vic stated in his article, what is essential for me is service and through that can carry the only reason that we are here is to stay sober and try and help the suffering alcoholic.

  4. Secularism has been proven to be the way that people of different religious and non-religious viewpoints can work together. It has taken awhile but the Tokyo Freethinker group has finally reached that stage.

    However, in the beginning, we were very anti-religious and I think that most groups have to go through that phase. We found it necessary to claim our space because religiosity is the norm in AA and there is deep hostility to atheists and agnostics. We kept our ground and people began to respect us. The core of group is still atheists but many people indifferent to religion have joined our meetings.

    • Chris, this sounds like a healthy outlook, a healthy state and a healthy process. Tell us more.

      • With respect to “God” and “spiritual” being in the dictionary, and I respect anybody who has gone to the trouble to look words up if they’re in any doubt.

        Dictionaries, in defining words, start with their etymology (origins) then move on to common usage. But dictionaries, like most reference books can fall behind, especially in the common usage department. Certain words that have been in use for any length of time (centuries), their meanings can change to reflect the common usage. And in some cases, words that have never existed but are in common usage will make their way into the dictionary.

        But the dictionary cannot reflect all the meanings of words that have become over defined as “spiritual” has in AA. People decide they know what the word means and continue to use it as they see fit. For every person in AA there is a different definition of “spiritual”. We have actually rendered the word meaningless because it never was defined to alcoholics when they came into AA. All we knew about was Bill’s “wind at the top of the mountain” experience that never really happened at all.

        Bill Wilson, when he had his “white light” experience, was hallucinating courtesy of the belladonna he’d been given. While some argue that he had it nevertheless, fine, but then, if that experience is the basis for his program that promises us all a “spiritual experience” then we too should be taking belladonna so at least we’re all on the same playing field.

        Dr. Timothy Leary, in recognizing he couldn’t have a meaningful conversation with anybody about the effects of LSD, encouraged them to take it. It’s absurd to define your spiritual experience that was induced by DT’s and a hallucinogen as the thing we all ought to aspire to without providing us with some belladonna, at a minimum, so we have half a chance of understanding the kind of experience that gave birth to his great insight.

  5. Thanks for this article, Vic.

    Purity Fears: having experienced firsthand the smug condescension of the unholier-than-thou, I wholeheartedly agree.

    “S” Words: I disagree. Perhaps it is due to differences in usage of the term in our locales. Spirituality to me is like a Y branch with two unrelated meanings; one referring specifically to god-related experiences and behavior, and the other specifically to upbuilding, enlightening and strength-building experiences unconnected to any form of deity. I particularly love and often refer to “Step 2” as rendered in The Alternative 12 Steps – A secular Guide to Recovery by Martha Cleveland, Ph.D and Arlys G.: “Came to believe that spiritual resources can provide power for our restoration and healing.” This chapter contains a wonderful descriptive example of dishwashing as a spiritual experience, as well as a thought-provoking discussion of what the term “spiritual” means.

    Religion bashing: I agree in essence. And yet recently when I spoke at a Speaker Meeting, in order for me to share “what I used to be like, what happened and what I am like now” it was necessary for me to describe my increasingly horrific ordeal in an organized Christian sect; how this led to my alcoholism; how my experiences with and perception of that religion were intertwined with my approach to 12-step recovery and my eventual relapse; how discovering that it was nothing but a mind control cult affected my sobriety; and how eventually I learned to tap into “spiritual resources” as an agnostic. I would not be able to tell my story without describing all of that.

  6. Vic, thanks. Much of what you write I like. Would like to address one particular aspect of the discussion: I have to agree that, at least with the AA climate we have, the concept of spirituality is at risk of dragging us toward god concepts, just like higher power concepts do. On the other hand we do need something. JHG states parts of the problem well – we need something to define ourselves positively.

    And we need to have something that expresses the conglomerate of positive approaches to life which are (again a negative definition) non-materialistic, as materialism is commonly understood – a striving for and fixation on things, or treating each other as things.

    Honesty, openmindedness, willingness, humility, servicemindedness, living by whatever agnostic or atheist expression of the golden rule you can think of, plus the introspective/relaxation focused practice of meditation – all this is positive expression of our humanity, and what, to me, makes up the better part of what one might call spirituality. If we don’t call it that, what are we going to call it?

    Whatever we do to grow in our ways of relating to other people and our sense of our place in humanity.

    Nothing religious or too etheral about this, though there is a constant danger that the religious folks in AA will co-opt it any chance they get and define spirituality in a god-centered context, but we non-believers do need a concept, and a word that describes all these attributes to a person that, presumably we all strive toward. I have yet to hear anyone in aaagnostica identify themselves as a nihilist.

