Episode 114: Who We Really Are – A Determined Atheist’s View

This episode features a conversation with John H. from the We Agnostics Group in Washington, DC. John, who describes himself as a “determined atheist” is of the opinion that the Secular AA organization should sever its ties to traditional AA, and he explains his reasoning in this discussion.

John is a talented writer whose work can be found at his personal website john-huey.com, and Atheistic AA. There are also numerous audio recordings of his talks, presentations, and podcasts. What follows are links to some of these: 

John H. “Relevance of the 12 Steps” 

AA Beyond  Belief Podcast Episode 90

AA Beyond Belief Podcast Episode 3

Transcript

00:00 John S: Welcome to the AA Beyond Belief. This is episode 114.

[music]

00:24 John S: My guest for this episode is John H. from the We Agnostics Group in Washington DC. Late last week, I sent John an email to ask if he would join me on the podcast. A few days later, we had this conversation that you’re about to hear. John is passionate about helping atheists who are suffering from alcoholism and he has strong opinions about the Secular AA organization and its relationship with traditional AA. Knowing this and wanting to better understand his views, I was delighted when he agreed to this interview.

01:00 John S: Well, John, thank you for agreeing to speak with me tonight. I was interested in talking with you actually, because you have an idea, and I don’t want to misrepresent it, I want you to let me know what it is, but it sounds to me that you are of the opinion that those of us who are involved with Secular AA meetings might be wise to just branch out on our own and leave AA. Do I have that right?

01:31 John H: Well, in general, John, you have it right, but let me frame it properly because I’m aware that anything I say on a subject this controversial is going to be prone to be misinterpreted. So, I want to be… I’ll take a couple of minutes to be sort of clear about where I’m coming from. The first thing is, I want to be very clear, I will make my usual disclaimer statement. Anything I say here is just my opinion, it doesn’t reflect agreement or disagreement with any people who might be friends of mine, or people I go to meetings with, or people I publish pieces with or anything like that. This is just me. I only represent myself and I don’t represent anyone else or anyone else’s opinions, these are just my own. I just need to say that to be very clear because some of the content may be sort of controversial. The next thing I wanted to say at the outset is that I do not hate AA per se, okay?

[chuckle]

02:43 John H: I am not an Orange Papers contributor, alright?

02:47 John S: Okay.

02:47 John H: I’m not looking for grand conspiracies, all right? Or I’m not saying that people should not go to AA meetings if that’s what they need and want to do. I sat in enough conventional AA meetings over 30 years to know that it really, really works in the conventional way as it’s written in “The Big Book” and the 12 Steps for lots and lots of people. I’m not going to denigrate or deny those recoveries. Those are real recoveries and I don’t have any innings there. What I have seen though, and on the flip side, I have seen people walk away from AA, go out, continue drinking and die, I’ve seen that. The primary reason I’ve noted for that is the reason that’s often remarked in the secular world, the religious content of Alcoholics Anonymous is in fact toxic for a certain percentage of people.

03:55 John H: Now, I realize that there are some people, even within our secular community who really need some of the principles, and precepts, and ideas embodied in the 12 Steps. I categorically reject the 12 Steps, I have nothing to do with it personally. Going on 33 years of sobriety, I’ve never found them useful at all in any context or I should say hardly at all in any context ever, and that’s from my first earliest days of association with it. But I know that there are many people who do not share that experience who maybe grew up in conventional AA. I know you’re one of the people who were, at one time or another, was a true believer.

04:51 John S: Yeah.

04:52 John H: So you say, and I know many people like that. I also know others who were hardcore atheists from the first day, like myself. But I don’t want to be perceived as denigrating any individuals who find versions of that conventional stuff useful. I have my reasons for not dealing with that. If anybody was interested.  And I’m not going to use our time going into all that stuff again, I gave a workshop in Toronto that’s on your website, it’s “John H 12 Steps” or some such thing. It’s easy to find. You put it up, it’s on Atheistic AA as well and I’ve got it on my own web page if anybody wants to go there. I go into great detail about this whole steps business and what I found out, okay?

05:50 John S: Okay.

05:50 John H: Now, I got to a point with conventional meetings, and this went on for years, and years, and years. I was very lucky given my opinions that I had of AA, I was lucky that a secular meeting was started in September 1988 and basically saved my life when I was ready to go out because I was so disgusted with what I was hearing in conventional meetings. I was very lucky on that score, but even with the conventional meetings, I was very lucky with a location in which I went to conventional meetings. I went to conventional meetings in Northwest Washington. Our friend Gregg could bear this out for you. I know you haven’t been here that much, but Gregg knows all about this, where the tenor of the conventional meetings in Northwest Washington DC, due to the profile of the people who attend them in general, is very liberal, very open. I experienced very little of the shunning and the bad things that people report by coming out as atheists in other parts of the country.

07:03 John H: I was very fortunate in that regard, so it was relatively easy for me to sort of slide in and have friendships in conventional AA, and actually, it was sort of good for me at the beginning because I did form some friendships that have lasted all those years. There are people who didn’t drink and didn’t die who I still communicate with regularly. Just last week I was communicating with a friend of mine who I’ve known nearly 30 years about another friend of ours who unfortunately after a number of years of sobriety is out on a very desperate slip. It’s going on… I won’t go into that, but it’s a very serious life-threatening situation. We were working and thinking together about how and what we could do to help someone.

