Eric’s Talk – Our We Agnostics Meeting

Microphone

By Eric C.

At the one We Agnostics meeting of AA anywhere within a three-hour drive of Traverse City, Michigan, we’re lucky if we have a dozen people in attendance on any given Friday at 7 p.m.

That’s why I thought it would be a good idea for me to sign up as a speaker at the weekly AA “open speaker meeting” in the conference room of the regional medical center serving our community. With about 200 people in the room every Saturday at 8 p.m., it’s the largest single gathering of drunks any night of the week in our part of the state – fertile ground for spreading the word about our We Agnostics meeting and possibly bolstering attendance.

Many of those attending the hospital meeting are drug and alcohol rehab patients. Some are bused in from local halfway houses and treatment centers. A high percentage is there to get their court slips signed.

Interspersed among all the newcomers, of course, are the usual cadre of middle-aged mostly Christian white people with years of sobriety. A subset of those, I knew, feel responsible for protecting AA from the evil influence of those who don’t believe in “real” AA – whatever that is.

So, I had them in mind, too, when I began to brainstorm exactly what I would say in my talk weeks before I was scheduled to appear on March 14, 2015. I was grateful for some extra time to think it through.

The last time I’d been the featured speaker at a meeting a little closer to home was on the occasion of my 30th anniversary of sobriety in AA.  I took that occasion to announce to my local AA community that I had decided finally to “come out” as someone who explicitly does not believe in God – an atheist.

In retrospect, I know I could and should have done a better job of preparing for that 2013 talk. I’d decided that having a general outline of what I wanted to say in the form of notes in front of me at the meeting would suffice – just as it had on many other occasions when I’d related my “drunk-a-log”.

But I’d hoped to accomplish more at that meeting than just relate the usual anecdotes about what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. I wanted to explain to my fellows in AA how I’d managed to stay sober for three decades without believing in God or buying in to all the religious nonsense in AA.

My off-the-cuff explanation failed miserably however. In fact, it still embarrasses me to listen to a crummy recording someone made for me of that 2013 talk. Some in my tiny, rural community were scandalized by what I said and haven’t treated me the same since.

Around the same time, I made a commitment to help keep a young and floundering We Agnostics meeting alive in Traverse City, about 20 miles from where I actually live, and make it my new  “home group.”

In the two years since then, I have given much more thought to the question of how you convince people in “mainstream” AA – whatever that is – to not only be more tolerant but actually show some support for AA’s burgeoning We Agnostics movement.

That’s why I did not use a loose outline to deliver my talk on March 14, 2015. I wrote out a full, word-for-word script that I would deliver. I measured my words very carefully.  This, after all, was not an occasion for me simply to tell a few anecdotes about my life as an alcoholic. I was trying to persuade people to begin thinking in a different way about AA – and at the same time recruit people who might be interested in attending our We Agnostic meeting.

If you care to, you can view the entire script I used by clicking here: Our We Agnostics Meeting – PDF.

And if you’d rather hear all 39 minutes of my talk – recorded live at the meeting itself – you can click here: Our We Agnostics Meeting – MP3.

What’s not apparent from either my written script or the audio file is a sense of how the whole thing actually ended up. There wasn’t really time for a Q&A at the end as I had hoped. But what really surprised me was how the meeting did end.

After I was done speaking, the guy who opens and closes the meeting suggested they close the meeting with a recitation of the AA Responsibility Declaration instead of “in the usual manner” with the Lord’s Prayer. That was pretty gratifying.

We’ll see if any new people start showing up at our We Agnostics meeting.


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Eric’s Talk – Our We Agnostics Meeting — 31 Comments

  1. I hope you got a standing ovation (but I’ll bet you didn’t). Many thanks for a well written, well spoken, clear and comprehensive description of how many of us feel in the rooms. I was raised Catholic – never really bought into it although I attended Catholic schools all my life and was even a member of the church choir. I thought maybe everyone secretly felt silly talking to an imaginary friend after the age of 7. I’ve stayed sober in AA for over 25 years and when disaster strikes, it doesn’t occur to me to pray, but I make a beeline for the phone and a meeting. People keep people sober. When I share my feelings I get some dirty looks, some incredulous looks, and some turned backs, but I have resigned from the debating society and am trying to practice honesty in my daily life. Thank you again.

  2. Honest, succinct and inspiring. Thank you for sharing your experience. I will be passing along your message to those who think they can’t recover without religion or a deity.

