A New Agnostic AA Group and a Hat Tip to Unitarians
By Dave B.
I spent 35 years as a functional alcoholic. By that, I mean I didn’t drink before or during work, but after 5 pm I drank about a pint of bourbon almost every day. Whatever I did after work was accompanied by liquor, usually Southern Comfort, including driving. Then in 2013, I got that long overdue DUI. It was suggested to me (imposed on me, that is) that I go to rehab and sign on with a certain professional agency created just for guys like me, requiring random urine screens, twice a day breathalyzers, AA meetings, and a few other fun obligations, for 5 years.
My sobriety date is Sept 7, 2013 – the day I entered rehab. I was introduced to the 12 steps there and I immediately noticed its godliness and redundancy. I decided I could easily edit it down to 6 steps (later, I found out Bill W had started with six). A speaker at a large meeting I attended introduced me to “Don’t drink, no matter what”. I’m not above using slogans, and I latched on to that one. At rehab, I was accused of boiling the 12 steps down to just one. Eventually, however, I ended up liking several of the steps, especially 1 and 4 – but not all 12 – and I liked AA, especially the good friends I’d made, religious or not. I decided to take AA at their word: “Take what you like and leave the rest”. If I had to continually reword a step in order to believe in it and rely on it, why not toss it? I later met several committed AA members with decades of sobriety who hadn’t used the steps at all nor had some even had a sponsor.
When I got out of rehab, I did 90 meetings in 90 days and tried to figure out how to handle the religiosity. Mainly, I’d get bored and irritated and not want to share – which is bad. After my obligation dropped to 4 meetings a week, I decided if I was going to get my full dollar’s worth out of a meeting without letting a resentment start to seed, I’d have to form an agnostic group. I considered trying to start a SMART meeting or an SOS meeting (both secular-based recovery programs), but I came to believe there was something special about AA – a certain power. Not only that, AA is everywhere and stood a greater chance of success. My decision toward AA was confirmed when the monitoring agency decided not to accept non-12 step programs.
AA Agnostica introduced me to three other kindred spirits in San Antonio and I found one on my own. All had far more sobriety that I did, and all were atheists like me. First, we had to find a place to meet. A few years ago, two of them had attended a short-lived agnostic group in San Antonio. They had met at a popular designated AA spot that hosted a lot of meetings. Somehow, they felt conspicuous (in their non-belief) and ostracized and the group fizzled after a few months. With that knowledge, we looked for the closest Unitarian Church.
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Unitarian Universalism, or Unitarianism, is a liberal religion characterized by a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. The name “Unitarian” stems from rejection of the notion of the “Trinity”. Unitarians purposely don’t have a creed – a characteristic I appreciate. To me, that means they’re not wasting their time splitting hairs over meaningless issues that can never be proven either way, for lack of evidence. Instead, they are unified by their shared regard for intellectual freedom.
The theology of individual Unitarians ranges widely and includes Humanism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Pantheism, Deism, Christianity, Judaism, Neopaganism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many more. Members may or may not self-identify as Christians or subscribe to Christian beliefs. Each member is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues such as the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife.
UUs see no contradiction in open Atheists and Agnostics being members of their community. Many of them reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the “spirit of life” that binds all life on earth.
Since they are without creed or dogma, many Unitarians make use of their seven “Principles and Purposes” as guides for living their faith. The Principles are as follows:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
They don’t hold the Bible – or any other account of human experience – to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. They openly admit that much biblical material is mythical or legendary – not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is and should be read as we read other books – with imagination and a critical eye.
Unitarians also respect the sacred literature of other religions, contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary. They believe all religions can coexist if viewed with the concept of love for one’s neighbor and for oneself. Members who do not believe in a particular text or doctrine are encouraged to respect it as a historically significant literary work that should be viewed with an open mind. It is intended that in this way, individuals from all religions or spiritual backgrounds could live peaceably.
I didn’t know all this about them at the time, but I knew they were liberal. I called the Unitarian Church in San Antonio and made an appointment. It was a church, so I got myself ready for rejection – projecting a dialogue in my mind where I’d be asked a question like, “Why should our house of God want to rent space to a bunch of heathens?” I prepared a “defense of atheism” speech.
