Widening the Gateway
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.
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (p. 167)
By Tom L.
My Path in AA
So I was an alcoholic, or so I had been convinced in my rehab stint. Told I had to get into AA, get a home group and get a sponsor, I did as directed. This led, in rapid succession, to getting fired by my sponsor for taking an antidepressant, followed by his suggestion to find a different home group that allowed those taking “mind altering substances”, but there was no recommendation of a group for me. A rocky beginning to my AA “hope, strength and experience”; it became my discouragement, disillusionment and quick exit from AA as I knew it.
I looked for an AA substitute, meanwhile not drinking as I considered the alternatives. I was soon back in the AA rooms. Over the next few years, I had almost forgotten that I had wanted to check out a meeting nearby, “We Agnostics”. This could have been my first AA experience. That is, it could have been if the meeting still existed. I went to the location twice, but there was no meeting there. It no longer met, if it ever did.
Conformity of any kind, let alone to Big Book AA meetings I only tolerated, was not my strong suit. But I did get a home group of the traditional bend in the Seattle area. There were readings from the Big Book, and each meeting ended in a circle with us all reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Religion had been a part of my upbringing. I left that behind at age 20, as my family’s Pentecostal religion had nothing to offer me but lies and condemnation. I did not dwell on what I was or was not philosophically.
In recent years, on occasion, I have gone to church with my religious friends and relatives without feeling any attraction or revulsion. I began to read philosophers, with the work of Jacques Derrida appealing to my newfound yearning to find out where I belong, in “the grand scheme” of things.
Derrida was a 20th century philosopher who, though saying he could rightly pass as an atheist, still was haunted by the religion of his youth. He could be brought to tears and prayed, yet he had no assumption he was praying to a god. Likewise, in AA I found some positivism in the serenity prayer and the prayer of St. Francis. I knew I wasn’t a “believer”, but I had no revulsion when saying the Lord’s Prayer to close an AA meeting. What I eventually came to reject were claims of miracles and God’s work in the lives of alcoholics (which I didn’t believe) and sealing an AA meeting with a prayer. I would cringe when asked to pray to “invite God into the room” to start a meeting. For a program like AA that has honesty at its bedrock, it seemed disingenuous to say it was not religious and then use Christian prayers and claim miracles happen (“don’t leave before the miracle”).
In my Big Book study home group of a few years ago I was tolerated as a heretic. However, I felt compelled not to destroy the physical unity of clutching sweaty hands in a circle and mouthing the Lord’s Prayer to close the meeting. But this cognitive dysfunction had to be righted internally for me.
In late 2014 I began attending an Atheists’ in Sobriety Meetup group in north Seattle. The people I met there had only two things in common: atheism and a history of substance addiction.
It was from this weekly meeting that I decided to start a secular AA meeting in my Seattle suburb community of Burien in 2015. Fearing the fate of that We Agnostics meeting I had looked for initially in my sobriety, I committed to start a meeting that would establish a permanent group, and one that fit AA definitions of a “group”. Thus the first Many Paths in Washington state group was born, with the first weekly meeting on Sunday, November 1, 2015.
That first Many Paths meeting was planned so as to be accepted in our local Greater Seattle Intergroup directory, and it got it without hesitation. The intergroup manager attended our Sunday meeting and seemed satisfied. Simultaneously the group was listed with W. Washington Area 72 AA and the General Service Organization in New York (group service number 000717089).
Shortly thereafter, a second weekly incidence of Many Paths was started on Wednesday evenings. Both meetings have met weekly ever since their inception. In May of this year a third weekly instance of Many Paths was begun on Capitol Hill in Seattle, meeting at 5 PM Sundays. Expecting outrage from conventional AA members in the area, there was none.
Others started secular meetings, including a secular NA meeting. This sense of normalcy was heightened when soon after our group’s start there was a conference of like-minded AA members held in Washington state, “Widening the Gateway”.
Our Burien groups participate in district meetings, and recently attended the W. Washington Area 72 annual assembly, sitting and voting as members of District 31. In every sense, we belong to W. Washington AA.
Five from our Many Paths groups went to Austin for the second international convention in 2016. We felt a warm sense of camaraderie among secular AA members at the convention, and this at a time when AA generally was having a drop in membership in North America. It seemed the secular membership was in an upswing internationally.
Widening the Gateway Conference
As mentioned above, in January 2016 there was a regional secular AA conference in Olympia, WA. Called “Widening the Gateway”, several of our group’s members attended it and felt part of a larger community with our way of doing AA. Keynoted by Michael B from London, and with the participation of Roger C providing a historical background of secular AA in North America, attendees came from the west coast and beyond.
Attendance that year was probably double what was anticipated by the organizers in Olympia. We from Many Paths felt finally at home in a setting we didn’t have to interpret into our framework to feel welcome. We knew that we wouldn’t be pressured by the group to pray or thank a higher power. We knew we weren’t the black sheep of AA, and not some aberration to be tolerated or pitied.
Buoyed by that first conference in Washington last year, we are planning a second Widening the Gateway conference for March 31, 2018. To be held in Tacoma, it will be a one day event on Saturday, and opportunities to fellowship will be available. The day will provide breakouts for discussions of recovery, unity and service in a secular context. The website for this conference is under construction now, but a Widen the Gateway 2018 announcement is in AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief websites.
So I was an alcoholic, as I had been convinced in rehab. But I was not doomed to be part of my grandfather’s AA. The blossoming of a more relevant AA experience is now part of the AA I know, a secular AA where there is truly a singular purpose. Honesty is sincere, our experience is more pertinent to the times, and we can attest to the Big Book quote — we have ceased fighting anybody or anything — as we welcome all in AA who wish to join us.