This was a talk given at the 39th annual AA Spring Roundup in San Diego, March 24-27, 2016, Easter weekend. There were 50 or so people in the room. Rob reports that for many it was their first time hearing about the agnostic/ atheist/ freethinker movement within AA, and several requested more information on meetings in the San Diego area.
By Rob M.
Hi, my name is Rob, and I am an alcoholic. I am also retired CIA – Catholic Irish Alcoholic!
And I am an atheist, and I thank God every day for that! I guess I need to put that out there as this session is listed as a “We Agnostics” meeting and we all agree that this is a program that demands “rigorous honesty”.
The focus of my share today is how atheists and agnostics are able to become clean and sober in the great program of Alcoholics Anonymous, where a belief in God and a Higher Power is such an integral part.
When I first came to AA some 20 years ago, I was told that “God” or my “higher power” could be anything I chose, just as long as it was not me. There were lots of suggestions – “good orderly direction”, “guidance on demand”, “group of drunks” – the last being the most popular with agnostics and atheists. The chapter on “We Agnostics” was often suggested by well-meaning friends, which can, in essence, be summed up as “fake it till you make it”. Many freethinkers perceive it as being condescending and patronizing, a kind of bait and switch, “It’s okay to start off being a skeptic, but eventually you will see the light”.
Well, that never happened for me, and for the longest while I struggled in the rooms to live up to the promise we see on the reverse of most AA medallions, “Unto thine own self be true”. This, as we know, is a verse from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night follow the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”.
However, one of the greatest strengths of AA is its lack of structure, organization, rules and regulations, and as it states in Tradition 3:
Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.
Bill Wilson wrote in the Grapevine in 1946,
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!
We often hear that all that is required to start an AA meeting is “two drunks, a resentment, and a coffee pot”.
There are now AA meetings that cater to every persuasion, and besides open and closed meetings, there are meetings solely for women, men, young people, Spanish speaking, Native Americans, LGBT, doctors & lawyers, and increasingly, freethinkers.
Freethinker meetings are now the fastest growing subset of meetings in AA, with over 245 meetings in seven different countries, the latest being Russia! In November 2014 there was the first freethinkers AA convention in Santa Monica, CA, with over 300 participants from 13 countries and 40 states, and the next convention is scheduled for November 2016 in Austin, TX.
I concede that freethinkers still comprise only a small fraction of AA as a whole, but it is worth remembering that, of the original ten men who formed the basis of early AA, two were atheist/agnostic: Hank Parkhurst and Jim Burwell. They argued tooth and nail with Bill W. and the Oxford Group wing, and were key in bringing about several significant changes in the Steps and Traditions. For example, In Step Two, “a Power greater than ourselves” replaced the word “God”. In Steps Three and Eleven, the word “God” was qualified by the addition of “as we understood Him”. Step Seven was originally “Humbly, on our knees, asked Him to remove our shortcomings” was amended to “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings”. And the wording “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery” was added to introduce all the Steps; they were being offered as “suggestions” rather than imposed as “rules”.
Jim Burwell was also the man credited with the wording of Tradition Three “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking” – plain, simple, short and sweet, with NO requirement for a belief in a higher power or in God. Burwell moved to San Diego and founded several meetings here, one of which is still going strong on North Torrey Pines at the hospital on Thursday nights.
Although they butted heads in the early days, Bill Wilson in the latter years was most gracious towards Jim and Hank. In a 1961 edition of his article in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, he stated:
Such were the final concessions to those of little or no faith. This was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.
In a 1961 Grapevine essay, “The Dilemma of No Faith”, he states:
In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking. “God as I understood him” had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude, but either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.
Personally, I love the Hindu proverb that states:
There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading in the same direction, and it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only one wasting time is the one who runs around and around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.
Our intention is not to drive a wedge between traditional and freethinker AA. Many newcomers, especially the younger generation, are put off by the repetition of the word ‘God’ in the Steps, seeing it as just another form of religion, and some are looking for any excuse as to why AA will not work for them.
In a world that is growing increasingly more secular, where millennials are proving to be the least religious generation, as evidenced by a recent SDSU survey, we Freethinkers provide a safe space where the newcomer can absorb what AA is really about, see it in action, and share in a way that is open and honest and does not compromise their own beliefs or those of others. Our meetings are conducted in a secular way that does not use prayer or discuss religion. Our religious or spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, are of no relevance to our recovery. We get our strength and hope from hearing how you have managed to recover and how, on a long term basis, stay clean and sober.
Every day I am touched, moved, and inspired by the courage and resilience I see in these rooms. Some of the best advice I got in early AA was from a former Catholic priest, who told me we are in AA to save our ass, not our souls. We experience AA not as a program, but rather as a fellowship with a suggested program.
There IS a power in AA that is far greater than any one individual, and that makes the impossible, possible. Many in AA refer to this Higher Power as God, while for others it is that fellowship, that “esprit-de-corps”, that unmistakable “energy” in the rooms. However, what we believe about something is far less important than what we experience. Experience is what transforms us. Belief is our attempt to explain. Experience trumps explanation any day in my book.
I would encourage you to attend a freethinkers meeting at least once; you may be pleasantly surprised at how similar and just as solution-focused they are as a regular AA meeting, and the lack of horns and forked tails may just surprise you! A typical preamble reads:
This group of AA attempts to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they too can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their own.
The meetings usually end with the Responsibility Pledge as opposed to the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer. This unique AA statement originated at the 1965 AA International Convention in Toronto and is printed on the back of every pamphlet:
I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that I am responsible.
Thank you, and may your God go with you.
Rob M. first got sober 20 years ago, and now lives in San Diego, CA.He is active in freethinker meetings there and co-founded a group in Solana Beach, “We Are Not Saints”. He is also an active participant in LifeRing Secular Recovery and Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist-based approach. He believes in the Hindu proverb: “There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading in the same direction, so it doesn’t matter which path you take. The only one wasting time is the one who runs around and around the mountain, telling everyone that his or her path is wrong”.