Perils Facing Agnostic AA
By Vic L.
My sense is that there are three dangers that we in agnostic AA face and that make us uncomfortable. So I will take a deep breath and jump in.
As a rule, we AA members who attend agnostic AA meetings do so to avoid “the god stuff”, otherwise we would attend traditional (non-agnostic) AA meetings.
Enter the purists. Occasionally I detect an atheist who might express a certain disdain for agnostics, or vice versa.
Is this really necessary? Aren’t we confident enough in our own (non) beliefs that we don’t feel a need to attack those who differ from us? Are we attending AA meetings to promote our specific world-view? I was taught that AA does not proselytize, but leads through example. I would think that that philosophy extends not only to people outside the rooms, but within the rooms as well.
Such thinly sliced interpretations can sow the seeds of disunion and the ultimate death of agnostic AA. This is the “we and they” of tribalism that ironically is usually spread by organized religions.
I feel that in meetings we would be better off if we largely stayed ignorant of each other’s specific understandings of all things cosmic, and identify ourselves as part of a “nonbelievers” big tent. I am perfectly happy to be in AA meetings with people who think differently from me, but who choose not to express those differences out of respect for all. Let’s not bicker among ourselves about the nature and quality of our non-belief.
I’m reminded of an old joke. In New York City there is a cliché that Jews can be argumentative and often disagree with their rabbi over theological issues and sometimes leave their synagogue in a huff.
After many years a stranded Jew is found alone on a deserted island. His rescuer asks, “What’s that straw hut over there?” The Jew says, “Oh, that’s my synagogue.” To which the rescuer asks, “Then what are those other two huts?” To which the Jew says, “Oh, those are the other synagogues that I used to belong to.”
Some in AA are not threatened by those of us who do not link their drinking and/or sobriety to a god. Some others, however, are going to be offended no matter how respectful we are. They are “Big Book Thumpers.” I speak specifically of groups like the Pacific group in LA and the Atlantic group in NYC that define AA religious fundamentalism.
The “S” Words
As part of “the god stuff” I also include the “supernatural” (that which is beyond reason). So at the risk of contradicting myself… I find myself reluctant to say the other “s” word… but here goes: “spiritual”.
Many use this word as a poorly veiled reference to god. AA has a long history of linking the “spiritual” with “god”. Although “spirituality” in not part of the AA triangle (Unity, Service and Recovery), AA literature is littered with references to “spirituality”. In addition to the condescending Chapter 4, “We Agnostics” of the Big Book, the newly issued so-called “agnostic” conference-approved AA pamphlet is titled, “Many Pathways to Spirituality.” Traditional AA is simply not prepared to countenance non-belief or other-belief.
We are stuck with Bill W.’s “blinding light” experience that believers often refer to in order to confirm the “necessary” link between god and sobriety. Interestingly Bill’s description of that pivotal event on Page 7 in Chapter 1 of the Big Book (“Under the so-called belladonna treatment my brain cleared…”) is rarely cited. Nor is the description of belladonna, which commonly induces powerful hallucinations.
In addition believers claim that getting sober in AA is somehow a “miracle”, ergo god is at it again. I would argue that there is a collective “power” in meeting and exchanging personal histories with fellow alcoholics. We human beings are, after all, social creatures (solitary confinement is now being described as “cruel and unusual punishment”), and something empathetic happens when we share our experiences with each other. And we also strongly relate to stories.
Whether it’s the surroundings of Sedona, the power of crystals, or the Harmonic Convergence, a belief in things spiritual is by definition not rational, but something else. In fact the term is so vague and “spirituality” can refer to so many different things that it has become meaningless.
When many people inside and outside of AA experience something inexplicable (the love for another, an eerie coincidence, or even consciousness itself) they claim that it is “spiritual” instead of “I feel it but I don’t know what to call it”.
I am not of the conviction that if something is unknown then I should invent an answer just to make myself feel consoled. The astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, when pressed to give a name to “dark matter” said that he called it “Fred” because as a scientist he doesn’t know what it is and refuses to go beyond that ignorance.
Similarly, because I refuse to name something that I don’t fully understand doesn’t mean that I am an unfeeling, heartless, and sterile human being. The same things equally move me that move most people. I just don’t ascribe those feelings to some mythological or sacred power.
