Chapter 4: Early History
It all began, ironically enough, in a church, the Unitarian Universalist Church.
And it was started by a guy by the name of Wilson, but not Bill, Don Wilson.
Don was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church and had been for a number of years. He had first joined in his mid-teens, in his home town of Omaha, Nebraska. “I joined this church free of dogma or creed, and have ever since shared in the music-making and the Sunday services of one or another Unitarian-Universalist congregation.”
He was also an alcoholic and a member of AA.
It hadn’t always been easy for Don. In the early sixties he had tried AA and had attended meetings for six months but left, put off by all the religiosity. “I was unable to work it, because of the religious language in which the 12 steps are couched,” he said.
He came back a decade later. His drinking had almost killed him. This time he decided he had to tough it out, no matter how hard.
After about four years of sobriety, in the autumn of 1974, he gave a talk at the Second Unitarian Church on Barry Street on the topic, “An Agnostic in AA: How it Works for Me.”
The talk was well received by the congregation, and he ended up delivering it in several Unitarian churches. In fact, one of the ministers encouraged him to start an AA meeting especially for atheists and agnostics.
The first ever meeting in AA explicitly for nonbelievers was held on January 7, 1975.
In Chicago. In a church.
And thus was born Quad A: Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics (AAAA).
Don not only founded the group in Chicago, but he also played a role in starting the Quad A groups in Evanston and Oak Park.
On February 22, 1995, The Chicago Tribune published an article with the headline, A Different Road: Quad A Offers Help to Alcoholics Who Don’t Buy Into God.
It begins like this:
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).
A brief history of Quad A in Chicago, it ends most appropriately:
“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.
More than 30 years after the first ever AA meeting for nonbelievers, a Quad A Unity Conference was held on September 13, 2009, in Chicago. More than a hundred people attended. By their very presence, they were able to “bear witness to the reality that there are hundreds of atheists and agnostics who are working the program and staying sober,” Chuck K, principal organizer of the event, told those in attendance in his welcoming remarks.
The Conference also came with a sixteen page leaflet which contained the Conference schedule and included other terrific speakers. It had an article about Don Wilson, “A Man of Distinction”. It contained a copy of the 1995 article written in the Chicago Tribune, “A Different Road”. It also contained several versions of secular Steps and in the end it described AA in eight words, organized as four times two words. The first two words were “Quit Drinking”. The second two words “Trust AA”. The third two words “Clean House”. And the last two words “Help Others”.
A pretty simple understanding of AA.
The keynote address was delivered by Lisa D, and it was called, “How a Humanist Works the AA Program.”
Lisa described how she had come to understand that human values – “empathy, compassion, integrity, mindfulness, honesty, open-mindedness, diligence, excellence, serenity, courage, wisdom, and of course intimacy” – were the “greater power” to which she must strive to align herself.
Her talk was about how she worked the 12 Steps. Humanists, atheists, agnostics, secularists work the 12 Steps and, like everybody else following the suggested AA program of recovery, each does it according to his or her belief or lack of belief.
Early in her talk, Lisa expresses her gratitude that “the very first meetings I ever attended were Quad A.” Otherwise, if she had heard the God bit in her early attempts at sobriety she might have “run out the door screaming” and picked up again.
The “Man of Distinction”, Don Wilson, hadn’t been so lucky. There were not any such meetings when he stumbled, and was back out for a decade. However, having stumbled, having picked himself up, he started the first ever group and meeting explicitly for agnostics and atheists.
He defined his agnosticism very simply: “I could never believe in a God small enough to fit inside my head.”
And it is also clear that without him Quad A would not have been born.
Chuck K, the organizer of the Quad A Unity Conference mentioned earlier, reported at the We Agnostics and Atheists Conference in Austin in 2016 (more on this later) that Don was both a musician and he also loved to play cards. He became very well known within Chicago Alcoholics Anonymous because of his reputation both as a card player and as a musician. He was also a very sociable and outgoing guy.
