The Demolition by the Bolsheviks of The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Moscow 1931
We Are Not Bolsheviks – The Atheist in AA – Recovery Without Compromise
By John H. Washington DC
Within the world of Secular AA there seems to be some confusion about who or what we are. This would seem to be inevitable when you mix Atheists (“I know there is no God”), Agnostics (“I can’t see any Gods but I can’t be certain”) and Freethinkers (I still don’t have the slightest idea of what they believe but one definition says the following, “a person who forms their own ideas and opinions rather than accepting those of other people, especially in religious teaching”) together in a relatively new international movement.
As a committed militant atheist and dialectical materialist as well as an author I tend to go with the literal, accepted definitions in the dictionary when dealing with words. Now that we have clearly identified ourselves as Secular AA as an organization I’ll let the Oxford American Dictionary define a couple of terms:
Secular, adj. 1) not spiritual or sacred. 2) not concerned with religion or religious belief.
Spiritual, adj. 1) of or concerning the spirit as opposed to matter. 2) religious, divine, inspired.
So, literal minded Atheist that I am I will conclude that Secular AA, by definition, is not and cannot logically be “spiritual” in an organizational sense while some of its individual members may indeed believe in ways that are at variance with that definition. As always in AA, you are a member if you say you are.
However, despite the obvious “inclusion” of any individual member who says she or he is a member, being a 29+ year member of a Secular AA group has led me, inevitably, to seek out like minded people in the fellowship to help define the organization as I see it.
Unfortunately, the “right wing” Revised Steps and Revised Big Book factions of Secular AA have been defining Atheists recently both in print and verbally in a negative way and a few months back I took a stab at what could be a brief “Atheist vision statement” and circulated it amongst some individual members I know to be committed Atheists as well as several members of the leadership group at Secular AA. This statement, that was intended to indicate what an Atheist in the fellowship could possibly be, was greeted with both agreement and “horror” that I would take issue with the traditional program in this way and some wise old members suggested that I “tone it down” for general consumption. Being “constitutionally incapable” of following that sage advice to be “political” about this I therefore can only indicate that what follows is just my own opinion that does not represent any organized group or faction within the fellowship. It can possibly be treated as a “jumping off point” for some sort of group conscience or serious discussion in the future. Here it is:
“Secular AA – An Atheist View
Given some confusion regarding the goals and direction of the Secular AA Movement it now seems appropriate to articulate the following:
There is a subset of us (call us “real” or “militant” atheists or what have you) that categorically reject the totality of the Twelve Steps in any form (Religious Traditional/Secular or otherwise) as directly derived from the First Century Christianity of the Oxford Group. Likewise, we reject the Big Book, in its entirety, as the outmoded, destructive, condescending document that it is. The Big Book is irrelevant in the modern world. What many/most of us do accept is the proposition that once an individual has decided (a self-motivated and not “spiritually” motivated decision) to stop drinking, that the power of the meetings themselves, the power of sharing with another alcoholic and the attempt, in the end, to be of help to others has led many of us, despite our rejection of the rules, lists and books, to a healthy and productive sober life (over decades in many cases) without any recourse what so ever to Christian concepts rooted in “confession” and self-abasement.”
Now, having said this I can already hear the wails from the “middle” that the radical faction has finally shown its cards and have shown, after all, that they are church burning militants who want to force their opinions on others. Nothing could be further from the truth and I will now attempt to explain myself from my personal perspective, given my experience, only.
Atheists do tend to be “Restrictive” in terms of a world view. By restrictive I mean that we know what we know when we know it and say what we mean when we mean it. Many of us tend to articulate our views in a direct manner that is culturally at variance with what many people consider to be conventionally polite. If we think you are wrong, we will tell you.
We are fully aware that we can be individually wrong on certain discrete facts that any human being can misconstrue or misinterpret but on the larger questions, such as the total absurdity of the idea of a deity and the delusions of the “spiritual” life, we tend to be quite definitive and dismissive of such assumptions. This can be seen by others as “arrogance” but to us its just a matter of fact. Its where many of us are coming from, like it or not.
Regarding some of our reactions to what is going on in Secular AA the passion on this end needs to be viewed within the context of AA when a “real” or “militant” Atheist encounters the Christian inspired and directed literature and avowedly religious tenants of the conventional AA program. The results can be both combustible and tragic. Many a committed Atheist has walked off in disgust and I was almost one of them. If my Secular AA group in DC had not been founded in 1988 I’m certain I would have left the program and, likely, finished myself off long ago. I was fortunate that no Steps or Big Book nonsense was ever proposed as being “revised” to me by fellow members then or now because I would have seen that as equally objectionable from the Atheist point of view. I got lucky. Others may not be as fortunate and some of us are intending to offer a counterpoint to what has been developing as the Conventional Wisdom here.
