The London Islington Agnostic, Atheist, and Freethinkers Group writes in response to “The God Word Delusion,” by John Huey published here on August 2, 2020.
As the group who initiated the process of securing the first-ever Conference-approved leaflet for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers, we would like to put your remarks in their historical context.
You are correct that the final printed version was indeed not as radical, articulate, or comprehensive as we had intended, but that was due to the stifling structure of the Fellowship, not to those of us who are seeking to challenge and modernise it.
After Conference first approved our request that the Literature Committee should produce a leaflet for AAF members and bring it back the following year, we promptly wrote to the Committee to offer our assistance in its preparation, in the naïve expectation that the Committee would want to consult and seek assistance from the group of members for whom the leaflet was designed to benefit.
We were instantly disabused of that idea and informed that only the Literature Committee members worked on drafts and our assistance was not appropriate, necessary, or desired. So, to be crystal clear, we were denied any access to contribute to the content of the leaflet, which was undertaken solely by the Literature Committee members.
Obviously, we registered our protest at this exclusion, and, interestingly, right at the very end of the process, we were told that the Committee had in fact been liaising with an AAF member in London. This was news to us, as that member never informed us of the fact during the process, and, whereas we had taken every step of our mandate through Group Conscience, we can only assume that individual expressed their individual opinions. How much of those opinions were incorporated into the text is unknown to us, but we were left with the clear impression that our structured and planned communications with the Committee were not welcome.
Subsequently, a 1st draft was brought back to the following Conference which we considered to be unfit for the purpose. It was basically a slightly reworded version of Chapter 4 and was not written in the house style of all the other leaflets, for women, LGBT members, young people, etc, as it had no stories to bring life to the content of the leaflet. We, therefore, lobbied the delegates NOT to approve the leaflet because of these deficiencies, and present an improved version the next year.
By the way, we were particularly incensed by the title that was originally chosen, namely “The God Word”, on the grounds that were we to offer it to a newcomer struggling with the issue, or they saw it on the literature table, they would almost certainly be so dismayed they would never pick it up or open the front cover. We offered numerous sensible and clear welcoming alternatives, but these were all rejected, and the compromise title, which was subsequently passed by Conference was to put the word “God” in inverted commas, so the title became “The “God” Word”. We did later hear this was meant to be ironic, which surprisingly is not in the straightforward house style of the other leaflets. We also picked up on the choice of the heavenly sky blue colour but again told that was not our business.
Anyway, at least we had secured a commitment to include stories of AAF members, so for the next few months, we waited expectantly for Intergroups to circulate invitations to members to submit their stories. The invitations did not arrive, so we were obliged to chase the matter up, to be told it was an oversight, so the request eventually came out quite late in the year and left little time for stories to be submitted.
Nevertheless, lots of stories were duly submitted, including contributions from all of us in the London group who had initiated the process. Here is the one point in which I will agree with one of the central themes of your essay because not a single signed story from our group was accepted for publication, which included numerous contributions from members like yourself John, who are happy to attest that words like God, Higher Power or Spirituality are not in our vocabulary as atheists, but this, of course, has not prevented long term sobriety and service in the Fellowship.
With no disrespect to those members whose stories were published, it is fair to say that they were safer and certainly less radical than some of us would have wished. All perspectives have a place, but the collection has lacked the radical and visionary perspective we would have wished to see included. Having said all that, the leaflet was indeed very well received by the Fellowship and was groundbreaking. As well as being accepted worldwide, it has now been translated into Spanish and French and sold 38,000 copies in the USA in the first 3 months.
We’re sure the main factors were members’ delight that for the first time in our history we had a Conference-approved document giving AA’s imprimatur to AAF members, and that was welcomed worldwide. Secondly, the stories clearly resonated with many members, and we know ourselves that there is a wide spectrum of personal belief amongst members. Yes, it’s true that the most radical views were not represented, but those stories that were printed genuinely represent the views of a great many members who identify as AAF, so it has served a great purpose.
The reason we wanted to present this detailed response was primarily to inform you of the process we had to endure to get anything published over a 3-year struggle, given the ultra-conservative nature of the Fellowship, and the difficulty in achieving any change, however small. We see this as the first stage in a long process of modernisation, and it is naive to suggest you can achieve everything in one leap.
It’s fair to say that we felt the tone of your essay was somewhat over critical – however, perhaps this is understandable since you were unaware of the background and the obstacles we had to overcome to get even an imperfect version of our intended pamphlet approved, which is why we felt it important to put the full story on the record.
Can we not now please exert our energy to improving the overall quality and accessibility of all of AA’s literature to make it more inclusive and welcoming for the greatest number of current and future alcoholics? To this end, our group has had it confirmed that active consideration is being given to producing a 5th Edition of the Big Book in the USA and Canada, including looking at accessibility and relatability, and we have made representations to New York to be included in any consultations or conversations which may take place, as we did with our original leaflet.
That seems to us to be a far more constructive project on which to spend our time –
Come and join us, John.
London Islington Agnostic Atheist and Freethinkers Group