No worshipping for me

Atheist & Agnostic AA members







from The Grapevine, Oct 2016

I work a secular program, omitting the religious aspect (as I see it) of AA philosophy. Try as I could, “acting as if” just did not cut it for me. I was being untruthful. The power greater than myself that restored my sanity was death. I did not want to die at age 35 and it was going to happen if I did not change direction.

I do not worship the Big Book. I read it as literature, documenting what the early AAs thought and did to stay sober. Similarly, the Steps are a guide to sobriety. The word “miracle” is not part of my vocabulary. I believe we dismiss our ability to grow and change when we use this word. Hard work, dedication and emotional growth are part of my language. I do not think that divine intervention occurs when a member loses the desire to self-destruct via alcohol any more than when they relapse. The Serenity Prayer works fine for me as a vital tool for living. Never having been on my knees to say the Third Step or the Seventh Step Prayers, I am sober and happy nonetheless.

My personal payback occurs when I answer the phones at our intergroup office or make copies of tapes or CDs to give away to members. Payback also occurs when I go to speak, sponsor an alcoholic, or simply attend and share at meetings. If I did not go to meetings at age 80, how would any newcomer know that the program works for me?

In a sea of many religious AA members, it’s often lonely being secular, but I have to remember that without AA I would be dead. I owe my life to this program and the many sober members I’ve met and interacted with for all these 45 years.

God on Every Page

Atheist & Agnostic AA members








from The Grapevine, Oct 2016

When he opened the Big Book for the first time, he thought … How will I ever fit in?
Recently I visited a relative in Maine who asked me only one question about AA: “Is it religious?” My first thought was, Of course it is. Instead I paused, and told her she had asked the $64,000 question.

I thought back to that bleak day 10 years ago when I washed up into AA, still a bit tipsy, beaten into a state of reasonableness and literally dying to find a way out of my alcoholic addiction. As my head cleared, I started reading the Big Book, and since the word God seemed to be on almost every page, I thought I had to return to the Christianity I was raised under in order to get sober.

I soon realized our book didn’t actually say I had to return to the God of my youth. But I felt it strongly implied that those who really got the program and stayed sober eventually returned to their faith in good old American fundamentalist Christianity. I was so depressed. I’d never fit in with these people, I thought.

Fortunately I found a wonderful sponsor, a born-again Christian no less, who was instrumental in taking me through the Steps, including the God parts, and showed me how I could find a new way of living free from that hopeless state of mind and body I had dragged into AA with me.

We read the Big Book side-by-side, often re-reading “We Agnostics” and the Appendix II on spiritual experience. He said that if I didn’t have the power myself to stop drinking and manage my life, I’d have to rely on some other power that did. The main thing was that power had to be greater than me.

We discussed the Oxford Group’s Four Absolutes and the Buddhist’s Eightfold Path. He suggested I could replace the word God with Good, or with Higher Power or Group of Drunks or Good Orderly Direction. Our book called it God, but we can call it anything we want.

Had I believed in God there would have been no problem, but I didn’t. Try as I might, I could not convince myself I had an ethereal friend who would direct my will according to some predetermined life plan. So how could I get sober and stay sober without all that God stuff?

I asked those who had what I wanted if they believed in God, and if not, how they stayed sober. I was amazed at the number of people who spoke of their reliance on a truly spiritual force to stay sober, and never referred to God. They told me how they had worked through the Steps and slowly discovered that their Higher Power had nothing to do with God or religion.

As I went through the Steps, I came to believe in a higher purpose, not a higher being, to help me change the way I thought and acted. My higher purpose is to live by the principles of the Steps. The power I draw on is that unsuspected inner resource which makes me willing on a daily basis to strive for honesty, integrity, compassion, tolerance, humility, love and service. After cleaning house, sharing my faults, making restitution and starting to help others, I was relieved of my obsession to drink and much of my selfishness and self-centeredness. I became grateful for what I had and was much more comfortable in my own skin.

So how did I answer my friend’s question? I told her AA is a spiritual program although many of its members are religious. I said the Big Book was not simply an instruction manual, but a historical document, and reflected the predominately religious roots and views of its early members.

Our book is not perfect, but it does try to keep the door open to atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and alcoholics from all walks of life. Today, I don’t need God to have a higher purpose in my life and to practice the principles of the Steps. I simply need to believe that with help from the Fellowship and my inner resources, I can change my own attitude and actions and continue to enjoy the enormous benefit that change has brought into my life.

Alex M., Louisville, Ky.

from The Grapevine, Oct 2016

When he opened the Big Book for the first time, he thought … How will I ever fit in?
Recently I visited a relative in Maine who asked me only one question about AA: “Is it religious?” My first thought was, Of course it is. Instead I paused, and told her she had asked the $64,000 question.

I thought back to that bleak day 10 years ago when I washed up into AA, still a bit tipsy, beaten into a state of reasonableness and literally dying to find a way out of my alcoholic addiction. As my head cleared, I started reading the Big Book, and since the word God seemed to be on almost every page, I thought I had to return to the Christianity I was raised under in order to get sober.

