Atheists and agnostics in AA will never give up on our fellowship

Santa Monica

This article was initially published in the Camel Courier, the newsletter for District 11 (Area 34) in Northern Michigan.

By Eric C.

In October of this year, a federal court ordered the State of California and a treatment center working under contract for the state to award nearly $2 million to a man who declined to participate in a 12-step recovery program because of its religious nature.

The man had been imprisoned for his refusal to engage in activities such as prayer that were required by the 12-step treatment center. The federal court determined that the man’s religious freedom rights under the First Amendment had been violated. Similar cases have been springing up all over the U.S. in recent years.

The court rulings may eventually affect the ability of courts throughout the U.S. to sentence people to attend AA meetings and may inhibit the flow of newcomers into the fellowship. This is not yet a matter of settled law; and Michigan is not located within the federal district where the most definitive court ruling was recently made.

AA’s General Service Office in New York is acutely aware of the recent court rulings, according to its manager, Phyllis H. At the first-ever We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention held last month in Santa Monica, Calif., Phyllis acknowledged that several recent court decisions around the U.S. have found that AA is in fact “religious” and not simply “spiritual” as A.A. has long asserted.

Those determinations were based primarily on language contained in the Big Book and other AA literature as well as the practices of many AA groups around the U.S. and treatment centers offering 12-step recovery programs.

“We don’t want to do anything that makes people think that AA is a religion,” Phyllis said. She added that the GSO and its attorneys were paying close attention to the court cases, but no official A.A. action is contemplated because the court cases are an “outside issue” and “the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy”, according to our 10th Tradition.

You may have seen last month’s We Agnostics and Freethinkers International A.A. Convention listed in the AA Grapevine’s official calendar of AA events or even seen announcements about it right here in the Camel Courier. I had the honor and privilege of joining about 300 fellow AA members from all over the world at the convention, Nov. 6-8. AA members from as far away as Australia, Turkey, France and Spain attended along with contingents of recovering drunks from Canada and roughly half of the 50 United States, including this alcoholic from Michigan.

With 31 years of continuous sobriety in AA, I felt like a newcomer among some of the convention attendees who had years and even decades longer in sobriety than I do. Most significant, however, was the fact that almost none of the AA members who attended the convention believe in God. That includes me, of course.

Atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular humanists – no matter how they label themselves – these men and women are living proof that AA can and does work for any alcoholic who meets the only requirement for membership in AA, a desire to stop drinking.

Like all other AA conventions, this one featured a variety of speakers, panels, workshops and discussion meetings. Panel topics ranged from spirituality to relapse, to varying interpretations of the 12 suggested steps.

One panel consisted of a report from four atheist/agnostic members of AA who had served as official delegates to AA’s General Service Conference. Workshops focused on issues ranging from AA literature to meditation, to suggestions about how to start “secular” AA meetings and groups at the local level.

In addition, AA meetings throughout the convention were non-stop. The meetings were hosted by various We Agnostics AA groups from around the world and were conducted just as they would be at home to demonstrate the meetings’ various formats. Discussions often focused on issues the We Agnostics groups faced in dealing with other AA groups and their local AA service structure.

With 33 years of sobriety, Phyllis H. was the convention’s honorary speaker. The presence and participation of the manager of AA’s General Service Office at the convention underscored the legitimacy and support the We Agnostics movement has within AA as a whole. Quoting AA co-founder Bill W., Phyllis credited atheists and agnostics for “widening the gateway of recovery for all regardless of their beliefs or lack of belief.”

Ward Ewing

A keynote speaker at the convention was considered a controversial choice by many of the atheists and agnostics present. An ordained Episcopal minister, the Very Reverend Ward Ewing for nine years served as a Class A (non-alcoholic) Trustee with AA’s General Service Office and is a Chairman Emeritus of AA’s General Service Board. The Rev. Ewing did not disappoint. “I am strongly opposed to religion creeping into AA,” Ewing said. “There is only one criterion for membership in AA and we have to keep these doors open wide.”

Ewing acknowledged that certain parts of AA literature are at best condescending towards atheists and agnostics if not downright disparaging of them. These include Dr. Bob’s story in the Big Book in which Bob says he feels “sorry” for atheists and agnostics whose “intellectual pride” prevents them from accepting God. Of course, Dr. Bob was sober only a few years when he wrote those words compared to today’s atheists and agnostics in AA, many of whom have been happily sober more than 10 times longer than Dr. Bob was.

