It was a privilege and honor to appear on John M.’s wonderful podcast, Sober Speak. John is from the Dallas, Texas area and started his podcast out of a love for the stories he hears in AA. The format of his episodes are similar to what we do at AA Beyond Belief. His guest will share their recovery story, which evolves into a conversation.
John wasn’t aware of the secular movement within Alcoholics Anonymous or the large number of secular AA meetings which serve the agnostic, atheist, and freethinker in AA, as well as anyone for whom religion or spirituality presents an obstacle.
I enjoyed my talk with John and I thought he did a great job with this. I hope you enjoy listening to the conversation as much as I enjoyed participating in it.
You can listen to other episodes of Sober Speak at the website soberspeak.com
0:00:00 John S: I got out of jail, I was walking around town trying to figure out where my car was, and to finally get to my car, I had to walk over this bridge. And I stopped half way and I thought I was just going to jump and end it all, but I couldn’t do that, so I walked across the bridge, I got into my car, I went home, I called the number for Alcoholics Anonymous and I said, “I think I need help.
0:00:28 John M: Well, hello, friends of Bill W, and other friends you have landed on Sober Speak. My name is John M. I am an alcoholic, and we are glad you are all here. Especially newcomers, newcomers that is both to recovery as a whole and newcomers to this podcast. Sober Speak is a podcast about recovery centered around the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. My job here on Sober Speak is simple. My job is to provide a platform to the amazing stories of recovery all around us. Consider Sober Speak, if you will, your meeting between meetings. Please remember, we do not speak for AA or any 12-step community, we represent only ourselves, we are here to share our experience, strength, and hope with those who wish to come along for the ride. Take what you want and leave the rest, at the curve for the trash man to pick up. So that was the voice of Mr. John S that you heard at the beginning of this podcast today, but first things first, this episode is brought to you by Jennifer and Grace. Jennifer and Grace went to our website, soberspeak.com, clicked on the donate tab and made a contribution.
0:01:56 John M: Thank you so much, Jennifer and Grace for your generous contribution this episode is for you. We’re going to let everybody else listen to him, but this episode is for you. Now, Mr. John S, who you’re about to hear, has over 30 years sober in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now he is… What makes this program or what makes this episode, excuse me, a little bit different is that John is an atheist. Didn’t start out that way, but I’ll let him explain his evolution, if you will, in becoming an atheist within the rooms of AA. And so John hosts a podcast. It’s entitled AA Beyond Belief and he actually started a meeting in the Kansas City Missouri area and it’s titled, We Agnostics. It’s a secular AA meeting. And the meetings are run a little bit different. In other words, they don’t start with a prayer or end with a prayer. But I’m going to be putting links to all of this information, John’s podcast, and the secular AA meeting, another link to how John re-wrote We Agnostics, he rewrote how it works to suit their needs, if you will. So it’s interesting to me because I’ve always considered AA to be a little bit of a subculture.
0:03:27 John M: You know we have our own lingo and the way we talk to each other and everybody knows about the secret handshake right? If you don’t know about it, maybe you should be going to more meetings, but anyway, so I’ve always considered AA a subculture. And this, John’s group is kind of a subculture within a subculture, if you will. I had no idea there were as many secular AA meetings all across the world. And once again, there will be a link in the show notes of where you can view all that, but I thought about this also why am I bringing John on to Sober Speak. And I guess number one I was very, very intrigued by the whole movement, if you will. And then number two, there is a tradition, which anybody who has a regular attendance who has regular attendance within AA or Al-Anon will know, and that is the only requirement for membership is a desire to quit drinking. And I want to give people a voice that are…
0:04:41 John M: Wanting, willing to stay sober, and I just want these people to be heard. And I think this is an absolutely wonderful thing that John S is doing here. But before we get on to Mr. John S, and I know you’re going to enjoy the episode, I just want to give you a… First of all, I have a couple of Ask and then I’m going to go some listen to feedback and then we’ll go right to John. Number one, if indeed you are enjoying Sober Speak or a particular pod or a particular episode that you have heard, please share it with a friend or family member. I just and I say this all the time, but these people who come in here and tell their stories, I appreciate them so much and I want to get the word out regarding their stories and I’m hoping it can help somebody, somewhere out there in this world. The other thing is if you could follow me on Instagram, if you’re an Instagram kind of person, I would appreciate it. I’m @SoberSpeak all one word, S-O-B-E-R-S-P-E-A-K, and this is not really an ask, but I just want to let you know that if you need to know how to subscribe to Sober Speak, how to listen to us, I should say on either Google podcast or Apple iTunes podcast or on what’s the third one, Spotify, just text the word, sober, S-O-B-E-R to 31996 so text the word sober at 31996.
0:06:17 John M: And you get a link showing you how to do that. Now, a little bit of listener feedback, and then we’ll get on to John. Jenna writes in. Jenna says, “Hi John, I listened to David G and very much appreciated his experience with steps one through three. I have a request. Could you maybe do a series with David and have him cover all of the steps? I think it would be helpful to a lot of us and I know it would be helpful for me in working with my new sponsee. Thank you so much for doing this podcast. It is so convenient for me, to listen in between meetings. Jenna.”
0:07:01 John M: Well, Jenna first of all the episode that she’s talking about is episode number 59. It’s called David G. Steps, on through three in Alcoholics Anonymous, and I reached out to David right after you wrote in Jenna and David has agreed to come in and do that. And now I am putting this out on the air, so we’re definitely going to have to get David to come back in for the rest of the steps. The second letter comes from Cassandra. Cassandra writes in. By the way, Cassandra is an Al-Anon member and I have pledged to get more Al-Anon members on this podcast this year. I love the program of Al-Anon and I want to get people on from Al-Anon. In fact, if any of you know someone out there who you think would be articulate enough to tell their story and would be good for the Sober Speak podcast, just let me know if you have a tape of something that you have done in the past or they have done, it would be very helpful if I could hear a, I’m saying tape, but you know what I mean. Send me an electronic link to what they’ve done.
0:08:11 John M: But anyway, Cassandra writes in. She says, “Hello, John. I live about two hours Southwest of the Dallas Fort Worth area, in a college town and I frequently traveled to Fort Worth for meetings, when I get the time. I came across Sober Speak over the summer when I jumped into my own recovery, I had been in and around the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous since I was 11 when a family member began their recovery. I am now 28 and I needed something to encourage me, as I traveled to and from my meetings. I listen to Spotify all the time and just happened to search for the word sober. Since I had heard many AA members speak over the years, that felt right at home, listening to your podcast. I credit those early years to really encouraging me to surrender this summer. I remember being on the phone when a family member asked me, “That’s nice but what are you doing for yourself?” That was the moment that took my breath away. I had known for all these years that I had not been unscathed from alcoholism.” It’s a very good way to put that Miss Cassandra, “But this was the exact moment when it dropped from my consciousness to my heart. Alcoholism and addiction run in my family. Several generations back and on both sides. I also married into it, needless to say, I am now a grateful Al-Anon and there is no looking back. After all, Al-Anon wouldn’t exist without having AA come first. I’m thankful.”
