Do Tell! Stories by Atheists & Agnostics in AA
“Storytelling is the practice and… essential dynamic of AA”.
AA historian Ernie Kurtz
Reshaping the AA Culture
By Roger C.
At least that’s been my experience in life. And it’s the experience of everyone I have ever chatted with about change and their lives and the world in which we live our lives.
I thought it would all settle down, frankly. That finally when I got old enough change would pretty much cease and I could count on things remaining steady, solid and unchanged.
It didn’t turn out that way. In fact, the opposite occurred. My understanding of myself and my relationship with others seems to change almost every day. The great mystery of existence becomes more mysterious by the hour. My ideas about everything evolve. Now that I am sixty-five, I do not understand virtually anything in the same way that I did when I was twenty-five. Or when I was forty-five years old, a young pup then, it seems now.
Because things change.
So what’s up with AA?
Founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous seems somehow incapable of moving forward, at least in any significant way. It seems stuck in a pre-World War II mindset. And that, quite frankly, is a pretty sad place to be stuck.
Even Bill Wilson recognized the problem.
In a speech given to an AA Conference in 1965, he began by noting that “a million alcoholics have approached AA during the last thirty years”. He goes on to estimate that 600,000 had walked away from the rooms of AA, never to come back.
He asks: “How much and how often did we fail them?”
That question is exponentially more relevant today, fifty years after Bill asked it.
And of course the problem is that the fellowship remains shackled to the book Alcoholics Anonymous, published in 1939, which in turn is mired in the predominant Christian culture of the United States as it existed in the Thirties and Forties.
Two examples of the out-of-datedness of the Big Book (as it is known, which in itself is revealing): the misogynistic chapter “To Wives” and the condescending and patronizing chapter “We Agnostics”. That’s already a fifth of the main 164 pages, and it hardly stops there.
The book goes on to share a “suggested” program, the 12 Steps, in which God (or “He” or “Him” or a “Power”) is mentioned in six of the Steps. In Chapter 5, “How it Works”, we are told that “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism” but “God could and would if He were sought”.
So, go to an AA meeting, invariably in a church basement, and you will find the 12 Steps brazenly displayed at the front of the room and someone is likely to read “How it Works” (at the beginning of the meeting) and you will be invited to join in the Lord’s Prayer (at the end of the meeting). This is called a “traditional” AA meeting.
“How much and how often did we fail them?”
And oddly enough the suggestion that AA might be somewhat “religious” is invariably met with some form of denial. When the General Service Office of AA is asked about various Courts in the United States that have ruled AA to be religious, it refuses to respond because the matter is an “outside issue”.
No it’s not.
It’s an “inside issue” and it needs be dealt with honestly and now.
Which is not to suggest that the Big Book ought to be revised or rewritten. It is what it is. It is a kind of memoir written by middle-class white Christian men seventy years ago. The book shares the experience, strength and hope of these men and of others in AA. And in so doing it does something historical; it lays the foundation for what does work for alcoholics: the very human power of one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic. The support we alcoholics find in the rooms assists us in working towards “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” and is the very essence of the fellowship of AA.
And that has everything to do with sharing our stories.
Indeed, many people like the Big Book not for its first 164 pages, but because of the roughly three hundred pages that are devoted to the personal stories of fellow alcoholics in recovery. That section begins with the subtitle: “How Forty-Two Alcoholics Recovered From Their Malady”.
We are inspired and we learn from hearing about “what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now” from those with the common affliction of alcoholism and addiction. And thus the definition and purpose of AA: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism”.
Our dear friend, the late Ernie Kurtz, said that storytelling is in fact “the practice and indeed the essential dynamic of AA”. It is the way we AA members support each other and help guarantee our ongoing recovery.
Thus this book.
The stories in this book are all, of course, by AA members who do not believe that an interventionist deity – a God – had anything at all to do with their recovery from alcoholism. As readers will discover, many struggled mightily “in the rooms” with the idea of God or a Higher Power, wanting to fit in, as Alcoholics Anonymous was their last hope.
Some were nonbelievers from the very beginning. Others, as the life-saving “personality change” in recovery took effect over time, abandoned a belief in God. Most felt unable to be honest at meetings, afraid that what they said would be attacked. If they did “come out of the closet” the consequences were hurtful: other members of AA would often take a condescending Dr. Bob approach (“I feel sorry for you”) and warn them that they would pick up again if they did not find God. They often felt dismissed, disparaged and rejected in the rooms of traditional AA.
But they stayed, as so many do not. And survived. And are here today to share their stories.
As readers make their way through the book, it will also be noted that a number of writers talk about doing their own version of the 12 Steps.
This too is not without controversy in AA.
So let’s start off by asserting that nobody wants to change the original and official Steps of AA, published in Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. No vote needed, understand?