    I’m a dabbler, but nothing more dedicated than that, in the Tao. It is my impression that it does not recognize deities as being of any great importance, though it does not deny their possible existence. It focuses instead on all the attributes I have outlined above, and self improvement in those areas as being our primary goal in life, and purpose one might say – not in the sense of having been handed that purpose down from a deity on high, but as something that has shown itself to improve the general direction and quality of human existence and interaction, and our relationship to the planet we live on and the other life forms on it, if we live by it in some fashion.

    I think this is what we strive for in AA whether religious or not. We do need a word for it. What’s it going to be?

  7. I totally agree with “put that potential divisiveness aside and just get on with getting and staying sober, and helping other suffering alcoholics to achieve sobriety.”

    The people that have agnostic/atheist meetings are lucky as many don’t have these meetings. They want to stay sober and so go to traditional meetings and have to ignore the god things. Because they have no other choice, other than picking up again.

    So be glad that you have these meetings that eliminate the god stuff. Some people just like to argue for the sake of arguing.

    I believe in live and let live. Take what you need and want and throw out the other stuff.

    LIVE and LET LIVE !!!!! Best way to live your life in peace.

  8. I generally don’t use “spiritual” when I share at any meeting, but if that’s the topic, so be it. When I do, I cite the definition in Appendix II – “a personality change sufficient to recover from alcoholism”. I usually state that I am an athiest, but in a “by the way” approach. Most of the meetings I attend are traditional due to availability.

    I did my fair share of god bashing when drinking. My wife is very religious, so this was something I really had to work on. I can’t act one way at home and another way at AA. I forget where I am. Acceptance and agreeing to disagree works best for me, wherever I am. Not easy at times.

  9. Well it hardly looks like you need another comment Vic but, right out of the gate, you had my ear. What I could never understand about AA, an organization that purports to keep its distance from outside issues, religion, sex and politics have been identified as the outside issues that are the most volatile and the most capable of destroying the best intentioned organizations. We wisely have kept sex and politics out of our discussion rooms but religion is quite deliberately central to this “program” that isn’t a program at all, rather, as we’re reminded at the beginning of almost every meeting, “AA is a fellowship…”.

    The contradictions throughout the book indicates sloppy thinking and the absence of a serious editor. Couple that with the increasing vigour or desperation applied, the deeper into the book we go, for us to accept God as our saviour, and I end up totally confused.

    I suggested the other day that I was hearing a great deal of conjecture and speculation in meetings on subjects for which there are quantifiable answers. In other words great leaps have been made in the understanding of alcoholism, all addictions frankly, yet so few of us ever read anything but the Big Book, a source that is 80 years old, written by a guy with less than 5 years sobriety who could little more than speculate. But that isn’t the case today yet AA has clearly decided not to open a channel to accept new information or to provide its members the opportunity to reconsider some of their beliefs based on truths that have been uncovered in the past 80 years.

    I think it’s sad that AA is now like a broken pane of glass. Not completely beyond repair but growing ever more factionalized. It’s not whole anymore and I think the two primary reasons are, a bizarre faith in a God who if you’re going to have him, isn’t explored more deeply, and this refusal to even examine scientific information that might help explain a variety of post sobriety problems. But I’m just spit balling here, taking a few stabs in the dark. Thanks for the article.

  10. An intriguing article and thought-provoking article, Vic, some of which I heartedly, even spiritedly, agree with with and some of which I likewise heartedly, and yes also spiritedly, disagree with — Hey, that’s pretty good !~!~! This is what I’ve experienced in most AA meetings I’ve attended for the past 42 or so years, whether so-called “traditional” AA meetings or of late at our WAAF — Freethinkers is one word — meetings that have evolved during the last 40 or so years.

    The challenge I have, as others have pointed out, including you, Vic, is to be tolerantly accepting of whatever others believe or don’t believe, as radically different as that may be from what I believe or don’t believe in — in practice, this means I strive to follow the suggestion that states, “take what you need and leave the rest.”

    I find this civil and respectful discussion amongst ourselves to be most healthy and inspirational, as well as hopefully indicating that we shall continue to widen the already wide doors of AA to include all iterations of both belief and non-belief. Keeping the focus on our primary purpose to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety, along with Rule 62, shall insure that we continue the expanding growth we have recently experienced.

  11. My first AA meeting came as a surprise for when I signed up for an in-house hospital treatment program for my alcoholism in 1983 in Burllingame CA. I had no idea much of it was going to revolve around attending their AA type meetings. And while after 46 days I had become convinced drinking would no longer be part of my life I didn’t give AA much thought because of all of the musts I heard.

    In 1985 I found a home in AA but then did an AA no no and sold everything, bought a motor home and spent the next decade+ crisscrossing the U.S. and Canada using the AA travel directories to participate in as many meetings as possible.

    My home is still an RV however I no longer travel and confine most of my AA doings to the internet. Why not you ask? Well the short of it is my attraction to AA was always about relating to others stories and ‘working’ with newcomers whenever possible. However in the area where I’m located relating became more and more difficult. Not with the general god talk and drug stories as I had developed a thick skin to that. But when ‘everything happens for a reason’ and the like became the prevailing and accepted mantra in the meetings I felt ostracized by the nonsense with no message to share.

