Episode 85: An Atheist AA in London

Transcript

00:00 John S: This is Episode 85 of AA Beyond Belief the podcast, and I’m your host, John S.

[music]

00:27 John: In today’s episode, we’ll meet Dan from London, England. Dan helped found the first agnostic AA meeting in London. He’ll share his story and give us his thoughts on AA, secular, and otherwise. Hey, Dan. How are you doing?

00:47 Dan: I’m very well. How are you?

00:48 John: I’m doing great. Thank you very much for joining me here and doing this podcast. Typically, what I’d like to do is start by getting to know you through your story in Alcoholics Anonymous. Would you mind sharing with me and the audience out there what happened that got you into AA and your experience up to now, and kind of just take it from there?

01:11 Dan: Yeah, sure. Yeah, absolutely. It occurs to me, actually, the fact that I’m even able to do that is almost something of a miracle in itself. I mean, I think one of the things I’ve kind of learnt from AA is I’ve kind of figured out what my story is. And I’ve been able to articulate it, find language for it. And I just take it as a given now that I can talk about things and how I’m feeling and problems and all that kind of stuff, but for a long time I couldn’t, I couldn’t talk about it. And it was all kind of a terrible kind of shameful secret and sort of embarrassment, and all of the other things that people talk about at AA meetings. So, it kind of, it sort of does me good to remember the ease with which I can talk about this stuff is just in itself a huge thing really, isn’t it? When you get past it. But okay, yeah, so I have a bit of kind of a bog-standard story in some respects. And what I mean by that is that when I kind of made it to AA and started hearing people talking about their drinking, what they were like drinking, before they drank, their childhood, all of that stuff, I just recognized so much of it. I just connected with it on such a kind of visceral level. I sort of knew straightaway I was in the right place, and I’ve kind of heard my own story back from other people in dribs and drabs, as parts of their story that I can nip together.

02:33 Dan: So, I had a I suppose reasonably difficult childhood. I was different from my brothers in various ways. I was already very interested in ways to change how I felt about things. I could tell lots of stories, but my brother, my younger brother tells one good story about me. I guess I would have been, I’m going to say something like eight, round about eight years old. I don’t remember the story, but I certainly believe him. And I saved up my pocket money for several weeks in a row. And I went out and bought a whole load of sweets. We have these sweets in the UK called, what are they called? These we called Opal Fruits. I think they’re called Starburst or something like that, kind of individually wrapped, brightly colored sort of fruit flavored, chewy kind of sweets. And I was a big fan of these things. And according to him I just unwrapped them all, all of them without eating any of them. And then sorted them out into the different colors. And then start to just picking up handfuls of them and stuffing them in my mouth and turn to him saying, “I don’t care, Tom. I just don’t care.” In a way that was it. You could almost, if it was a movie, you could almost fast forward to me walking down the stairs into my first AA meeting.

03:49 Dan: So, there were lots of that. I discovered drinking. I definitely got drunk before the age of 10 at a family wedding or some kind of party or something, going around drinking the drinks out of people’s glasses, that kind of thing. Yeah, well it works. Doesn’t it? And I don’t know what to say, in a way that was in some ways that was as good as my drinking ever was really, because it’s this amazing magical potion that turned me from this anxious, extremely shy… Well, you see I say that, this sort of concept of a shy show off, if you know what I mean. It’s like I crave attention, but then not know what to do with it. In other times I want to kind of melt into the background and be invisible. Yeah, I loved the effect of alcohol the first time I ever had it. And it just made it easy to talk to people. I could kind of relax. It was like taking off a pair of shoes that’s just far too tight. It would be that kind of sense of relief. And I could just ease myself into trying to relate to people and talk to people. And I did feel different from people.

04:55 Dan: I’ve got memories of being at primary school standing on the playground and just watching everyone, and just thinking, “How are they doing this? How do they know how to do this?” I definitely felt out of place from the word go, I would say. And alcohol was a very effective solution to that, for as long as it was a solution. Anyway, I won’t tell the whole story. So, I’d say my drinking took off kind of properly when I was at university. And when I left university and I was certainly out in the world living my, sort of trying to live my life, and I got my first job, which was a good job. And I just suddenly had all of this responsibility that I could not make sense of. I didn’t even know how to start being an adult, really, is probably the best way of putting it. And my drinking, it was sort of always there. It was sort of always there as a relief, as a social lubricant, as a way of talking to people, as an escape from responsibility. And it just kind of got bigger. It just got bigger and bigger. And it moved towards the center of my world and it displaced other things.

06:04 Dan: It kind of pushed things out from the center, and I would say by the end of my 20s, the last three or four years I would guess, I wasn’t able to work by then. I was living on various benefits. I was kind of living in a room in a house, in a kind of drinky-druggy sort of house-share in London. And I wasn’t just living in that room, I was really living in my head in that room, in a kind of fantasy world. It’s kind of like climbing up sort of step ladder through a trap door into my head where I was in a fantasy world, and I just wanted to stay there. And it was… I heard someone in an AA meeting talk about giro to giro drinking. What he meant by that was, in those days anyway, you used to get your state benefits in the form of a girocheque every two weeks. And I would just get that cheque and then it would be drinking… Be a party for a day or two, and then it would have been no money after that. And that’s kind of where I got to.

