We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention – Day 2

Day two – Friday, November 7 – of the Convention consisted of a number of panels and workshops, followed by a talk by the manager of the General Service Office (GSO), Phyllis H.

What follows are reports on just some of the panels and workshops as well as a summary of the speech by Phyllis H.

Panel: Is Spirituality Compatible with Agnostic AA?
Chair Vic L and panelists Marya Hornbacher, Reverend Ward Ewing and Roger C.

By Russ H.

Day two of the WAFT-IAAC event in Santa Monica was set in motion by a panel moderated by Vic L (NYC) and composed of the two keynote speakers, Marya Hornbacher (Minnesota) and Reverend Ward Ewing (Tennessee), who were joined by Roger C. (Toronto). The topic was “Spirituality and Agnostic AA.” The large meeting room was full to capacity and, after introductions the panelists received a warm welcome.  During his opening remarks Vic L conceded good naturedly that he had been a vocal opponent of the selection of Rev Ewing for the Saturday evening keynote address to a WAFT Convention.  It seemed somehow fitting with the spirit of AA inclusiveness these two individuals participated together.  Although there are surely different opinions – this writer believes what followed clearly indicated that there is a place for spirituality in agnostic AA.

The first question put to the panel by Vic L was “Is this question of Spirituality in AA really just a matter of semantics?” Marya suggested that spirit refers to that part of the human experience that is open to change.  Ward Ewing observed that spirituality can be powerfully experienced but is essentially intangible as in the case, for example, of a spirit of judgment. He further suggested that we differ not about these experiences but, rather, about the explanation for these experiences and urged that we “live in the ambiguity.”  Roger C was most focused on the issue of semantics, relating his own struggle with the word “spiritual” and finally suggesting the we might do well to reject that word altogether. He raised the objection that in AA the word spiritual equates with religious which stands in contradiction to the often repeated platitude that AA is a spiritual not religious program.

Other questions were put to the panel but the highlight of the meeting came when input from the attending members was encouraged. Touching points of view were shared that revealed that, even amongst atheist and agnostics, the word spiritual can have deep meaning. Eric C (Michigan) spoke of his experiences as former marine and the palpable reality of esprit de corps which still informs his life many years later.  Ron H (NYC) related his remarkable experience that in over 25 years of sobriety as a member of agnostic meetings he could only remember the word “spiritual” being mentioned once or twice at meetings.  Perhaps the highlight for many of us came when Bob B (Rendondo Beach, CA) spoke of the ease with which he was able to recognize deceased people and animals from living ones.  He offered that this difference can be called the “spark of life” and that it is this spark that most clearly reflects the existence of spirit.  Our duty, he suggested, might simply be to honor that spark in each other.

Workshop: The importance of having the agnostic / atheist voice in AA
Workshop Leader: Jane J. (NYC)

By Russ H.

A standing room only crowd of at least 35 raucous AA members greeted the opening of the “WAFT Voice in AA Literature” workshop. Workshop leader, Jane J (NYC) focused opening remarks on the recently published AA conference approved pamphlet “Many Paths to Spirituality”. Many present supported Jane J’s emphatic dissatisfaction with this pamphlet which she punctuated with a dramatic shredding of a copy. Clearly, many people present felt that the need for an AA pamphlet that can be given to non-religious newcomers is not adequately met by this new conference approved offering. Some members did voice guarded approval of the pamphlet as a “step in the right direction.”

With some effort, members did expand the scope of the discussion to focus on specific suggestions that might be made to systematically approach broader representation of non-religious points of view in AA literature. Beyond continued efforts to create a more acceptable AA approved pamphlet for agnostic/atheist members, other possibilities were raised. The collection of AA Grapevine stories by and for the secular AA community that has been proposed for publication by AA Grapevine was reported to have been rejected. Richard H (Maui) pointed out that AA Grapevine articles are de facto “conference approved” and can be represented as such in AA newsletters. He suggested the possibility of generating such newsletters be explored.