I soon realized our book didn’t actually say I had to return to the God of my youth. But I felt it strongly implied that those who really got the program and stayed sober eventually returned to their faith in good old American fundamentalist Christianity. I was so depressed. I’d never fit in with these people, I thought.

Fortunately I found a wonderful sponsor, a born-again Christian no less, who was instrumental in taking me through the Steps, including the God parts, and showed me how I could find a new way of living free from that hopeless state of mind and body I had dragged into AA with me.

We read the Big Book side-by-side, often re-reading “We Agnostics” and the Appendix II on spiritual experience. He said that if I didn’t have the power myself to stop drinking and manage my life, I’d have to rely on some other power that did. The main thing was that power had to be greater than me.

We discussed the Oxford Group’s Four Absolutes and the Buddhist’s Eightfold Path. He suggested I could replace the word God with Good, or with Higher Power or Group of Drunks or Good Orderly Direction. Our book called it God, but we can call it anything we want.

Had I believed in God there would have been no problem, but I didn’t. Try as I might, I could not convince myself I had an ethereal friend who would direct my will according to some predetermined life plan. So how could I get sober and stay sober without all that God stuff?

I asked those who had what I wanted if they believed in God, and if not, how they stayed sober. I was amazed at the number of people who spoke of their reliance on a truly spiritual force to stay sober, and never referred to God. They told me how they had worked through the Steps and slowly discovered that their Higher Power had nothing to do with God or religion.

As I went through the Steps, I came to believe in a higher purpose, not a higher being, to help me change the way I thought and acted. My higher purpose is to live by the principles of the Steps. The power I draw on is that unsuspected inner resource which makes me willing on a daily basis to strive for honesty, integrity, compassion, tolerance, humility, love and service. After cleaning house, sharing my faults, making restitution and starting to help others, I was relieved of my obsession to drink and much of my selfishness and self-centeredness. I became grateful for what I had and was much more comfortable in my own skin.

So how did I answer my friend’s question? I told her AA is a spiritual program although many of its members are religious. I said the Big Book was not simply an instruction manual, but a historical document, and reflected the predominately religious roots and views of its early members.

Our book is not perfect, but it does try to keep the door open to atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and alcoholics from all walks of life. Today, I don’t need God to have a higher purpose in my life and to practice the principles of the Steps. I simply need to believe that with help from the Fellowship and my inner resources, I can change my own attitude and actions and continue to enjoy the enormous benefit that change has brought into my life.

Alex M., Louisville, Ky.

Sober with no god

Sober with no god

How a nonbeliever got active, found his place in AA and has stayed sober for 26 years

Grapevine Oct 2016

As an AA member who is a nonbeliever, i.e., one who does not have a god in his life, I’m grateful to be continuously sober for 26 years since my introduction to AA at the age of 53.

At my first meeting, I became hopeful that I could stay sober because inspiring, healthy and happy people shared about their drinking and their recoveries. That hope turned to skepticism, however, when I read “Higher Power” and “God” in the Twelve Steps, and then to downright dismay when the Lord’s Prayer was used at the end of the meeting. This was clearly religion in disguise, a rigid way of belief, I thought. Still, something powerful was happening to me; perhaps hope was coming my way after all. I was determined to have sobriety in AA without being false to myself. I persevered despite the admonitions in our literature of the necessity of believing in a god and the belittling of my nonbelief in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Early on in my sobriety, I read “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the Big Book, as well as modern descriptions of the disease of alcoholism in other books. They provided logical explanations of what was wrong with me and helped me to come to terms with my alcoholism. I also read widely about treatments for alcoholism and became encouraged about my chances of staying sober in AA if I “got involved in AA as much as I had drunk,” for my drinking had become almost all day, every day.

I found the original six Steps in some of our literature and some letters that our co-founder Bill W. wrote. They did not have a predominance of God in them and I was able to do the Steps. They required that I give up on any notion of control over alcohol, that I take inventory, confess faults to another, make amends to those harmed, carry the message and find the willingness to take these actions. Whenever I read our textbook, Alcoholics Anonymous, I substitute (in my mind) AA for God or Him or I substitute a proper noun such as Creative Intelligence. With these substitutions, the writing makes sense to me. One might say that my Higher Power is AA. I tend to say it’s the love and grace that exists in AA for the newcomer.

I eventually did the suggested Twelve Steps, so that I could teach them to others. For the Third Step, which involves a prayer, I analyzed the meaning of the words and found that I could move on to the rest of the Steps to achieve the purpose stated in the prayer. The same goes for the Seventh Step. I can do the three actions mentioned in the Eleventh Step of our textbook without praying: At the start of each new day, I look to see what I can do for others; during the day I pause when confused or agitated and restart the day if necessary; and at the end of the day I constructively review my actions of that day.

Over the years, some of my AA friends have come to describe me as a Big Book atheist, and there’s one who calls me “the most spiritual, open and well-read atheist I’ve ever met.” I don’t argue with anyone about belief or nonbelief. I know firsthand that the program of action outlined in our textbook can be effectively taken even without a belief in a god. That’s what I say when I tell my story: I do not have a god and do not pray. I say I can be in good spirits without taking spirits.

