Chapter 14: Progress not Perfection

Chapter 14: Progress not Perfection

There were, however, controversies that emerged in the preparation of the Santa Monica, and the next, Austin, convention.

For the first secular AA convention, the problem was sometimes trying too hard to be acceptable to all in AA. To conform, as it were, to conventional AA.

One of those controversies erupted in early 2014 when the Steering Committee decided to ban non-Conference-approved literature at the convention.

The WAFT IAAC website, created to provide information about the convention and to allow people to register and pay to attend, had a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section.  And one day in early 2014 in that section was this question, “Will there be non-Conference-approved literature at the convention?” followed by this answer: “Because we are a part of AA… the steering committee (SC) has decided not to allow any non-Conference-approved literature at the convention.”

War broke out between the AA Agnostica side of the secular AA world and the convention Steering Committee.

And the Steering Committee went back and forth on the question, first saying there would be no non-Conference-approved literature, then saying the question was under consideration, then no again, and, after more objections, they replaced the “no” with a dash after the question “Will there be non-Conference-approved literature at the convention?” Presumably the dash meant either “we’re thinking about it” or “we’re avoiding dealing with it”. Finally, after a couple of weeks of hemming and hawing the Steering Committee conceded and said it would “make this (non-Conference-approved) literature available in a separate, clearly defined location”.

Why the debate at all? Why was there all the reluctance to include literature that hasn’t been published by the AAWS? Even the General Service Office acknowledges that the term Conference-approved “does not imply Conference disapproval of other material about AA. A great deal of literature helpful to alcoholics is published by others, and AA does not try to tell any individual member what he or she may or may not read”.

In the original FAQ on this subject, the Steering Committee said “Because we are a part of AA…” and then went on to “not allow” non-Conference-approved AA at the convention. The Committee was succumbing and conforming – knowingly or unknowingly – to the fundamentalists’ vision of AA.

The second controversy was very much related. It was the selection of keynote speakers.

The first one we learned about was Marya Hornbacher, the author of several books including Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power. It’s an excellent book and Marya turned out to be a wonderful speaker, and she spent all three days at the convention, also participating in a rather engaging panel called “Is Spirituality Compatible with Agnostic AA?”

But some – and not just a few – objected to Marya because she used her last name, and did not remain anonymous in line with Traditions Eleven and Twelve.

But let’s be clear, the Traditions are just that: Traditions. They are not Rules.

You also have to wonder just how relevant “anonymity” is today. We live in a different world, with the Internet and social media, and along with that the public acknowledgement and acceptance that many of us are afflicted with a variety of diseases, including addiction.

Is it the best thing to be “ashamed” of our alcoholism, and to try to hide it from others, to be “anonymous”? An organization founded in 2001, Faces and Voices of Recovery1, thinks not. It advocates for better funding, research and legislation for alcoholics and addicts and suggests that part of achieving those goals is for those with long-term recovery to: “Stand up, stand out, speak out, and be proud about it. Of course, in early recovery, many seek the comfort and cocoon of anonymity. Eventually, it would be great to let everyone see the butterflies. We are many and we are beautiful.”

That’s certainly a different approach to helping ourselves and others to sustain our recovery.

But back to the speakers.

The other two keynote speakers would turn out to be Phyllis Halliday, at the time the General Manager of the General Service Office and the other one was Reverend Ward Ewing, a former Class A (non-alcoholic) Trustee and Chairman of the General Service Board of AA.

Clearly both speakers were selected to emphasize the link between our secular movement within AA and AA itself.

There is nothing wrong with that. It is laudable. And the Steering Committee certainly deserves credit for acknowledging and respecting that link.

But the crux of the problem was the “Reverend” part. There were rather vehement objections to someone with a belief in God – and whose profession was to share that belief – as a speaker at a convention for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.

In an effort to deal with the problem, an article by Joe C was posted on AA Agnostica, A Reverend at the Agnostic AA Convention2. In it, Joe asks the question: “So, should a non-alcoholic, ordained minister speak at an AA convention for atheists and agnostics?” And ultimately his conclusion was: “I think it’s great that the committee asked Ward Ewing. I think it’s exciting that he agreed. Time will tell but my gut-instinct is that we will find a friend in the Reverend Ward Ewing.”

Nevertheless, it was a problem that would persist, and related disputes would break out shortly after Santa Monica.

On the first day of the Santa Monica convention, a new WAAFT (We Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers) IAAC (International Alcoholics Anonymous Convention) Board was elected with its mission being to organize the next convention for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. Also at that meeting, Austin, Texas, was selected as the location for the second international convention, to be held in 2016.

Dorothy, who had been re-elected as the Chair of the new Board, was targeted from the beginning. As John S, who worked with both Dorothy and the Board at the time, noted:  “There was an organized plot to overthrow her, and the plotters ended up taking over the show”.

In December of 2015, she submitted her resignation effective as of January 21, 2016. In her letter of resignation, she wrote:

I implore the board to literally reach out to the community when setting the tone and agenda for the convention. The tent should be big enough for everyone. If the convention is not as inclusive as possible, the WAAFT board will be behaving like those in AA we take considerable issue with.