07:52 John H: So, even now some of those folks are still… He’s a very devout Christian in his own way, but we are good personal friends, so I’m not going into the religion bashing or the people bashing business but what I am about to say is, is that I finally came to the conclusion that I was a hypocrite, that by sitting in those meetings in the very framework of those meetings that I wasn’t being honest, fully honest with myself because when I critically analyzed the content and ritualistic behavior and the readings, and the desire to have step meetings and the desire to have Big Book meetings, and all the stuff that went with it, I really wasn’t being honest, being a part of that fellowship.

08:48 John S: Okay, you’re talking about traditional AA meetings.

08:50 John H: Correct.

08:51 John S: Okay.

08:51 John H: Traditional AA meetings. So as a personal decision, a year or so ago, I quit, I left, I will never attend another conventional AA meeting.

09:01 John S: Okay.

09:02 John H: So, technically I’m not a member of that AA anymore.

09:06 John S: Okay.

09:07 John H: But I very much consider myself to be a member of what is now called Secular AA.

09:14 John S: Okay.

09:15 John H: And in the process of thinking about what Secular AA is and isn’t, I came to the same conclusion about Secular AA that I did about my own personal involvement in AA proper. Because when I look at what I hear most people in Secular AA talk about and say they believe, I find myself… You’re going to find this very amusing, I find myself with a set of agreements with some of the things I’ve heard our buddy, Clancy, from the Pacific Group say. Clancy very, very definitively and definitely says, “If you don’t believe in God, you’re not a member of AA.” He goes further and says, I’m sure you’ve heard this stuff, “Well, you’re not really sober or you’re not a real alcoholic or… “

10:16 John S: Yeah, I’ve heard that crap.

10:17 John H: He goes on and on from there. And then the Joe and Charlie Show, and the Ghost of Sandy Beach, and all that other craziness. I came across that quote from Clancy somewhere. I normally don’t pay any attention to really insane cults like the Pacific Group.

10:35 John S: Right.

10:35 John H: That’s just a level of insanity. I don’t even want to begin to talk about it, that stuff is just completely wacky, a bunch of whack jobs like the Sandy Beach cult was when he was alive here. And I said, “You know, Clancy’s right.” If you don’t believe in God, you have to reject religion. I firmly believe, and this is another thing that I’m sure will set some people off, but it’s my personal belief that AA is a religion first, last, and always.

11:10 John S: Well, the courts have ruled it as such, haven’t they?

11:14 John H: Well, that’s what it is. If you listen to my chat on the Steps that I had in Toronto, I talk about what the Oxford Group was doing in the early ’30s before Wilson and Smith were even sober themselves is exactly in line with what they did. I refer to it as the Oxford Group 12 Steps, which is what it is, and that’s a religion, and I reject it.

So, I’m saying, and this is a very difficult part of this discussion because the initials “AA” have become so synonymous with the world of recovery, that the merest thought of rejecting those initials gives people the heebie-jeebies, and people totally freak out if they get delisted like the Toronto controversy and some of the others in this country that we’re very well aware. I understand that because AA does have sort of a monopoly on a big chunk of what’s called recovery in the United States and around the world. That’s just a fact.

12:29 John H: Now, there’s a lot of reactions against that in medical models growing up that challenge that assumption, and AA is being assaulted from without in all kinds of ways because of their doctrinaire religious approach to all of this. I’m not intending on going after them in that particular regard, all I’m doing is saying in my own view is that what we have is a sort of a cognitive dissonance, almost a schizophrenia, as regards AA because if we are ostensibly secular, how can we identify ourselves as part of a religion? I don’t know how you react to that, but I really don’t think there’s any logical connection between a secular person and religion. Do you have any thoughts you want to…

13:29 John S: Well, it’s interesting the way you view this. The way I view it, I agree with you to a large extent. I actually personally have used AA as a religion. I was never much of a believer of God, but AA was my religion, there’s no doubt about that, and  I’ve seen other people do the same thing. I reject that now, I’m an atheist like you. I guess the way I view it is because of group autonomy, AA to me is an individual group, so if some group in Alabama wants to talk about Jesus all day long and preach the Steps, that’s that group. If my group chooses to be secular and not read from the Big Book and not pray then that’s AA for my group. But we still have this umbrella organization that groups fall under, so you have the Jesus group and you have my atheist group.

14:33 John H: Right. Right, right, right. And no matter what anybody says; me, you or the board of directors of whoever or whatever, each individual member has complete autonomy to do what she or he needs to do as regards their recovery program. I don’t think anybody would advocate sort of laying down a path particularly in the secular world, laying down a path for a member. Likewise, if a group in New York City wants to affiliate one way and a group in Kansas City wants to affiliate another way, I don’t think anybody would propose interfering with or even having an opinion on what that individual group decided to do in terms of affiliation. There is nothing to prevent a group or an individual from being affiliated with more than one group.

15:34 John S: That’s right.

15:35 John H: Okay? There’s nothing to prevent that. And I’m saying that if we’re going to hold ourselves out, I know people right now who are ready to leave the secular part of our program because of this issue. I know people who have left us because of this issue because they say, “Oh, all they are is AA light,” and they take the identification that the national organization has very seriously. When I try to explain this autonomy stuff that you talked about, the feedback I get is, “Well, this AA stuff is not for me.”

