The Impossible Becomes Possible

Santa Monica Pier

By Roger C.

It was a something of a miracle, if I may be so bold as to use that word.

Almost three hundred women and men gathered in Santa Monica, California, in early November 2014 for the first-ever convention for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers in AA.

It was, at the very least, an historical event for a fellowship that often understands recovery from alcoholism as rooted in a Higher Power most commonly understood as God.

Busy, busy days

The convention lasted three very busy days. Consistent with its theme of Many Paths to Recovery, it was stunningly rich and diverse with fifteen panels, twenty-three workshops, ten speakers and roughly forty back-to-back AA meetings.

The panels generally had from three to eight people on the stage. The first topic was whether or not spirituality was compatible with agnosticism. Arguing against the use of the concept was yours truly, administrator of the AA Agnostica website. In favour of the use of the word were Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbelievers Higher Power, and Reverend Ward Ewing, former Class-A Trustee and Chairman of the General Service Board of AA.

The largest panel dealt with the topic of the de-listing of agnostic meetings by Intergroups. At the time of the convention, there were 200 meetings worldwide for AA members who do not attribute their sobriety to an interventionist deity. Thirty-one of these could not get listed or had been removed from meeting lists by the local Intergroup.

The conclusion of the panel was that in today’s world not listing agnostic groups in AA actually played into the law of unintended consequences. Among other results, the groups had their own websites to list their meetings, all easily found via search engines on the Internet.  Moreover, the de-listing controversies invariably brought other agnostics and atheists out of the closet, to use a tried and true expression, and there was now an explosion of new agnostic AA meetings, with almost a quarter of the two hundred meetings worldwide having been started in the eight months prior to the convention.

Workshops galore

All of the panels and workshops were held on the Friday and Saturday of the convention. Nine workshops were held on Friday with topics such as: “Women in We Agnostics and Free Thinkers (WAFT)”, “Are We Loving and Tolerant?” and “Starting an Agnostic/Atheist Meeting”. On Saturday, there were fourteen workshops! Some of the topics were: “Emotional Sobriety:  The Next Step in Our Recovery”, “What We Can Learn from Other Recovery Groups”, “How Can an Atheist Pray?” and “How to Get Along with Traditional AA”.

It is perhaps worth noting that three of the workshops focused on Buddhism or mindfulness. One was called “Mindfulness in Recovery”; another was labelled “Buddhist Precepts or Vows as They Relate to Recovery”; and the third was called “Mindfulness: Changing Our Neural Pathways for Sobriety”. Indeed, mindfulness – practiced via Buddhism or some version of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program of John Kabat-Zinn – might well be a more contemporary and science-based version of achieving “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” and thus moving towards the fulfillment of the 12 Promises as described by Bill Wilson in the Big Book.

A marathon of meetings

While all of these panels and workshops were taking place, back-to-back agnostic meetings were also being held in other rooms of the convention location, the Unitarian Universalist Church. It was an opportunity to learn how AA meetings for atheists are conducted by groups in places like California, Idaho, Illinois, New York, Vancouver, Toronto, Paris, London and Melbourne.

For those new to meetings without “How It Works” and the Lord’s Prayer, it was quite liberating. As one person described it:

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.

Plain and simple, an agnostic or atheist should not be expected to echo the “God” found in several of the Steps. After all, by the very nature of our beliefs, we try not to lie to ourselves. And as the author of the Steps wrote: “A belief in them (the Steps) as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.” Let’s be clear, though: few of the convention participants want to “change” the original Steps. Those of us who find the Steps helpful, and that is not everybody, simply use our own personal non-theistic interpretations and versions. After all, if God can be “as we understood Him”, then it is not a bit of a stretch to work the Steps as we understand them.

Speak up

There were ten speakers at the convention and they were all wonderful!