0:09:51 John M: “I’m thankful, and believe that my higher power can do for me, what I was never able to do for myself. Trust me, I’ve been through the list A through Z, several times and this was the solution that always greeted me at the end. It is never too late to begin your own path to a happier life. And while you may not be able to end the cycle you can set the example of a better life to come. Blessings. Cassandra Jay.” Thank you so much Cassandra Jay for writing in. I always love to hear from Al-Anons. If there’s any other Al-Anons out there that want to write in, I would love to read what you have to say on the air. And the last one and we’ll go on to Bjorn, excuse me, then we’ll go on to John S here, as Bjorn from Sweden writes in, I love it, “Hey John, on the subway, enjoying the latest podcast with David G. Keep up the great work, God bless.” Well, I am glad that you were sitting on the subway in Sweden enjoying Mr. David G, Bjorn. Thank you so much for writing in. And now, we’re on to John S. Enjoy.
0:11:06 John M: Okay, so today we are sitting here with Mr. John S. In fact I recorded an episode, a couple of weeks ago, that had Mr John M. And now there’s a John S, And I’m John M and I made a joke about it in one of the previous episodes. So somebody wrote him from a Sweden and their name was Bjorn and I had just had several people write in and their name was Bjorn and I was like, “Is everybody in Sweden named Bjorn that is a male person? [chuckle] So the joke was that everybody in the United States is named John.
0:11:43 John M: So Mr. John S, welcome to Sober Speak.
0:11:45 John S: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
0:11:47 John M: Why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself, give your sobriety date?
0:11:51 John S: Alright, well thanks. Well, my name is John S and I’m from Kansas City, Missouri and I’ve been sober since July 20th 1988.
0:12:00 John M: Alright, so that is, my math’s good or is that 30 years already? 30.
0:12:05 John S: I celebrated 30 years in July. Yup.
0:12:07 John M: The triple x as they say.
0:12:09 John S: Yes, I got that, got that [chuckle]
0:12:13 John M: That is fantastic. So I mean I enjoy all the interviews, but this one is going to make me think and we’re going off the beaten path here today and you’ll see what I mean by that as we venture through this interview. So the reason that John and I are sitting here together, on this podcast today, is because one of the listeners for my podcast Sober Speak, sent me an email one day. And they said that they had found Sober Speak when John S’s podcast here, which is called AA Beyond Belief, and we’ll talk about that in a second, stopped putting out episodes during the summer some time and so they were searching for something to kind of fill the gap and so they found my podcast Sober Speak. So I actually reached out to John and I thought, “You know what, it may be an opportunity for me to be on John’s podcast, I’d like to do that.” And so I sent him a message and he replied back to me, and I should have done my due diligence beforehand. But in this case, it turned out to be a good thing. And I started researching AA Beyond Belief, John’s podcast, and I found out that AA Beyond Belief is a, I guess a subculture within our sub-culture already. And it is geared for people that are “free thinkers”, if I have that term right atheist and agnostic that they like AA, but they don’t like the deity part of it. Do I have that right?
0:13:53 John S: That’s right, that’s right. We found a secular path in Alcoholics Anonymous.
0:13:57 John M: Thank you very much for putting more succinct words to what I was trying to say in there. And so John said, “Yeah, you know what, I think it may not be a bad idea to have you on our podcast. AA Beyond Belief.” And so, as I started to do research, I sent back an email to him and I said, “Hey listen, I’m not sure if I am quite qualified, if you will, to be on your podcast because I’m definitely a believer. And so we ended up having that conversation anyway. John was very gracious, he said, “Hey, this is primarily for atheists and agnostic but I’d love to talk to another podcaster as somebody who’s been in AA, and John and I have been sober about the same time. And so I was on John podcast, I don’t know, he released it, I would say a couple of weeks ago now or something like that. I really, really enjoyed our conversation and so I wanted to have John on my podcast as well. So did I leave anything out there that’s kind of significant by any chance?
0:15:00 John S: You did great. You did fantastic, that was a good summary of what happened, yep.
0:15:05 John M: Alright, so there’s a couple of things, number one, like I said, we’re going off the beaten path here because this is not a normal sort of AA traditional, I guess, is what you would call story. And I want to have John on, I want to talk about his story. And then towards the end of this I want to get into the, Gosh, how to atheist work this? And ever since I’ve known I was going to have you on the podcast, every meeting that I’ve been to over the past a month or two, I been thinking, “Wait a second, how do they get around that? How do they get around that? How do they get around this?” And so I want to… Another piece that I want to say to this, and I’ll shut up. This is your story, but I want to say this is that, I have been to meetings and I said this on your podcast and I really mean this, to where I hear people say, “Well, I knew an atheist in AA, once and they didn’t have anything I wanted.”
0:16:06 John M: But I have also been to meetings to where, I know there are people who are believers, and they don’t have anything I want either. And so it cuts both ways on that. So with that being said, John S, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your story? Let me just throw this out for you to begin with, and that is, what kind of kid were you? What did your parents think of you? What did your teachers think of you?
0:16:32 John S: Well, that’s a good question actually, thank you. Well, I grew up in a military family and so it was important for me, I guess, back in those days, I guess I was polite [chuckle] And I think that’s how people probably would have recognized me. I was quiet. People used to always say, “Why are you so shy?” But I think I was a happy kid, for the most part. I enjoyed school. I did well in high school, although that’s when I started my drinking, but I think I was just a pretty much of an average kid. We had problems in our house, but we also had a lot of love and laughter in the house as well, so I guess that summarizes how I was as a kid?
0:17:19 John M: Do you have brothers and sisters?
0:17:21 John S: I do. I have, an older brother and an older sister. They are I guess half siblings. We share the same mother but different fathers, and then I have a younger brother. So there’s four of us altogether.
0:17:36 John M: Did any of them develop any sort of alcohol or drug issues or was that really you?
0:17:41 John S: My older brother did. My older brother is, like me, an alcoholic and he did drugs back in the 60s and 70s, but primarily he developed a problem with alcohol, like I did. My younger brother and sister, and my older sister, they did not. Though mental illness runs rampant in my family and my younger brother is Schizoaffective and is homeless in Florida and off medication and just not doing well. And I think all of us kids have had some sort of depression or mental illness of varying degrees that we’ve dealt with in different ways.
0:18:26 John M: Okay, so when did you discover the wonder of alcohol?
0:18:30 John S: Pretty early on I think I was probably eight. I remember my first drink. It was a Thanksgiving dinner and my mother wanted to teach me to drink like a gentleman. And so, I had a glass of wine, and that glass of wine, I can almost feel it now. It was the elixir. It was what I needed. And so, as I said, I grew up in an Army family, and my parents would have parties, a lot where my father would have his army buddies over. And this is the late 60s, early 1970s. So I don’t know if that means anything, but it’s just [chuckle] kind of a party decade, I guess. So, after these parties that my father would throw, I would go down and have the leftover drinks, the bourbon and the gin and whatever that was left over after these parties.
0:19:33 John M: So that obviously progressed past that. Tell me about a junior high, high school, what happened to you there?
0:19:39 John S: Yeah, so looking back on what, on my childhood, I think what was going on with me, John, is, I didn’t know what to expect. I was afraid, I didn’t really feel secure. And I learned that in AA, that, after I got to the fourth step that insecurity and lack of security was a real problem. And what was going on, like I said, my father could at times just get violent with us, just over-discipline us. My mother was severely depressed and on drugs, and she could sometimes just burst out into just anger episodes towards us. So I always had that element of fear of my parents. But at the same time, my mother could be light and funny and sing and be loving and my father could be supportive and proud of us and fun. So it wasn’t like black and white, it was like I didn’t know what I was going to get from one day to the next. Am I going to get Happy and fun dad, or am I going to get the angry dad? Am I going to get lightened and a loving mom or am I going to get the angry mother who throws insults at me? So that was the world that I lived in, and I think that I accidentally discovered alcohol as a drug, [chuckle] as a way to make myself, feel okay.
