We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention – Day 3

Many Paths

Day 3 was the busy and energizing last day of the We Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers (WAAFT) International Alcoholics Anonymous Convention (IAAC).

To begin with, attendance had grown to almost three hundred women and men. And, besides more engaging workshops, panels and marathon meetings, the rooms at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Santa Monica, California, were buzzing in anticipation of the closing talk to be delivered by Reverend Ward Ewing, who had been present throughout the Convention.

What follows are reports of some of the workshops and panels as well as a summary of Ward’s speech.

Let’s first take a moment to note, though, that along with all of the above, there were AA meetings held one after another throughout the last two days of the Convention. These meetings – over thirty of them – were organized and chaired by agnostic, atheist and freethinker groups across the world.

We begin with a report on those meetings.

Atheist and Agnostic Meetings Galore All In One Place – Santa Monica, California

By Ken L.

Meetings back-to-back-to-back and then more after lunch, on into the evening. New experiences, new faces, new places mixed with all the powerful emotions that come from stories shared, tears fallen and hopes grasped. In all, quite traditional AA meetings.

Except these were different. These were rooms that were wall-to-wall with atheist AAs, agnostic AAs, other freethinking AAs.

For some, like me, it was the first ever experience of an AA meeting not bathed in god and bookended with prayers. The excitement of reading the 12-steps formatted for an agnostic, allowing an atheist to read a version of them without being dishonest or hypocritical: sometimes it felt like just too much of what I had wanted for so long.

That small part of the meeting encapsulated all the anticipation held inside me since first reading about this International AA Convention for We Agnostics and Freethinkers in The New York Times nine months ago.

It was my chance to learn how AA meetings for people like me are conducted in California, Idaho, Illinois, New York, Vancouver, Ontario, Paris and Melbourne.

Instead of feeling isolated and denied as the only avowed atheist in my home group, I listened to shares from other atheists.

All of this and much more than I can tell or even barely contain, I got to take in. And I left each meeting knowing I can find people like this near my home who will help start a meeting like these. And that meeting can reach out to the suffering alcoholic who can’t abide a program bathed in god and bookended with prayers. A suffering alcoholic who wants a program that calls for honesty and allows us each to gain our own personal integrity.

That’s me that I found at this convention, at these meetings and that’s me and someone like me that I want to reach out to with a new meeting in my hometown. I thank everyone who made this extra-ordinary experience possible.

Relapse Panel
Panelists: Laura M, Sherril W, Steve P plus One Other

By Michael B.

As someone who had suffered a very serious relapse after 22 years of continuous sobriety I was most interested in this panel of speakers.

Sad as such occurrences are this was an articulate and interesting group of speakers who relayed their experiences with impressive detail. None had an instant relapse and all recounted their experiences which lead to it. In two instances emphasis was made that it was, in the end, a matter of choice – “I chose to drink”. Questions were raised regarding perceived ideas that there could not be a way back following the taking of the first drink. The evidence that this is not so was clear to see within this panel of speakers.

Depression, anger, resentments, isolation, ego, inventory taking (other peoples) and fear were among the list of apparent factors which contributed to the relapses. These are common within the Fellowship at large but in some instances these elements were compounded by a frustration of lack of identification with the programme as it is written. The desire, in fact, the need, for WAAFT meetings was apparent.

For me the most intriguing case was a serial relapser for some seven years who had a series of disasters because of the drinking. AA seemed an inhospitable place with little or no relevance until in 1988 a visit to a “We Agnostics” meeting changed everything. It was through this meeting that she, at last, felt that she was a member of AA. It enabled her to understand herself and a serious depression was lifted. It was only because of the agnostic meeting that 26 years of sobriety was established and maintained.

It was truly inspirational listening to these speakers and testament that in some cases recovery is more readily achieved through participation in WAAFT meetings.

The 12 Steps Revisited
Workshop Leader: Russ H. (Lafayette, CA)

By Christopher G.

