Our Grapevine

By John S. 

The widely anticipated October issue of the AA Grapevine, featuring a special section devoted to stories by agnostics and atheists in AA, has been published and delivered to mailboxes around the world. I received my copy, and I was very pleased with the stories chosen for publication. I feel the authors did a great job capturing the essence of agnostic AA, and the Grapevine editors presented the stories with great care and respect.

In the introduction, the Senior Editor reminded readers that “Bill W. intended the Grapevine to be a mirror of the Fellowship”, and they hoped that these stories would “shed light on the the joys and challenges of our atheist and agnostic members.” I think for the most part they succeeded, and the rest of the Fellowship, by reading these articles will gain some valuable insight into our ever growing heathen AA community.

There is probably, at least in my opinion, more diversity of experience among agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA than all the rest of the Fellowship combined. There are, for example, some of us for whom spirituality is paramount, but for others, it’s complete hogwash. Many of us think the Twelve Steps are critical to our sobriety, while perhaps just as many of us feel they are nothing more than window dressing. It is, of course, impossible for the Grapevine to document the entirety of our experience in a single issue, but they have reached out to us with what I feel is a warm embrace. It’s now incumbent upon us agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers to also embrace the Grapevine by continuing to share our experience, strength, and hope in its pages. This is our Grapevine too!

grapevine-reviewI believe that the publication of the October 2016 Grapevine will go down as an important event in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. According to an article published by AA Agnostica on February 18, 2015, (No Grapevine Book for Atheists in AA), there were only 40 stories from agnostics and atheists published in the Grapevine from 1962 through 2014. Never before in the Grapevine’s 72-year history has there ever been an issue devoted to atheist and agnostic members. Oh, and by the way, the Grapevine will be publishing a book of stories from agnostics and atheists in AA. The General Service Conference approved this, and I’m sure we will be learning more about the book over the coming year.

When I started reading this issue of the Grapevine, I got a bit teary-eyed. It seemed to conjure up some buried emotion related to my place in AA as an atheist, often feeling apart from the rest of the Fellowship. I haven’t experienced the degree of persecution by my brothers and sisters in AA as many of you have endured. I haven’t for example, received the harassing phone calls, as some have from my home group where the caller says, “It ain’t AA without God,” and hangs up. Nor have I endured the pain of my Central Office refusing to list my group in the local meeting directory as has happened in Denver, Toronto, Vancouver, and Des Moines to name a few.

No, my pain was more internal, born from the realization that I was an atheist, the fear that I would no longer be welcomed in AA, and the sometimes not so subtle rebuke that I received from others in the Fellowship. So, when I read the words “our agnostic and atheist members” in the pages of the Grapevine, I found those to be comforting and even healing words.

I know that I’m not alone in being so moved by this month’s Grapevine. My friend, Gregg O. from my home group, ordered ten copies, and when he brought them to our meeting, one of our members looked at the magazine in disbelief and said, “this gives us legitimacy.” Like it or not, admit it or not, among many of us, there exists a need to feel accepted by the rest of AA. It’s a real need that comes from rejection that we have either directly experienced, or that we have witnessed others experience. That’s why of course, this issue of the Grapevine is so important.

Let’s now take a look at how the stories the Grapevine published reflect our experience.

In the first article “Sober with No God,” Bill M. writes about the need to be true to himself, which is a common theme among us nonbelievers in AA. That’s often the great struggle for us, to somehow overcome the admonition to “fake it until we make it.” Bill learned to focus more on the actions involved with the Steps rather than belief. Like many of us in AA, regardless of our faith or lack thereof, Bill views AA as a practical program of action.

Paige B., in the story “Ceased Fighting” writes, “I am an atheist and not on my way to belief. The Big Book says, “God is everything, or else He is nothing.” I chose the later and got on with working the program.” She goes on to describe how she found power in the group to stay sober, and she was able to get sober in AA without having to compromise her belief system.

This principle that is incredibly important among agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. In fact, for those of you who may not be familiar with agnostic AA, many of our meetings begin with a reading of what we call the “Agnostic AA Preamble,” which includes the statement that we do not have to conform to another’s beliefs or to deny our own. Most of us, unfortunately, have had the experience of sharing honestly in a meeting only to be corrected by others, who often quote the Big Book at us. That’s just wrong! We all have to be who we are, and we have a right to that. Thank you, Paige, for saying what so many of us have said though sometimes quietly to ourselves, “God is nothing.”

In “God on Every Page,” Alex M writes, “…the Big Book was not simply an instruction manual, but a historical document, and reflected the predominantly religious roots and views of its early members.” Though admittedly many of us keep the Big Book on the shelf, just as many if not most of us do respect the book. We just don’t worship it! We view it as Alex does, as a historical text that reflects the experience of AA’s first members. Even they admitted they knew only a little. I like to think that those of us in the agnostic, atheist and freethinking AA community want to build on the work of our founders, not replicate it. Thank you, Alex!

Speaking of not worshiping the Big Book, Marnin M. writes about reading the Big Book as Literature and working a secular program. He enjoys being of service whether that means answering the phones for intergroup, speaking at other groups, sponsoring others, or sharing at a meeting. Marnin mentioned a feeling of loneliness that comes from being a secularist in a sea of religious AA members. Who among us can’t relate to that?