We are not “Dogmatic” in the sense that the Bolsheviks were. No matter what will be said by the “AA Lite” crowd we have not turned our Atheism into another religion. As I indicated we are not about to burn a church or any holy books. Even Wally P and “Back to Basics” are safe from us. What we do react to is the tendency to be “everything to everybody” thus rendering us “nothing to anybody” by so diluting the Secular AA message that we may as well be in a Unitarian Church or Quaker Meeting House. The Unitarians and the Quakers are most certainly better than the Catholics or Baptists, but they are still religions and we are not!
All we demand from Secular AA is a seat at the table without being marginalized or dismissed by the new Secular AA dogma about “Inclusion and Diversity” masquerading as something else while turning us into something we should not be and deploying the catch all phrase “AA Unity” which can be used to stifle dissent and disparage contradictory views.
While we are not about to go away, roll over and play dead we are also not going to drag our leadership, or any members who don’t agree with us, off to Yekaterinburg to be sent down the stairs with the Tsar and Anastasia. You are all as safe as Wally!
Another thing we are not is “Proscriptive”. We cannot and will not tell you to do, see, or say anything that you do not want to do, see or say. I have never met an Atheist who is into conversion. The streets aren’t exactly swarming with young, good looking Atheist kids in white shirts and black plastic name tags holding nothing in their hands trying to convince you there is nothing there. We don’t do that, and we won’t try no matter what is said about us. We are worried about our own people who came to their own conclusions in their own way and are looking for sobriety in a totally dogma free, secular context.
While Secular AA is truly a “big tent” in terms of its membership I have noticed the tendency of some of our Atheist members to be reticent about their identification and their true ideas and ideals even in the context of Secular Meetings. I’ve been thanked numerous times, while traveling to out of town events and conferences, for speaking up for the Atheist view. Being a “minority” within a minority has its own challenges and I am urging all our truly Atheist members to speak up and speak loudly whenever they feel that their identity is being disparaged or marginalized. Likewise, I urge our members who are still wedded to versions of the Steps, parts of the Big Book, the word “spiritual” and the “Language of The Heart” to understand that we are not attacking you personally and to reflect on the definition of the word Secular while evaluating your own participation in Secular AA and the implications, for some, of some of your own words and actions.
Email Direct to the Author: gu*******@ya***.com
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 had poems presented in ‘Poetry Quarterly’ and in the ‘Temptation’ anthology published in London by Lost Tower Publications. Work has also appeared in ‘Leannan Magazine’, ‘Sein und Werden’, at ‘In Between Hangovers’, ‘Bourgeon’, ‘The Lost River Review’, ‘Red Wolf Journal’, ‘Perfume River Poetry Review’, ‘What Rough Beast’ and ‘Memoir Mixtapes’. His full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017. Full information and Amazon links can be found at http://www.john-huey.com.
10 thoughts on “The Atheist in AA”
In Texas, I liked the AA Atheist/Agnostic group and most members, but a few came in with hardcore big book thumping as gurus who deciphered the Big Book with a non religious bend. Felt weird and cult like. Early AA for my earlier days was more topic centered and not often about higher power. Instead it was more about anger, fear, loss, changes, etc.
When I came back after a long hiatus, AA felt like extremely organized religion and condescending comments. And I felt elated that AA had progressed, somewhat, to a more open way of talking. Until a few control freaks that trolled the groups tried to take over.
Someone who was religious had given me a penny with a cross cut out in the center. It was a heartfelt gift that I kept. It fell out of my wallet and guru interpreter of the big book pointed it out to everyone as if I was a Christian spy! No. I was hard core Atheist/Humanist!
I really like the idea of quad A that doesn’t go by a book plagiarized and treating many who have truly experienced extreme abuse as the typical violent male stereotype of a pathological liar and abuser.
I love the idea of meetings where people can simply support others in their journey to quit abusing substances. Ones that don’t regurgitate cliches. And let’s be honest. Most alcoholics-overwhelming majority, started taking different drugs as well to deal with effects of alcoholism.
So, thank you for this! And for progress made in helping each other stay clean. (sorry, hate the word “sober”)
I disagree with the basic definitions of atheist and agnostic in this article. I do not “believe” in a god or gods so I am an atheist. We have no more proof there is no god than a theist has proof of the supernatural. I have no knowledge of a god or gods so I am an agnostic. Simply put I am an agnostic atheist. There can be agnostic theists as well and in our Freethinkers meeting we now have one that identifies in this way.
I do love the thought process expressed here and perhaps as we become more accepted as we understand that it is our commonality in addiction to alcohol and perhaps other drugs that helps us to recover and not the making of the Big Book into a holy book.