I do use a wide range of spiritual readings (including many of the books that Dr. Bob had on his bookshelf) as inspiration to examine my life, to act morally and to love others by serving them with patience, kindness, generosity, humility, courtesy, unselfishness and tolerance. I practice these principles in AA by having a sponsor, going to meetings almost daily, attending a Big Book meeting once a week, taking the Steps and being an active member of a home group. I take to heart Ebby’s imperative admonition to our co-founder Bill that we can “perfect and enlarge” our “spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others.”

I’m involved in sponsoring men, going into jails and prisons for AA meetings, going into hospital detoxes and rehabs for Twelfth Step work, being on the local answering service list, having my name as a contact for some nearby rehabs, corresponding with and sponsoring inmates through Corrections Correspondence and carrying the AA message wherever I go around the world. I’ve served as GSR for my home group and DCM for my district. I was once the spiritual speaker at our area convention.

Until my retirement in 1998, I continued to teach and changed 180 degrees in my approach. In my final years of drinking, the classroom had been a stage where I displayed my knowledge. During sobriety, my focus gradually changed from what I knew to concern for what the students did not know. I once attributed booze as the source of the creativity I demonstrated in my professional work. To my surprise and delight, I found that in sobriety I developed a source of creativity that was spontaneous and intuitive rather than forced.

I’m fortunate that my family stuck by me. I have grandchildren who have never seen me drunk and know me as a loving and kind grandpa. I have students who are grateful for my teaching. I have a host of friends both in AA and in community service work. I believe that I have all of these things as a result of being an active AA member. My AA life is a testament that it’s possible to be an active AA member who is sober with no god.

Bill M., Ithaca, N.Y.

Atheists and Agnostics Step Into The Light in AA

A repost of an article from the website, The Fix,  Oct 16, 2016

By Dillon Murphy  10/16/16

“The continuing use of the Lord’s Prayer in a group that tries to tell people it’s ‘spiritual not religious’ is why words like ‘hypocrisy’ were invented.”

Is AA changing? Is the fellowship becoming more accepting of its atheist and agnostic members? Well it certainly is a good sign that the October issue of the AA Grapevine

Can agnostics and atheists finally be part of AA?

The Grapevine monthly magazine is devoted to this underrepresented group. With stories like God on Every Page ( every-page/), Coincidently Sober and My Search, AA’s Grapevine finally allows for us non- believers to be a part of the very thing that got us sober. It’s the proverbial elephant in the room for most of us and it’s time we were given a voice in AA literature.

The October AA Grapevine issue also precedes the second We Agnostics, Atheists & Freethinkers International AA Convention. It will be held in Austin, Texas, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Friday through Sunday, November 11-13. Tickets can be purchased and rooms booked here: WAAFT IAAC. (

“The first convention was held in 2014 in Santa Monica, California, and was a huge success with, on the final day, 300 participants from 40 states and 13 different countries. The convention featured speakers including Reverend Ward Ewing, former chair of the AA General Service Board; Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power; as well as a variety of very diverse and compelling panels and workshops,” according to Roger C. who will be at this year’s as well.

It’s a great opportunity to express ourselves and our stories in recovery while using the fellowship and creative approaches to the steps. Mostly, we don’t talk in traditional meetings. We stay out of the discussion or offer practical advice as we do in Living Sober, the only AA-approved literature that doesn’t mention god at all. I, like many agnostic members, share my atheism by simply never referring to a higher power at all. I keep my talking points to a very simple free-of-nonsense identification with the speaker, which goes something like: I can’t drink normally or safely I had no hope I came into AA I started helping make the coffee it gave me self-esteem I started to live each day without drinking which seemed impossible and now my life is changed for the better.

But mostly, at traditional meetings I just stay quiet as do a lot of my non-believing brothers and sisters. We can talk and listen freely at the few meetings Intergroup lists as “agnostic.” In New York City alone there is now at least one in every borough. There are also the meetings that Intergroup has just started to list—humanist meetings, freethinkers meetings—some still need to stay a secret society within what is supposed to already be a secret society. This is New York City I’m talking about. There are too many states with no agnostic meetings, and god and how the General Service Office (GSO) wants us to understand “him” is the only reason why.

What happens to this non-believer when I travel or I have to leave a group that I can be myself in? I shut down. There was a brief period where I would argue, but that all changed when I started going to my agnostic meeting and the closing refrain of “live and let live” started to loop in my head. It is only in agnostic meetings that this simple wisdom, this simple message of love and tolerance, is used in lieu of a “prayer.”

Roger C., the manager of (, was part of the Toronto group that got “booted out” of Intergroup for using secular steps. He reminded me of what AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson wrote on page 81 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age—that “these steps are suggestion only.” Roger started his own meeting in an area in Hamilton that was much more accepting.

“The idea that we take a book written in 1939 as gospel (pun intended) has got to go,” Roger C. says in reference to the book Alcoholics Anonymous. “I won’t force my beliefs on the newcomer and neither should anyone else. I know people that are dead because they couldn’t stand the traditional meetings.”

