‘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 H 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  

6 thoughts on “Are Determined Atheists Anti-AA?

  1. Mick Shiels says:

    As a now retired truck driver who left school at 15 I am punching way above my weight in even joining this discussion of academics and intellectuals and may live to regret it ,but here goes!
    I am almost 20 years sober , always struggled with the”God thing” before acknowledging in recent years that I don’t believe in God. I became aware of the existence of secular AA and turned to the internet to learn more. I became aware of a few meetings in Australia, a long way from my home city of Brisbane and travelled to Toronto last month for the conference.
    I accept that many people are successfully and happily sober in “traditional “ AA and wish them well. I may believe they are delusional but respect their right to be delusional. Their beliefs only become my business when they promote the myth that their way is the only way. Then I believe that I have a duty to the still suffering alcoholic to challenge their assertions. I do not challenge their right to hold their beliefs, but condemn any attempt to promote these beliefs as being a prerequisite for sobriety or AA membership.
    The only thing I want to see change in AA is the attitude towards we of a secular belief system. Extremism at either end of the spectrum is the enemy.

  2. Harry Clark says:

    Thanks John for the reply. I’ve been following the conversation, if that’s what it is, on this post on Coffee Shop. I’m glad I avoided that one; a bit like pissin’ against the wind. But when I read your reply above, I got a bit bothered. You seem to be promoting SecularAA as an entity, either now or at some point in the future, to being outwith AA and the AA structures. I’m glad SecularAA is developing and has structured a means of continuing to run a biannual International Conference. Committee, election of committee members, future host nominations, etc. As you say you’re not on any such Board and only speak for yourself. I’m not across your side of the Pond, but I get to enjoy and participate with many other secular minded AA members because of the online development of various sites, your own atheistcaa now included, and particularly through the initial launch of AAAgnostica. Secular AA is a phenomenon that has developed from that online site although NY and other places in America, Bethesda included, have had ‘secular’ AA groups going for decades. AA itself is a subculture of society and Secular AA is a subculture of AA. I believe that Secular AA seeks to be represented and heard within the systemic structures that AA has in place, and maybe the elected representatives we now have can collectively find better ways for secular voices within AA to be heard. I haven’t come across others who wish to separate themselves from AA and ‘go it alone’ as Secular AA; for me, I most certainly don’t. I’d rather AA continued to change to reflect a more secular view, albeit a wee bit faster at times from its previously rigorous religious base, but better from within. The development of new secular groups seems to be going just fine, and the secular volunteers who give their time to continue to develop what we now call Secular AA are greatly appreciated and continue to provide a helpful and informative resource, including the centrepiece of a biannual International Convention. Long may it continue and long may we grow, within AA. 🤔 🤝

    • admin says:

      A few corrections here…the conference is biennial, not “biannual”. This website(atheisticaa.com) is does not belong to John H. It is a vehicle for the Atheist Recovery Community at-large.

    • John Huey says:

      Harry … First off, I wanted to tell you what a relief it is to be discussing these issues with a rational, intelligent, person. The dialogue on the various closed Facebook pages can be both insipid and insufferable.

      I’ll re-state here, in a quote from my article, in response to your last comment, what I personally see as my own “service vision” for how SecularAA could proceed in the future. Here’s the Quote:

      “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”. ”

      Because of conversations I have had with other members I know I’m not the only one who shares this sort of vision for the future its just that, at this juncture, I’m one of the very few who might articulate this publicly. You will note the term “loosest possible connection” used above. For me, the only use the conventional program currently has is as a “brand name” and I really don’t see the contribution that any of the official AA Service Boards or structures, like GSO and the Grapevine, might make to what is now a strong, robust, SecularAA, with over 450 groups and a worldwide reach, other than getting our meetings listed at the local level.

      This, most assuredly, is a minority view within SecularAA and will be handled as such for the foreseeable future.

      I strongly believe that a younger, more solidly secular, generation will come about and resolve these issues somewhere down the road after we older members have passed from the scene. I simply want to contribute to a dialogue that may possibly be passed down and assist with future developments, not yet anticipated by the current SecularAA mainstream, whose vision is still clouded by an outmoded, and essentially obsolete, organization and conceptual structure.

  3. Harry Clark says:

    I enjoyed that read John. Not anything I would disagree with. I recall when ‘wee feisty’ came at you in Toronto. I recall my view at the time that I gave to my buddy, who was most definitely not of my view; more ‘feisty’. At the time I said “I agreed with almost all you had to say, but not the way you expressed your Grapevine comments.’ Could have been your hostility, and in my opinion you were hostile not measured, to both the Grapevine stall being present and to John, the Grapevine Editor, having time given to him at the Conference to contribute; your hostility was possibly viewed by some others as an attack on AA in general. Why did the Grapevine stall annoy you but the other stalls not? There was an ACA stall and other booksellers whose ‘spiritual’ and ‘step’ views were probably not in keeping with your personal views; nor mine for that matter. But do we really want a Jesus like Alcoholic Atheist clearing out our ICSAA temple of all those irreverent ‘spiritual’ types in Bethesda 2020? I agree that SecularAA is within AA and under a banner of ‘live and let live’. With that in mind, maybe we should consider measured ways of widening AA and possibly continue to invite Grapevine to have a sales stall, along with all the other booksellers who wish to sell their words of enlightenment, and ‘how to’ programmes, to those of Secular AA attending. Some may even wish to be further enlightened and buy.

    • John Huey says:

      Hi Harry.. As to the AA Grapevine its widely viewed as a religious tract (despite the recent inclusion of supposedly Atheist/Agnostic content from time to time) and my own reading of it over some decades tends to confirm that. It’s even printed in a format with a design and graphics often adopted by religious organizations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/
      Anyway, the overriding consideration for me, in our context, is that the AA Grapevine is not part of SecularAA and is not published by our members. It has absolutely nothing to do with us in my opinion. Being Anti-Grapevine content is not being Anti-AA.
      You are right that many of the books published by our SecularAA authors and websites are not to my liking but they are produced by members of our organization and directly reflect a percentage of our membership. I have absolutely no objection to the expression or propagation of these views. They have the same rights as I do and, of course, any member can read or believe what she or he likes.
      I just think, at our conferences, we should focus on our members and their ideas and productions and not have religious publications from outside interests directly displayed there. Its just not appropriate in my opinion. If such displays are promoted in the future I will vigorously oppose them.
      In any event we have both a BOD and a Host Committee for our events. Those entities take a wide range of views into account and everyone will have the chance, well before our next gathering, to make their views known. I have no official position on any such board or committee and will be just another member, expressing his opinion, the next time around.
      There is no Jesus cleaning out the money changers from our particular temple but if we confine our next meeting to our own members and their ideas I think that would be a positive development.
      Glad you liked the article..

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