    • Eddie, that was my experience exactly. I felt I had no message to share and could not belong. Thank you for sharing this.

    • I can’t empathize enough the importance of the “working with others” component of AA. Being the most selfish of men I have no doubt discovering the joy and satisfaction of being part of a person’s recovery is what kept me coming back for many years. And staying sober along the way to boot. What a concept!

      As with sexual preferences or one’s favorite color, I’ve never cared or wanted to know if someone went to a church, their belief in a god or if they ever had a spiritual experience. Keep it simple so they say.

      However with christian fundamentalist dogma sweeping the land it’s nonsense began contaminating the sharing in “my” meetings with adamant statements insisting their god was orchestrating everything on this planet to conform to some divine plan. And proclamations of his will filled the air. SOooooo then, it’s his will I drink a quart a day and when it fit’s his schedule he will have me stop?

      I miss the wonderful, revealing interactions live meetings afford but I’m an old man now and must confess keeping a straight face when confronted with stupidity is now a lost art for me.

      I am truly grateful for you folks and the AA community which looks reality in the face and calls a spade a spade.

    • Thanks so much for that, Eddy, it really touched me. Feeling a similar disconnect to the “God is running it all” brand of AA I am surrounded by. Too much “trust God,” too little “help others” for my tastes.

  12. Alcoholics Anonymous is a movement which by definition means we are a group of people who have come together to advance a common goal, and what we have in common as far as I can tell is a desire to stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety. Keeping this primary purpose at the forefront of everything we do, will in my opinion do far more to assure unity among us than arguing over atheism, agnosticism and whether spirituality has a place in agnostic AA.

    I don’t know where I stand on the issue of spirituality. Personally, I prefer to use specific language to identify the principles, actions and attitudes that so often fall under the umbrella of spirituality, otherwise I agree with Vic, that the term is meaningless. However, I wouldn’t insist that others do this or discourage the use of spiritual expression, even in a special purpose AA meeting of agnostics and atheists. If someone wants to describe his or her sobriety as a spiritual experience while maintaining they are an atheist, there’s no skin off my nose. It’s really immaterial to the big picture, and the big picture is the future of the AA movement.

    We agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in Alcoholics Anonymous are networking and organizing at an opportune time, because there is a strong undercurrent that is pulling AA back to the past when we should instead be “living in the now” tailoring our approach to the 21st Century alcoholic, and looking forward to secure the fellowship for future generations.

    The Back to Basics movement seems innocent in practice. It’s not uncommon where I live for a group to announce a Back to Basics workshop in which people learn about and practice the steps over a short period of time, apparently as it was meant to be done in the good ole days. This has produced either accidentally or by design an AA that looks and feels more religious and dogmatic than ever. It’s gone on long enough that for many people this is the only AA they know.

    If we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA are to make a difference, we need to participate actively in the general service structure as described in AA’s General Service Manual. We need to serve as GSRs, District Committee Members and Delegates. Additionally, we need to be actively involved with our Intergroup, answering phones, going on Twelve Step calls, or simply doing the grunt work that makes Twelve Step work possible, and we need to be doing this as open atheists and agnostics representing our atheist and agnostic AA groups.

    We can learn a lot from the experience of the gay and lesbian AA groups, there are over two-thousand gay and lesbian AA meetings by the way, compared to some 245 agnostic AA meetings, and they like us have been around since the beginning and they like us started meeting as special purpose groups in the 1970’s. I would recommend reading the book, “The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous” by Audrey Borden. In that book she describes a time when there was a debate in AA about whether or not gay groups should be listed, and one of the arguments for listing the groups was “if not for the gays, who would be answering the phones at central office?”

    Now, I know there is a difference in that our not believing in God can be a direct poke in the eye to the Big Book fundamentalist while being gay I not an issue, but still there are a lot of similarities. They had a lot of bigotry and ignorance to overcome, but they did it by uniting through active engagement with the fellowship.

    Imagine if there were two-thousand agnostic AA groups. It can happen. Our little group has been around for only one year and already, I have seen more first-step meetings than my old home group had in the past five years. Last week we had four people at one time for their first ever AA meeting, and at that same meeting, we had four people who considered themselves refugees from their home group which they describe as having become increasingly dogmatic and religious. They will probably be starting another agnostic group in the near future.

    Agnostic AA is filling a need and is experiencing an exciting time of growth. The last thing we need to do is become more dogmatic ourselves by narrowing how we express our experience with each other. Just don’t tell me what I need to do or that we all must do as you do, and we will get along just fine and maybe get the AA movement, moving forward again.