Some might conclude that hope is one of the reasons why religion is so popular: that is because religion can be very comforting. When a six-year old asks, “Mommy, are you going to die?” or worse, “Am I going to die?!” mommy can say, “Yes, we are both going to die, but if we live our lives according to, say, Jesus, we will be together in paradise for eternity”. As I said, an unproven hypothesis such as this can be very reassuring.
But we non-believers in AA prefer to attend meetings where such teachings are absent.
I moderated a panel at the first WAAFT convention on 7 November 2014 in Santa Monica, CA: the title was “Is Spirituality Compatible with Agnostic AA?” The panel participants were: Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, The Reverend Ward Ewing, former Chairman of AA’s General Service Board (Non-alcoholic) and Roger C., founder and host of AA Agnostica, the nexus of all things agnostic in AA.
The discussion was heartfelt and varied. Listen here. (Unfortunately questions from the audience are off-mic.)
Marya Hornbacher, claimed “…I label it spiritual because it is where I have to let go of ‘I know this, I don’t know this.’ And so it does fall into the category of a mystery to me…” and much more New Age mumbo-jumbo. Reverend Ewing averred, “I really firmly, firmly believe in the importance of keeping religion out of this fellowship…” yet he describes spirituality as something that can’t be defined. Roger C. was spot on when he said, “…I’ve come to the point where I reject the word ‘spirituality’…The word is old and outdated…”
My sense is that AA reflects the larger US population and I would also argue that the recent Pew poll, which suggests a noticeable decline in the number of self-described believers as well as a corresponding increase in the number of self-described “nones” (none of the above), really reflects those who shun organized religion yet maintain firm beliefs in spirituality. The implication is that those in the rooms of agnostic AA who are “none” are tired of all the clichés and platitudes of organized religion in traditional AA. As with all who “have a desire to stop drinking” they are more than welcome in agnostic AA.
The problem for me arises when “spirituality” (remember, something that is without evidence, that is non-rational) is claimed to be somehow different than the assertions of major religions yet must be accepted as “real” or “true”. Perhaps these expressions of belief would better resonate in traditional AA meetings.
It is my belief that in fact the use of the term “spirituality” is not compatible with agnostic AA and should be put to one side, if not completely rejected.
I think we can all agree that agnostic AA is AA. I also understand agnostic AA to be non-religious, not anti-religious. Mind you, agnostic AA meetings were formed because many AA members were non-believers, and the religious aspects of traditional meetings made them feel ill-at-ease.
Ironically I too often hear at agnostic AA meetings a religion-bashing rant. I get just as uneasy hearing someone describe their personal, non-religious take on existence as I do when I hear god talk at traditional AA meetings (even if I agree with the agnostic’s universal understandings).
That said I am convinced that every attendee at every agnostic AA meeting may express any religious or non-religious view they may hold (with the exception of hate-speech, and at most meetings, cross-talk). But aren’t we at agnostic AA meetings because we’d rather not hear “the god stuff?” Isn’t religion bashing, or bashing those who believe in religion just another form of “the god stuff?”
I can excuse the newcomer or the new refugee from traditional AA, but I don’t quite understand why anyone else complains. We are, after all, at an agnostic AA meeting! Whether it’s the newcomers to agnostic AA or the refugees from traditional AA who rage they usually can get over their anger when they realize that agnostic AA is just AA sans the almighty. And we will never know the exact number of alcoholics who have shunned or quit AA because of religious dogma.
As some of us have painfully learned, given the society in which we live it is very difficult for non-believers to come out as such to family and friends. Most of us are born into a religion. To abandon that religion for disbelief is seen as treachery by many family members. And I would guess that many of us have still not come out entirely to all. It is sometimes even more difficult to come out to our friends in traditional AA.
I am firmly convinced that non-believing purity, belief in the spiritual, and anti-religious fervor run the risk of permanent cleavage within our numbers. Not wishing to sound like scold, or Rodney King (“Can we all get along?”) I fear a schism looming unless we remain respectful of each other and keep our personal beliefs just that, personal.
So I encourage one and all to put that potential divisiveness aside and just get on with getting and staying sober, and helping other suffering alcoholics to achieve sobriety.
© Vic L. MMXV All Rights Reserved.
Vic L. is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City. His anniversary date is 11 February 1979.