Episode 92: The God Word

Podcast Transcript

0:00:25 John S: Today’s episode features a conversation with our friend Joe C from Rebellion Dogs Radio, and author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life. We’ll be airing a conversation that Joe had with his area delegate, Kim S. From Area 83. Joe and Kim talk about the recent General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous. Kim has a fascinating account of what occurred when the conference approved the adoption of The God Word pamphlet, a pamphlet previously published by The General Service Office of Great Britain, and features the stories of agnostics and atheists in AA. Without further ado, Joe C.

0:01:11 John S: How are you doing, Joe?

0:01:12 Joe C: Hey, it is great to be talking to you again, John. I love this internet thing, in terms of the community it creates. I know you’re always hard at work when I’m hard at work. Late at night, burning the candle doing work. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone.

[chuckle]

0:01:29 John S: Thank you for being here. You had an amazing conversation with your delegate Kim S., about the most recent General Service Conference where we approved the adoption of The God Word pamphlet that had been previously published in the United Kingdom.

0:01:46 Joe C: Right.

0:01:47 John S: I thought maybe we would talk about this a little bit. Would you set things up for us?

0:01:52 Joe C: Sure, yeah. Let’s play that interview, and it talks to a lot of things. A greater transparency between the Conference and the members, which I think is great. There is a whole attitude, because not only did The God Word get approved, but you’ll get a small sense of how busy these people are at the Conference and how much AA business there is to do in the week of the General Service Conference, and some of the other really pressing issues, which could easily have put our issue on, “That’s a good idea but let’s wait ’til next year.” And they didn’t. But there is now… They’re changing the women’s pamphlet to Experience, Strength and Hope for Women in AA. What used to be the gay and lesbian pamphlet is now Experience, Strength and Hope for the LGBTQ Alcoholic in AA. There’s Experience, Strength and Hope for Alcoholics with Mental Health Issues and their Sponsors, and they’re going to be working on a Spanish-speaking women’s pamphlet and a young people’s video that, again, like this effort, it sort of came from groups, to the district, to the area, to the General Service Conference. And they said, “Okay, show us what you got.” And there was a little bit of, “Well, it’s kind of edgy. ” But the decision was, “Let’s let them tell their story in their own words.”

0:03:31 Joe C: And I think that’s great. You’ll also see a bunch of notes when you see the final report on the General Service Conference, that a lot of the places where we see, “Look AA up in the phone book.” They’re changing that to directing people to aa.org and letting them know that there’s online meetings, if you can’t find a meeting close by, or a meeting of your liking. So, yeah, the modern age is coming to Alcoholics Anonymous, and we should welcome them into the 21st century.

[laughter]

0:04:04 John S: Hopefully. [chuckle]

0:04:08 Joe C: And what else? Yeah, she’s going to talk a little bit about some of the other topics that are front of mind for both AA members and our General Service Conference, like the whole issue with the manuscript. You’ll hear that the trustees came under fire, and she’s a big supporter that if we give them the responsibility, we have to give them authority, and they’re not going to bat a thousand. They’re going to make decisions from the heart, gut level, whatever they think is best, and sometimes they’re going to come back and say, “Hey, we did this, and it was the wrong thing to do.” So anyway, let’s not steal her thunder. Let’s get right to it, shall we?

0:04:55 John S: Sounds good. Here we go.

Joe’s Interview with Kim S., Delegate from Area 83

0:04:56 Joe C: We’re all excited about  “The God Word: Atheists and Agnostics in AA” now becoming part of our regular literature order, and it’s going to be available in French and Spanish. And I think that’s fantastic too.

0:05:13 Joe C: Can you just share a little bit about your experience? It came to the Area and it was discussed at the Area, and then you were there at the conference. Just what was that experience like for people who have never been involved in that level of AA service?

0:05:33 Kim S: The conference starts unofficially on the Saturday and then starts officially on the Sunday. Committee meetings meet Sunday afternoon with the trustees on that committee, and then Monday morning from, and it depends on the committee, but we met at 8:00 AM until noon, Monday and Tuesday, and you talk within your committees about different things. So, the Literature Committee had “The God Word” on their agenda, and it passed through their committee quite well. On Wednesday, the committees sit up at the dais, which is the stage podium, with the person that is conducting that particular day. It could be the General Manager of GSO, it could be the chair of the General Service Board. It’s either one of them, they take breaks. They don’t sit up there the whole day, the Chair of the Committee, who is a delegate from the previous conference and is elected in at the previous conference in that committee, reads the report.

0:06:38 Kim S: And so they start reading the advisory actions from that committee. And those, as we know them, are motions, and then they’ll have things that are committee considerations, and the committee considerations are things that they don’t think really need to be voted on right now, but they would like the trustees to think about it in the future when they’re having their board meeting, something to maybe bring forward the next conference, possibly.

0:07:05 Kim S: So, “The God Word” pamphlet came out. It was number J out of, starting at A, and it was, there was an M, there were a lot of things that came out of the Literature Committee, and it was really exciting, actually, because as you know, I have been behind this 100% at the Area and other Areas too, and we weren’t allowed to really discuss it prior, but I asked some delegates if they had it at their Area and quite a few did, and they were all for it. So, it hit the floor to consider a request that AA in the US and Canada publish “The God Word”, a pamphlet currently published by the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous Great Britain. So, the committee recommended the pamphlet “The God Word”, currently published by the General Service Board of Great Britain, be adopted by AA World Services with minor editorial changes. And my notes say right after that, “passed, whoo hoo”, [laughter] I was pretty excited. I didn’t whoo hoo any other thing but that, and I actually said it out loud too, which you’re really not supposed to do at the conference. It passed at 121 with yes and no at 13.

0:08:26 Joe C: That’s over 90% in favor.

0:08:29 Kim S: Yeah, so it definitely went past the two thirds majority, and there wasn’t a minority opinion, so it passed. Now, the question was called, that did happen. So, there was discussion for and against. There’s always going to… There were 13, probably maybe three or four got up to the mic out of the 13 that voted no. But it was pretty favorable. It really was. People didn’t, most of the delegates did not seem to be against it or the trustees, anyone that got up to the mic and spoke. So it really was very, very favorable at the conference. I was actually surprised that it was as favorable as it is and, as I said to you, I think it’s time.