Things heard at this workshop:

  • Many members have already revisited and reinterpreted the steps on their own;
  • I don’t think I’m sober because of the steps;
  • The founders seemed to have forgotten to include as a step “hanging together”, i.e. meetings;
  • I look at the action verb in each of the steps translating the rest to what made sense to me;
  • Prayer is talk therapy even if it’s to my imaginary friend or nobody;
  • I was able to digest the steps by initially seeing them as something to do rather than focus on not drinking (better than white knuckling it;
  • Having a secular version of the Steps: what a relief it is not to have to translate everything;
  • Everybody’s got the right to do the steps as they understand them – or not;
  • Ebby T. said “Why don’t you use your own conception?” and that applies to the Steps as well;
  • And finally, the term conference-approved does NOT imply Conference disapproval of other material about AA. “A great deal of literature helpful to alcoholics is published by others, and AA does not try to tell any individual member what he or she may or may not read” (Service Material from the GSO).

What We Agnostics and Free Thinkers in AA can learn from other secular recovery groups

By Rob M. (San Diego, CA): Workshop Leader

Rob began by explaining that he wore two hats as secretary and co-founder of a Freethinkers AA Meeting and the Conveynor of a LifeRing Secular Recovery Group. He was not there to advocate that anyone should abandon AA for an alternate recovery groups, rather that there were other groups out there where a member could learn additional techniques and enjoy sober fellowship in a secular setting.

Many members go to both AA and these groups.

Outside of AA there are three main secular recovery organizations: SMART Recovery, LifeRing, and Women for Sobriety.

Women for Sobriety was the first non-AA group started by Jean Kirkpatrick in 1976. It operates both face-to-face meetings and online, and have several publications. One of its main focuses is on emotional and spiritual growth. It also focus on the importance of health, nutrition, meditation, and mindfulness. The program is geared towards life coping skills, and not just recovery.

SMART Recovery, the acronym standing for Self-management And Recovery Training, describes itself as “the scientific alternative to people seeking independence from addictive behaviors including alcohol, other drugs, and gambling.” It was started 20 years ago by Tom Hovarth, and uses concepts and methods from modern psychology such as Cognitive Behavioral techniques, and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. They have meetings in the US and Canada, and have now expanded to Australia, South Africa, the U.K. and Denmark. They also have on line meetings.

LifeRing Secular Recovery was started by Marty Nicolaus in 2001, and has meetings in the USA, Canada, the U.K., and Ireland. Its focus is on being Sober, Secular, and Self Help. It promotes complete abstinence from alcohol and illicit and non-medically indicated drugs. It also has on line meetings. The focus is on “the Sober you” by building up that part that lies in each individual to survive and get clean and sober. One is encouraged to take charge of his or her own recovery and to construct a personal recovery plan. Cross talk is encouraged at meetings and the focus is “how was your week” as it relates to recovery and “your week ahead” as it relates to potential challenges to your sobriety.

How Can An Atheist Pray?
Workshop Leader John M.

By Thomas B.

John M. in this hour-long workshop took us on a fascinating, frenetic ride through philosophy coupled with salient insights from recent neurobiology findings to deal most intriguingly with the oxymoronic issue of “How Can An Atheist Pray?”

John’s presentation was not only jam-packed full with information from as disparate sources as Shakespeare, Ernie Kurtz, Nietzsche, French philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy & Derrida, bio-neurologist Daniel Siegal, three prayers from the Big Book, French poet and humanist Paul Valéry, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Scottish philosopher John Llewelyn, retired Anglican Bishop Richard Holloway AND Kierkegaard, but with the assistance of an excellent handout his presentation was accomplished with clarity and precision and great passion.

A surprisingly added benefit was that there was ample time for input from a number of the 20-25 attendees, who shared their experience praying and/or meditating as WAAFTS.

Perhaps, the last comment made by a participant best sums up this workshop. He simply stated, “I pray and meditate to discern how I can be most useful to others.”

Web Servants Panel
Panelists: Roger C., Joe C., Deirdre S., Joseph O. and John S.