John C. described in a lively and engaging fashion the difficulties he encountered as a gay and atheist in traditional AA. He founded three agnostic meetings in Paris, France, and was described as a “beacon of hope” in AA. Ann H. from Santa Monica, California, walked us through how she was able to work the steps as a non-believer with “reasonable and rational thinking” as her higher power. Joan C., the founder of We Agnostics in Maui, Hawaii, felt like she didn’t fit in until she found acceptance and understanding in her own no-prayer home group. Tim M. shared that his attendance at We Agnostics in Los Feliz, California, allowed him to feel honesty and compassion, and enabled him to express without fear and reticence what he believed “brought me alive in my recovery.” Joe C., the founder of Beyond Belief in Toronto, Canada, who kicked off the convention on Thursday morning, said that his respect for both believers and non-believers alike had, over the years, deepened his engagement in the fellowship of AA. Deirdre S. recounted walking into an agnostic meeting in New York and hearing the message that saved her: “This isn’t about God. It’s about showing up and reaching out to others and being of service.”  Finally, Michael B., from the London, UK Angel group, shared a message about relapse, sponsorship and the importance of freethinking in meetings which allows people to share honestly and without fear and thus is crucial to upholding the primary purpose of AA.

These were the seven “fellowship” speakers. And then there were three keynote speakers.

The impossible becomes possible

Marya Hornbacher closed off the first day of the Convention. She talked about the miracle of sobriety and summed it up this way: “I think we sober up by some measure of chance, some measure of hope, some measure of sheer desperation and some measure of faith in the possibility of a new kind of life.” She concluded with a tribute to the Convention and its participants: “I am lucky to have found AA in you”.

On the second day, an inspiring talk was given by the General Manager of the General Service Office (GSO), Phyllis H. Her address emphasized the two central tenets of AA:

  1. That the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and
  2. AA must be as inclusive as possible.

Phyllis remarked that “AA has always been evolving; it is always in a state of becoming” and certainly the convention in Santa Monica was evidence of that reality.

The final speaker, the fellow who ended the Convention, was the Reverend Ward Ewing. By the time he stood up to give his talk the hall was packed. It was a Saturday and standing room only at that point.

Reverend Ewing stands with us in our efforts to gain full acceptance and equal footing within AA. In his remarks, he shared our vision that agnostic, atheist, freethinker and secular meetings should and will inevitably take their place as an integral part of mainstream AA.

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

And that was something we could fully appreciate as participants at the first-ever convention for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers in AA in early November, 2014, in Santa Monica, California.

The featured image for this article is a second photo by Alyssa S. of the piers along the waterfront in Santa Monica. It was taken while she was enjoying a moment of reflection while at the convention. Thank you, Alyssa.

This is the eleventh article published by AA Agnostica on the convention. The other ten are, in order:

24 Responses

  1. Joe C. says:

    Having been keenly interested in AA history and the evolution of the broader 12-Step culture, it was sure nice to be part of history for a change. We Agnostics & Freethinkers International A.A. Conference in Santa Monica may be looked back as a meaningful turning point for Alcoholics Anonymous. Fond memories; looking forward to WAAFT IAAC in Austin Tx, 2016.

    • Ian B says:

      Evolution is the word! It was so very refreshing to see this in action at the convention.

      Bill W.’s thought did not stop evolving in 1939. I admire the BB for its historical magnitude, but for me, just for me, as we move into 2015, I have to view AA through a post-BB lens. Not post-steps, post-BB. The book isn’t getting any less dated with every year that goes by. The pearls of wisdom that can be found in it will still be relevant in 100 years.

  2. Tomm says:

    Good article.

  3. John S. says:

    It will be fun to see how much we’ve grown when we next meet in Austin.

    • Lance B says:

      Thank you for your excellent summary Roger. And also for maintaining this website which has led me to anticipate pleasurably whatever comes every Sunday morning.
      Not only do I look forward to seeing how we may have grown at the 2016 convention, but it seems to me that one of our goals in planning for that convention should be to identify people who are on the fringes of AA due to it’s religiosity.
      Most of us were impressed, I think, by the relatively long term sobriety of those who attended WAAFT IAAC in Santa Monica with most having over 20 years since their last drink. How many, then, were not able to take time off from work for the Thursday thru Saturday schedule or could not afford such a trip in early November.
      I expect this website will continue to identify those people who are, like I was, in AA but just grateful they are allowed to stay during their early years if they don’t create too many waves. There really is a feeling like “coming out” for this man who has always been accepted in every other way than my scientific orientation.
      Austin I think should try for a venue which allows Sunday to be part of our next convention and we also will want to try to find other ways to encourage more borderline WAAFTs to attend. I also, personally, would prefer going south in January/February rather than early November.
      I’ll be in Austin for the 4th year in 2 weeks attending their various nonsectarian meetings.
      With the help of your website, I’m gradually gaining the ability to verbalize where I stand in AA after 30 years of faking it.

