Episode 136: Are the 12 Steps Relevant?

Are the Twelve Steps really relevant in the 21st Century, and is there any point for an atheist or agnostic to work out secular interpretations? Maybe it’s better to abandon them altogether? John H. from the We Agnostics Group in Washington DC thinks so, and he makes a compelling case in this talk that he delivered at the third biennial International Conference of Secular AA that was held in Toronto, Ontario in September 2018. 

John’s talk was slightly edited for this podcast. We removed the question and answer period at the end, and we added an intro and outro. John’s original talk is available in its entirety on our YouTube Channel and our audio page.

Transcript:

John H: I’m going to just very, very briefly qualify. My name’s John I’m an alcoholic and I have been around AA for quite some time. My first day of sobriety is January 3rd, 1987, and more importantly, and more germane to this discussion this morning is the fact that unlike many of the stories we hear here, I have been a member of secular AA for nearly 30 years. The We Agnostics group in Washington DC started in September of 1988 and I am a founding member of that group. 

John H: Some people will find my remarks difficult, some people will possibly find my remarks upsetting, and there’s a reason for that. I’m going to say right from the outset that I have a reverence for the people who helped me in my early days, and the members who I knew in my earliest times in AA. That includes some members of the religious portion of our fellowship who I met in 1987 and who are still close personal friends of mine. 

John H: My story is that when I was about 18 months sober in the summer of 1988, and fortunately I haven’t had a drink since I came in, but I was sitting in my office in downtown Washington one day. It’s summer. I hate the summer in DC, and I’ve lived here all my life, so go figure. It’s a miserable summer day and I’m sitting in my office at the end of the day and all of a sudden the AA world crashed in on me. 

John H: I had had it with “How it Works”, I had had it with the 12 Steps, I had had it with the pejorative insistence that I achieve some sort of god-consciousness in order to remain sober, and I was going to go to my then-favorite bar because the really good ones were closed by then. The real good dive bars were gone. I was going to go down to the Childe Harold, and I knew exactly what I was going to have. I was going to order either two jacks or two turkeys with a Heineken back, and that was just to get started, so that I could have a conversation with some interesting people who I would be pursuing from that point. The fact that I didn’t do that is really very good, and it’s very fortuitous that there was a 5:30 PM meeting not far from my office that I went to, but I was really close and I knew from that point that it was only a matter of time until I just said “Fuck it” to the whole proposition of Alcoholics Anonymous, and went out and got drunk. And very fortuitously two brilliant people got together, they were actually older people, they were volunteering down at the Washington Area Intergroup office. 

John H: I apologize if some of this is repeated because I’ve said it before elsewhere, but I need to frame this. 

John H: These two elderly alcoholics we’re sitting side by side, and one of them had been to something called Quad A in Chicago back in the 70s, and the other was recently out of rehab and she was trying to do some service to help maintain and promote her sobriety. They both looked at each other and they figured out that they were both, and I’m going to use the word that will upset some people – they were both militant atheists and they didn’t buy any part of the traditional program at all. They were looking at each other and they said, “What are we going to do?” and Tom said to Maxine, “Well, there’s a different way, okay, why don’t we try something?” And they put an ad in the Washington Area Intergroup newsletter which I subscribed to and happened to see. Everything was in print there was no futzing around with this crazy device, which I still don’t understand. 

John H: They invited people who were of a secular mind to have a meeting in Maxine’s apartment at the Broadmore apartments at Connecticut and Porter, and I went to the first meeting and I’ve been going to that meeting ever since when I’ve been in the country. I’ve lived overseas and been overseas quite a bit, but when I’ve been around, I have been going to that meeting. The meeting is still ongoing, and you’ll see four or five of our members who have heard my story more than enough floating around here from DC. That meeting is still very successful. 

John H: Now, my story is different because I’m absolutely unalterably convinced that if I had to deal with the 12 steps, I would have gotten drunk. That’s not the story other people have. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it because I almost did it. 

John H: So, I have a very passionate involvement with Secular AA. I believe that there is a percentage of us who will die if they are exposed to conventional AA long term. Not all of us and maybe not even a majority of us, because I don’t know the demographics. The demographics in the US are very interesting and demographics of Canada are interesting to me, but there is a percentage of us, and I’m one of them, who knows that the conventional program would have killed me as dead as a fucking doornail. If people are upset by the language of the children of the 60s, it’s time to go now because it may go downhill. 