The question of using non-conference approved literature during meetings was raised. There seems to be some confusion about whether the use of non-conference approved literature during AA meetings is acceptable. The general impression is that no enforceable rule exists preventing AA meetings from reading or referring to non-conference approved literature. One member wondered whether it was permitted for AA members to create lapel pins or bumper stickers declaring sentiments such as “I got sober without God”. Someone pointed out that such materials are already available online. Perhaps the most extreme suggestion from the workshop was that all conference approved literature should be redacted to black out religious references and the redacted versions be made available – presumably retaining their AA approved status.

Panel: The De-Listing Issue
Panelists: Deirdre S. ( NYC, NY), Chuck K. (Chicago, IL), Russ H. ( Lafayette, CA), Dennis K. (Vancouver, Canada), Ed S. (Columbus, OH), Thomas B. (Portland, OR), Roger C. (Toronto, Canada), Joe S. (Indiannapolia, IN)

By Christopher G.

Many of the horror stories told in this panel can be found in the AA Agnostica archives. In general, they all spoke to the trials and tribulations of forming and listing new agnostic / atheist groups within local districts and Intergroups, and even, in New York’s case, with GSO itself.

The common theme was the persistency and tenacity of being true to one’s self, matched with concern for the alcoholic who still suffers and in standing up for what each felt was true for their own sobriety and the rights and privileges afforded us by the traditions and concepts at the group/grassroots level.

We heard the struggles with anger and indignation and the desire to fight for our rights, followed by the reminder that “we have ceased fighting anything or anyone” and “fighting Intergroup is a case of the tail (attempting to) wag the dog”.

The realization of “Let’s stick to our primary purpose of staying sober and helping others” as Dennis shared, was the predominant conclusion of the panel.

Panel: AA Conference Delegate Panel
Panelists: Mary T., James I. and Marcus F. (Former Delegates from Southern California)

By Thom L.

Two dominant themes arose in the panel presentation and ensuing Q&A: the importance of participation and the sense of frustration about changing AA literature. Former southern California delegates Mary T, Jim I, and Marcus F all described the General Services Conference structure in use since 1951. Through it, individual AAs can bring their concerns to their Group Service Representative who then conveys the message to the District and eventually to the Area Service Committee. Changes in AA pamphlets depend on the input of members in this way.

Questions focused on the frustration many felt over the new “Many Paths to Spirituality” pamphlet in particular and with the unlikely prospect of updating the Big Book. Marcus said that “knee jerk reaction in GSO takes three years”, but insisted that changes could come about through active participation by GSOs.

He also pointed out several facts not well known: the Grapevine is not “officially” conference approved due to the time constraints of publishing a monthly; also that any AA group can publish its own literature providing that it’s clearly labeled as coming from that group and not AA as an organization. Any AA member can write to the GSO to suggest changes in AA literature, but suggestions that have come up through the conference structure are more likely to be considered. The message behind all this was that patience is required for any change.

Panel: Los Angeles Old Timers
Panelists: Merle E., Gary W., Spiritual Al and Ann H.

By Thom L.

Four of the early members of the first agnostics meeting in LA shared their experiences. Ann H (who spoke on the opening day of the convention) talked again about the importance of the steps in her first years in sobriety, all the while struggling with the “god language”. When she started coming to the agnostics meeting, she found she could become comfortable in her own skin. A sense of gratefulness has grown for her.

“Spiritual Al” (29 years sober) said he tried cocaine anonymous first, thinking it “couldn’t be as bad as AA”. When he realized AA was what he needed, he struggled to find meetings that were not overtly religious. He noted that early AA had no blacks, no women, no homosexuals, but there was an atheist!  Al said that meant someone” was there for me”. He cited the importance of “The Doctor’s Opinion” rather than the “We Agnostics” chapter in the Big Book.

Gary W (36 years sober) was one of the first members of the LA agnostic meeting. Coming to terms with his agnosticism gave him the tolerance for others’ beliefs. He spoke about letting go of his ego through being “harmless, selfless, and nice to others”.

Chairman Merle E. wrapped up the meeting saying he had been a skeptic since he was 8 years old , and an atheist since starting in AA. But focusing on inclusiveness, he noted that AA is not “a theological debating society…  for either side! ” “My atheism is not keeping me sober!” Cherishing diversity in AA is vital.  He insisted that agnostic meetings are in fact mainstream AA.  And he is comforted by “not having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny his own”.

