Atlanta 2015 We Agnostics Talk
The 2015 International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous was held in Atlanta, Georgia, between July 1 and 5. There were reportedly some 60,000 people in attendance. The theme of the Convention was “80 years – Happy, Joyous and Free”.
Between 1500 and 2000 people attended a We Agnostics Panel held at the Convention with three speakers. The last of the three was Jeff Y. and his talk – with quotes from Bill Wilson, Ward Ewing and Ernie Kurtz – is shared with you today, here on AA Agnostica.
By Jeff Y.
My name is Jeff and I am an alcoholic.
It is a distinct honor to be here and I can’t think of a better way to share my gratitude with you for my 30 years of sobriety. My sobriety date is April 29th, 1985.
Our topic We Agnostics first came as a surprise and then a pleasant surprise when I received a loving invitation from our General Service Office. It’s always hard filling the bottom of the ticket and, you know, these three are hard acts to follow.
Today I am going to share some of my own experience but I will also refer to our Conference-approved literature and some of the writings of Bill and what others have shared recently on us with this subject. And I gotta say that when I first got this assignment and it was one of these sort of “Okay we need an extra person. Just give it to a past delegate. He’s supposed to be able to talk on anything because he knows everything.” I had to seriously sit down and say “Okay, what do I know about this topic?” And then I had to say “What do I believe about this topic?” And then it finally boiled down to “What do I truly believe?” Because I am not going to stand up here and lie to fifteen hundred people.
When I got to AA in 1985 I could not say that God and I were on the very best of speaking terms. My early Step work was rocky at best. Challenging my newly assigned sponsor Paul with my interpretation of Step Three I asked him “How can I possibly understand God when by definition he is beyond our comprehension?” Paul showed tremendous patience and tolerance with my keenly intellectual alcoholic mind but he did suggest to me, emphasized by a finger in my chest, “You’d better work the Steps as they are written or you’re going to drink”. And voila, I had my first resentment in AA.
Paul probably did me a tremendous favor because he gave me a reason to keep coming back just to show that son of a bitch, like… All right. I’ve got members of my home group here to keep me honest.
Having made a decision while drinking to enter a Catholic seminary I should have listened to Paul’s advice to delay my plans. Stubbornly my pride would not let me back out and so a few months sober I entered the Seminary. I thought this experience would fix my vague spiritual longings. That same desire for spiritual release the Carl Jung talks about and wrote about and the same reference that the low point of Doctor Jellinek’s chart of the progression of our alcoholic disease. (The chart is reproduced below.)
I walked out of the Seminary after four months. I moved back home with my mom, my dad. Very angry at everything and everyone. And God. And the church. And ultimately, myself. It’s been a long road back from there. In more ways than one AA saved me. You AAs have saved me from drinking, from anger, from resentment, from fear, from despair, bitterness, insanity and death. All because of our unique approach to this spiritual life.
“To be doomed to an alcoholic death or live on a spiritual basis, these are not always easy alternatives to face.” This statement in Chapter 4 of our text hit home hard.
The wonderful traditions of our program which ask only a willingness to stay sober, merely a desire to stop drinking one day at a time, granted this alcoholic enough leeway to stick around long enough for the program to do its work. AA’s open door policy shows the hesitant, the gun shy agnostic-minded a portal to freedom as wide as the horizon through which even the most recalcitrant and spiritually damaged may comfortably ask to find recovery.
The long form of Tradition 3 acknowledges and perhaps even encourages all forms of belief or lack thereof.
Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.
Bill W. pushed this open door policy to the utmost limits of tolerance. In a 1946 essay in the AA Grapevine he wrote:
So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our recovery program, even anti-each other – these rampant individuals are still an AA group if they think so!
Despite a religious upbringing or perhaps because of it my alcoholic mind erected a wall between me and any belief in a capitalized Higher Power. Bill claims in our basic text that about half of our original fellowship were of exactly that same type who feels he is an atheist or agnostic. I was in good company at last with drunks like me who understood how I struggled. I was struggling over the God angle.
When I began to really carefully read the Big Book I was surprised. Bill W. relates that Ebby suggested to him “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” This must have been very radical theology among the Oxford Groupers who were trying to recreate first century Christianity. I didn’t have to understand or comprehend God at all. In fact, I discovered I didn’t need to settle the God question to even make a beginning. Much to our relief we discovered that we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach.
To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all-inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe to all. When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you may find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.
What relief and consolation those words in Chapter 4 brought me. Over the years, as I honed my conception of a power greater than myself I become convinced that being agnostic or even atheist is not entirely incompatible with having a spiritual awakening.