[laughter] 

John H: There are a few children of the 60s here, I notice, so some of you will know where I’m coming from. 

John H: Well, I’m really in deep water this morning because I’m going to talk about my reasons for my rejection of the 12 Steps, which has evolved over time. At first, my rejection was purely visceral based on going to meetings where they read that ridiculous thing, that awful thing, “How It Works”, that hideous injunction to get on your knees and do it the right way. 

John H: That was the sum-total of my aversion, but in subsequent years, I’ve come to see that religion is so ingrained in conventional AA that I can no longer make any accommodations with conventional AA whatsoever. I’ve been going to a conventional AA group for 31 years in Washington. The group has gotten old, the group has gotten small, and I’m leaving it. I’m no longer going to associate myself with conventional meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, either here or elsewhere in the world. That’s just the point that I’ve gotten to, it’s my point and there’s a reason for it. 

John H: In the end when I look, and I’m not an AA scholar. I’m a writer of sorts and do some creative work as well as some of my screeds which you can pick up on the table that we put up out there if you have any interest at all in seeing what I talk about in other forums, but I did start poking around a little bit. One very renowned AA scholar in the room here, John L., who really knows his stuff, but when I was doing a little bit of poking around just in the last days, the tenor of what I wanted to say totally changed. 

John H: This copy is sort of battered. This thing, are you familiar with this thing? So you ever seen this thing before. This was laying ignored on my bookshelf for about 29 and a half years. Actually, the bindings come loose. It’s like it’s a historical artifact in and of itself. I started looking around at what they say today, these people from the General Service Office, these people who come around to try to sell you their bullshit. What they actually say is on their website. 

John H: Okay, and this is the first thing they say about their website about the origins of AA and I’m going to read it. 

John H: “The origins of Alcoholics Anonymous, can be traced to the… “, This is what you can get today, it’s what’s on the site today. 

John H: “The origins of Alcoholics Anonymous can be traced to the Oxford Group, a religious movement popular in the United States and Europe in the early 20th Century. Members of the Oxford Group practiced a formula of self-improvement by performing self-inventory, admitting wrongs, making amends, using prayer and meditation, and carrying the message to others.” Now, one phrase of this I absolutely agree with, and that’s carrying the message. The rest of it, which is on your wonderful Alcoholics Anonymous website saying what is… It’s the first thing that pops up. What are we… That’s what they say we are, and guess what? I take the word of Alcoholics Anonymous literally, every word I take as the received gospel that’s come down to us to current days. 

John H: When I looked around and started doing a little poking around, there are other parts of our litany, of our AA literature, that it’s still in print. There’s a book called, which I have on my shelf which I didn’t have the courage to take down and read in its entirety again. So, I picked an extract of something called “Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers.” Is anybody familiar with that old tome? I’ve read them all at one time or another. 

John H: And here’s what they say. Good old Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers, and his is a quote from the book, “The alcoholic must realize that he’s an alcoholic, incurable from a medical standpoint and that he must never drink again, anything with alcohol in it.”

John H:  I’m okay with that. “He must surrender himself absolutely to God, realizing that in himself there is no hope.”

John H:  Get that? In himself, there is no hope. How does that strike some of you? 

John H: “Not only must he want to stop drinking permanently, he must remove from his life other sins.” 

John H: Does anybody know about a concept of sin where it comes from? 

John H: I think I asked Katie here the other day about the catechism. She knows a little bit about the catechism from Ireland. I asked her if you can secularize the Catechism? Her answer was, “No.” 

John H: “He must remove from his life other sins such as hatred, adultery, and others which frequently accompany alcoholism.” 

John H: You adulterous swine okay… 

[laughter] 

John H: Unless he will do this… It sounds like Mike Pence doesn’t it? 

[laughter] 

John H: It does, it’s just like fucking Mike Pence. It’s right out of Mike Pence’s’ playbook. He loves this shit. 

[laughter] 

John H: “Unless he will do this absolutely, Dr. Bob and his associates refuse to work with him.” That’s our origins. Dr. Bob and his associates refused to work with him. Foundational! 

John H: “He must have devotions every morning, a quiet time.” 

John H: So it sounds a little bit like some shit you here around here in Secular AA sometimes? 

