Atlanta 2015 We Agnostics Talk

Atlanta Convention I

The 2015 International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous was held in Atlanta, Georgia, between July 1 and 5. There were reportedly some 60,000 people in attendance. The theme of the Convention was “80 years – Happy, Joyous and Free”.

Between 1500 and 2000 people attended a We Agnostics Panel held at the Convention with three speakers. You can listen to all three right here, introduced by Joe C: Rebellion Dogs Publishing. The last of the three speakers was Jeff Y. and his talk – with quotes from Bill Wilson, Ward Ewing and Ernie Kurtz – is shared with you today, here on AA Agnostica.

By Jeff Y.

My name is Jeff and I am an alcoholic.

It is a distinct honor to be here and I can’t think of a better way to share my gratitude with you for my 30 years of sobriety. My sobriety date is April 29th, 1985.

Our topic We Agnostics first came as a surprise and then a pleasant surprise when I received a loving invitation from our General Service Office. It’s always hard filling the bottom of the ticket and, you know, these three are hard acts to follow.

Today I am going to share some of my own experience but I will also refer to our Conference-approved literature and some of the writings of Bill and what others have shared recently on us with this subject. And I gotta say that when I first got this assignment and it was one of these sort of “Okay we need an extra person. Just give it to a past delegate. He’s supposed to be able to talk on anything because he knows everything.” I had to seriously sit down and say “Okay, what do I know about this topic?” And then I had to say “What do I believe about this topic?” And then it finally boiled down to “What do I truly believe?” Because I am not going to stand up here and lie to fifteen hundred people.

When I got to AA in 1985 I could not say that God and I were on the very best of speaking terms. My early Step work was rocky at best. Challenging my newly assigned sponsor Paul with my interpretation of Step Three I asked him “How can I possibly understand God when by definition he is beyond our comprehension?” Paul showed tremendous patience and tolerance with my keenly intellectual alcoholic mind but he did suggest to me, emphasized by a finger in my chest, “You’d better work the Steps as they are written or you’re going to drink”. And voila, I had my first resentment in AA.

Paul probably did me a tremendous favor because he gave me a reason to keep coming back just to show that son of a bitch, like… All right. I’ve got members of my home group here to keep me honest.

Having made a decision while drinking to enter a Catholic seminary I should have listened to Paul’s advice to delay my plans. Stubbornly my pride would not let me back out and so a few months sober I entered the Seminary. I thought this experience would fix my vague spiritual longings. That same desire for spiritual release the Carl Jung talks about and wrote about and the same reference that the low point of Doctor Jellinek’s chart of the progression of our alcoholic disease. (The chart is reproduced below.)

I walked out of the Seminary after four months. I moved back home with my mom, my dad. Very angry at everything and everyone. And God. And the church. And ultimately, myself. It’s been a long road back from there. In more ways than one AA saved me. You AAs have saved me from drinking, from anger, from resentment, from fear, from despair, bitterness, insanity and death. All because of our unique approach to this spiritual life.

“To be doomed to an alcoholic death or live on a spiritual basis, these are not always easy alternatives to face.” This statement in Chapter 4 of our text hit home hard.

The wonderful traditions of our program which ask only a willingness to stay sober, merely a desire to stop drinking one day at a time, granted this alcoholic enough leeway to stick around long enough for the program to do its work. AA’s open door policy shows the hesitant, the gun shy agnostic-minded a portal to freedom as wide as the horizon through which even the most recalcitrant and spiritually damaged may comfortably ask to find recovery.

The long form of Tradition 3 acknowledges and perhaps even encourages all forms of belief or lack thereof.

Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.

Bill W. pushed this open door policy to the utmost limits of tolerance. In a 1946 essay in the AA Grapevine he wrote:

So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our recovery program, even anti-each other – these rampant individuals are still an AA group if they think so!

Despite a religious upbringing or perhaps because of it my alcoholic mind erected a wall between me and any belief in a capitalized Higher Power. Bill claims in our basic text that about half of our original fellowship were of exactly that same type who feels he is an atheist or agnostic. I was in good company at last with drunks like me who understood how I struggled. I was struggling over the God angle.