Is there hope for change?

He told me that despite the fact that the secular movement really had to “push” the GSO to publish this issue of the Grapevine, it’s a good step. Since the Grapevine’s start in 1944, they have published a total of 44 stories by atheists and agnostics, the first being in 1962. Roger told me that the Grapevine and AA General Service are compiling all those stories and finally releasing a book called Atheists and Agnostics in AA in 2017. He’s also very enthusiastic about the upcoming convention in Austin, Texas next month. “Change will happen, but not quickly.” After all, the Lord’s Prayer is still commonly used to end meetings and that is something that makes me just want to leave AA altogether. I have to remind myself that I’m here to help another and that while my truth may be unpopular, it is mine, and one doesn’t have to believe in god to be sober. Roger puts it simply, “The continuing use of the Lord’s Prayer in a group that tries to tell people it’s ‘spiritual not religious’ is why words like ‘hypocrisy’ were invented.”

I asked two traditional meeting makers and an agnostic meeting maker about the Grapevine cover story. John S., who takes the traditional approach and identifies himself as a Christian says, ”I really don’t think atheism is any problem at all in AA. It seems to me that the foundation of the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions is a desire to adopt a set of principles and live by them instead of clinging to ego (self will run riot). Reliance on a concept of God may make that easier for some people because it gives them something seemingly concrete to surrender to. But it can make it harder—maybe even impossible —for others if they are told that a God concept is essential. And I just don’t see that it is… If a person is simply willing to focus on the principle embodied in each step (e.g. powerlessness, humility, acceptance, etc.), the fact that God isn’t part of the equation really isn’t important—so long as they don’t think they are the center of the universe and everyone else revolves around them, their wants, their needs, their desires.

Almost every prayer in the Big Book and the 12/12 (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) works just as well if you simply take the word God out if it. The best example is the St. Francis Prayer. The principles embodied there are purely secular. For example, a person might very well want to live a life in which he consoles others rather than seeks to be consoled. That person has an ‘other- focus’ rather than a ‘me-focus,’ and that’s all the spirituality that matters. As long as the person believes that he is part of something bigger than himself or herself, spirituality— or ‘connectedness’ if you prefer that term—is possible.

I have come to believe that reliance on a rigid religious conception of God might, in fact, be an impediment to recovery because it can get in the way of that type of connectedness/spirituality. Although my sample size is not large, I have found it much easier to work the steps and traditions with non-believers than with those who come from a strong religious background.”

Vic L., an agnostic, says, “The article was a step in the right direction. For the past few years I have, by and large, restricted myself to agnostic meetings (because luckily I live in New York City where we have 16 agnostic meetings). I just don’t want to listen to others’ religious beliefs. It’s not the end of the world, but I’d rather not have to go through that. By the way, I feel the same way about people expressing their NON-beliefs at agnostic meetings! As with politicians, it is certainly permissible for ALL attendees at ALL AA meetings to share anything they want. I just feel that it’s in poor taste. As the moderator of the “What Is WAAFT” panel, I look forward to discussing this and other matters at the convention in Austin.”

Jenn W. found her sponsor by hearing her speak on how she changed the patriarchal god of the literature. “What initially attracted me to my sponsor was hearing her share at a Big Book meeting with criticism of a section of the literature that can be particularly harmful to any members who’ve experienced childhood or sexual abuse. A lot of my story revolves around using drugs and alcohol to cope with various forms of abuse because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to have a voice, so hearing her share candidly like that was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. When reading the literature with my sponsor, we change ‘Him’ to ‘Her’ and ‘He’ to ‘She,’ and in doing so I definitely feel more connected to the message and to the concept of a higher power. In literature meetings, I make sure to share about this, and about certain other sections of the book that I find problematic as a woman in the program, because I want female and female-identifying newcomers to know that they are allowed to have a voice, that there is a place for them in this program.”

I am hopeful that this month’s AA Grapevine will be a strong start to major change and acceptance. The pieces on the theme of non-belief are surprisingly practical. No bait- and-switch, as is often the case when it comes to GSO AA literature. There is no “come to Jesus” moment stuff. There are interesting and intelligent approaches to the steps. Mostly the stories feel true and void of the usual nonsense that the literature is filled with. It’s nice to feel like I can help because I want to. Knowing that down and dirty, low bottom recovering drunks like myself get sober without the hocus pocus of a supernatural being is my truth. If it’s yours too, then that’s what you need to share.

Live and let live.


Conference-approved literature

The acceptable use of non-“conference-approved” literature use in AA meetings comes up from time to time. To be a bona fide AA meeting, must all literature used in meetings be conference-approved? Many in AA feel something must be wrong if a meeting doesn’t read “How It Works”, recite the 12 steps and 12 traditions from the Big Book, and use a prayer or two (including the “Serenity Prayer”).

