One Big Tent

Review by Thomas B.

A most auspicious event took place during the opening Panel of the recent third Biennial International Secular AA Conference that took place during August 24 through 26 in Toronto, Canada — Jon W, Senior Editor of The AA Grapevine, announced the publication this month of One Big Tent, Atheist and agnostic AA members share their experience, strength and hope.

He also  had graciously arranged for 250 copies to be available for sale to those attending the Toronto conference.

This collection of stories from AA members who are atheist, agnostic or nonbelievers – and successfully sober in AA – finally fulfills the request initially made in July of 1976, by two AA trustees, members of the Literature Committee, for literature to be published by the GSO for atheists and agnostics “to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification”.

During the intervening decades, a number of further requests from the AA fellowship for such literature were made and considered at several of the annual AA General Service Conferences held each April. However, none of these received the requisite two-thirds majority of substantial unanimity for approval by the Conference. Roger C has reported on these efforts in several articles, such as An AA Pamphlet for Agnostics – The 1980s, on AA Agnostica.

Following one other request for literature for atheists and agnostics, the General Service Conference in 2009 did approve the publication of a pamphlet which it claimed was for atheists and agnostics. Some 300 stories from atheist and agnostic AA members were collected by GSO with the anticipation that they would constitute a substantial portion of the pamphlet.

In August of 2014 the pamphlet, Many Paths to Spirituality, was  finally published by GSO, and it landed with a resounding thud of disapproval among members of the secular AA community. However, the pamphlet contained no stories from atheist and agnostic alcoholics sober in AA. Not a single one. Rather, it was a hodgepodge of disjointed quotes, which were succinctly described by one commentator as “Chapter 4: We Agnostics-lite.”

AA Agnostica published a scathing review by Chris G of the pamphlet on August 13, 2014, followed by a Roger C commentary the following Sunday, Still No Pamphlet for Agnostics in AA. In his commentary Roger reported that some 100 secular AA members rated it with a 1.7-star rating out of a 5-star maximum, including some 58 comments, the vast majority of which were sorely displeased with this effort. These were sent to delegates, board members and staff of GSO.

In late 2014, life-j, an atheist member from Northern California, compiled from the Grapevine archives some 39 stories written by atheists and agnostics that had been previously published by the Grapevine, beginning in 1962. In an article published on AA Agnostica, A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics in AA, life-j and AA Agnostica requested permission from the Grapevine to publish a book of these articles. This request was denied. AA Agnostica then requested that the Grapevine publish a book of our stories similar to other special purpose literature it had published for African-American, Hispanic, Women, Youth and LGBTQ members of AA. This request too was denied. And that led to the article, No Grapevine Books for Atheists in AA, posted on AA Agnostica.

But the pressure for the Grapevine to publish such a book continued on AA Agnostica. In 2016 I wrote a letter to the Grapevine again and we got this response: “Your request was presented at the AA Grapevine Board of Directors January 28, 2016 quarterly meeting. The Board discussed your request and will forward (it) to the Conference for approval.”

And indeed, at the April, 2016 General Service Conference, the Grapevine asked the body of delegates if it could publish a book of stories from atheist and agnostic members of AA. The answer was yes!

As a kind of test-run, the October, 2016 Grapevine issue published a special section for atheist and agnostic members. This section featured five stories by atheist and agnostic AA members and a sixth article by former Chair of the General Service Board, Ward Ewing, who was a keynote speaker at the first 2014 Secular AA Conference in Santa Monica.

Skies did not fall, seas did not boil, mountains did not crumble !!!

One Big Tent LifeAt the April 2018 General Service Conference, the  AA Grapevine announced it would soon publish a book of stories by atheist and agnostic members. One Big Tent, Atheist and agnostic AA members share their experience, strength and hope, some forty-two years after it was first proposed, has finally come, indeed, to a most fruitful and beneficial reality.

One Big Tent without doubt effectively demonstrates at least two things:

One Big Tent RogerFirst, that our efforts – the work of life-j, AA Agnostica and many, many others – were an important part in the publication of One Big Tent. The Senior Editor of the AA Grapevine, in copies of the book given to life-j and Roger, acknowledges our contribution in getting this book put together and published.