“Hi, I’m Dave B,” I stammered, “and my group wants to use one of your rooms for an agnostic AA meeting.”
“I’m Mary”, said Mary. She smiled, stuck out her hand and said, “and I’ll be glad to help you make that happen.” This was going better than expected.
I tried to get it for free, but Mary hammered out a hard bargain: a dollar a head per meeting. Then she presented me with a half-page contract. I left shortly thereafter with a signed contract, a room key, and a smile on my face.
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Armed with information from How to Start a Meeting from AA Agnostica, I called and emailed the other four charter members and gave them the time and place.
Our first meeting had several decisions to make:
- For a name, one of us five hated “We Agnostics” because he thought that Big Book chapter was so condescending. He also preferred the word “secular”. We settled on the name “Mostly Agnostics” – a kinder, gentler name, stolen from the “Orlando Mostly Agnostic Group of Drunks”. We wanted a name that would readily identify us as not religious but didn’t identify us as overtly hateful.
- To avoid having district listing problems, and because some of our group are very loyal to AA official literature, we voted to officially accept the 12 steps without change. Any member, of course, could adjust his/her own program to suit, as per in any AA meeting. Like I said earlier, I know some very dedicated AAs who love the fellowship, who’ve been happily sober for decades, but who’ve never done the steps at all or even had a sponsor.
- Although we had one touchy-feely member, we voted not to hold hands, nor to have prayers (a no-brainer), and to say the Responsibility Pledge together to end the meetings. A good option or addition would have been a non-prayer version of the Serenity Prayer, but nobody brought it up. We had a lot to cover.
- Finally, we ended up with 13 organizational assignments – among them, arranging district listing and worldwide AA agnostics listing. Fortunately, I had plenty of volunteers, so I only ended up with four of them. I didn’t want this to be “Dave’s meeting” and the others were anxious to take ownership of the new group.
Within a week or so, I contacted the “Orlando Mostly Agnostic Group of Drunks” by an email link on their website to own up to our theft of their name. A contact person emailed back within minutes. Before long, we were talking by phone. Turned out, he wasn’t satisfied with just sharing their name. He was kind enough to also let us plagiarize their website – and helped me do it. We soon had a beautiful website, up and running, thanks to my AA friend in Orlando.
By the fifth month, we were having between 10 and 20 enthusiastic members every Tuesday night, but some of us wanted another night – so we expanded. We now have a Monday night meeting, as well.
I tell this story in order to demonstrate to anyone who is interested just how easy it can be to start an agnostic group in a large city. All I had to do was follow the directions from AA Agnostica, be there, and make sure things ran smoothly – you know – Available, Affable, Affordable. Other members chipped in and started taking over. Most all of the members and visitors, at one time or another, have voiced their appreciation for an AA meeting where they don’t have to get irritated, pretend, or otherwise tolerate a religious atmosphere they don’t believe in. Although parts of some meetings evolve into anti-godly rhetoric, why not? Where else could they vent? This is the proper forum for that and one of our roles. Mostly though, our meetings proceed just like any other meeting.
Whenever we see previously unknown faces – which is almost every meeting – I always ask them how they found out about us. We are in the UU Church bulletin, the district listing, the worldwide listing, and we have a flyer – the first page of our website. About every 2 months, I take new fliers to the meetings and they promptly get distributed to bulletin boards at other meeting sites. Mostly, they stay up. About 75% of our visitors come from our district listing. The other 25% come from various sources, including all the above, but this demonstrates how important the district listing is and how crucial it is to stay on good terms with the powers that be. I understand that can be harder in some locations but will no doubt become easier as agnostic groups become more commonplace in our fellowship.
Good luck in starting your meeting and many thanks to AA Agnostica from the members of Mostly Agnostics AA of San Antonio for the superb assistance they provided in getting us started.
Dave B. is a physician who is pleased and proud to have been sober now for over eighteen months. He achieved nonbeliever status during his senior year at an ultra-religious college. Since then, he claims, “the longer I live, the more it looks like nobody’s watching.” He and his Catholic wife have six kids, all married and productive, for which he is grateful. He takes as much credit for their success as his wife will let him.