Most of us have been to AA meetings that don’t do all (or any) of these things. How can so many different meeting styles still be real AA meetings? If you are a Mason, or member of an Elks club, or a Boy or Girl Scout, don’t these organizations have specific rituals, use common signals, jargon, uniforms, etc to assure members they are part of a distinct organization? AA must, some might think, have some minimum code or requirement to set it apart … to identify its fellowship to one another in meetings.

Fortunately for us in AA, there are no such signals or codes needed for a meeting. (This may be unfortunate for those who expect or need them.) Without these, how else can we be sure a meeting is really AA without the incantations, calls and response, and group prayers said aloud?

In its service material the General Service Office (GSO) says this: “Conference approved literature and audiovisual material is that published by AA World Services, Inc, and has been approved by the Conference for this purpose.” It further explains, “The term has no relation to material not published by GSO. It does not imply Conference disapproval of other material about AA. A great deal of literature helpful to alcoholics is published by others, and A.A. does not try to tell any individual member what he or she may or may not read.”

In the GSO Box 4-5-9 from summer of 1978, the meaning of “conference-approved” is presented. Quoting from that item, the GSO Conference does not “disapprove of any other publications. Many local A.A. central offices publish their own meeting lists. A.A. as a whole does not oppose these, any more than A.A. disapproves of the Bible or books on health or any other publications from any source that A.A.’s find helpful. What any A.A. member reads is no business of G.S.O., or of the Conference, naturally.”

The breadth of variety in AA meeting types is great, including speakers meetings, Grapevine studies, and discussion topic meetings, to name but a few. Literature variety is also great, including the Holy Bible (in Celebrate Recovery meetings), the Emmett Fox Sermon on the Mount, books about and by Bill W or Dr. Bob,etc. Literature used in the history of AA meetings include the Tablemate, the Little Red Book, and a multitude of study guides.

Whatever makes a meeting is at the discretion of that meeting’s group conscience. If one group member is offended or outraged, there are other meetings (including those online) to suit the temperaments of everyone in AA.

“In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views. Let us instead accord to each other the respect that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way towards the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.” (Bill W., from his speech to the General Service Conference held in New York City in April, 1965.)

Finally, I recommend the online article on this topic from ( From that article, “the term ‘Conference-approved literature’ is meant only to identify the books ‘solely owned, copyrighted and published’ by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (AAWS). The AA Agnostica article suggests that this Conference-approved imprimatur is an attempt at censorship and a way to sell items from which GSO makes money. To give the impression that there is AA “approved” literature is, at best, misleading. Some might consider this illusion or falsehood just further proof that AA is a cult. The Many Paths meetings want to dispel that notion and show that secular meetings and recovery are possible.

Four Things an Alcoholic Could Learn From a Normie

repost from The Fix, By Dana Bowman 08/31/16

My husband and I are at a birthday party. This is a rare event, as I would much rather be at home on the couch watching Nurse Jackie, but we both love the guest of honor, and I am being an adult.

The husband is standing next to me, but is a million miles away through intense conversation with a friend about their alma mater’s football team. He has a look of pure bliss on his face as they both gloat over the last win. Their heads are bent together as if they were preparing questions for the press conference, and endless analysis of play-action passes fly over my head.

I’m okay. I’m imagining how I would like to redo our bathroom. As of yet, I have not really engaged in polite conversation with anyone, so I am mentally picking out the perfect grey paint and trying to figure out how I can smush a his and hers sink into a space the size of a bath towel. So far, the party is going great.

At some point, my mind wanders away from paint chips and tile and starts to notice the chattering folks around me. And then, I start to play How Many People Here Are Drinking. It’s what I do. I am an alcoholic, after all.

My husband is one of those weird creatures we call a “normie.” He is abstaining tonight because I am with him. I find this such a huge sacrifice that I wonder if he might divorce me over this party. As if, at the end of the night, he might come to me and say,

“Dear. I just can’t do it. I can’t go to anymore reunions or birthdays without drinking at them. You are a pain in the ass. I am leaving you. For beer.”

The sad thing is that I know folks who have experienced a version of this conversation. Alcohol is just that important to some of us. So, later at the party, I engage in this conversation (real, not imagined) with Brian:

“Dear. Go ahead. You can drink. Really, I totally understand. I mean, it is just so hard to be here and not drink, you know? I can’t imagine how you can stand it. Now, I’m just going to go stand over here by this plant. Let me know when it’s time to go.”

Brian does that thing where he looks at me like I am crazy. And he says,

“Dear. I am enjoying hanging with my friends. Plus, I am really full and don’t need the carbs. So, the beer? I could take it or leave it. You know?”

No. I don’t. I really, really don’t know.

Normies don’t have the slightest clue how much we alcoholics are watching them. Perhaps, if they did know, it would drive them to drink. Consequently, I shut up and let Brian continue with his heated discussion of offensive tacklers. He is in his zone of friends, sports talk, and cheese dip. And that’s when I realize, he is having a really good time while, at the same time, not drinking.

