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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  1. John M. November 15, 2018 at 7:56 pm - Reply

    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 vigorously motivated many of us to stand up and be counted by speaking up and by forming secular groups. There is no going back now!

    Given the proliferation of secular groups since about 2012, I expect that our secular membership will continue to grow stronger. Whether AA as a sizeable international fellowship survives is, however, an open question.

    As opposed to the notion that literature like this may serve to weaken our commitment to secular principles, I feel confident that our secularity will be increasingly attractive to newcomers as well as to a number of current members of conventional groups — along with an evolving level of respect by much of the fellowship for our secular engagement in and commitment to AA.

    My wife, Dianne, and I recently heard quite a few members of a large conventional group speak almost irrepressibly about their own discomfort over the excessive God-language and “pressure to believe” that they had encountered in AA. Dianne had shared her story of being bullied for her atheism as a young gal only to encounter again the same kind of bullying when she joined AA. It was in the sharing part of the meeting after she had spoken where quite a few of these folks expressed similar experiences. Equally important, though, was the cordiality and respect offered by other non-secular folks who commented favourably in support of Dianne’s atheism in AA.

    I’m not sure that literature like One Big Tent and The “God” Word will do much more than distress the imperious religionists in the fellowship, and better, at least signal to newcomers and to the closeted secularist that there is a 21st century openness in AA that was not previously apparent. 

    Other than being seen as a conspiracy by AA to subtly undermine the secular movement, these two pieces of literature present the harassed atheist/agnostic/freethinker with conference-approved material to fend off the attack of any “can’t-stay-sober-unless-you-find-God” proselytist. Actually, no one need even read this literature to rebut the evangelizer; its mere existence is enough to provide one wth a conference-approved — “odd that you would say that!”

    Any sullying of our principled secular stance within AA will probably not come from the introduction of this kind of literature within our midst but would more likely come from our inability to express love (respect) and render service to others at the individual, group, intergroup, general service, and conference level — regardless of a secular or normative articulation.

    • John S November 17, 2018 at 4:55 pm Reply

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

  2. Ken S. November 12, 2018 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    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?

  3. life-j November 11, 2018 at 10:41 am - Reply


    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 critical of things that have happened in AA both fellowship-wide and locally, I did specifically say “don’t sanitize it, I want it printed with no significant edits, if you can’t do that, don’t bother”.

    I would also like to recognize that some of the key people at the Grapevine, who have come to the Grapevine relatively recently, are very sympathetic to our quest, so we will probably see more stories of a “stronger” kind in the future.

    Being one of the people who had a greater than average part in making this book happen, I also wrote several e-mails to the editor reminding him that we would take very unkindly to stories of the Chapter 4 variety, and this, both from myself and others, could be part of why they chose to not include a whole lot about those who did a lot of soul searching before becoming non-believers.

    As for myself, I was about 8 years old when, after the bedtime prayer, I looked up at that crucifix my grandmother had hung over my bed, and said to myself, there’s no way I’m going to be able to believe in this stuff. And to her credit – she was probably the only one who loved me unconditionally – she stopped making me go through the prayers shortly after, when I began resisting. But I did have to make it through another 6 years of daily religious barrage at school.

    Even so, I have read a lot of religion related things over the years, both extensive parts of the bible, even some of the koran,  and a variety of philosophical material, but it has for the most part been an ammunition gathering venture rather than soul searching.

    And many of the stories in there, especially the older ones,  have, in a similar vein, been written either apologetically, or polemically, or as hostile to the religiosity of regular AA as the writer dared to make it, or as the Grapevine staff dared to print it. So while this book perhaps falls a bit short of what we would ideally like to see it must by it’s nature consist of stories already written, which is part of how it got to be published in the first place – there didn’t have to be big arguments about whether already published stories were publishable – I think it is a great start.

    And we can also see an evolution of the stories we publish ourselves – from Don’t Tell, which to a large degree was a sortie resulting from years of ostracism, over Do Tell, where we were more able to simply focus on our individual recovery paths than on our bad feelings about AA – to more recent writings where we are beginning to focus on what we can do to constructively help save AA from itself, not just with regard to the religious stuff, but also some of the many other problems that there are with the program. And I saw much of this at the convention too, which is encouraging.

    I would expect to see the grapevine be willing to post many of such writings over the coming years, if we submit them. Hopefully this will lead to a fellowship-wide discussion of what needs to be changed. Old-timers need to be there for the newcomers, of course, but I think our main duty to the program is to focus our energies on discussing change and improvement. That is a relatively new thing we have started, of course, and it had to come, as the back to basics people have been hard at work trying to protect the fellowship against change and improvement.



  4. XBarbarian November 11, 2018 at 8:37 am - Reply

    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 the sun went when night approached.

    i like to keep things very simple, and that realization was as simple as it gets.

    • life-j November 11, 2018 at 10:50 am Reply

      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.

  5. marty nieski November 7, 2018 at 10:27 pm - Reply

    After dealing with this issue for over 3 decades, I feel the book is a major step to getting  acceptance in the general AA population.  I have bought 100 copies which I find are being readily accepted.  Give it a little time.  We are having very good results here in Northeast Connecticut.  Easy does it!

  6. Dan L November 7, 2018 at 11:30 am - Reply

    Thank you for the essay Wally.  I appreciate your sharing some of your process of “spiritual” transition from believer to atheist and how it molded your AA experience.  I wanted to point out that as a life long atheist whose origins were in a rather devout – if profane – Irish Catholic family and who attended Catholic schools and still is in regular contact with that family I have been under continuous pressure to “accept”, “believe”, “conform”, “shut up”, “give up” and otherwise participate in some type of religion.  By the time I had made it to AA I was pretty jaded as far as these things go.  Enroute I felt compelled to learn and study the hell out of all these “religious” philosophies in order to understand why I had to reject them all.  So I can tell you I am pretty well versed in religious issues especially christian apologia and I have been forced to repeatedly examine my own principles.  AA god made no sense to me at all and I could see no place for god in my program in any form so after a while I just took what I could from the AA “program” and accepted the help that was offered.  Not being able to be open about higher power matters was a stressor until I was brought to secular AA by friends.  The rest of the story is as simple as it gets.  I do not drink and I participate in and make AA part of my life.



    • marty nieski November 7, 2018 at 10:30 pm Reply

      Sorry.  The previous comment should have gone to Dan L.

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