And she nailed what was precisely the Board’s problem, at least at first: a not very inclusive approach. After Dorothy’s resignation and the addition of new members including a new Chair, only four of the initial eleven people elected in Santa Monica remained on the Board.

And there was a Program Committee with its very own, and peculiar, agenda. As noted in an article on AA Agnostica in April of 2016, The Second Secular AA Convention3, the first article published about a convention only a few months away:

Two members of the Program Committee, John C and John H, are apparently at least as extreme as Big Book Thumpers but on the opposite end of the spectrum: they are atheism thumpers. John H is aggressively opposed to any mention of the 12 Steps, secular or otherwise, and is contemptuous of words like “agnostic” or “spiritual”.

At a panel called “Afternoon with the Atheists” in the first hours of the first day of the Austin Convention, John H read the above quote. And then he said: “Guilty as charged”. He then went on to trash views not in line with his own, referring, for example, to secular 12 Steps as a “watered down version of the fucking Apostle’s Creed”.

As a member of that audience put it, people in AA need to:

focus on what they do, not what they don’t do and don’t think anyone else needs to do either. If you don’t do the steps, tell us what you DO do instead of bashing the steps. If you don’t use a higher power, tell us what you do without bashing the higher power. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics. (This talk was) an agenda that went beyond that. I found it very off-putting.

Others would also later report that this first panel, and particularly the John H rants, set a negative tone for the convention. Indeed one woman stopped going to AA meetings of any kind after Austin as she felt “very disenchanted after the conference”.

There were, it should be acknowledged, other problems with the Austin convention.

One of them had to do with speakers, or the lack thereof. While the convention had three “Fellowship Speakers”, and all three of them spoke on the first night, it had no “Keynote Speakers”.

And that was a problem.

You see, listening to fellowship speakers, people like ourselves, in this case atheists and agnostics in AA, is a lot like talking to ourselves. Talking in a mirror. Sure, you understand and respect the views expressed. Sure you agree with them. But, anything new? Rarely.

What you should get from a keynote speaker, if she or he has been well chosen, is a larger perspective, a bigger picture. An understanding of how your views fit in the grander scheme of things. These are talks that are thankfully “out of the box”. They should be talks that are both illuminating and a genuine source of inspiration.

That’s why there are speakers at conventions.

But the Board would have none of that.

The only proposed “keynote speaker” for this convention was Ami Brophy, the Executive Editor and Publisher of the AA Grapevine. The proposal resulted in chaos. She was considered an outsider… The Grapevine had far too many religious articles… A member of the Board, John C, threatened to organize demonstrations outside the entrance to the convention if she were to speak.

The Board yielded to him, and to not including any “keynote” speakers at the Convention.

In an article posted on AA Beyond Belief shortly after the convention, Thinking About Austin4, John S wrote:

I will say that I think the organizers of the convention dropped the ball by not giving Ami a full hour to speak to the entire convention on her own. I mean, she is the Executive Editor Publisher! It’s a big deal. She speaks at the General Service Conference. There was a lot that we could have learned from her. If you had read her presentation to the last General Service Conference, I think you would understand just how forward thinking she is…

The absence of keynote speakers was clearly one of the failings of the Austin convention.

But let’s stop there. Let’s now talk about its successes. Because in the end it was a successful convention.

Like the Santa Monica convention, the Austin convention had a large variety of panels, workshops and meetings. It had over a dozen panels, ranging in topics from secular literature in AA (with Ami Brophy from the AA Grapevine as a panelist) to our movement’s relationship to “conventional” AA. It had workshops on everything from “stoicism” to “meditation and recovery” to “the history of atheists and agnostics in AA”. It had over twenty marathon AA meetings, organized and chaired by agnostic groups from around the world.

And, most importantly, it had an attendance of some 400 alcoholic men and women who shared, in a way that is only possible at an international convention of this sort, the “you are not alone” experience. As John S put it, prior to the convention, “No matter what, people will have fun. It’s really about getting together”. He was absolutely correct.

Read on. In the next Chapter, life-j will describe the Austin Convention, as he experienced it.

1 Faces and Voices of Recovery:

2 A Reverend at the Agnostic AA Convention:

3 The Second Secular AA Convention:

4 Thinking About Austin:

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17 Responses

  1. Jeano says:

    What are the dates of the Toronto convention and where is it being held?

  2. Dale K says:

    We are young, but maturing quickly. Errors will continue to be made. It’s okay. What’s important is that these convention exist and thrive. See ya’ll in Toronto!

  3. life-j says:

    Roger thanks, good article, challenges us to look at whether we’re doing the right thing or not. As for Rev Ewing, for instance, especially now that we (meaning ICSAA) call ourselves secular, rather than specifically atheists and agnostics, I can contribute that we have in our freethinkers meeting here in Laytonville someone who is a devout Christian, but who is of the opinion that religion has no place in the core tenets of the program.

    Religion is everyone’s private business, but if a person has something worthwhile to contribute even if it be a religious person, one needs to look at what they’re saying, not at what one thinks they will be saying that one expects to not agree with, or presume that just because they are religious they couldn’t possibly have anything intelligent to say.