John H: “A quiet time of prayer, and some reading from the Bible or other religious literature. Unless this is faithfully followed there is grave danger of backsliding. He must be willing to help other alcoholics get straightened out. This throws up a protective barrier and strengthens his own willpower and convictions. It is important, but not vital that he meets frequently… “ 

John H: Okay, here’s where it comes. This, by the way, is not an alcoholic who wrote this. This is a guy by the name of Frank Amos who Rockefeller sent to Akron when they were asking for money. So, this is an outside observer, who was a very bright and capable man, Rockefeller didn’t have a bunch of idiots who worked for him in Manhattan. I can guarantee you that. 

John H: “It is important, but not vital that he meet frequently with other reformed alcoholics and form both a social and religious comradeship.” 

John H: But it’s not important, it’s not the most important thing. The most important stuff is the stuff that comes first. 

John H: “It is important, but not vital that he attends some religious service at least once a week.” 

John H: So, I mean, you fuckers who aren’t going to go to church very often, have a problem too.

 [laughter] 

John H: Now, what was this Oxford Group stuff all about? I’m in no way a scholar. It’s a vast well. I’m working on another book right now, a non-AA book, and when you start some research and when you go down the research rabbit hole, things get just totally out of control. I keep hitting the ‘buy now’ button on Amazon for this project. It’s just, it’s crazy, I’ll never, I’ll never get through it. 

John H: This book that I was talking about before we started the recording, this book is an effing goldmine for people like me. Is anybody familiar with a guy by the name of Clarence Snyder? He once claimed he was the founder of AA. He was in AA at Cleveland and he was the one that had this schismatic break, and then came back to Dr. Bob because he had a lot of Catholics up in Cleveland and there weren’t that many and Akron, and all of that stuff.

John H: This is great. This is an Amazon on-demand book, it’s called, ” How It Worked, The Story of Clarence H Snyder and the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a wonderful book. Actually, Roger put up something about it on AA Agnostica within the last week. It just came the day before I came here, and I didn’t have the time or the desire to go into the whole history Oxford Group and Frank Buchman, because he was connected with the Nazis, which is why the group… they had a lot of problems. He had a Nazi problem on top of a God problem, but I don’t know which was worse. 

[laughter] 

John H: But this guy, this guy Mitchell K is really a good AA scholar. He knows what he’s talking about. And regarding the evolution of the 12 Steps, the Oxford Group, in 1933 two years before that faithful moment and even before Ebby and Bill went to nirvana, or whatever it was, or took too many drugs at Towns Hospital wherever the hell it was. In 1933, the Oxford Group codified the following. There was a theory that there were originally six steps and there’s a big fight with the scholars whether there were six steps or four steps or whatever before the Big Book came out, but there’s no disputing the fact about this list from 1933. 

John H: This is the Oxford Group, fundamentalist Christian crazy sect in 1933: “The sharing of our sins and temptations with another Christian life… ” 

John H: This is step one. 

John H: “The sharing of our sins and temptations with another Christian life, given to God and using sharing as witness to help others still unchanged to recognize and acknowledge their sins. 

John H: Number two: “Surrender of our life, past, present, and future into God’s keeping and direction.”

John H: Sound familiar? 

John H: Number three: “Restitution to all we have wronged directly or indirectly.” 

John H: Ring a bell? 

John H: Number 4: “Listening to, accepting, relying on God’s guidance and carrying it out in everything we do or say great or small.” 

John H: This was written before Bob and Bill had their last drink. Sound familiar? It’s a religious book, a religious program, it’s not spiritual at all. The tenants and the precepts cannot be translated into secular terms. 

John H: Now, here’s the point at which I say, this is just me, I don’t speak for anybody else, but me, I am not member a member of any sect, denomination, I am sort of a member of an organization, whatever, okay, I just talk for myself. I have no acolytes, followers, I hold no offices, and have no pretense to leadership. I’m just talking about me and what I’ve seen. 

John H: Then there were the six steps, the controversial six steps. Wilson talked about the first six steps in Texas in 1953, and this is what Wilson had to say in 1953 when he was talking about the steps that the alcoholic squadron in Akron used. This controversial as to whether the recollections were right or not. This is what Wilson had to say in Texas in 1953. 

John H: “First we admitted that we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol” 

John H: Number two: “We made a moral inventory of our defects or sins.” 

John H: Sin, the concept of sin. 

John H: “We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence. We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking. We tried to help other alcoholics with no thought of reward in money or prestige. We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for the power to practice these precepts.” 