Thanks for the well thought out feedback.
I had no idea when I wrote this that the “definitions” thing would be so problematic but I was being naïve I think on that score. The primary push-back so far has been on my having the audacity to “define” terms that are, in the main, inexplicable and/or undefinable by many people.
All I can say on that score is that I have been personally convinced of certain fundamental truths since age 12 and a subsequent 57 years of study and very intense experience all over the world has only served to reinforce those very early assumptions. I see things as either being “real” or “unreal” and am not very involved in speculations about issues outside the human field of view.
Your kind words about the article itself are greatly appreciated.
Thanks John, Joe et al. for consistently taking the mantle for these discussions. How fortunate we are to have this and other forums. I didn’t find your position monolithic John. As just another secular humanist member of traditional christian aa here in Tallahassee(not much choice) I simply disregard the “program” in it’s entirety and focus on helping other drunks like myself maintain their sobriety. I wish I had more time to devote to this cause. As a 58 year old attorney on my third working wife
and my first and only child (10 year old daughter) I’ve had to balance my commitments carefully . Please include me on your mailing list for future posts . Take care and keep fighting the good fight! lol
As always your article is well thought out and well presented. Kudos for it. As an atheist unitarian I found it amusing too.
It is good to clear the snow from the sidewalk. Your article helps do that.
Thank you John…see you in the summer at the conference.
I love you like a brother but that Unitarian Stuff is still Beyondd my comprehension..
Perhaps we can take another stab at it in August.. That gives you a while to limbee up!
Good article John. I can’t imagine anyone having the audacity to tell you to “tone it down”. Wouldn’t want to be there to see your reaction! I have also removed “spiritual program” from my vocabulary. I used to be a New Age hippie of sorts and now I’ve made a long list of things I no longer believe in. Very refreshing
Anyway… lots of good points. Our secular group here in Tucson (“Power Greater than Alcohol) is going to have an afternoon gathering at someone’s house to do a group inventory on how we are doing, the format, reaching out to newcomers, etc. I may use part of this article to get some discussion going.
I enjoyed your regional meeting in December and the progress you guys have made out there in a relatively short time is really remarkable. I tried the “hippie” stuff in its original incarnation and, while I had allot of fun with acid and other associated activities, it never really worked for me…Unsurprisingly, I was of the Lou Reed/NY school and the Jerry Garcia/SF stuff never resonated..
Enjoyable; thank you. I am someone that is a doubter that there is any outside agency called spiritual. If humans have a feeling, I expect it is self-generated and attributed to others or the un-seen. I don’t know and don’t speak of every having a spiritual experience or awakening.
As for the definition of “secular” I am afraid it’s one of these words – like “spiritual” – that has so many definitions, some definitions contradict other definitions. To some, it means materialism. In legal terms, in India it means that all religions are treated equally by the state. In the USA constitution a “neither religious nor irreligious” definition or meaning seems to have been intended and in challenges accommodationism is the norm, which espouses that “the government may support or endorse religious establishments as long as it treats all religions equally and does not show preferential treatment” and the view that “religious individuals, and/or religious entities may be accommodated by government in regard to such things as free exercise rights, access to government programs and facilities, and religious expression.”
That’s right out of Wikipedia so it must be true. So, can we find consensus on defining “secular”? That would be remarkable. Shall we allow each AA to define it for themselves or shall we restrict certain beliefs being spoken? I suppose that’s up to us to decide. The universal experience I find at secular meetings is there are no prayers. None that I have attended include God or the idea of gods in any of the readings. Some groups – as mentioned – read their own secular version of AA’s steps and some groups don’t read them and/or refer to them in the meeting formalities.
To what extent shall we restrict membership and senor discussion? We could tolerate everything; we could police discussion. AA history shows that “our more religious members” have experimented with such things with humorous results. I expect groups today interrupt AA members if they aren’t following talking points agreed upon by the group.
I think these discussions are critical. They are difficult questions. I don’t know, but I suspect consensus is unrealistic.
Every serious discussion has to begin somewhere and you obviously take this seriously as you do all other topics related to Secular AA.
I did not intend to be “monolithic” in defining my terms and am finding that the process of defining anything is more problematic than I might have originally assumed thinking, of course, that my definition, as supported by the language itself, was obvious on its face. Silly me!
When it comes to Secular AA there may be as many definitions as there are members but I sincerely hope that as not the case.
To paraphrase my own argument being everything to everyone makes us nothing. Another problem is that my everything may be your nothing.
An endless loop and bottomless pit unless those of us who indeed sincerely believe in the veracity of our own argument continue to stand up for it.
One thing is certain. The debate does not end here.