Now, my primary orientation, and I’ve said this before in articles and elsewhere, my primary personal orientation is about atheists, self-identified atheists. I do not have a lot of opinions about people who identify as theists, Buddhist, agnostics, whatever. I don’t relate to that at all, and I’m a life-long atheist from age 12. I’ve never considered any of those others, meditation, all that other stuff. I never personally had any consideration for any of that stuff at all, it’s basically meaningless to me.

17:04 John H: So if people want to go and do that, I don’t have any problem with that. What I’m worried about is the hardcore atheist that is so revolted by this religious affiliation that the initials “AA” imply and could be so revolted by the… I’ve been in secular meetings where people have recited a version of the 12 Steps. I’ve been in a secular meeting where they started up with a meditation thing and I had to walk out. Okay?

17:37 John S: Right. See, I wouldn’t like that either.

17:39 John H: Well, I’ve seen it, I could tell you where… I’m not going to go into the geographic locations.

17:43 John S: No, that’s okay. I know there are different groups who do things differently. 

17:45 John H: I think we know the geographic area where this is very common, but I’m not going to go into that, but I’ve seen that and I’ve seen recent programs for conferences and such that are not our national conference, they just blow my mind with all of that stuff.

18:01 John S: Now, you said something that’s interesting to me, you said there are people who are leaving Secular AA, but what exactly are they leaving?

18:09 John H: Well, they’re looking for a solution that does not have the initials AA attached to it.

18:16 John S: Okay, I see, I see. So, even if they have a group, like my group for example, we don’t read the Big Book, we don’t pray, I think it’s a very secular group, but it also has the AA initials, we’re Alcoholics Anonymous.

18:35 John H: Yes, some people react to that, but some people say, “I look at the coffee shop and all it is is a bunch of stuff about spirituality, a lot of it”.

18:46 John S: Yeah, yeah.

18:47 John H: Okay? And they get… I’m not going to go into that, alright? I’m too old to quit, alright? So, if I was younger, maybe I would have a different opinion on all of that, but I’m staying put until I drop dead, and I’m trying to come up with a way to mediate because I think our national organization…

What happened in Santa Monica, going on six years ago now, that what happened there is, or was it five years? Five years ago. What happened there was just extraordinary, because we finally, these disparate lonely groups of isolated atheists or whatever else they called themselves, came together and knew that we could do it together, and that was really important to me. Doing it together is really important to me and within the envelope of this autonomy that people obviously have, I got a little bit tired of hearing a lot of crap directed at me it’s like, “Oh, you’re angry. Oh, you’re negative. Oh, you’re this or you’re that.”

19:57 John S: Yeah. Right.

19:57 John H: What are you going to tell me that’s positive? So, that’s when I started writing this most recent series of articles in Atheistic AA, about what I really think my program or what I think a rational version of the program is. I’ve written three of five articles. I’m not trying to write a book about this or anything because I’m certainly not going to sell anything to my fellow alcoholics unlike some others. But the first three articles, the first one was about making a decision, making a firm and determined decision about your alcoholism, which I feel is an absolutely vital moment in time that if you don’t have, it’s going to be very difficult to recover.

20:49 John H: Then I wrote about meetings and the importance of going to meetings and what meetings mean to you, particularly in early sobriety. But even now, going on 33 years later, meetings still mean a lot to me, they help me with issues in my life that are very different from the issues I had when I was 38 years old. The issues you have when you are 70 are different than the issues you had when you were 38. And hopefully, you’ve developed as a person and some of your adolescent angst has finally dissipated. So, that’s what the meetings do for me, they helped me in my life.

Then that engine that drives the meeting, which is the sharing, the sharing of the experience between alcoholics is so incredibly important. The last two articles that I’m going to write, which I haven’t written yet, but I have sort of outlines of is the… I feel that it’s very important for us to talk about the idea of abstinence. I think that abstinence, at least in the public realm, is coming under some scrutiny and people are questioning it, but I just don’t see a program of recovery without abstinence. I’m an advocate of 100% abstinence from alcohol, and I want to talk about that and some of the reasons for that.

22:22 John H: Then the thing, the last thing, the thing that really brings it together, and even for me and my broken down soon to be very old age, I’m still trying to figure out ways, when the opportunity presents itself, to help another alcoholic which really cements your sobriety. Now, you will notice there are elements in here, right? These elements, many of these elements I learned from AA, right?

22:54 John S: Right.

22:54 John H: That’s ironic to state, okay? I learned those elements from attending those early conventional AA meetings in 1987 and then of course, my education continued apace when our two inspired founders of our meeting that’s still ongoing here, the We Agnostics meeting in DC, founded that meeting in September of ’88. I learned about how to stay sober within sort of a context that might be referred to as AA. But I grew up, I got old enough and I got honest enough to finally say that the overriding tenor of what this thing called AA is, is as a religion, full stop, period, the end.

23:49 John S: So, let’s say that we decided, everybody, all these secular AA groups that are all over the world right now, let’s say they all decided, “Okay, let’s get this AA out of our name. We’re now going to be Secular Recovery, we’re not going to be… “

24:07 John H: Right, that’s a logical… That is the only logical name for what we actually are.

24:12 John S: So, if we do that, how is that going to change anything? I mean…

24:18 John H: Well, it’s going to change our statement of purpose, which is not to kowtow and be subservient to the General Service Office in New York, to be more worried about the AA International Convention than we are about our own very excellent upcoming convention in 2020 in DC, and to not spend as much time masticating and massaging and dealing with AA literature, that is virtually meaningless to many of our members, that maybe we’ll be able to focus and help people get more focused on what we’re really all about, which is recovery from alcoholism and addiction, not dealing with the minutiae of somebody else’s alien organization, which is what it… To me it’s like a bunch of Martians that I have to do translations from, alright?