07:07 Dan: My story didn’t go as low as lots of people I’ve heard subsequently since coming to AA. But what I did realize when I started doing the steps and doing step one and writing things down, was I really was just a hair’s breadth away from all of the really bad stuff. It wouldn’t have been very long, I was spending my rent money and my flatmate’s rent money on alcohol, so that’s quite a good way to end up homeless. I was doing slightly crazy things with credit cards, which is quite a good way to make friends with the police. Do you know what I mean? So, it was just, it was all about to go off the gear. And what happened for me was a flat mate who had been with me in those hedonistic days when it was still fun, earlier in my 20s. I mean it was the kind of flat-share where you walk into the lounge and at any given time of day, someone will be rolling a joint. That kind of flat-share. And we did a lot of that together, and then she kind of left and grew up. And she actually got back with an old boyfriend who was in AA. So, they’d split up when he was drinking, he got into AA. I’d never met him at this point. And she got back with him and she could see this thing in me, and one day she just sent me, through the post, arrives the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous.

08:28 Dan: There was a note on it saying… I feel myself get a little bit upset now as I remember it. It’s such a big thing. A little note saying, “Dan, thought you might find this interesting. Love, Ann Marie.” And as you can imagine, anytime I shared that at AA meetings, it’s quite likely for someone to come up to me afterwards and tell me that was my higher power working. But I suspect it was actually my friend Ann Marie. [laughter] I think the clue is in the signature. But the thing is, I read it and it absolutely spoke to me straightaway. There were bits in it I absolutely identified with to the point that it was almost excruciating, certainly some of the stories. I recommend anyone to read that book from the back to the front. That’s kind of what I did. Either it was too much God at the beginning, that was immediately off-putting to me. At the same time, when I did read some of that stuff, there was stuff in there that wasn’t the more kind of spooky stuff, it was absolute true. I mean the chapter more about alcoholism, just telling me about the nature of this thing. Stop and not being able to, and craving, and all the weird mental tricks that it would play on me. because I mean, by the time I was reading that book, I’d had a couple of periods on my own where I’d been able to stop drinking just out of kind of shit and willpower and fear.

09:43 Dan: And actually, it’s worth quickly recounting this because it does me no harm to remember it. I’d been able to stay stopped for about seven months at one point on my own, and I was seeing an alcohol counsellor I remember at the time. And I was on my way to see the counsellor on this very day. And the thing is it’s easy not to drink when you don’t want to drink. I mean it’s easy, isn’t it? But what happened was, I was on my way to see the counsellor, and I just suddenly knew I was going to go and drink. And it didn’t feel like any kind of decision. Felt like a committee somewhere had had a meeting and made a decision, and I was just being informed of the outcome. And I had this wave of excitement and adrenaline went through my body. And I went, and I still kept this appointment. I got there a bit early and so I had a bit of time to kill. I went and sat in a pub and had a soft drink, planning all of the alcohol I was going to drink after seeing my alcohol counsellor.

10:39 Dan: And then I went and saw the counsellor and I just didn’t mention it to her at all. I just kept absolutely quiet about this and told a whole lot of lies about “You know, things looking up. And oh, I applied for a job the other day.” Just all of this crap, completely… Got completely drunk and after that passed and I kind of picked myself up, and I was thinking about that, and I was thinking about the way the thought had come into my head, and it hadn’t felt like a decision. Well, the right word is insanity, isn’t it? Just the madness of it. Just the craziness of not knowing my own mind. You would think it’s one thing you’re in control of, it’s your own mind, or naively I would have thought that. And I was so baffled by that. It’s like you’ve got this intermittent illness. It’s like you’ve got a rash, like a rash somewhere on your body that comes and goes and sometimes it flares and other times it doesn’t. And on the very day that it flares up you happen to have an appointment with the doctor, but then you don’t show it to the doctor. [laughter]

11:44 Dan: I mean that’s kind of what it was, isn’t it? And when I read, those years later, when I read those bits more about alcoholism and stuff like that in the literature, and heard people taking about the nature of alcoholism, absolutely rang true to me and I knew that these people knew what I was like. because they’re drinking… What am I trying to say? They got it. It was absolutely clear that they got it. And that was incredibly helpful to me because I remember the first meeting I went to, I remember it was near Clapham Common in South London. I remember walking there, and that was like a march to the gallows to me. Like going to my first AA meeting, and I nearly went in a couple of times and veered off at the last second, had to walk round the block.

12:34 John: Yep, I did that too.

[chuckle]

12:36 Dan: Did you? Yeah, yeah. It’s almost kind of walking into your first porn cinema.

[laughter]

12:41 John: Yeah, yeah. I was absolutely terrified to open that door and walked away many times before I went in.

12:47 Dan: Yeah, yeah. Isn’t that interesting? Yeah, and I walked down the steps in the basement, down the steps and someone put out their hand and says, “Hello,” and said, “Are you new?” Although it’s probably kind of obvious looking at the state of me that I was, and I said yes. And he said, “You never need to drink again.” I felt myself getting upset now because it’s so, what a fundamentally amazing thing to tell an alcoholic to mean this, “You don’t have to drink again.” And I sat and listened at that meeting, and by then I’d read some of the literature because my friend had sent me the book. That’s probably a bit unusual for it to be that way around, I imagine. So, I kind of had a sense that… because I had identification with the stories in the book, same thing happened in the meeting. So, then there was this mismatch, so I’d be sitting there hearing people talking about their drinking, how bad their lives had been, which all matched up with my experience to a greater or lesser extent, and yet they were sober. And some of them had been sober a long time, and they were talking about their lives and how their lives had got better. And it was absolutely clear to me that this would help me.

13:55 John: Here in Midwestern United States, most groups if they have a new person, they give what’s called a first-step meeting, where they go around the room and share their stories. Is that what they did for you?

14:05 Dan: No, no. Not explicitly. And do they kind of share directly to the person?