In addition, Chapter Four of the Big Book, “We Agnostics” is, ironically, quite offensive to many atheists and agnostics. For example, in the so-called “chapter to the agnostic” Bill W. flatly asserts that God “has come to all who have honestly sought Him.”

However, the experiences of many thousands of honest, open-minded and willing-to-believe atheists and agnostics in AA since 1939 have proven that Bill’s assertion is simply false.

“I have never liked Chapter Four,” the Rev. Ewing declared. Ewing’s declaration was met with relieved laughter and thunderous applause from some 300 atheist and agnostic alcoholics listening intently to his address. “This is the first gathering of AA I have ever attended where I felt I could openly admit that; and it feels great!” Ewing added.

During a business meeting at the convention, a board of directors and officers were elected to form a permanent, non-profit organization which will fund and administer biennial conventions of atheists and agnostics in AA. It was decided that the title of the organization should include the word “atheist,” so the new name of the organization is the” We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention.”

A second biennial convention is already being planned for 2016 in Austin, Texas.

About the Author: Eric C., who has 31 years of sobriety in AA, resides in Lake Leelanau with his wife, Gail C., who has 24 years of sobriety in AA. They have two teenage children. Eric has worked as a local newspaper reporter since 1998 following a 25 year career in the U.S. Marine Corps as a combat correspondent and a public affairs officer. He is a veteran of Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and Somalia.

The featured image for this article is a photo by Alyssa S. of the piers along the waterfront in Santa Monica. It was taken while she was taking a moment to reflect while at the convention.

25 Responses

  1. larry k says:

    Great article…I wish I had been able to attend.

  2. Roger says:

    Eric made it clear to me that anyone could republish his article. Go for it Rich!

  3. Rich H says:

    Eric, can I have permission to reprint the convention article in our local AA newsletter, The Maui Serenity Gazette? It is due for publication today. By the way I am the newsletter publisher and the Central Office/Intergroup manager on Maui. I automatically list any new group as long as it has no outside affiliations.

  4. Mike K. says:

    I am so glad I found this site! I live in western Massachusetts. I am not aware of any Atheist/free thinking meetings in my area. I may have to change that. This is like a breath of fresh air. Thank you!

  5. MarkInTexas says:


    I think I would demand that Intergroup decision in writing.


  6. Garry U. says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I will encourage others to listen to it. It was an excellent speech and concluded the convention nicely. His comment on chapter four brought down the house. Some in my home group were appalled that a clergyman was to be the keynote speaker at the convention. An understandable sentiment. I think it turned out to be a great choice. Not because he is a clergyman but because he is an honest man and an ally for sure.

  7. Chris R. says:

    We Agnostic Kansas City has posted Rev. Ewing’s speech at the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International A.A. Convention on November 8, 2014.

    Sad that it only has 20 views so far…

  8. larry k says:

    Well done…thanks!

  9. daniel says:

    I think what we get away from in the program is that it’s not what I believe or don’t believe but it’s what I do. The reason AA is a spiritual program is that I am here to practice spiritual principles, the principles of honesty, open mindedness, willingness, etc. and these principles are the only things that have not changed over the ages. Cheers, Daniel.

  10. Tom D says:

    Thanks for writing this article, Eric. I’ve always enjoyed your writing. Thanks for covering this topic.

  11. VeganSyd says:

    Thank you for this news; I can’t tell you how welcome Agnostica and the agnostic AA meetings are to me at this time — 41 years sober. I’m announcing the Portland agnostic meetings wherever I can, and people are delighted to know of such a thing!

  12. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Eric, an excellent summation of the historic Conference for We WAAFTs in Santa Monica last month. I especially appreciate you starting the article by referring to the recent court case awarding significant damages to the man jailed for non-compliance with his 12-step program. It raises the stakes considerably for treatment centers, who only provide 12-step-oriented treatment. I’ll be most interested to see how treatment centers, including the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation – creator in 1949 of the widespread Minnesota Model for addiction treatment that relies heavily on integration of addicts into the 12 Steps – respond to this legal reality.

    I also greatly appreciate your focus on the remarks of both Phyllis H. and Ward Ewing. They provide powerful resources for We WAAFTs to utilize – with loving tolerance of course – in our discussions/debates with folks still stuck in 20th Century ideology of what AA is or, in their hallowed opinion, should be. I am most grateful for the “trusted servant” leadership of such folks, who recognize the legitimacy of our movement to stay within AA.

    Tonight I attend the District Meeting for the Portland Oregon Beyond Belief group that I serve as the GSR. I’m so grateful to have this article and others on AA Agnostica to refer to in reporting to them about the conference.