John H: Now, this came out supposedly from the Oxford Group Alcoholic Squadron in Akron, and there’s a lot of controversy about it. Those of you that are scholars can debate it until the sun crashes into the ocean, but it’s not germane anything, but the proposition that what it is and what this is all about is religion. 

John H: So, we get to the point where this thing pops up, okay? This was much later and this to this day, if you go to the literature table at any AA gathering, maybe even this one, the crap they put up out there last night was unbelievable, the Grapevine shit. 

John H: But this is in the current liturgy and literature today. Alright, step one: “Our sponsors declared that we were the victims of a mental obsession so subtly powerful, that no amount of human will power, could break.” That’s the program. Does anybody have a problem with that statement? 

John H: I’m reading it from a little thing called “The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”, a well-known book. 

John H: “There was, they said no such thing as the personal conquest of this compulsion by the unaided will. Relentlessly deepening our dilemma, our sponsors pointed out our increasing sensitivity to alcohol an allergy. They called it.” 

John H: I think I need to ask Dr. Ray about that. 

John H: “The tyrant alcohol wielded a double-edged sword over us. First, we were smitten by an insane urge that condemned us to go on drinking, and then by an allergy of the body that ensured we would ultimately destroy ourselves in the process.” 

John H: I am not inherently defective. I developed a destructive habit of mind and a body. I was not smitten by this. I acquired my alcoholism sitting on a bar stool in Putney, Vermont between 1970 and 1972, and by the time I got back to DC when I graduated from college, I couldn’t stop drinking. End of story. Did my Republican middle-class parents raise an inherently defective being? That’s a subject for some debate but personally, I have to report that I don’t find any inherent defects of character in alcoholics. 

John H: I’ve been going to Alcoholics Anonymous for 31 years. I had met the finest, most upstanding, upright human beings of all races, religions, economic levels. I have met some truly evil people in my life. Only two of them had been members of Alcoholics Anonymous. I met many in the world of business and finance, including some names that you may see in the paper from time to time these days. But, the level of evil in Alcoholics Anonymous and the level of human defects in Alcoholics Anonymous, to me, is astonishingly low and to apply and to say that we are inherently defective human beings is not only deeply offensive, it’s wrong. And the reason I’m thumping this fucking book is that there is a percentage of us that come into the rooms, and hear that we’re inherently defective and go out and die. 

John H: Okay, I’m passionate about it. I have a 24-year-old daughter who’s been one of us since a relatively early age, who just started going to meetings in Baltimore a couple of months ago. If she is exposed to this doctrinaire crap, she’s going to go back out on the road with her band and something may happen. I am personally involved. Alright, and I find this stuff increasingly destructive. 

John H: I’m not going to go through this whole thing because we don’t have the time, but I’m just going to flip around, and I could basically flip around anywhere. 

John H: Oh, this I love. This is in step four. They like to get in your personal life, you notice that they like to get into who and what you are in your personal day-to-day existence, and sort of muck around with what you do? I love this part, I really love. When I came back from Russia, I thought they were going to take my boy scout badge away. I was an Eagle Scout. I thought they’re going to come and take it away. 

John H: “Looking at both past and present what sex situations have caused me anxiety?”

John H: Very few. 

[laughter] 

John H: I just have to tell you. It hasn’t been a big problem. I’ve been very lucky in that regard. 

John H: “Bitterness frustration or depression” 

John H: Oh shit, I thought it was about joy. 

John H: “Appraising each situation fairly, can I see where I have been at fault?” 

John H: Nope. 

[laughter] 

John H: “Did these perplexities beset me because of selfishness or unreasonable demands?” 

John H: That depends on who’s making the demand. 

John H: “If by disturbance was seemingly caused by the behavior of others. Why do I lack the ability to accept conditions I cannot change?” 

John H: I mean, it goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. I was a member, have no business talking about your personal life. The only thing I’m concerned with the newcomers that I see and deal with is the following and I’m going to go into my own liturgy now. The only liturgy I have that I’ve developed over the years, over the decades is something like the following: We need to make a decision to stop drinking. If you do not make a decision to stop drinking, this process is very difficult. I knew I was a desperately sick alcoholic when I was 25 years old. I didn’t walk through the doors until just after my 38th birthday and that intervening 13 years, from the time that I knew to the time that I quit, is a deep and abiding mystery to me. 