0:21:18 John S: It was an escape, I guess. It helped, numb those feelings. So like I said, as like an elementary school kid whenever I could drink, I would. But I would never… The first time I got drunk, it wasn’t until I was maybe 12 years old, and I remember basically, I was just in our house, and there was a bottle of liquor that my parents kept. There was always liquor in the house and I decided to have a shot. And that shot was pretty good, so I had another shot and that was pretty good, so I had another and another and another. And next thing you know, I’m totally wasted. And my parents thought it was funny, they thought, “My God, he’s drunk.” [chuckle]
0:22:00 John S: And that drunk pretty much was the same as all the drunks after that. Basically the next day I was sick, I was remorseful, I swore I would never do it again, I couldn’t go to school that day, I had to stay home sick. And [chuckle] I repeated that. So that was 12. I swore I’d never drink again, and I didn’t until maybe I was 14 when I started high school. And in high school, I think that I was doing what most high school kids do. At least that’s what we did in my era, is we got some beer, we rode around town, or we went out to some farm pond some wear and built a fire and drank beer and whiskey, or whatever and that’s what we did. And I guess even then it started becoming a problem and that it seemed that I was the one that always had to go to the extreme. It seemed like my friends could leave it at the party level, and I took it to another level, I guess. But I don’t think it was really a problem for me in high school. My parents were very liberal about it. This, again 1970s. They thought, “Hey I don’t care if you drink just don’t do drugs.” That was how they felt about it. So I was free to drink as much as I wanted. I could take whiskey from the house and go out with my friends and party. So that was my high school. But I really, it did progressed, and by the time I was in college, that’s when it really… That’s the first time I thought I needed to call AA.
0:23:39 John S: I was 19 years old, I was in Lawrence, Kansas, going to the University of Kansas. I was having problems with school, I was having problems with my friends, I was drunk most of the time, sick and alcohol was obviously pointing to everything that was wrong with me and so I saw an ad in the Lawrence Journal World which is the local newspaper for Alcoholics Anonymous. And I kept looking at that and I thought I really need to go, but I told myself that, no, it was ridiculous I can’t be an alcoholic. I’m just too young. So I did not go to that meeting, and I continued drinking.
0:24:18 John M: So they had an ad in the paper? I don’t recall seeing ads in the paper before. I’m sure they’ve been there. Tell me about that ad. I’m just curious. For what…
0:24:29 John S: Yeah, I guess it would be be considered public information. And it was back then, we read newspapers, people might remember this actually. [chuckle] And they would put advertisement in them [chuckle] So yeah, there was something for, “Call out. If you have a drinking problem, call Alcoholics Anonymous.” something like that.
0:24:47 John M: How about that? Okay, so that’s what that caught your attention. Did you know what Alcoholics Anonymous was at the time?
0:24:52 John S: I used to read, Dear Abby, in the newspaper, in the Leavenworth Times, and she would often refer people to AA or Al-Anon if they had a problem. So I knew about Alcoholics Anonymous from Dear Abby and I knew that that was a place to go if I had a problem with drinking.
0:25:13 John M: God bless, Dear Abby.
0:25:14 John S: Yeah, [chuckle] she did a good job, Yeah, so when I saw again reading the newspaper and I saw that ad, and I said, “Yeah, that’s what I need to do.” But again, I just said, “No, there’s no way I could be an alcoholic.” So I continued drinking and ended up being dismissed from the university for academic reasons. And so I left, I went back to my parents’ home and I made up some sort of excuse why I was taking some time off from school. And this is interesting because it gets into the whole religion thing. I was never a religious person, John. I didn’t go to church growing up or anything.
0:25:52 John M: Did your parents go to church?
0:25:55 John S: No, they’re from the South, they’re from Florida and they grew up as Baptist and were baptized and all of that. And my father even taught Sunday school, but when he came back from Vietnam, there was no more, they didn’t care about religion. And so, I don’t know if there’s something that happened there, but it seemed from 1968 forward, there was really no interest in our house about church or anything like that really. But when I was 19 years old and my life was falling apart. This, is the 1980s, early 1980s. And you might remember that time that televangelism was very popular. And so I would watch Pat Roberts on television. And I began becoming interested in religion and so I read the Bible, because I knew nothing about religion. I didn’t know the first thing.
0:26:53 John M: Was Pat Roberts, was he on the 700 Club?
0:26:56 John S: Yes the 700 club.
0:26:57 John M: Okay, gotcha.
0:26:57 John S: Yeah, yeah. So I would watch him on television and I would drink and I would read the Bible and I think I read the whole Bible. I think [chuckle] I read everything from the Old Testament and New Testament. And I tried at that time to have some sort of a religious experience, I tried to become a believer and I remember something that I would hear that Pat would say on television. He said that if you pray to God like you really believe God will answer your prayer then God will answer your prayer. It’s all a matter of belief. I had this going on and…
0:27:33 John M: So let me ask real quick, when you were watching, when you were seeking, if I were to put it that way, was there anything in particular that you were trying to fill, inside yourself, or was there some sort of driving question that was taking you toward the televangelist?
0:27:55 John S: I needed help. My life was falling apart. I was scared of what was going to happen to me. I was keeping secrets from my parents. I was keeping secrets about my drinking from myself. I was in denial about my drinking. I didn’t want anyone to know. Heck, I wasn’t going to college because of my drinking and I needed some sort of an answer, and I guess I looked towards religion. Now, one reason for that, too, is my older brother, got very religious, when he was in the high school. So he found a religious path, so I guess from that, I thought maybe there was a solution there for it.
0:28:38 John M: And did you see improvement with him, so to speak?
0:28:42 John S: Well, he made me uncomfortable as a kid, because he was much older than me, and so he found God and he would come home and he would talk about how we needed to find God or we’d go to [chuckle] hell, basically. And it was like a really a frightening message, and I just felt I was afraid because I didn’t know how to believe. I tried, I tried to believe. I don’t know. So yeah, that was my only exposure to it, but he seemed to be doing well. Yeah, and he was doing well. Again, he went to the Bible College and he was going to go into the ministry. But he decided not to do that, and instead he went into finance, and he was making good money and he drove nice cars, he had nice homes, and so he seemed be pretty successful.
0:29:33 John M: Right, religion’s is paying off.
0:29:35 John S: Yeah, I looked up to him, so I thought, “Okay well.” Now I guess this is just before, I was 20 years old, and it’s just before or maybe right after my 21st birthday and I’m still at home, and my father calls me from my room and he says, there’s something wrong with my mother. I knew there was something wrong with my mother because I passed by her room and she was very groggy and out of it, but that’s how she always was. So, I came downstairs and what was happening was she was committing suicide, she was dying from an overdose.
0:30:15 John M: Oh wow.
0:30:16 John S: Yeah. And so my father called the paramedics, and they came out to work on her and as they were working on her, I prayed that she would live and I remember something from Pat saying that if you just have the faith of a mustard seed, just believe that God will answer your prayer and God will answer your prayer. So I did my best to pray for her as if I really believed, and of course it didn’t work, she died, and that was my first thing.
0:30:52 John M: Right there that day?
0:30:53 John S: They took her to the hospital and tried to work on her. I was sitting there watching them pump her and all this stuff, but they took her to the hospital and by the time I got to hospital, my father came out and said your mother died. Yeah, that was devastating.
0:31:07 John M: So tell me about the moments after that. He says, “Your mother died,” did you all come back to the house?
0:31:14 John S: We did.
0:31:15 John M: Was there anybody else around?