When I began to really carefully read the Big Book I was surprised. Bill W. relates that Ebby suggested to him “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” This must have been very radical theology among the Oxford Groupers who were trying to recreate first century Christianity. I didn’t have to understand or comprehend God at all. In fact, I discovered I didn’t need to settle the God question to even make a beginning. Much to our relief we discovered that we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach.

To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all-inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe to all. When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you may find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.

What relief and consolation those words in Chapter 4 brought me. Over the years, as I honed my conception of a power greater than myself I become convinced that being agnostic or even atheist is not entirely incompatible with having a spiritual awakening.

But what is spirituality?

Now there’s a great question. Throw that out in your group for discussion some week and see the diversity of opinion. There will be a lot of people that will come out of the closet. Early on an old-timer back in Toledo broke it down for me in newcomer terms. The universe can be divided into the material and the spiritual. If you can see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it, it must be material. Everything else is spiritual. Probably an over simplification but it opened the mind of this belligerent drunk to differentiate the religious from the spiritual. Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness are all we need to make a start.

Working the Steps with a tentative acknowledgement of some power other than my own, self-will leveraged a willingness to be willing to believe. Thirty years later I know that I don’t need religious faith because I have first-hand experience. I see others getting and staying sober around me and I know that I can do the same. It works. It really does.

Just for today, it’s not that I don’t know what I believe rather I believe that I don’t know. I heard a newcomer comment on his spiritual journey recently at my home group. He said “The more I define God the more I take power away from Him”. And that sums up my approach to a power greater than myself too. I ought not put God in a box for that would only limit the power.

Atlanta 2015Step 11 reminds us that we ask only for knowledge and power. So I am keeping an open mind on that subject. My spiritual awakening did not come in the form of a white light mystical ecstasy. My experience has been of the educational variety, a slow dawning of the realization that it’s okay to say that I don’t know what or who that power greater than myself is called. This is after all what agnostic means at its linguistic root. I do know this: AA works for the vast majority of people who really try to live by our principles. It’s worked for me and countless others before me. I pass on this message, our message, hopefully as undiluted as it was passed down to me.

How do we build this spiritual life on a daily basis? Bill gives us clear cut directions in his own story at the bottom of page 14: “For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead.” Surprisingly we note that Bill didn’t say “through prayer and meditation”. Just saying.

Through work and self-sacrifice for others.

Earlier this year the Pew Research Group released its findings that the fastest growing choice among survey respondents to their question of religion is “none”. And I would like to quote very briefly from the study. Eleven percent of the Silent Generation, that is that of AA’s founders, 11 percent of that generation were “nones” while 17 percent of Baby Boomers, 23 percent Gen Xers and 35 percent of Millennials don’t buy in to AA’s assertion that “God could and would if He were sought”. Freethinking, agnostic and atheist AA members are now saying to their theistic fellows, “We once thought like you too”.

A past chair of the AA General Service Board had this to say recently on the subject:

Many in AA who are atheists, agnostics and freethinkers feel excluded. Much of the language in the Big Book and in other approved literature and in meetings is traditional theistic language. Certain parts of AA literature are at best condescending towards atheists and agnostics, if not downright disparaging. Yet these intrepid AAs are getting and staying sober and growing spiritually however one might define that.

He continues:

The power of AA is greater than any individual person. It makes the impossible possible. Many in AA refer to this life-saving force, this culture, this esprit-de-corps, this Higher Power, as God.  Others who cannot bring themselves to compromise their rational understandings to believe in some sort of deity still experience this power within AA groups. I would suggest that the differences between those who wish to call it God and those who have a different understanding of its nature are small in comparison to our shared experience. What we believe about something is far less important to living than what we experience. Experience is what transforms us. Belief is our attempt to explain. Experience, therefore, trumps explanation.

Now I don’t come here today to beat the drum for a separate agnostic, atheist or freethinking AA. Rather, I recognize that this brings us a new challenge in AA. Just as many groups somewhat tolerate drug talk, can we now find the same tolerance for our freethinking brothers and sisters? Can we in fact rise beyond tolerance to a loving acceptance rather than mere grudging resignation?

Recently departed historian Ernie Kurtz left us this message:

Whenever, wherever, one alcoholic meets another alcoholic and sees in that person first and foremost not that he or she is male or female, or black or white, or Christian, Buddhist, Jew, or Atheist, or gay or straight, or whatever, but sees… that he or she is alcoholic and that therefore both of them need each other – there will continue to be not only an Alcoholics Anonymous, but there will be the Alcoholics Anonymous that you and I love so much and respect so deeply.

