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:
- that the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking, and
- 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.