0:31:21 John S: I can’t remember that night to be honest with you, when we came back home. My father fell apart and I fell apart, we all did. And I drank. Shortly after her death, someone gave me a shot of whiskey to comfort me and it’s like my very first drink, it’s one of those drinks I remember because it comforted me. It made everything feel okay. It was the best shot of whiskey I ever had in my life. That shot of whiskey just put me on a trajectory. Just chronic alcoholism for the next five years, really. I coped with her death, like I coped with anything through drinking. I’d given up on the religious religion idea, the idea of religion completely, and I didn’t pray at all. From the ages of 20 to 25, it was just before my 26 birthday, that I got to AA. I was drinking consistently, I was blacking out.
0:32:24 John S: I started having legal problems. So I started getting arrested for drunk driving. I found myself in jail every once in a while for stupid things, like I never paid for any sort of a ticket. So any time they would stop me, they would have to put me in jail. The DUIs were getting ridiculous. And so, what happened was after my third DUI, and each one was a year apart, that was my bottom, I was fired from my job. It was a job that I liked. I was trying to replicate my older brother’s life. I was working for a bank. And it was like my first office job, and I immediately began to have problems there because of my drinking, but they were really good and they would offer me help, they liked me. I was a young guy, and I did a pretty good job and they said, “Listen we think you have a problem. Please go to treatment. Your job will be here when you come back.” But, I just insisted I didn’t have a problem. Well, I used to repossess cars for this bank, [chuckle] so I used to have to drive their vehicles. And so they knew about my previous two DUIs. And they said…
0:33:32 John M: So you were a repo man?
0:33:33 John S: I was.
0:33:34 John M: Alright, so you’d physically go out to the location and?
0:33:37 John S: Yeah, yeah with the bank it was odd. Back in those days, what we would do if you didn’t make your car payment, there’s a couple of things we would do. They would sometimes send me to your workplace, or to your house, and I would ask for the car payment or the keys. And so often times when I did that, I would get yelled at.
0:33:56 John M: Not bad. [chuckle]
0:33:58 John S: Whatever.
0:34:00 John M: That’s a dangerous job.
0:34:01 John S: It was a weird job, but I was young and stupid, I didn’t know how dangerous it was. But I did find myself in some precarious situations at times. One time. I was in another great part of town and these guys were coming after me. And they had baseball bats. Now, maybe they were just going to go play a game of baseball, I don’t know, but I just took off out of there and then there were other times when dogs came after me, that, but yeah, it was a weird job. But I liked it and it had good parts of it too.
0:34:32 John M: Yeah you’re a good alcoholic. You like the adrenaline that comes from something like that.
0:34:37 John S: I liked it, it was weird, it was a strange job, for sure. But yeah, that’s what I did. But because I would drive their cars, they told me, “If you get another DUI you’re going to lose your job, so please.” I said, “Oh don’t worry about it. That was was the phase I was going through. It’s not going to happen.” Well, it happened and I didn’t tell them about it and they found out anyway. And they took me to the HR manager’s office and they said, they laid it out for me, they said, “Listen on this date we talked to you about your drinking and offered you help. On this date, we talked to you about your drinking and offered you help.” And they just went through the whole pattern. I broke down in tears and I said, “I just didn’t know I had a problem.” Looking back on it, that was as honest as I could be. Now, what I know is, I knew I had a problem, John, but I couldn’t admit it. I learned that later on. I lied to them, I told them how I’m going to AA, but I wasn’t [chuckle] I was hoping that would save my job but I did go to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting after getting fired.
0:35:54 John M: How do you find it? The AA meeting?
0:35:56 John S: Well actually, I called Alcoholics Anonymous, the day after I got out of jail from my third DWI arrest. It’s one of the situations I got out of jail, I was walking around town trying to figure out where my car was. And to finally get to my car, I had to walk over this bridge, and I stopped half way and I thought I was just going to jump and end it all, but I couldn’t do that. So I walked across the bridge, I got into my car, I went home, I called the number for Alcoholic Anonymous and I said, “I think I need help.” And the person on the other end of the phone, they paused, and they were very kind and I could tell that they really cared. And they gave me the address of a meeting near where I worked downtown in Kansas City, Missouri. So there was a two-week period after that call to the time that I got fired. And it’s interesting because during that two weeks I would actually go to where that meeting was but I just couldn’t get myself in that door, but after I got fired and was confronted with the truth of my alcoholism, I was able to walk through that door, and I made it to that first meeting, yeah.
0:37:11 John M: Alright, so now you go into the first meeting and tell me about that.
0:37:14 John S: You and I were talking about this during the, when you were on my podcast, I was the first one in the room, and they had the steps and the traditions on the wall. Now my big hang up, my obstacle about going to AA, I’m just now turning 26. My big obstacle was I’m just too damn young. I can’t be an alcoholic. I saw the traditions on the wall, and I saw the steps, and the first step, said, “We admitted we are powerless over alcohol. That our lives have become unmanageable.” And I thought, “Man, that is just a perfect… ” I didn’t put it in these words, but I processed it in my mind that that’s me, that’s what’s happening to me. And then that tradition, that Third Tradition that the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking. And I had that. I wanted to stop drinking because my life was impossible to live. So I felt like I was in the right place, that’s before I met my first person and then a guy came into the room, he gave me some coffee. Other people filtered in. And I don’t know if they do this in Texas, but in Kansas City in Missouri, when a newcomer, comes to a meeting, they give a First-Step meeting, which is basically everybody goes around and they share their story with that person.
0:38:29 John S: And that was really a powerful thing for me. I couldn’t say a word, I was just so shaken and I could tell they looked at me as if there was some real concern in their eyes. They could tell that I was desperate and they told their stories and the details might have been different, but the feelings about our drinking was exactly the same. I could relate to that so well. The shame, the denial, the crazy life. But the thing is, they were telling their story, as something that had happened that they were not currently involved with and I could just see, they were in suits, and they were just successful and they weren’t in the same situation as I was, they found a way out. And they immediately gave me hope and they told me to come back and I did. Those meetings were critical to me early on. I didn’t have a job or anything and I would go to five meetings a day sometimes, because John all I wanted to do was drink, still. I didn’t want to drink, but I wanted to drink.
0:39:36 John S: I was frightened about the problems that I had. I didn’t even know where to begin to tackle them. I mean, I had all these, I had this DWI that was pending, it looked like I was going to go to jail for a good long time. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have any money, I was going to lose my apartment which I eventually did. The only way I knew to shut my mind off to not worry about things was to drink but I couldn’t drink because that’s what caused me all these problems to begin with. So the only place I felt safe was in AA, and that’s why I went to so many alcoholics, anonymous meetings. It was the only way I could not drink.
0:40:11 John M: I hear you brother. I do.
0:40:13 John S: So that’s what I did. Now getting back to the religion thing too, because this is part of the story, I guess, but that first meeting, they close with the Lord’s prayer. And they do that at most meetings here, they close with the Lord’s prayer. And I remember I learned the Lord’s prayer during that time when I was reading the Bible so I knew it. I didn’t feel comfortable saying it, but I didn’t let that stop me. And that first group, they were really kind to me about that whole thing too, when they did talk about Higher Power, the Higher Power they told me not to worry about it too much. I think they knew that what I needed. They said, “You just don’t drink and go to meetings.” because that was pretty much all I could probably handle at the time. But I eventually I fell into it was suggested I go to this group, it’s called P3 and it’s a men’s group here. I don’t know why they suggested it to me and I thought, “Well that’s weird that you want me to go to an all men’s group.”