      • Indeed John, the Back to Basics movement has done a lot of damage to the fellowship. I’m not sure if most people in AA realize how harmful it’s been. Wally P has a platform for selling his books and promoting the idea that AA has been “watered down” and that we must go back to working the program the way it was done in the 1940’s.

        The consequences have been the presentation of a narrowed view of how one experiences AA, a regimented and specific format is followed that is supposed to recreate the amazing recovery rates of the early days in AA.

        This narrowed view of the program has filtered down into the groups, in all meetings and it’s making AA appear intolerant and well, dogmatic.

        I predict a backlash among the membership and the numbers of agnostic AA groups will grow. Soon enough, they won’t even be known as agnostic groups, it will just be the way AA was always intended to be, open, inclusive, tolerant and supportive.

        The real basics can be summed up by Dr. Bob with the words, “Love and Service”. That’s got to be our focus, on loving and serving the newcomer to AA and expanding the options for those people to provide them with an AA of the 21st Century, not an AA of the 1940’s.

  13. Hi Vic: A very well thought out piece reflective of your decades of experience with these issues.

    Not to sound like an “angry atheist” (perish the thought) I did want to comment that “some” of us with considerable time in the fellowship may have “matured” past an angry, more polemic, stage that includes things like “god bashing” and the desire to definitively say who and what we are in meetings (without being personally disrespectful of other members) in order to claim our own ground. This is necessary for some others in terms of identification with like minded members and can serve as a pathway (or not) to some of the more refined concepts you so ably speak of here. Some stay angry (and sober) for years that way and its definitely part of the “profile” of AAAA meetings I am familiar with. Not everyone has to like, identify with, or embrace anything an individual member might espouse within the context of his or her quest for a meaningful sober life. In other words you might not “want what I have” but, of necessity, you may need to hear it on some level. I assume the same posture in the conventional AA meeting I have been attending for many years and sometimes see the paradox embodied in the concept of learning new things from difficult people I have fundamental disagreements with.

    I absolutely agree with you on the irrelevance of the term “spiritual” and the vague notions represented under the all encompassing banner of “spirituality”. As a lifelong (since age 12) militant atheist that position comes easily to me but I also need to realize that it can be threatening to others who require a set of formulas and answers based far up in the ether rather than down here on the ground with us heathens. I suppose its just one of those many things about AA membership I need to accept and this realization may allow me to tone down some of my responses in the future. Thanks for the reminder.

    What I don’t intend to accept (as I believe I may have indicated in a question/comment I made from the floor in Santa Monica during your panel) is members of religious orders and organizations speaking to (as keynotes or official program participants) conventions and meetings supposedly organized for the benefit and edification of non-believing members of the fellowship. I am hoping that these errors of judgement can be avoided in the next convention in Austin. We shall see.

    As to “wings” within our branch of AA it does seem inevitable that that there will be differences of opinion as we move along in organizing a “national” movement leading to some spirited (and contentious) discussion within the broad spectrum of members involved.

    I clearly am from the “atheist” wing with some very definite opinions but am under no illusion that my own personal positions have unusual weight or will “carry the day” in any significant way. I suspect that, in the end, just like in every AA meeting or gathering I am familiar with, that a “group conscience” (without founders, presidents, leaders, old timers, chairman or guru’s leading the way) will emerge to form a position somewhere in the middle that most every member (including this one) can and will embrace. That seems to be the AA way.

    • Hi John:

      Yes, we agree on nearly everything. Even though some may benefit from what I might say (even though they may not want to hear it) who am I to insist on saying it. But let me stress:

      Every attendee at every agnostic AA meeting may express any religious or non-religious view they may hold (with the exception of hate-speech, and at most meetings, cross-talk).

    • “What I don’t intend to accept is members of religious orders and organizations speaking to (as keynotes or official program participants) conventions and meetings supposedly organized for the benefit and edification of non-believing members of the fellowship.”

      I agree. Ewing is a good speaker. I can enjoy listening to a real pro, even if I disagree with everything he says. But our emerging WAFT fellowship should be true to ourselves, including militant atheists like you and me. The intellectual and moral high ground does belong to us, not the religionists. Would an Episcopal Church convention welcome speakers who criticised “faith” and advocated such virtues as skepticism, logic, and reliance upon evidence?

      The Abrahamic religions have committed horrible crimes against good people. Until modern times, people in England faced the death penalty if they blasphemed against the prevailing deity/deities, or even espoused unitarianism. Here in Boston, in front of the state house, is a bronze statue of Mary Dyer, who was hanged in the adjacent Boston Common for the crime of being a Quaker.

      • John, you ask “Would an Episcopal Church convention welcome speakers who criticised ‘faith’ and advocated such virtues as skepticism, logic, and reliance upon evidence?” Perhaps not but how is that question relevant?

