A Different Road

Different Road

This article was first published in the Chicago Tribune twenty-one years ago, on February 22, 1995. It reports on alcoholics in AA celebrating – “the drunks are having a party” – the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the very first “Quad A” meeting – Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics. Today there are a dozen such meetings in Chicagoland. More details are available here: Quad A. (The featured image above was part of the Tribune article, and rather accurately portrays the “different road” followed by we agnostics and atheists in AA.)

We share it today because it is something of a treasure.

Quad A Offers Help To Alcoholics Who Don’t Buy Into God

By Lawrence Rand
Originally published in the Chicago Tribune on February 22, 1995 

Six o’clock Saturday night and the drunks are having a party.

This is news?

It is when the party is in Chicago’s Second Unitarian Church on Barry Street. The drunks are sober, and the party is to commemorate the 20th anniversary of a controversial 12-step recovery group – Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for Atheists and Agnostics, known in AA circles as Quad A (AAAA).

“Some friends of mine here are shocked that some of us agnostics and atheists have been working a program for 20 years that they think is dependent on God,” says the founder of Quad A, Don W., a wizened 67-year-old Unitarian with a cigar in one hand and coffee cup in the other. “Tonight they said to me, ‘This isn’t AA,’ but it actually is. The first two As, for Alcoholics Anonymous, are far more important than the last two in AAAA, because a 12-step program will work for anybody who works it, regardless of religious belief, understanding, or refusal to understand.

“Everybody who works a program works a different program, so it’s really not a case of Quad A versus ‘the rest of AA.’ There is resistance to us – somebody back in ’79 didn’t want to insert the explanation of AAAA in the Chicagoland meeting directory, for example – but some of the very first people in AA were agnostics.”

The church’s sanctuary has been turned into a dining room, and the people seated reflect the North Side and suburban locations of Quad A meetings – mostly, but not completely white, middle class, and middle age (though Quad A’s range in age from early twenties to nearly 80), with a significant gay and lesbian contingent, few Hispanics or Asians, and a larger percentage of women than in many AA groups.

That Quad A meets at churches may seem ironic, but it is the result of Don’s Unitarian Universalist faith and work. “I had given a talk in the 2nd Unitarian pulpit, ‘An Agnostic in AA: How It Works for Me,’ and was invited to give it at several other churches. A Universalist minister on the South Side, Lee Hubbell, had some parishioners who were having trouble with the religious language of AA, and he encouraged me to start a meeting for agnostics and atheists, which was held on the seventh of January, 1974.

“For the next four years, if I didn’t show up there wasn’t a meeting, because the group varied so greatly from week to week. It wasn’t until the Chicago Area Service Office listed us in the 1979 AA Directory with the explanation that we were for atheists and agnostics that we began to get inquiries and referrals and the Monday night meeting really became a group.

“What happened over the 20 years is that 200 to 300 recovering alcoholics came to our meetings and a door was opened for them. Most of them move on to the larger AA fellowship once they have worked out their semantic difficulties with the word ‘God,’ which is always what those difficulties are.”

Some stay in Quad A; the first speaker Don introduces is a shy German-American woman who explains why: “I was going to traditional AA meetings because I knew I would die from the disease of alcoholism if I didn’t, but when they talked about God I gritted my teeth. People told me that if I didn’t get on my knees and pray to God, I would go out and drink again, which scared me and made me angry.” While she didn’t drink before finding Quad A, she dates her “real recovery” from her first AAAA meeting.

While Alcoholics Anonymous was helped in its infancy by the Oxford Group, a Christian organization, and stresses a spirituality based on a belief in “a power greater than ourselves,” the group is careful to embrace no specific religion. Jews and non-deists have held high office in AA service organizations, and a Quad A member was recently elected chairman of the North Side’s Midtown district.

A reason for the acceptance that Quad A has gained among more traditional AA groups is its record of perseverant service over the years.

“Groups that are a little out of the mainstream tend towards extremes in district participation,” explains John G., an officer of Chicago area AA. “They either don’t participate at all, or they pitch right in with a lot of energy. Quad A was sending a service representative to district meetings right from its beginning.”

Among the Quad A dinner speakers, a humorous tone predominates; a vibrant woman reads a witty Dorothy Parker poem called “Resume,” about avoiding suicide; it concludes, “Guns aren’t lawful, nooses give, Gas smells awful, you might as well live.” Jan M. explains why she found AAAA attractive: “Quad A is more matriarchal than regular AA; I think traditional AA is part of the patriarchy. Many women feel that their disease of alcoholism was a gift from ‘him’s.’ A lot of us had dads who were alcoholics or significant others who were, and got there by copying our fathers or becoming codependent on our lovers and then using the drug ourselves. Because there’s less insistence on waiting around for your higher power to take care of you in Quad A, there’s more room for a feminine approach to alcoholism.

