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.


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  1. Mark C. March 8, 2017 at 10:41 am - Reply

    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 March 8, 2017 at 6:11 pm Reply

      Thanks for the kind comments Mark.

  2. Gerald March 4, 2017 at 2:59 pm - Reply

    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 really, really hurt. That “instant intimacy” that we can enjoy in AA, it actually has been the norm in my adult life – I grew up here in AA, literally grew up, but like you said, to discover, the hard way, just how little that intimacy translates into true love & concern, that that roomful of people doesn’t like us anymore when we dissent, you know, when we disclose that we refuse to conform to any kind of religious idea.

    … Relating to the physical phenomenon of craving was my first “in,” and “as we understood Him” prevented the God talk from becoming an “out” for me. That one phrase saved my life too.

    We can read the Big Book and 12&12 like a lawyer, and we’ll find contradictions in the letter of the law all over the place. God actually is defined in that BB and 12&12 all over the place. But reading our instruction manuals as a lawyer is only an adolescent attitude – and, indeed!, “A.A.” could stand for “Adolescents Anonymous” because that’s principally what we’re recovering from here, a terminal adolescence – you’re going die from this immaturity (!) Anyways, reading this thing like a lawyer is only adolescent, but reading our instruction manuals like an emotionally mature adult means reading them with compassion … and if I recall from my days in the fold, way back when, the Christian religion emphasizes compassion … Hmmm, I think I recall that from my cathechism 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Reading the spirit of the law, instead of the letter, there are no conflicts or contradictions in the instruction manuals. The author(s) were simply culture-bound, as we all are limited in our ability to leave our home culture. You know, leave your home culture behind as much as you can, and you’ll have a more open mind, and, there it is again! 🙂 that open-mindedness that is one of the “indispensable essentials” of that promised Spiritual Awakening as described in Appendix II 🙂 But leave your home culture as best you can, sooner or later you will reach your personal limits, your personal inability to change. That’s why it’s called culture-boundedness. Some part of you will always be a product of your culture, your geographical location and your generation. It’s you, and it won’t be changed.

    Fermented sea urchin guts, anyone? Yummy. 🙂 I should know. Here in Japan I feel the limits of my own personal culture-boundedness more than I felt them when, for example, I was living in France.

    The authors of the BB were using the language & vocabulary that they had at their disposal. They were writing from the perspective of people who still had one foot firmly planted in 19th century USA (and the other foot firmly planted in the Middle Ages, if you ask me 🙂 🙂 🙂 )  … Reading the BB as a compassionate, emotionally mature adult, I give those authors credit for making their message as accessible to as many people as they could, limited as they were by their own personal culture-boundedness.

    But I’m with you, John S., “superfluous.” That’s how I’ve felt about the God talk from Day One in AA. I guess I’m just lucky that it wasn’t impossible for me to read the literature and listen to the message as an atheist without getting wrapped around the axle. But I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing wrong all these years. As the invisible minority that we are, it can be very easy to hide in plain sight of the dominant culture. From age ten, when I determined that God was just Santa Claus for grown ups, I walked through this life eyes open, mouth shut – out of fear. Surely that was appropriate at one stage of the game, but here in AA that’s equivalent to dishonesty. Like you said about sharing nowadays, I must be entirely honest and open about this in my shares. Otherwise I’m going to feel lonelier at the meetings than if I had just stayed home.

    I feel that it would be wrong of me to conceal this anymore. Your story is inspirational, and if I were Stateside I’d want to start an AAAA meeting too.

    Thanks,

    Gerald, alcoholic, Japan
     

    • John S March 4, 2017 at 9:10 pm Reply

      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.

  3. Jerry F. March 1, 2017 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    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, I’d like to just pick up one thread. You mentioned naming your agnostic/atheist group and the fact that your local meeting list doesn’t have a specific designation for a secular meeting. It is the same in my area. Some secular meetings have some really cute – kinda insider names – and they are amusing. But if out-of-town visitors and newcomers are going to find us, I think it best to stick to very descriptive names such as “We Agnostics.” Just my two cents.

    • John S March 1, 2017 at 6:44 pm Reply

      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.

  4. Bob K. March 1, 2017 at 10:00 am - Reply

    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 POST relapse. BTW, being non-aggressive isn’t my nature 😉

    I get along quite well in traditional AA – I’m speaking at a guy’s 40 on Thursday. But, I do relate to John’s comment describing the love/hate relationship. Years ago, I think there was less pushback against my type, partly because we were just rare “odd ducks,” and we were unorganized. While I think there were more of us than was realized, many suppressed their doubts and disbeliefs.

    At the Whitby Freethinkers meeting, we’re getting some people with medium and long term sobriety come out, people I never suspected of having agnostic leaning. Of course, we’re being assisted a bit by the BB thumpers who are actually driving some of the middle ground people in our direction. Bill Wilson had some understanding many years ago that alcoholics don’t respond well to preaching, but evangelism is UP among the bookish. WAY UP!!

    I am curious to see what happens in the Toronto area moving forward. As yet, I have no feeling as to what the broad response will be to essentially losing in court to the heathens. There has been increased pushback to our growing numbers, organization with websites and bloggers, and our loss of timidity. I hope we can get along.

    There are thousands of kind and gentle souls in conventional meetings. The moderates are in all probability the great majority, but the defenders of 1939 are the most vocal. John mentioned going to a high volume of meetings, and the greater number of folks with long term sobriety have done that I think. We have some newcomers in the freethinker population trying to get over the hump on one meeting a week, eschewing traditional groups. They tend to not do well.

    It’s hard to get sober on an hour a week, literature I won’t read, and resentment against the broader support group. Thank Zeus for the interweb!!

    • John S March 1, 2017 at 6:41 pm Reply

      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 often thought of starting a secular Big Book study to introduce people to the Big Book without making them feel they need to worship the damn thing.

  5. Oren March 1, 2017 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Thanks for the interesting article, John. I was struck by this statement: “The program came to life when I stopped believing in God. It was now more real.” As an agnostic freethinker in AA, I have often thought along the same lines, and not just about the program. Life, death, love, recovery, and the whole chaotic-but-orderly universe all seem more vivid and immediate, but somehow less threatening, when I stay in an evidence-based frame of mind. I really appreciate the thought-provoking service work that you are doing.

    • John S March 1, 2017 at 6:35 pm Reply

      Thanks, for your comment Oren. I’m glad that I don’t have to deal with mysticism as part of my recovery anymore. It’s all just practical actions that I take with the help of other people.

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