Let’s continue to fight for what is right within the recovery fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. It has results!

Second, One Big Tent recognized that atheists, agnostics, even militant nonbelievers, are sanctioned and legitimate members of AA as long as they meet the only requirement for AA membership – a desire to stop drinking – as our third tradition states. It demonstrates once and for all that no AA member is required to conform to the beliefs of other members nor do they need to deny their own.

Let’s now examine this historic publication, a major milestone in the ongoing history of AA.

* * *

The general introduction to the book, One Big Tent, states that each of the 43 stories in the book were written by “atheists, agnostics, freethinkers or nonbelievers, who have struggled with alcoholism, yet ultimately found a common solution in AA.” Following the general introduction, the book consists of five chapters with stories related to the following themes, also the names of each of the five chapters:

  1. Staying Sober – No Matter What
  2. Supporting Each Other
  3. One Among Many
  4. Group Life
  5. One Big Tent

The first chapter, “Staying Sober – No Matter What,” has nine stories. It includes a story from Jim B., the first acknowledged atheist/agnostic in AA, who is credited with inserting the phrase, “as we understand Him” after God in the third and eleventh steps.

As the specific introduction notes, each of the stories illustrate “each AA is free to find his or her own way of staying sober.”

Chapter Two, “Supporting Each Other,” also has nine stories, which relate how non-religious members of AA care for and support each other. Now 32 years sober, Jack B. came into AA recovery at age 21. In addition to being young, he was gay and waffled between being either an atheist or an agnostic due to his religious upbringing. In his story “Three Strikes, You’re In,” he emphatically urges AA members to be true to themselves and to resist conforming to any majority point of view:

So dare to be as authentic as you can. Sameness is boring. I am grateful my terminal uniqueness didn’t chase me away from AA. Today I celebrate the differences that made the beginning of my recovery difficult. The Fellowship made me feel like I belonged for the first time in my life.

The third chapter, “One Among Many” consists of eight stories that demonstrate essentially that “AA is a We Program,” as the sub-title states. An anonymous writer in the story “An Atheist Asks,” however, seriously questions if AA is truly a “We” program by pointing out a phenomenon which occurs in many AA groups throughout North America:

“We” can’t claim to love and include everyone who wants to stop drinking – and then make that love conditional on the acceptance of spiritual beliefs,    especially when the only spiritual choice presented in our literature is nothing but a thinly veiled Christian idiom.

He closes his story with a most pertinent question, “Does my faith (or, lack thereof) afford me the courage to put aside my fears for the opportunity of understanding something different?” To me, this in essence correlates to the core of AA’s inclusive code of love and tolerance, as noted on page 84 of the Big Book.

Chapter Four, “Group Life,” has seven stories, including a story by AA Agnostica author, life-j, which examines the idea and experience that participation in AA service work is a key component for many AA members who are nonbelievers, whether at the group level or higher up at District and Area. In my four-and-a-half decades of recovery in AA, I’ve known many atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers who are actively involved in AA service work.

A friend, Sam E, Chairperson of Secular AA, posits that this is so because when you look at AA’s Twelve Concepts of Service, which delineate how AA governs itself unlike either the Steps or the Traditions, there is not one mention of the “God” word.

A prominent example of this is AA’s first nonbeliever, Jim B., who died in 1974 after 36 years of continuous sobriety, and who described himself as being “a militant agnostic!” Jim started the first AA groups in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Later, he also started groups with his wife, Rosa, after he retired to San Diego. As well, he was instrumental in the publication of the landmark Saturday Evening Post article by Jack Alexander, which first brought nationwide publicity to AA in March of 1941.

The concluding Chapter Five, “One Big Tent” delineates the title of the book with ten stories which describe how due to the overarching principle of Unity every AA member potentially can find a comfortable place within the Fellowship of AA.