0:09:12 Joe C: Yeah, and I think there is a new attitude. There used to be this feeling that there’s something threatening about a “not God” version of AA and that it confuses newcomers, that it muddies AA’s message. But everyone knows someone who’s an Atheist or Agnostic in AA now, because we’re not in the closet to the same extent that we used to be. And I don’t think we’re seen as any different than young people’s meetings or women’s meetings or LGBTQ meetings.

0:09:50 Kim S: I think in the beginning, it might have been perceived as a threat to some people, but I don’t see it that way at all. And it didn’t seem to be that way at the conference. I was really happy, actually. I was really, really overjoyed with the way that it was handled and the way people spoke about it. And now, in the Literature Committee, there was also another pamphlet to put out, but they decided not to put it forward as an advisory action since “The God Word”, they were recommending that one to start. I see this as possibly just a start for more.

0:10:29 Joe C: There could be a time where there’s a recommendation to either change some of the stories or include more Canada, US members, like there’s 10 stories in there. And some of those pamphlets have more stories, right? In 10 years it might look different than it looks today.

0:10:50 Kim S: Absolutely, and one of the things that I did find out at the conference, I might have been told last year, but I didn’t remember, is that the publishing, when they publish something, they have the right to make any minor adjustments that they make. I think you’ve spoken with them, and so they will make some minor adjustments, I guess, before it’s actually printed, but it’s going to be very minimal, what they do, they said.

0:11:16 Joe C: Yeah, the British English is different than sort of American English and the “for more information” addresses are going to change [chuckle] and the look and feel of the pamphlet. I noticed just the looking at the aa.org site, a newcomer asks the cover is different, and I guess lots of them have changed.

0:11:42 Kim S: Yeah.

0:11:42 Joe C: It sounds like it was a busy literature program for this year’s conference. The hot topic around the coffee maker was the litigation about the original manuscript. Did that come up at the conference?

0:12:02 Kim S: Yes. It came up, it was huge, it was huge. The Trustees Committee, so there’s a Trustees Committee, and their report, when it comes to the floor on the Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday, because those are the three days for the committee reports. There’s delegates that sit on that committee, panel 67 and panel 68. They recommend the trustees going forward. So they recommend Michelle as Chair of the board. The different trustees that are already on the Board are new trustees that are going to be on the Board. So, they recommend for the next following year. So, because they were doing this, because of the manuscript and what happened and dropping the litigation, the trustees were questioned. How the decision came about? Why they did that?

0:12:54 Kim S: They were questioned a lot, and I got to tell you, there was a lot of tears on the floor, on the stage by everyone. There was also a lot of anger. And one of the things that happened that I was really, really impressed with, was when Greg, the General Manager, was up at the mic, and somebody had made a motion to censure the General Service Board. And someone else had made a motion, a floor motion, to not accept the trustees put forward, because they felt that there wasn’t a trust there. Now, Michelle, the Chair of the General Service Board, and I was told by our Eastern Canada Regional Trustee at the time, Rashard, that someone would be giving a presentation on the manuscript litigation. And Michelle did, and she apologized, and she accepted full responsibility for it. Which it wasn’t her full responsibility. 

0:13:58 Joe C: No, no. A lot of people were all for it.

0:14:02 Kim S: Yes, and they got together through a conference call, and they made the decision to file a restraining order based on that conference call. So, they all voted. It was very quick, it happened very, very quickly. And it just kind of snowballed after that. But they were very honest, and they shared their feelings. But what impressed me during the conversation, someone called the question during the time of this floor motion and Greg said, “No, I will not recognize that by the floor.” Now, procedurally he had to, but he did not feel that the floor had spoken as much as they should have or wanted to. And he felt everyone should have a voice, and everyone should say what they feel. So, I was really, really impressed with that. I really was, and I told him that after.

0:14:53 Kim S: I also went up to Michelle because… Now, it was all passed, the whole thing passed, and our General Service Board is our General Service Board. And I spoke to Michelle a couple of times, and asked her, I hoped she still felt she had the support of us, because the last thing that the General Service Board needs is to not feel supported. But she did, we had a few talks over the course of a couple of days, and they did feel the support. But they also felt that some healing needed to be done, and people needed to have their voices heard. They didn’t like the way it was handled, they admitted they made a mistake, they admitted they were human, and we’ve all made… And delegates said that, they got up to the mic and they said, “You know, we’ve all made mistakes at different times.” This was a costly one, but they did admit they had made a mistake. Some people demanded an apology, they didn’t get that. Michelle apologized, no one else did. Unless it happened quietly off to the side, I have no idea, but it didn’t happen from the mic. But really, to censure them or to take away anything that they have goes against all our Concepts.

0:16:08 Joe C: There was a lot of anger, but I think Greg understood the situation. People need to feel heard, and they’re representing their constituents, and now it’s time to sort of move on. Because can we count on the Board? Yes, we can count on them to be human, and to be human is to be flawed. And to be flawed is to do the best we can, right? [laughter]

0:16:32 Kim S: Yes, absolutely. With what we have, and I’m a big Maya Angelou person where she says, “When you know better, you do better.” Right?

0:16:40 Joe C: [chuckle] Yeah.

[laughter]

0:16:43 Kim S: Well, I truly believe that. And I just think they know a little bit better now, and it’s really time to move forward. But it did get emotional and the Trustees Committee were asked, “Did you do this? Did you consider that? Did you talk to them?” And they talked to I can’t remember how many trustees now, three regional trustees, and quite a few trustees. They also spoke to Greg, and they also spoke to Michelle, the General Manager and the Chair of the Board, about all this, and an exact timeline of how this happened and why this happened. And the person that had the manuscript wasn’t doing anything wrong either, Michelle made that quite clear. He just wanted more money than what they were willing to pay for, which they had thought when they first started this that they could pay for it, and stop the option and purchase it, but that didn’t happen. But now they’re going to have it displayed anyways.