    I am aware I am guilty of this sometimes myself. A logical fallacy called DAMNING THE SOURCE: (ad hominem, sometimes called the genetic fallacy) attempts to refute an argument by indicting the source of the argument, rather than the substance of the argument itself.

  4. Ron says:

    “Instead of bashing the HP share what has worked for you”. The reality is one cannot share what has worked for him/her since AA is closed to outside information and non conf approved literature. Information is controlled!

    • Roger says:

      That’s not accurate, Ron. You are absolutely free at a secular AA meeting to “share what has worked for you”.

      AA agnostic meetings endeavour to maintain a tradition of free expression, and to 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. In keeping with AA tradition, we do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.

      That’s the Agnostic AA Preamble.

      • Ron says:

        Thanks Roger but I was speaking of regular AA meetings. So I don’t think my point is invalid.

    • Dale K says:

      I’ve been to many regular AA meetings where one is allowed to say what they wish. Others may not approve, but everyone is allowed (if not encouraged) to share their honest ESH. I dare say every Intergroup office has plenty of literature that is not conference approved. Even Joe C. has his book in 1 or 2 of them.

      • Ron says:

        Intolerance is the rule in Reno as well as many places I have been. So it depends on where you are located. Up in Truckee the meetings are more open minded but there are many many intolerant locales. Enough for me to stop doing AA after 20 years.

  5. Diane I says:

    With regard to anonymity, I do believe times have changed somewhat in that the “stigma” of alcoholism is a lot less. I think it is inappropriate for any of us in AA to break someone else’s anonymity. However, if I want to break my own anonymity, I don’t see it as a problem. There shouldn’t be any shame attached to being an alcoholic. In fact finding out that someone else is alcoholic helps to reduce the shame and stigma. I believe that “hiding” our alcoholism helps to increase the shame. I think anyone can say they are an alcoholic at a public level, that is their business, the tradition is saying that we can’t say we are in AA because that would be “promotion”. At least that is my understanding.

  6. Ron says:

    AA is not secular and one hears about religion all the time, specifically monotheism and Christianity. It tries to say this one god, one HP is universal and in fact Al-Anon openly says it is universal no matter your religious faith or none (this is read at every meeting). The steps are based on Christianity so how can AA ever be secular?

    • marj says:

      It can’t be. It isn’t. This is why with 25 years of sobriety I stopped going to regular meetings 5 years ago.


  7. Arlene J says:

    I have been sober since May 9, 1969 and go to AA meeting every day and do not believe in god.

    I go to meetings where not called on because of my non belief.

    Sober on 5 principals honesty, open-mindness, forgiveness, willingness, humility.

  8. John S. says:

    It’s been a rocky road, but it’s comforting to know that what began in Santa Monica is now in its third generation of Trusted Servants and the third biennial convention will be held in Toronto in 2018. The existing board has experience with AA Service and they are keeping in mind this history as they plan the conference in 2018.

    If you have never experienced a secular AA conference, I would urge you to attend. After Santa Monica there have been a number of regional conferences that you can check out if you aren’t able to make the International. There is the Widening the Gateway Conference in Olympia, WAAFT Arizona in Tempe, Secular Ontario AA Roundup in Toronto, and undoubtedly more will be sure to come.

    • Joe C says:

      When I was new in AA I was never more that a couple of hours away from saying “fuck it.” A lot of it had to do not feeling “a part of” AA. In my early days, it was stumbling into the young people’s movement that I found an AA I wanted to be a part of. I was a teenager. It wasn’t that other members weren’t inviting me to the table, but they weren’t talking my language. Some of them were over 30, you know! Hearing others – in their teens and twenties – talk “AA” made sense to me.

      Secular gatherings of AA can be the same way for alcoholics who hold a naturalism worldview. In a journal article, Michael Shermer uses this definition of naturalism:

      …the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that can be understood, and that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, including human cognitive, moral and social phenomena. The application of scientific naturalism in the human realm led to the widespread adoption of Enlightenment humanism, a cosmopolitan worldview that places supreme value on science and reason, eschews the supernatural entirely and relies exclusively on nature and nature’s laws, including human nature.

      Now, if one identifies with all or some of this, there may be limited value to learning about addiction and recovery in the company of big book zealots. “Wait for the miracle to happen,” might comfort everyone the way it would for our more religious members.

      So, I’m with John; if you haven’t been to a day or a weekend of AA articulated without a supernatural worldview, it might be just the thing to help you feel that maybe AA has a place for you. I needed the reinforcement of people my own age when I was young and I certainly enjoy the company of AAs who don’t share the widely popular supernatural view of addiction and recovery that much of AA is satisfied with.

  9. Thomas B. says:

    I am ever so grateful, Roger, to have experienced with you both of these momentous milestones in our movement of sober agnostics, atheists and freethinkers within AA.

    Though Austin was a slight deviation away from being fully active within AA, I am confident that the Toronto Convention shall enhance and deepen our connection as an integral part of AA.

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