    I, too, am most hopeful about our growing ability to stay in AA and still be truthful to our non-believing or doubting selfs. In addition, I think I’ll write a similar article for the Portland, Oregon Intergroup Office monthly newsletter – thank you for this positive power of example.

  13. Tommy H says:

    I am curious what actually goes on when a Central Office/InterGroup decides not to list a meeting, who actually makes the decision.

    My experience with a Central Office was in Baton Rouge and I was intimately involved in its operation. The office was run by the Central Office Committee, COC, which consisted of three officers – Chair, Secretary, Treasurer – and three at-large committee members. These committee members were elected by the Central Office Representatives, which came from each group which cared to participate. The CORs met monthly and were the liaison between the CO and the groups.

    The COC hired and fired the office employees.

    Altho it never happened while I was involved, I was both a COR, alternate committee member, and treasurer, it would be the committee, using feedback from the CORs and office mgr, who makes the decision not to list a meeting. I came to find out that fairly recently they refused to list a Back to Basics meeting. I am not sure who decided that and on what basis, altho I am sure I could come up with some good scenarios. I’ll try to find out.

    So, any ideas out there who actually makes the decision(s) not to list a meeting?


  14. Roger says:

    They insist upon the Lord’s Prayer? Forgive them their trespasses…

  15. Chris G says:

    The timing of this post could not be better! Just today, I learned from my home group’s GSR that he had been in touch with our local Intergroup (District 13, Niagara South, Ontario, Canada). He was told that our group could not “join” the Intergroup (whatever that means, as we are already on their list) unless we used the LP, among other things, in our meetings.

    Now this is very interesting, since it is a meditation meeting, not an agnostic meeting per se. The only prayer we use is the Serenity Prayer, we read from Beyond Belief as well as As Bill Sees It and One Day at a Time. I’m the only Atheist there, I think, but the group simply does not focus on religion, only meditation. Yet here we go with the LP crap.

    I’ll make sure this post gets to that person at the Intergroup office.

  16. Tommy H says:

    I love the “Living proof” example.

    Thanks for saying it.

  17. John M. says:

    Excellent review of what took place in Santa Monica, Eric!

    I really like your title — “Atheists and agnostics in AA will never give up on our fellowship” — its message baffles the crap out of some of our “believer” friends in AA who think we should leave the fellowship and form our own secular program.

    But it especially confounds the anti-AA crowd who likewise think that we should leave AA and form our own program, or who are simply amused by us agnostics, atheists, and free thinkers in that, for them, we certainly cannot have thought deeply, consistently and well enough to justify our wanting to remain within the fellowship — aah… but perhaps the onus on “thinking well enough” does not reside exclusively with us.

  18. Garry U. says:

    Excellent synopsis of the convention. Thank you for doing this. I wonder if at some point the official admission and inclusion of Atheist and Agnostics in AA will temper the court’s judgement as to whether we are a religious organization. I’ve always thought that being able choose your own higher power made AA unique among all religions. But then there is the bait and switch clause that kind of walks that back. Our official acceptance will have to come from the bottom of the inverted pyramid. My optimism is growing. Maybe we can get a story in the next edition of the BB or even an Appendix VII.

  19. Jack says:

    Count me in for the next convention. A breath of fresh air has blown into my AA program!

  20. Faith R says:

    Nice article. Having Phyllis H. and Rev. Ward E. as speakers reduced my fear of trying to start a meeting. Have run into some opposition, but am continuing my efforts as are a small cadre of people we’d have as members.

  21. Patrick W. says:

    Wonderful to be reading these words. Movement is gaining momentum and going forwards. About time too.

  22. Christopher G says:

    A great synopsis of the convention! We are definitely here to stay and not giving up on OUR fellowship!! I’ve been identifying of late as, “Living proof that you don’t have to drink alcohol to be alcoholic”. I’m considering saying now, “Living proof you don’t have to believe in anything to stay happily sober”. Which of course I have “conference approved” literature to support it if necessary.(12+12 pg. 26)
    Thanks, Eric!

  23. Harold Y says:

    Thank you Eric. At 28 years sober I felt so at home at the convention. You brought back many good memories of this wonderful event. See you in Austin 🙂

  24. Russ H says:

    Nice job, Eric. I didn’t realize that the WAFT convention was mentioned in AA Grapevine. I know some of us have written and submitted articles to the Grapevine as a result of the WAFT Convention. Let’s hope they pick one for publication. That would be great.


  25. Adam N. says:

    Nicely written, and I enjoyed your references to Ward Ewing and Chapter 4! I enjoyed the conference a great deal. Thanks!

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