14:11 John: Yes, they do. It’s a little heavy sometimes, but it’s typical here in the Midwest.

14:16 Dan: I would run 100 miles. That would be… You see one of the things I like most about Alcoholics Anonymous is the anonymity is not just that we’re anonymous out in the world, but also, I really like the way if you’re shy as I was, you can actually just sit at the back of an AA meeting and not say anything for years if you want. You can just sit there, and you can just listen. And I think I did say my name in that first meeting, I didn’t go into anything, and then I didn’t really speak for quite a while, I just sat and listened and listened and listened, I went to lots of meetings. And I was amazed at how people were able to talk about their feelings.

15:00 John: Yeah, that’s what got me too.

15:02 Dan: Yeah. And particularly men. Men talking about their feelings, frightening tough guys talking about their feelings. How lost they felt, primary school maybe, or how lost they can feel now in their job and I just sit there thinking, “God it’s not just me.” It was the beginning of the end of that isolation.

15:22 John: Yeah. How long ago was that, your first meeting?

15:25 Dan: That was 2000. Yeah, that was 2000.

15:28 John: Okay. Good time ago then.

15:30 Dan: Yeah, yeah. It’s a while ago now.

15:33 John: And did you identify as a non-believer when you went to that first meeting?

15:36 Dan: I’d been an atheist as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a kid. In fact, that’s a good kind of little moment, a very brief little story which is, I remember, I actually went to school in Northern Ireland, which many of your listeners in the UK will know is like one of the most religious parts of the UK. You’ve got one kind of Christian killing another kind of Christian, and, you know, “Jesus is love”. Oddly enough, but anyway, the schools there are quite religious, and I went to one of the Protestant schools. Me and my brothers, we weren’t in any kind of religion. I remember being exposed to, might have been some school assembly. Some prayer or something. I can’t remember what it was now.

16:19 Dan: But I remember quite early, maybe right before secondary school, so I guess eight, nine, 10, 11, that kind of age, hearing what they were saying, and just realizing that if I believed that, then I’d have to believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy too. They’re on a part of me intellectually. I just don’t… How can you believe that? When I got to AA… That was the big sticking point for me. I’ll be absolutely honest. Hearing people in meetings and more so the literature, I had these very mixed feelings. So, on the one hand, there was all this identification going on, there was something growing inside me, there was an ending to the isolation, there was something in me that was reaching out to people, there was all of this hopeful stuff, and then I would turn the page and there would be all of this religious crap.

17:12 Dan: And I would just say, “Oh God they’ve ruined it.” They almost got it right. This is such a near miss, what a shame. And on and off over the years in AA, it’s been more of a problem to me at times than other times. I’ve never ever swallowed it. I’ve never, I’ve never, never believed it. I’ve never been through a period of believing it. I had a sponsor, I was kind of broken enough and teachable enough when I got there, so that my first sponsor wanted me to pray. That’s one of the things he wanted me to do, and I was broken enough to just do that. I did just do that, and I did it for a period of time, it was months rather than years. But on the other hand, it was months rather than days. I don’t know if it was… Let’s say six months, something like that.

18:03 Dan: And at some point, in that period, I went to an event, a kind of skeptical conference type event, it was nothing to do with AA, at a place called Conway Hall in London, which is quite a famous kind of skeptical secular venue and it’s got a history in the UK. And above the stage there, it had the phrase, “To thine own self be true.” Which I believe is a quote from Shakespeare, and I just remember thinking that all of the fake it to make it stuff in AA, it was feeling more and more fake, and “To thine own self be true” just felt authentic in a way that when I thought about that, I felt more substantial and real and genuine as a person. So, I just let go of it, I just stopped praying, and I didn’t hit the bottle, so I’ve never stopped stopping praying, you see what I mean?

18:57 John: How do you approach the program now? How do you deal with the belief aspect of the program? The spiritual part, as they say.

19:04 Dan: Well now… That’s a good question, John. Now, I don’t know in all honesty with you, where I am at the moment with AA and the program. I’ve quite recently returned to AA, after… It’s either four and a half or five and a half years of not going to meetings. I think it’s four and a half, and I’ve got… There’s a certain separation now between me and the program. I’m not sure… Well, first of all, I’m not sure if I’m back back. I’m not sure if I’m just back for a bit, and I’m not sure, if I am back, if I’m going to be finding a sponsor and thinking about the steps.

19:41 John: Right. No, I can relate. I have kind of an odd relationship with AA, and on one hand, I’m very, very involved with it and I… We have secular meetings here in Kansas City, so I go to those meetings, but I can hardly stomach a traditional AA meeting anymore.

[chuckle]

19:57 Dan: Yeah.

19:57 John: So, on one hand, [chuckle] on one hand, I’m in AA, but on the other hand, if it weren’t for having the option of having a secular AA meeting, I’m not. So…

20:08 Dan: Well, okay. That essentially… So, what… Maybe what we should talk about for a bit then, is let’s talk about secular AA then.

20:15 John: Okay.

20:16 Dan: because that’s what brought us together really, isn’t it?

20:18 John: Yeah. It is.

20:19 Dan: That’s your raison d’etre with this podcast. So, yeah. What happened for me was I nearly left AA, I would say about three times, and on the third time, I did actually leave and have this kind of little sabbatical away. The first time, I would’ve been about five or six years sober, where it just felt like nothing big or dramatic happened, I just kind of felt like the enthusiasm for it was draining out of me, and as a constant background radiation to that, there was just all of this religious stuff all the time, all of the unwanted advice giving, all of the slogans, all of the fascination with acronyms. [chuckle]

21:02 John: Yeah.