However, it is perfectly normal – indeed inevitable – that the Steps will be interpreted and personal versions created. If God is meant to be “as we understood Him” then surely it goes without saying that we shall do the Steps “as we understand them”. The author of the Steps understood that but, somehow, the point is missed in traditional AA: “We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them 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”. (Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 81)
And so from time to time, our writers will share their own versions of the Steps. Interestingly, creating one’s personal version of the Steps can often be liberating. Neil F. in Chapter 19, “My Journey”, writes: “Due to my fear of not fitting in, of not being accepted in AA, I was not open about my atheism when speaking in AA until after I wrote an article ‘Personalizing the Twelve Steps’ that was published on AA Agnostica in January of 2013. This article was really my full disclosure of my atheism, my becoming totally honest”.
Dear readers, the issue of being “totally honest” is at the very heart of this book.
There are a total of thirty stories in Do Tell! None of them have been sanitized nor are they cliché-ish in the way that many AA stories appear to be in either the AA Grapevine or in “Conference approved” literature.
No, these are personal and honest stories. All unique, all different. The stories in the book alternate between those by women and those by men and so we discover early on – if we did not appreciate this already – that the factors involved in addiction and recovery are often quite different in the lives of men and women.
Moreover, the style and tone of each author is different. As a consequence, readers will like some stories more than others. That’s okay. Early on in AA we learn to take what we need and leave the rest. Nevertheless there is without doubt something in each one of these stories that will resonate with those of us who have lived part of our lives in the struggle for recovery.
The authors come from all parts of North America and the United Kingdom. The length of sobriety of each of them varies considerably, much like at a regular AA meeting, with the average being roughly twenty-one years. Five of the writers have more than forty years of continuous sobriety.
So why this book? Why now? And why is it published by AA Agnostica?
The answer to these questions comes in two words, “refusal” and “failure”.
Over the past 70 years the AA Grapevine has published approximately forty stories by agnostics and atheists in AA. That’s just a bit better than one every two years. A formal request was made to the Grapevine to publish this collection of stories – spanning the years from 1962 to 2015 – in a book. They had published similar books in the past such as, for example, Sober & Out, a collection of stories by gays, lesbians and the transgendered in AA.
The AA Grapevine Board of Directors met on January 29, 2015, and, after a “lengthy discussion”, refused the request. No reason was provided.
That’s the “refusal” part. Now the “failure”.
The General Service Conference is the purported “group conscience” of the AA Fellowship. It meets annually and is composed of approximately 20 directors and staff at AA and the Grapevine, 21 trustees and 93 delegates representing various areas across North America. The Conference, via its Literature Committee, decides on the contents of pamphlets and books which will be published by Alcoholics Anonymous, otherwise known as “Conference approved” literature.
Let’s put aside the appalling and inevitable element of censorship in the process just described, at least for now, and point out that over the past forty years, numerous requests have been made to the Conference to publish literature by and about agnostics and atheists in AA. The requests began in 1976 when a subcommittee of the trustees Literature Committee wrote that literature of this kind “is needed to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification”.
The requests have been ignored or explicitly denied. Given the rather obvious and growing need for such literature this can only be described as a repeat “failure” on the part of the General Service Conference.
Thus, again, this book.
And perhaps everything is exactly as it should be, in the end.
AA as an organization is a non-organization or an inverted triangle with authority at the grassroots, at the membership and group level.
And at that level there is an explosion of agnostic, atheist and freethinker AA groups that have been formed over the past few years. You can find these now in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, France and Japan, with more bursting forth every day.
Moreover, in 2014, the first We Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers (WAAFT) international convention was held in Santa Monica, California with three hundred people from around the world in attendance. Another convention is in the works for 2016 in Austin, Texas.
Five years ago there was no literature at all for atheists and agnostics in AA.
Now there is a plethora of good literature: Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher (2011); An Atheist’s Unofficial Guide to AA by Vince H. (2011); A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous by John Lauritsen (2014); Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous by Adam N. (2015); Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life by Joe C. (2014); and, The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps by Roger C. (2014).
To name but a few!
And now this book, the one in your hands that you are reading now, Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.
And one of the points of the book, dear readers, is this: We are not going anywhere. Atheists and agnostics are members of AA. Because we say so. As Nell Z. puts it in Chapter 1, “Carrying the Message to the Nonbeliever”: “All other factors aside, whenever there is a desire to stop drinking, the answer to the question, ‘Can AA work for me?’ is a resounding YES. I am an agnostic and a proud member of Alcoholics Anonymous”.
For we agnostics to feel at home in the rooms of AA we must inevitably be a part of reshaping the AA culture. We need to be a part of bringing our fellowship into the twenty-first century and helping it let go of its increasingly quaint religious origins.
Alcoholics Anonymous can indeed widen its gateway and be inclusive of all, including atheists and agnostics.
And for that we are responsible.
The paperback version is available at Amazon USA.