  3. Thank you so much Eric for this succint and meaningful (and brave) talk.

    I feel so very hopeless at times in this AA sea of Christianity. I had one supporter on my suggestion to close with the RP and now he has reverted (I am sure under pressure) to the LP and I am finding it more and more difficult to listen to the “I owe my sobriety to the myth” from all around the table with a sidelong glance at me to wake up and smell the coffee.

    This online group is my lifeline.

  4. I haven’t had a drink in 3 days. I have been to 4 meetings. Today, in the meeting, I mentioned that I am an agnostic atheist. I heard partial collective groan and one woman – I think it was the meeting leader – made a spitting noise!

    There is no agnostic meeting in my area, and I am in no position to pick up the ball to start one right now. When I left that meeting today, I got the “fuckits”, and figured, “Why even bother to go back?” The only reason I picked the meeting cite I did is because it’s the only place I can get to that’s not in a church – it’s a 4.5 mile walk for me, and I don’t drive. I’ll walk 9 miles to go to and get home from a meeting, but this shit..?

    Anyway, I”m SO glad I found this article! I’m going to go print out a picture of Jimmy Burwell (Jimmy B.) and put it on the wall somewhere in my office. He’s now my hero!

    I live in Michigan, far from TC, but I hope to meet Eric C., someday and thank him.

    • Hang in there dude. It works if you work it. Keep going to meetings. Don’t drink & go to meetings. Even if you do drink, keep going back. Even if you dont want to. There’s a very large atheist/agnostic AA community you can tap into – albeit not in person.

      One of the pioneering/founding members of AA, Jim Burwell, died w 30+ years of sobriety – a staunch atheist until his dying day. Atheists in AA are everywhere, and we always have been. Its just we are under-represented in “AA aproved” literature, and it’s not common knowledge in the rooms. There’s no requirement to pass a ‘History of AA’ class to be a member. Otherwise I suspect we’d be more recognized & appreciated.

      I’m providing my contact information to Roger (aaagnostica.org manager). He will give it to you if you ask for it. Please call me anytime. I’m more than happy to speak with you. It helps me just as much if not more to talk with people new in sobriety. You are the most important person in this (virtual) room.

      In the meantime, keep going to the god meetings, in spite of their (at times) awfulness. Find things you have in common with believers. It’s not hard. We all suffer from the disease of alcoholism/addiction. We all have compassion. We’re all humans trying to live healthy lives.

      Good luck.

      Take care,
      Sam

  5. Eric,
    I am so glad I took the time this morning to listen to your excellent presentation in full. There wasn’t a single program cliché in evidence and the clarity of your remarks was truly indicative of a productive and fruitful sobriety which is, after all, AA at maximum.

    It must have been your inherent discipline as a member of the military that got you though those endless streams of “Vern’s” as you have moved through the AA world.

    I have mostly been fortunate enough here in the Washington Area (just a mile or so from the old Bethesda Naval you mentioned now Walter Reed, first finding a meeting downtown in 1987 filled with those dreaded liberals and then early on our We Agnostics group here) avoiding old Vern but I do realize that he’s around even here.

    In our own way we are beginning to counter Vern’s ubiquitous message with a rational discourse of our own but Vern is quite resilient and there will be a major struggle with him before we are through. Like it or not lines are being drawn and the program has become less rather than more inclusive in the past two decades or so thus the stagnation in our membership and the aging AA demographic.

    Clear and well wrought presentations such as yours are really a major contribution to the reversal of current trends.

  6. Terrific story, and I agree about the danger of a hardline application of the Big Book’s message. The story of how they tried to make the first edition more inclusive is told in The Book That Started It All (Hazelden), e.g. taking out prescriptive language. They were only partly successful but there are nuances and subtleties even in that primitive text, e.g. “may you find Him now” is an invitation not an order, and “no one of us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles” suggests the pioneers were unable to apply the program rigidly as some current members insist we should. There’s no doubt the 1930s book would read very differently if written today, after all even Bill W’s ideas evolved; he wrote in 1949 “every AA has the privilege of interpreting the program as he likes”, which would horrify the today’s Taliban tendency.

    • Laurie… great points about the first 100 who wrote the book. In reading Bill’s story… he worked the steps in the hospital in 3 days! lol

      Look at us now. We’ve turned working the steps into a 2 or 3 year process.

      And Dr. Bob had been drinking in the morning of the day he decided to do his amends. With NO preparation he wandered around town that afternoon, did his amends and he never drank again.

      I like the idea that enlightenment includes that I “ligten up”.