0:41:07 John M: Why is it called P3?
0:41:08 John S: It was called for performance three and there’s three areas where they perform that they put in their life. And they did it in this order. God, our fellow man, and ourselves. And it was an old Group started back in 1968 and it was a group that was very much based in the Big Book so… And sponsorship. And so what that group practiced is that you get a sponsor, and that sponsor will take you through the Big Book.
0:41:38 John S: And generally, what most of the sponsors did there is they would have you read, you would start from the very beginning, of the book, you would read the forewords and everything else. And you would read it repeatedly multiple times, and then you would get together and you would discuss it together and you would relate your own experience to what you read in the book. Looking back on it, this was actually a good experience for me. I’m glad that I learned the big book as I did. One thing I really liked about the Big Book in the very beginning was the doctor’s opinion. I like that term, entire psychic change. That was something I thought that was possible for me, because it wasn’t religious and even everything else that was being suggested to me, like praying and so forth, and I didn’t really identify John as an atheist. But I knew I just didn’t believe in God. But I just thought, “Okay I’m going to pray because I bet there’s some psychological benefit to it that just going through that process, there must be something happening that that’s beneficial.
0:42:41 John M: Okay, so even from the beginning, even coming into the program, you knew you were struggling, and a lot of people do, as you know struggle with belief in God and Higher Power and what it means to them and their conception. But you knew that even though you didn’t identify as an atheist, you knew you were kind of leaning in that direction, and you weren’t quite buying into what a lot of people were buying into in the meeting.
0:43:07 John S: Right. But I didn’t speak about that openly because everybody else was speaking openly that they were pretty sure that they had a God in their life, so I didn’t really speak about that openly, but I was trying to rationalize it all in my head. When I spoke in meetings I spoke in the way that everyone else spoke, because I got good positive vibes from everybody by doing that, and I was learning the language of Alcoholics Anonymous by reading this Big Book and studying them.
0:43:33 John M: There is a lingo.
0:43:33 John S: There is. [chuckle]
0:43:38 John M: There are certain… Like I heard somebody out in the world one day, I was actually taking a Yoga class, and the teacher up there said, they were right toward the end of it and they go, and if you want to be happy and joyous and free and I thought, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” When you hear those three words together, you know where it’s coming from. But anyway, there’s a lingo. So you were speaking in meetings.
0:44:00 John S: I was, when I very first got in my first six months or so, I really had a hard time opening up, but I did, and I was pretty honest but once I got into the Book and after about six months, I think it was, when I finally got a sponsor, and we started going through the Book I started, I don’t know, I started making sense of it, and trying to apply it in my life and when I shared in meetings, I would usually always bring something up from the Big Book, and that was pretty standard for me for quite some time. I did well at that group, I mean I haven’t had a drink since I got to my very first meeting, and my life got progressively better. One nice thing about that group is I was a young person in my current 20s anyway, and there were other people my age there, and so, we bonded and we hung out together. Even not during meetings. We’d go to movies together, we’d go to restaurants together, do things together. And so I had this fellowship, I had these good friends.
0:45:05 John S: I never had friends like that when I was drinking. That was so nice. And I loved these guys, and it meant everything for me to have this. We’ve watched football games together, we’d go to football games. Just did all kinds of things that I never did when I was drinking, so I had a good life. I mean, I struggled getting on my feet financially, but I didn’t really worry about that so much, it was like, AA was good to me. It just taught me that, how to handle handle life on life’s terms and I did that. During the first 10 years of my sobriety, I was pretty much very much into sponsoring people and working with people on the Big Book and going out to speak and going on 12-step calls.: We used to do a lot of 12-step calls in those days, going to people’s homes and taking them to the hospital and I was doing all that stuff.
0:46:01 John M: So were you doing the traditional like when you take people through the Book, you go to the Third Step and you do the “God, I offer myself to thee.” Were you doing the traditional taking people through the Big Book that way?
0:46:13 John S: Yes. I got on my knees with them and prayed. And at this time I’m praying, John every day and night, I’m doing the drill. They call it the drill here, where you wake up in the morning, you get on your knees, you ask God to give you a day of sobriety. You go to a meeting, and at the end of the day, you get on your knees and you thank that God for that day of sobriety and I think, maybe calling your sponsors in there too. But anyway, I did that drill, and I was at a point, especially during that first 10 years, anyway where it was like if I left the house and didn’t pray I had to go back and start over. [chuckle]
0:46:51 John S: I [chuckle] was that way and I don’t know if I believed or not, but I certainly talked as if I believed. I don’t know, that’s what I did, I prayed a lot. I mean, it was through prayer that I could make it without drinking, it was a useful tool for me, and I did use it and I prayed with other people. I did that during my first 10 years of sobriety. Now, interestingly, what happened after about my 10th year of sobriety, my father died unexpectedly. He had, he got this weird virus and it’s just a really weird thing you’re in the hospital, three days later, he’s dead. And…
0:47:33 John M: How old was he?
0:47:34 John S: 64. And I’m 35. I guess. That was a significant point of my life. What happened is I’m 35 years old, I’ve been sober for 10 years. I didn’t really accomplish much I had never been married, I never owned a home, I never even had a car loan, my jobs were very low paying, I never finished college, and my father died and he… And I felt like, I should have done these things so he could have been proud of me, but after he died, I started taking care of all those things, in a frenzy. I enrolled back in college, I started going to school, I eventually got a bachelor’s degree, and then I went on and got a master’s degree, I started dating a lot and with the goal of getting married and having a family. I bought a house.
0:48:35 John M: Do you think this was all because you were… Realize what your own, your mortality and you only had so much time left.
0:48:43 John S: I don’t know, it was this weird thing I almost remember like I would achieve something like graduating from college, and I would think about my father. It’s almost like I was trying to prove some… I don’t know what I was doing, but anyway it was good for me, I did well. I needed to go to school and everything, but during that time, I wasn’t going to as many meetings. Okay, during a four-year period of time, when I was going to school and so forth, and dating and everything, I was still going to meetings, and AA was still a focus of my life, but I wasn’t going to two meetings a day like I was, or a meeting a day. I might go to one or two meetings a week sometimes. So the meetings really slowed down, but I was also learning a lot and I was learning to think critically. This is probably the phase when I started thinking more outside the box when it came to the spirituality of AA. I stopped praying. I stopped praying again.
0:49:46 John M: And so what was that like? Do you remember any significant changes inside you when that happened?
0:49:52 John S: No, it’s funny, I just stopped, I just stopped doing it, I just stopped and I didn’t tell anybody I stopped. It was a really big thing at the group I went to that people would always talk about how they prayed all the time. About the drill, the drill was so important. Get on your knees at, in the morning, get on your knees at night. Well, I never had said, “Hey I don’t pray.” I never said that, but I just didn’t.
0:50:15 John M: Did you feel like, “Oh, I’m like doing something wrong here?”
0:50:17 John S: I did. I felt like I should have been telling people.
0:50:22 John M: Right like an impasse or something…
0:50:23 John S: Yeah. But I didn’t. So, anyway, after I went through period of time, I started dating, I got married and then I started picking up my meeting attendance more, but I was pretty, I don’t know, I went to this period of time where I felt like, I felt like looking back on it, I don’t know if I felt this way at the time, but looking back on it, I feel like there was a phase of my recovery probably from 10 to 20 years or whatever that second part of the 30 whatever that second third of my sobriety, I was just going through the motions. I was saying the things that I knew the people wanted to hear. After I had been sober for 25 years, I’d read some books. I read Richard Dawkins book.