        Ward Ewing did not promote his faith or advocate the virtues of religious thinking when he addressed us in Santa Monica. I was there and heard every word he said. He is an Episcopal priest but he was invited to speak our convention because he is also a Chairman Emeritus of the AA General Service Board. I know that because I am the person who invited him. In that capacity he is more than qualified to address any AA Convention. He is an outspoken advocate and staunch supporter of the Agnostic/Atheist AA movement.

        Adopting a position of exclusivity based on your personal point of view is entirely up to you. However, in my view, the fundamental driving force behind the WAAFT movement emerged from resistance to the harmful consequences of exclusivity within AA based on personal beliefs. Your comments in this regard strike me as the mirror image of what I see to be the problem with the “faith-based” exclusiveness that drove me to start an agnostic AA meeting in my area. There is no “them” in AA (or anywhere else, for that matter) – only “us”.

  14. Vic, you make excellent points. We don’t want to replace one soapbox for another or “pull up the ladder.” I strongly agree that the “stories” are a huge part of what makes it work along with the collective power of the group. There is something very human about an “oral tradition” and the sharing of wisdom. Stories show we’re not alone. That we’re understood and accepted. They give us hope and a path for moving forward. The stories of my fellow “agnostics” provide helpful, reality-based solutions. Our sole purpose is to carry the message to our fellow suffering alcoholics. “Live and let live” is essential for our unity and sobriety. Thank you for writing and sharing this article. And thank you for representing “we agnostics” so that we can maintain our autonomy and integrity as a valid, respectful alternative to all-or-nothing, God-based recovery.

  15. Pretty good article. Over a year ago now, when we formed FreeThinkers of the LowCountry, we made it perfectly clear in our ‘preamble’ that we were a group of all beliefs and un-beliefs, and so far it has worked. God/religion bashing has not been an issure, because we also make it perfectly clear that our primary goal is to help the alcoholic that still suffers. We also know, because we have the expereience of long-term sobriety, God/religion based AA and most AA is, make no mistake about that; that because of this many new comers have been put off by it, and have put off their sobriety. Nothing should ever stand in the way of anyone getting sober.

  16. Traditional AA is anti-intellectual, valuing nonexistent entities such as tailor-made higher powers, and pressuring members to conform to their groupthink god-oriented approach to sobriety. Despite this, I speak my mind at traditional meetings. If I don’t feel free at an agnostic AA meeting to express my viewpoints–whether to bash “god” or religion, or to discuss the efficacy of the steps, or my opinion on how to recover from alcoholism–then I don’t want to be at that meeting, because if it discourages the free exchange of ideas, politely expressed, then it too is anti-intellectual. If I want to bash “god,” goddammit, I’m going to do it. If I can do it at a mainstream meeting, I will certainly feel free to do it at an agnostic meeting.

  17. The best part of the AA meeting format is that the opinions of our fellows usually last no more than about 5 minutes. I have found that I can usually grit my teeth for that long without noticeable damage. And at the “Agnostic AA” meetings that I’ve attended, those difficult to take 5 minute periods are fewer and farther between.

  18. Can I add a P.S.? Some may say that Buddhism or Taoism are “religions” and therefore only those who “believe” in them should be entitled to use the term “spirituality” in an Agnostics AA meeting. But what is a “religion”? And what is an “agnostic”? Must an agnostic somehow qualify as being in a “religion” to use the “S” word?

    I believe that any alcoholic should be free to use the “S” word in an Agnostics AA meeting. Doing so should threaten no one’s sobriety and may even help someone else.

  19. Good for you, Vic! I agree with most of what you say and you say it so well! I particularly agree with the wrong of “religion bashing”, which irritated me a lot when I attended agnostic AA meetings. As for a ban on “spirituality”, what about folks in AA from other religions, such as certain types of Buddhism, Taoism, etc., who believe in spirituality but do not profess to believe in “God”? What’s wrong with believing in “spirituality”? Is that harmful to folks? If an agnostic wants to do that then he or she should be able to do that. It hurts no one and can help many.

  20. I totally agree as I stopped going to the meetings as it still felt like I was going to church.

    • Thanks Ted. That pretty much sums up my understanding of addiction treatment and rehabilitation. Having been one of those “overseas heroin users” who much later decided to be addicted to ethanol this is how I understand things. While I am not sure about the actual cause I have a fair idea of treatment. In my opinion this is what AA does best. It provides the ethanol addict with a human community based on recovery. Thus I am allowed to reconnect with my lost humanity.

    • Thank you, Ted. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It’s connectedness. That is why recovery support works.

    • Thanks, Ted. Fascinating to hear what the speaker has to say about “connection” as the *answer* to addiction. I still have to think some more about the role of heredity, depression, and other “X-factors” in the *etiology* of addiction. However, the talk made me think fondly of the warm-hearted, salt-of-the-earth, small-town AA’s who accepted me with open arms back in 1973–with almost none of the “higher power” preaching and never any “our father” prayers. I sure miss those good old guys, and the support this lifelong agnostic felt from them in the early days of recovery.