25:27 John S: Well, I think that our dislike of AA literature is pretty much agreed upon for most of us. Now, there are some exceptions I guess. Some people might like that “God Word” pamphlet, some don’t, but pretty much universally, we all pretty much reject the Big Book, that doesn’t speak to us, the “12 and 12”, doesn’t speak to us. I think that’s one thing the secular groups have in common, we don’t use those books, we don’t worship those books like traditional AA does.

25:57 John H: People within our… When that “God Word” pamphlet came out and then that ridiculous Grapevine thing, that One Big Tent book came out, there were people that were actually worshipping those things. When I had the temerity to write… I wrote, the reviews are up on Atheistic AA, if anybody wants to take a look at ’em or I’ll… I refute both of those publications and one person who will remain nameless, who I thought was totally unflappable, became almost unhinged with me because I had the temerity to criticize this ridiculous “God Word” thing from the United Kingdom. I won’t go into the particulars of that. I wrote those articles, and anybody that would be interested can look and see.

26:48 John S: So, what I’m thinking about that John is like, okay, so all these groups already, most all of our groups, our secular AA groups, don’t already, don’t bother with AA literature, so I mean, how is not being… So, we’re our own thing now, we’re Secular Recovery. We’re no longer AA, we’re still not bothering with AA literature. I guess the only difference is, we don’t have that connection to the General Service Conference? 

27:14 John H: And that, as a formal kind of thing because that’s not what we are. We are not them. In general, we are something else, but that doesn’t take away anybody out in the hinterlands or anywhere who feels this emotional connection to these initials from dealing with them.

27:36 John S: I will tell you this, there is a disconnect between us and traditional AA people. I’ve gotten to the point I think where you are, where I cannot tolerate a traditional AA meeting, I can’t stand it. If I sit and talk with a person who is in traditional AA and they talk about their recovery and it’s usually by quoting from the Big Book and talking about God, I just cannot relate to them. They just… I don’t want any… It’s not for me, okay? It’s totally not for me.

So, there’s already kind of a division just socially, I guess, that I can’t relate to those people and I guess they can’t relate to me. So, that’s why they have their groups and we have our groups. But do you think… I guess maybe what I’m thinking is that, what happens if one day the number of secular AA groups outnumber these other types of groups. What do you think that can…

[overlapping conversation]

28:40 John H: Number one, we live in the United States of America, not Sweden, Norway, or Denmark, or Finland, okay? That will never happen in the United States of America or I believe in Canada. That just won’t happen. We’re not going to be demographically significant enough to change a religious organization like AA from within. That would be like me joining the Baptists, and trying to get the Baptist Convention to change. It’s just ludicrous.

29:14 John S: So, a few years ago, I had this thought that someday we would need to get a divorce from AA. [chuckle] That someday, it would just get to the point where the differences are irreconcilable and we would just have to do our own thing, we’d have to start our own service organization and everything.

29:34 John H: Yeah, well, that’s what we’ve done, John.

29:37 John S: Yeah, I guess in a way we have. We got our own meetings listed and all that kind of stuff.

29:42 John H: Yeah, Courtney tells me we’ve got 500 listed meetings, and we’ve got an ever growing internet presence. We have independent outfits like yours, getting lots and lots of hits, and people reading lots and lots of articles, and listening to things like this. And I think in the… I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it, that’s why I’m going to just talk about the timelines here because the process of growing up, becoming an adult is lengthy, and people grow up at different rates. This organization is sort of analogous to a probably sort of still sort of an unruly teenager struggling to become a member of the adult world.

When we fully grow up and we have the infrastructure to negate this AA, I want to see a day where any alcoholic in the world hits those buttons on Google and the words “Alcoholics Anonymous” and the words “Secular Recovery” come up at the top of the feed, and that people will be able to make a choice and not think that their only option is to go to this thing called AA. I think that time is rapidly approaching. Maybe not in my time, but certainly in the time of the younger people that are in the program now.

31:13 John S: So, I would say the majority of people who attend meetings at my group are new to Alcoholics Anonymous, they have not been to a traditional AA meeting, they wouldn’t go to traditional AA meeting, they came to our group because we were secular, specifically for that reason. I don’t even know if they even think about or even care whether or not it’s AA. We call ourselves “Alcoholics Anonymous” and we read the preamble and so forth, and some of them work the Steps, some of them don’t. It just seems like we’re in AA, but we’re still doing our own thing, and people who want our secular meeting will find us.

31:49 John H: Well, let me turn it around a bit on you at the end. What good does AA do us now? What good are they to us? What use are they to us?

31:58 John S: That is a good point, John, and I tell you what, I’m kind of wondering myself. I got involved with the General Service Conference, actually, the Area and all general service, thinking that I wanted to make a difference and make some changes in AA. But I’ve got to the point where the best difference I can make in AA is by making it at my home group and actually this podcast, things like that. I just don’t see the point, I don’t see anything that they can do for me or need to do for me because my group can do whatever it wants.

