In military tradition, the Last Post is the bugle call that signifies the end of the day’s activities.
By Roger C.
This will be the last post on AA Agnostica.
It’s an appropriate day to stop posting new articles: our anniversary. It was exactly five years ago that AA Agnostica was launched, on June 15, 2011.
After five years it is time to move on. To take the computer out of the living room and put it up in the attic. To get out and meet new people and develop new preoccupations and pursuits.
Maybe get a job.
Well, that’s going a bit far; forget that.
Many, many thanks
Let this last post begin where it also all ends: in thanking the many, many writers who shared their experience, strength and hope with us on AA Agnostica. Over the past five years, we have posted original and inspiring written works a total of 360 times. That’s an average of 1.4 articles every week. And these articles were written by a total of 166 different authors. We would have liked more, but we are pleased to report that 64 of these writers were women.
While we occasionally re-posted articles previously published on sites like the Grapevine or The Fix, the vast majority of the articles were submitted directly to AA Agnostica from women and men – all in recovery – from all parts of the United States and Canada. There were also great contributors – Laurie A, Steve K and Gabe S come to mind – from the United Kingdom.
What these folks wrote about in this “space for AA agnostics, atheists and freethinkers” was their understanding of recovery and their experience as members of AA. And how these two fit together. Or don’t. For newcomers to the website – often alcoholics doing Internet searches for a secular approach to staying sober or people who had been referred to the website by friends – there was frequently a huge sense of relief, a first-time realization that they were no longer condemned to the hinterland of AA: “Oh my God! I am not alone!”
Or words to that effect.
So: many, many thanks to the writers. And to the commenters! And to all those involved. And to the reader, and that would be you. Thank you.
Over the years we have paid attention to our contributors, the comments and the emails sent to us by our readers. As a result we developed a sense of the “group conscience” of those involved with AA Agnostica – secular members of Alcoholics Anonymous. There is a consensus on a number of issues, and we want to share that now. Please note that while what follows is based on several hundred articles and over a thousand comments, it is still an interpretation, and not everyone would have come to the same conclusions.
God is not a part of our recovery
First, recovery from alcoholism and addiction for us has nothing to do with God.
In particular it has nothing to do with an anthropomorphic or interventionist God.
That’s the God of the Big Book. It is the Christian God as He was understood in 1935 by the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s the God that is mentioned over and over again in AA literature.
Even Bill Wilson understood that he had overdone the “God bit” in the early years of AA. Two decades after the Big Book was published he wrote:
In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking… God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.
But let’s repeat. A belief in God is not at all a requirement for membership in AA. It only seems that way at traditional AA meetings and as a result of the behaviour of some Intergroups – notably the one in Toronto – which are hostile towards agnostic groups.
Human power can relieve our alcoholism
We agnostics, atheists and freethinkers believe that what works for us in AA is the fellowship. It’s “one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic”. The sharing and caring that is part and parcel of any AA meeting or group.
Nothing has been repeated on AA Agnostica more than this idea and experience. We believe in the fellowship.
Oddly enough, the value of the fellowship is not elaborated upon or even often talked about in the Big Book.
Indeed, our main disagreement with traditional AA is found in “How It Works” in the Big Book where it says that “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism” but “God and would if He were sought”.
Our experience is exactly the opposite.
It was also realized by the author of the Big Book that this was not entirely correct. Two years after the Big Book was published a second printing included a new appendix, which acknowledged that “with few exceptions” members of AA discovered that recovery was the result of having “tapped an unsuspected inner resource”.
And, indeed, what we have learned over eighty years of AA is that human resources and human support are essential components of abstinence and sobriety.
So be it. But it is this statement in “How It Works” that is our main difference with religious fundamentalism in AA.
In this respect the resistance of some Intergroups to listing our groups on AA meeting lists is different from the roadblocks experienced by other groups, such as LGBT groups. These other groups don’t challenge the idea that a God is key to removing our character defects and maintaining our sobriety.
And nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to the Steps.
Secular 12 Steps
Speaking of religious fundamentalism, it is hard to go to a traditional AA meeting these days without three things thrown in your face: a placard with the 12 Steps beside the podium; the meeting beginning with a reading of “How it Works”, which includes the 12 Steps and “no human power” and “God could and would if he were sought”; and people holding hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the meeting.
It’s as if they are deliberately trying to drive newbies out of the rooms. Or to clearly demonstrate that AA is “religious” and not “spiritual”.
We secularists in AA have two approaches to the 12 Steps. The first is not to do them. To simply ignore this “suggested” program of AA except perhaps for a few of them such as Step 1 (powerlessness over alcohol) or Step 12 (service).