John H: Alright, and that’s why there’s a lot of emotional-ism for me, connected with this because I’ve seen so many people who, for whatever reason, can’t make that decision. I’ve gone to enough AA funerals. I’ve gone to too many. I really don’t want to go anymore, and I’m not going to have one myself. I don’t have to worry about that. So, that’s the part that really perplexed me. But once you make a decision, you decide to go to meetings, which is another sort of essential part of what we are about and what we do, and then when we go to meetings, we learn to do something called sharing and that’s the secular alchemy of the sharing process that I don’t need to describe to anyone in this room because you’ve all had it, you all know it and for yourselves, you all know what it is. It doesn’t have to be defined and it’s not a woo-woo thing, it’s a human thing, it’s something we do for and with each other. Then the unexpected benefit kicks in at the end of my program, and that is when you figure out that if you help another alcoholic, you in a turn will be helped even more. 

John H: I’ll tell just one brief anecdote about a year and a half or so ago, a very brilliant young man who I know has a very tragic story. He had about four and a half years of sobriety and had tremendous benefits from it. And he went out and crashes his car, and I got a call. He was supposed to meet us somewhere and he didn’t show, and we had to go to the house and almost break down the door. And there’s one really good detox in Washington, the rest of them suck. It’s Suburban Hospital in Washington, they really know what they’re doing. And I just said, “Get the insurance card, there’s only one place for you.” And we did the old AA routine of bundling him into the car and taking him to Suburban. And we sat there, my friend and I sat there. The other old traditional thing is to always do it with two people. That’s always a good idea, you don’t want to do those things along. 

John H: We sat in the emergency room and the nurse came in. The intake nurse from the detox came in and she looks at him and she says to him. “You are very lucky that you have two good friends.” Because she saw the condition he was in. Now, we’re driving out of the parking lot of Suburban Hospital, and my friend Tony who has had his own struggles, turns to me and he says, “What are the chances?” 

John H: And I looked at him and I said, “Not good.” 

John H: Okay, and unfortunately I was correct because he went, he had regained his position, regained his job regained this status, and last time I heard, he was living his car again. 

John H: Okay, so, so that’s what it’s about. 

John H: It’s not about all this stuff. Why do I need a list of stuff? Why do I need to hear this day in and day out? I said this on tape before, “Would or could if he were sought’. What’s that Shit? Okay, I’m not buying it because what does it for me… Oh yeah, to the hospital. We’re driving out, and I said, “Just remember, remember Tony this did you a lot more good than it probably did him”, which is the other thing that’s sort of axiomatic, and part of the sort of the alchemy that we’ve been talking about here a little bit. 

John H: Do I need to go on much longer? Let me see, okay. Character defects.

John H: You have to make a list of your character defects, and then you have to sit down with someone and you’ve got to be contrite. What does that mean to the person like me that’s not very contrite? I don’t believe in contrition. I don’t believe in prayer. I don’t believe in absolution. What is all this shit? I’m not saying this applies to anybody else, it applies to be. What about the sort of rampant individual who can’t do this? 

John H: “The practice of admitting one’s defects to another person, of course, is of course, very ancient, it has been validated in every century, and it characterizes the lives of all spiritually centered and truly religious people. I’m not spiritually centered. I’m not religious. What does this have to do with the process I just described in taking my poor buddy soon to probably be late buddy to the hospital? Absolutely nothing. Fucking ridiculous. 

John H: Oh yeah, and this is something that really goes into some of the heart of the matter. Traditional AA often gets into the realm that medical professionals should be dealing with, not laypeople. Who am I to talk to you about your child abuse, about your spouse abuse, about your brain chemical imbalance, in your brain when you were born that resulted in your anxiety and depression? Who am I to tell you that something in this book is going to address a medically induced condition? 

John H: It defies all logic, it defies all principles of good human behavior to be meddling in the medical conditions of others, particularly if they’re not related to you. If people are related to you, there’s a different process that goes on in the family when people are ill and you deal with things in a family way. But I have no qualifications to diagnose or in any way, treat any of your conditions. 

John H: Now, there’s a segment of our fellowship that says, “Oh, I can find all the answers to all of your problems in these books”. Okay, and for some perhaps it’s helpful, but for the rampant individuals such as myself, it just doesn’t work. Is the fact that I categorically reject the 12 Steps coming through to anybody, and why? I’m not going to do too much of this because it’s too depressing. 

John H: Oh good, oh good, good, good step six. I love this one, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”. 

John H: Is it not still in the book? Is this not what they’re selling you when they try to secularize these steps? 

John H: “The moment we say no, never, our minds close against the grace of God.” 

