By John H
I was most pleased that my schedule and some professional matters came together in a way that allowed me to attend the Widening the Gateway regional conference for secular AA members in Olympia WA on January 16. There were 70 very engaged members of the fellowship there which was more than double the 30 members the organizers had originally anticipated. The demographic distribution was excellent (despite being heavily weighted with old-timers such as myself) with a good mix of men and women (50/50) young and old and with sobriety dates from 3 months to well over 40 years.
Pat N., one of the primary local organizers, did an excellent job of introducing speakers and maintaining the schedule of the program and he was most welcoming to the local participants as well as to people from out of town such as myself.
The first speaker was the ever entertaining and informative Michael B. from London, UK.
Michael is very explicit about how he describes himself as “Someone who does not believe in God” as opposed to being an Atheist or Agnostic and claims as his most profound insight and “spiritual” underpinning the fact that at one point in early sobriety he looked around at his fellow members and saw ‘’that the only reason they were sober was that they came.” This sentiment was very much in line with a general underlying theme that began to emerge at this conference. This seemed to be something approaching the universal truth that if we “don’t drink, go to meetings and help another alcoholic” that we have grasped the fundamentals of a successful program.
After describing a personal program history that includes a relapse after 22 years and his current status after being back for over 10 years Michael detailed some of his core principles involving anonymity (no gossiping, which seemed particularly important) and his own accommodations with conventional AA.
Michael seemed particularly interested in fostering the idea that non-believers be accepted members of the conventional program and that we (Atheists, Agnostics, etc.) refrain from reacting to believers in anger so as not to bring our “wing” of the fellowship into disrepute. This was emphasized with some considerable conviction and was the capstone of his fine talk. He was met with a well-deserved standing ovation.
Graham, a 32 year member of the fellowship and long term member of the Washington State Atheist/Agnostic groups spoke next and he certainly maintained the high standard of speakers we came to expect through the rest of the day.
His early frustrations with conventional program elements was nicely stated when he described continually having to deal with people who had “supernatural explanations of natural events.”
The core of Graham’s talk centered on the idea of “sobering all the way up.” Whereby, in his view, sobriety is only the beginning and that to maintain a viable life within a sober context that we needed to emphasize good character traits over bad ones and that a method that he used to achieve this involved a secular, adapted version of the Steps.
It was refreshing, to this listener, (despite my own philosophical variances from his premise regarding Steps) to hear from Graham that alcoholics might have positive as well as negative character traits that could be fostered through the application of an organizing set of principles embodied in a secular interpretation of the conventional program.
Graham was very focused on this idea of adding positive reinforcements of the good character traits that an individual might have and was not at all absolutist in his prescriptions despite his reliance on the structures of the secularized Steps. Quite interestingly he was focused on the possibilities of members becoming “less bad”, not necessarily “better” adding as much “positive stuff” to the equation as possible.
He sees the program as being uplifting rather than proscriptive which it most certainly is when you apply Graham’s core operating principles. His talk was quite well received as well.
There was then a program break and I got to talk with several interesting members who I had not met previously including one gentleman who shared some of my experiences in Russia. It was great AA fellowship all around.
Roger C. from AA Agnostica in Toronto spoke next and he, as always, proved to be a very knowledgeable source on the topic of the History of non-believers in the program.
Roger opened his talk by describing his shock in May of 2011 when the Toronto AAAA groups were delisted by the Toronto Central AA office. This was a traumatic moment for Roger and the strife of those times led him to help publicize this issue in the Canadian press and make it a public issue there without (of course) breaking his or any other members’ anonymity.
This has led to Roger building on the work of the late Ernie Kurtz and others to expand AA history into the realm of the nonbeliever publishing “Key Players in AA History” by Bob K. which mentions Jim Burwell (who is credited with the 1939 Big Book edit, “God as you understand him”) as well as various pieces on the AA Agnostica web site which he edits. He also got involved in amending the 12 Steps through his publication of “The Little Book” which he displayed a copy of during his talk.
Roger focused on the first three AAAA group’s founded starting with Chicago in 1975 (There are 12 AAAA meetings there today), the famous Charlie P. at We Agnostics in Hollywood, CA in 1980 and the We Atheists meeting in Manhattan in 1986 which later changed its name to “We Humanists.”