“In basic AA, you’re told a lot that you have to give up your willfulness and submerge your ego. But that’s just the problem for a lot of women alcoholics – they have no will and they submerged their egos for so long that they don’t know who they are. When you go into a program completely trashed and then are told you’re still too willful, it isn’t helpful.

“Quad A is more tolerant of a feminine point of view. Some people get mad when I talk like that, because we’re not supposed to discriminate by sex, but men and women are raised differently, have different self-images and suffer alcoholism in different ways.”

The talk is irreverent

Bill R., a 70 year old who has combined playing blues piano and architecture in his colorful career, delights in revealing that he was initially warned off of Quad A by other AA members who complained, “All they ever talk about is God!”

When the new district chairman is asked for a comment, he reveals how he was first elected his group’s General Service Representative: “I skipped a meeting, and they figured I couldn’t refuse the job because I wasn’t there!”

God or religion wasn’t his reason for staying with Quad A, he explains, “I just like the bad attitudes.”

Irreverence is a cornerstone of Quad A, where meetings end with the secretary saying, “We’ll close this meeting by not saying the Lord’s or anybody else’s prayer,” and the late co-founder of AA Bill Wilson may kiddingly be called “Mr. Bill.” But talk at the meetings is centered more on recovery and spirituality than on “God-bashing.” AA recommends a Buddhist-like search for serenity, and in Quad A a panoply of spiritual beliefs, from pantheism to Taoism, is as common as a nihilistic rejection of God regardless of religion.

Anyone with a desire to stop drinking is welcome at Quad A. In fact, a woman representing the Oak Park Quad A’s announced that she was attending the Unitarian seminary in Hyde Park, and that Quad A had led her to it.

After digging into appetizers, salads, lasagna, an exotic chicken and rice dish, and numerous desserts, the Quad A’s are treated to music from a guitarist and two friends on bass and drums who romp through an hour of rockabilly and blues.

While a few people stay to dance, many adjourn to the basement smoking area where they can do what Quad A is famous for: talk.

While other AA groups strictly limit their meetings to an hour and begin promptly, Quad A meetings rarely start on time – “the Saturday morning meeting regards punctuality as a disease,” Jan M. asserts.

AAAA also allows anybody the chance to comment – often two or three times – which results in meetings that can stretch on for hours. To some it’s Quad A’s least endearing trait, but it seems to result in dedicated and close-knit groups that foster close, long-term friendships as well as ongoing sobriety.

“These (12) steps are but suggestions,” the early AA members wrote in Alcoholics Anonymous, dubbed “The Big Book” in AA circles, but inevitably a churchlike push for orthodoxy began in some quarters. Perhaps it was just as inevitable that a group for atheists, agnostics, humanists, free spirits and “bad attitudes” would be created for those who wanted sobriety without conformity.

* * *

A tale of two drinkers: Quad A members speak out

Don W

I was exposed to (traditional) AA in 1961 or ’62, and after six months I was so put off I knew it wouldn’t work for me. I was unable to work it, because of the religious language in which the 12 steps are couched.

In the middle of ’70, I came back to AA, after trying to “control” my drinking, which almost killed me. I came back to AA because it’s the only place you can go that has to take you in if you say you belong-the only qualification for membership is a sincere desire to stop drinking.

I needed Quad A because there were things that weren’t available to me at traditional meetings.

I’m an agnostic. I think militant atheism is a reaction rather than a response.

Some of us are still militant atheists. For others, atheism or agnosticism is part of the stunting that goes in with alcoholism, and once around that they are no longer shocked by traditional AA meetings. Nevertheless, when the Lord’s Prayer is said at the end of a traditional meeting, I choose to remain silent. Someone might be looking around, and I need to carry my message to whoever needs it.

I attend an average of two meetings a week; there are times when I only go once a month. I have been relieved of the compulsion to drink after 24 years of sobriety, but what I need and get at meetings is an input of spiritual energy for my own spiritual growth, which boils down to self-understanding and the availability of self-use. I need being reached out to and reaching out.

The experience, strength and hope that Quad A has experienced over 20 years needs to be generally available to other alcoholics, so we’re starting a newsletter. Over 20 years I have learned not just to not have a drink, but to have a life, and that’s what I want other agnostic and atheist AA’s to share.

Whatever the power greater than ourselves is, we all use it. It’s not necessarily the traditional God-if that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be 4,000 nuns and priests in AA staying sober one day at a time. They depend on the God of the cloister, but they come to AA for this power, which isn’t available to them in church or elsewhere. I don’t know what God is, and I don’t know what this greater power is, but I know that it’s everything, that I’m a part of it, and that I belong here.

* * *

Jan M.

I had just gone through another lover, and I didn’t want to go through it any more; I wanted to be dead. I went down to the Old Town Ale House and had a couple white wines and talked with the bartender, who steered me to a therapist who specializes in women with codependency, addiction and alcohol problems.