Life-J, in “Open-Minded” shares his experience of being rejected by his local intergroup, who refused to list his new agnostic AA meeting. He says the experience “radicalized him,” and that he doesn’t feel like a “member of the tribe.” I applaud the Grapevine for publishing this story. It’s a story that needs to be told. Integroups that refuse to list agnostic AA groups in their meeting directories must understand how deeply this hurts. Their actions cause an unnecessary fracturing of our Fellowship and lock people out that we might otherwise help.

Those of us in agnostic AA can testify that we see a lot of newcomers at our meetings who simply would not go to a traditional AA meeting laden with prayers. Our meetings provide a sanctuary for these alcoholics; we provide them a place in AA where they can recover. Not allowing these meetings to be listed in a meeting directory is simply irresponsible and dangerous. It’s an issue the rest of AA needs to understand, but they just don’t get it. I wish they would. Denver, are you reading this? Des Moines, Vancouver, and Toronto Intergroups, did you read this story?

Cara A. from the beautiful state of Missouri (my home state), helped start an agnostic AA meeting in the eastern part of the state. Her group, We Agnostics, recently celebrated their first anniversary. She wrote in the story “My Search,” about her experience coming to the understanding that she is an agnostic, and how she met some resistance when expressing her beliefs in meetings. She points out, though, that by sharing her experience honestly and openly as an agnostic others have come to her expressing gratitude for knowing they aren’t alone. Today, Cara sponsors people of faith as well as agnostics, and her sponsor is a believer. Her story shows that when we are true to ourselves, we may help open doors for others.

In “Coincidentally Sober” S.B. from Ventura, California writes about serving as the General Service Representative for the We Agnostics Group. S.B. was hoping to advocate for the creation of a pamphlet aimed at alcoholics who have a problem with the preponderance of God in AA literature”. Coincidentally enough, such a pamphlet was in the works and S.B. was able to participate in helping to make the pamphlet a reality. We know the pamphlet today as Many Paths to SpiritualityNow, of course, many of us, including myself weren’t happy with the Many Paths pamphlet as it wasn’t truly representative of our community. It was, however, an effort, a step in the right direction and it should serve as a call to action for those of us who want to see it revised or the creation of a new pamphlet similar to what the AA General Service Office in the United Kingdom recently published The “God” Word. We can do it if we get involved.

S.B.’s story illustrates the importance of getting involved with General Service. I think it’s critical, especially for us nonbelievers. We have an obligation to help guide the Fellowship through the certain change that is coming. As a minority voice, we have an extra-special obligation for our voice be heard. We speak for thousands who are not in the rooms of AA, but who could be helped. Through General Service, we have an opportunity to build upon the work of those who preceded us and to make AA ever more inclusive so as to help a greater number of alcoholics.

Ward Ewing, Trustee Emeritus, Past Chair (non-alcoholic) of the General Service Board concluded the special section for agnostics and atheists by recounting his experience at the first We Agnostics Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention that was held in Santa Monica, California in November of 2014.

I attended that convention and heard Reverend Ewing’s talk. I was fairly new to agnostic AA at the time, and I found his speech to be very inspiring. His message was a unifying one, stressing how much we have in common with the rest of the Fellowship. Our experience is essentially the same; the only difference is the language we use to describe that experience. Why get hung up on words?

What we believe about something is far less important to living than what we experience. Experience is what transforms us; belief is our attempt to explain; experience trumps explanation.

–Ward Ewing, Trustee Emeritus, past Chair (non-alcoholic) of the General Service Board of AA

Thank you Grapevine. Thank you for telling our stories. We will continue to send more stories, and we will write to comment on the stories of others. We will subscribe and fully participate because this is our Grapevine too.

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The Grapevine at WAAFT IAAC

Ami Brophy, the Executive Editor-Publisher of the AA Grapevine will attend the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention to be held in Austin, Texas from November 11 through 13, 2016. Ami will participate on the Literature Panel, and she will host a workshop on how to write articles for the Grapevine.

Read More at AA Agnostica

Read Dori Old’s article, from The Fix “AA Officially, Recognizes Atheist and Agnostic Membership in this Month’s Grapevine,” at AA Agnostica.

Read Dillon Murphy’s article from The Fix, “Atheists and Agnostics Step into the Light in AA” at AA Agnostica.

Read the Grapevine story “God on Every Page,” by Alex M. at AA Agnostica

Read the Grapevine story, Open-minded, by Life-J at AA Agnostica

 

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  1. Eric L December 2, 2016 at 11:24 am - Reply

    Thanks for the review. I agree with most of it, except the last part about Rev. Ewing. His letter was nicely worded, yet I felt it to be a poor choice by the Grapevine editorial staff to include it in the atheists and agnostic section. One, he isn’t an atheist or agnostic alcoholic; and two, by placing his story last it seems like the Grapevine folks wanted to qualify the experiences of the members who shared. I don’t believe their experience requires AA sanction, from a non-alcoholic former Trustee no less.