      • Sam M says:

        Lance, Please feel free to be in touch when you come to Austin in 2 weeks. I live in San Antonio which is 70 miles away. I’ve been to one secular AA meeting in Austin & would be happy to meet up with you & attend some others. I have several secular AA friends who i bet would like to join me.

        I can’t recall meeting you in Santa Monica but I was only able to attend Thursday – got horribly ill on Friday & missed days 2 & 3. It was still worth it though.

  4. Christopher G says:

    Well done, Roger! Ending the year with a resounding exclamation point with this from you. I am so grateful that, first of all, Marya’s book crossed my path in 2011, followed by seeing Joe’s Beyond Belief musings advertised on the then CAADAC and now CCAPP (California Consortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals) e-newsletter, which in turn led me to your site. Drama junkie and rebel without a clue that I am, the delisting issues being posted early last year ignited my inner passions, and this website has been a constant source of inspiration towards honest and rational free-thinking ever since. “To thine own self be true” has never held more meaning.

  5. Alyssa (soda) says:

    Thanks my friend Roger 4 using my pics. It’s making me feel special on my fuzzy pink cloud. I’m almost 3 years old and I can finally say I’m a happy sober atheist within the rooms of AA.
    Stay tuned for another chat room & the return of soda 🙂 & the old timers.
    C u next year!!

  6. Tommy H says:

    Well done, Roger.

  7. Lance B says:

    Oh, and I am also a little concerned about the probability of fragmenting our voice through more websites like the WAAFT site I’ve become aware of last week. Wouldn’t we be better off hanging together here on aaagnostica?
    Or am I mistaken about that?

    • life-j says:

      I would agree wholeheartedly with that.

    • Pat N. says:

      In my opinion, the two (aaagnostica and WAAFT) serve two purposes. My beloved aaagnostica is the historical/philosophical/networking/archival/organizational nexus for our subculture as a whole. WAAFT will presumably continue to be the vehicle through which biennial conventions can be organized and publicized, a gigantic effort in itself. Aagnostica, being web-based, is easily available worldwide. WAAFT conventions will continue to present challenges for folks having to cross national boundaries, as discussed at the convention in November.
      More will be revealed?

    • Thomas B. says:

      I’m in agreement with Pat here. It’s not a matter of either AA Agnostica or WAAFT Central; hopefully, it can be a synergistic boosting of the energies of both sites in addition to all the individual WAAFT group sites as well as individual websites, such as those by Joe C. and Marya Hornbacker. The more ways we are able to reach out to WAAFTs online the better.

      In the near future, I’ll be posting an article on WAAFT Central discussing the evolution of Portland, Oregon’s Beyond Belief AA group, which celebrated its first anniversary on November 30th.

      Lance, in case you don’t know, there is also the WAAFT Central Coffeeshop on Face Book, where many of us meet and exchange “experience, strength and hope” as well as information relevant to us remaining successfully sober in AA without belief or as agnostics.

      • life-j says:

        I’m out of step with the times I guess, Thomas, but then again, when I tried to sign up on facebook a few years ago as life I was rejected, because they only want people with real names. I then signed up as bob with no problem, but it’s an account that’s not of much use. Anyway, I guess it’s good the facebook stuff is there?

    • Sam M says:

      I too am of the mind there is low risk in dilution of the aaagnostica website. It has already established itself as a phenomenal entity & should continue as a going concern. It’s the vehicle responsible for putting together the only atheist meeting in San Antonio (which started 9/9/14 – and is thriving such that we’re starting the second one next week due to demand).

