A Determined Atheist Asks – “Which Way Secular AA?”

By John H

“Spirituality is not based on logic, it is faith driven.
Faith makes the impossible possible.”

AA Grapevine Daily Quote
August 2, 2018

It is amazing how far SecularAA has come since our first International Convention in Santa Monica, CA in 2014 and our second gathering in Austin, TX in 2016.

From a fragmented “movement” of somewhere between 100-150 groups in 2014 we have emerged from the shadows and are part of a fellowship that has a worldwide reach with a steadily growing number of groups now in the 450+ range.

We will gather for the third time, on August 24, 2018 in Toronto, for our first SecularAA Convention outside the United States.

A robust Board of Directors has come up with a new set of Bylaws, and various other things like a “Mission Statement”, to attempt to define, in a generic way, the nature and purpose of the organization as it exists today.

Over time, various factions have emerged within a core group of members who chose to be involved through attendance at the Convention, online interactions on Facebook and elsewhere and at various Regional Forums that have popped up over the past four years. I had the good fortune to be the only member to attend all three of these meetings over the past year in Toronto, Canada, Tucson, AZ and Tacoma, WA. There are distinct regional “flavors” in all three areas and the cross-cultural dynamics of our still emerging fellowship are very evident when you sit in those rooms.

In addition to the Convention and Regional Forums there are growing numbers of online meetings, podcasts, blogs, closed Facebook pages and dedicated web pages, that publish articles such as this, as well as other pertinent information, for the Atheist/Agnostic/Freethinker in AA. This is all very healthy and spirited dialogue has sprung up in every corner of our SecularAA world.

As a nearly 30-year member of what, in the end, became SecularAA, I have seen widely divergent approaches to the so-called conventional AA “program” made by various non-believing members with, it seems, infinitely variable experiences and backgrounds.

A widely popular view seems to consist of a proposition based on, in many instances, long term experience with the conventional AA “program” and a sudden, or more gradual, “conversion” to the proposition that a “faith based” approach does not work for them based on a growing awareness of the members own atheist or agnostic belief system.

Some of these members seem to be able to take conventional AA “as is” as they somewhat modify it using secular language but still admit an affection for “growing along spiritual lines”. They also seem to have an inordinate amount of respect for such institutions and entities as the AA General Service Office and the AA Grapevine. This approach also tends to embrace the “Steps” and, to a lesser extent, the “Big Book”, and the various attempts to make these quintessentially Christian documents “secular” and more acceptable for the non-believer seem to stem from this impulse to integrate themselves into the more mainstream elements of conventional AA.

This approach, as I have described it, is perfectly valid for any member who choses it but it in no way represents the thinking of many other members who also identify as part of SecularAA.

My thoughts here, which, as always, are my own and represent my thinking only, are directed to the type of member who may find the methods described above uncomfortable and oddly reminiscent of the issues that brought them to SecularAA in the first place.

This type of member, my type, may find that all forms of the “get along to go along” mentality with the conventional AA program are contradictory and hypocritical in terms of our own values as atheists given a “hard core” or “militant” view of the overt religiosity of mainstream AA.

Having just used the dreaded word “militant” above I have recently been attempting to modify some of my own language (I can hear the “gasps” now in Kansas City and Toronto) to try to promote the use of the term “determined atheist” when describing my own obvious militancy given many atheists discomfort with that word. This may in fact be necessary in order to better communicate the need for more atheists to be able to honestly state the essence of their views without getting hung up on some of the more incendiary language associated with us.

In the future, after we elders have departed the scene, I would hope that a new generation of determined atheists will emerge who unapologetically say what they mean and mean what they say in a manner that addresses a more broad based audience of unbelievers with the proposition that we can reject all Christian language and norms within AA (Steps/Big Book) without the fear of being viewed as threatening by even our own, more moderate, non-believing members.

So, what, exactly, is the “struggle” within SecularAA all about?

In essence, in my mind, it’s about a creeping “New Orthodoxy” that has been evident since our first gathering in Santa Monica that I believe some involved in our movement would like to codify under the banner of “diversity” and “inclusiveness” by encompassing things that are not secular in any way.

It’s about people who would, if they could, totally water down our secular identity to the point that we, SecularAA, would be fully absorbed into the body of conventional AA and disappear as an independent entity.

It’s about a plague of so-called “Spirituality” creeping into what is supposed to be a secular program that is a refuge for alcoholics from the proscriptions and tyrannical structures thrown up by the use of that word. The quote from the Grapevine used at the top of this article really says all of that.

It’s about the protection of a percentage of newcomers through our ability to define the word “secular” in absolute terms. This is for the newcomer who categorically rejects the catechism of “The Steps”, “Big Book”, and Oxford Group derived Christian AA.

This is for someone who does not want to be “spiritual” or imbued with any “non-god” religion such as Buddhism or Unitarianism.

This is for the proposition that if we make a decision, don’t drink, attend meetings, learn to share, and then help another alcoholic, without any pomp, circumstance or spiritual trappings, that we have a shot at a new and far more fulfilling life without having to graft someone else’s untenable and illogical belief system on to our own.

