A Pamphlet for AA Agnostics?

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The Alcoholics Anonymous Literature Committee in Great Britain will be presenting a pamphlet for and by agnostic and atheist members to its 2016 Conference.

A sub-committee is looking for articles written by AA members in Great Britain and the Continental European Region for inclusion in that pamphlet. As this is a pamphlet for that area, submissions from North America will not be considered.

The deadline is the end of October. We urge all readers in Great Britain and Europe to consider writing such an article and submitting it to the Literature sub-committee. More details below.

Laurie A has already submitted an article for consideration. It was well received by Carol H., chair of the Literature sub-committee in charge of the proposed pamphlet.

Here is his article:

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An Agnostic in AA

By Laurie A.

My wife came with me to my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and thought I’d get up and walk out when she heard the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions read with their references to God. I was a cynical agnostic and my wife thought, “This won’t work, it’s too religious.” But after my last binge a week before the meeting I’d tried to kill myself so I was in no state to argue about what  AA co-founder Bill W. called “theological abstractions… whether God made man or man made God”. I’d escaped death by a hair’s breadth and that made me as “open-minded as only the dying can be”. I listened with laser-like attention to what would keep me alive and filtered out things I heard that made no sense to me or with which I disagreed; I listened for the similarities, not the differences.

I took AA’s first Step the morning I tried to commit suicide. I’d known for years that I had a serious drink problem but wouldn’t admit I was powerless over alcohol. I’d tried every way I knew to bring my drinking under control; there was always “one more attempt and one more failure”, as our basic text the Big Book says. Finally, absolutely defeated, I knew I couldn’t go on and decided to end it all. In a perverse way I thought it would also be best for my family; at least they wouldn’t have to deal with a chaotic drunk in their lives any more. But they didn’t want me to die – they just wanted me to get well, and I didn’t know how to do that.

We’re told that willingness, honesty and open-mindedness are the essentials of recovery, and I made a start on Steps Two and Three by going to my first AA meeting. I came to believe that AA (a power greater than myself) could restore me to the sanity of not drinking, though at that stage it was more a desperate hope than a belief. In my own way I also decided to turn over my will and life to AA’s care because I clearly couldn’t care for myself when it came to stopping drinking. I’m glad that in his essay on Step Two in AA’s book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions Bill W. assures the newcomer, “AA does not demand that you believe anything … to get sober and stay sober, you don’t have to swallow all of Step Two right now.” I’m also grateful that in my early days I did not meet members with a dogmatic approach to the Steps. Bill W. said each member has the privilege of interpreting the Programme according to his or her own outlook and experience (As Bill Sees It). Even the pioneers who wrote the Big Book knew that none of them could “maintain anything like perfect adherence” to the principles outlined in the Steps; they claimed progress, not perfection.

Bill W. paid tribute to atheists and agnostics in the early fellowship who insisted on adding the crucial phrase as we understood Him after the word God in the Third and Eleventh Steps. That ensured that all who wish to stop drinking may enter, regardless of their belief or lack of belief. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking (or, as in my case, to stay stopped); AA membership does not demand conformity to any idea, philosophy or religious faith. Certainly it does not require finding a personal God or I would have been smoke and ashes a long time ago. After 31 continuously sober years in AA I am still an agnostic. Whether or not a God exists is to me irrelevant; my primary purpose is to stay sober and, as far as I can, help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

So I when I shared my Fifth Step with my first sponsor (a lapsed Catholic!) I did not believe God was in the room, and I did not ask God to remove my shortcomings in Step Seven. My defects of character keep me grounded. When I get the grandiose idea that I’ve become “Mr AA” they right-size me. I am their disciple. It is unrealistic to expect that I will ever be defect-free. In the 12+12 Bill W. calls Step Six a lifetime job. “This does not mean that that we expect all our character defects to be lifted out of us as the drive to drink was… with most of them we shall have to be content with patient improvement.” That has been my experience. Through constant attendance at over thousands of AA meetings I’ve found “the evil in me weakening, and the good raised up”, as Quakers say.

I lack the certainty to say there is no God and my non-theism is not atheism or anti-God. I pray and meditate, but I doubt very much that there is a supernatural ear listening. To me prayer is act of humility. When I pray I am saying I don’t know all the answers and I need help. In prayer I make contact with what the Big Book calls the “Great Reality deep down within us”; apparently, it is only there it may be found. I’m grateful that my brush with death broke through my resistance resulting in the “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements” that enabled to me to access that Great Reality, a power greater than my ego.