Finally, I will close with what Bill Wilson wrote in the July 1965 Grapevine:

Newcomers are approaching AA at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable, we have atheists and agnostics, we have people of nearly every race, culture and religion. In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a common suffering. Consequentially, the full individual liberty to practice any creed, or principle, or therapy, whatever, should be a first consideration for us all. Let us not therefore pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA so long as he or she so declares.

Thank you.


The Jellinek chart – or curve – referred to above. Click on it to see it in a larger format.

Jelllinek Chart


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Comments

Atlanta 2015 We Agnostics Talk — 19 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this. Some excellent quotes at the end there for use in meeting formats.

  2. As we all try and want to be included I have not seen in my area the open door policy or the inclusiveness of AA for atheists, agnostics or freethinkers here. Our meeting has not been printed or approved by our GSO. With the recent history of what is going on in the US and the world with the confederate flag being removed and LGBTQ rights being extended it is hard for me to believe that an AA meeting can’t get printed because of the higher ups. Seems pretty petty when you think about it. So if there continues to be this exclusion because of what literature you read or the beliefs you have or the name of your meeting there will be division. I think acceptance, love and tolerance needs to be practiced much more.

  3. Thanks, Roger for posting this. I didn’t hear of any meetings that weren’t full to capacity. The capacity of the room where We Agnostics was presented was listed on the Georgia World Congress Center website as having a nominal capacity of 1500 chairs theatre-style seating. These numbers are an estimate based on no stage and fire code minimum aisle space.

    All I know was that the room was full up with no empty chairs and people standing in back and along the sides. It would have been nice to accommodate everyone who wanted to hear it. It’s good the recording is widely available now.

    The ‘official’ number in attendance from GSO was “more than 57,000.” It felt more crowded than San Antonio but it may have been the logistics of navigating all the escalators that led to bottle-necks in pedestrian traffic. I was in a meeting on the Warranties on Saturday at 3:30 in the smallest room at the farthest reaches of the 4th floor and more people wanted to attend and couldn’t than were allowed into the room. This seems to be planning issue. No one can truly predict what topics or competing combinations of topics will maximize available chairs across the convention. But the Warranties and AAFT topics are more interesting to more people than anyone planned for. Note to GSO: bigger rooms for each of these topics in Detroit…

    • I enjoyed your talk, Jeff. I especially appreciated the quotes you chose to share. Wish I could have been there!

      It was also great to see the Jellinek Curve again. It actually does a pretty good job of mapping my own descent into alcoholism as well as my current path to recovery…

  4. Thank you, Jeff Y. This is the best post I have read on this website. It is refreshing and inspiring to hear you genuinely tell your story without resentment and without trying to prove a point or make an argument. There is truly room for all of us in AA.

  5. Woohoo! I haven’t seen the Jellinek Curve since it was first presented on a blackboard for my perusal by a wonderful doctor named Russell Smith at Brighton Hospital in 1973. It must have got my attention because I never drank again. Smith also advised me to attend for which I will be forever grateful. Wow there is so much invaluable common sense on that chart. That’s what sobered me up, not a deep and thorough moral inventory. I still don’t know (or care) what the 4th and 5th steps are all about and it’s been almost 42 years. I guess there’s still time though.

  6. As an agnostic atheist who can neither know nor disprove whether any deity either exists or doesn’t exist, I too welcome Jeff Y’s remarks. They place we agnostic, atheist and freethinking AA members smack-dab in the middle of where we belong in AA, always have been since our earliest days, and I trust where we’ll always be since we’re not going anywhere – we shall neither leave AA, nor can anyone kick us out.

    The excerpts he quotes from AA literature, from the former AA Board Chair, and from the foremost historian of AA’s continuing evolution effectively demonstrate our legitimacy as fully qualified and bonafide members of AA if we say we are with whatever spiritual beliefs we have or no beliefs at all.

    This is an exciting time to be a member of AA, and I am as enthused at being an AA member in my 43rd year of recovery, largely due to the growth of Quad-A recovery throughout North American AA over the last several years since the Toronto groups were de-listed, as I was when I first realized that I could recover from a virulent addiction to alcohol and other drugs in the early 70s and live a satisfied, contented – yay, even joyful – life sober a day at a time.