      Live and Let Live,
      Suzanne

  7. Eric,

    Candid and fair; bravo. It’s not what we say as much as how we say it. You don’t attack anything, you aren’t on a recruitment campaign. You are just unabashedly telling you’re story. Sure, anyone can be offended if they have a chip on their shoulder. But what theist couldn’t take what they like and leave the rest from your story. It’s Experience, Strength and Hope at it’s core.

    Very thoughtful, very nice.

    Joe C.

    • I’m new to AAA but what strikes me most is how important this message is for NEWCOMERS to AA.

      Personally, if religion and finding God worked, we wouldn’t need AA. But to me that’s not the real issue. As alcoholics we need a solution and we can’t figure it out on our own. AA works.

      So again many thanks Eric. You have no idea whose hope you’ve become.
      Hugs,
      Suzanne

    • Once again, Joe, your economy of words has hit the nail on the head. I echo your sentiments, and applaud Eric’s courage and commitment.

  8. I think the primary thing that prevented a lynching was respect for your service in the United States Marine Corps.

  9. Wow! Outta the park! OOORAAAH!!! Clearly, not “the importance of being Vern-est” – ha! I hope you don’t mind me making cd copies for distribution to fellow waafties. BTW I was in Quantico ’67-’69 doing my ‘research’.

  10. Can’t thank you enough. Wonderfully thought out and crafted. It is so important that people in the rooms hear this message. Lives depend upon it.

    BTW, the only thing I didn’t like is the use of the term “religious nonsense.” The whole thing was beautifully designed to win hearts and minds, and that does the opposite by insulting people who do believe.

  11. Thanks you so much for adding the link to the audio… there’s nothing like hearing the actual spoken word! I’ve been an active member of AA since 1996, but as of the last 2 months my cognitive dissonance has grown too strong. I’m at a fork in the road where I either leave AA behind or “come out” as a sober atheist. Your share showed me that you CAN speak your truth without being unnecessarily confrontational. While I’m still very much on the fence about staying/leaving meetings, I truly appreciate your share.

  12. Eric… Thank you for your article and the links to your share in pdf and audio. There are so many things I appreciate about what you shared at the AA meeting.

    Most important in my opinion, is you worked the steps, have benefited from the AA fellowship and are sober for decades and OBTW an agnostic! You are proof the program isn’t about finding God. Your life has gotten better and better because you’ve learned how to take advantage of what AA has to offer. And you have the ability to articulate it in an attractive way.

    I suspect the AA Christian Coven seems worse as we’ve experienced the growth of this right wing fundamentalism. As you point out 25% of the US population is falling out of religion and into agnosticism.

    For newcomers I think the worst parts of the Big Book are the sentences that make it sound like you’ll never be able to recover or stay sober unless you find God!

    When I was a newcomer and read that I literally jumped in my car and started church shopping! Seriously! I was out trying to find God.

    Like you I was so desperate, step one had taken me, so I was willing to do whatever the Big Book and my sponsor said. Fortunately, my sponsor was Buddhist and she helped me work the steps with the approach that the “spiritual experience” doesn’t occur in steps 1, 2 or 3… it’s a result of working these 12 steps. So I just worked the steps as thoroughly as possible with the idea that God would reveal himself to me along the way! Well he never did and like you I experienced the benefits of this introspective process.

    I walked out of an AA meeting the other day, recoiling like from a hot flame, thinking “I’m sure glad I got mine 18 years ago” because I might be one of those who would walk out and not come back if I were a newcomer today.

    Like you I am a recovered alcoholic in my 18th year. I don’t struggle, I haven’t had one urge to pick up that first drink despite the fact that I never found God.

    In practicing my 11th step I found Buddhist meditation and instruction to become my AA part B. I’m not a Buddhist but I have grown in usefulness and effectiveness as well as happiness through the process of mindfulness.

    So many thanks for writing and speaking. This is so necessary in the effort to make the hand of AA available to each and everyone of us. I’ve put a copy of your share in my AA folder and will be passing it on.

    Live and let live,
    Suzanne

  13. Just wanted to say “thank you, thank you, thank you.” Having written a long comment and forgotten to enter the math quiz, I emoted so strongly that I have no energy left to rethink it. But Sunday and Wednesday have become my favorite days to get up early and discover once again how creative and interesting we all are.

    I’ve been shortchanged in AA for 30 years. Even learned how to get others to feel esprit when I was getting a half measure.

    It would have been good had your post/talk arrived before I gave my own “coming out” in December to our district in SE Montana.