The Spiritual Appendix in the Big Book says, “With few exceptions our members find they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource, which they presently identify with their own conception of a power greater than themselves; most of us believe this awareness of a power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it God-consciousness.” That is my personal “creed”. It encompasses the spectrum of belief and non-belief, for even an atheist could believe in a previously unsuspected inner resource. I’ve found that the realm of the Spirit is indeed “broad, roomy and all-inclusive, never exclusive” and that “no-one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the Programme” – even an agnostic like me.

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As noted above the deadline for submitting an article that might be included in the pamphlet is October 30, 2015. Here is the invitation:

The Literature sub-committee would like to invite agnostic and atheist members to send in their personal experiences in the Fellowship. They are to be incorporated into the pamphlet requested by Committee 3, Conference 2014; currently being redrafted for submission to Conference 2016.

Again, we urge our British and European readers to consider submitting their stories for consideration.

Submissions should be sent to GSO, PO Box 1, 10 Toft Green, York, England YO1 7NJ or by email to aainformation@gsogb.org.uk. Please mark submissions LITCOM either in the subject box for emails or on the envelope if by post.

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Share Magazine - CopyLaurie A. is a retired national newspaper and BBC journalist in the UK. His sobriety date is 8/10/84. He served on the Great Britain AA literature committee and edited Share, the British fellowship’s national magazine,  and Share and Share Alike, a book celebrating 60 years of AA in Britain in 2007. He has written three other articles for AA Agnostica:


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A Pamphlet for AA Agnostics? — 16 Comments

  1. There is much wisdom of experience, strength and hope contained in AA literature. However, much of that continues to be either unread or ignored by a seeming majority of members. In the Episcopal Church, we were taught to “read, mark and inwardly digest” scripture, and in doing so we could hope to grow. No one told us that we needed to take every word (in whatever language or translation) as essential and factual. However, like AA literature, its provocative nature could feed our own thinking process, truly awakening what Carl Jung called the Self, our authentic and true self, and Bill W. called the Great Reality deep within and “an unsuspected inner resource.” When I asked my paternal grandmother some 70 years ago, “Grandma, what does spiritual mean?” her simple answer was, “Spiritual means non-material, all of the things you cannot see.“ that simple definition, which is also the first definition in my 1930’s dictionary is the only one I need today. Hence, I find it safe to say in AA meetings of all kinds (and elsewhere) that for me AA has everything to do with spirituality and nothing to do with religion. Learning how to use the brains evolution has given me through the process Bill described on pages 60 through 88 helps me to value and pay attention to my feelings, thoughts, attitudes, ideas, dreams and values , all of those non-material, invisible things that affect my living happy, joyous and free of not only alcohol, but also bondage to self-defeating and self-limiting delusions and pretending. “More will be revealed…”

    And finally, “After all, or problems were of or own making. Bottles were only a symbol. Besides, we have stopped fighting anybody or anything. We had to!” Those are for me truly life-giving, life-changing words of wisdom.

  2. Thanks to all here. I am 8 years sober and live about an hour south of Akron Ohio. I have struggled for years with the intensity of the evangelical Christian influence that surrounds me. Gasps from those I have tried to share with that I am not a Christian. I won’t go on at length, but I just found this site and have been reading for two days. What relief I feel that I’m not some alien monster alone hiding in the shadows. I first came to AA in 1983 and didnt take a drink for 17 years. Then after relapse it took seven years to make it back, though I almost died at 50 years old. I hope I can find others to share my experience strength and hope with who can except and understand how I feel. Great article, Laurie, you have given me hope. Peace.

  3. Great read, Laurie! Thank you! And great comments everyone else! I will use it for reference and material for meetings and one on one.

    I have decided to refer to the steps as the 12 Gimmicks, as Bill referred to his newfound discoveries in his short treatise on Emotional Sobriety in the Grapevine in 1958. Not quite sacrilegious but effective, eh?

  4. It’s said that there are two parts to any message, the content, and the delivery. I’ll comment briefly on the delivery, which I think is brilliant. Simplicity and absolute clarity of expression makes for good writing, and you nailed it! I’m jealous. Fabulous job.

    bob k

  5. Thanks, Laurie, for another great piece. I hope to see it in a new pamphlet from UK AA.

    I find it ironic that this will come from AA within a nation where the head of state is also the head of an official church, while AA in the USA, with our nation’s Constitution separating church and state, keeps its head in the sand for 30-40 years.

    • Perhaps this is because the “Christian” right seems to be incredibly strong in the U.S. How did this come about?