21:03 Dan: All of the over interpretation of absolutely random chance and coincidences that people see. Or you know, this celestial air traffic controller, arranging things for people, all of that stuff. And I didn’t leave, and instead go like, “Dude, I had a kind of very, you’ve been programmed by AA” thought. Instead of leaving, I did 90 meetings in 90 days. And I just got back into it, I got a new… And I got a new sponsor. And then I nearly left it again in 2009 and instead, I actually was involved in setting up the We Agnostics step meeting, which is the first kind of agnostic and atheist meeting in London AA. Certainly, in recent years, I’ve heard rumors about there having been one, years before I was in AA, and it kind of folding. So, I don’t really know anything about that one, but I had enough friends by then. And by then I was nine years sober, so I had some kind of center of mass to me, I thought, “Well, I haven’t drunk. I haven’t gone completely nuts.” And so, we decided to set up an agnostic meeting, we decided to call it We Agnostics because that’s a chapter in the book, so that should be to… So that we’re not too revolutionary.

22:22 John: Right.

22:23 Dan: We’ll choose a phrase from the book, and then someone who I was doing the shift with at the… I used to answer phones at the telephone office here. And someone, a guy who I’ve only met that one time on that one shift, made a suggestion when I was talking about setting up this meeting. He said, “Well, if you’re going to do that, you should make it a step meeting, because that’s going to be where people have a problem with all the God stuff.” And looking back on it, I really do think that was a stroke of genius. Because what it meant was, that this was not a “we hate God in AA” meeting.

22:56 John: Yeah, good point.

22:58 Dan: Yeah. It was a step meeting. It also meant that when we had the very first meeting, which the bunch of us involved in setting up, we’d been going around announcing it at other meetings, so that it was starting up and the name was raising some eyebrows, and some people were not happy with the idea of an agnostic step meeting. But because it was a step meeting, when we actually had the first meeting of it, which I think was January 2009, quite a lot of people turned up. I think we had maybe around 30, 35 people.

23:29 John: Oh, my goodness.

23:29 Dan: Yeah. It was a big first meeting. But I think they were expecting a spectacle or a scrap or a fight or something dramatic, but of course, the great thing was because it was a step meeting, it was just a step one meeting.

23:42 John: There you go.

23:43 Dan: So, no mention of God at all.

23:45 John: Right.

23:46 Dan: And I really do… I want to thank that guy whose name I don’t even remember from the phone office for having that idea, because it did not become a “slogging of God in AA meeting,” it has never been that.

23:56 John: Good.

23:56 Dan: Yeah. And it did very well. It did very well. It’s still going now all those years later, although it’s kind of moved venue. And, yeah, that was great for me because I’d realized I felt like I didn’t have a home in AA, and I’m looking for my home in AA, and suddenly the answer was obvious. You got to just make your home in AA.

24:18 John: Yeah. Absolutely, that’s what you have to do.

24:19 Dan: Just start a meeting.

24:21 John: Yeah. You’re right.

24:22 Dan: That’s kind of the advantage of the slightly kind of anarchic thing about AA, is that anyone can just set up a meeting, and they can’t stop you. And now there’s one, two, three… I think there’s five agnostic/atheist/freethinking type meetings in London.

24:43 John: That’s great.

24:45 Dan: What’s nice about them is they’ve all got kind of a theme. There’s a step meeting, there’s another meeting in the same venue on a different night and that’s more of a, just like a general meeting, a speaker meeting. At the moment my current favorite one is the one that we’re going to tonight actually, Saturday night after we’ve finished talking, which is the Step 11 Atheist and agnostic meeting which has got a bit of, I guess it’s kind of watered down Buddhist meditation.

25:14 John: Okay, do meditation.

25:16 Dan: Yeah, so we do some meditation, so that’s very nice. And the most recent one that’s started up, very recently, which is to me the most radical one and the most kind of exciting one, is the LGBT Heathens AA [chuckle] meeting on a Wednesday night which I have been going to, and I enjoy that and the people there who set it up, they’ve really taken control, taken ownership of it in a way that I don’t think we dared to. We were careful to call it ‘We Agnostics’ and make it a step meeting, but at this other meeting they have alternative versions of the steps and you just choose a random one and read out the one that you want, and people aren’t expected to identify as being alcoholic if they don’t want to. It’s very, very open and it feels very spacious, and there’s a lot of room for people to kind of be themselves at the meetings, and that seems to be doing very well. I have a feeling, I don’t know what you think from your viewpoint, but I have a feeling that actually we’re at the beginning of something.

26:21 John: I think so, I think so, absolutely. Certainly, the number of agnostic or secular AA meetings have grown exponentially since, oh gosh, 2014 anyway, since that convention in Santa Monica. We’ve networked so well online. It’s pretty phenomenal that I even know about what’s going on in London, and I know what’s going on in Ireland, and I know what’s going on in Australia. It’s pretty incredible, but these secular AA meetings are taking off all over the world. And what I find really interesting too, is culturally, I know that the UK is a pretty secular nation, I mean that religion has pretty much gone by the wayside, hasn’t it for the most part?

27:06 Dan: Well, it’s… Yeah, it’s… I kind of feel like we’re the mirror image of the States in some ways, because…

27:12 John: Oh really?

27:13 Dan: Well, what I mean by that is, so like in the States you have a totally secular government. That’s the way it was set up, but actually…

27:25 John: But we’re very religious.

27:26 Dan: Yeah, but you’re very religious, whereas over here we’ve actually got an established church.