0:17:39 Joe C: Yeah. Well, that becomes a whole issue of AA owning property.

0:17:45 Kim S: Yes, exactly.

0:17:46 Joe C: Yeah. You must’ve felt like you were witnessing history in the making.

0:17:51 Kim S: Being there for my second time, it was very bittersweet, because I really felt and understood a lot more this year of just the procedure and sitting there watching things unfold. What I really saw was people not always in unity, but at the end being in unity. I saw it last year. I saw the three legacies. I watched it through the whole week. I watch it unfold before my eyes. I saw delegates. There was a delegate there that kept six years of sobriety. [chuckle]

0:18:25 Joe C: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I mean, our Area is so rich in people willing to do service. I mean, everyone complains, “Why aren’t there more people? Yada, yada, yada.” But our area, Area 83, I think, has a wealthy… It’s great to see our past delegates are often at the Area Assembly, and it’s sort of well supported. But a lot of these people, “Hey, we need someone to go to the world, who’s available? Pack your bags, you’re going.” [chuckle]

0:19:00 Kim S: Yes. And the thing is, too, with the conference that you don’t always see everywhere is… Well, it has a lot to do with unity, and coming together for sure. But also, too, the bottom line is the alcoholic who’s still suffering and it doesn’t matter if they’re Agnostic or they’re not, or believe in God or whatever, the bottom line is is how is this going to help the still suffering alcoholic? We, in the PI committee, we viewed a youth video that was very raw, it was put together by youth. So, PI committee had asked for youths to put things together. Now, we approved it, and the PI committee when it hit the floor, some people didn’t like it because it showed the eyes, or it showed the mouth, or they weren’t pixeled out enough, and so these people wanted to be a star. It wasn’t that at all, these people were talking from the heart of how AA helped them.

0:19:55 Joe C: Yeah.

0:19:55 Kim S: And the bottom line was after some discussion, because some people didn’t like it, but it did get voted through, but also it will be pixeled out, and in the final version of it it will be… I mean, it’ll be just as it is, but it’ll be pixelated, it’ll be fine tuned a little bit, they’ll be some editing. And it’s from the youth to the youth, so you can’t beat that.

0:20:20 Joe C: Right. And that’s that old story, that every responsibility has to have a certain authority. So if we ask them, “Hey, we want you to bring us something.” We have to go, “Well, hey, it’s not quite my cup of tea, but you have the authority to do it the way you want it with the sort of look and feel that you think is necessary.” Because otherwise, we’re doing ivory tower outreach, and that never works.

0:20:49 Kim S: No. Well, something that was mentioned by one of the youths was drugs.

0:20:53 Joe C: Yeah.

0:20:53 Kim S: And so you know how AA feels about that. And I thought it was fine in the PI, most people did. One person didn’t, but we had two thirds majority when it went to the floor. And other people noticed there were drugs in it, but the general feeling was it’s just a word, and he’s talking about alcohol, he just mentions that he did drugs as well. And to some youth, that might be really valuable.

0:21:19 Joe C: Yeah, exactly.

0:21:21 Kim S: I saw some change happening whereas that wouldn’t have passed through the floor in the past, it did pass this time. And they also didn’t want to discourage youths from submitting things, because this came from an Area, and…

0:21:34 Joe C: Beautiful. So it came up through the ranks the same way “The God Word” did.

0:21:37 Kim S: It did. And they didn’t want to discourage youths from submitting things, like by over-editing, or telling them they shouldn’t say this or say that. It’s like, no, let’s keep it the way it is, just pixel out faces. So I see AA changing, I really saw it changing at the conference this year, more than last year.

0:21:58 Joe C: Are you feeling reflective? Like, your term as Delegate is coming up, how long ago was it you first became general service rep?

0:22:11 Kim S: Well, I did inventory, District inventory on Wednesday, and I was reminded that in 2008 I was DCM of that district. I’m 20, I’m going to be 29 years sober this year, and I was nine years sober when I became an alternate GSR. So it’s been a long time. [laughter] I’ve been going to assemblies for a long time.

0:22:35 Joe C: Yeah. How do you feel about this phase where you’re coming to the end of your tenure as a Delegate?

0:22:43 Kim S: You know what? I really… There’s a couple of things I’d like to do while I’m still Delegate. I’ve been reminded lately that safety is a big issue, and getting some emails about safety, and I still have six months almost a little over six months left, part of my goal is safety nearing the end. But, honestly, I’ve been quite reflective, this conference was so different for me… Well, the first one I had a concussion, so… [chuckle] It was a totally different experience this time, being healthy. But also, I had more experience, I’m calmer. I felt more inspired by AA this year, I think, at the conference. I really like the fact that it is changing, I really do.

0:23:24 Joe C: Yeah.

0:23:25 Kim S: I think it’s time. And so I’m quite happy, actually, to have witnessed some of this. And I’m fine with someone else being delegate next year, I think we’ve left something quite good this year for people, and I think the panel 68 delegates that were there, my goodness, they’re fabulous. I’m so inspired by them. We all… The panel 67 Delegates all said that at the panel 68 delegates, that we all felt quite confident that the next conference is going to just blow everybody out of the water, it’s going to be fabulous.

0:24:02 Joe C: Nice.

[laughter]

0:24:04 Joe C: Yeah. It’s nice to feel that way. I don’t know when I started saying it, but if anyone cares to listen, I’ll tell them that AA history isn’t something which happened back in the ’30s, AA history is happening right now.

0:24:23 Kim S: Absolutely, and you know what? I was reminded when I was at the Conference that I’m going to find out how many… Because I don’t know this. But how many delegates Area 83 has sent?  I mean, there’s only been 68 conferences. There’s only… And the delegate lasts for two years, and we didn’t… I know we didn’t send a delegate the first year, I don’t even think Canada was there.

0:24:45 Joe C: Yeah.

0:24:47 Kim S: I really want to know when we started, because I’m either like the 30th, or the 25th, or something that has been able to experience this, that many do not get.