32:32 John H: Well, but what use… Why identify with something we are not and why be hypocritical about it? Now, I have a theory that… Well, there’s two things. There’s a lot of people around who still have a deep emotional attachment to AA, and I sort of get that. I had an emotional attachment to my own home group because of the friends I had until they got so old they retired and moved away or died, that we used to sit around and have coffee with after the meeting. So, I understand.

33:06 John S: I probably have that, I probably have an emotional attachment to it.

33:08 John H: Yeah, I understand that emotional attachment and that can be profound. The assumption in the wider world is, is that for some reason, AA and Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob established the gold standard in the recovery business. And a lot of people make a lot of money promoting that idea, so there is a lot of propaganda out there regarding this and it’s profound.

Also, there’s the issue of the listing of meetings. Up until recently, I would have agreed with the statement that it is vitally important to have your meeting listed in the local AA directory, that it is almost of paramount importance to have and maintain and promote that listing. And it’s still sort of true, but as we grow, as… You know more about the digital footprint than I do, of course, because you’re in the digital footprint business, or not business, you’re in the digital footprint service delivery end of this thing. So you know a lot more about that stuff than I do, and I think that it all is a matter of access to information and how prominent our version of recovery is. And the great thing about us, I think, is we don’t really have a version of recovery, that people really have the latitude of finding a version that’s suitable to them. I just…

35:00 John S: Exactly.

35:01 John H: Yeah. I went through some things that I’ve learned in 32-plus years of going through all this stuff. Some people may agree with the important points that I came up with about what recovery is, some people may disagree, alright?

35:16 John S: Sure.

35:17 John H: We’re going to see more science-based activities, I believe, at our next convention here in DC, along with all the traditional, very wide range of opinions that we’ve always had at our conventions. But more rational approaches are getting more currency in the wider world and more people are questioning this religion business, as regards AA as being some sort of gold standard for recovery.

35:52 John S: You were talking about the listings on the websites, that’s pretty much a thing of the past. People aren’t finding us through the traditional AA websites, they’re finding us through the Secular AA website and they’re finding us through our own individual websites.

When people are looking for an AA meeting, and they’re an atheist or an agnostic, they’re going to look specifically for something that has to do with a secular approach, and that’s why they’re finding us. They’re finding us on the secular AA site or they’re finding us through our own individual group websites. That’s just the way it is.

36:27 John H: That bodes very well for the future, which beggars the point of this whole conversation we’re having on your podcast today, which is, why don’t we call ourselves what we are, which really is something like Secular Recovery. Why don’t we just do that eventually?

Now, I’m not hallucinating and I don’t think that this sort of change will happen overnight. And personally, I won’t be… There’ll be enough controversy coming up at the next convention regarding certain activities that the board of directors has already floated that will come up for discussion and vote there, one of which involves another type of name change, which is really crazy, which is something I’m not going to go into here, but will certainly be gone into at great depth, probably, if the people proposing this persist in their desire to do so.

37:27 John S: I’m also kind of wondering how would it happen. So, you would have to get, it’s like 500 secular AA groups, and they would all have to agree, I guess, to…

37:36 John H: No, they wouldn’t necessarily all have to agree in the sense that if you have a national organization with a certain name, they either affiliate with that organization or they don’t. I would suppose that there would have to be an argument that would be strong enough and persuasive enough, which is yet to be developed so that most groups and most individuals would say, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” but even the people in the groups that would want to stay closely affiliated with their local area assembly and New York City, and all that other stuff, they would be more than welcome, too, just like a Christian, a Buddhist, or a Unitarian, or whatever, is totally welcome at the meeting I’ve been attending all these years.

38:34 John S: Well, it’s like anybody, though, can create… Anybody can go out tomorrow and create an organization called Secular Recovery, build a website, and then they can list all of the secular AA groups…

38:44 John H: Yeah, that could be done, but I have no interest whatsoever in building a parallel organization. If I was 35 years old, maybe the answer to that would be different, but personally, that’s crazy for me. I would never think of doing that. I don’t want to do that. I think that within the envelope of what we’ve done…

I’ve been to all… As you know, I’ve been to all the conventions. The last time out in the run up to Toronto, I was, I believe, the only one that went to all three of the regional meetings, and even though much of what I saw in some of these places, I didn’t personally agree with, I saw the passion and vitality and the excitement for, in general bonding with other secular people in recovery. I think that’s sort of the magic sauce that’s created the rapid growth in secular meetings.

Now, I think people have problems with definitions. I think people are confused in my own… This is just my own view. People are confused about what the word “secular” really means, and some people haven’t really thought it through, but that’s just individuals.

40:02 John S: So, the definition of secular is of the world, temporal, right? Nothing to do with… The word spiritual.

40:07 John H: Right, right. The word spiritual, has another definition and it has to do with religion, so…

40:14 John S: So, see, I agree with you, like that, I’m totally in line with you on that. I don’t, I’m not, I don’t use spiritual language, I don’t have any use for that. And I would also agree that spiritual is not secular but what are you going to do about an atheist who says, “I am spiritual,” and he’s going to be talking spiritually.

40:34 John H: Well, we say to them please come to the next convention and put on a workshop. That’s what I’d say.

40:39 John S: And they do, and they do.

40:41 John H: That’s right. Okay.

40:42 John S: It’s just like there’s so much… There’s so much diversity among us.