  21. Squabbling agnostics, atheists, skeptics etc. are bald men fighting over a comb. “Every AA has the privilege of interpreting the program according to their own outlook and experience” – Bill W. (As Bill Sees It). The words God and spiritual are in the dictionary so they must mean something or they wouldn’t exist. Isaac Newton spent much of his life in occult studies and trying to prove alchemy. Bill W. dabbled in clairvoyance. Carl Jung went down some cul de sacs. So what? It’s called experimentation. As Al-Anon says, “Take what you like and leave the rest”. Jung wrote to Bill of what he called human beings’ “spiritual thirst” and the world’s “unrecognised spiritual need” – “spiritus contra spiritum”. It makes sense to me, but hey – “Live and let live”.

    • “Bald men fighting over a comb”…. a brilliant description…. Thanks Laurie, that’s pretty refreshing.

  22. Love your simple and direct approach of mutual respect. As a former NY Jew, I am certainly conversant in the examination of any issue until it is beaten to death. I no longer practice religion but respect and support any addicted person who finds recovery in whatever format works for them … so long as they don’t try to deny me my right (s) to recovery in whatever form that may take for me. You are 100% correct; we need not bicker nor debate with one another, just respect our collective recovery in whatever for that may take for each of us personally. Thanks for your article.

  23. Thanks, Vic. I was present for the WAFT panel you moderated and mention here. We are not likely to actually jettison the word “spiritual”, the tendency for AA members to talk about their own spiritual or nonspiritual world views or the belief-bashing that sometimes emerges from members of all spiritual/nonspiritual persuasions. First and foremost, AA is a supremely democratic organization and meetings are characterized by the freedom of AA members to say (pretty much) anything they want to say. So, the solution cannot be to restrict what members say. The solution must be to find in our hearts the ability to recognize the fundamental humanity of our fellow members even when we find their ideas or beliefs to be foolish and harmful.

    • I was present for the last half of that panel. What was said from the floor during comments surpassed anything I heard from dais. Your comment, Russ, which I paraphrase, that spirituality is a personal and subjective experience, nailed it. As well, the remark made about “esprit de corps”, which illustrated that something happens in groups that can improve individual performance, describes our fellowship well and does not rely on an interventionist deity.
      It seems that most peoples’ stories of coming to AA and then somehow being able to not take a drink, when beforehand they lacked that ability, do not proceed from finally being convinced that drinking is not rational. What seems to have changed for them was the company they were keeping. We did not connect them to ourselves with jumper cables or inject them with our blood. We just spent time together. Somehow, by some unseen mechanism, they didn’t drink nor did we.

  24. Another good article – thought provoking and informational. I attended the WAAFT international convention last year and was present for that panel discussion. For me an audience participant summed up the spirituality issue better then all the panelists. He was an ex marine and talked about the esprit de corps he experienced while in foxholes, training, and other situations during war. I am an atheist member of Alcoholics Anonymous that returned from the convention started a group and attend two different WAAFT meetings a week. I believe there is a spiritual component to our existence and my recovery. Spirituality is defined quite easily for me today as things I cannot see touch such as honesty love fear hope etc. Yes! some of these are feelings but the ETC. is a huge category encompassing infinite inexplicables. It has been my experience that the greatest threat to agnostic AA isn’t division from within, it is not working harder to be recognized within current structures of AA. Hopefully, eventually we will get the same recognitions as other minorities and subgroups have over the years but we will have to continue to fight the good fight with GSO.

    • “…my experience that the greatest threat to agnostic AA isn’t division from within, it is not working harder to be recognized within current structures of AA”

      I agree.

      I’d hoped things would have worked out when I approached Intergroup with the good news that I was going to start a freethinkers meeting. The ensuing fight radicalized me way more than I ever wanted to be, in AA, anyway. Over the last few months I have occasionally brought some book or other (including Do Tell) to regular AA meetings and passed it around with a very brief introduction. Now another fight is brewing over that. This is of course because our meeting never got listed, and the general area is really not quite able to support a freethinkers meeting (so my stupidity perhaps for continuing to attend a meeting of, often 1, sometimes two, occasionaaly a few) but it does feel like I’m fighting a losing battle against the fundamentalists, but I keep doing it anyway. Not the best prerequisite for serenity, but “To thine own self be true” it is for sure…

  25. My assessment of agnostic AA is that our vision of who we are is still being worked out. We are like early AA in that regard. We can look retrospectively at how Bill Wilson, Bob Smith, Hank Parkhurst, Jim Burwell, Marty Mann, and others back then forged what would come to be the “thing” that we call AA today. But it wasn’t yet a “thing” back then. It had not yet been shaped into anything stable. They truly didn’t know whether what they had discovered would ever achieve critical mass.