But what is spirituality?
Now there’s a great question. Throw that out in your group for discussion some week and see the diversity of opinion. There will be a lot of people that will come out of the closet. Early on an old-timer back in Toledo broke it down for me in newcomer terms. The universe can be divided into the material and the spiritual. If you can see it, hear it, smell it, taste it or touch it, it must be material. Everything else is spiritual. Probably an over simplification but it opened the mind of this belligerent drunk to differentiate the religious from the spiritual. Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness are all we need to make a start.
Working the Steps with a tentative acknowledgement of some power other than my own, self-will leveraged a willingness to be willing to believe. Thirty years later I know that I don’t need religious faith because I have first-hand experience. I see others getting and staying sober around me and I know that I can do the same. It works. It really does.
Just for today, it’s not that I don’t know what I believe rather I believe that I don’t know. I heard a newcomer comment on his spiritual journey recently at my home group. He said “The more I define God the more I take power away from Him”. And that sums up my approach to a power greater than myself too. I ought not put God in a box for that would only limit the power.
Step 11 reminds us that we ask only for knowledge and power. So I am keeping an open mind on that subject. My spiritual awakening did not come in the form of a white light mystical ecstasy. My experience has been of the educational variety, a slow dawning of the realization that it’s okay to say that I don’t know what or who that power greater than myself is called. This is after all what agnostic means at its linguistic root. I do know this: AA works for the vast majority of people who really try to live by our principles. It’s worked for me and countless others before me. I pass on this message, our message, hopefully as undiluted as it was passed down to me.
How do we build this spiritual life on a daily basis? Bill gives us clear cut directions in his own story at the bottom of page 14: “For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead.” Surprisingly we note that Bill didn’t say “through prayer and meditation”. Just saying.
Through work and self-sacrifice for others.
Earlier this year the Pew Research Group released its findings that the fastest growing choice among survey respondents to their question of religion is “none”. And I would like to quote very briefly from the study. Eleven percent of the Silent Generation, that is that of AA’s founders, 11 percent of that generation were “nones” while 17 percent of Baby Boomers, 23 percent Gen Xers and 35 percent of Millennials don’t buy in to AA’s assertion that “God could and would if He were sought”. Freethinking, agnostic and atheist AA members are now saying to their theistic fellows, “We once thought like you too”.
A past chair of the AA General Service Board had this to say recently on the subject:
Many in AA who are atheists, agnostics and freethinkers feel excluded. Much of the language in the Big Book and in other approved literature and in meetings is traditional theistic language. Certain parts of AA literature are at best condescending towards atheists and agnostics, if not downright disparaging. Yet these intrepid AAs are getting and staying sober and growing spiritually however one might define that.
The power of AA is greater than any individual person. It makes the impossible possible. Many in AA refer to this life-saving force, this culture, this esprit-de-corps, this Higher Power, as God. Others who cannot bring themselves to compromise their rational understandings to believe in some sort of deity still experience this power within AA groups. I would suggest that the differences between those who wish to call it God and those who have a different understanding of its nature are small in comparison to our shared experience. What we believe about something is far less important to living than what we experience. Experience is what transforms us. Belief is our attempt to explain. Experience, therefore, trumps explanation.
Now I don’t come here today to beat the drum for a separate agnostic, atheist or freethinking AA. Rather, I recognize that this brings us a new challenge in AA. Just as many groups somewhat tolerate drug talk, can we now find the same tolerance for our freethinking brothers and sisters? Can we in fact rise beyond tolerance to a loving acceptance rather than mere grudging resignation?
Recently departed historian Ernie Kurtz left us this message:
Whenever, wherever, one alcoholic meets another alcoholic and sees in that person first and foremost not that he or she is male or female, or black or white, or Christian, Buddhist, Jew, or Atheist, or gay or straight, or whatever, but sees… that he or she is alcoholic and that therefore both of them need each other – there will continue to be not only an Alcoholics Anonymous, but there will be the Alcoholics Anonymous that you and I love so much and respect so deeply.
Finally, I will close with what Bill Wilson wrote in the July 1965 Grapevine:
Newcomers are approaching AA at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable, we have atheists and agnostics, we have people of nearly every race, culture and religion. In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a common suffering. Consequentially, the full individual liberty to practice any creed, or principle, or therapy, whatever, should be a first consideration for us all. Let us not therefore pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA so long as he or she so declares.
The Jellinek chart – or curve – referred to above. Click on it to see it in a larger format.