40:45 John H: And you’re more than welcome and that’s why I want to put in a brief sort of… We’re getting probably towards the end of our hour here. I want to put in a brief commercial about the 2020 International Convention ICSAA, which will take place here in Washington the last week of October 2020 in the Washington area, just actually just a few blocks from where I am right now, at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, Maryland. Everyone who is listening to this, who has been to a convention knows how good… They’ve all been good for different reasons, and they’ve all had great points for different reasons.

But here I think that Gregg O. your friend there from… Who lives here in DC and Kansas City, he’s sort of a dual town guy, is putting together a really exciting program and we have a fact-based person, from NIH. The head of the National Institute of Alcoholism will be coming to speak to us as a keynote on Saturday night, and there will be many other speakers with many divergent opinions there. This is not, this is not a one-size-fits-all thing. This is a very open forum as it’s always been, and I have great hopes for us hosting a really great convention here. And yeah, and I’m hoping you’ll get Gregg on soon to go into that. Yeah.

42:26 John S: Yes, in fact, I’m going to talk to him tomorrow. He’s going to come to the meeting tomorrow night, and maybe we might go out afterward or talk afterwards.

42:34 John H: Yeah, because he’s the head of that effort. I’m just a willing helper. So talk to him about all the details regarding it.

42:42 John S: So, have I let you make your case? Do you feel like you’ve made a good…

42:44 John H: I think I’ve been… I have to pat myself on the back. I think I’ve been remarkably restrained, don’t you?

42:52 John S: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

42:52 John H: I’ve used very little of my 60s, favorite ’60s words from the hippie days, right? I have… I’m well known for using salty language in these contexts, I think… Did I curse even once, John?

43:07 John S: No, you did not, you did not.

43:08 John H: Oh, man, I’ll tell you, I must have had a spiritual experience.

43:12 John S: Just make sure I understand, I think… You’re not… You’re just basically saying the Secular AA organization that we’ve built up should just abandon the whole AA part of it and be a Secular Recovery organization.

43:24 John H: Right, right. We’ve stopped being…

43:26 John S: So, that’s what should change, not necessarily all the different groups… Are you saying they should as well?

43:32 John H: The groups can do whatever they want. I don’t care what the groups do. If they’re, personally, if they’re listed on the secular recovery site, and all the AA sites too, I couldn’t care less, I don’t care.

43:47 John S: So, those individual groups could still do their own thing?

43:50 John H: I wouldn’t… Nobody is going to tell anybody… I’d be the last person. I’m not going to be in… Nobody’s in charge, really except the group conscience as it expresses itself.

44:01 John S: So, the only difference would be the Secular AA organization wouldn’t be part of it? 

44:06 John H: Right, right.

44:06 John S: I don’t think anyone would care, but all those groups that decide to remain AA, if they would become affiliated with an outside organization, which you’re not supposed to do in AA.

44:19 John H: Oh…

44:19 John S: That could cause some little problems.

44:20 John H: Now you got me to use one of my bad words, John. Fuck them, okay? Fuck them, alright? So now, I did it. Now they’ll just say, “The angry atheist was on saying those terrible words again.” So you see, you trapped me at the end here.

44:40 John S: Well, what’s so funny about it though is there’s actually has been that argument already. There’s been like Doris’s group in Champaign-Urbana. Their stupid district said, “You cannot be listed on the secular AA website because you’re affiliating with an outside organization.” I think that Doris’s group made a mistake by taking their listing off the Secular AA site because quite frankly, more people are going to find their meeting on secularaa.org than they would on the silly district website.

45:08 John H: Some of these people that I’ve heard seemed to walk around thinking more about AA central, AA of Riverside Drive, AA of whatever area organization, they’re part of. They think about that kind of stuff, at least to me. I hear them going through all that stuff and in my mind I say, “Well they’re thinking more about that bullshit than they are about the recovery of Secular Alcoholics.” What I would like to see us be focused on is not all of these discussions that we have about outside things, but to be laser-beam focused on helping the secular alcoholic recover from alcoholism, and not die.

46:00 John S: So it’s like, it’s basically… And I think you could possibly be right, a waste of time to try to change Alcoholics Anonymous internally.

46:09 John H: Oh, it’s a fool’s errand, it’s completely absurd. All you have to do is read their current website, and I just urge everybody, just google Alcoholics Anonymous and look at the current website and read what they say they are today. And there is no reconciliation between that and non-belief in a higher power. There isn’t. And the people who spend their lives spinning language and jumping through hoops to say that there is… Personally, I would never spend my time doing that, but I think they’re doing a disservice to truly secular people that can find a way without those distractions and fallacies and untruths, which are embodied in the Big Book and the steps.

47:11 John S: I think that the biggest problem in Alcoholics Anonymous, is we are too proud of the past, too clingy to the past, too afraid of the future, too afraid to modernize, and that’s the big problem. I mean, yeah… Well, we were talking about it in our group the other day, we actually… You would hate this John, but we’re doing a step study.

47:34 John H: Oh, god.

47:34 John S: What you would really absolutely hate is that we’ve actually brought out the Big Book as a historical document, okay? Well anyway, a couple of the women, they read “The Doctor’s Opinion”, and one of them said, “This is crazy. They’re acting like all medical progress stopped in 1939 when Dr. Silkworth wrote his opinion.”

47:57 John H: Yeah, it’s just lunacy, craziness.

48:01 John S: Isn’t that insane? But why… So, it is crazy. But I think that the reason that they’ve never updated any damn thing is, they were so proud of the founders and what the founders did, they won’t let it go.