0:51:12 John M: And who is Richard Dawkins? Is that a…
0:51:14 John S: He’s like a really well-known atheist.
0:51:17 John M: Okay, gotcha.
0:51:18 John S: And I can’t remember the name of his book for some dang reason. I read Christopher Hitchens who wrote, God, is not great. Anyway, these were just well-known atheist and I started thinking more about atheism and I realized that I am an atheist. I’m 25 years sober. Yeah I’m 25 years sober, at this time when I realize I’m an atheist.
0:51:42 John M: Wow.
0:51:43 John S: Yeah it was. And it frightened me to have that realization and the first thing I thought was, “How am I going to do AA? What I’m going to do?”
0:51:56 John M: That’s the first thing I thought when I found out about you being an atheist, I’m going how do they do AA, without God? So yeah, so you’re going through that thought process, and then.
0:52:05 John S: Yeah, so I grab out my trusty Big Book and I and I start reading it again. But I read it in a different way. I read it a little bit more critically, I guess and I read it with more thought about how do I really understand this? And basically what I did with it is, I went through it and I would cross out all the God references and what I discovered is by when I removed all the references to God, what was left underneath was the practical action that I had taken, and the real life experiences that I had, and I came to understand that I could do this program as an atheist, by essentially following a practical program of action.
0:52:55 John M: Yeah, so I have listened to probably eight to 10 of your podcast, and just, to get a flavor of it. I’m very intrigued by it to say the least, and when I hear the stories being told, both your stories and the stories of your guest, it does to me, it doesn’t sound that terribly different from a traditional AA story. It’s just that the deity, so to speak, and God is left out. But the process is basically the same. So I guess here’s a question, because I know there’s going to be, people listening into this, going, “Wow, how does this guy do this? How does their whole world do this, how does their whole subculture operate. So how do you get around? Okay, so you cross it out. But how do you through the steps? It’s all throughout the traditions as well, how do you practice the steps without actually participating in the God parts, so to speak?
0:54:01 John S: Okay it’s pretty easy actually [chuckle] It’s simple and what it is, okay, this is how I see the steps. The first three steps in particular, although they’re much deeper than this, but they are essentially experiences that we had. There are things that happen to us. We came to a point that we realized we were alcoholics. We gave up on the idea that we could control our drinking, we came to find hope that there was help and we made a decision to get that help. Those are the first three steps now that’s what we all have in common, and it’s an experience that we all have in common, but how we describe that experience is what is different. So one who believes in a deity, a God is going to describe this very profound experience through spiritual terminology religious language, their faith is how they’re going to express that experience. Someone who does not have a belief in a deity is going to express the same experience, I guess, in more a practical humanistic language, focusing maybe on the people that helped them.
0:55:31 John S: And I think that’s the difference, it’s how we describe the experience. But there’s more to it than that, too. Those steps I believe that the Steps, the First Step is an experience we have. But there’s a lot you can learn from it, there’s a lot you can learn from it, because you can practice the the admission of powerlessness over all kinds of problems, and I do. So I learned a lot from the experience but essentially it was an experience I had, it was that time when I was on the bridge and I was ready to jump. And then the Second Step for me was coming to believe that AA could help me. I came to believe that a power greater than myself, could restore me to sanity and that power greater than myself is Alcoholics Anonymous. And then the Third Step, so many people get hung up on the God part of it, so many people, so many atheists do and a lot of the atheist we can’t do the step. But to me, the most critical part of that third step is the decision. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over. Well, it says to God as we understood Him. But, I just turn my will and my life over, I made a decision to change is basically what the step is to me. So I made the third step for me as a decision to do the rest of the steps. So Step One is I have a problem, Step Two, is, I have hope, Step Three is I am going to do these suggested steps.
0:57:03 John M: Okay so yeah, and by the way, this is not on Sober Speak, I never want to do like a gotcha sort of interview.
0:57:13 John S: Oh no, it’s okay. [chuckle]
0:57:14 John M: And I thank God you did not have me try to explain the existence of God when I was a…
0:57:19 John S: Yeah right. [chuckle]
0:57:20 John M: I would have gotten lost in the weeds real quick. So I’m more after your experience and how you do this. So I like when you’re going through pieces of the book and you hear things like Bill’s experience, where he actually saw the light and stuff, like that, do you… How do you deal with that? Is that something you just put to the side or?
0:57:45 John S: No, remember too, that they used to make fun of Bill. They used to call his hot flash. They just make fun of Bill back in the day, too about that experience. I think, even Bill at one point made light of it, but it was a very serious, it was something that he really had. And, again, I don’t doubt he had the experience, but for me there’s a natural explanation for everything. Just because I don’t know what the explanation is, I don’t attribute it to a supernatural explanation. So there was something else that was going on, to him, it could have been emotion, it could have been the drugs that he was coming off of during the detox process but something definitely happened and he had this… And I’ve had experiences like this where it’s like, “Wow, it’s a revelation.
0:58:33 John M: Revelation.
0:58:33 John S: Revelation, I guess. You realize something that you hadn’t realized before. For me it’s because of some emotional trauma that I’m coming out of, and I’m getting hope and it’s a wonderful feeling, it’s a great experience it’s a great human experience. And Bill described it through supernatural. That was his explanation. So I have no problem with that. Now, I don’t really use the Big Book as much as I used to. In fact, there’s one chapter, I had to re-write the chapter to the Agnostics, I rewrote it in my own language.
0:59:06 John M: Really? And so, you re-write it and then that’s what you use to sponsor guys or? So, let’s talk about AA Beyond Belief. And so I’m assuming your podcast which is called AA Beyond Belief, and it took me a while to figure out what the title was and I could be wrong, but in other words you’re saying AA Beyond Belief in God, what you can do with the program.
0:59:34 John S: Right, right, the belief is irrelevant is how I see the program, the belief, if you believe in God, that’s wonderful, but it’s not necessary. And we can focus on recovery, leaving the belief part aside.
0:59:52 John M: Right.
0:59:53 John S: That’s what we do anyway.
0:59:54 John M: And as I told you on your podcast, so from my perspective okay. I, anybody who’s going to use the steps to improve their life and better their life and move along their life and recover from alcoholism my gosh, if they want to put a different spin on it than traditionalist do it, I’m good for it. And I’ve heard people on your podcast having… They struggle with our local intergroups, getting accepted to and being listed as a group, and I just want to say this publicly from my perspective, Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s a self-cleansing type of organization. If it’s not going to get traction, and nobody cares about it, it’s going to go away.
1:00:47 John S: That’s right.
1:00:48 John M: By the same token, if somebody really struggles with the God piece, and they are an atheist, and they want to use the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in order to get sober, I want them to have an option, I don’t want them to be left out there on the curb. And so I was just thinking about this today, so I know that you had been in the program for a long time, 25 years, and then you came to this realization that you are an atheist, on the flip side of that, have you known anybody who came in as an atheist, maybe started in your group that you have in Kansas City and flipped the other way?
1:01:28 John S: Yes. Well, oh you mean going to belief?
1:01:30 John M: Yes, correct.
1:01:31 John S: No.
1:01:32 John M: Not yet.
1:01:33 John S: I don’t know.
1:01:34 John M: Okay, well.
1:01:34 John S: They exist but they don’t probably come to our meeting. Interestingly enough, that we do have believers come to our meetings who prefer even though they believe in God, they prefer to leave that outside of their recovery.
1:01:50 John M: And let’s just back up here a second, I don’t think we ever got to the point, because I interrupted you, that you and somebody else. I believe, started a meeting in the Kansas City area. And what’s the name of the meeting again?