    Here is part of a letter I penned to the Grapevine recently that explains my views about the October issue:

    As a member of Alcoholics Anonymous who identifies as an agnostic with atheistic tendencies, I was happy to see stories from atheist and agnostic members in the October 2016 Grapevine. 
     
    However, I think that your editors could have made a more conscious and respectful decision about one of the selections. The letter from the Episcopalian minister, while interesting and well-written, didn’t belong in the section with the agnostic and atheist stories. In my view, it is censoring moves like this that continue to disturb non-believers in the program. Sure we are included, but always with an explanation—this time from a non-alcoholic authority figure no less—or with an expectation of conversion at some point, as if our personal experiences as members do not have enough merit to stand alone. 

  2. Kristina October 15, 2016 at 11:59 pm - Reply

    Hi! Any advice on how to get these stories with the online subscription, I can’t seem to find them.

    • John S October 16, 2016 at 12:21 am Reply

      They have already posted the November issue on their site and I am unable to find a link to the October issue. I’ll keep looking. We will also request permission from the Grapevine to reprint the stories here.

      • Kristina October 16, 2016 at 11:08 am Reply

        Thank you!

         

  3. John S October 13, 2016 at 9:21 pm - Reply

    We had over thirty people at our Thursday night meeting. It was a special meeting as we were being visited by people from other groups in our district. The meeting topic was taken from this month’s Grapevine and everybody got a copy of the new pamphlet from the UK, The “God” Word. 

    What an exciting time for AA!

  4. Thomas Brinson October 13, 2016 at 5:14 pm - Reply

    Super excellent review, John. Thank you.

    The October issue an excellent beginning, but it will be interesting to see if this is a one-shot deal, or if there will be other “special interest” GV issues for atheists, agnostics, and those who believe differently from the traditional Christian orientation of most North American AA meetings.

    Only time will tell. This is why it is so important for we atheists, agnostics and others to be actively involved in not only sending our stories to the GV, but also being actively involved within the AA General Service structure to insure our decidedly minority voice is included in the group conscience AA’s future evolution.

  5. Rich H October 13, 2016 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    There are coincidences! I attended the Pacific Region Forum last weekend and got about 20 minutes alone with Amy B, the Executive Editor of the Grapevine. She said 6 books have been approved for publication and they can’t do more than 2 per year. She doesn’t have the final say but she has given her strong opinion and suggestion that the Grapevine publish the book of atheist/agnostic stories first. She said it takes 6-8 months to get it out so, sometime in the next year…

    I also really liked her language, all the words she used show that she completely understands our point of view. I thanked her for the October issue.

    Rich H, Maui

  6. Skip D. October 13, 2016 at 11:14 am - Reply

    Thanks, John, for your excellent review of the October Grapevine!

     

  7. Jerry F. October 13, 2016 at 11:09 am - Reply

    Thank you, John, for your summary of the GV issue. It is a milestone and far better done than the “Many Paths” pamphlet. I believe life-J was the most eloquent in representing our movement. The content of his article and, as always with life-J his style and grasp of the language, make it a pleasure to read.

    The agnostic/atheist part of the magazine is the first half. Being immersed in the AA secular movement and then reading that portion of the GV, it was jarring to read on and find, in a short article, phrases such as “I prayed to the God who I felt would not let me leave this world.” and “I maintain a daily lifeline to my Higher Power that I choose to call God.” and “I believe God is guiding me …”

    I’m looking forward to hearing GV editor Ami Brophy speak at the convention next month. I expect a lively Q & A.

  8. life-j October 13, 2016 at 9:26 am - Reply

    John, thanks

    Seemed to me the important issue in Coincidentally Sober was more along the lines of whether or to what degree we perceive our sobriety to be a coincidence combined with simple footwork and openmindedness, or whether it’s god working in our lives. Much along the lines of Adam N’s spiritual Caulk and the Great Puppeteer in ‘Common Sense Recovery’.

    So long as so many people go around preaching about god working in their lives we’ve got an uphill battle, but of course this GV was a great help. It will be forgotten, but at least we can drag it out from time to time and say “See?”.

    • Daniel October 13, 2016 at 10:21 am Reply

      As long as I remember that the book says ,to believe in a power greater than myself , I can detach from those who try to impress on me their views and thoughts. Cheers Daniel

  9. D.G. October 13, 2016 at 9:03 am - Reply

    Great review John! I am moved to tears with a great sense of gratitude to you and others like you who have worked tirelessly and sometimes in the face of harsh criticism and rejection to ensure that an atheist like myself has a fellowship that I can be a REAL part of, and not feel like a hopeless outsider. While I’m sure there’s plenty more contention to come from people who don’t (or won’t) understand that AA works without theism and/or their hard headed dogma, this secular community of recovering individuals is now too big to ignore or brush aside and reject. We are not alone!

  10. Jon S October 13, 2016 at 6:12 am - Reply

    Great article. Fantastic review.  I learned a lot from this. Thank you. JS

  11. George S October 13, 2016 at 5:51 am - Reply

    Long overdue! Ordered 40 copies for friends. This would have never happen without the efforts of non-believers who refused to be silenced. Thank you all!!!

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