Our Tent Stands Tall and Wide

Phyllis H. was the General Manager of the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous when she gave this talk at the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention held in Santa Monica, California on November 7, 2014. Today, we are presenting the audio recording and transcript of her address to the convention.   

00:01: Thank you so much, Dorothy. I’m Phyllis H, I am an alcoholic.

00:09: And, what a privilege to be here with you. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, and I’m so grateful for the invitation, and when Dorothy called me, it wasn’t long before I got my schedule arranged and said, “Ah, yes, I can come.” It means an awful lot to GSO, to myself, and I think to AA throughout all of the US and Canada, and perhaps around the world.

I want to begin with just a short parable that many of you have probably heard before, but I think it bears repeating. It’s about a man, and obviously he was a drunk. I say “obviously” because I wouldn’t talk about a man unless he was a drunk.


01:04: He was walking home on a road one day and he was pretty wobbly, he’d had a night of drinking. He stumbled, and he fell into a pit, and there he stayed. Until pretty soon, along came a priest,and the priest walked by, he looked down, saw the man in the pit, and said, “I can help you.” So, he gave him a book and he said, “Read this book. There are words of wisdom, and they’ll help you get out of the pit.” Well, he read them, and he stayed. Pretty soon, along came a doctor, a man of medicine, and he looked down and he saw him as well, and he thought, “Oh, I can help this man, I can give him some medicine.” “It will ease your pain, and I’m sure it will help you climb out of this pit.” So, he took the medicine and he stayed. It wasn’t too much longer that a man came by—an alcoholic. He looked down and immediately he jumped into the pit. The drunk said, “What did you do? You jumped in here with me? Now we’re both in trouble.” And the alcoholic said, “No. I’ve been where you are, and I know the way out.”


02:49: In the chapter “Tradition Eight”, in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W., our co-founder, wrote, “Almost no recovery from alcoholism has ever been brought about by the world’s best professionals, whether medical or religious.” At the same time, Bill acknowledged and embraced these professionals and anyone else who wanted to help us gain recovery. It was just that the experience of the pioneers in Alcoholics Anonymous show that our best results come from one alcoholic working with another, and when we stand together in that dark pit of alcoholism, we show each other the way out. The same co-founder wrote some wonderfully wise reflections on how all-encompassing Alcoholics Anonymous should be. In the pamphlet AA Tradition How It Developed, he expressed this in his 1946 essay, Who is a Member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It says the following, “We do not wish to deny anyone his chance to recover from alcoholism. We wish to be just as inclusive as we can, never exclusive.”

04:02: He continued with this idea of inclusiveness. “Perhaps it means that we are losing all fear of those violent emotional storms which sometimes cross our alcoholic world. Perhaps it bespeaks our confidence that every storm will be followed by a calm, a calm which is more understanding and more compassionate.” Under the umbrella of AA today, there are more than two million members worldwide finding relief in the devastation of alcoholism. There are members of every ethnicity, culture, and gender. The act of seeking the truth, or what I will call an honest endeavor, to search for something beyond our realm or outside ourselves, to step away from ego is personal to each member. There are members who have various beliefs. There are those who have specific religious beliefs, and there are members who are agnostic, members who are atheist, and members who define themselves as non-believers.”

05:02: In the “Foreword to the Second Edition” of the Big Book, is a very clear statement from Bill. “Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization.” Emphasizing this matter in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. Bill had a footnote added to page 232 to clarify further his views on this issue. “Speaking for Dr. Bob and myself, I would like to say that there has never been the slightest intent on his part or mine of trying to found a new religious denomination. Dr. Bob held certain religious convictions and so do I. This, of course, is the personal privilege of every AA member. Nothing, however, could be so unfortunate for AA’s future as an attempt to incorporate any of our personal theological views into AA teaching, practice or tradition. Were Dr. Bob still with us, I am positive he would agree that we could never be too emphatic about this matter.

05:56: All of us are fully aware that Bill and Dr. Bob felt a spiritual experience of some sort, whether sudden or gradual, was an essential ingredient required for recovery from alcoholism. They wrote of such an experience in terms of God, as they understand that concept. As the years of AA experience have accumulated, however, and as this assembly today exemplifies, members can have a rich and full experience in recovery without necessarily having a theistic or deistic belief, and other than having a desire to stay away from drinking, one day at a time, there is no requirement to believe in anything.

