By Steven W.
As the secular AA community begins to coalesce around the conference (International Conference Secular AA) and becomes more organized, our collective values are being formed either tacitly or deliberately. Although we all consider ourselves “secular,” there is a lot of diversity concerning our beliefs and approaches to recovery.
There are individuals within the conference board and out, who draw hard lines in the sand as to what our calling ourselves “Secular AA” means in theory and practice. Decisions are being made today that will permanently effect the philosophical tone and choices of Secular AA moving forward, that have distinct and significant implications.
My goal here is to outline what value system questions are at our doorstep. I simply want to do my part to ensure that our community understands that these decisions are being made a little bit every day. There should be nothing tacit or passive about the community’s participation in this process. Everyone should think about what they want for the future of our community and make sure their voices are heard.
Most of us know what it is like to exist in traditional AA, feeling disconnected or even ostracized because of our beliefs. The conference originally emerged as a vehicle for we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers to come together in our common experience—as those who feel alienated to one extent or another in traditional AA because of our beliefs.
For those who could attend, the conference proved to be a meaningful experience. Attendees communicated about what a powerful experience it was for them to freely express themselves without fear of how others will react to them. They spoke of the inherent sense of belonging they felt in being surrounded by like-minded people in AA. Many people were profoundly moved because this was the first time that they did not feel like second class citizens within AA. The first “We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers” (WAAFT) conference was a great success and the conference board began organizing the second conference almost immediately.
As with any new organization it went through difficult times with changes in leadership, competing visions for the future of the conference, and the resultant political infighting. Through this process, different and competing value systems and factions began to emerge, just as in the beginning of AA itself. The more hardline atheists began to push to change the name from “We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers,” to “Secular AA.” The change in name seemed innocuous enough—I mean who doesn’t consider themselves “secular?” In practice though, the purpose behind this name change was very calculated and had implications that I don’t believe were clear to many at the time.
The philosophical and practical implications of this decision are now beginning to take root in our community. The word “secular” lends itself to be significantly more narrowly defined in practice than “We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers.” The hardliners are pushing a superficial and limited understanding of this word to frame what is and what is not acceptable to believe and speak about in secular AA. Secular defined as “denoting attitudes, activities, or other things that have no religious or spiritual basis.” As such, they believe words like “spirituality,” have no place in secular AA.
If you are one of those people whose definition of spirituality is not at odds with the notion of atheism, you can’t talk about that from any podium if the hardliners have their way. The word “spirituality,” is taboo. One person suggested that only empirically based topics should discussed. (How that would work, I really have no idea.) I wonder if you are a Buddhist, how do you rate in their world view? Are you embraced in kinship or is Buddhism too woo-woo and too close to “religion,” for their liking? Where does this all end? Have we become everything we have been fighting against?
We in Secular AA have been fortunate enough to have the acceptance and support of many prominent theists within AA. One of our biggest advocates has been The Reverend Ward Ewing, who was Chairman Emeritus of AA’s General Service Board. He was invited to the first conference to speak in a keynote role, and these hard liners began to vociferously complain that theists by virtue of their beliefs, should not be given such a platform to speak within Secular AA. They continue to push against allowing theists to speak in any prominent role within Secular AA. (https://atheisticaa.com/determined-atheists/ )
Beyond the obvious, this speaks to the strategic vision of the community moving forward. Do we want to continue to foster the ‘us versus them’ paradigm between ourselves and the larger AA community? Or do we want to actively cultivate relationships with these advocates who can serve as ambassadors and help build bridges of understanding and acceptance throughout AA? Are we about tolerance, inclusiveness, and unity or being separatists? Is the goal to have the biggest tent possible within Secular AA, or rigidly control what is deemed acceptable to think and believe within our community? Will many of us simply have moved from second-class status under the rigid theism often found in traditional AA to second class status under the rigid atheism of Secular AA?
Ironically, the original WAAFT slogan was, “You can find sobriety in AA without having to accept the beliefs of others or deny your own.” I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this slogan was abandoned along with the WAAFT name. WAAFT was about tolerance and acceptance. These hard liners are pushing the message, “We don’t tolerate any of that foolishness around here. We are Atheists, pure and simple. Get with the program or get to the back of the bus and stay quiet.”
Finally, I ask how can we run a rigid secular sub-culture within an organization that is theistic on a cellular level? It seems to me these people don’t really feel any significant responsibility to AA. The rhetoric I have experience suggests they have already decided that we cannot function within AA and they are simply using Secular AA as a temporary stepping stone towards the creation of “Secular Not AA,” or whatever they choose to call it. We must ask ourselves if this strategy is ethical and moral? How will it affect our relationship with the rest of AA? What lines should we not cross as long as “AA” follows “Secular” in our community’s name?
I encourage everyone to explore these principles within each group. If you have opinions, contact the conference board and let them know. Write articles. Speak up. Forward this article to anyone you know who participates in a secular AA group for consideration. If you don’t participate in the making of these decisions, they are going to be made for you. I would encourage the hardliners to speak up as well, but they don’t seem to need any encouragement.
Finally, I believe it is the conference board’s obligation to make every effort to reach out to every secular AA group and ask them to have a group conscience to explore our collective values. The forming of our group conscience should not be limited to those who can attend the conference. The forming of our group conscience should not be left to the happenstance and politics of the conference board, but truly reflect the values of the entire community. The values Secular AA adopts will be the values we chose, even if we made that choice through our silence.