Laytonville, where I live, is a small coastal mountain valley village of about 2000 on Northern California’s Highway 101, about 3 hours north of the Bay Area. This is a sparsely populated area. The next, smaller village is 25 miles north, the next, bigger one 25 miles south. Our local metropolis of 20,000 people, the seat of our local Intergroup, is 50 miles away. Laytonville is where I decided to start a Freethinkers meeting. There is good reason to think that this Freethinkers meeting could have gone practically un-noticed by the world, and AA, forever.
I had been thinking about doing it for a while, but when a newcomer came to our regular Laytonville Fellowship hall meeting, and introduced herself as an agnostic, it felt like it was time to act.
On the first Sunday in April of 2013 I approached Mendocino County Inland Intergroup with the idea of starting a freethinkers meeting. As I wrote to the chairman beforehand:
I’m toying with the idea of making a freethinkers meeting here in Laytonville. I presume you have heard of the group in Toronto that got excommunicated from intergroup for taking god out of the steps for the purposes of their freethinkers group, but otherwise kept the steps to be worked as always. Just want to explore whether we will get excommunicated too, or whether we’re sufficiently freethinking here in Mendocino County to have a meeting without god. Or should I just quietly put it on the schedule, and not stir up any shit?
This was an Intergroup which up to this point had functioned quite well. I was going into my second year as a representative for my local fellowship, had served a term as co-chair, and had worked on a couple of things, including updating the bylaws.
So I got to introduce the issue, not as any old recovering alcoholic showing up at the meeting to petition, but as an actual voting member of Intergroup. My fellowship had supported my idea of making such a meeting, though they were reserved about my idea of changing the steps, and therefore eventually I decided to make it a separate group.
Some people had done service in intergroup for many years, pretty much the folks that cared about making it function, while many groups and individuals until now hadn’t considered it worth the effort and had no representative.
Well, it didn’t go so easy. After discussion in April, it was brought up for vote in May. It was tied, 4-4, with one person who claimed to be in favor abstaining, and the chairperson abstaining from breaking the tie, though she was in favor too, but a little concerned about causing trouble for herself. Back to more discussion.
What happened next was that the god focused faction went and rallied their forces. They denied this of course, but it is odd that they managed to line up representatives from all the hitherto un-represented groups, that all were on their side.
We were now busy getting polarized, focusing on “uniformity” instead of “unity”.
I heard it said in the AA Agnostica chat room the other night: “Any argument that begins with “What if” is a fear based argument.” And plenty of fears were voiced about how this group would be the doom of AA.
I guess I had really been quite innocent about the whole thing. I thought it would simply have been treated as a business item. On the back of our schedules it said:
Meetings included in the schedule are listed at their own request. A schedule listing does not constitute or imply approval or endorsement of any group’s practice of the traditional program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
That the schedule says so must mean something, right? There must be some kind of meeting which is not endorsed, but is still listed – but doesn’t look like it is ours.
A couple of times we approached a re-vote. But by now some of us were concerned that the god faction had gathered enough force to defeat listing the meeting, so we dragged our feet a bit. One of the more level-headed members suggested that we amend the bylaws to include:
This Intergroup shall have no control over the internal affairs, the management or conduct of any member group; complete independence of each group must be preserved.
AA Group defined: Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation. (Tradition Three, Long Form)
But it was drowned out in discussion. One member of the god faction even countered with a motion that in order for a meeting to be listed it had to use the original 12 steps, and only use AA approved literature. At this point even the moderates got scared that AA would move to something more rigid than what we had started with. It may yet. That motion is still floating around, but has not been voted on.
I finally countered with another motion. I confess it was real crafty, bordering on the devious, but all it really did was to say things as they are, that Intergroup now wants to control things:
Up to this point Intergroup has been a service organization with no actual authority, and has listed groups on its schedule at their own request based on AAs philosophy that our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern, and that of group autonomy. We propose that Intergroup must take it upon itself from simply being trusted servants to become a governing body which evaluates the worthiness of individual groups, and decide which groups should be listed in the schedule, and which ones can’t be. If this motion fails we will keep doing things the way we always have, list meetings at their own request.