Our General Service Conference represents a group conscience of AA in the United States and Canada. Year after year, it has approved pamphlets, addressing a variety of topics, and reaching out to different kinds of potential members. In many of them, it directly notes that atheists and agnostic are welcome.

07:01: In the 1976 pamphlet, Do You Think You’re Different?, an alcoholic and atheist named, Ed wrote, “To those who do not accept the idea of a supernatural being, let me assert that it is the people who have strengthened us, and have strengthened me when I needed help. I have interpreted the frequent mention of God in the 12 steps and elsewhere as a power that comes from other people.” He continues in Step Two. “The power greater than ourselves meant AA, but not just the members I knew. It meant all of us everywhere. Sharing a concern for one another, and thereby, creating a spiritual resource stronger than anyone of us could provide.”

07:46: Bill and the early pioneers saw AA as a society always in a state of becoming, never something completed. In his writings, he shared clearly about the fears that early members had of becoming rigid, and unable realistically to assess, and to meet challenges. To Bill and those early members, past solutions were just that, past solutions, not sacred, not rules to bind us rigidly to some dogmatic path.

In his landmark book of psychology, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James noted that as movements grow distant from their founders, different interpretations of the original message emerge. Changes or schisms often begin to appear, or people become afraid that the original message will be lost. Some members of these movements scramble to solidify and codify a more rigid adherence to the original, or some members make an effort to codify a newer interpretation.

08:50: In our case, for one reason or another, a few meetings seem to have become less open to all who suffer from alcoholism. No matter what their individual beliefs or non-beliefs might be. This is not the inclusiveness that Bill had in mind, I am sure of that. There are many stories I could tell related to the importance of love and tolerance in our fellowship related to the need of AA to be all inclusive, so our message of hope can reach as many of the suffering alcoholics as possible. Our literature contains such stories and the AA Grapevine has dozens of stories about agnostics and atheists, and what Bill referred to as, ‘The Unbelievable.’ Unbelievable, the unbeliever. Could be.


09:39: That was a nice slip, wasn’t it?


09:43: I will share one such Grapevine story written by Bill in 1961, entitled, “The Dilemma of No Faith”. Bill tells of meeting with a Midwestern, small-town doctor, probably not the same doctor who encountered the drunk in the pit. It was a year or so after AA had started, it was a social evening and Bill monopolized the conversation by talking about AA. There’s no surprise there. Interested, the doctor and his wife asked many questions. One of which, made Bill suspect that the good doctor was an agnostic, and maybe, even an atheist. Bill wrote, “This promptly triggered me, and I set out to convert him then and there. Deadly serious, I actually bragged about my spectacular spiritual experience of the year before. The doctor mildly wondered if that experience might not be something other than I thought it was.”


10:39: “This hit me hard and I was downright rude. The doctor was uniformly courteous, good humored, and even respectful. I had convinced him of nothing.”

Three years later, Bill revisited the town, and learned that the doctor had passed away shortly before his visit. He spoke with the wife, and learned that the doctor was from a noted Boston family, had been a brilliant Harvard graduate who might have gone on to enjoy a wealthy practice, but instead, had insisted on becoming a company doctor in what was a strife-torn industrial town. She recalled his dedication, and that she had never known her husband to complain seriously about anything.

Bill noted, “This was a story of a man of great spiritual worth. The hallmarks were plain to be seen: humor, and patience, gentleness, courage, humility, and dedication, unselfishness, and love. A demonstration I might never come near to making myself. This was a man I had chided and patronized. This was a so-called, unbeliever I had presumed to instruct. It burst in upon me how very dead faith can be when minus responsibility.”

12:02: “The doctor had an unwavering belief in his ideals, but he also practiced humility, wisdom and responsibility, hence his superb demonstration. My own spiritual awakening had given me a built-in faith in God, a gift indeed, but I had been neither humble nor wise, boasting in my faith, I had forgotten my ideals. Pride and irresponsibility had taken their place. By so cutting off my own light, I had little to offer my fellow alcoholic, therefore my faith was dead to them. At last I saw how many had gone away and why, and some of them gone forever.”

