Episode 49: John S. from We Agnostics Kansas City

By John S.

For this episode of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast, I was interviewed by my co-host, Benn B. and thanks to his excellent interviewing skills; I shared my story in perhaps more detail than ever before. This was a valuable exercise that left me with a renewed sense of gratitude for Alcoholics Anonymous and particularly thankful for my involvement with the agnostic, atheist and freethinking community of AA.

What a journey it’s been! Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life. If not for the understanding and support of other alcoholics, I may not have been able to stop drinking, and I honestly don’t see how I could have survived many more years of active alcoholism. Had I somehow managed to continue drinking, I surely would have been destined for an even more nightmarish life, not to mention the physical suffering that would inevitably come as my alcoholism progressed.

At one point during our conversation, Benn asked about my early experiences in AA, and I recounted my first meeting, which I described as a “life-changing experience.” Life changing it was, and I don’t for a moment regret a minute of the time that I’ve spent in AA, including the years that I was “doing the drill,” which involved praying day and night (on my knees) and studying the Big Book and 12×12.

Life as a sober person in recovery was good and getting better all the time. Borrowing a phrase from the Big Book, I was “trudging the road to happy destiny,” but soon enough, I would take an offramp onto the “broad highway,” and over an extended period of time, I began to question my personal beliefs. With help from The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, and God is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything, by Christopher Hitchens, I accepted and came to terms with my atheism. 

I was quite happy to finally shake free and end my struggle with faith once and for all. It was an open mind that led me to the conclusion that I no longer needed supernatural explanations for the Universe, nor did I care to define my recovery in spiritual terms.

The reality of the natural world, as described by science, is to me, far more satisfying, beautiful and elegant than the various creation myths devised by religion; and the reality of my experience in AA is much more meaningful and reassuring than is the myth of a sobriety granting God.

As far as I’m concerned, recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous has more to do with experience and action than it does faith and belief. Having read the Big Book from an atheistic viewpoint for the fist time, it was evident to me that the religious language in the book was, for the most part, superfluous.

I went through the Big Book line by line, completely rewriting those portions that were not acceptable to my worldview. In doing this, I found an approach to AA that worked for me. The program came to life when I stopped believing in God. It was now more real.

Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms to deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.

—We Agnostics, Alcoholics Anonymous (p. 47)

As I worked my way through the Big Book, one of the sections that I had to rewrite was the chapter titled “We Agnostics.” Perhaps the only sentence in that entire chapter that I found at all useful is the suggestion to readers that they ask for themselves what spiritual terms mean to them as individuals. I took this advice to heart, and as a result, I became comfortable with interpreting the Twelve Steps as an atheist. However, as I shared my new outlook at my then homegroup, I didn’t feel that my experience was respected, and for the first time in 25 years, I no longer felt comfortable in the rooms of AA.

It was and is important for me to share honestly and openly in AA meetings, but I no longer felt that I could do that, or at least not very easily. The time had come to get a divorce from my home group.

Learning about agnostic AA groups, I completed a form on AA Agnostica to find someone who could help me start a secular AA meeting in my community. Within a matter of days, I was given the names and email addresses of two people in Kansas City who had also signed up at AA Agnostica, and who also expressed an interest in starting an agnostic AA meeting. Unfortunately, neither of those two people responded when I tried to contact them.

Having spent the majority of my life in Alcoholics Anonymous, it was disconcerting, to say the least, to feel as if I no longer fit in. I knew there had to be other alcoholics like me, but at that time, I knew of only one person in AA who was an open atheist. That was Jim C. from my former home group, so  I asked him if he would like to start an AA group for agnostics and atheists. He gladly agreed, and on that very night, I put up the website, weagnosticsaa.org and our new group, We Agnostics Kansas City was born. That was July 20, 2014, which also happened to be my 26th anniversary of sobriety in AA.

Inspired by Roger C. at AA Agnostica and Joe C. at Rebellion Dogs Publishing, I began blogging on our group’s website. I posted quite frequently during those early days after starting our group, and among my favorite subjects to write about was how to interpret the Big Book as an atheist. I created a category that I titled “The Atheist Big Book Study,” and I went through the Big Book, beginning with the Forwards to the various editions and then through the first 164 pages. I never completed the project because I started spending more time with the group, which was growing by leaps and bounds.

The website is still important for our group. We get a lot of newcomers who find us through a Google search for “atheist in AA” or “AA for atheists.” Even if you google “Alcoholics Anonymous in Kansas City,” our website shows up on the first page of the search results. Though our Central Office lists our meeting on their meeting directory, they don’t provide a designation of “atheist/agnostic” to let people know that we are a special purpose meeting for agnostics and atheists. Having our own website is the best way to help people find us who are specifically looking for a secular AA meeting in Kansas City.

The group started meeting in August of 2014 with just Jim and me as the only two members. After meeting for thirty days, GSO gave us a group number and our Central Office was listing our meeting. At that time, we were only meeting once a week, every Thursday at 7:00 pm. At our second meeting two people joined us who became regulars, and in no time at all, our meetings grew to about six to eight people per meeting, and we kept growing. We eventually added two other meetings to the schedule so now we were meeting Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday.