0:25:00 Joe C: Yeah.

0:25:00 Kim S: It’s an experience that I can’t even describe. It’s changed me inside forever.

0:25:06 Joe C: Also, just back to “The God Word” for one last question. Like, when you communicated to me that how the vote went, I told you it felt healing, it really felt like there was a lot of… There was like a poisonous environment that had happened in the Toronto area part of…

0:25:31 Kim S: Yes.

0:25:31 Joe C: Area 83, and then for the District to say, “Yes, we support this 100%.” For the Area to say, “Yes, we support this more than 2/3%.” [chuckle]

0:25:45 Kim S: Yes.

0:25:46 Joe C: Did you have any of that feeling that this is a very helpful thing in terms of creating unity and that that’s behind us now, and that going forward, it’s going to be sort of a different environment for people, regardless of what they believe or don’t believe?

0:26:08 Kim S: I really hope so. I had an experience at the Area Assembly. I know you weren’t there, but because some people spoke very negatively about the pamphlet, at the end of the discussion, even though it was voted, a GSR jumped straight from her chair into my lap, and was crying because she was Agnostic, and she felt so disrespected.

0:26:32 Joe C: Yeah.

0:26:33 Kim S: I felt so terrible about that, like what happened at the Area Assembly, that I really, really hope this is really a step forward for more unity. I mean, I’m big on unity, and I really, really hope “The God Word” really helps people with being more unified. I don’t think the people should be separate, we’re all a part of the same thing.

0:26:56 Joe C: Yeah.

0:26:56 Kim S: Honestly.

0:26:57 Joe C: Yeah. I mean there shouldn’t be any more like Toronto delisting type stories.

0:27:02 Kim S: No.

0:27:03 Joe C: Going forward, and I think that’s a great thing.

0:27:06 Kim S: It still happens within the Area, I still get emails and different things. But as you know, I’m totally supportive, and you can’t police everybody. But I keep telling everyone that they should be inclusive, it doesn’t matter what they believe, everyone that’s an alcoholic should be included.

0:27:23 Joe C: I feel the same way, of course. And any sort of under-represented populations, there should be more Muslims and they would talk about spirituality in a different way, and more Hindus, and Janists, and Taoists, and Buddhists and all that sort of thing. And hopefully, this’ll mean that they’ll be able to conduct their meeting in a way that their group conscience sees fit, and no one will bat an eye about it, other than say, “Isn’t that great?” [chuckle]

0:28:00 Kim S: Yes. And you know what? That’s my hope, because someone… There was a delegate that did get up to the mic during “The God Word” and said, “Well it’s just going to open the door for Muslims, and… ” Exactly as you said, and I said, “Geez, I hope so.”

[laughter]

0:28:17 Kim S: I mean, who cares?

0:28:18 Joe C: Yep.

0:28:20 Kim S: I really hope it does, like I don’t care about that. I mean, there isn’t going to be a group that wrecks AA. There isn’t going to be a person that wrecks AA. I saw AA, there’s a huge foundation. I mean, being at the conference you realize how deep that foundation is.

0:28:41 Joe C: Yeah.

0:28:42 Kim S: I mean AA is not going to fall apart.

0:28:45 Joe C: This motion doesn’t obligate any group to put it on their literature table.

0:28:50 Kim S: No, no. I hope a lot of people do, but no, it doesn’t.

0:28:56 Joe C: Yeah.

0:28:56 Kim S: Yeah, I really hope that this does open the door for some people to realize that it’s inclusive for everyone, it doesn’t matter.

0:29:03 Joe C: Yeah. Well, on behalf of my home group, and our community, I would like to thank you for your service, Kim.

0:29:12 Kim S: Oh, thanks, Joe. My pleasure. My pleasure.

0:29:16 John S: So, that was a pretty incredible interview, Joe. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the history behind our attempts to get a pamphlet together that addresses the needs for agnostics, atheists, freethinkers in Alcoholics Anonymous?

0:29:30 Joe C: Sure. Several people have worked on this. I took a document I found online on the… I think it’s Area 17, Hawaii had a list of… It was an unauthored report on attempts for the General Service Conference to approve, to write and approve, an Atheist Agnostic AA member pamphlet. And I thought, “This is very interesting, but I can’t treat it like a fact without corroborating it.” So, I applied to go to the General Service Archive, and looked at the minutes of the Literature Committee. There’s two committees, there’s the Trustees Literature Committee, that meets four times a year, and then every year there’s a Conference Literature Committee, that has delegates and staff members and trustees on there. So they sort of review everything that’s happened in the year, and decide what requests or advisory actions they’re going to ask of the General Service Conference from there. So I wanted to look at them, all of those minutes, and see what actually happened. And it did largely corroborate. 1975 was the first letter that I found where someone said, “Hey, it’d be really great for believers and non-believers to have a pamphlet the properly explains that believing in a sobriety granting prayer answering God isn’t necessary.”

0:31:14 Joe C: And the Conference Committee said, “This pamphlet is vitally needed.” Or the Trustees Committee. And they sent it to the Conference, and then the Conference didn’t proceed with it. They didn’t bring it even to the Conference for a vote. And that would happen 10 more times. Now, I will say in ’75-76, they were approving, Do You Thing You’re Different? , which includes one Agnostic and an Atheist story. And the literature people, they were feeling quite overwhelmed by the number of requests for different types of pamphlets, and they thought, “Maybe this will meet that need.” And so it wasn’t like we were shut up in that motion. And then in ’81, a guy named Ed H wrote to GSO, and the literature committee, the Trustees Literature Committee didn’t recommend it to the conference committee.

0:32:15 Joe C: In ’88-89, Area 59, the actual delegate, just like we’ve done recently, asked GSO to meet a request for non-believers, and that didn’t go anywhere. It got talked about, and then it got put off, and then sort of mothballed. In ’95-96, a different area, Area 49, maybe you know where that is, I’m not sure. That area voted with substantial unanimity for non-believers pamphlet. It was passed on to the Conference Literature Committee. So the Trustees Literature Committee thought it was a good idea, and the Conference Literature Committee declined to bring it to conference. In ’97, the We Agnostics Group of New York City requested directly to the Literature’s Committee, and they declined to forward it. 2000 and 2001, there were five member letters about maybe something about spiritual varieties. And the idea was passed on to the Conference Committee, and there were two letters of opposition as well. And then no decision was made on that.