27:30 John: Exactly, right. [chuckle]

27:32 Dan: The Queen is literally the Head of the Church of England and we have bishops and so forth in the House of Lords, but culturally we’re pretty secular. It’s a funny kind of mirror image.

27:48 John: But it’s not necessarily that way in AA in the UK, is it?

27:53 Dan: Most people who I come across in AA, I would say your average AA member, I don’t think they’re religious, but I think they have some spooky magic thing. They’re not going to church necessarily, but there is magical thinking. There is “I had a quick word with my higher power and I got a parking space,” they’re just not expecting. It’s a lot of fact, in a sense.

28:15 John: Exactly, it’s kind of that way here too. I mean, I don’t think that most of the people who are alcoholics were actually church goers, [laughter] but they show up at AA, and they do make AA their religion here. And then it’s gotten very, in some groups, kind of rigid about the approach you need to take and all of that.

28:39 Dan: There’s another dimension there though isn’t there, so there is obviously all the higher power stuff and that kind of religiously kind of bit, but then there is also the whole kind of ‘cult sponsorship’ thing as well, isn’t there.

28:48 John: Oh yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that kind of troubles me a little bit and I think too, like I think what it is. I have to investigate this a little bit more Dan, but it’s this whole Clancy cult thing about sponsorship where you have, where it makes a really big deal about having these really controlling sponsors, and they have a whole lineage of sponsors, so that you can trace your sponsor back down this ‘family tree’ I guess, [chuckle] and the grand sponsor actually plays a very important role in making sure that the guy is staying in line and doing what the sponsor says and all this kind of crap. That kind of troubles me, and there are some groups here that do that, but it’s kind of odd. I’ve met people from those groups, and some of them have actually attended our meetings and they’ve been actually very nice, and they haven’t caused us any problems whatsoever. [laughter]

29:36 Dan: Yes, yes, it’s interesting, isn’t it? We’ve got some of that going on here as well, and I think the root of it is probably all the same thing. We’ve got these back-to-basics meetings here, and there’s another phrase now which is escaping me, and they’re quite controlling. I mean now in my kind of current AA incarnation, I mean I’ve been going to meetings now for, I guess maybe about three months or so, I’ve been back in London AA meetings. I’m only going to the agnostic and secular meetings.

30:09 John: Yeah, that’s all I do too, now.

30:12 Dan: Yeah, yeah. And I’m perfectly happy in this little bubble.

30:14 John: Right, me too.

30:15 Dan: I’ve kind of now, I’ve kind of had to put it, I’ve kind of… I’m not really worried about what happens in other meetings now.

30:22 John: Right.

30:22 Dan: I know it’s Saturday night, going to go to this meditation meeting. Tuesday night, I’ll go to the step meeting. It’s fine, it’s absolutely fine for me at the moment. So…

30:30 John: Well, isn’t that funny, that really is the genius of AA, the way they set it up, where every group can do its own thing. And if you don’t like what’s going on you can start your own meeting and do your own thing, and that’s pretty much what we do. It’s nice to have that option, to be able to do that.

30:43 Dan: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean it’s not without problems at the same time though. I mean, there are, I mean, we have never had any difficulty getting listed as a meeting or anything like that when we started our meeting. But, you know, the local intergroup, which I had to go to because there was an issue about public liability insurance for the venue that we were renting. Yeah, so it’s a bit boring. But I was not welcome there, and there was lots of kind of sniggering and laughter and we never did in the end get the bit of paperwork that we should have had for our public liability insurance.

31:18 John: Yeah, that’s the thing, you do get it from the individual AA members, you get a little bit of…

31:23 Dan: Yeah, it’s individual people who’ve got their own agenda. And there are kind of people sticking their nose into other people’s business. I think that happens quite a lot.

31:34 John: I can tell you a little story of an experience I had, kind of along those lines. I’m on the board of directors for our central office, which is what you’d call your intergroup, I guess.

31:43 Dan: Oh, yeah.

31:43 John: Yeah, and so when I, I volunteered to do this, because nobody else wanted to do it. No one outside said, “Okay, I’ll do it, I want to help out. They’re having problems right now.” So, they took a vote to put me on, and they only had one question of me. This guy said, “Did you get sober through the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous?” And I said, “Well, yeah, I did.” because I just thought that was the truth, but it kind of bothered me a little bit because I know that that isn’t a question he asks everybody. In fact, he said that, he says, “Well, good, that’s what I ask every agnostic I meet.” I’m like…

[laughter]

32:17 John: Like that was the test. And the answer I should have given is, “You know what, it’s none of your damn business.”

32:21 Dan: Yeah, absolutely.

32:23 John: Yeah know, it has nothing to do with my qualification to be on this board of directors. And it’s kind of insulting that it’s only nonbelievers that you would even ask such a question.

32:33 Dan: Yeah, no it’s very revealing isn’t it?

32:36 John: Yeah, it is. So, there’s a little bit of prejudice like that.

32:40 Dan: Well, the thing is, I think it is actually threatening to some people.

32:44 John: Yeah it is.

32:44 Dan: I think, I mean, I’ve noticed in myself actually. It’s been quite interesting having a break away and then coming back, because I’m definitely a lot less uptight.

32:54 John: Yeah.

32:56 Dan: There’s definitely something, you know that phenomenon that can happen to people when they’re, say between three, five and seven years sober. When they become very sure about everything.

33:06 John: Yeah, yeah, I do.

33:06 Dan: Is that familiar to you?

33:08 John: Yes, I experienced that, yes.