      Fundamentalist Churches seem to have high-jacked the word “Christian” for their own use.

      By birth and culture, I come from a Christian nation: the UK. And I am nominally a member of the Church of England (have all the papers to prove it, too!) but the word doesn’t have the same extreme meaning there.

  6. Thank you so very much for this.

    I found this quotation from the Appendix on Spirituality all by myself! Not one person in 30 years ever pointed it out to me.
    I myself like to end the quotation at the semi-colon.

    I read it out to a sponsor I once had: she didn’t grasp it at all.

    If this were printed right at the beginning of the book, it would stop so many, many people from being turned off by AA.

  7. Two more quotes from Bill’s, intended or not, megalomaniacal essay on the 6th step in the 12X12.

    “So the difference between ‘the boys and the men’ is the difference between striving for a self determined objective and for the perfect objective which is of God.”

    Bill supports this idea by perceiving a kind of perfection in the first step, the one that simply says you’ve got a drinking problem and your life’s a mess. T or F. If it was a test, we who circled the T scored 100%. When I accepted that step it was with the humble hope I might not have to drink or take drugs again. That’s all.

    As Bill really gets revved up he suggests, still deeper into his take on the 6th step.

    “We shall need to lift our eyes toward perfection and be ready to walk in that direction.”

    In my humble opinion this is crazy talk. There is no reasonable foundation provided by him for a reasonable take on how we might improve on some of the things we do that are largely selfish.

    He sounds every bit the huckster he was before he stumbled upon the insight that “one alcoholic helping another is certain to keep at least one of them sober”.

    Perfection has nothing to do with anything. We are human beings. And if we are right sized, we will never be accused of trying to be perfect.

  8. Good story, Laurie, I hope it gets published.

    And yes, Joe, if it is published, it would be a good resource for secular AA groups in North America to order for our literature tables to augment Do Tell and other secular literature about recovery.

    As to whether or not GSO of North America would consider republishing it, like you believe it did for the pamphlet, “A Newcomer Asks,” another possibility is for the 2016 General Service Conference to approve a GV publication of the some 40 stories previously published since 1962, similar to the recently published Sober and Out for LGBTs. Area 53 in southeastern Ohio has already passed a resolution requesting such a book be considered for publication by the GV, and my Oregon Area 58 and John Sheldon’s Area in Eastern Kansas will be considering similar resolutions within the month.

    We just need to stay in the present moment and do what we can to foster alternatives to orthodox AA. Try as some ardent believers might, they can’t kick us out of AA, because we have history, lots of Bill’s writing and the 12 Traditions to sanction us being in AA as full-fledged members without qualification.

  9. Thanks, Laurie. Great article, and I hope it’s adopted. I particularly appreciate your quoting the phrase “Great Reality deep down within us”. In 42 years of agnostic recovery, I’ve shied away from much of the Big Book, except for the need “to be honest with ourselves and others”, plus the first, tenth, and twelfth steps. Consequently, I had never seen the phrase you quoted.

    A couple of years ago, I read an article aimed at women’s recovery that suggested the idea of a “Deeper Power” which resonated with me, although I’m not a woman. I’m glad to see that a similar concept is in the Big Book.

    I’m also chuckling, because when I just googled the phrase, I came upon a fundamentalist website that condemns these words as “one of many examples of AA Big Book heresy – a complete denial of Jesus Christ”! Even the AA fundamentalists are getting blasted from some quarters.

    Best wishes to all, Oren.

    • Appreciate that Oren. That “deeper power” you reference is my inner power, which Jungians call the archetype of the Self, “the true or authentic Self in contrast to the false self of the ego-persona identification alignment. The true Self … shares much, is even identical in many ways, with our concepts of the image and likeness of God within each person … of the concept of the Higher Power in AA and in the 12 Steps of its tradition.” It embraces both the conscious and the unconscious, the best and the worst of us; our perfect imperfection; wholeness as human beings. (From The war of the gods in addiction, by David E. Schoen). In a BBC TV documentary about Carl Jung the interviewer John Freeman asked him, “Do you believe in God?” After a pause, Jung replied, “I don’t believe – I know.” Make of that what you will, but it is clearly not the statement of an atheist. (You can watch the interview on You Tube). As I recounted, when drinking I was a surly, obnoxious, supercilious agnostic. Anyone who disagreed with my dogmatic non-belief was obviously a cretin, in the non-politically correct language I used then. My suicide attempt bashed a modicum of reasonableness into me and I was, grudgingly at first, willing to admit that everyone has the right to be wrong – even me!