0:33:32 Joe C: And again, many of these times they’re just overwhelmed and ran out of time, and they put it onto the next committee and it doesn’t get picked up. And then 2002, 2003 and 2006, all of those committees I saw in the notes had lengthy conversations about this very thing. And they had felt at the time, there were already numerous references to unbelievers in the literature. And again, this is people saying, “Well, we already have a chapter called ‘We Agnostics’ isn’t that good enough?”

[laughter]

0:34:07 Joe C: But that’s an innocent ignorance, right? Because they don’t see it through our eyes, and they don’t see how ineffective that is. And 2008, it was when Area 17 was putting a motion forward, and again, this was Hawaii, and they did a lot of work. In fact, when I brought this report to the archivist, she had never seen it, and wondered… We still don’t know who authored it, so if there’s anyone listening the knows about that, it’d be great to answer that mystery. And then 2010, 2014, many of us know this effort. And it was about having a pamphlet about spiritual paths in AA, including successful atheists and agnostics. And there was a active opposition to including atheists and agnostics, as much as there was a movement. They got 200 stories, and they put together an actual… The conference said, “Give us a draft pamphlet.” And they did, and it included our stories, and the conference said, “No.”

0:35:26 Joe C: That was the first time the Conference actually got to decide on this, and they voted against us, for whatever reason, and I’m sure there were many. And then there was, of course, the grapevine picked this up, and they’ve decided to put together a collection of stories, which is going to be great. And then the UK, the first time they tried, “Of course, why not? An obvious worthwhile effort.” And sometimes it’s easier to see the wisdom of other AA members, and see that the UK isn’t on fire, at least not because of agnostics and atheists in AA. So maybe we can just do what they did, and that seemed to be an easier thing. I would also say there is an interesting… I don’t know, it’s pure speculation as to how much influence this had, but the General Service Conference now uses electronic voting, so nobody knows how other people are voting, and there’s no record of who voted for or against. So when Kim talked about it being like over 90% in favor, nobody who is voting yes or no could see how other people were voting. And so everybody does vote their heart without any pressure, one way or another. In my mind, this has served AA well, at least so far.

0:37:03 John S: No, I think so too. It seems like there’s been a lot of change within AA, and you probably have observed more of that than I have. What do you think has brought this about? Is it because more of us are active in our Districts and our Areas? Or is it just… Does it have to do with the lawsuit in Toronto? What do you think is bringing all of this about?

0:37:28 Joe C: I think it’s a combination. We’re just a microcosm of what’s going on in society. And there’s… Things like religiosity and secularism goes in waves. Depending on when this is broadcast, it might already be out in The Fix. I just did a story that looks at the myth of sort of Akron Christian roots of AA. And it looks at Dr. Bob’s very extensive reading library that involved the great thinkers of the world and many… He read about Daoism and Buddhism and… He had a very well rounded sort of approach to his own seeking. And he had insomnia, Dr. Bob. And of course, there was no internet, there was no TV, so he read a lot. So anyway, this sort of looks at… We have this idea that it was always more religious before than it is now. And 1930s, 1940s North America was no more religious than 2005, and I incorporate some statistics to support that. So I’m off on a tangent, I can’t even remember your question.

0:39:02 John S: What brought this change about it within the culture?

0:39:03 Joe C: Oh, okay. Okay, yeah. So society is changing, and AA is changing. The internet completely changed everything for marginalized communities, because I found out about Agnostic Atheist meetings from the first internet chat group I joined. It was called… It was a Yahoo group called AAWR, AA Without Religion. And that was the first time I found out about a world directory. And then I planned a trip to New York to actually go to some meeting. So having sort of economies of scale, how many of us first came to the idea that this could be considered AA, and that felt trepidation? But what about what it says in the book? Forget the book. Oh, you can’t do that.

[laughter]

0:40:00 Joe C: But just having many, many examples of people who dismiss the steps completely and have meaningful sobriety. People who work the steps with a completely secular view of higher power, and people who do combinations thereof. The internet gives us just this broad exposure to different ways of seeing. Not to mention the influence that these other secular recovery peer-to-peer groups have had. They’re all succeeding just as well as AA. And so clearly, the magic isn’t in this one to 12 formula, necessarily. Although the truths in there weren’t invented by AA, they were just borrowed from age old practices, right?

0:40:52 John S: Yeah. I think also, what helps with the internet is learning from other people that I might not have learned from. For example, you Joe. When we started our group in Kansas City, I don’t think I ever would have even known about the General Service Conference, or the district, or the area, or the importance of being involved, if I hadn’t listened to Rebellion Dogs Radio. So when I started my group up, I wanted to get involved with that. So we were in Western Missouri, the first group that I know of for Agnostics and Atheists to participate in the area assembly. And I remember when I very first showed up, and some of it might’ve been my own feeling about what people might have been thinking about me, but some of it was just directly what people were saying to me.

0:41:35 John S: But I remember, I will never forget this one woman who came up to me and she says, “You’re not trying to change AA, are you?” So she was really afraid of what I represented, like I was some sort of a threat to AA. And I said, “No, I love AA. I’m not really trying to change it, I don’t know if I can change it, but I’m just here doing what you’re doing.” And over time, I developed friendships with these people in this area and other people from my group started joining the area, and I’m noticing that I can just say things there and I’m totally accepted and respected. Maybe what has happened is as more of us are getting involved in actually meeting people and making friends and allies with other groups. I wonder if that’s happening [chuckle] outside of Missouri?

