An AA Convention For We Agnostics
By Roger C
Roger: Thank you Pam for agreeing to do this interview. You’re a member of the steering committee that is now hard at work planning a We Agnostics and Free Thinkers (WAFT) International Alcoholics Anonymous Convention. I understand the planning for the convention is in the early stages. First, where and when will it be held?
Pam: The convention will be held in Santa Monica, California, Thursday through Saturday, November 6 – 8th in 2014. We found a lovely location at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in the center of Santa Monica, only a couple of miles from the beach. It has a courtyard with a BBQ and enough classrooms for several workshops and marathon meetings. The UU community is very embracing of non-believers and it has a special place in our history as the location of Chicago’s Quad A’s first meeting in 1975. It is a perfect place for this historic event. 
Roger: Tell us a bit about yourself, Pam? What is your motivation for wanting this Convention?
Pam: As a teen I discovered alcohol, and I had no control from the very beginning. By my late 40s, I couldn’t go a day without coming home from work and polishing off a bottle or two of wine. Weekends were filled with emotional negotiating over how much time I would spend running errands before I could get home and start drinking, to purge my feelings and distress. I was an alcoholic. Finally, fearfully, I stepped into an AA meeting in June 2008.
It happened to be an agnostic AA meeting. I found an immediate and overwhelming acceptance in that meeting and started to attend two of the Hollywood We Agnostics meetings. I never experienced the evangelical overtones at these meetings that I discovered in other meetings. I don’t like to be preached at EVER and here was a place that I could learn how to be in recovery without that distraction or distress.
That is my biggest motivation for wanting the convention. To make others aware that there is a solution in AA for them, no matter their belief systems.
Roger: I take it that reflects the motivation of the steering committee that is organizing this convention. How did you connect with the members of the steering committee?
Pam: I met the other two members of the steering committee, Dorothy H. and Jonathon G., at the We Agnostics meeting in Hollywood which Charlie P. and Megan D. first started in 1980. 
Dorothy and I were talking one weekend about how often newcomers walk into our group and sigh with relief that they have found us. We decided we needed to put together a convention to help support each other and to reassure agnostics, atheists and freethinkers that we are not alone in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Jonathon, Dorothy and I believe that we can best be of service by letting others know of this wonderful alternative within the framework of AA’s Traditions by organizing this convention.
Roger: I don’t have to tell you that there is some controversy surrounding agnostics and atheists in AA. I personally belong to an agnostic group, Beyond Belief, that was booted off the official AA meeting list for taking God out of the Steps.  Will those with a belief in God be welcome at this Convention?
Pam: Absolutely. As it says in the preamble used at many agnostic meetings: “We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their own.” Where we fail in the program, and in life, for that matter, is when we push our beliefs on others or deny our own.
Our hope is to share this embracing theme and to remember that this program is about recovery and helping the newcomer achieve a “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.” We are all about inclusivity. And inclusivity means working to make everyone feel welcome, not deciding who is in and who is out.
Roger: Tradition Eleven says that AA’s public relations policy ought to be based on attraction rather than promotion. Aren’t you promoting a certain form of belief or, perhaps more accurately, non-belief?
Pam: Not at all. At the first AA Convention in Cleveland in 1950, Dr. Bob said, “So let us never get such a degree of smug complacency that we’re not willing to extend, or attempt to extend, to our less fortunate brothers that help which has been so beneficial to us.” We are not promoting anything. We are merely responding to the need to make AA more inclusive, to let people know that there is an option WITHIN AA. We are making sure that the hand of AA is there for our less fortunate brothers and sisters, including the agnostic, the freethinker and the growing number of those of diverse, non-Christian backgrounds. We are heeding Dr. Bob’s counsel and not being complacent.
That first international convention led to many others and has led directly to this We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention. In what would turn out to be his farewell talk – he died just a few months later – Dr. Bob also “simmered” the 12 Steps down to two words, “love” and “service.” Our convention is not about promotion but follows in the fine tradition of “love and service” that Dr. Bob so wonderfully described at the very first AA convention in 1950. 
Roger: Along the lines of my last question, Tradition Four says that a group is autonomous – can do what it wants – except when what it does affects other groups or AA as a whole. Your very goal is to affect AA as a whole. Are you not then in complete violation of this Tradition?
Pam: Only if inclusion is a violation of Tradition Four. We are only asking for more accommodation for the individual who needs to find a safe home group where her or his spiritual beliefs or non-beliefs are never, ever, treated as an obstacle to recovery and a life of sobriety. There is no question this is for the betterment of AA. Freethinkers, agnostics and atheists have been a part of AA since Jim B. And Hank P. created the compromise of the Higher Power concept. We are opening wide the doors to shed a brighter light on this program as an embracing solution that can work for anyone. That is being a responsible member of AA.
Roger: Okay, back to the Convention. What will be the format of the convention? How long will it last? Will there be workshops? What kind of workshops?