48:17 John H: And the founder was making millions and millions of dollars off of it too. Let’s not forget how rich Bill got over the course of that.

48:26 John S: Yeah, that’s true, but I think that’s the thing. And I see that here locally too, is almost this fear of technology, this fear of even trying to do something that might be outside of what would normally be done in the past and I think I have hope, I guess, that culture can be changed. But you might be right.

48:49 John H: Why would you want to change them? Why can’t we do our own thing and let them do theirs?

48:56 John S: I guess that I would, I’m not saying I want to… I can’t change them. You’re right, I’m not going to… There’s no way…

49:01 John H: Why would you want to?

49:03 John S: Yeah, there’s no way that I could change another person, or group, but I think that we’ve only, we’ve only nicked the typical iceberg of the people…

49:11 John H: This thing… This secular recovery thing has only just begun. I wish I could live another 30-40 years to see where it goes, but I won’t.

49:19 John S: Well, people in their 30s, 20s, 30s, whatever, what’s so interesting about them what I find that those that are coming to my group I don’t think they give a shit one way another if they’re atheist, they don’t care about any of that stuff, but they do think that the religious stuff is crazy. They don’t want anything to do with that. And I think they think it’s even more bizarre, not just the religious stuff, they think it’s more bizarre, the antiquated language, and reading an 80-year-old book. That’s what I think they think.

49:47 John H: What’s really bizarre is when you try to adapt a religious text and a religious program, and turn it into something it’s not, which is what all of these secular tones, so-called secular tones, dealing with the 12 Steps are. And that’s always struck me as being just completely whacked out.

50:09 John S: Yeah, the whole 12-Step thing is kind of weird because I don’t think that they were ever intended it to become what it became. All they are, they shouldn’t even made a list because all that was, that was the experience of those people back in the 1930s. It’s not my experience, it’s not your experience, it’s their experience. And it was a religious experience because they all came from a religious organization, right? But yeah.

50:35 John H: That’s where they started.

50:37 John S: Yeah, but that’s how they described their experience. But I would describe my experience totally different, and I don’t really have to number them as steps I could, I could look at their step and say, “Oh yeah, that corresponds with this experience I had.

50:53 John H: Look it… Look it… Okay I just I gave you the broad strokes today make a decision, go to meetings, share maintain abstinence and try to help somebody in the end. That’s a pretty short book.

51:06 John S: Yeah, it’s so crazy, me though, I can say “Oh you know those are the steps right there John”

51:11 John H: It’s not… You know it’s all horse shit Because this… Oh God now you got me going. I gotta moderate now. Yeah, it’s fallacious. That’s a nice way of putting it because you can’t make a religion secular. It’s impossible. If you want to know more about that. Listen to my Toronto talk.

51:35 John S: We’ll make a link to the podcast.

51:36 John H: You can do that. Okay, and if you want to link my series over there there’s no such thing as competition in our end of the world, so if you want to link that series of articles.

51:50 John S: I will.

51:51 John H: On Atheistic AA and Courtney will know all about how to do that. Feel free.

51:56 John S: I’ll do it.

51:56 John H: I can sure I can speak for him, on that. There we go, I think I just about covered what you were.

52:02 John S: Well, if you feel satisfied that you made your case and that’s good and feel free to come back again.

52:08 John H: Well thanks though, I made a case, I didn’t make the case.

52:12 John S: The case.

52:13 John H: The case is going to be made over the fullness of time and will be made not just… It will be made by younger, more vigorous, hopefully even more thoughtful people who will follow us and bring this to fruition. And that’s my last word on the topic for tonight.

52:36 John S: Okay. Well, thank you. I think that you’ve been very, very cordial.

52:39 John H: Thank you, thank you. I’m a sweet guy. Tell them all that, say it loud, please. Okay. And I only used bad language two or three times.

52:51 John S: Well, I provoked you.

52:52 John H: Well, you did. Okay, it was your… You conspired to get me to show my true hippie, old, broken-down hippie character. Okay.

53:00 John S: Yeah, yeah.

53:01 John H: By using those ancient terms. Which are still really good to use sometimes. So there we go. Alright, and thank you very much. Thank you for your generosity in reaching out. I was mildly surprised and…

53:23 John S: Well, I’ve been curious about what you’re up to and what you’re interested in and what your views are. I read your posts on Facebook and some people get pissed off at what you write on Facebook.

53:35 John H: Yes, they do. And that’s really too bad.

53:36 John S: Yeah, I don’t. I just think it’s kind of interesting.

53:39 John H: Right, but I sent my ideas around to the board of directors not long ago. I think you’ve probably got a copy of that.

53:47 John S: I’ll have to read that. Unfortunately, I’m not a very good board member. I’ve not been paying attention to that.

53:54 John H: I was asked to give my thoughts directly to them and I did so in writing not long ago. So…

54:01 John S: Well, you’re going to be one of the speakers at this convention.

54:05 John H: I’m sure, inevitably.

54:06 John S: Yeah, at the Detroit thing, right?

54:08 John H: I’m not. Oh, no, no, no. I have not been invited to do…

54:13 John S: Oh, I thought you were.

54:13 John H: I offered to provide my services for my usual low fee of zero, but…

54:20 John S: Well, I thought you were, but maybe at one of these, John…

54:23 John H: I was not invited to do that and I don’t anticipate that the people that are on that particular committee will invite me, but I am going to show up there. It will be… I don’t go to AA meetings anymore, conventional AA meetings anymore, but I am going to show up there as an observer.