1:02:03 John S: We Agnostics.
1:02:03 John M: We Agnostics. And it is specifically for what you would call free-thinkers, atheists, agnostics. And they come to that meeting to practice.
1:02:12 John S: It’s a special interest meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous like gay groups, or young people’s groups, it’s a special interest group. So anybody is welcome. You don’t have to be an atheist or agnostic to go to these meetings.
1:02:25 John M: Do you have many people who are believers that come to your meeting?
1:02:29 John S: We have a few, we have a few, but most of us are Atheist or Agnostic and to be honest with you, we needed to have this meeting because at other meetings, either subtly or overtly we’re made to feel that we don’t belong. And I was made to feel that way at my old home group that I went to for 25 years, all of a sudden when I started speaking about the program in this new understanding that I had of it.
1:02:57 John S: I would be corrected. The one time when I realized I needed to get a divorce from my old home group, the meeting had to do about this phrase, this line from the Big Book that, “Some day the time and place will come, when no human power will be able to help you and you have to rely on God,” something like that. I said at the meeting, I said, “No, that’s not true, for me, because there is no God. And so far, people have not failed me.” I can’t even imagine how… Unless I’m on some desert island, somewhere where am I not going to be able to get in touch with an alcoholic? I got the internet. I’ve got cell phones. Yeah, so I have not yet had the fellowship fail me, but people were really upset with me. They said no. There are some things you have to have, without some higher power it’s… ” [chuckle] So that’s when I decided to go ahead and start this group and there’s a need for it. And when we started the group, we would find people who were having the same difficulty at meetings where they just didn’t feel like they could be honest about how they experienced the program.
1:04:11 John S: And so they found a sanctuary I guess, in our group, and it’s similar to when they started the gay groups one reason for that is that they needed, the gays and lesbians, they needed to have a place where they could meet where they could talk about their life openly, their relationships and so forth openly. And they didn’t feel comfortable doing that at regular meetings. Well, we have the same need here, so we started gathering together. When we first started, I think it was people that had this experience of difficulty in AA, so they came, so they start coming to our meetings but then we started getting people who would not go to AA whatsoever, because of their perception of it being religious, so they would come to our meeting and we’ve got a lot of people now, younger people in particular who have never been to any other sort of AA meeting. Now our meeting is the same as any meeting. The only difference is that we don’t open and close with a prayer. We open the meeting with the reading the AA preamble, and we close by saying thank you for coming.
1:05:18 John M: Do you read how it works and such like that?
1:05:19 John S: No, we do not. How it works, it’s not a good thing for us. [chuckle] You know it’s funny, I once led a meeting at our area assembly, in Kansas City Missouri, and I love our area assembly and of course there’s believers, there this is Missouri, and they said, “Aren’t you going to start to be by reading how it works?” I say, “No, I’m not.” I hate that reading. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the Big Book, but I put it in the context of its time, a historical context. So in 1939, when these people were coming out of the Oxford Group, that made perfect sense but in the 21st century, it doesn’t make sense. There is one who has all power, that one is God. Now, you find Him, now. When I used to go to my old group, when I started getting a little bit more open about it, when they would read that I said, “Or not. May you find Him now, or not.” So no I don’t like how it works. We do not read how it works, but we just start, you when I was first starting out, there were a lot of groups that didn’t read how it works when they started their meetings. But now it seems like almost every group does but every group would always open the meeting with the preamble. So we do open the meeting, Alcoholics Anonymous is the fellowship of men and woman, who share their experience, strength and hope with each other, that they may solve their common problem and help others, recover from alcoholism.
1:06:46 John M: So here’s another thing I’m interested in, so you have mentioned the word religious many times, but as you know, there are many people in Alcoholics Anonymous right now who say, there’s a big thing about, “We’re not religious, we’re spiritual,” and all that sort of stuff, so they don’t like to attach themselves to any “religions” as well. So when you say religious are you thinking spiritual in and the same?
1:07:16 John S: I put the two together, and it’s really true what you say. When I was going to my group, I don’t think the majority of people even went to church, but they closed every meeting with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. And I think that’s a religious practice. I don’t think it’s appropriate even, and I don’t participate in it anymore, if I ever go to a meeting that does that.
1:07:40 John M: So speaking of, do you go to meetings that are non, are traditional?
1:07:46 John S: I don’t, I don’t. But I don’t have to. We have eight meetings a week, now that are secular here, in Kansas City.
1:07:53 John M: Really? And is that that one group?
1:08:00 John S: We have three different groups now. We have three groups, we have We Agnostics that meets Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. We have Free Thinkers, which meets Monday and Wednesday.
1:08:11 John M: And by the way, what’s the difference between a free thinker and an… Is it just a…
1:08:16 John S: There’s no difference really.
1:08:18 John M: Okay.
1:08:18 John S: I don’t even know where the term free-thinker comes from. I guess, it came from this guy, in England. And a free thinker is basically someone who doesn’t accept the common orthodoxy of religion or whatever, so that’s a free thinker, I suppose, but we’re all pretty much atheist agnostic. And anyway we have the Secular Speaker meeting. But something that people might be interested in knowing is, even amongst us atheist there’s a lot of diversity in how we approach the program and how we deal with spirituality. There are some atheists, who are very comfortable with having a spiritual program and using spiritual terminology it’s very important to them.
1:09:00 John M: Oh now you’re really confusing me.
1:09:03 John S: Yeah, it can get very confusing. We run the gamut where we have one sort of atheist that has absolutely no use for the steps at so ever, they don’t even want to interpret them in a secular way. They think, “No, I don’t need it. For me all I need is… [chuckle]
1:09:20 John M: Okay well hold on. I have to ask that. So if they have no use for the steps, what are they doing in a AA meeting? So to speak.
1:09:29 John S: Because AA is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope.
1:09:35 John M: Gotcha so they’re for the fellowship, meet like-minded individuals.
1:09:40 John S: They have their idea is that the steps are suggested and not suggested in the way that I suggest you put your parachute on when you jump out of the plane. But they’re suggested as an option. But we are primarily a fellowship that help each other stay sober and that’s how they see it. They have no use for the steps they don’t do them. But now I think [chuckle] I think a lot of the steps kind of work you anyway. Now I’m a big believer in the steps because of my background. So I think that, I think a lot of people who don’t formally work the steps by going to meetings, you end up doing a lot of them anyway, you open up, you get honest, you do some soul searching, you do a little inventory, a lot of the stuff kind of just seeps into you anyway. But no, there are atheists that don’t have anything to do with the steps, then you have those like me and I think that I represent the majority of atheists in AA, where we still want to interpret the steps in our own language. That’s how most of us feel, but it’s a secular interpretation without a spiritual component. But then we have another group of atheists who are very spiritual, some even pray. But they don’t believe that they’re praying to a God.
1:10:56 John M: What do they think they’re praying to?
1:11:00 John S: They’re praying as an affirmation. Some of them even have universal thing, whatever, but they consider themselves atheists. So we have this, wide degree, so you can’t really pin us down but I think that I fall somewhere in the middle. I think that most people are like me where they still believe in the steps and they want to find a way to work them without supernatural language or belief.
1:11:31 John M: Okay, so let me ask you a question. So let’s say tomorrow I come to the We Agnostics Group in Kansas City, and I hear John speaking in meeting, John S you and I think, “Okay, I want John to sponsor me. This guy seems like he has what I want. So you start sponsoring me. And what are the differences between how the traditional sponsorship would work versus what you would do with somebody? Just a thumbnail sketch of it.