    And we also have another obstacle besides the insufficiently developed vision of who we are. Agnosticism and atheism are inherently incapable of supporting a cohesive community in that they are both based on negations. We don’t agree on anything except that we agree that we don’t agree with religion. One of the symptoms of this is the third point in the post. Into the void rushes unfortunate religion bashing and other rants about what we hold in contempt. It is neither attractive nor does it present a solution.

    Where I depart from the author of the post is in his wanting to prohibit discussion of “all things cosmic”. I agree that a line needs to be drawn somewhere that would allow us to define what we mean by the term “outside issues” in the tenth tradition, but I don’t think his solution is either realistic or helpful.

    I think it is far better to embrace the spirit of the slogan “Take what you like and leave the rest” for three reasons. First, doing so models true tolerance, and second, how we have come to view our place in the universe is part of our “experience, strength and hope”. It is better to err on the side of sharing what just might be helpful to someone else than having to tiptoe around some of the most central questions of our sober lives because we think someone might be offended, turned off, or just bored.

    But the third reason for my not wanting to ban personal beliefs from AA meetings is perhaps the most crucial, which is that nature abhors a vacuum. How are we going to forge a positive identity unless we can talk about what we are for? With what are we going to replace all our talk about what we are against?

    I think the problem is that what constitutes an outside issue is necessarily different for us from what it is for many traditional AA members, and we are still working that out. It is obvious to us that the way AA promotes religion represents a huge contradiction. AA is not supposed to have opinions on outside issues.

    By the same token, what you need for yourself in order to stay sober is not an outside issue. The crucial question is whether you are promoting your personal version of sobriety as the official AA position. None of us speaks for AA. Displaying our differences is an important reminder that what each of us is doing is modestly sharing our experience, strength and hope.

  26. Thank you Vic!

    I am averse to the term “spiritual,” and see it as technically “meaningless.” I don’t use the word in ‘my story.’

    That said, the term does have “meaning” for some, on an individual basis. They use the term and find some “meaning” in it.

    I have a lot of friends, probably most, who are not philosophically, and linguistically precise and in AA the term is apparently used to describe everything from A TO Z.

    In order for me to understand how a particular person is using that word, and with what “meaning” they invest the word, I have to do that investigation.

    There was a guy who once came to our group a lot. He used the word “spiritual” in almost every sentence he spoke. He liked to put himself out there as highly “spiritual.”

    One day I asked him what that word meant to him. “What do you mean when you say “spiritual? I don’t understand what you mean when you use that word. Can you tell me what that word means to you?”

    He was taken backwards, fumbled around some, and eventually came up with something fuzzy. I asked him about that answer. He eventually decided he did not really know what he meant by the term, that it just “sounded good.” I suggested that since he did not really know what that term meant, for him, that perhaps until he did know, then, why use it?

    peace

  27. The peril that I am experiencing as an alcoholic is I can’t find your program for recovery. There’s as much and maybe more focus on god here as in an AA meeting.

    Once you throw out the steps with the bathwater, then you’re offering what the AA fellowship program offers…
    stay sober on meetings.

    I look forward to reading responses.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      You and I have touched upon this topic before in other venues. As long as you fail to explore what can now easily be found from we nonbelievers about the Steps, you will remain in outer, and utter darkness. HA!

      Technically, as I have pointed out to you before, you present a false choice, a false dilemma, and appear to be involved in catastrophic thinking.

      Best regards.

      • Hi Vic, if you stay sober on the AA fellowship and the topic at a meeting is god or HP in your life and everyone sharing is all warm and fuzzies does is not make you feel like an outsider? It does for me.

      • I’m delighted when I hear people share how grateful they are to have a god in their lives. As I am when someone is beaming for having found a job, a house or a boy/girl friend. Where I squirm is when said people give credit to whom or whatever for their sobriety.

    • Suzanne, I am a fan of the idea that there are many paths to recovery. That is the approach taken by many in AA, perhaps especially agnostics and atheists. We don’t promote one program; we promote whatever works for you. That may be the Steps (there is a wonderful book called The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery), or meditation à la Buddhism or John Kabat-Zinn, or Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or just not drinking and going to meetings, or many, many other paths and approaches to sobriety and recovery. It would neither be wise nor helpful to others if agnostics and atheists had our very own program. Indeed it would be downright counterproductive and unhealthy, IMHO.

      • Well said, Roger! I am anti-dogma (of any sort), not anti-religion. I am truly agnostic: I don’t know whether there is a god, and I don’t believe that any other human knows, either. Therefore it is a pointless debate. I have nothing against religion or believers, as long as I am not being pressured to embrace their beliefs.