      My new friend Dave B got my info from the site about 5 months ago & contacted me re: starting a meeting. We used the site for resources on meeting format, literature – conference “approved” and otherwise, website design, flyers, etc. Our 1st meeting had 6 ppl & we’ve consistently grown each week. More & more ppl every week until we had 20 ppl 2 weeks ago.

      The WAAFT organization & website is key w/r/t the actual conference itself and as a channel to grow the AA atheist, agnostic community.

      Just like regular AA conferences such as the young peoples conferences – ICYPPA, WACYPPA, SRCYPAA – they all have their own websites & they function well.

      WAAFT can be a resource for the conference organizers, attendees & share helpful everyday information with aaagnostica as well – links to blogs, literature, articles, meetings, other websites, contacts, FAQs, etc.

  8. Bill G. says:

    Thanks for the site with open thinking. I was just about spit on today over coffee. After our Sunday meeting. For sharing some different ideas for a meeting closing than the Lord’s Pray. With some of our more liberal members. Just like an atheist in a fox hole. No true thinking with out being agnostic. Bill G. 36 yrs clean.

    • Sam M says:

      Stick with it. Keep bringing it up. Be obnoxiously persistent-like Tim Robbins’ character in Shawshank Redemption re: getting the library books.

      Atheists have been integral in AA since before the big book was written. Remind them of or illuminate this fact for them.

      Get support & encouragement from this growing on-line community. When you feel the opposition & get uncomfortable with it, be bouyed by the fact that you 100% speak on behalf of all the desperate, suffering nonbelieving newcomers who might otherwise be turned off so badly by the god-talk they might not reach out for the helpful recovery AA offers.

      It’s all about the newcomers & sharing the message. We’ve got to give it away to keep it, etc., etc., etc.. Trite but so true.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Thank you Roger. Just a thought for the next convention, would Skype (or further evolution of technology) be available, at some reasonable cost of course. I hesitate to go back to the US as a couple of years ago in NY I was harassed mercilessly (I’m an elder) by Homeland Security. Even thinking about that experience gives me chills today. So I’ve been avoiding travelling in the US.
    Thanks again for your insight and reporting.

    No longer alone. Indeed.

  10. Thomas B. says:

    An excellent way to end an excellent year for the WAAFT movement. Thanks Roger again for this article so effectively summarizing the Convention and for the leadership you provide here on AA Agnostica for the WAAFT movement. Also, thanks Alyssa for another outstanding photograph which effectively captures the awe that each of us experienced in lovely Santa Monica

    Like many of us who were able to attend the first International AA Conference for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers, I also feel most privileged to have been a part of this significant milestone event in AA’s history.

  11. Tim M says:

    What a wonderful summary! Convention coverage here has been uniformly excellent. I’ve certainly found it personally helpful. As to the proliferation of similar sites, I see no harm in it. I’ve bookmarked this site and will continue to visit regularly. Let many flowers bloom. Each site will no doubt find a special niche to occupy. And, in any case, I wouldn’t want to see an editor of Roger’s independence and perspicacity tied down by narrow organizational purposes. I expect AA Agnostica will continue to be the font of original and thought-provoking material it has always been.

  12. Jack S. says:

    I am new to this site and love it! I look forward to reading and participating here. Thanks to all for this treasure… Jack

    • Sam M says:

      Welcome Jack. It’s a great site. Has been an immense blessing for me since I found it over a year ago – if you’ll pardon the term. (Can an atheist be blessed? If yes, who does the blessing? Hmmmm, language is tricky.)

      I’ve found great resources & like-minded folks. Allows me to feel less isolated in the rooms, esp since over the last several years in sobriety I’ve become more outspoken in meetings regarding my beliefs, esp my rejection of an intervening, anthropomorphic deity, which – despite the lip service to “your own conception” of HP – seems to be the prevailing one. At least here in San Antonio, where I’ve lived since 2012. There’s so much god-talk in meetings I “bristle with antagonism” at an alarming, serenity-disturbing rate.

      Thanks to this site, Ive met some local people & we started up an agnostic meeting. Problem solved.

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