By Adam N.

The first to speak at the Web Servants Panel was Roger C. from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the founder of AA Agnostica. He discussed his primary purpose for creating the site, which was that in May 2011 agnostic meetings in Toronto were kicked off the Intergroup list. Roger emphasized that AA Agnostica is an AA website, a part of AA, and never intended to be an adjunct or alternative to AA in any way. It is a website where agnostics, atheists and freethinkers come, realize they are not alone, and connect and communicate in a very diverse range of manners.

Next was Joe C., also from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, originator of Rebellion Dogs Publishing. Joe pointed out how fickle modern technology and its users can be. “My Space is now empty space.”  This underscored the importance of staying up to speed and utilizing emerging technologies in a savvy manner.  He pointed to the success of Roger C.’s work with AA Agnostica, and argued that the successful use of modern technology has “got to be something that creates community” rather than serve as a vehicle for self-promotion. His enthusiasm was infectious. “The medium is there, only our imagination and creativity is holding us back.”  His point that, with emerging technologies, there are endless ways to reach the still suffering alcoholic, may put ongoing arguments about the “listing” issue into a different perspective.

Deirdre from New York is the web servant for Agnostic AA NYC. The website is yet another example of a beautiful phoenix arising from the ashes of calamity. Her website came about as a result of the September 11th attacks.  The people who attended her regular meeting were desperate to find out about each other, and it was towards this end that the site was created.  The website then morphed into a place where WAAFT meetings were listed.  Deirdre outlined the progress that has been made in creating meetings for agnostics, atheists and free thinkers:

1986: First agnostic meeting in New York
1997: 26 meetings listed
2001: 36 meetings listed
2004: 56 meetings listed (including France)
2009: 71 meetings listed
2010: 89 meetings listed
2012: 99 meetings listed
2014: 151
Today: 181

Next was Joseph O. from Santa Monica, CA, who was our WAFT conference webmaster. He talked about utilizing the internet and current technology as a means of creating community and connection among agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. He spoke of the importance of having all websites for AA agnostics, atheists and freethinkers link to each other.  He finished with a rousing acknowledgement of the contributions of Dorothy, Pam, and Jonathan.

Finally there was John S. from Kansas City. MO, creator of We Agnostics Kansas City. He talked about being a sober member of AA for a long time before suddenly realizing he was an atheist, and how fearful that epiphany made him. He found just a few people in his area who were interested in starting a meeting and he started We Agnostics AA for Kansas City, MO.  The intergroup in this case was very cooperative.  John then created a website for the meeting which allowed people from the area to connect with like minded members. He said that his website is a bit like the “wild west”, and would like others in AA to check it out.

Closing Speech by Ward Ewing

By Russ H.

The formal proceedings of the We Agnostics and Free Thinkers (WAFT) International AA Convention (IAAC) 2014 meeting closed this evening with Rev Ward Ewing’s keynote address to a standing room only crowd of AA members.

Ward Ewings’s bona fides as theologian, educator and former Class-A Trustee and subsequent term as Chairman of the General Service Board of AA are well documented elsewhere.

Reverend Ward Ewing

His message to us emerged primarily from his own personal experiences as a regularly attending member of open AA meetings over the last 40 years. Initially motivated by a professional need to respond to an alcoholic parishioner who came to him for help, he sought input about alcoholism from those who he feels understand it best – alcoholics themselves.  The power of his message to us, however, emerged as he recounted how the culture of honesty, openness, willingness, love and gratitude that he found in those AA meetings would transform his own life and deeply inform his own notions of spirituality.

Our WAFT-IAAC convention is an historic moment in the gradual assimilation of yet another minority group into mainstream AA. We follow in the footsteps of women, African Americans, hispanic people, gay and lesbian members, native Americans and others who encountered initial resistance. Ward stands with us in our efforts to gain full and equal footing with AA. His vision clearly aligns with our own that the agnostic / atheist / freethinker / secular membership and meetings of AA will inevitably take our place along all of the other mainstream facets of the AA fellowship.  More importantly, he emphasized, is that this must happen.