  10. There are four obvious questions that that a nonbeliever exploring AA will naturally have and that the pamphlet needs to address:

    • What does AA have to say about what it takes to get sober?
    • If I need help, can I find it in AA?
    • Is it even possible for me to be a member of AA?
    • Will I be pressured to adopt certain beliefs?

    Those of us who think AA ought to welcome nonbelievers have the 12 Traditions on our side. If AA actually followed the Traditions, there would be little problem.

    The 12 Steps are not so welcoming though, so the pamphlet needs to (correctly) point out the Steps are suggestions and not imperative.

    The Big Book contains a number of statements that nonbelievers will find dismaying. And many AA members treat the Big Book like a bible. The pamphlet might acknowledge that but then point out that what the Big Book says about itself is, “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize that we know only a little.” (p 164)

    And it could quote statements from Appendix II (BB pp. 567-568), which is a deliberate and emphatic counter to the notion that sobriety depends on having a religious conversion experience or on believing in God.

    In fact, nobody swallows the whole package. We tell newcomers to “take what you like and leave the rest”.

    The Preamble which is read at the beginning of most AA meetings says “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength, and hope with each other that they might solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.”

    In other words, everything in AA should be taken for what it is – the perceptions and opinions of the individuals who express them. No one’s version of recovery is “gospel”. The underlying message of everything that is shared is, “This is what has worked for me, but I am confident that there are other approaches that work just as well.”

    It is important to point out that there is great diversity among AA groups. Each group has its own flavor. AA groups are crucial not only in fostering vital one-on-one relationships but also in providing a sense of belonging.

    The newcomer needs to hear AA’s core message, which is something along the lines of:

    You are not alone. We are here for you. We can relate to the degradation, the shame, the isolation, and the hopelessness that accompany alcoholism. We have found a way out. We want to share it with you because we keep what we have by giving it away.

    AA, being an organization whose main qualification for membership is that there has been a problem with alcohol, is going to be considerably less than perfect. Even those who come into AA with very mainstream beliefs about God do not always receive the affirmation, encouragement, and respect they might think they are entitled to.

  11. Laurie, thanks. Well written. Now we just have to hope that the current literature committee which is in favor of the project does not get replaced by one which is against it by the time publishing time rolls around, like it happened in the US.

    The god people were on the ball in the US, and saved AA from certain destruction in the nick of time.

  12. Great to hear from you as always, Laurie.

    The autonomy in AA gives rise to many creative and inspired endeavors. We all have rights, even the right to be wrong and to hold our head high with our status as members or groups intact. We are all incomplete, flawed humans. Did GSO (Canada/USA) get it wrong to reject a pamphlet that contains multiple stories of secular AA sobriety? Well I’ll tell you this; I would have voted for such a pamphlet. Sometimes these things come to be via a back – or side – door. If I have this right, and maybe someone here can confirm or correct me, in 1980, the pamphlet “A Newcomer Asks,” used now in most regions of AA, came from the UK General Service Conference and was adopted by the (Canada/USA) General Service Conference.

    It has the great Question/Answer:

    Q: “There is a lot of talk about God, though, isn’t there?”

    A: The majority of AA members believe that we have found the solution to our drinking problem not through individual willpower, but through a power greater than ourselves. However, everyone defines this power as he or she wishes. Many people call it God, others think it is the AA group, still others don’t believe in it at all. There is room in AA for people of all shades of belief and non-belief.

    So, first of all, if the UK approves this pamphlet, we can order it directly from them for any home group that wants to stock it. Also, it may, in the goodness of time, warm the Trustees’ Literature Committee to look at this one more time here in North America.

    And of course, if you can’t wait for the pace of AA progress, make your own. That’s pretty much what Do Tell is – AA members doing for themselves.

    WAAFT could create a pamphlet with AA stories in it, it could be a free download or printed and distributed at cost. Autonomy means that we don’t need permission. We just need the willingness and a subcommittee.

    Workshops, retreats, WAAFT conferences, meetings, literature, these things are all within our reach and as the sell-out crowd at the Atlanta We Agnostics panel suggests, there is growing openness to such things.

    To Laurie and all our UK sisters and brothers, I’ll be watching with interest as this effort moves forward.

    • Hi Joe, thanks for that and yes the “A Newcomer Asks” leaflet is included in the starter pack that is given by British groups to newcomers at their first AA meeting. It can be downloaded here at the Great Britain AA website. And BTW I’d like to thank you for introducing me to the idea of apatheia in Beyond Belief, not so much hostility to God as benign indifference! Go well, dear friend.