  7. I listened carefully to the posted talks. Thank you, Joe C for making them available so conveniently. I am only able to say that the presence of this panel and the occurrence of these talks at the 2015 AA International Convention represents a substantial step in the right direction. Objections to Jeff Y’s inclusion on this panel strike me as shrill and unwarranted. The day is clearly coming when agnostic and atheist AA members will be as unremarkable and mainstream as the presence of woman, non-white and LGBT members are today. It is exciting, as an atheist, to see this evolution taking place and to be a part of this epoch of AA history – even though the pace does seem glacial at times.

  8. Again, a believer was chosen to represent Agnostic AA. While Jeff Y. makes a sincere attempt to be respectful he misses several points:

    He infers that even though in AA one’s beliefs may be nontraditional, it is belief nonetheless: “Much to our relief we discovered that we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach.”

    He also defines agnosticism incorrectly. Agnosticism generally means “the unknowable”, not “I don’t know what or who that power greater than myself is called. This is after all what agnostic means at its linguistic root.”

    To be clear, “the unknowable” refers to whether or not god exists, not what to call him.

    Unfortunately Jeff Y.‘s entire post smacks of Chapter 4 (We Agnostics) in the BB, and the pamphlet “Many Paths to Spirituality.” Both writings just don’t get it, and continue to believe that eventually freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, et al will come around to their way of thinking. “Freethinking, agnostic and atheist AA members are now saying to their theistic fellows, ‘We once thought like you too'”.

    In fairness I am greatly pleased that Jeff Y. included the quote from a past chair of the AA General Service Board (who I suspect is the Reverend Ward Ewing).

    As I related in more detail on my post last week on this site, Perils Facing Agnostic AA, most members who attend Agnostic AA meetings do so to avoid “the god stuff”. Perhaps one day freethinkers, agnostics, atheists, et al will be able to define themselves, and not be subjected to the misconceptions of others.

  9. Thanks to Jeff for this, though I must confess that his tone is a lot more conciliatory than my own would be – which is probably one reason he was asked, rather than someone like myself. I guess that at the mainstream convention it has to be conciliatory, and that insofar as that approach works it is far better than a confrontational approach. Trouble is often it does not work, even sometimes the confrontational does not work, nothing works.

    But it was a good talk.

    As for the Jellinek chart, I see “vague spiritual desires” when approaching the bottom, and I experienced no such thing. I did early in my drinking career, even associated briefly with such rabid Christian organizations as Jehovah’s Witnesses and children of god, in my mid 20s, just by way of letting individual members into our house for discussions, never went to their events, but late in my drinking career I certainly had no interest in anything more spiritual than the bottle could provide.

    That did come with recovery though, and I think Jeff provided some good definitions. I don’t see them as particularly useful for my personal recovery, but I do think they are useful in the larger discussion of where AA is or ought to be headed.

    • Someone fact check me on this. Wasn’t Jellinek’s study, where he developed this chart, done under the sponsorship of Marty Mann, an early AA member, who specifically commissioned it to show the effectiveness of the AA program? Wasn’t it later repudiated by Jellinek as being so fundamentally flawed in its methodology as to render it useless?

  10. I’m very glad you posted this transcript on aaagnostica. I had listened on rebellion dog radio and, while interesting, the careful presentation by Jeff was missed. In print, it is much more impactful and relevant.

    I do wish I knew more of the significance and accuracy of 1500 to 2000 listeners in the room. Was 1500 a full house? Was this the only presentation conducted in this time period? What was the time period? How many rooms were in use and how large were they during the same time period?Thank you for these Sunday morning pleasures.

    • Lance, I was at Atlanta but not at the We Agnostic meeting as I attended an Alanon meeting at that time.The time period for the We Agnostic meeting was 11.30- 1.00. There were about 12 other meetings in this time period with topics from AA in Afica Mideast, AA in Eastern Europe, Meeting in German, Carrying the message to Corectional Facilities, Group Autonomy, Healing Through Laughter, Spanish Meeting, Principles before Personalities, Portugese Meeting, French Meeting, and Young People in AA – We Hit Bottom Too. All I can say about the room the Agnostic meeting was in was that it is a big room Im not sure about how many you can get in there but maybe someone who was there can comment.