I too end up having a good time. I find a friend, and a couch, and we sit and talk about why we love Nurse Jackie. Also, she brings me a huge tumbler of something kind of brown and fizzy and strangely delicious.“It’s a virgin-ita” she tells me, proudly. I ask her what is in it and she shrugs. “I’m not sure. I just kept throwing all sorts of fruit juice in there. And maybe some root beer.” She too is a normie. She has a glass of wine in her hand that she doesn’t sip at all while we’re talking. In fact, when we get up to grab some snacks, she wrinkles her nose at the glass. “Ugh. Warm wine. I’m just gonna go toss this.”

And she does. She just tosses it. And we fill our plates with nachos and those little meatball things dripping in sweet barbecue sauce, and lo and behold, she then selects a Diet Coke. I just blink at her as if she started speaking in Swedish suddenly, unable to decipher her motives for the Coke. Is it a cover? When will she drink wine again? And she seems so happy, still? It’s befuddling.

These normies are kind of nuts. They come up with nonalcoholic drinks with disconcerting names, and they throw away wine. But, I also find them fascinating. And possibly worthy of imitation.

Here are four things I think we could learn from normies:

1. Ninety-nine percent of what we say does not have to have a double meaning. Life is complicated enough.

I check in with my husband a lot in these party situations. “Are you having fun?” I ask. I am pretty sure he can’t be having fun. And then, when he answers, “Yep! This is great,” I tense up. My eyes narrow. What does he mean, saying this is “great”? Is that sarcasm? How much does he resent me right now? Will I learn about this later at the divorce attorney?

Strangely enough, when Brian says he is having a great time, he is, in fact, having a great time. He is eating his own body weight in Velveeta. He is surrounded by friends he hasn’t seen in at least a week. He is having, dare I say, “fun.” I waste about half the night trying to decipher the meanings of all these words, when instead, I too could be inhaling cheesecake and learning that bunko is kind of awesome.

2. Most people are generally good.

Every time I go to a party I think, “I don’t like talking to people that much.” And then, in some sort of weird mathematical schism of life, this gets equated with: “I don’t like people.” I do realize this makes me sound like I am the awful one, and perhaps I am. Because what happens instead is that I go to the party and I find out people are awesome. I sit down and talk to people and they are really hilarious. And nice. And, they have interesting things to say.

It’s like every time I am in a social situation I have a total “Humans of New York” moment. My god. These people are cool. They have lives, and they make me laugh. And sometimes, too, there are even pets or small, sleeping babies, and I am just overwhelmed with gratitude.

3. Some people are awful.

Let’s just say, hypothetically, that you run into Larry at this party. Larry is a close-talker, and his breath smells of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and he likes to talk to you about gun control. This person is not fitting in my “Humans of New York” moment. Larry has probably never been to New York, and if he has, he complained a lot about the price of things and that the museums were overrated. Anyhow, Larry is just kind of awful. This is when you have three options:

a. Talk to Larry like a damn adult for five minutes and then head off in search of cocktail weenies.

b. Just not talk to him. Say, “Oh I forgot something!” and then wander off in search of it. He won’t really notice or remember because there are all sorts of other people to talk to, and there are cocktail weenies.

c. Skip obsessing about the fact that you did either a or b.

4. The next day is just the next day.

Every year, Brian goes away on something called his Man Trip. He spends a lot of money and watches his alma mater play football, and hopefully they win. They have lost the past three years now, but I am not keeping track. Anyhow, most of the money spent is for the hotel and food—but also for Crown Royal. And yes, he drinks all this Crown Royal with his buddies. I always make a point to call him the morning after the game, at about 7 a.m., and I speak into the phone like this: “HI HONEY! GOOD MORNING! HOW ARE YOU FEELING?” I kind of picture him hanging over the side of a toilet bowl, in agony, and that’s when I start in on a vivid description of my breakfast of runny eggs. He is scratchy-voiced and tired, but not dying. And he is not consumed with guilt and remorse. The most I can get out of him is, “Wow. I’m feeling it this morning.”

The next day is just the next day.

He just keeps right on living life, even if what he did the night before involved painting his chest purple* and trying to make it on the Jumbotron. The next day is just the next day, and it will involve packing up and coming on home and kissing us all hello. I sometimes have days where I do stuff that might make me cringe a bit, like I get too screechy with the kids, or wear my shirt inside out to Target. It doesn’t have to stay with me. The next day is just the next day, after all.

I am sure I have more to learn from my analysis of normies, but I am content with this list. All the items described basically fit under the idea that Not Everything is Such A Big Deal, a mind-bending realization that has taken me years in recovery to accept. If only my husband knew he was such an interesting specimen to study. I have a lot to learn from him.

Just don’t tell him I said so.

*All participants in the Man Trip have vehemently denied ever painting their chests purple. Perhaps, if they did, their stupid team would actually win.

Personalizing Step 10

The final three steps — 10, 11, and 12 — are referred to as the “maintenance steps”. Having made the honest effort to “clean up our side of the street” in the first nine steps, we enter the present and future of our lives in recovery.

What are we “maintaining” in these last steps? It is said we are maintaining a fit spiritual condition — an honesty used in the first 9 steps. That honesty will become almost second nature with every passing day. How do we know we are being honest daily?