The Quad A meetings were not listed in the Chicago AA directory until the 1980s, more than five years after they had been launched. A lawyer, John K, pushed for that and wanted them listed, but the Central AA Office was reluctant to list these groups. “This is Don’s group,” he told them. And so as Chuck reported: “Everybody knew Don and so the atheist / agnostic group became Don’s group in the minds of many of the people who were in the Central Office. The next directory, there we were. Officially listed AA, Quad A: Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics”.
Don expired with the old millennium. Fittingly, a memorial service was held for him at the Second Unitarian Church.
Today Quad A is going strong. There are twelve meetings in Chicagoland. They are listed by the Chicago Intergroup and in fact one of the search options when you are looking for a meeting on the Chicagoland Intergroup site is called “Atheist / Agnostic”. So you can actually look for those secular meetings in Chicago.
Los Angeles and Austin
“I am the daddy of all the ‘We Agnostics’ groups!”
The man who spoke those words, Charlie Polacheck, died on February 27, 2012, at the age of 98. They are ten words that no other human being could have ever uttered, which places them in a rather unique category.
And Charlie may indeed have at least partial ownership of the “We Agnostics” brand in Alcoholics Anonymous.
He co-founded the very first AA group ever to be called “We Agnostics,” in 1980 in Los Angeles. Of course the name “We Agnostics” is also a chapter in the Big Book.
When I talked to Charlie, he was quite surprised. I told him that I was writing an article “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA” and his response was almost a shriek: “Really!” It was so exciting to him that we go public on this. It was so exhilarating to him that this would cease to be a secret within AA.
The other co-founder, Megan D, was new to sobriety. She remembers starting the group with Charlie:
I got sober on Jan. 1, 1980. My first regular meeting took place immediately. I met Charlie about a month later. We spoke of our mutual atheism and he told me there were many of us in the program, but that we kept a low profile. About three months later he came to me and asked me to help him start a meeting for people like us. We were so cute trying to decide what to call ourselves. We finally decided to name our meeting after Chapter 4 of the Big Book.
At the time Charlie was 66 years old and had been sober in AA for nine years. “I was a nonbeliever and I felt that it was only fitting and proper to have a meeting which was friendly to nonbelievers.”
According to Nick H, the chair of the host committee for the We Agnostic and Atheists Conference in Austin, Texas in 2016, reported Charlie was fooled into attending his first AA meeting by his wife. “He went and he was horrified”, Nick reported.
The meeting was at a Catholic Church and it was full of God stuff from beginning to end and Charlie told a friend that “I am never going to another one as long as I live. It was horrible”.
But he did though. And after nine years started the “We Agnostics” meeting. He was not a big fan of the Big Book, nor was he a fan of Chapter Four, according to Nick. “But he decided that he needed to call the meeting ‘We Agnostics’ so that there was some tie to Alcoholics Anonymous in general.”
Shawn M describes “meeting hunting” in the Los Angeles AA directory when he came across the We Agnostics meeting and, curious, he decided to attend one of their meetings. He later wrote:
This was a group of people that did not subscribe to any notion of canned theology or cultish adherence to anything besides this: “no matter what” one does not put alcohol anywhere near the lips or nostrils. Also, if craving or life made you feel like jumping out of your skin, you must pick up the phone and talk with another meeting member. We help each other – “no matter what.” That was the guiding principle of the LA We Agnostics AA group.
At the end of the meeting, Charlie handed Shawn a piece of paper “that looked like one of the slips of paper from a fortune cookie” with the name “Charlie” on it along with a seven digit phone number.
This is what Charlie did. Over the course of more than four decades of sobriety, he had literally hundreds of sponsees. As his son put it, “He dedicated his life to helping others achieve sobriety, sponsoring hundreds to find a new way of living without alcohol.”
He became Shawn’s sponsor.
He was not an easy sponsor. Doing the Steps with Charlie was hardly a warm, pleasant experience. Brutal in fact. Much better than almost any shrink I had ever encountered and overwhelmingly wise. That was my first steps go around. Subsequent redoing of the Steps work proved simply enlightening with Charlie. It helped keep me sober then and still does now.