This being an important policy issue, it should pass with substantial unanimity, that is 2/3 majority.
Let’s make a long story short: This first Sunday of February 2014 we finally voted on my motion. The chairperson, supposedly otherwise supporting my position spoke out vehemently against the motion and its deviousness, but a motion is a motion, it was made and seconded, and voted on. One in favor, two against, about 10 abstaining. So it failed, which means the meeting now gets listed, right?
Not at all. The chairperson decided that it needs to be discussed at the next meeting.
At this point I resigned from Intergroup. After one vote in the beginning where we had a solid majority, but wasted the opportunity, (apparently also out of some people’s fear) and another vote which is simply being discounted, what else could I do? I don’t know what they are going to do now.
I got to be the bad guy, especially with this motion. If the meeting had been listed after a carrying vote in the beginning, maybe the god people would still have rallied their forces and tried to rescind the vote 6 months later, but at least then they would have been the bad guys, not me.
Looks like all I can do at this point is to move on, focus my energy on making our Freethinkers meeting work, go around to meetings in the area and announce it, put my energy into the AA Agnostica chat room, and other measures to help the agnostic newcomer. For the time being it looks like our local Intergroup is a lost cause.
I hold it as an axiom of the expression of thought that, except in cases where a person may have lost their faculties at a later stage – when a person expresses thoughts, and then later expresses other thoughts that to some degree contradict the earlier thoughts, and provided we can assume that these thoughts are expressed after reasonably careful consideration – that the later, contradicting thoughts bear witness to that the person expressing them has evolved in some manner, and has modified their point of view, and that the latter expressions therefore carry more weight than their previous, earlier thoughts, in some cases considerably more.
Bill Wilson wrote the Big Book with what, five years of sobriety? When therefore he kept writing all through his later years we ought to pay special attention to that. He never really rescinds his position that having a god is essential to recovery, and that sooner or later we will all “get it,” but he does attain a certain humility about it, most famously in the piece The Dilemma of no Faith from the April 1961 Grapevine which I won’t quote here, but I highly recommend reading it, and he increasingly speaks out in favor of inclusivity, against rigidity and dogmatism.
About Tradition 3 he writes:
In fact, our Tradition carries the principle of independence for the individual to such an apparently fantastic length that, 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! (July 1946 Grapevine)
About Tradition 4 he writes:
With respect to its own affairs, the group may make any decisions, adopt any attitudes that it likes. No overall or intergroup authority should challenge this primary privilege. We feel this ought to be so, even though the group might sometimes act with complete indifference to our Tradition.
One argument we hear is that the formation of a group with altered steps influences AA as a whole. Bill Wilson does clarify what sort of thing he considers will “injure AA as a whole”:
For instance, no group or inter group could feel free to initiate, without consultation, any publicity that might affect AA as a whole. Nor could it assume to represent the whole of Alcoholics Anonymous by printing and distributing anything purporting to be AA standard literature. (March 1948)
So where does this all leave us? With a dogmatic AA that increasingly subscribes to ideas like those expressed by the “White Paper.” With, it appears, a backlash of more christianity. Even in my home fellowship. We abolished the Lord’s Prayer a number of years ago, and stuck with the serenity prayer. Here recently someone asked that we started using it again. Didn’t go over so well with me, of course, and they eventually modified it to that the secretary could ask a member to close with the prayer of their choice. That sounded real good, and practically everyone bought it. You know what that means, though: OK, not the LP ending every meeting, the SP still used a bunch, and a whole lot more of the 3rd, 7th, and 11th step prayers. All in all, more god focus.
