One Big Tent Falls Flat for This Reader

By Wally K.

My home group in the greater Boise, Idaho area has been a friend of AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief for a long time now. It has been our privilege to contribute some of our 7th Tradition funds to these websites to help enable the flow of quality secular information to those of us whose needs aren’t always met through our “parent” organization, GSO, in New York.

We members of Atheists, Agnostics & All Others sent one of our own, Angela B. to the International Conference of Secular AA held in Toronto last August. She brought back a copy of the new AA Grapevine book, One Big Tent. I was the privileged one to read it first, and what follows is my impression of the book.

I have just finished reading the new hundred page book from AA Grapevine  titled One Big Tent. It’s subtitled “Atheist and agnostic AA members share their experience, strength and hope”.  It  was published just this year and it contains about 43 stories, and as promised on the cover, they come from atheists and agnostics. I do suspect that a couple or three of the authors may be deists, theists, or folks who really just don’t give a whit for religion, or the bother of recognizing or denying a deity.  Most, however, seem to be atheists or agnostics and they usually know the difference between the terms.

The forty plus stories are typical “what it was like – what happened – what it’s like now” AA stories. They range from a half page long to maybe four pages. The one common factor is that the authors do not accept the Big Book concept of a supernatural deity, either Christian per “regular” AA or of their own conception. These stories were written over most of the history of AA by members who struggled with the god concept of our fellowship, but attained sobriety despite this conflict. Some fought the overt pressure of religious members, some kept quiet and endured the discrimination, and some just stayed in the closet as non-believers. All but a handful of the authors had to compromise and  become creative in their interpretations of “traditional” AA since there were no secular meetings available. A very few of the authors founded their own secular meetings in self-defense. Only a couple of the stories were recent enough to include mention of the current global secular AA efforts.

One facet of my 30+ year journey from confused, shop-worn Christian to out-of-the-closet atheist was missing from the stories in One Big Tent. None of the authors had the long gestation period to become atheist. Also, none described any delving into research about atheism. My journey included lots of reading – Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Bart Ehrman, Sam Hill, Christopher Hitchens, Barbara Ehrenreich and many others. I wanted to know just what constituted an atheist and what were the distinctions between that term and “agnostic”, “deist” and “”theist.” The authors of the stories in One Big Tent didn’t need this research activity to exist as non-believers.

An important attribute of our Tuesday night group in Boise is the wide diversity of approaches to sobriety. I saw little of this in the stories of  One Big Tent. Our group is characterized by folks grabbing the bull by the horns and wringing a personal recovery program from multiple resources.  For many of us, ‘The Big Book’, the “12 X 12”, sponsorship, and AA meeting attendance are just starting points. I watch members of our group incorporate non-believers’ interpretations of AA, and then combine other programs such as SMART or Veterans Administration to amalgamate and better address personal needs. I also see some include Buddhism, counselors, and AA web sites for non-believers. I watch as they analyze and evaluate and morph their personal programs to attain more efficiency and effectiveness. This arena of diversity would make a great book for the AA Grapevine.

After reading One Big Tent, I was left with a feeling of gratitude for our Tuesday night group.  Our meetings appear to offer much more, at least for my needs, than the authors of the book got from their meetings.  We get a lot of personal recovery done, and we generate valuable discussions of issues germane to attaining and maintaining sobriety. We are sensitive to newcomers.  We volunteer and perform service activities. We meet all of my personal needs that can be met from meeting attendance.

So, I continue to offer big thanks to you all. I encourage you to read One Big Tent – it may have something for you that I missed.

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Paul M.
Paul M.

Don’t screw with a program that saved my life. Start your own. Leave AA out of your name.

John M.
John M.

Some have suggested that One Big Tent and The “God” Word do not reflect a strong version of what AA secularity is all about. Some claim that literature like this is a watered-down, too quick to please attempt at appeasing the perceived powers that be. Are we being co-opted? Are we being “thrown a bone?” Is our secular message diluted and made weaker with the publication of literature like this?  Perhaps, but I suspect a weakening of our secularity is highly unlikely. The god-talk and the quasi-religious frame of reference in conventional AA is, after all, precisely what has so… Read more »

John S

Thank you for taking the time to post this well-written and thoughtful comment.

Ken S.
Ken S.

I wish AA would stop polluting Secular AA with this turgid religious apologism. These books hedge their bets that the rational Secular AA members will lower their collective IQs and eventually purchase a god to AA’s liking. Same goes for the nauseating “God Word” screed. And can’t anyone in AA write like it’s 2018, not 1937?


Wally, Thanks. I guess we ought to keep in mind that these stories are taken from the Grapevines, and the majority of them of older origin. And those older stories were included in the Grapevine at a time when AA as a whole, while perhaps not polarized, as it has been for a while, had also not become as open-minded about inclusion of non-believers as it has been becoming recently. So while including these stories they were also rather toned down, sanitized, just like much of the other standard AA literature. When I submitted my own story, which was quite… Read more »


thanks for the review. I was a bit baffled by the author’s apparent interest in defining an atheist. not to criticize. everyone’s journey is their own. my journey looked like this: read the peddled myths about creation and saviours and such, look for any evidence at all of their truth, find none, scoff and walk away. poof. Im an atheist. I found no need to be labeled, diagnosed, defined. I simply do not believe the religious myths, because, really, why should anyone? they are all pretty childish at their core. bad descriptions written by d00ds that didn’t even know where… Read more »


Speaking of the need to define – or not – would like to add one that Thomas B introduced me to: Apatheism – Don’t know, don’t care! Not anymore.