Charlie had had a tough life, which may in part explain why he was so devoted to helping others. His father had committed suicide when Charlie was 14 years old. His granddaughter, Angeliska, blamed this event for his alcoholism: “It was this tragedy that shaped who my grandfather would come to be: for half his life, an alcoholic who drowned his pain in drink, an actor, a collector of masks.”
But he found AA. Angeliska (Angel) continues:
There is no doubt that this program saved his life, and my grandparent’s marriage. Through AA my Grampa came through the tempest of his anger, his loss, and the void left by his father’s death, to become one of the most serene and wise sages I have ever known.
Charlie was a staunch atheist. “His heritage was Jewish but unlike many atheistic Jews, Charlie did not observe the holidays or traditions. That would have been a treasonous act to Charlie,” Shawn reports.
But he was a most spiritual man. Angel says: “My grandfather once told me that he was not a religious person, but that he was a spiritual person. I thank him for showing me, and many others, the freedom of that distinction.” Shortly after his death, Angeliska posted her grandfather’s favorite haiku online and it goes like this: “In the midst of a meadow / a skylark singing / free from everything”. A number of people I talked to described him as one of the most spiritual human beings they had ever met.
Constantly being called upon to explain in AA his understanding of a “higher power,” he eventually decided he could tolerate the notion that it was the “E” in “E=MC2”. It was “the total of all the energy in the universe,” according to his granddaughter.
Charlie moved to Austin in 2000 to be closer to his sons. On August 21, 2001 he achieved another first by launching the “We Agnostics” group of Austin, Texas.
Shortly after that, on May 3, 2002, he helped Nick launch the Children of Chaos agnostic group. The group’s name is based on a line from the second paragraph of Tradition Four, in the Twelve and Twelve book: “Children of chaos, we have defiantly played with every brand of fire…”
Charlie got things going in Austin.
“He was a big, important part of starting these meetings”, Nick reported, “and he said that there were three things you could boil the steps down to: unconditional love, consistent responsibility and rigorous honesty”.
When Charlie died in 2012 he was 98 years old and had more than 41 years of continuous sobriety. Hearing of his death, Shawn wrote:
Charlie gave unselfishly and saved countless lives. He did not care to keep score. He was a very devoted loving husband, father, grandfather and great-great-grandfather. Charlie was significant contributor. He saved lives and reinstalled the ability to experience joy into many hearts. He was a holy man.
He remained active in the program until the very end, holding AA meetings at his bedside and receiving AA visitors up to the last week of his life. Nick was there for his last chip in 2012.
Today, there are eight meetings for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in Austin.
Intergroup for Austin – Hill County, it’s called – also lists “Atheist / Agnostic” as a “meeting type”. So if someone is looking for a meeting for atheists and agnostics in Austin there is a category called “Atheists / Agnostics” that can be clicked on.
By the way, the meeting that Charlie started in Hollywood in 1980 still meets every Tuesday and it’s going strong.
Agnostic AA flourished in California in ways that it didn’t flourish in other areas.
New York City and Boca Raton
The very first agnostic group in New York City was called ‘We Atheists’ and its first meeting was held on September 10, 1986.
The group had three founders. They were Ada Halbeirch, David L and John Yablon. How they came together to do this is a remarkable story, all on its own.
The three – who did not know one another – answered an ad in the spring 1986 issue of Free Inquiry, a secular humanist magazine which, to this day, is circulated across America. The ad was from Harry, a Californian, and was addressed to atheists and agnostic members of AA who were having trouble with the religious nature of most meetings.
Over the next several weeks, Harry wrote to the three Easterners and provided encouragement and reassurance that they were not alone as agnostics trying to work the AA program to the best of their ability. He told them how it worked in Los Angeles and sent them a copy of the materials read at the agnostic group meeting he was involved with, We Agnostics of Pasadena.