And the second approach is to work them as part of achieving “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” (the appendix again).
But what’s a non-believer to do?
The word “God”, “Him” or “Power” (with a capital P) is in six of the 12 Steps.
It would be a tad hypocritical for a non-believer to do the Steps “as written”. Maybe 80 years ago, when the Steps were first written, you could pull that off. But not today.
Many secular alcoholics create our own versions of the Steps. Indeed, one of the most popular places on AA Agnostica is the page, Alternative 12 Steps. As of today, that page has been viewed 53,865 times. Moreover, because of the very keen interest in secular interpretations of the Steps, AA Agnostica was inspired to publish The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps. And we found the authors of an out-of-print book originally published in 1991 and were given permission to published a second edition of The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery.
Secular interpretations and versions of the 12 Steps are very much a part of the “group conscience” of we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA.
Which is not to say that we want to change the original 12 Steps, published in 1939. Leave those alone. You don’t mess with archival material. If we choose to work the Steps, we need to develop our own personal interpretations, without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny our own. Which, when you come right down to it, is the only way to do the Steps. As a friend wrote on AA Agnostica in its first year, in 2011, You Cannot NOT Interpret the Steps! Indeed, one of my favourite quotes from the 1991 book mentioned above, written by Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., is as follows: “We can learn the universal, generic pattern of life’s dance from the 12 Steps. But in our individual dance of life, we choose our own music and dance our own dance”.
Respecting the many paths to recovery
Which brings us to another important area of consensus within secular AA.
Early on in AA Agnostica, we discovered two gurus in recovery and AA: Bill White and Ernie Kurtz. And they introduced to us the idea of “celebrating” all of the many paths to recovery.
What an idea!
By and large, we secularists in AA wholeheartedly accept any road to recovery no matter what it may involve, be it the 12 Steps, the eight-fold path of Buddhism, psychotherapy, medication, a spiritual awakening or anything else. Whatever works, works, and we celebrate any person in recovery from alcoholism and addiction no matter how that is achieved or maintained.
And that raises two points.
First, in modern and secular AA, we do not object to someone who identifies herself at a meeting in this way, “My name is Jo-Anne, and I am an alcoholic and an addict”.
Second, we do not impose our views on others. We are, with few exceptions, not “militant” atheists. We do not do to others what we object to others doing to us within the fellowship of AA.
A number of years ago, a favourite author, Ernest Becker, wrote:
I have had the growing realization over the past few years that the problem of man’s knowledge is not to oppose and to demolish opposing views, but to include them in a larger theoretical structure.
He is describing the essence of AA with this statement. We are here in Alcoholics Anonymous to lend a helping hand to “anyone, anywhere” who reaches out for help. That’s the mission, the “larger theoretical structure” of AA. Not to impose our beliefs or to “demolish opposing views”.
Reverend Ward Ewing, the former chair of the General Service Board of AA, understood this perfectly and gave a compelling speech at the Santa Monica convention, underscoring this larger theoretical structure of AA, this “bigger picture”, if you will: “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 trumps explanation.”
We are AA
We atheists and agnostics and freethinkers grew up in AA. We owe our sobriety and recovery to the fellowship. One will very rarely hear anything else from those in our secular movement, a movement very much within the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
And so, the next question is this: are we trying to change AA?
There are two answers to that question: yes and no.
Of course, we want AA to be less religious. Less emphasis on the Big Book: I mean, I respect the Big Book but it was written 80 years ago and is simply not worthy of modern day thumpery.
Less “God could and would if he were sought”.
Fewer meetings that end with the Lord’s Prayer.
What we want is an AA in which “non-believers… are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification”, as a trustee put it in 1976.
Intergroups that would welcome us “without qualification”.
Conference-approved literature that is written by, for and about agnostics and atheists in AA.
But you know, the real answer to the question is this: No, we don’t want to change AA.
Because all of the above is at the core of the mission of AA. It should be genuinely “spiritual not religious”. The Responsibility Declaration and Tradition Three tell us that AA is for “everybody, everywhere” with a “desire to stop drinking” and that is to be done regardless of their “belief or lack of belief”.
We are quoting AA now, and that’s the essence of AA. And so, no, we don’t want to change the core of Alcoholics Anonymous. We want AA to live up to its own mission and commitment.
In a 2016 sort of way.
The above is, as we understand it, a brief summary of a general consensus among alcoholics and addicts who have been AA Agnostica readers, writers and commenters over the past five years. It is not meant to be exact for each and every one of us but rather a very general understanding of how we non-believers understand our place within the fellowship of AA.
So where to now?