33:10 Dan: Yeah, so I no doubt had my version of that. And you know, things which were to do with other people’s recovery would annoy me, because I had how I was doing it. And I knew what was authentic. And although I wouldn’t go around challenging people and telling them there is no God, you know, I never did any of that stuff. I definitely had a feeling about how things should be done, and I think, now, now I really don’t now because I feel I’ve got a home now. And I think when that guy asked you that question, it was touching that bit of him, wasn’t it? He’s a bit threatened.

33:47 John: Right.

33:48 Dan: Well, he’s a bit unsure of you, he doesn’t… because he can’t see how he could have got sober…

33:53 John: Right.

33:53 Dan: Without the 12 steps. And he just wants to be sure that you’re really on the team. You know?

33:57 John: That’s right.

33:57 Dan: I think it’s that, isn’t it?

34:00 John: Right, right. They do believe that, they sincerely believe, I guess, that there is a God that’s doing it all. Another episode I had, they were going to, they told me in advance, the president of the board said, “You know we’re going to have a vote to eliminate the Lord’s Prayer at the end of our board meetings.” I thought, “Well, that’s really nice of you to do that out of consideration of my feelings. It’s really nice of you to do that.” So, they had a damn vote about it though, and oh boy. This one guy says “It’s God that keeps us sober.” I said “No, it’s not. Not for all of us.” You know what I mean. Anyway, I gave a very impassioned plea to not… To make a case against the Lord’s Prayer. But they all voted me down. And so, I said “Well, I’ll tell you what, when guys, you say that Lord’s Prayer, I’m going to walk out the door and you just think about all the alcoholics that turn away and walk and never come back because of that damn Lord’s Prayer.” You know?

[laughter]

34:51 Dan: Well, I genuinely wonder about that. Yeah, I really do.

34:55 John: Yeah, I do too.

34:56 Dan: Yeah, I mean how many people who just cannot stomach it…

35:00 John: Oh yeah, I know there’s a lot of them. The only people that you see… And that’s the whole problem, the only people that stick around are people who can stomach it. What they do, and I did the same damn thing, I wasn’t particularly religious, but I learned the language of AA. And I learned how to do all that talk, and so any newcomer will come in and they would hear me talking along the same lines as everybody else and they’ll look at it and say, “This is really wacky.”

35:24 Dan: Now actually, now you’ve just reminded me of something. I think this is a very interesting point, this thing about language and learning the language. Because having come back to AA, suddenly I’m hearing all of this language again. And what I realized happened for me was, when I went to my first AA meeting and I heard people talking about all of their feelings, and I was so impressed by the fact that people were even able to do that. I mean, sometimes it was cringingly embarrassing, I’d just be sitting there squirming. You know. And what I realized happened for me was I… It taught… It handed me a vocabulary and a forum to talk about my feelings.

36:05 Dan: And after a long time of just sitting listening to people, I was able to borrow the courage that was in the room and start talking about my feelings. And so, to start with, all the vocabulary was an extremely empowering thing, because I could start talking and articulating things. And over a period of time, what I realized now looking back, I doubt I had any insight into this when it was going on. But over a period of time, that language turned into something a bit more like a straight jacket. So, it was… It’s supportive to… Do you know how… Here’s a good analogy. So, you know when little kids are learning to ride a bike, they could have those little wheels that go on the side of the bike, we call them stabilizers over here. I don’t know maybe what you call them here. They’re kind of little extra wings.

36:52 John: Right, right. We use them, I don’t know what we call them, but you’re right. [chuckle]

36:54 Dan: Yeah, but you know what I mean. So, if you think about what that does initially, is it allows you to ride a bike. You don’t fall off and it stabilizes you. But then after you get good at riding a bike, it’s constricting you, isn’t it? Because you want to go off a pavement that you want to ride over kind of rough terrain or something.

37:10 John: Good point, yes.

37:11 Dan: Yeah, and I think that’s what happened with me and the language was, it was this amazing opening up thing.

37:17 John: Oh yeah.

37:17 Dan: But then there came a point where it stopped opening up, and it started closing down on me.

37:21 John: Oh man! That’s such a great, great example, you are so right. That’s exactly how it was for me. It took me a long time. I was like 25 years doing all that talk when I read the ‘God Delusion’ and then that changed everything for me. And I was sure I was an atheist, and I rethought everything with AA, and I wasn’t speaking that language anymore. And it was freeing for me…

37:45 Dan: But people don’t like it.

37:46 John: They don’t like it at all, I was not accepted at all. And that’s why I ended up helping start this, our We Agnostics Group in Kansas City. They thought I was a nut, they couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth.

[chuckle]

37:57 Dan: Yeah, yeah. So, the danger is, I mean we’re a little bit unusual in AA, okay? So, we are not the majority. But of course, there’s no guarantee that our meetings won’t become like that too.

38:11 John: Oh boy, you’re right.

38:12 Dan: With just different language, or different things which are accepted. So, one of the things I find so exciting about the Wednesday night meetings, the most recent one, is… So, like with the step meeting I helped start, we finish that with the responsibility pledge. So, we wanted to finish with something, in order to be a bit of AA literature, so… We didn’t want to say the serenity prayer, obviously. So, we finish with that. But with the Wednesday night meeting, this LGBTQ Heathens meeting, they finished with a minute of silence.

38:47 John: Oh, that’s nice.

38:48 Dan: Now, well, but what’s the opposite of everyone saying something? It’s no one saying anything. And I think that’s really clever. I’m really… Every time it moves me, at the end of that meeting where I’m not chanting something, even if it’s something I believe in, where everyone’s just sitting quietly. I think, yeah, brilliant. Really, really awesome.