        The preamble read in my home group Sober Agnostics in Vancouver states that “We welcome believer and non-believer alike… we are free to discuss our spiritual experience, our search for it, or our rejection of it, without having to embrace anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny our own.” We must find our own way to work the program, both by learning from other members and the literature, and by thinking for ourselves to determine what is right for us. The big book itself says that the steps are meant to be suggestions only. “We realize we know only a little…”

  28. Thanks Vic. That was good and enjoyable food for thought for an occasional (maybe worse) religion basher.
    Early on I found a definition of spirituality which works quite well for me. This defined “spirituality” as my relationship with the things that are most important to me in my life. Since I don’t believe in “spirits” but many of these important things are immaterial or nonmaterial this is quite sufficient unto my needs. I am in complete agreement with you that an individual’s “spiritual” beliefs, whatever they may be, are irrelevant to the group. In fact I strongly feel that personal “religious” convictions (which are usually sectarian in nature) are by definition an outside issue… just like politics.
    Thanks again – dan

  29. Thanks Vic! I Agree with 98% of what you wrote…

    However, in the tradition of rabbinical debate, this is what I take issue with:

    Isn’t rejecting spirituality in Agnostic AA outright and en-masse a form of purism? What about us who like the S-word and it’s varieties of secular contexts? Are we to feel like we’re “doing it wrong” in agnostic AA?

    Our own ‘sub-preamble’ says our meetings provide us with a place “to share our own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it.” I understand that the third is your belief and viewpoint and I respect that. But your proposition to apply that to all of Agnostic/No-Prayer A.A. seems to go against even our traditions as they stand.

    I know of regular attendees on our meetings who have a spiritual practice, and some who believe in a higher power (and even use the G word), who come because they like our tradition of free expression and openness of our meeting formats. They should be welcome as well…

    … As long as they don’t break out into an “Our Father.”

    😀

  30. Thanks for that, Vic. I agree completely that a pursuit of “purity” in AA, whether by the God-believers or the atheists in AA, is a slippery slope. I also agree that religion bashing is a danger to agnostic AA.

    However, your assertion that use of the word “spiritual” is not compatible with agnostic AA is fundamentally wrong. I will repeat what I said from the peanut gallery at the Nov. 7, 2014 panel you moderated on spirituality in Santa Monica. As a retired Marine officer who has seen combat in three wars, I can tell you that “esprit de corps” is a thoroughly natural and well documented human phenomenon that is, by definition, spiritual. Esprit de corps translates from French as the spirit of the body of troops, the group. People who are gung ho (a Chinese battle cry meaning “working together”) and focused on defeating a common, deadly enemy, can rely on the spiritual bond they have with each other to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. There’s nothing supernatural there – just human power being brought to bear on a difficult problem despite the Big Book’s assertion that “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.”

    As agnostics and atheists, we can and should reclaim the term “spiritualty” as something we can rely upon in a way that is at least as powerful, and probably more so, than those who believe that a supernatural non-human power is relieving their alcoholism.

    • I really like your take on the word, Eric. Being prior military perhaps helps.

      Forward, March.

    • A great discussion of the kind of spirituality you allude to is in Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, which is not a book about Marxism but instead about how the spectral can haunt us in creative ways. In addition to the esprit de corps you mention, the word spirit is used in a number of ways that don’t involve the supernatural: the spirit (as opposed to the letter) of the law, spirited discussions, team spirit, the spirit of a child that ought not be broken, distilled spirits, etc.

    • Hi Eric,
      Nice hearing from you. Yes, I distinctly remember you at my panel in Santa Monica. However, I ‘m afraid that we just disagree. Naming something doesn’t make it exist. I am an evidenced-based alcoholic.
      Best, Vic.

      • Of course, we do have evidence that people feel emotions including love and empathy for each other. Although such feelings are often hard to quantify, we’re getting better at seeing and defining them as electrochemical activity in our brains and bodies. We also have evidence that our species evolved in a manner that gives many of us the trait of being able to watch out for each other, to care for each other and to work together. There’s nothing supernatural about that, but the experience of it is best described as spiritual.

    • Some very good points from Vic and from Eric C. “Esprit de corps” reminds me of another favorite term: Zeitgeist. The literal translation is time ghost, but refers more to spirit of the time, mood or attitude. These are things that aren’t quantifiable in any concrete, hand-held sense, but are easily recognized, especially in hind sight. And you don’t have to believe in ghosts to understand that there is something that influences our local and group experiences. I think of this when I use the word ‘spiritual’ when I try to explain that which is non-material. Esprit de corps, zeitgeist and even “home team advantage” are indeed spiritual without the need for supernatural intervention.

  31. Well-stated, Vic. Free-thinkers of all stripes should honor each other’s ability to be free-thinking! Just as an aside, two things popped into to my mind as I was reading. First, I thought of an atheist friend in AA with many years of sobriety attending regular AA meetings. His handling of the god thing involve putting an extra O in the word god, and praying to “the good.” The second was a lecture on spirituality I attended by Abe Twerski, psychiatrist AND orthodox rabbi, certainly a VERY religious man. He defined spirituality without any reference to a god, but as a unique feature of being human, noting that we are the only species that ever asks, “why am I here?” 🙂