As he eloquently reminded us, AA is a place where the impossible becomes possible.

19 Responses

  1. William P. says:

    Congratulations to everyone for an outstanding public service to encourage and implement a broader interpretation of AA, ensuring access for agnostics, atheists, free thinkers, indeed all those whose only desire is to stop drinking and drugging. May the momentum for change increase with future conventions of this ground breaking character! Every good wish to you all.

    Bill P.

  2. Joe C says:

    I don’t mind saying I feel quite spent from all the ideas, emotions, new friends, old friends, insights and experiences absorbed over three days. The event was respectful of every idea and opinion – the popular and the marginal. How tragic it would be if our conference of all places suppressed or denied any voice of AA. There is a time to celebrate and a time to rant, a time to be proud and a time to be critical. It all matters.

    I think the event met or exceeded everyone’s expectations. Things could have run better or been planned differently but most of these small problems were caused by the surge of attendance and unexpected success.

    It was great to meet people I knew only online, meet others who, while I didn’t know who they were, I knew they were out there thriving/struggling like the rest of us. I can’t help but wonder in ten years or twenty, how significant this weekend will stand up in historical context. It felt like something important was happening – something that will fondly earmarked as one of many important steps in the history of AA.

  3. Tommy H says:

    The reports from the conference have been uniformly excellent.

    Thanks to all for making them possible.

  4. Laurie A says:

    Well done on a successful inaugural conference and great that speakers included clergyman and former GSB chairman Ward Ewing (‘be quick to see where religious people are right!’) and GSO general manager. That seems pretty close to endorsement by the AA establishment to me. I believe we are ‘spearheads of God’s (sic) ever-advancing evolution’.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, indeed, indeed !~!~!

    About 100 miles west of LA in the desert at a Starbucks in route to visit my clean and sober son in Tucson.

    I am filled with great expectation and a warm feeling throughout me for what together we all have experienced this weekend, whether in the sunny climes of LA or virtually around the world via the digital offerings of AA Agnostica — Thank you, Roger, for the exemplary service you provide all of us, so that we can share our “experience, strength and hope,” together to help the still suffering alcoholic, in or out of the rooms of AA, to achieve continuing gifts of “the daily reprieve.”

    During the weekend I had a couple of conversations with participants, who strenuously questioned whether AA Agnostica is AA. I hope that any of us who gathered together, whether in person or online, do not fall into the trap of “contempt prior to investigation.” Instead, investigate AA Agnostica, read through the articles and comments of hundreds of AA members around the world, whose recovery in AA is enhanced as a result of involvement here. Perhaps your contempt shall be transformed.

    Personally, in my 41st year of recovery, had I not stumbled across AA Agnostica a couple of years ago, when I lived in an extremely right-wing, Christian-fundamentalist part of Oregon, where AA meetings were extremely toxic, my serenity and sanity might have been so compromised that I would have decided to leave AA and perhaps drink again. Do not spread rumors that we are attempting to set up another organization to steal members from AA — we are not.

    I am forever grateful I found AA in New York City in 1972 where the primary message for recovery was “don’t drink, go to meetings, help others”, and I am also extremely grateful I found AA Agnostica in 2012 so that my AA recovery, a day at a time, may continue with fellow AAs in recovery around the world who are WAAFTs . . .

  6. Oren says:

    Interesting to me that in the secular alternatives, SMART, Lifering, and Women for Recovery are mentioned, but nothing about Secular Organizations for Sobriety–SOS. In looking over the web for other recovering freethinkers, I’ve run across SOS quite a bit.

    Since there is nothing much up here in my northwoods community but very traditional AA, I’ve been considering trying to start a freethinkers AA group, OR starting an SOS group. I was thinking I might alienate fewer of the local AA’s, if I just went with SOS.

    Have I missed something about SOS? Any thoughts?