Step 10 involves a daily reflection or mindfulness of what we are doing, especially in our interactions with others. If we are honest, we can’t help but have humility. We will have positive and negative interactions. Using what we learned in earlier steps helps us reflect on our contributions in those daily interactions. Knowing we are human we will have a need to make amends on occasion. The sooner we realize those needs for amends, and the sooner we make them, the better for us and others.

A couple of Step 10 variations from Roger C’s “The Little Book” include:

1. from the Buddhist 12 Steps — “We continued to remain mindful of our mental, verbal, and physical actions, and when we acted unskillfully, promptly admitted it.”

2. from the Native American 12 Steps — “We continue to think about our strengths and weaknesses, and when we are wrong, we say we are wrong.”

Repost of last article in AA Agnostica

The Last Post

by Roger, aaagnostica.orgJune 15
In military tradition, the Last Post is the bugle call that signifies the end of the day’s activities.

By Roger C.

This will be the last post on AA Agnostica.

It’s an appropriate day to stop posting new articles: our anniversary. It was exactly five years ago that AA Agnostica was launched, on June 15, 2011.

After five years it is time to move on. To take the computer out of the living room and put it up in the attic. To get out and meet new people and develop new preoccupations and pursuits.

Maybe get a job.

Well, that’s going a bit far; forget that.

Many, many thanks
Let this last post begin where it also all ends: in thanking the many, many writers who shared their experience, strength and hope with us on AA Agnostica. Over the past five years, we have posted original and inspiring written works a total of 360 times. That’s an average of 1.4 articles every week. And these articles were written by a total of 166 different authors. We would have liked more, but we are pleased to report that 64 of these writers were women.

While we occasionally re-posted articles previously published on sites like the Grapevine or The Fix, the vast majority of the articles were submitted directly to AA Agnostica from women and men – all in recovery – from all parts of the United States and Canada. There were also great contributors – Laurie A, Steve K and Gabe S come to mind – from the United Kingdom.

What these folks wrote about in this “space for AA agnostics, atheists and freethinkers” was their understanding of recovery and their experience as members of AA. And how these two fit together. Or don’t. For newcomers to the website – often alcoholics doing Internet searches for a secular approach to staying sober or people who had been referred to the website by friends – there was frequently a huge sense of relief, a first-time realization that they were no longer condemned to the hinterland of AA: “Oh my God! I am not alone!”

Or words to that effect.

So: many, many thanks to the writers. And to the commenters! And to all those involved. And to the reader, and that would be you. Thank you.

Group Conscience
Over the years we have paid attention to our contributors, the comments and the emails sent to us by our readers. As a result we developed a sense of the “group conscience” of those involved with AA Agnostica – secular members of Alcoholics Anonymous. There is a consensus on a number of issues, and we want to share that now. Please note that while what follows is based on several hundred articles and over a thousand comments, it is still an interpretation, and not everyone would have come to the same conclusions.

God is not a part of our recovery

First, recovery from alcoholism and addiction for us has nothing to do with God.

In particular it has nothing to do with an anthropomorphic or interventionist God.

That’s the God of the Big Book. It is the Christian God as He was understood in 1935 by the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s the God that is mentioned over and over again in AA literature.

Even Bill Wilson understood that he had overdone the “God bit” in the early years of AA. Two decades after the Big Book was published he wrote:

In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking… God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.

But let’s repeat. A belief in God is not at all a requirement for membership in AA. It only seems that way at traditional AA meetings and as a result of the behaviour of some Intergroups – notably the one in Toronto – which are hostile towards agnostic groups.

Human power can relieve our alcoholism

We agnostics, atheists and freethinkers believe that what works for us in AA is the fellowship. It’s “one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic”. The sharing and caring that is part and parcel of any AA meeting or group.

Nothing has been repeated on AA Agnostica more than this idea and experience. We believe in the fellowship.

Oddly enough, the value of the fellowship is not elaborated upon or even often talked about in the Big Book.

Indeed, our main disagreement with traditional AA is found in “How It Works” in the Big Book where it says that “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism” but “God and would if He were sought”.

Our experience is exactly the opposite.

It was also realized by the author of the Big Book that this was not entirely correct. Two years after the Big Book was published a second printing included a new appendix, which acknowledged that “with few exceptions” members of AA discovered that recovery was the result of having “tapped an unsuspected inner resource”.

And, indeed, what we have learned over eighty years of AA is that human resources and human support are essential components of abstinence and sobriety.

So be it. But it is this statement in “How It Works” that is our main difference with religious fundamentalism in AA.

In this respect the resistance of some Intergroups to listing our groups on AA meeting lists is different from the roadblocks experienced by other groups, such as LGBT groups. These other groups don’t challenge the idea that a God is key to removing our character defects and maintaining our sobriety.

We do.

And nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to the Steps.

Secular 12 Steps

Speaking of religious fundamentalism, it is hard to go to a traditional AA meeting these days without three things thrown in your face: a placard with the 12 Steps beside the podium; the meeting beginning with a reading of “How it Works”, which includes the 12 Steps and “no human power” and “God could and would if he were sought”; and people holding hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the meeting.