Reaching WAFTs in the Digital Age
Workshop Leader: R.J. (Omaha, Nebraska)

By Christopher G.

This workshop had 25 plus attendees crammed into a 10 by 12 room to share and discuss the current and proposed ways and ideas that the internet and the digital age can augment attraction to the fellowship and facilitate dissemination of information on the many paths in recovery, especially, of course for folks alienated by the “god bit”.

As R.J. put it, “In 1939 the fellowship’s best idea (to disseminate our experience, strength, and hope) was paper and ink” i.e. the Big Book, adding that in 2014, we have so much more via the internet with the added availability of the multiple social media, search engines, on-line video, etc.

She said she has been using such things as google groups online, connecting with newcomers as a sort of digital greeter, and is looking into something new called Vinects.com as a new territory.

Making it easy to find us as a secular / special interest group within AA was a concern and topic of discussion as well as concerns about anonymity and the tradition of attraction and not promotion.

Compelling statements I heard were, “When was the last time you used a telephone book to locate someone or thing?”; “Having a presence isn’t necessarily marketing!” and “How can newcomers be attracted if they don’t know it exists?”

Suggestions such as SoundCloud podcasts, advertising in humanist/secular type online magazines, having meetings on Skype (video or sound only), google hangouts. Facebook and Twitter meetings, Skype AA Freethinkers, Anonymous People on streaming Netflix, Recovering Without Religiosity, were also mentioned.

R.J. wrapped it up by saying, “People still need to meet and shake hands though.”

Phyllis H., General Manager, AA General Service Office

By Thomas B.

One of the major highlights of this week’s magnificent milestone event — our newly named WAAFT IAAC — was hearing the keynote speech of Phyllis H. She did not disappoint, and I was greatly relieved.

With dignity and sophisticated grace, Phyllis began by expressing how privileged and grateful she was to be addressing We Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers. She noted that our gathering is a most important event in the ever evolving history of AA in the US and Canada.

She began by relating a parable about a man, a drunken man, who had fallen into a deep pit. First, a priest came by and offered a book for the man to read, but that didn’t help. Next a doctor came by and offered medicine, which also did not help. Lastly, another alcoholic came by and jumped into the pit with the drunk. Astonished, the drunk queried, “Why?” The alcoholic replied, “I know where you are and can help you climb out.”

Phyllis’ address focused upon several key passages from Bill’s voluminous writings, which reiterate perhaps the two most central tenets of AA:

    1. that the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking, and
    2. that AA be as all-inclusive as possible.

She noted, “AA has always been evolving; it is always in a state of becoming.” She further opined that hopefully AA shall never become rigidly dogmatic, but always be imbued with love and tolerance, so as to ensure everyone is included. She ended her talk with this passage from Step Ten: “Courtesy, kindness, justice and love are the keynotes by which we may come into harmony with practically anyone.” In essence, Phyllis reaffirmed that GSO is fully committed to ensure that the primary intention of our co-founders, Bill and Dr. Bob, is maintained. As conveyed in our Responsibility Declaration, “When anyone anywhere reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there” — regardless of belief or non-belief.

29 Responses

  1. Dorothy H. says:

    Thanks to everyone for writing such great reports! What I also enjoyed about the writers themselves that they were not only writers for the convention but many were also participants in other ways. They were panel leaders, workshop leaders and meeting founders. Like other WAAFs at the conventions everyone gave of themselves in multiple ways. So very impressive.

    Truly the spirit of love and service. I look forward to seeing everyone in Austin, TX in 2016 and meeting new friends.

    For those who are interested in getting all the 48 recordings of the convention you can contact

    Dave Stephens encoreaudio@aol.com

  2. wisewebwoman says:

    A great big thank you for including the rest of us in this landmark conference. Every time I come here I leave heartened and inspired.


  3. Tommy H says:

    “It is the framing we object, the idea that membership is decided by others. Bill W made it clear that we are members when we say so, not when others do.”


