‘Are Determined Atheists Anti-AA?’
John H., September 17, 2018
After my return from the recent ICSAA 2018 (International Conference of Secular AA) in Toronto I had the time to think about the conference as compared to our first two gatherings in Santa Monica in 2014 and Austin in 2016.
I came away from Toronto favorably impressed with the program (except for a few things that had been quietly inserted regarding the Grapevine and a certain non-SecularAA “official” presenter) and had a wonderful time overall meeting with like minded atheist AA friends from around the world both old and new.
The Canadian host committee did a good job and put on a good show. The business meeting (though burdened with some arcane procedural issues in terms of voting that were dispensed with in the end) went very well with the election of a very solid group of new BOD members, adoption of new bylaws, and the selection of Washington, DC (Bethesda, MD venue) as the site of ICSAA in late October 2020.
Less positive was some of the hostility and outright aggression shown to some of the hard-core atheist presenters both before and after our presentations and even (in one egregious case) during one session itself.
After these events in Toronto I convened a brief, on line, zoom meeting of a group of “determined atheists” (just my own new locution after being given some feedback by people I respect over my personally preferred depiction as being “militant”) who had been present for these events and we “took our own inventory” to see if we had gotten “personal” with other members, outside of the context of the statement of our views, while we were there.
The honest feedback we got amongst ourselves was that, mostly, we had behaved with some restraint and had not gone “sideways” in our responses to what was being directed at us.
What is perplexing to me (as always speaking just for myself in this article and not, in any way, speaking for anyone else) is why this is so? Is saying what you mean and meaning what you say really that threatening? I guess, given what I heard both first and second hand in Toronto, that to some, at least, it is.
While I won’t, of course, specifically characterize the remarks that were directed at others I will take up something that was directed at me.
Before I left Toronto, I was confronted and accused of being “Anti-AA” in quite vehement terms. It was as if I had desecrated the “temple”, invaded the “holy of holies” and committed a “mortal sin” while defiling the Ark of the Covenant.
My “sin” had, apparently, been committed in the course of giving my primary talk in Toronto in a break out session that centered on the irrelevance, for me, of either the original or reformatted (for supposedly “secular” consumption) versions of the 12 Steps. The audio file of that talk and the Q&A session can be referenced here… Toronto Talk
The distinction to be made, and clearly stated, is that self-identified atheist members of SecularAA are not, by definition or identification, “Anti-AA” simply because they are atheist or in opposition or at variance with any part, or all, of the 12 Steps both as originally written or as re-written by any self-appointed re-definers of the “program” for secular people.
Perhaps this determined atheist needs to explain himself more clearly and in positive terms.
Specifically, for me only, I want to say what I’m for:
- I am 100% pro-abstinence.
- I deeply believe in making a personal decision about drinking as a vital “first step” in the process of achieving a lasting sobriety.
- I am very committed to the idea of an AA Meeting and the “fellowship of men and women” the meeting represents.
- I strongly believe that the process known as “sharing” is vital to both newly sober and long-term AA members in assisting with the development of a life that has both meaning and substance for the individual.
- I believe strongly that “helping another alcoholic”, in any practical way, when and where possible, has great meaning for me, and my own long-term sobriety, provided I stay within the parameters of both my experience and personal limitations.
- I am pro-love (as people in AA tend to love other alcoholics in terms of wishing them the best in their sobriety) despite some rather profound struggles in terms of personal differences, and in the sense of doing no demonstrable harm to our fellow members.
- I am pro-service, personally defining the term as any activity that may, in the future, bring SecularAA into the mainstream of the general discussion of recovery, and delivery of services to the secular newcomer, both in North America and Internationally, without confusing it with conventional AA and its New York, GSO Headquarters with which, I strongly believe, we should have the loosest possible association with without giving up the “brand name”.
In general, it’s better to be “pro” than “anti” but I would be less than transparent if I didn’t state that I am anti-religion in all its forms. I strongly oppose religious dogma, the standardization of thought, and the suspension of the critical examination of facts brought about by what is conventionally called “faith” or “spirituality”. Also, I am in opposition to the parts of the AA program (as codified in the ‘Big Book’ and ‘Steps’) that tend to link a member’s personal habits (other than drinking and using), characteristics and behaviors to the so-called “quality” of their sobriety. I suspect that the word “unity”, as applied to AA, is often deployed as a ruse that actually means “uniformity”. I believe that passive aggression is a finely-honed tool of parts of the conventional AA program (possibly also within SecularAA in some form) and can even be used by people promoting benign and positive terms such as “inclusion and diversity” in order to bend a member to another’s vision of the “way it should be.”
I strongly believe that self-deception and self-abasement were deeply ingrained in the underpinnings, practices and traditions of the Oxford Group and that this thesis still is centrally involved in the practices of conventional AA. SecularAA, as I have experienced it over the past 30 years, is in no way this way and therein lies the rub.
As I have pointed out at some length elsewhere many of our current SecularAA members came of age totally imbued with a conventional AA culture (going back many years in some cases) which is something I only had to tolerate briefly in my early AA days. They may therefore find it difficult to separate from the conventional AA structures and verities I personally have very little connection to having had my primary roots in what is now SecularAA for a very long and happy time.
Additionally, many in SecularAA are forced into accommodations I am not (I’m in a major liberal urban center where it is easy to avoid the fundamentalists) by having few meeting choices and being confronted in day to day AA life with conservative AA views I seldom, if ever, encounter these days. With the rapid growth in the number of SecularAA meetings this factor will, hopefully, greatly lessen over time.
Being an unbeliever and finding it difficult to fully separate from a long association with a “culture of belief” can be, I could imagine, quite painful. We are all products of our formative experiences and many folks just can’t let go. I can’t expect people who have deep emotional attachments to certain structures to give up what makes them secure. As far as they are concerned I have no desire to do so, in terms of change that directly affects them, and, therefore, present no threat, internal or external, what so ever.
However, I do suspect that younger people, our successors in SecularAA, may have far fewer attachment issues with the outmoded, religious structures of a conventional program, given that they may have been exposed to rational alternatives at an earlier age.
It seems, to this writer, that, as always, the determined atheist is expected, at some level, to stand in the shadows and develop inherently moderate views to achieve more cultural acceptance. I have hope that the younger generations to come will be less subject to this sort of direct or indirect influence as we move along and grow in numbers.
In understanding a few simple facts about these positions and the motivations behind them, I (or anyone who might agree with some of my core assumptions) can’t be categorized as “Anti-AA”. Quite the contrary, by bringing to light what works for us in an honest way we may be able to clear out enough detritus to more easily, at least for some, move toward a truly secular, SecularAA future.
John Huey’s student work of the 60’s-70’s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf.
After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017. Full information on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at https://john-huey.com