0:42:20 Joe C: Well, there is. And more people with a natural world view versus a supernatural world view are coming out of the closet. I heard this great story because this happened. Kim talks about what happened in our area but as you know in your area, you went through this process, many other areas, and Kim talks about talking to other delegates and everyone who discussed the idea was all for it. In Northern California the area committee, which is the delegate, the alternate delegate, chair, treasurer, registrar, all these people. There’s eight of them and they’re having their meeting about all of the subjects that are going to be coming up at the conference, because they’re going to discuss it at their area assembly, to get the feel of the room, find out what the GSRs and the groups feel about these things. So they’re talking about The God Word, and someone says, “Well, I don’t find this offensive at all, in fact this is more in line with my view of power greater than myself.” And someone says, “Me too. Me too. Me too.” [chuckle] And all eight of them, not one of them, had a anthropomorphic idea of a higher power, right?

0:43:45 John S: Right.

0:43:45 Joe C: Someone or something that’s up there listening to their prayers, not one… They didn’t know that about each other. [chuckle] And it didn’t come up until they started talking about it, right?

0:43:56 John S: Yeah.

0:43:57 Joe C: And it’s no surprise that people like us are drawn to service. Now there are those in our constituency that, “Let’s just do our thing in our group and the heck with AA as a whole. Let them burn.” Right?

[laughter]

0:44:14 John S: Yeah.

0:44:16 Joe C: And that’s a completely legitimate…

0:44:20 John S: Sure.

0:44:21 Joe C: That’s not anti-AA, that’s understanding the autonomy of the group, right?

0:44:24 John S: Absolutely, free to do what they want.

0:44:26 Joe C: Yeah, exactly. But if you don’t like God, you’re going to prefer the traditions to the steps because it only mentions God once, and if you get to the concepts, it doesn’t mention it at all. So service is more… Is all secular work. Everything we discuss at the district or area or at the General Service Conference is actions that have to take place, decisions that have to be made. There’s no “Let go and let God.” There’s, “We have to do this. How are we going to do this?” [chuckle]

0:45:04 John S: Yeah. Well, I’m really surprised at how I’ve come to love it and how others from my group have as well. I almost feel more of a connection to my area than I do to my actual home group sometimes [chuckle], but I love having the diversity and the friendships from all these different groups from around the state. It’s kinda new.

0:45:22 Joe C: I’ll go through a period where I spend more time in committee meetings than actual 12-step meetings, right?

0:45:28 John S: Yeah. [chuckle]

0:45:30 Joe C: I get to my home group only as often as I get to like a PI meeting or a district meeting or some committee I’m working on or… Because I enjoy that rolling up the sleeves stuff, and I think it’s so essential. You touched on this before. When I say the traditions are more secular or the concepts are more secular. To a believer higher power is inherent through all of that, and I’m not going to argue with them about that or even disagree. That’s a great thing about a pluralist society, right?

0:46:15 John S: Yeah.

0:46:15 Joe C: It’s not one or the other. But when we roll up our sleeves and work with people, we see each other as just fellow AA members. It’s easier to hate the Big Book thumpers if you’ve never been to their meeting. It’s easier to hate those agnostics and atheists trying to ruin AA if you’ve never gone to their meeting. But when you’re working hand-in-hand with people, solving these problems about bridging the gap, public information needs, archives, it’s a very humanizing experience.

0:46:52 John S: So tell me what else at the conference that happened that you might want to talk about? She did mention the video that I found interesting that she didn’t think would have passed in previous conferences where there was actually a mentioned of drugs, drug use in the video.

0:47:08 Joe C: Yeah, that’s right, and it was just such a casual thing, but there’s this hypersensitivity to primary purpose or singleness of purpose. Those knee jerk reactions. But the truth is that the… When you look at our triennial survey, and I did find out more about that this year, 2017 was supposed to be a survey year and it didn’t happen. And it’s because they’re trying to do it right. Can you just ask people, “Are you male or female?” Like a binary thing, right? Race, right? “How many people are 100% pure African-American or 100% pure Anglo-Saxon or Caucasian,” right? Just our attitude towards how other people self-identify and letting them express their identity in their own words is a good idea, but it makes it harder to put everybody in binary categories, [chuckle] which our survey does. So they’re trying to… They’ve hired consultants and they’re trying to rectify this situation and do it right.

0:48:20 John S: I think that’s pretty cool. There was actually a discussion of that in Missouri about… I can’t remember what they were talking about, one of these pamphlets or something. And they were talking about gender and the different categories of gender. And there were some people there, and some said, “What? Well, this is crazy.” [laughter] And I can understand that, because you just don’t know until you get to meet people who do identify and think about gender in different terms. But once you understand that, it totally makes sense, you know?

0:48:47 Joe C: Yeah.

0:48:48 John S: So, I’ve kind of totally… I’ve completely rethought how I think about that and how other people think about that, and our group has too actually. We’ve changed the AA preamble [chuckle] in our group from men and women to people.

0:49:02 Joe C: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

0:49:03 John S: Because of this. [chuckle]

0:49:04 Joe C: Yeah. Well, good for you, good for you. Because it starts with the group, doesn’t it?

0:49:08 John S: Yeah. [chuckle]

0:49:10 Joe C: I mean, the interesting thing is, we told a story about a request to GSO for a pamphlet to help improve the lives of atheists and agnostics from 1975, and then nothing happened for 40 years. But also in 1975, people started their own AA for atheists and agnostics Quad A meetings. And then that grew to other places like California, and eventually to Canada, and so on and so forth. Roger was talking to someone from the Maritime provinces in Canada, who actually started a Agnostic meeting long before Beyond Belief started in Toronto, because he traveled to Chicago and went to Quad A. And he started one there, but it didn’t… It just didn’t continue. Sometimes people have ideas that are ahead of their times, but the point is that when AA isn’t New York, it isn’t GSO, it isn’t a hierarchy, and any group can make AA better today. They can change the wording of their preamble, it’s perfectly allowed.

0:50:23 Joe C: They can change the way they greet people, change the rituals in their meeting to be more inclusive. And that’s how the Atheist Agnostic movement grew from individual efforts, small efforts. They didn’t know what was going on in California, with the groups in New York. There was no way of knowing back then, but people were doing the right thing, because our fellowship is set up the right way, where if it’s a group conscience, it’s the law.