    We had our first WAAFT meeting this week (two of us) using the format from Sam’s group in San Antonio in part. The closest non religious meeting of which I’m aware is 500 miles from here. If you chance to be traveling I-94 and reach Montana from the East on Sunday morning please join us. I’ll even bring you to the “normal” meetings Sat and Sun. We are listed on the New York web schedule.

    • Ahhh, the dreaded deleted lengthy comment post. Rookie mistake Lance.

      Type that bad boy out on a word document & save as you go. Copy/paste into comment section & whah-lah, no crippling frustration.

      Only pithy comments like this should be directly input. Low risk of misery & pulling out of hair.

  14. Eric I thank you. Objective talk can help counter the religious sentiment and emotionalism. A prepared talk is best. Should I ever be asked I would do the same. At 43 years sober and feeling the rigors of old age I am seldom asked. Religious sentiment is a private matter. These people violate personal privacy in their attempt to seduce prayer where it is unwelcome. I believe we in Responsibility have the duty to walk out or voice protest. This protest should be without anger or fear as you have done. The social Dynamic of the Reformation in the belief system of Christians is a lesson I can learn from. Protest may be futile and I see nothing short of separation from mainstream A.A. The example of Toronto and elsewhere testifies in my judgement to this reality.

  15. Eric, you are my hero and I’m so fortunate to have you always there (or almost always) at our Friday night meetings! Thanks for being my rock and helping to keep it all afloat in TC!

    • I’m part of a Traverse City group also with 36 years clean and sober. I’m a born again cosmic naturalist. I’m the one pebble that stands alone outside the circle at the end when the Lord’s Prayer is used to close. My belief is that this is damaging to our group and to newcomers. Plus it doesn’t fit in with our traditions. A lone tiny stone. Bill G.

  16. Excellent post Eric! And thanks for providing PDF-link of your talk. I’m about 2/3rds through and enjoying the heck out of it.

    Your buddy Vern can be spotted a mile away in 99% of AA meetings in America. Know what I mean? And those AA meetings in Somalia make quite the war story! Talk about going to any lengths. I highly recommend anyone read it. It’s well-written and compelling and no surprise to learn you work professionally as writer.

    Congratulations on taking a stand for your integrity and that of thousands of non-believing alcoholics worldwide. Yours is a happy ending in that after several years you made it back to the rooms after being put-off by the religiosity. I suspect it’s neither an uncommon phenomenon nor hyperbole that people die unnecessary alcoholic deaths because they are so turned off by the “religious nonsense” they hear in AA, thus not getting the life-saving recovery and healing available in the fellowship of AA.

    Telling our stories unapologetically to the still suffering alcoholic is an important and vital responsibility we share, in spite of the difficulties it presents us. This is not “frothy emotional appeal” but statistical reality. I heard something like 7% of the population identifies as atheist, and 25% identify no religious affiliation. I always remind myself this when sharing what I know will be a shun-inducing message at meetings. In any of the bigger meetings, there’s bound to be a few of us present. I don’t like being unpopular (I’m 1st rate people-pleaser after all), but as usual I have to get over myself and try and be of service. Plus I get to identify with the rebellious, “I’m different than everyone” side of my personality. Thanks to AAagnostica.org though, I get to remember I’m just another bozo on the bus – a regular, run-of-the-mill drug addict/alcoholic – who happens to appreciate critical reasoning, logic, rationality and evidence more so than what is apparently the average bear (Take that you preposterous believers!).

    That said, I’ve known more loneliness in my few years in Texas due to a no-joke ubiquity of hard core conservativism in AA meetings. I’m active duty Army San Antonio, TX stationed here summer 2012. Compared to the 1st 16 years of my sobriety in Atlanta and Louisville, KY, here in San Antonio I found an astounding preponderance of cliché-ridden, platitudinous, simple minded drivel shared in the meetings here. After more than a year of good faith effort at trying out meetings all over town, I became so disenchanted with meetings here I began to dread them, and eventually found my attendance dwindling to sometimes bi-monthly, monthly regularity. This would be unthinkable in Atlanta or Louisville – I go to AA meetings to find out what happens to people who stop going to AA meetings.

    But my good news story is that thanks again to AAagnostica.org, we started a now-thriving Mostly Agnostics meeting here about 6 months ago (see this past Sunday’s post by Dave B for more about that). We’ve now grown among us a fellowship of interesting old timers and newcomers who are a treat to be around and get to know. It’s the good stuff in AA membership that’s kept me coming back since the beginning. Incidentally, I proudly wore my MAAF (Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers.) t-shirt to our meeting last night.