This therapist insisted she couldn’t treat me alone, that it would be necessary for me to find an AA group and a sponsor. Well, excuse me at that point, I’m payin’ you big bucks, babe! After a month of arguing about it, I went down to (an AA meeting) on Wells Street, and experienced agoraphobia and claustrophobia at the same time-it was the worst experience of my life. I left before the meeting was half over.

Since AA was unavoidable, I told the same bartender that I might as well drink-but she turned me on to Ron L., who was going to the Saturday morning Quad A meeting at that time.

What a relief! It was a small group, and they weren’t doing ritual monologue chanting; it was a discussion group. We were actually talking about real-life problems that didn’t have anything to do about God or Jesus, and working them out as a group, sharing information-more sharing than I had ever experienced. What really sold me was that nobody hugged me; they let me leave unmolested.

I kept going back; it took me about a year, but they let me get it for myself at my own rate. When I announced that the 12 steps were screwed up, and that I was going to rewrite them, they smiled and let me because they had all done the same thing!

7 Responses

  1. Jack B. says:

    About 5 years ago Vancouver and Toronto areas inter groups delisted and disenfranchised the agnostic/atheist groups in those areas. A thoughtless and bigoted move.

    As we speak (or write) an Ontarian Human Rights Tribunal action is wending its way through the OHRT process with most clearheaded people pining that the intergroups and traditional AA will lose.

    As we speak (and write) an almost identical action is being built by some very pissed off people in Vancouver to be adjudicated by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

    Religious bigotry – bigotry of any kind – cannot be allowed to exist in AA unchallenged.

    Stay tuned.

    Jack B. Vancouver.

  2. Diane I says:

    I have been sober for 39 years and have just discovered Quad A. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to hear people talk about things that I have thought myself (but didn’t have the courage to say) or that have bugged me in the past. I am so happy to have found this group – thank you Roger for starting it. AA saved my life – no doubt about it – but I had stopped going to meetings lately because of the dogma, God, etc. and not feeling free to say what I really believe or feel. I have only attended two meetings for We Agnostics but love it and plan to keep coming back!!

  3. Eric T says:

    I’m so glad I came to this party, I’m not leaving!

  4. Larry K. says:

    A most excellent find Roger!

    Damn Unitarians… how dare they encourage free thought?

  5. Jeb B. says:

    What a great and encouraging post. Thank you, Roger! I continue to be dismayed by the way well-intentioned members misuse and interpret the experience, strength and hope of the founders and others. That’s all the big book and other AA literature are; they are history, chronicles and stories in which we may or may not find ourselves. With that, we may decide individually to try some or all of the things they tried. The very idea of turning the book and fellowship into some kind of exclusive, dogmatic cult of opinions, which is all that beliefs really are (check your trusty dictionary for that), is completely contrary to pleadings of Bill Wilson and others throughout the history of AA to keep it simple and open to all. For that reason, those of us who have found the strength and courage to let go of old ideas and concepts have a unique gift to offer those who have had enough of makebelieve the freedom to find their own experience of recovery in the rooms of AA. I am responsible….

  6. Joe C. says:

    What a delight it is that the only requirement for membership is …

    I will add this to a list of useful links during my presentation @ Symposium on AA History March 4th to 6th.

  7. life-j says:

    Thanks Roger for finding this. When I read:

    In basic AA, you’re told a lot that you have to give up your willfulness and submerge your ego. But that’s just the problem for a lot of women alcoholics-they have no will and they submerged their egos for so long that they don’t know who they are. When you go into a program completely trashed and then are told you’re still too willful, it isn’t helpful.

    I didn’t know quite how to take it. This is what I’ve been saying all along about all this deflation of ego talk. Applies to me too, even though I wasn’t a woman last time I looked.

    I was glad to see someone else express it, and saddened by that there is such a great conformity pressure that not everybody immediately go “Yes, yes! That’s it!”

    To me it just shows how this program wasn’t made for everybody (even if everybody was allowed, well, women were frowned on to begin with, as were black people); it was made for, by, and of well educated, type A, well-to-do, or at least had-beens, white men. Most of which rubs many of us the wrong way. I happen to be well educated myself, but I see a lot of people come to AA who can barely read, much less relate to the stories even in our agnostic literature. You pretty much have to be well educated to write a story.

    This is our next frontier – reaching out to the uneducated alcoholics in a way that doesn’t talk down to them.

    Actually our unbeliever meeting formats which tends to be more focused on talking with each other, and less focused on reading a whole bunch of stuff is a step in the right direction.

    Anyway, back to the article at hand. Good to see that the whole of Chicago AA hasn’t gone to rack and ruin from including the Quad A meetings in it’s directory. The rest of the continent could learn from this, if indeed these regular AAs were as “teachable” as they boast.

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