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

10 thoughts on ““Which Way Secular AA?”

  1. Annette Friedrich says:

    Had a Ladies meeting yesterday where the topic came from a long time sober member. She had a friend with over 30 years sobriety who was starting an agnostic AA meeting. She was concerned that her sober friend would stop going to other meetings and would drink.
    As we went around the room I heard that HP was different for each woman and even if they felt that that their concept was different that others, they could and did stay sober. I was warned before my first meeting by my therapist, that I would see a lot of “god” stuff and to just listen. 38 years later, I remain sober and an active member of AA. But I do not withhold my Buddhist practice from my meetings. I can not do some of the steps, as I continue to believe that I do not ask god, or anyone else to remove my short comings, but am requited by my practice that I must make the changes myself. Meditation is not a contradiction to my atheist beliefs. Centering and mindfulness are my daily inventory. I sponsor and feel comfortable sharing the tools I use to stay sober. I would definitely attend an Atheist AA meeting if available in my area. Hope to get to Toronto one day.

  2. Ken S. says:

    I attend Secular AA meetings. We have quite a few in NYC. Some are good. Some seem backward—they even read “We Agnostics.” They have Step meetings.

    The fact that the State sends people they deem to be alcoholics (who happen to also be atheists) by force to attend Secular AA meetings strikes me as questionable: Is Secular AA tolerated by AA—a religious organization—in order to bring in more potential marks for mainstream AA?

    Also, “The God Word” pamphlet is religious apologism. It even ends with the standard 12 Steps.

  3. Sandra says:

    Very Interesting, I recently joined an Al-Anon group, which at the time was very comforting, but I am having some issues with the God word in the steps as well as the literature, I just can’t relate to them. So my question here is… what about a secular Al Anon? I am still yet to find one, let alone one near me. I found GABES Alternative 12 Steps, which was very refreshing, haven’t mentioned it in my group, but eventually I will have to if I want to work the steps. Any advice?

    • John H says:

      Cant help much with the steps which are totally irrelevant to me. You might want to give a listen to my talk on that subject I gave last weekend at our SecularAA convention in Toronto. Its in the “Media” section on this site. Secular Al-Anon sounds like a great idea but Al-Anon is something I literally nothing about. If you reach out a bit more within AA I’m certain you will find people with that experience.

  4. Terry says:

    The bible and all other religions,books etc where the first fake news,whole organisations built on lies,collusion of those in power,
    AA talks about honesty,but is built on dishonesty,as trump would say fake news,🤣😜. Interesting conundrum.☝️💚☘️☘️☘️

  5. Glenn G says:

    John I look forward to hopefully having a cup of Joe with you in Toronto. I’ve attended both conventions and don’t share your “militant” attitude or views at all. Therefore sitting down with you and discussing our differences will be high on my agenda. Hope to c u there.

    • John H says:

      Sure Glen.. I’d be delighted! I’ll be hanging around the hotel from fairly early on Thursday. I know Toronto well and don’t need much tourist stuff except for an evening trip to to the revived El Momombo club for a little Rock and Roll interlude.. Ping me +1 202 641 3960

  6. Joe C. (@Rebellion_Dogs) says:

    Thought-provoking ideas…
    Unless I am attached to conflict (and sometimes I am), there is no stress between me and other AAs, certainly not other secular AAs. There is a concept embraced by professionals in addiction/recovery called “cultural humility.” It is a means of engagement that has evolved over time. Cultural humility is other-based and in that framework no one need accept my worldview, definitions of sometimes contentious words/labels, politics or values. In a glowingly diverse world, it is less and less helpful to want/need others (especially those who we are ostensibly charged to help, to express themselves based on our own cultural constructs. Others express themselves in terms of what’s true for them; I do the same. No consensus needed.

    “Absolute terms” is the language of concrete/binary thinkers. It isn’t of the abstract thinkers vocabulary. So binary thinkers will duke it out and abstract thinkers will not see the urgency of the question. Our pluralist AA doesn’t pit one against the other based on our creed or temperament. Otherwise, there would be no secular AA; all of AA would be a tyranny of the majority, a majority of higher-power adherents. So, my two cents is that secular AA may not demand consensus or purity of thought. People believe things and do things to supposedly keep their secular-ass sober. Many of these believes and behaviors don’t float my boat. For some, my own example is a sad example. Different… but not in conflict with each other.

    There is also no need to silence those who wish to engage in discussions of what evils are befalling AA as a whole or secular AA if we prefer. No view ought to be discounted and no topic ought to be forbidden. Vive la différence.

    • John Huey says:

      Joe.. Its extraordinarily difficult to engage if everything, all ideas, expressions, conjectures, are equal given the facts at hand. That said I don’t think any of us would tolerate any of us trying to silence another member although I’m certain some of us, some of the time, wish that some of us would go quietly away into the night. No one, on this end of the spectrum, is intending to put anyone in a corner (or behind the wire or take their holy steps away) but I’m certain that at least some of us will refuse to adopt or fully tolerate definitions of terms that we know to be “absolutely” false.

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