[laughter]

0:50:56 John S: Right, right.

0:51:00 Joe C: And so that’s a good thing. There’s going to be some overlap with some of the things they were talking about at the conference with CPC. We hear a lot about treatment centers and courts getting into trouble by mandating AA attendance, because circuit courts are ruling AA as religious, and I think our new pamphlet is going to go a long way to say, “There are many religious people in AA. There are many religious rituals in AA, but there is a completely secular alternative within AA online, and face-to-face meetings where there’s no prayer, there’s no demand to believe what other people believe or to deny your own belief.” And I think it’s going to be a very effective tool in helping dismiss some of the preconceived ideas people have about AA, because for the longest time Secular AA was our best kept secret. [chuckle]

0:52:09 John S: Yeah, yeah. So how long do you think it’ll take actually for North America to make this available?

0:52:17 Joe C: Okay. I tried to tie AA World Services Publishing down to a date, and they would have nothing of it. [chuckle] I can’t tell everybody. When it’s available, it’ll be available in English, Spanish and French. And I think that’s fantastic.

0:52:36 John S: Yeah, that is.

0:52:39 Joe C: And so they’ve gotta get it translated, they’ve got to do like a design and change some of the wording, like, “Pamphlet directs people to contact the UK General Service.” [chuckle] So they’re going to fix that. They spell program different than Americans do. And it’s amazing what those British have done with our English.

[laughter]

0:53:07 John S: Yeah. So it might take maybe… It might take a couple of years maybe, it’s hard to say.

0:53:12 Joe C: Well, I think it could be within 12 months, but they do not have to go back to conference for permission. There is no final approval that needs to happen. They have the authority to fulfill their responsibility. So, I’m excited about it and we can still, of course get the PDF from the General Service Office. One of the things they had to do was to buy the rights to it, which was like under $200.

0:53:44 John S: Oh, okay.

0:53:44 Joe C: And AA World Service did that before the conference in anticipation of, without being, “Oh well, we need to do this.” And they said, “Oh well, we’ve done it.” Like there was no… It eliminated the rebuttal, “Well, can we afford to do this? How much would it cost?” So that was all done ahead of time. So there was… You really see, and it isn’t just Agnostics and Atheists, but just the larger AA, we are self-correcting, and any inadvertent or hostile activities that have happened to sort of marginalize underrepresented populations, you can see a move to correct that. You can see a move to make AA meetings a safer place. And I don’t know if it was part of the interview we shared with Kim, but she’s going to spend her last six months focused on safety in AA.

0:54:47 John S: Yeah, yeah. That was really good. One thing I want to sneak in here is Kim went into some really good detail about what happened with the movement at the conference to censor the general service board over the lawsuit that they approved over the AA Big Book manuscript. I thought that was really interesting how they came out to apologize, to acknowledge that they made a mistake. What did you think about all of that, Joe?

0:55:16 Joe C: Well, she’s a believer as I am, that when you give people a responsibility, you have to give them authority. So, sometimes they’ll make choices you wouldn’t make. And it has to be commensatory. You have to have the equal amount of authority to make decisions. You can’t micromanage in AA, right? Everything you come across, you can’t go back to the conference and wait another year, right? And they had a… The reality is the hostility came when the price tag started going up. [laughter] A lot of people in AA really did think, “Hey, that’s our manuscript.”

0:56:02 John S: Exactly.

0:56:02 Joe C: “We have a right to it. It’s our property.” In essence, it’s like the Eastern European stolen art through World War II, right?

0:56:11 John S: Right, right. [laughter]

0:56:15 Joe C: Families and communities started getting that back. And just because you bought stolen art, doesn’t mean you have a right to it. So it would be returned to them. And we had a legal argument that that was our property, and it had to be returned to us, and many people were on board with that, but it’s very expensive…

0:56:33 John S: Exactly.

0:56:33 Joe C: To litigate that and it probably would have ended up with us having to settle, which meant we would have to pay for it. Now we own property and we have a whole tradition about AA not owning property. So there were many unanticipated hurdles along the way which piled up, which made it look like, “Hey, maybe we’re going in the wrong direction.” The sort of Monday morning quarterbacks all said, “Why didn’t you anticipate this?” And so we can throw our board out. We can say, “Look. You don’t have our confidence. You got to go.”

0:57:15 John S: Wow! Wow.

0:57:16 Joe C: Starting from scratch, we have the right to do that, and because they work for us, and people were heard, the anger and tears did come out and we moved forward. Do you trust people? Good. Trust them to be human.

0:57:36 John S: Right.

[laughter]

0:57:38 John S: They made a mistake, which is okay and understandable. At our Assembly, a couple of assemblies ago, our Delegate came to the floor and she asked for a sense of the Assembly about, do we support this lawsuit, or what? Well, overwhelmingly, everybody said, “Yes, that’s our manuscript.” [chuckle] And I was one that raised my hands too. “Yes, yes, go for it. Get it.” And then some of our past Delegates stood up and said, “Wait a second guys. This is expensive. This is… ” And a lot of people aren’t really happy about how this is going down, then people start thinking, “Hmm… Maybe… ” [chuckle] So it’s like after you get some more information after a while, it’s like, “Yeah, this is not so smart.”

0:58:18 Joe C: Exactly. In hindsight, it always has 20/20 vision, but these people we ask to do AA’s work for us, they have to make these difficult decisions and I’m sure they can see there’s reasons to and reasons not to, “What’s our choice going to be.” There’s gotta be ambivalence with everything they do. And I think cooler heads prevailed in the long run.

0:58:47 John S: I do too.

0:58:48 Joe C: Yeah, yeah.

0:58:49 John S: I think it’s nice how voices can be heard. And that’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about our area assembly, is that no matter what, I always feel like I am heard and people are listening and they respect that. And I think that at the conference, that is what happened as people were able to let their feelings out, their opinions out about that issue. And in the end, everybody understood. “Okay, we’re all trying to do our best for AA.” And so that’s it for that. So, interesting.

0:59:18 Joe C: Yeah, the simplest thing I learned about democracy as a kid is everyone gets their say, but not everyone gets their way.