39:06 John: Well, it’s kind of funny. Our group actually, we don’t do any kind of… Well obviously, we haven’t done any opening or closing prayer. We do not open with a moment of silence, and that was kind of a fight for a while. Some people wanted to do it, and I objected actually to opening with a moment of silence, because to me it seemed like a phony prayer. I just hated it. I don’t like… I just really resist any kind of a group thing where we all have to do something together. And then…

39:30 Dan: Like a ritual?

39:30 John: Yeah. [chuckle] And then we don’t do any kind of a closing. We just say, “Okay, the meeting’s over, thanks for coming.” But we actually were going to introduce the responsibility statement, and the group voted it down. Because they don’t like having to do some kind of a ritualistic group recitation of anything. So, we just don’t do anything. [chuckle] We just say… We do start… We do open the meeting with reading the AA preamble, we do that. And then we give out chips for people that are sober for periods of time and stuff like that.

40:00 Dan: But isn’t it exciting though, to just take ownership of it?

40:01 John: Oh, it is.

40:02 Dan: And just make it what you want.

40:04 John: Yeah, it is.

40:05 Dan: It just reminded me of something you said earlier on, the people who can stomach it are the people who stick around. So, they’re the only people you hear. It actually reminded me of, I don’t know if this happened for you when you started your meeting. But after a few weeks of our step meeting, this would be in 2009. People started coming to the meeting who had not been to AA for years. So quite a few people who are like decades sober or even longer were turning up. And they were sort of in recovery from AA, in a way.

40:40 John: Exactly, yes. [chuckle]

40:41 Dan: Yeah. So, there’s a little bit of you know… It was mainly positive stuff about what they liked about our meeting. But then there was also with a grumbling about AA. And, we definitely had a kind of a community of people who had more than just drinking in common. They also had the kind of sober trauma of having to fit themselves into an AA mould to recover from as well, which is quite interesting, I think.

41:07 John: We had that too. We had like I guess probably two or three different types of group of people. But we had definitely the type of people who went to AA for a period of time, but left and would not go again because the religious stuff just drove them out. Then we had some people who were just traumatized by AA. And they found our group and started coming to it. And then we have the people who would never ever go to AA to begin with. But when they learned about a secular option, they would come. But we went through a period of time where, when I started… When we started our group, it was just me and one other guy. And we didn’t really have any resentment towards AA or anything. We were just kind of starting off fresh. But we had a group of people who came from another AA group, and they were angry at AA. And they were angry at their group. Because of just how, I guess authoritarian it was or whatever. And so, they started coming to our meetings in large numbers, and we had a lot of meetings that were just angry about AA but were specifically [laughter] angry about this one specific group that all these people came from.

42:04 Dan: Oh, right.

42:04 John: So, it was kind of embarrassing sometimes, I would just kind of cringe, I was like, “Oh God, please get us out of here.” So, I’m an atheist, and God, but anyway… Anyway, we got through it, and they’re doing great. What happened is those group of people that came from that other group, they went ahead and started a second group, that would meet on the nights that we don’t. And so, it’s really nice, that gives us the option of having, we actually have now in the Kansas City area, three different locations where we have agnostic meetings, and we have a meeting every day of the week, there’s an agnostic meeting in Kansas City.

42:37 Dan: You have meeting every day, really?

42:39 John: Yep.

42:40 Dan: Wow, and how big is the city?

42:43 John: Well, the city itself is just about 400,000 for just the inner city, but the Metropolitan area is probably a couple million.

42:53 Dan: Oh okay, right, yes. That’s a substantial size, yeah.

42:55 John: It’s a pretty large… Pretty large, but it’s a huge, geographically, it’s a huge area when you talk about the Metropolitan area, so the people that come to our meetings are generally living close by.

43:08 Dan: Yeah.

43:08 John: So, we’re drawing from that population of the 400,000 or so.

43:12 Dan: I mean, that’s a fantastic thing, because I mean these days if someone is thinking about stopping drinking and they’re thinking about coming to AA, they’re going to look on the internet and if they’re like me, I would be heading to your meetings if I was a newcomer. I’d be reading some of the kind of God-y stuff and thinking, “Oh, I can’t face that.” And then seven days a week, an agnostic or atheist meeting, that’s absolutely where I would go. Yeah, definitely.

43:37 John: Yeah, it’s incredible. I think that we’re going to probably see some more, there’s some talk about starting some… In the outlying areas of the city. I know that the United States really isn’t that different from other countries in that, when you get outside of the urban areas, that’s where it gets a little bit more conservative and, in our case, a little bit more religious.

44:00 Dan: Sure.

44:00 John: So, it’s a challenge for the people having an agnostic meeting in the, kind of a small town or a rural area around here. But I think that we’re going to probably try to do that here soon, have a meeting up in the more rural area and it gets a little… It’s really odd here how you can just leave the city limits and the culture changes so dramatically, but it really does.

44:22 Dan: It’s almost like a kind of outreach program, isn’t it?

44:25 John: Yeah. [chuckle] But there are people that live that I hear from, that live in the rural areas of Missouri, who have just had really, really a horrible time when coming out as an atheist in AA, and it’s really difficult, so…

44:41 Dan: Oh, I bet, I bet, yeah, yeah. I mean, that is definitely a difference between the States and the UK. I mean, there’s much more of a need for these kinds of meetings where you are.

44:52 John: Yeah.

44:53 Dan: In all honesty, maybe still in Northern Ireland or in parts of Scotland.

44:57 John: Yeah.

44:57 Dan: Where they’re still quite religious here, maybe also.

45:00 John: Yeah.