12:58: Our code of love and tolerance began right there. Sober AA members travel many different paths when it comes to faith or the lack of faith. AA members do have a strong spiritual component in their recovery. Some believe in a power greater than ourselves, whatever the definition, lack of definition, or nature of that power is, in order to aid in lifting the obsession to drink.

I refer once again, to Bill W. in a talk he gave at a clergy conference in April 1960. He said at that time, “Now, what about the alcoholic who says he can’t possibly believe in God? A great many of these come to AA and they complain they are trapped. By this they mean, they have been convinced that they are fatally ill, yet they cannot accept the belief in God and his grace as a means of recovery. In practice, this does not prove to be an impossible dilemma at all. We simply suggest that the newcomer take an easy stand and an open mind, that he proceeds to practice those parts of the 12 steps which anyone’s common sense would recommend. He can certainly admit he’s an alcoholic; that he ought to make a moral inventory; that he ought to have, or to discuss his defects with another human being; that he should make restitution; and that he can try to be helpful to other alcoholics. His first step in this direction has to be admission that certainly he is not God, nor is mankind in general. He can place his dependence upon his own group. The group certainly is a higher power so far as recovery from alcoholism is concerned,” those were Bill’s words.

14:35: You often hear that AA is not a religious program, but a spiritual program, we’ve said it many times. It is very difficult to verbalize something as ephemeral, [chuckle] as a spiritual program. Thank you. We say in our preamble that we are not allied with any sect or denomination and that the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking, yet it is a custom in many groups, in the US and Canada, to use either the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer to close the meetings. This is a matter for each group to determine. I say it again, this is a matter for each group to determine. Although, the use of these prayers was common in the early days of AA, it is a custom not a rule.

In the beginning of my sobriety, I learned there were only a few people with whom I felt comfortable when I shared my lack of understanding of the concept of a higher power. This was alright. I was able to attend many meetings and do a lot of reading of AA literature, and I finally managed to stay away from the drink one day at a time. I got a sponsor, a home group, and began to work the steps. As time went on, I began to feel better and less fearful, less guilty, and most importantly, very grateful. I would share with you also that I believe in the idea that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

16:11: I’m aware in many meetings that there is something that is taking place, which is really beyond my comprehension. The room seems to be filled with trust, and love, and mutual caring. I know these things in a way that I don’t know others, and although I can’t prove it, I know that they are real. In fact, it was a group that first showed me strength and power beyond myself.

As I ventured more deeply into the steps I was asked over and over again to have willingness, to be open minded. In the beginning, I had trouble accepting that fact and the fact that I was beaten. I tried desperately for many years to control my drinking and to control most things and most people around me. I didn’t do a very good job at that, and I didn’t do a very good job in my life. At the end, my isolation and desolation were complete. I had nothing left, no job, no family, no health, no home. I had no more answers. I called AA in desperation and the message I heard was one of hope, and immediate identification. I was welcomed at my first meeting with a cup of coffee and a chair at the table. I wasn’t asked to sign anything, say anything or believe anything. I was asked to keep coming back. I began to attend AA meetings. I threw in the towel of course, as far as alcohol was concerned and became willing a little by little just to follow a few simple steps and some principles that were given to me.

18:00: And most importantly to listen. In other words, I surrendered. But to what, to whom, did I surrender? Why does it matter all that much to anyone, but to me, and of course, perhaps my sponsor? Our Third Tradition states, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” The only requirement. There are no others. Bill W. wrote, “Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization. There is no dogma. The one theological proposition is a power greater than oneself. Even this concept is forced on no one. The newcomer simply immerses himself in our society and tries the program as fast he can. Left alone, he will surely report the gradual onset of a transforming experience, call it what he may.”

18:57: Now, the history of Alcoholics Anonymous was not a success story, immediately, in any conventional sense. They repeatedly emphasized that the traditions are not codified laws, but merely suggestions. Underneath all the stories, even the many that are humorous, they’re in the dark abyss of failed groups and individuals who have disappeared, never to make it back. There are stories of old-timers whose egos sought control of a group and who resisted the spirit of rotation. The stories talk about some of the grandiose visions we had early in our history of building hospitals and running treatment centers using the AA name. They talk about the difficulties we had in sorting out the singleness of purpose as the only requirement for membership. They tell about our flirtation with outside enterprises and seeking money from sources outside of AA.

