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!
I 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 Spirituality. Now, 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.
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