54:45 John S: I have to ask them if it’s even a sure thing that we’re going to have speakers at that 2020 Detroit…

54:53 John H: I offered to talk, to speak on One Big Tent, and I was met with a deafening silence. 

55:01 John S: Well, if people are afraid of that, of controversy when they shouldn’t be, it’s okay to go to an AA meeting and say something’s bullshit.

55:09 John H: Yeah, it’s okay, I don’t care. I’m just going to do my own thing until I can’t do it anymore, so that’s just the way it’s going to be.

55:18 John S: Alright, John.

55:18 John H: Okay.

55:19 John S: Thank you. Well, that concludes another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast. Thank you for listening, everybody.

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Denise
Denise

Wow,! to some extent I agree with him that if what you find in your AA group is so against your culture and beliefs maybe it’s time to form your own organisation which reflects your own experience. Just as you can go to a different meeting i, or start your own, f you don’t identify with what’s said in your local meeting. However, as a sober alcoholic, in UK, AA for 35 years and Atheist / agnostic the absolute beauty and attraction of UK AA is that it provides a place where I can go where my experience and beliefs… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey

Thanks for your thoughtful reaction Denise. I know the UK well and always feel at home there as I’m certain I would at that meeting in Paris with you and my good friend John C.. The US is different and is truly the “demon haunted world” where the Christians, when they get together, say and do the most bizarre things. Unfortunately, here in the USA, they dominate Conventional AA and they become for many, like they did to me, intolerable. I want nothing further to do with them. Fortunately, we have Secular meetings and I’ve been “blessed” to be a… Read more »

Denise from Bolton
Denise from Bolton

Thanks for your reply John. It’s always interesting to have an open mind and hear other points of view. I get your point about the centre of gravity in Conventional US AA. I don’t think I could stand it either.
I think its a lesson to be learned for us here in the rest of the world not to let it happen here.
Hope you have a good day….. if you are ever in Manchester…

Neal Montgomery
Neal Montgomery

Man, I feel your pain! I got sober inside the Beltway also. I moved away from there in 2002 and was never aware of a secular meeting there or anywhere until the shit hit the fan in Toronto in 2011 which I read about in the mainstream press, believe it or not. I go to the Sunday morning meeting whenever I visit the DC area which is less and less these days. I can’t imagine any way to break away from AA altogether, at least not in the near future. I now live in rural SW Virginia. The nearest secular… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey

Say hello on Sunday the next time you are here in DC. We have our 31st anniversary as a group in September and the meeting is still quite viable in terms of serving the newcomer as well as the older members as best we can. I’m there most every Sunday when I am in town. There seems to be a lot of Smart around but their idea of a “facilitator” and the structure there never did it for me. Why not take a shot at founding a Secular meeting yourself? There are meetings in the most unlikely Bible Belt places… Read more »

Joe C
Joe C

Big picture, I would be coffee bar-stool pontificating like anyone can. I can’t imagine a vote to leave being entertained because no one needs permission to leave AA. Many other organizations (SOS as mentioned as an example) were started by an AA member. I know countless AAs that go to SMART and/or Refuge Recovery and/or LifeRing or NA or Al-Anon for that matter. I’ve been to all of these and more. So I can’t imagine all secular AA groups and members agreeing on anything – which is one the beauties of AA or any mutual-aid group – so some AAs… Read more »

John C
John C

I really cannot fathom that someone of your intelligence can state that AA is not religious. It is totally and completely religious. Most secular groups, not all, are less so. The point John H makes to take AA out of the name of our association is a valid one. It is a step away from the religion, perhaps a small one, but a start. The secular movement that has blossomed over the last few years rejects to a large degree AA’s tenets. Many, if not most of us don’t believe in higher powers, programs, magical incantations that relieve us of… Read more »

Marty K.
Marty K.

If I had to choose between traditional AA and your “secular” recovery devoid of any reference to spiritual principles or values such as honesty, compassion, humility, non-judgmentalism, willingness to change, and unconditional love I’d go to to a traditional group with open mindedness where I would feel More at home working my recovery where I know some people would respect my journey in working the steps that I believe hold principles and values exclusive off their original religious intent. Spirituality is not necessarily religion. Religion has been allowed to hijack those principles and you both seem to have bought into… Read more »

John C
John C

The good life comes, first & foremost, from not drinking. Try having a good life without that. In secular meetings, people are free to talk about whatever they want. The sham of so-called spiritual principles promulgated by traditional A.A. is never really seen as optional, but as a practice necessary to stay sober. Most non religious people have difficulty relating to A.A. For others such as yourself, traditional A.A. often works quite well.

Geri M.
Geri M.

Maybe I missed something here, but I think that SOS – Save our Sobriety/Secular Organizations for Sobriety (founded by James Christopher) is already providing this alternative option for non-theist, non-spiritual people seeking sobriety. Isn’t that what John H. is proposing – might be reinventing the wheel, IMHO. Just sayin’

John Huey
John Huey

Hi Geri. Nothing like SOS or those other things in the end. It’s an evolution of an AA model to the next level without any regard for the theistic underpinnings. The series of articles I’m writing for Atheisticaa go into this at some depth. You can find the first three in regard to Making a Decision, Meetings, Sharing linked in the podcast post here.