    If you’re interested, I’d be grateful to speak offline sometime about AA, atheism, the military and anything else. I was at the WAFT IAAC in Santa Monica last November but only got to go Thursday. I got a fun case of gastroenteritis I caught from my buddy’s kid and couldn’t make it Friday & Saturday. I’d like to think I would’ve made the rounds and met you by the time the conference was over but c’est la vie. San Antonio is only 70 miles from Austin so I plan on being there for WAAFT IAAC in 2016 – unless I’m avoiding IEDs over in the rolling hills of Afghanistan. I’ll give Roger my cell & email & we can correspond if it suits you.

    Cheers and keep sharing yourself at meetings, shunning be damned!

    -Sam

  17. I listened to the speaker meeting, LOVE IT. Thanks for the REAL message. Your friend Johnny from Nevada.

  18. Excellent, Eric . . .

    I identify deeply with so much of your story. I, too, was 29 when I received the gift of recovery from the AA Fellowship in New York City in 1972. I am immensely grateful that I got grounded in recovery in New York where the formula for staying sober at many meetings is: “Don’t drink, Go to meetings, Help others.”

    I too have been in two combat zones, the first in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, when there was no loving god or goddess to help some 30 or more Vietnamese orphans and their French-Vietnamese nun caretakers, whom I had assisted for several months as Civil Affairs Officer for my battalion. They were brutally killed or horribly wounded after being caught in a cross-fire between the Viet Cong and Korean troops. In Vietnam ,I was still heavily drinking and doing several Thai sticks a day, but I rarely prayed, although I did start attending mass occasionally and saw a Chaplin after Tet before I DEROSed, trying in vain to get some understanding of what was happening in Vietnam during that awful time. I didn’t get any satisfactory answers, but I did find out a couple of years after I returned home that one of the last convoys I accompanied in my gun jeep with a couple of deuce-and-a-half trucks with starlight scopes and cryptographic equipment was to Task Force Barker, the command element of the troops who participated in the My Lai massacre.

    My second combat zone was as an unarmed peacekeeper with Nonviolent Peaceforce in Sri Lanka between the Buddhist majority armed forces and the Tamil Tigers, the Hindu revolutionary army, who futilely attempted to create a separate Hindu state in the North and East, while perfecting acts of individual terrorism. Thousands were genocided or gathered in desperate refugee camps by the majority Buddhist army. At present, a newly elected Prime Minister is attempting a Truth and Reconciliation process under a UN mandate.

    I learned in Sri Lanka that religious genocide is not only a characteristic of the descendants of the Abrahamic Bible, but happens with all man-made religions. Thousands of other Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, as well as western tourists, were killed during the December 26, 2004, Tsunami, which I also survived because I happened to leave the guest house compound to visit a 2,000 year old temple complex inland about 15 minutes before the devastating 30-foot high wave demolished it. God? Nope, just my dumb, “blithering idiot” Scotch-Norman luck.

    Just as I am forever grateful for receiving recovery in New York, I am also most grateful for AA Agnostica which kept me sober and somewhat sane when my wife and I moved from New York to a small town on the sea coast of southern Oregon. AA there was full of arrogant and all-knowing Verns . . . 😉

    I especially salute you for your talk, telling your truth and sharing your experience, strength and hope, as a longterm sober atheist. I’m convinced this is how we WAAFTs and AA shall continue to evolve so that anyone who reaches out for help to AA can recovery, regardless of belief or non belief.

    Thank you also for reminding me that “gung ho” is the Chinese battle cry for “working together” — I had forgotten that.

    • Holy crap Thomas, that’s horrific about the orphans in Vietnam. What an awful thing to deal with.

      Have you read Christopher Hitchens’ story in Harpers about making the case for Henry Kissinger being a war criminal? It’s a two part essay published in consecutive months, sometime in the 1990s and available online if you google it. It’s fantastic and details lots of public, verifiable evidence regarding US and specifically, Kissinger – directed participation in 3 arenas: Vietnam, Indonesia and Chile.

      Check it out if you haven’t, about 30 pages and eye opening as can be. Probably nothing you don’t already know about. But for me, born in 1973, it’s good to learn history not commonly talked about, especially as an Active Duty Army CPT serving the country I love.

  19. What an erudite and passionate talk! I will do my best to spread this particular message to as many believers and non-believers as Im able.

  20. Great lead. I have been sober 9 years and recently discovered that I am an atheist. My story is quite similar to yours. I felt such peace reading about your experience knowing that I was not alone. Thank you for speaking out. Micaela S.