1:12:04 John S: Yeah, well, what’s interesting, and this is really interesting for me to growing up with the Big Book in AA. Remember I’ve been in AA for the majority of my life. We don’t use the Big Book. And I think one reason is I had, at one time, the Big Book weaponized against me. People would quote The Big Book, to show me, where I was wrong. Because of that, I was turned off by it, and I am feeling now, a tug to go back to it because I think it’s important. I think it’s an important foundational document of our fellowship and I think that atheists need to understand it in its historical context, because our groups exists because of that book. That book is our history too. In fact, there were atheists, involved with writing that book. I think it’s important for us to understand that book and I want to bring it back somehow, to our group, but to answer your question, I do sponsor people. I haven’t sponsored a lot of them, and we still go through the steps. There is literature out there written by atheist in AA that we use, that have secular interpretations of the steps. One of them, it’s a new book that was coincidentally written by a guy named Bill W but is not the Bill W. It’s called the 12 Secular Steps.
1:13:27 John S: And he does a pretty good job laying out the steps in a secular way. And then there’s the alternative steps book. Marya Hornbacher wrote a really good book called, oh I’m spacing out on it now. Marya Hornbacher wrote a really brilliant book that we sometimes use as well. It’s pretty spiritual, though. But yeah, so we use outside literature, which some people in AA say, “You can’t use outside literature.” But nah you can, just because something is conference-approved, doesn’t mean that other things are not approved [chuckle] You could read anything you want to. So we do read outside literature and from outside literature in our meeting because the AA literature, doesn’t work for us so much. Now, one reason I’m involved in general service is I want AA to update its literature of the program of recovery in a way that is available to both the believer and a non-believer and is using language of the 21th century, rather than the 20th century.
1:14:21 John M: So what sort of suggestions are you making in that arena? Update what literature?
1:14:28 John S: The Big Book. Well, put it this way, Don’t change the Big Book, leave the Big Book as it is, it’s history. But let’s write a new book for our time, in our language. We are Alcoholics Anonymous, we should, in my opinion, should be building on the foundation that was laid for us. We shouldn’t just be tied to that book from the 1930s and try to force it on people of the 21st century. I know people that look at that book and it makes no sense to them the language is just so bizarre and it would be nice if we could have in our, we members of Alcoholics Anonymous write something for the people of today and if we did that I think we should do it in a way that is respectful of people of all beliefs. I think there should be room for the person who wants to express their recovery and experience their recovery in a spiritual way, with a belief in a higher power, that we should sure respect and honor that, but we should also respect and honor those who want to express their recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous without the spiritual language or the Deity and in an entirely secular way.
1:15:44 John S: And our current literature, of course, because it was written coming out the Oxford group, doesn’t do that, but it’s certainly possible to write a new book. Alcoholics Anonymous should write a new book that is neutral on the question that says, “Hey we’re all sorts of people now. And they messed up on the week chapter of the agnostics because they wrote it like saying, “Hey if you’re an agnostic, you can do this too, but they were trying to convert us in that chapter. And I’ll send you the version that I wrote. The version I wrote is like, “Hey I’m really an atheist, and this is how I do it, but I’d certainly do respect your experience and I value that, but this is my experience and it’s not that different.”
1:16:32 John M: Yeah give me a link to that if you have one, and I can put it in the show notes. I don’t know. You know what I was thinking of while you were talking about, that would a pamphlet would be a better start, if you will.
1:16:45 John S: We have a good pamphlet, now, the General Service Conference just approved the God word pamphlet and this is a pamphlet that was originated by The General Service Office of Great Britain. And my group actually wrote the Trustee, Literature Trustee Committee and asked that they put forward on the General Service Conference, that AA World Services Adopt The God Word pamphlet and the conference approved that pamphlet and…
1:17:15 John M: What’s it called The God Word?
1:17:16 John S: The God word. And it’s published now and basically, I… Yeah, it says The God Word and… And this is published by Alcoholics anonymous, it’s the God word agnostic and atheist members in AA and it’s a pamphlet that has the experience of Atheist and Agnostics in AA has the universe as my higher power, for example, an atheist and recovery Dean story, all these different stories of people who experienced AA as non-believers. And this is conference-approved, so we do have this now. And I’m proud of the fact that my group was part of the process of getting this approved they… When they forwarded the background material to all the delegates of the General Service Conference, they forwarded the letter that our GSR sent. So they said on behalf of the we Agnostics group in Kansas City Missouri we’re asking that you do this. But that there were other area assemblies though that also voted for this. So this is accepted. The wonderful thing about that, about AA is I can get pretty passionate sometimes, and I could probably argue with people too. But by and large, we really get along, and I love my area simply and unless I start talking about the big book with them and some of the things I’ve said here, might be sacrilege to some people like write a new book.
1:18:36 John M: Yeah.
1:18:36 John S: No.
1:18:36 John M: Or how it works. We don’t read that.
1:18:39 John S: Oh yeah. Are you crazy.
1:18:40 John M: I was just picture and people listening in their cars, or wherever…
1:18:44 John S: I know and I can make people mad too, and I just take it as like, oh yeah it’s normal right but I remember when it would bother me too.
1:18:53 John S: As far as I’m concerned, I, it helps when something happens in a meeting that is a little off kilter if you will, right? And somebody says something that I don’t agree with. Well, it helps me to solidify or crystallize what I believe in my world, and so if it is causing me some sort of upset, it’s time for me to go inside and look at me and think about why do I believe that and I like the questions, and I’m much different. I tell you what, if we’d had this interview, 25 years ago or so. I think it’d be a much different interview is. Both from my perspective and your perspective so. Alright, so why don’t you go ahead and tell people about your podcast and how to access and I’ll put a link to it in the show notes as well.
1:19:42 John M: Well thank you, AA beyond belief. And we started this in September of 2015, and the website was really we were encouraged to do it by Roger C. From Hamilton, Ontario and he has a website called AA Agnostica. He was planning on retiring, and he asked me to start up a site to replace it. Well, he ended up not retiring, which is cool. So now we got his side and my side, but the podcast I absolutely love it. And we’ve now gone past 100 episodes, and they’re similar to your podcast. We focus on personal stories that evolve into conversations. Most of the guests are agnostics or atheists and they come from that perspective.
1:20:24 John S: Most of them, but one of them is not… [chuckle]
1:20:26 John M: One of them is not. Yeah. We had one that wasn’t. [chuckle] Yeah. And then we also will interview like authors who’ve written books and things like that, and it’s just a lot of fun and you can find it on anywhere that you download podcast, iTunes or any app that you use for podcast in our website aabeyondbelief.org Yeah.
1:20:48 John S: Yeah, John you’re a really great guy. I am so sorry, you’re going to hell. But it was really nice to meet you.
1:20:57 John M: I know that reminds me.
1:21:00 John S: I’m sorry I had to do that. Alright, so that’s where you can find John. Yeah I’ve really enjoyed our time together, John, I appreciate it. In fact, I’ve gone longer than I generally go.
1:21:15 John M: I’ve enjoyed this conversation very much.
1:21:17 John S: Yeah, like I said, I consider you a new friend, and…
1:21:21 John M: Yeah me too.
1:21:22 John S: And so anyway, we will be in touch. God bless you, my friend.
1:21:25 John M: Yeah thank you.
1:21:26 John S: And I’ll talk to you soon. Okay.
1:21:27 John M: Thanks a lot, appreciate it John.
1:21:28 John S: Bye-bye.