I can personally testify to the importance of these breakthrough founding meetings in that our We Agnostics group in DC had a co-founder (the late Tom J.) in September 1988 who had attended one of the early Chicago meetings and brought the idea east with him.
While Rogers discussions of the secular 12 steps are a bit perplexing to me and the need for such things questionable in my mind his primary thesis, as presented in this talk, that secular AA has been around for a long time, has a powerful history and track record and the meetings themselves deserve to be listed and recognized as totally legitimate special interest AA meetings everywhere by all service boards, fully resonated with this audience. His great information and insights were highly appreciated by the attendees.
After lunch John G from Washington State facilitated a discussion on Fitting into AA with Integrity that segued into a group discussion of “Barriers to AA Involvement” that took its theme from comments that had been posted in the room on post-it notes by various members present.
John had some interesting comments about a Higher Power possibly being something like gravity or the laws of physics and was very articulate on the necessity for a wide diversity of opinion within AA. He mentioned the “quiet voices” as possibly being more insightful than the “louder” ones which is something this outspoken, high volume Atheist listened to closely.
In the discussion that ensued there were a number of quite passionate stories from several members regarding considerable pain they had had as a result of old AA maxims like “fake it till you make it” and tales of continual slips and recommitments (in one case over a 15-year period) as well as obsessions regarding “doing it perfectly” and having a “good” program. One lady pointed out that sharing you are an atheist at a meeting can save lives. I couldn’t agree more.
I told my own story from my early years (regarding feeling forced to “fit in”) when a Christian member called me on my reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the end of a meeting. “You say you are an Atheist and you recite the Lords Prayer with the rest of us. Why do you do that?” To my shame he had me and I never said it again. I’ve been in that man’s debt since.
Our last sessions were three break outs and the one I chose to attend was “Working Your Program” facilitated by Thomas, Jill and Zack from the local groups.
There were a number of rather intimate shares that I won’t repeat here but the thing that resonated the most for me was Thomas when he recounted that early in his AA career (he has over 40 years) in New York City the members (religious or not) continually said that a “good” program consisted of not drinking, going to meetings and, whenever possible, helping another alcoholic. That’s exactly what I wanted/needed to hear. The central unifying message that I agree with 100%.
However, much of what I heard here regarding the rewritten/secularized “Steps”, which they seem to just love out on the West Coast, made absolutely no sense to me and I was vocal about this during this session.
Personally, except for Steps 1, 10 and 50% of 12 I have nothing to do with the Steps and totally disregard/reject them as a rehashed millennial Christianity warmed over from the Oxford Group and irrelevant for an atheist no matter how you rewrite them.
Fortunately, and much to my relief, the core message of the day (and the need for AA unity despite some profound cultural and “political” differences) carried the most weight with me as apparently it did for the rest of the attendees.
At the end of the conference I sat down with our chief facilitator, Pat N and asked him about his perceptions of the day. He was very happy about the turnout (70 versus the 30 originally anticipated as I said earlier) and for the spirit of loyalty to AA as an institution that was expressed there. He also said that the day seemed to be, in the best sense, in full accord with the preamble and traditions two and three regarding AA service and our only requirement for membership which is, of course, a desire to stop drinking.
This was a fine day in a cold damp month in Washington State but the chill outside was more than compensated for by the warmth in the room not to mention the experience, strength and hope in the strong hearts of our non-believing brothers and sisters. I hope there are many more regional forums in the future.
About the Author
John H. is one of the founding members of the We Agnostics group in Washington, DC that has been meeting continuously for over 27 years. After a career of worldwide travels that involved stints residing overseas John now lives with his wife in Bethesda, MD.
Other articles by John H:
History of the DC We Agnostics AA Group, WAAFT Central, June 27 2015
Back to Basics and Other Threats to AA, AA Agnostica, May 17, 2015
The Importance of Diversity, AA Agnosticsa April 5, 2015
Coming out as an Atheist in Conventional AA, AA Agnostica, March 1 2015
The Myth of the Angry Atheist, AA Beyond Belief, November 15, 2015
Podcast Interview, AA Beyond Belief, November 15, 2015