Eventually we might have to accept that AA is becoming a dogmatic religious movement irrelevant to recovery in the 21st century, and strike out in our own direction. A sad thing to see, because there is so much good recovery in AA, too. That’s why I have now stuck with it for 26 years as of February 20. But I am grateful to have the AA Agnostica and WAFT movements. Means I won’t drift away from the recovery support I need just yet.
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As I was finishing this tale of my woes with Intergroup I heard that the WAFT conference slated for Santa Monica in November was going to ban non-conference-approved literature at the convention. Initially the FAQ on their website said: “Because we are a part of AA… the steering committee (SC) has decided not to allow any non-conference-approved literature at the convention.” They went back and forth on it, first saying no non-conference-approved literature, then saying the question was under consideration, then no again, and, after more objections, they replaced the “no” with a dash after the question “Will there be non-conference-approved literature at the convention?” Presumably the dash meant either “we’re thinking about it” or “we’re avoiding dealing with it.” Finally, after a couple of weeks of hemming and hawing the FAQ now says that the steering committee will “make this literature available in a separate, clearly defined location.”
Why the debate at all? Why all the reluctance to include literature that hasn’t been published by the GSO?
And why emphasize that the non-conference-approved literature will be kept in a “separate” and a “clearly distinct location”? Is literature that is often helpful to us to be relegated to some sort of closet even at our very own convention?
Look at the trail of this debate. In the first FAQ on this subject, the steering committee said “Because we are a part of AA…” and then went on to “not allow” non-conference-approved AA at the convention. The committee is succumbing – knowingly or unknowingly – to the fundamentalists’ vision of AA. Their reason for keeping the non-conference-approved literature “separate and clearly distinct” is so that it will not be confused with the “true” AA, the definition of which is found, according to the fundamentalists, in selected conference-approved literature (God, powerlessness, surrender, etc., as in the Big Book), and which some Intergroups are increasingly insisting upon, and this certainly not in service but in an attempt at governance. 
Let’s look at a quote from the recent New York Times article, Alcoholics Anonymous, Without the Religion:
“A.A. starts at its core with honesty,” said Dorothy, 39, who heads the steering committee for the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International A.A. Convention. “And how can you be honest in recovery if you’re not honest in your own beliefs? If you don’t believe in the God they’re praying to, that’s not honest practice.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself.
How can you honor your own beliefs if even at an agnostic convention you are still only allowed to use the same old books filled with god? The convention needs to especially be the place to share alternative literature to supplement the conference-approved AA literature we already know. If we can’t even be honest at “our very own convention” where can we? Are we going to have to not only fight the intergroups, but now even our own people?
All this fear of the god people seems to know no end. Come what may, we need to stand up for what we (don’t) believe in. For almost seventy-five years now we have tried to placate the people bent on the “God bit,” as Jim Burwell put it, and what is the result? Things have gotten worse instead of better over the last decade. We agnostics and atheists need honest practice, now, at every level.
If this convention is to mean anything it must be a place where we can honestly share with each other what is working for us – not just as individuals, quietly in the convention corridors when we hope no AA police are listening – but openly, as a group, from the podiums, around the tables, in all the meetings and workshops, from the books we use to the alternative versions of the steps that we are trying on for size in meetings all over the continent.
* * *
I did start the Laytonville Freethinkers meeting on August 22nd at the local Grange, and I have registered it with World Service. People come in from 50 miles away to support it. And here we are, a half dozen people at this little meeting out in the middle of nowhere, aware of the grave threat we pose to AA’s future, but somehow we manage to remain calm and composed about it.
 The document that comes closest to an official definition of AA is the AA Preamble, which is also conference-approved literature. It makes no mention whatsoever of God or a Higher Power or even the 12 Steps and is ignored by those obsessed with the “God bit” and the Intergroups that succumb to their persuasion. Here it is:
Alcoholics Anonymous® is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.
Copyright © by The AA Grapevine, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
A full background on this document, prepared by the General Service Office, is available here, The AA Preamble: Background Information. The Preamble appears at the very beginning of the AA Service Manual, before the Table of Contents.