  4. kevin b says:

    Good report.

  5. Alma P. says:

    Thank so much for this daily report of the convention. I hope to attend the next one in Austin. In the meantime., I’d like to be able to correspond with other WAAFTs . My email is agp16@ aol.com. Is there some kind if email list that could be compiled of the convention speakers and attendees who would be willing to email with those of us who could not attend and are stuck out in the hinterland. It would be a method of reaching out as described as discussed in one of today’s workshops. Just wondering. Thanks so much for allowing us to be involved Alma P. Baton Rouge LA

    • Christopher G says:

      Hi Alma, yes here is their website http://waftiaac.org/contact-us/ for contact info. I heard there was an e-mail/phone list going around for dissemination to those interested also. Ask them about it. Also, the whole convention, except for the meetings were recorded and are available soon at http://12steptapes.com/calendarofevents.html. If none of this helps, please, keep coming back until something or someone does.

      • Alma P. says:

        Thanks all for you responses to my reaching out. I am looking forward to the convention speaker tapes going on sale soon. What a relief to find a lot more non theists. It is very encouraging.

  6. Phil E. says:


  7. Larry K says:

    I am so glad you folks are covering this historic and significant event. Well at least I thinks so.

  8. life-j says:

    I would like hear a bit about how Phyllis H sees her role in relation to the delisting issues. I know that even the general manager has no genuine authority, but certainly has her own conscience to go by. I think the way intergroups have taken it upon themselves to govern over individual local groups is something general service ought to really speak out against. The counter-argumentis that intergroup is a “group”, and therefore is autonomous, but I don’t think that holds, it is a service body, there to fulfil certain practical aspects of running AA in an area, it is not there to govern, and this needs to bespoken out against in no uncertain terms. I realize this could be a shortlived practice, since the back to basics folks, and the particularly religious ones, can make a policy about it either at the service conferences or other places, which allows the intergroups to govern. These people obviously have no problem ignoring the spirit of AA, but at least it ought to be tried, fo as long as we can, to assert that intergroup has no authority to decide whether a group should be listed or not. OK, there is no actual body in AA that has the authority to tell intergroups what to do, this may be a glitch in the AA structure, or there could have been situations where we would have reason to appreciate that it is so, but still – it appears that any time the more conservative elements in AA are unhappy about something the first thing they do is go to their momma, and write to GSO, so there is a chance thay would listen?

    • bob k says:

      Although I might wish it to be different, I think that Intergroups can do whatever they decide to do, if they get the votes to do so.

      As a problem, the delisting is over-rated. Twenty years ago, it may have been the kiss of death, but not so in the internet age. I am almost certain that Phyllis will NOT wade into the delisting issue. Intergroups DO have autonomy. She is going to face an enormous blowback, I expect, for participating in our event.

      She has done us an ENORMOUS service!!

      • life-j says:

        You are probably right about Phyllis (just statistically speaking, I don’t know her personally).
        But I do think the delisting is a big problem, especially in smaller communities. It has pretty much been the kiss of death to our meeting here that it was intended to be.
        As for Intergroups doing what they want to do – as with the issue of agnostics being part of AA it is of course a fact that whatever the Christian majority supports, that’s what is going to be official policy, such that if Intergroups en masse decided to do something against the Christian majority (I can’t quite imagine a scenario right ar the moment) I am confident they would do something about it, but since what the Intergroups are doing is entirely in line with conservative Christian values, we will not see any Christians yelling about how unfair the Intergroups are treating agnostics.
        And I imagine Phyllis has a good job, and bills to pay, it is a lot to expect that she should jeopardize her job for us, but one could always hope for some support. After all, in my opinion, anyway, we have all the traditions and concepts on our side, though the Christians don’t give a hoot.

  9. Don S. says:

    I read with interest about the panel on the De-listing Issue. It’s not widely known that WAFT itself refuses to list links to agnostic AA facebook communities. In an effort to be ‘real AA’, they decided against linking to sites where members use their full names, to show respect for the tradition of anonymity.

    This is troubling for many reasons.