For those who can afford it, we would recommend attending the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention November 11 – 13, 2016 in Austin, Texas. You can buy tickets and book rooms here: WAAFT IAAC.
There will be a variety of speakers, panels and workshops. And as John S, at AA Beyond Belief, puts it: “No matter what, people will have fun. It’s really about getting together”.
He is absolutely correct.
We just started our own “We Agnostics” meeting in Hamilton, Ontario, and so far three of the seven members of our group are planning to be in Austin. Give us a couple of months and we will add to that number.
At the convention in Santa Monica in 2014, all lucky enough to attend experienced a brand new and totally revitalizing take on life in sobriety. It was awesome.
We are unstoppable
The first agnostic AA meeting was founded in Chicago in 1975.
In 2001, when a small group of New Yorkers started a website to list secular AA meetings, agnosticaAAnyc.org, there were 36 agnostic AA meetings worldwide. Today, well, there are over 300, as you can see in the chart.
It’s not immediately obvious in the chart, but it is important to note that two thirds of the growth of secular AA has been in the last four years. And 2016 isn’t over yet. By the time it is, the line will be pointing straight up.
Let’s keep it happening. And you know, it will keep on happening because the need is obvious. The number of non-religious people – “nones” – is growing every year according to the Pew Research Center: America’s Changing Religious Landscape. There is an increasing number of alcoholics who simply can’t tolerate all of the “God” stuff at traditional AA meetings, meetings that invariably end with the Lord’s Prayer, and who simply turn around and walk out. Increasingly there are secular meetings that they can walk into and happily stay in order to work on the job of long-term sobriety. That’s what it’s all about.
And get involved in AA!
Become a GSR… Attend district and area AA meetings… Hell, become an area delegate and attend an annual General Service Conference.
The results of our involvement in AA can be phenomenal.
Almost two years ago, an article by life-j was posted on AA Agnostica, A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics in AA. This was the beginning of a campaign, led by life-j and Thomas B, to get the Grapevine to publish in one book some forty-two stories that the Grapevine had already published in its magazine since 1962.
No. In January 2015 the Board of Directors of the Grapevine met and decided not to propose to the General Service Conference – the permission of delegates at the Conference would be required – that such a book be published.
But the campaign continued. More letters were written. Various area assemblies in the United States were presented with motions about such a book and voted in favour of asking the Grapevine to publish it.
Yes. In January 2016 the Board of Directors of the Grapevine met and this time decided to propose to the General Service Conference that a book of its previously published stories by atheists and agnostics in AA should indeed be published.
The Conference agreed. The book is scheduled to be published in 2017.
This is just one of our victories as secular activists in AA.
If we want AA to grow and become inclusive of atheists and agnostics, NOT being involved in the service structure of AA is simply not an option.
We are coming to the end, dear friends.
Two final thoughts to share.
First, managing AA Agnostica was never a “chore”. It was always a privilege and a pleasure. From week to week, we so looked forward to, and were inspired by, the articles submitted to and published on AA Agnostica.
And the comments! The quality and thoughtfulness of the comments were more than outstanding.
Second, in closing, the final thing that we want to do is to wish everybody – each and every one of you – the very, very best.
We are, after all, AA. At its very core.
Ever onwards and upwards.
You can listen to a podcast about the origins and history of AA Agnostica right here: Roger C. and AA Agnostica. And Thomas B. – along with a number of other key players in secular AA – has put together this very touching article, A Tribute to AA Agnostica.
AA Agnostica will remain on the Internet.
The website will be kept fresh and up-to-date. For example, it will continue to include and add new images and links to websites for and about secular AA meetings. We will simply not have new articles. Nor will we continue our efforts to start new groups – thank you Chris G for your work on this project! – as we have found that this function is not nearly as necessary as it was a few years ago, as agnostic groups and meetings are now much more common and accepted. We shall, however, continue to work with others on putting together our special project, The Practical Book.
Any questions or comments on any topics can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 360 articles on AA Agnostica are broken down into 15 categories, which you can find on the upper left side of the website.
If you want to read a chapter in Do Tell!, for example, just click on the category Do Tell! All of the chapters will be there, in reverse order. If you want to read about the struggles over the years to get “Conference-approved” literature for secularists in AA, just click on AA Literature for Agnostics. There are 8 articles in that category.
We also have eighteen articles that focus specifically on God, Religion and Prayer. And just click on Grapevine, and you will find 17 articles that have been published in the Grapevine since 1962, written by atheists and agnostics.
And on and on. All of the articles on AA Agnostica are well worth reading. Indeed, a great number of them are worth reading at least two or three times.
So: Keep coming back!