In his story, “Practice, But Don’t Preach,” Eddie B. from Ahwahnee, California, perhaps most succinctly states the essence of what One Big Tent means for each member of AA:

This is a spiritual, not a religious program. Let’s keep it that way. I won’t force my beliefs on you if you don’t force yours on me. Say what you want, and so will I with the help of my Higher Power whom I chose not to call God, and together we can stay sober one day at a time.

In the story, “We Share Common Ground,” the Rev. Ward Ewing, Trustee Emeritus of AA, relates the essence of the 2014 talk he presented in Santa Monica at the first International Conference of Secular AA members. In it, he reiterates that the culture of AA, grounded in tolerance and inclusivity, is compatible to believers and non believers alike, who by sharing their recovery stories are enabled together to stay sober each day at a time.

* * *

I strongly recommend that you read this book, which represents a major milestone in the history of AA. It more than adequately  fulfills some 42 years later the suggestion made by two trustees in  1976 that AA publish literature that describes the experience of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers in AA who are able to recover and stay sober in the Fellowship of AA despite their doubts about  or refusal to believe in an anthropomorphic God.

Is One Big Tent a perfect book? No, there is no perfect book, but it is the first book that AA has published which I have read with a minimum of grimaces and exasperated exclamations of, “This is poppycock!” As mostly an agnostic, sometimes atheist, I could relate to everything in the vast majority of the stories. What a marvelous relief !~!~!

One Big Tent FeaturedOne Big Tent is available at the Grapevine Online Store.

And you should go down to your nearest AA Central Office and make sure One Big Tent can be purchased there and is available for all AA groups that want to have copies on their Literature Tables. And that, really, should be every single AA group. The time has arrived.


16 Responses

  1. KAWIKA says:

    I love this story. As an agnostic leaning towards atheist. It’s frustrating and a bit disrespectful to first claim this is a non-religious program then recited the Lord’s Prayer.

  2. Marty N. says:

    Now that I have received and read my copy, I wonder why the steps are in it.

  3. life-j says:

    Guy, we kept on stressing that the book would fail its purpose if they included any of that, and they listened, so there is almost none of it.

  4. Tim S. says:

    Thank you to everyone who helped make this happen. I wasn’t sure I would see it during my lifetime. I’m so glad that I did. Although we managed to find sobriety in AA in spite of those who insisted on our adoption of a god of their understanding, many of us have seen other folks return to drinking when faced with the hypocrisy found in so many meetings. I believe the publication of One Big Tent will ultimately be responsible for saving many more lives.

  5. Neil F says:

    Thanks to everyone who helped make this happen. My hat is off to you.

  6. Marty N. says:

    Congratulations to all involved!

    Some friends of mine and I have been fighting this fight in central Mass. and NE Conn. for years. I’m sure this will help us spread the word. (We have started two meetings in this area. See Secular AA meeting list for Connecticut.)

    We have not had any resistance from our District about listing the meetings. When it was brought up at the District meeting the chair mentioned the Toronto problems and said “we won’t have such problems here.” I’ve been promoting this for 32 of my 37 years in AA.

    Life is good! Thank you.

  7. Diane I. says:

    Hi Stephanie: Thanks for your comment. I can identify with you in many ways! And thank you to all of the people who have worked so hard in helping AA to be more inclusive!

  8. Guy says:

    I wait to read this book which I have ordered, hoping I won’t see cop-out after cop-out by people hedging their bets as to a higher power or powers.

  9. Murray J. says:

    I was asked to do the slogans today at my traditional AA meeting. No big deal I grant you. I combined Keep An Open Mind with But For The Grace of God and mentioned I was a life long agnostic so a belief in God is not for me. I emphasized Tradition 3. I may be wrong but of the 60 or so people present there is probably a fair number uncomfortable with the God stuff. I also mentioned One Big Tent.

    I am eternally grateful to Life J, Roger and all those with the chutzpah to keep poking Grapevine to get off the dime and get the motion to the General Service Conference. And as soon as The God Word pamphlet is published I will ask our literature rep to order it. I have an order coming from New York of One Big Tent plus pamphlets to make up newcomer envelopes for my Beyond Belief Suburban West Group in Mississauga.