45:00 Dan: But I mean I was looking at the online directory of international meetings, so I guess it would have been your website or the agnostic website, and on it is there’s some 15 or 16 meetings across the UK, which is quite good. I mean we’ve got some in Scotland and then some right down in Cornwall, and then obviously we got these five in London. Any though, 15, 20 years ago there were none, so it’s happening here as well.

[music]

45:31 John: Yep, it is. Well it’s been an interesting conversation, I really appreciate you doing this again. It was really nice talking to you.

45:38 Dan: No, my pleasure. That’s a delightful talk that you had, John.

45:41 John: Alright, you take care.

45:42 Dan: Keep up the good work.

45:43 John: Not a problem. Bye-bye.

45:45 Dan: It’s all right, bye-bye.

[music]

45:50 John: Well, that was a lot of fun. It’s hard to believe, but we’ve been at this long time now. That was Episode 85, and Episode 86 is going to actually be posted on this Sunday, and that’s going to be a special edition podcast, and it’s actually a recording of the monthly anniversary meeting of my home group, We Agnostics Kansas City. And we’re going to post it because one of the celebrants who is Julie K, and she’s going to post an article on AA Beyond Belief that day, so we thought it’d be fun to post the, her anniversary talk along with that. Also, on that podcast will be Marty K, who celebrated two years of sobriety, and it was a lot of fun at that meeting.

46:31 John: I think you’ll enjoy that podcast. And then after that, we’ve got two more people from England that we’ll be interviewing. The first will be Lee from London, and she’ll be talking about over eaters anonymous from a secular perspective. And then we’ll be speaking with Gary Bell. And Gary was actually in the documentary One Little Pill, which is all about the Sinclair Method. And he’ll be talking about that from firsthand experience, so that should be a lot of fun. A lot of really interesting conversations coming up, so please stay tuned, we’ll be back again real soon.


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  1. Jonathan Quimbly July 5, 2018 at 11:03 pm - Reply

    Tip for future broadcasts: put something between the microphone and the table, like foam or rubber, because there’s a whole lot of tapping noise throughout the episode.  Distracting.

  2. Gerald March 24, 2018 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    I relate to everything, from shy kid & Santa Claus to feeling limited by AA’s training wheels. Me too, took five years off from the rooms of recovery at 15 years sober, ‘09-‘14 (because I cured myself of lifelong depression through a radical change in diet, basically very low carb, Paleo/ GAPS diet). At the moment that I was cured of the depression I lost faith in the AA method, even developed a resentment (!) “These guys don’t know what they’re talking about!” 🙂

    What’s different nowadays? Well, I use my own vocabulary, for one thing, and I don’t hide any part of my story anymore, including the atheism. And I frequently mention Bill W. + hypoglycemia and Bill W. + vitamin B3. Resentment, again: why is this information effectively hidden from us in AA? In the later years of his life I think Bill W. was hot on the trail of the connection between malnutrition and alcoholism.

    Also different, now that I’m cured of depression, *finally*, (nine years now, not a moment depressed), I understand the difference between self-pity, for example, and depression.

    And why come back to the 12-step world? Well, not sure I have a home anywhere else. And the “spiritual way of life” makes more sense to me now than ever before, now that I’m no longer a depressive.

    … Funny how that resentment towards AA turned out 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Thanks,

    Gerald (Japan)

  3. life-j March 21, 2018 at 9:43 pm - Reply

    Dan, and John, thanks, this was really good. I particularly liked the training wheels analogy. That is important. It’s like in AA we refuse to grow up, just in a different way than we did when drinking. People insist on keeping everything exactly just so, and never change, never start thinking for themselves, never let go of the “willing to go to any length” and all the other archaic language which always has to be cited verbatim, just to make sure the newcomers are completely baffled, and won’t have a clue what people are talking about. All the same, I did have that same feeling of coming home early on. I even, as a non-believer, found the reading of the how it (doesn’t) work really comforting, it was like yeah! I made it back here one more time, now just settle down, calm down, find my center, get ready to listen, it was a sort of time out to listen to it, even sometimes read it. So I guess it really has some value for newcomers. Nowadays I absolutely loathe it, refuse to read it, and have even started, occasionally, modifying a step when (as we do it in regular AA here) the steps part of the reading gets sent around the table, taking god out of the step.

    Which brings me to that I think it is really important that we keep going to regular AA meetings. It is of course a good thing that we have our agnostic meetings (which I rarely have opportunity to attend since I live in the boonies) but if AA is going to change we do need to go to the regular meetings and speak up, and speak up against the Daily Reflections, and all the rest of the whacky literature.

  4. Pat N. March 21, 2018 at 10:09 am - Reply

    I forget its name, but I’ve attended the secular meeting in Angel, London, a couple of times. Good,  secular AA, and the bakery afterward was outstanding! Actually, I’ve found ordinary AA in the UK to be far more comfortable than in the US. They may read the evangelistic “How It Works” or recite a prayer, but generally the meetings have been far more secular than here. That may be why specifically secular meetings have developed more slowly than in America.

  5. John L. March 21, 2018 at 7:02 am - Reply

    Great interview!  I just got back from London and Liverpool, where I gave a talk at the “Outing The Past” conference.  In London I attended two meetings in the recovery center near the Tottenham Court Road underground stop.  The first was a regular meeting, but I didn’t realize this, since there was no religiosity until at the end when everyone said the Serenity Prayer.  The second one on Wednesday evening was “LGBT Heathens”; here there were a few statements about the secular nature of the group and there was no SP.  Both were good meetings.  I like the points you made about ‘cult sponsorship’  — there is more to AA fundamentalism/conformism than merely the god talk.

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