19:57: A former GSO General Manager, a man with over 50 years of sobriety and service to AA, points out the traditions are unique and that it is unnatural for humans to follow them.


20:12: Imagine that. It is natural to put oneself ahead of a group. It’s natural to want to govern a group. It’s natural to exclude others from a society. It’s natural to try to extend a proven technique to solve new problems. It’s natural to accept contributions from the public. It’s natural and fun to express opinions of all sorts of issues, and it’s natural to want to broadcast the news of your success to the world. It’s natural to seek fame, influence, and glory in a society, yet, AAs do their best not to do these things as AA members. They put AA first. The traditions are suggestions, again, no one has the power to enforce them, yet, most AAs and AA groups try hard to live by them. They are simply too practical to ignore. At the root of them is the idea that the less alcoholics have to argue about, the less likely they are to drive away newcomers. And isn’t that what we’re about?


21:33: Focusing on outside issues would divert AA from its primary purpose, to carry the AA message to the alcoholic who still suffers. Based on my experience with AA, AA is a tolerant society. We know that there are differences. There will always be differences. We cannot have over 2 million individuals come together and always agree on every issue, one with the other. This is where our tradition of unity comes in. AA unity rests on trust—trust that we can love and tolerate the differences we each have, as we strive to fulfill our primary purpose together. In AA, we trust in many things, in the informed group conscience, and in the program of recovery. We seem to talk endlessly at times, and we over analyze any number of issues, but in the end, as a fellowship, we trust that when anyone, anywhere reaches out for help, the hand of AA is there.

22:47: We set aside all of our differences to carry the AA message. We recognize that we are all here to stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety. Our very lives depend on that trust, just as our sobriety depends to a great deal and a great degree on the love and tolerance that we show one another. At its very core, AA is, and continues to be, simply a movement. We guard against it becoming an institution or an alliance without, well, without any doctrine or religion. Our tent stands tall and wide. It covers all lands and languages with space for all thoughts, ideas, and understanding. The pole supporting this tent are our three legacies: Recovery, Unity, and Service. This is a beautiful spectrum of sobriety that AA has given to us, and it’s up to us to pass it on.

23:55: I will close with one of my favorite quotes from Step 10 in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions; “Courtesy, kindness, justice and love. These are the key notes by which we will come into harmony with practically everyone.”

I thank you.


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1 year ago

First, thank you. I’m new to this forum but not to AA. I feel alone because of my inability to accept a Christian god which seems so embedded in my meetings here in Florida. I keep going but feel isolated because I don’t say prayers, have a “god-box”, or other ready made tools that so many fellow AAs use to handle life. Looking for others who do not oppose other’s beliefs but are struggling to squeeze past god to get in the door. My sobriety date is 7/15/2007, I have a home group and they know I am agnostic. How… Read more »

2 years ago

Keep up the great work, John!

Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson
2 years ago

Thanks, John, for sharing Phyllis H’s wonderful talk she gave us who were privileged to hear it at the first biennial Secular AA Conference in Santa Monica. It most effectively portrays the ideal essence of what AA has evolved to be from our earliest days, a community of recovering alcohol-addicts who insure that the hand of AA is there for anyone who seeks sobriety with or without belief.

John S
2 years ago
Reply to  Thomas Brinson

The audio has been posted on our Audio Page for years now, but we just put together the transcript. Over the coming weeks, AA Beyond Belief will be posting the speakers from the previous International Secular AA Conferences every other Sunday starting today and extending through the beginning of ICSAA to be held in Toronto from August 24-26. We will be including the audio recording and transcript for each speaker. Over the coming weeks, we will present talks from Rev. Ward Ewing, Marya H., Joe C, Joan C, Tim M, Michael B., Dierdre S., John C, Ann H., Pam W., and… Read more »

Roger C.
2 years ago
Reply to  John S

Excellent work, John!

Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Roger C.

Indeed !~!~!