0:59:26 John S: Yeah, you’re right. [chuckle] Well, is there anything else that we should cover about Kim’s talk or anything else that you think we should touch on about the conference?

0:59:36 Joe C: I would say, let’s just keep the conversation going. I think this pamphlet is a great thing. I think we should… It’s going to be very useful to people who believe in God who work with newcomers. I look forward to the end of the “It can be a door knob” era.

[laughter]

1:00:00 Joe C: I still would love to know where that originated, [chuckle] because whatever it’s meaning was, I assure you is lost. And people try to help, and they want to help, and this is a tool that helps them help. People are going to come to the International Conference of Secular Alcoholics Anonymous, not because they are atheists, but because they love AA, they want to hear what we have to say, and one out of 10 of the newcomers that come to them, don’t believe in the same higher power they do and they want to learn how they can help them better. So it’s not believers against non-believers, it’s about the main street of AA, which is people who want alcoholics to be helped regardless of their politics, regardless of their favorite baseball team, regardless of their world view.

1:01:00 John S: And as you do attend ICSAA, by the way folks, you’ll find out that there’s actually non-believers versus non-believers situations.

[laughter]

1:01:06 Joe C: Yes.

[laughter]

1:01:08 Joe C: Yeah, yeah.

1:01:09 John S: Alright, Joe. Well, thank you so very much for participating in the Podcast and for your interview with Kim, and thank Kim for us as well, that was so awesome.

1:01:20 Joe C: And I would ask everyone with a home group to tell their GSR, to tell their district, to tell their area to thank them.

1:01:31 John S: Yes. Absolutely. Thank them for their service, because it is hard work what they do.

1:01:35 Joe C: Yeah, that’s right. And I think this is going to be a game-changer in a way. Someone… Bruce, who spoke at Widening Our Gateway made the point. It’s not like pamphlets or they’re running out of them every week, right?

[laughter]

1:01:51 John S: Right, right. Yeah, they are. [laughter]

1:01:54 Joe C: But just having the tool available is such a legitimizing of a sort of non-higher power approach to Alcoholics Anonymous, that some atheists pray, some atheists are complete materialists and find spiritual talk guru.

1:02:17 John S: Right.

1:02:18 Joe C: And there is such a variety, and they are all well-represented in this pamphlet.

1:02:25 John S: Yeah.

1:02:26 Joe C: Many of the stories talk about how they translate the steps, many of them don’t even talk about the steps.

1:02:31 John S: Ain’t that cool. Yeah. [chuckle]

1:02:32 Joe C: And that is who our constituents are, right?

1:02:38 John S: Exactly.

1:02:38 Joe C: A wide variety of non-believers.

1:02:41 John S: Yeah.

1:02:43 Joe C: We have many paths we follow to get sober. So I think it’s great and I think we have AA as a whole to thank for that, because they didn’t give us permission. They said, “Yes.” [chuckle]

1:02:56 John S: Right.

1:02:58 Joe C: They agree this is important and this is what AA is. So yeah, that’s enough from my pulpit. [chuckle]

1:03:08 John S: Well, thank you, Joe. I appreciate this very much.

1:03:11 Joe C: Yup, and let’s keep the conversation going.

1:03:13 John S: Will do.

[music]

1:03:21 John S: Well, that concludes this episode of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast. Thank you again, Joe. I appreciate you stopping by to chat with us, and thank you to Kim S., the Delegate from Area 83 for that fascinating report on the conference. We’ve got some interesting podcasts coming up. We’re trying to stick to our weekly schedule again even through the summer. Something that we’ll be doing at AA Beyond Belief, by the way, through the summer is we will be posting the audio talks of previous secular AA conferences. We’ve had conferences of 2014, 2016, and now we have one coming up in August in 2018. And to learn more about that, please visit the website: secularaa.com, to learn about the International Conference of Secular AA to take place in Toronto, Ontario from August 24th through August 26th.


Links

Rebellion Dogs Radio 

Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life 

The God Word Pamphlet 

Area 83 

Area 17

The General Service Office Of Alcoholics Anonymous Great Britain 

AA For the Woman 

AA and the Lesbian/Gay Alcoholic

AA Manuscript Lawsuit

Do You Think Your Different? 

Area 59

Area 49

Toronto Intergroup Yields to Agnostics in AA

How Accurate is the Dick B. Narrative of Early Akron AA? 

We Agnostics Kansas City

AA Toronto Agnostics

Area 39

Bruce H. Talk at Widening Our Gateway Secular AA Conference 

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  1. Joe C December 11, 2018 at 12:47 pm - Reply

    This pamphlet is now available in English (Spanish and French coming soon). https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-86_theGodWord.pdf

    Any member or group can order it from your central office, Intergroup or directly from A.A. World Services. Order p-86 when you’re putting in your order. It will be great to see the Spanish and French versions and who knows, other countries might request translations into other languages, too.

  2. life-j June 6, 2018 at 9:15 pm - Reply

    thanks guys, nice to see our effort bearing fruit

  3. Bob K June 6, 2018 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    I am still somewhat in a state of shock. I thought there was NO WAY they’d approve the pamphlet!!

    Can AA be liberalizing before our eyes. For the past two years, Toronto Intergroup at its annual convention has offered meeting closings to the chairpersons NOT including the Lord’s Prayer. There was whining after the 2017 event, but 2018 saw a near record attendance.

  4. Thomas Brinson June 6, 2018 at 11:16 am - Reply

    Indeed, thank you John and Joe and Kim for this fascinating podcast, which reveals some of the inner workings of the yearly AA General  Service Conference. I am greatly enthused about the reality that AA is definitely coming into the 21st Century, that it is, indeed, changing, becoming more inclusive and open to various belief systems, that perhaps the disturbing —  to my mind —  trend the past 25-30 years that AA was being calcified into a Christian-only program is slowly but surely beginning to shift to be more inclusive of all beliefs as well as non-beliefs.

  5. Bob K June 6, 2018 at 8:08 am - Reply

    This is a special podcast—history in the making.

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