    • Roger says:

      Hi Oren: A little over a year ago we posted an article about SOS called What is SOS? It’s Bill White interviewing the founder of SOS, Jim Christopher.

      I would personally encourage you to start an atheist / agnostic AA meeting. That’s something of a trend now, and certainly consistent with the principle (and AA tradition) that all with a desire to stop drinking are welcome in AA. You can get some helpful information right here on AA Agnostica: How to Start an AA Meeting.

  7. Laura M. says:

    Thanks to all, especially groups from Boise, California, and New York, for chairing regular WAAFT meetings during the conference. I, for one, had never been to one, and having that time to check in with my self was great. We barely have begun in Tucson, AZ, and your experience, strength, and hope was inspirational. A special thanks to Deidra of NYC for sharing HOW to get started in one of the sessions. You all are giants in my book! It’s great to know we are not alone!

    • Jennifer A. says:

      Laura, we recently formed an atheist/agnostic/freethinkers group in Phoenix. I had heard there was a meeting in Tucson already. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make the convention but I would love to compare notes with you sometime. You can reach me at waftphoenix@gmail.com.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for all the service fellow alcoholics and particularly to Roger who maintains this space and keeps this just-about-off-the-map member in our virtual magnificent loop. 🙂

  9. Jennifer A. says:

    I wasn’t able to attend the convention so I truly appreciate these reports. Please know that you have all been a huge inspiration to countless AA’s you’ve never met and probably never will. We had already begun organizing an agnostic / atheist / freethinkers group in Phoenix, AZ before we heard about the convention, but just knowing that it was going to happen validated us and gave us renewed determination. Thank you for working to make sure the hand of AA is there when ANYONE reaches out for help, regardless of beliefs or lack thereof. I hope to see you in Austin in 2016!

  10. Brendan O. says:

    Thanks for the interesting and well-written summaries of what was said and congratulations for the inaugural conference. I’m involved in one of the three London agnostic meetings (Angel group, not Angle group by the way! Angel is the name of a neighbourhood) and really wanted to come to Santa Monica and attend but couldn’t afford it. There are only seven agnostic / atheists meetings in the UK so far and it makes me feel less lonely, frankly, reading about the conference.

  11. Mary R says:

    Many, many thanks to all of you who wrote the meeting summaries. Great job, all. And many more thanks to the organizers.

  12. ChiswickMichael says:

    Brendan O is quite right. the correct name of the meetings in London is “Islington Atheist and Agnostic”. They are held on Tuesday and Thursday. The neighbourhood is called “Angel” which is also the name of the tube station.

    On further matters of accuracy my name as author of the report on Relapse Panel is incorrect as Michael C – I am Michael B aka ChiswickMichael.

    In another reference to me at WAAFT convention I was described as Irish born whereas I am an Irishman but I corrected that during my turn at the mic !
    Such matters about me are of little consequence but the correct designation of the two London meetings is most important especially for those travelling to London.

    The WAAFT Convention was a wonderful inspirational and relaxing experience, regardless of it being the first. Personally I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that such an event would take place during my lifetime – a view shared with my good friend Pat N from Olympia, Washington state. I have attended many conventions but this was the most interesting, busy and also ( for me) tiring.

    I am now back in Vancouver and I am looking forward to Sober Agnostics meeting tomorrow evening on 12th Ave.

  13. Alex B. says:

    Every time when at the meeting I feel like a fake because I don’t know G-d, never pray or believed in it. When I read these articles I think “Yeah, I’ve maybe found my answer”. How do I get to WAAFT meeting? Please let me know…

  14. John L. says:

    It was a wonderful conference — history in the making. Thanks to all of those who put it together! Aside from the issues that we debated, I remember the sharing of experiences. One person, new in sobriety, had never before attended a secular AA meeting. A woman was told by her sponsor: “You have two choices: Work the Steps or go out and get drunk.”

    There is a need for WAFT meetings, and a need for us freethinkers to speak up in regular meetings. The sobriety and lives of others are at stake.

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