  10. life-j says:

    I am grateful that the Grapevine is taking a lead within AA to open the flaps of the tent wider. Hopefully they will keep pulling on the flaps.

    Thanks Jon and Ami, and thanks Thomas and Roger.

  11. Joe C says:

    At the annual ICOAA seminar (Intergroup and Central Offices in AA) which was in Montreal this year (still going on today), there was, as there is each year, a Grapevine presentation. Jon is in Montreal and he brought every attendee from Canada and the USA a copy of One Big Tent. Jon was delighted with his time in Toronto for ICSAA and he feels, as many of us do, that of all the Grapevine collections so far, this is most significant in a way that the title gives away.

    Let’s remember that many – maybe most – everyday AAs hold a one-big-tent view of AA and although their beliefs may differ from some of ours, their yearning for barrier-free sobriety in AA is something we all get behind. It is a defining characteristic of the best of AA as a whole.

    Many have helped us – those rightfully noted here and many anonymous helpers – see this project to completion. Those who have helped us didn’t do it to win a popularity contest and there will be some blow-back as is the ebb and flow nature of our world; but this is one of those events that may well be a historically significant marker.

    It’s great to have more things to read on our own or together in meetings. Nice touch, adding the link. These booklets will be great add-ons to our group literature tables.

  12. Pat N. says:

    I’m sitting here with tears, so grateful that this has finally happened. Heartfelt thanks to all those in our area of the fellowship, especially life-j and Roget C, who worked so hard to bring it about.

    And heartfelt thanks to my late brother Dick, of the We Agnostics group in L.A., who led me into sobriety; and to Father Pat, an R.C. priest, and Sister Anne, a nun, who were in my first home group and whom I can’t recall ever talking about religion; and to the folks at The Grapevine, who may well be deists, but who believed in us and in the Fellowship.

    There are men and women out there somewhere this very second who will get a chance now, thanks to this little book.

  13. CathyM says:

    Thank you thank you…. a great read on the way home from Toronto!! I just hope our order (Winnipeg AA Central Office) will arrive in time for the annual Keystone Conference panel: ‘Secular Sobriety in AA’ 26-27October, although I have my copy to hold up, along with the UK version of ‘the God Word’.
    Seems bizarre to need ‘props’ to feel legitimate, but thanks to the people behind the scenes and those leading the way & the secular websites to bring us together. Yes, it feels good to be “part of, belong to”.

    You are cordially invited to Winnipeg this fall!

  14. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you Larry, especially for your arduous efforts, which GSO supported, to change Toronto’s Intergroup policy of prejudice against AA groups for agnostic and atheist members.

  15. Stephanie Roberts says:

    I am so so happy to read this. There will be many more hurdles I expect. But this will help so many more people now.

    I’ve stopped going to meetings because of the religious fervor at the meetings near me. Appears to have grown in the last two years or so. And because I want to be kind and to live without resentment, I just don’t go. To be honest, I don’t miss it. And, more than that, I’m happier than I have ever been. AA gave a me solid foundation. I never “found god” and I still built a solid foundation in the program. And I will always be grateful to it for bringing together the people I needed to get better and for bringing me the people I helped and now call friends.

    I feel sad when I think about the thousands of people, even with the enormous hurdle you have finally overcome, who won’t come because individual groups are still so close-minded. In one of my former groups, the fervor got so bad it was as if the group itself had become a religion. The people pursuing the leadership positions were no more than loud ideologues who had gotten the most indoctrinatable members to follow them. It became so bad that one member thought it would acceptable to ban people from saying they were atheists and not allowing atheists to speak. Group autonomy is one thing but that’s sick.

    Maybe one day I’ll come back. I live Outside NYC now and perhaps when I move back there I’ll go to meetings again… the thing is I really am so content without it in my life. If that one day isn’t true I know it’s there. I reach out to others who need help in other ways now. Anyway, all I started out to say was THANK YOU. I think that your hard work will save millions more lives. God bless you. JUST KIDDING. Fine to print my last name. I’d prefer it.

  16. Larry K says:


    Thankyou for your review. Indeed this publication is significant. It is a small change with a large potential.

    It feels good to belong.

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