John H: How do you secularize that shit? 

[laughter] 

John H: Most people don’t read this book, anymore, I think because it’s just too much. Let me just sort of flip it over for a second because I could go on for three hours with this ridiculously disjointed seminar, but I’m going to go to one of the other hearts of the matter that I wanted to discuss this morning, and I don’t think I need to read too much more of “The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” I think by now, everybody’s sort of got the gist of what I’m talking about. 

John H: I became really perplexed when I went to… and I was blissfully ignorant of other approaches to secular AA. Other than the way we do it in DC. Let me just briefly describe how our meetings begin. We have all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions in that meaning, and I don’t speak for that meeting, I’m just another member. There are people who agree with me, people who disagree with me. We got Buddhist, we got the random liberal Catholic, we got hardcore atheists, we got them all. The way we do it in DC, and we’ve been doing it for 30 years, we read the AA Preamble, at the beginning. We read the AA Preamble, not this thing, this secular. I don’t understand why you need a secular preamble. The AA preamble is actually one of the things that’s perfectly good and it’s actually true, right? 

John H: It’s one of the few things they ever printed that’s true. We read it in the beginning, we read it at the end, and we share in between. That’s all we do. We don’t do anything else formally in the meeting. Now, I’m of a habit and a mind of taking the book “Living Sober”, with me to various places because I happened to like Barry Leache’s book, although I don’t like AA did to Barry by not paying him, that’s another… Somebody should give a seminar on Barry Leach and how they screwed him. But even so, I like the first edition of the book before they messed with it and put the 12 Steps in it. If at all possible, I get used copies of the original yellow edition of “Living Sober” and I give that to newcomers, and I say “this is the only AA book that sort of makes any sense and don’t just listen to me.” I always tell people to go to conventional meetings, to go look around, do this, do that, but this is the only book that really means anything to me. The rest of it is poison, and I truly believe that the rest of this is mental… Well, it’s mental masturbation which is in one part, it’s passive aggression. 

John H: The personification of passive aggression can be found in the chapters above the Big Book and this thing, and it’s inherently condescending and pejorative to alcoholics and to take that, that litany that creed, that catechism and try to secularize it, is not only ridiculous but it’s insulting to anyone that’s thought this through. 

John H: So, when I went to Santa Monica, I was blissfully ignorant of all this stuff, because I’ve been in sort in my little AA bubble in DC, and hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to what was going on and I was very busy traveling around the world and having sort of a complicated life, and other things. But I’m standing there in Santa Monica and I look at this thing and it’s called “Secular 12 Steps” this book, this thing. What this shit? What is this? Then I picked up another book or two, and I just looked at this and I said, “Oh what is this? 

John H: I don’t need a list from you to live my life, I need your fellowship your help, your friendship your love. I don’t need a list. I don’t need a catechism. I don’t need to be categorized. I don’t need to be marginalized. I don’t need to be preached to, even though some people say I’m a little preachy. 

[laughter] 

John H: The Russian word for that is chut chut, just a little bit. 

John H: I don’t need to have you messing around with the personal details of my life. If I’m a felon, the FBI will catch me, you don’t have to catch me. It’s none of my business. So where does this leave us? This leads us into a situation where people are attempting to graft the untenable and the absurd onto a program or offshoot of a program that is supposedly secular… And it makes no sense whatsoever to me, and it’s something I categorically reject the same way I categorically reject this old dog-eared, beat-up book. 

John H: It’s just another way of co-opting atheists and agnostics and trying to get them to do it their way. There’s a whole literature that needs to be written and has yet to be written about the passive-aggressive nature of conventional AA and it’s cult-like status in American culture. I’ve done some studies, maybe some of you saw my presentation in Austin on “Back to Basics.” I poked around a little bit and what’s going on out there. 

John H: The hopeful sign about secular AA was its reaction to the cult-like status of what AA is codified as and has become, and to take that and to try to secularize that is not as I said, and I’m sorry if I’m being redundant, is not only absurd, but it’s insulting. There is a percentage of us who will resist this tendency to our death, and I’m hoping that younger people will come up in secular AA that will resist this tendency to co-opt us, to make us conventionally acceptable to a religious cult. I won’t accept it. And I know many of you disagree with me, some of you agree, some of you agree in par, t some of you say, I’m extreme, some of you even say I’m militant. 