Ada made the necessary arrangements with AA offices in New York and offered her apartment, on the upper east side of Manhattan, as a meeting site.
Ada was a very passionate woman, a socialist and a very wealthy New Yorker (her foundation continues to give to charities across the U.S.). She put together a meeting script, which is still used by the group today. It contains an extensive excerpt from Dr Bob’s last talk, delivered at the First International AA Conference on July 30th, 1950, in Cleveland. In Ada’s script, the meetings end with the group standing in a circle, holding hands, and chanting: “Live and let live.”
Regular meetings of the We Agnostics of New York City AA group were soon in full swing with John Y and David L in attendance. Later the ever-growing group moved to its present location at the Jan Hus Church, where it still meets. The church found the word “Atheist” a bit harsh, and so the name of the group was changed to “We Humanists”.
Much of the history in the preceding paragraphs is excerpted from the group’s 1989 newsletter, called Sampler. The article was called, “Now It Can Be Told: A Bi-Coastal Tale of Two Cities.” It was of course all about the tale of a city on the Pacific Coast, Los Angeles, and how someone from that city had come to the aid of alcoholics in New York City, on the Atlantic Coast.
After Ada helped to start the NYC meetings, she, a “snowbird from New York”, was part of starting a We Agnostics meeting in 1987 in Delray Beach, Florida. It was held at Crossroads, a large AA meeting hall, in a small non-smoking room across from the main room where traditional AA held its meetings. The other person involved was Henry Hellmuth, a native Floridian.
Henry always identified himself as Henry Half Measure. He believed that a lack of faith in gods was seen by AA as a half measure. He was very proud that this half measure availed him plenty of long term sobriety.
As soon as the Crossroads clubhouse realized that the meeting rejected God, however, they were at odds with each other and didn’t get along. The We Agnostics group was getting kicked out of the Crossroads so in 1988 Ada and Henry moved the meeting to a Unitarian Fellowship church in Boca Raton. It still meets there to this day on Friday nights.
Two current members of the group, Valerie and Elizabeth, put together a brief history of We Agnostics meeting in Boca Raton which, apparently, “went light on sponsorship and heavy on socialization”. They add:
The focus (of the meeting) is on the sense of self identity and non religious openness to positive change – which some refer to as spiritual growth – connecting with others to share strengths and weaknesses. Alternative 12 Steps and Living Sober literature are read and are available today. It is common for the chair to read from “Language of the Heart”, a piece which describes the practice of allowing all who enter to partake regardless of their religious affiliations or lack thereof. This alternative group is fiercely dedicated to keeping a non-didactic meeting open to provide a respite for those who do not attend traditional meetings. We Agnostics strive not only to remain sober but to enjoy the journey.
Henry Hellmuth’s sobriety date was August 16, 1982. He died Nov 6, 2014, with 32 years of sobriety.
Ada Halbeirch died in August, 2005, at the age of 83. She had more than 30 years of sobriety. Joan F, a member of We Humanists of New York City, visited Ada’s grave site. She reported that, at Ada’s request, her tombstone states that Ada “started an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for Atheists and Agnostics”.
John Yablon died on March 10, 2003. He was a co-founder of the Secular Humanist Society of New York City, a life-long resident of the Bronx and a veteran of World War II. Born in 1921, he got sober in 1962.
He was the kind of guy who makes a point of shaking hands with everyone in the room prior to an AA meeting. In November, 2002, John celebrated his 40th anniversary of sobriety and told those present, “I never said a prayer in my life.”
David L, who now lives in Texas, got sober in 1980. He remembers as a child trying to figure out what people meant when they talked about God. “It didn’t make any sense to me and I just couldn’t do it. That lasted the rest of my life, pretty much.” He said that when he got to AA, he had to “hang on to everything else,” except the God part, to make it work.
Today, there are thirteen meetings in New York City for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. Under the search again for meetings there is something called a “special interest” category where you can click on “Agnostic” and again find these meetings.
A History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.
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