    1. It’s fine to follow the traditions oneself, but it is governing to enforce them on others.

    2. WAFT is discriminating, even if they think it’s the right thing to do. For the 3rd tradition to me meaningful, they must treat all members the same. Otherwise, we end up with classes of members, which would be laughable.

    3. WAFT is refusing to list an AA group! The irony is too obvious to miss.

    4. The 5th warranty of the 12th Concept says no punitive action should ever be taken. Agnostic groups are painfully aware that being de-listed is a way to keep members from knowing about them.

    I’ve received feedback that this issue is not worth fighting over at this point in our nascent movement. Fine, we can disagree on strategy. The much larger atheist movement is full of such discussions.

    Ignoring our members on Facebook may even be the smart thing to do at this point, but I haven’t yet heard an argument that treating each other differently is somehow the right thing to do.

    Another panel discussed reaching WAFTs in the Digital Age. It seems Facebook’s one billion users should be part of that.

    • Alyssa (soda) says:

      Don, it would have been nice to have met you. Although I have some differences of opinions with you and other WAAFTers, you helped me on your Facebook page in dealing with my initial contact with trolls. It was difficult for me at the time. You told me your Facebook page offers an area for people to express all opinions. And I told you I don’t think it’s ok if it becomes abusive. That is my opinion. For the most part, the trolls don’t stick around that long. You assured me of that.
      I do agree that WAAFT should link to AA Agnostica and other sites. Connections within our community are extremely important. I hope we can avoid internal oppression which could effect us as a whole and detract the newcomer. Young and vibrant people like me may run for the hills at the first sign of hostility.
      I also think that atheists who feel they have a strong opinion should try and practice calm assertiveness & avoid aggressive communication styles, as challenging as that may be. We are only as strong as our weakest link. Try talking to others who may have a different perspective, before voicing our belief on behalf of the group. You may find that you achieve more balance.
      I enjoy your facebook page.
      Let’s keep up our hope though. I’m young still. I belong in AA. I have hope there will be peace within AA in my life time. It’s only the beginning ever.
      And may I just say, My Toronto people are the coolest and amazing… Roger C., Joe C., John & Dianne (women’s workshop). And Me;) (newcomers). & uncle Thomas B. of course:) Love and tolerance and service and action.
      I’m already looking forward to what the next year will bring. I’m tweaking my speech. There are too many points that I failed to mention. Oh well. I’m letting it live in yesterday and heading off to feel the ocean and drink strong coffee. Bye for now. Yours Truly, Soda

    • Tim M. says:

      I’m fine with WAAFT not linking to Facebook pages, where the choice to remain anonymous is effectively taken away. They should be taking their cue from the 12th Tradition, rather than from Mark Zuckerberg.

  10. Tommy H says:

    Thanks for a very interesting report.

  11. Christopher G says:

    I love so much being a part of this! Thank you everyone!

  12. Mel D. says:

    Thanks for the beautiful job you’re doing Roger. These reports are like reading “news from the front” that soldiers sent back during World War 2. I don’t know about spirituality, but there’s no lack of spirit at this convention.

  13. bob k says:

    The most significant event of the entire event may well turn out to be the presence of the GSO General Manager. Her warm words of “inclusion” speak forcefully against the many voices crying for the immediate expulsion of the nonbelievers.

    The “Many Paths To Spirituality” pamphlet should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Fundies and heathens alike have been drawn into a soothing accord in their universal loathing of this ridiculous leaflet.


    • Don S. says:

      When we assert our membership, we have already lost it. We are like any other underclass trying to be equal. When we work from the framing of the dominant class, we support that framing, because we are requesting an advancement in it.

      It is the framing we object, the idea that membership is decided by others. Bill W made it clear that we are members when we say so, not when others do.

      • Svukic says:

        That’s the scariest thing about the need for such a Convention as this at all. As happy as I am to see atheists / agnostics sharing their strength and hope it is sad that it is occurring in a combatative setting, one where we are having to justify our very existence. Unlike, say, the Womens’ AA Convention we had nearby recently, this convention isn’t only about affirmation, it is about survival in the face of concerted opposition.

  14. Tom says:

    Sounds like you folks are right on track.

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