Pam: We are so excited for this convention! All the details aren’t ironed out as yet, but we just had our most pivotal planning meeting on June 8th, where we had attendees from as far away as Hawaii. The convention WILL stretch over three days, with activities from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Thursday, there will be the traditional opening ceremony to welcome our fellow We Agnostics and Freethinkers (WAFTs). This will be when we have our featured keynote speaker to start off our celebration!
In the afternoon there will be a few more featured speakers. These will be shorter shares, likely 30 minutes each, where we hear more inspirational stories of sobriety from our fellowship. This will set the tone for the first We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention. That first evening we’ll wrap up early to allow for mingling and socializing at either a dinner or a barbeque. It’s California after all, so there will HAVE to be a barbeque!
Over Friday and the first half of Saturday, there will be marathon AA meetings as well as a variety of workshops.
We will have one dedicated room for back-to-back marathon-style meetings. We have asked our fellow agnostic groups to provide their formats and host these meetings, allowing us to “travel” to their meetings in New York, Chicago, Boise, etc., without having to leave the room. It will be fulfilling to experience other non-religious styled meetings and share our different paths to recovery in the program.
As for the workshops, this is one of the more exciting parts of the event. Our workshop topics will come from everyone! We are asking for suggestions and ideas from the community with which we are connecting in our outreach. We have heard from almost all of the 22 states that have agnostic-style and freethinker themed meetings so far. We even made connections in Tokyo and England and, of course, your home town there in Toronto. We believe that the strength of the agnostics and others in our fellowship will create lively and worthwhile discussions. These will be planned ahead of time, so we are hoping to get those suggestions in the works over the next several months.
On the evening of the second day, we are looking into having a beach bonfire.
After lunch on our final day of the convention, Saturday, we will have another panel of speakers, who will have very different spiritual backgrounds. Let’s just say it will probably be our more spiritual day, and, I am sure, one filled with a great deal of emotion on the part of the steering committee, as we come to the conclusion of sharing our experience, strength and hope with each other at an event we put together in the spirit of unity and celebration.
Roger: Sounds absolutely fantastic! There is, obviously, a great deal of work to be done. Pam, what are the crucial next steps?
Pam: Oh, my goodness. There is so much to do! The steering committee is talking every day and we are getting such a great response from all over… The website committee is working on the website… We are getting established as a not-for-profit organization… We have to identify our keynote and guest speakers… Some of us are focused on compiling lists of activities for visitors to do outside of meetings as well as putting together lists of hotel accommodations for convention attendees… We need to get our fundraising going…
One of the unique qualities of this convention is how much inclusion we are able to establish by using the tools of the internet. Our next planning meeting will be held at the Santa Monica Library on Saturday, August 31st, and everyone who wants to can participate! The library has the resources which will allow us to do an internet connection to our fellows around the world. As we get closer to the date, we will provide the time and information on how people can log in and be a part of the process. In the meantime, contact us at the address above. Please!
And, of course, there is continuous outreach. I think Dorothy, our steering committee head, is set on reaching every possible supporter of WAFT in every corner of the world. She wants to make sure that we don’t leave even one AA rock unturned!
Roger: My final question, Pam. As you go forward, over the next year and a half, what do you want the message of this Convention to be? What is the theme of the convention?
Pam: Over the days leading up to our June 8th planning meeting, we were brainstorming different themes and we had about twenty or so variations. I was personally hung up on the idea of “A Bridge Towards Unity” because I thought it really spoke to the idea of inclusion and unification. One of our fellowship, Angela from Boise, responded to an email on the topic and poignantly stated that she felt that anything with the words “bridge” or “build,” even though they emphasize tolerance, would perpetuate the divide, the differences. Rather, she argued, it was time to celebrate the fact there are many paths to recovery, a reality always keenly appreciated within the fellowship of AA.
Well, we shared her opinion during the planning meeting. Others in the meeting voiced similar concerns and ideas, and, by a nearly unanimous vote, the convention theme was decided: “Many Paths to Recovery.”
In that moment, it seemed as if a new momentum stirred in the room. It was not only a more concise vision of the WAFT International AA Convention, but a statement of what a bright future this convention has for us going forward. We are reaching out to all of the fellowship and becoming connected in a way that is securing the unity we have in AA. I think this is an amazing testament to the program and what it has to offer us in sobriety. Our paths may be different but our experience, strength and hope are what bind us. And, through this act of service in providing an international forum to help bring about recovery for the alcoholic who still struggles, we are surely following in the path of the founders of AA.
Roger: I can’t think of a better way to conclude, Pam. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Obviously we wish you the very best. And we here at AA Agnostica, and I’m sure others in AA from around the world, will do our part to make this Convention a wonderful success, a true landmark in AA’s modern and ever-evolving history.
 The involvement of the Unitarian Universalist community in the first Quad A (Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics) is recounted here: A History of Agnostic Groups in AA.
 Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups (Leslie Scrivener, Toronto Star, June 3, 2011).
 Dr. Bob’s Farewell Talk (From his remarks on Sunday, July 3, 1950, at the First International AA Convention in Cleveland, Ohio).