After we had been meeting for a year, attendance was holding steady at about 15 people at each meeting. Then in the summer of 2015, we were discovered by some freethinkers who were becoming frustrated with the increasing rigidity they were experiencing at their home group. They liked our meeting format and continued to come back. Their attendance helped boost the size of our meetings to 20 or more.

The freethinkers eventually started their own group, Freethinkers in AA Kansas City, and they began meeting on the nights that we didn’t.  Today there are seven agnostic and freethinker AA meetings a week in Kansas City, and we created a single website that lists all of our meetings, Secular AA Kansas City. In addition to our websites, we also have public Facebook pages for each group as well as private Facebook groups.

I’m happy to see that both the We Agnostics and the Freethinkers groups in Kansas City are doing well. What started with just two people and one meeting a week has blossomed into a community of over 100 people and seven meetings a week. The two secular groups are well integrated into the AA community, and both see newcomers at almost every meeting. We are helping people who might otherwise avoid AA because it’s just too religious.

Helping start a new AA group has without a doubt been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. When I see someone find sobriety who otherwise felt that AA was not for them. When I hear laughter during our meetings and watch people sponsor and help each other. When people from the group go on to serve Alcoholics Anonymous by giving their time and energy to help our Central Office, the District and Area Assembly. When I witness these things, I am filled with a sense of gratitude that is simply beyond my ability to describe with words.  

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share my experience.


Transcript

Episode-49-John-S-from-We-Agnostics-Kansas-City-1

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life-jMark C.GeraldJohn SJerry F. Recent comment authors

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life-j
life-j

John, just now got to read this. thank you, it was nice to get to know a bit about you. We certainly had many similar ways of messing up our lives, many similar ways of not being able to relate to the rest of humanity, and much the same experiences once we got to AA, though you probably got way more of the Christian stuff where you are. Which is perhaps why the agnostic meetings thrive so well there, and a bit less so here around. Here regular AA meetings are not quite so ornery that there is a feeling… Read more »

John S

Thanks, life-j. You are one of many who have inspired me over the past few years. I feel fortunate to have a connection with you, and I appreciate and am grateful to you for all you have done to help and support AA. Your articles are among the most popular on this site. So, keep writing!

Mark C.
Mark C.

Thank you John and Benn! Another outstanding podcast. Put a bow on this one.

The stories of folks with a lot of time in conventional AA eventually coming to the conclusion regarding some basic beliefs away from theism are powerful indeed. In my opinion. Especially when those folks had been long time Big Book thumper types.

Here locally we have a “recovery” FB gig.  It is predominately fundy in orientation. It has been recently invaded by some Back To Basics zealots. From Akron. Imagine that. 🙂

I’ve posted this podcast into our little local recovery FB echo chamber.

Keep up the good fight.

 

John S

Thanks for the kind comments Mark.

Gerald
Gerald

Thank you, John S. I could relate to a lot of those experiences. Me, too, I was the drinker at the party whom the other drug users & alcoholics couldn’t tolerate. Two of those people, at least, ended up in AA, but from their perspective I was frightening, dangerous, disgusting, and pathetic. I don’t remember it that way – because I was a black out drinker 🙂 wild Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde personality changes. You know, the way I read the transcript, it took a lot of courage to face your home group of twenty-five years, and that must’ve… Read more »

John S

Thank you, Gerald, for your kind comments. I have heard other nonbelievers in AA express the same frustration as I felt at my former home group. The need to be ourselves, to be honest, and when the pain of that not being accepted. That’s why we start our own special purpose groups, and I for one am glad that in AA, we have that right.

Jerry F.
Jerry F.

Thank you John and Benn. It was very interesting. I, too, became an atheist at a young age and really enjoyed debating the believers I met. They typically didn’t know much more than their catechism lessons and had never really considered the ‘big questions” of existence. But I left all that sophomoric stuff behind and got on with life. AA, then, was a really rude shock. A throwback to my parochial education – all twelve years of it. I, too, credit Dawkins, Hitch and Dennet for helping me to understand the new atheism. Of the many areas you covered, John,… Read more »

John S

We chose “We Agnostics” specifically to make it clear that we are a meeting for agnostics and atheists. Another good name is Freethinkers. A lot of secular groups use that.

Bob K.
Bob K.

Thanks for an excellent way to start my Wednesday. I think being an atheist in AA has been easier for me since I’ve been that since the beginning (1991). There is no sense among the godly that I’ve deserted the side of righteousness, as they’ve never experienced me as a team member. The new folks are held back a little by the fact I’ve been sober a long time, but from time to time I get my shares “corrected.” I try to take this all with good grace, and while I’m open, I’m generally not aggressive, kind of like Jim Burwell… Read more »

John S

It was early on in our group’s history when people started asking to start more meetings. We were the only agnostic meeting in the city and only met once a week, which wasn’t enough for newcomers, so we kept adding meetings so that now, there is a secular AA meeting in KC every day of the week and no excuse for someone not to make a meeting. The drawback is that there is no reason for any of us to go to traditional meetings, and a lot of new people at my group know nothing about the Big Book. I’ve… Read more »