John H: By the way, I’m giving up the word militant. I’m going on record right now, I’m giving up the word militant because even some of my real atheist friends, I don’t want to codify anybody, but even some of my atheist friends get all excited about the word militant. So, I’m now officially a determined atheist, even though I’m the same militant son-of-a-bitch I was when I walked into the room. 

[laughter] 

John H: I’m also a socialist. I’m not supposed to say that. Oh, we’re in Canada, I can say I’m a socialist. That’s good. 

[laughter] 

John H: I’m also a socialist and an atheist, and I’m not going to talk about Trotsky, but you could take it from there. 

John H: So, where does that leave us? That leaves us with a real conundrum because I love all you people, I love Secular AA. I’ve been a member for a long time, but I see tendencies arising even in our rooms that I find deeply disturbing, which is taking the codification of the 12th Steps that Wilson so clearly and vividly laid out. I was going to talk about more of this, but I just couldn’t do it. You couldn’t believe the trauma I went through with this, having to read this, it was really tough. So, that we somehow water ourselves down, so we’ll be accepted to some idiot on Riverside Drive in Manhattan at the General Service Office, or somebody from the Grapevine will write a nice article about us, and put a watered-down story about an atheist who is spiritual in one of their books. 

John H: By the way, an atheist who is spiritual, I find that really bizarre. But then again, I’ve got my atheist Unitarians, here. I’ll have a good fight with some of them, some of my buddies, but there is a faction of us, there are some of us who just will not accept the watering down of what is and could be a truly secular society of people in recovery whose main concern is, and I’ll go back to Dr. Bob for this one, Dr. Bob’s last talk, he talked about two words, he talked about love, and he talked about service. 

John H: Love has nothing to do with the spiritual or with God. It’s the best part of us and service is what puts us into action as people, not just in AA, but in the world at large. If we can be about those two things, only the rest of this garbage this pejorative garbage out of our lives, many of us will be better off. 

John H: Now having said that, some people need a list, okay? 

John H: Some people need a prescribed, written rigid program. I would submit to you that there are tens of thousands of places you can go to in the United States for a prescribed program. I often wonder why people come to a group that supposedly consists of non-believers desiring this rigidity. I understand that there’s nothing I can do about that. That’s just the way it’s going to be. But others of us have to go on record and I’m not at all bashful about doing that and say that that doesn’t work for us. 

John H: So we’re here. How does that go, John? 

John H: Well no, but well, we’re here, we’re godless, okay, and so we’re not going away.

John S: I enjoyed that talk. I liked John’s wit and intelligence, and I thought his overall delivery was excellent. I also appreciated the many historical references he made during the talk. John makes a good point I think about whether or not we should discard the steps. 

In my opinion the Steps are nothing more than words used to communicate an experience, but they aren’t my words and that’s not how I would go about describing my recovery today. So, why do I go through the bother of interpreting the Steps at all? I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that a belief in a god has nothing to do with my sobriety, and if I am going to talk to someone about how I got sober and stay sober. I’m going to use plain, everyday language.  

So, thanks again to John H. from the We Agnostics Group in Washington, DC for suggesting that we post his talk from ICSAA 2018 as part of our Secular Speaker series. I’ll be speaking with John soon on an upcoming episode where we will explore this topic in more detail. Stay tuned for that. 

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Tony
Tony

That’s the most interesting angle I’ve heard in ages. After migrating from traditional AA a d discovering Agnostic AA I felt comfortable with that idea for a couple of years Only online but got quite a bit from it
But really got kind of fed up of re jigged steps etc So yeh this makes a lot of sense to me All that Wilson crap is Religious However they spin it

steve b
steve b

I agree with John H for the most part, and appreciate his post. I too was a founding member of an atheist and agnostic meeting, which was called Agnostics and Others, and which started in Park Forest, Illinois in 1981. After a while, I stopped going to that meeting, which later on changed itself into a traditional meeting! We used the book Living Sober at the meetings. Much later on, I helped start an SOS meeting, which failed to survive. Concerning Living Sober, it seems to me a book designed to teach people how to control their emotions, the idea… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey

Thanks Steve. The movement inching toward rationality and ever so slowly moving away from conventional AA is far more prevalent than you might think these days. Over 500 meetings worldwide and a growing online presence. You would probably find our next SecularAA International Convention in Bethesda, MD in October of next year interesting. You can check all that out at http://www.secularaa.org

steve b
steve b

I read about your accomplishments. I’m quite impressed. You even have the sense to oppose the president.