It’s as if they are deliberately trying to drive newbies out of the rooms. Or to clearly demonstrate that AA is “religious” and not “spiritual”.

We secularists in AA have two approaches to the 12 Steps. The first is not to do them. To simply ignore this “suggested” program of AA except perhaps for a few of them such as Step 1 (powerlessness over alcohol) or Step 12 (service).

And the second approach is to work them as part of achieving “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” (the appendix again).

But what’s a non-believer to do?

The word “God”, “Him” or “Power” (with a capital P) is in six of the 12 Steps.

It would be a tad hypocritical for a non-believer to do the Steps “as written”. Maybe 80 years ago, when the Steps were first written, you could pull that off. But not today.

Many secular alcoholics create our own versions of the Steps. Indeed, one of the most popular places on AA Agnostica is the page, Alternative 12 Steps. As of today, that page has been viewed 53,865 times. Moreover, because of the very keen interest in secular interpretations of the Steps, AA Agnostica was inspired to publish The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps. And we found the authors of an out-of-print book originally published in 1991 and were given permission to published a second edition of The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery.

Secular interpretations and versions of the 12 Steps are very much a part of the “group conscience” of we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA.

Which is not to say that we want to change the original 12 Steps, published in 1939. Leave those alone. You don’t mess with archival material. If we choose to work the Steps, we need to develop our own personal interpretations, without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny our own. Which, when you come right down to it, is the only way to do the Steps. As a friend wrote on AA Agnostica in its first year, in 2011, You Cannot NOT Interpret the Steps! Indeed, one of my favourite quotes from the 1991 book mentioned above, written by Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., is as follows: “We can learn the universal, generic pattern of life’s dance from the 12 Steps. But in our individual dance of life, we choose our own music and dance our own dance”.

Respecting the many paths to recovery

Which brings us to another important area of consensus within secular AA.

Early on in AA Agnostica, we discovered two gurus in recovery and AA: Bill White and Ernie Kurtz. And they introduced to us the idea of “celebrating” all of the many paths to recovery.

What an idea!

By and large, we secularists in AA wholeheartedly accept any road to recovery no matter what it may involve, be it the 12 Steps, the eight-fold path of Buddhism, psychotherapy, medication, a spiritual awakening or anything else. Whatever works, works, and we celebrate any person in recovery from alcoholism and addiction no matter how that is achieved or maintained.

And that raises two points.

First, in modern and secular AA, we do not object to someone who identifies herself at a meeting in this way, “My name is Jo-Anne, and I am an alcoholic and an addict”.

Second, we do not impose our views on others. We are, with few exceptions, not “militant” atheists. We do not do to others what we object to others doing to us within the fellowship of AA.

A number of years ago, a favourite author, Ernest Becker, wrote:

I have had the growing realization over the past few years that the problem of man’s knowledge is not to oppose and to demolish opposing views, but to include them in a larger theoretical structure.

He is describing the essence of AA with this statement. We are here in Alcoholics Anonymous to lend a helping hand to “anyone, anywhere” who reaches out for help. That’s the mission, the “larger theoretical structure” of AA. Not to impose our beliefs or to “demolish opposing views”.

Reverend Ward Ewing, the former chair of the General Service Board of AA, understood this perfectly and gave a compelling speech at the Santa Monica convention, underscoring this larger theoretical structure of AA, this “bigger picture”, if you will: “What we believe about something is far less important to living than what we experience. Experience is what transforms us; belief is our attempt to explain. Experience trumps explanation.”

We are AA

We atheists and agnostics and freethinkers grew up in AA. We owe our sobriety and recovery to the fellowship. One will very rarely hear anything else from those in our secular movement, a movement very much within the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

And so, the next question is this: are we trying to change AA?

There are two answers to that question: yes and no.

Of course, we want AA to be less religious. Less emphasis on the Big Book: I mean, I respect the Big Book but it was written 80 years ago and is simply not worthy of modern day thumpery.

Less “God could and would if he were sought”.

Fewer meetings that end with the Lord’s Prayer.

What we want is an AA in which “non-believers… are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification”, as a trustee put it in 1976.

Intergroups that would welcome us “without qualification”.

Conference-approved literature that is written by, for and about agnostics and atheists in AA.

But you know, the real answer to the question is this: No, we don’t want to change AA.

Because all of the above is at the core of the mission of AA. It should be genuinely “spiritual not religious”. The Responsibility Declaration and Tradition Three tell us that AA is for “everybody, everywhere” with a “desire to stop drinking” and that is to be done regardless of their “belief or lack of belief”.

We are quoting AA now, and that’s the essence of AA. And so, no, we don’t want to change the core of Alcoholics Anonymous. We want AA to live up to its own mission and commitment.

In a 2016 sort of way.

Moving Forward
The above is, as we understand it, a brief summary of a general consensus among alcoholics and addicts who have been AA Agnostica readers, writers and commenters over the past five years. It is not meant to be exact for each and every one of us but rather a very general understanding of how we non-believers understand our place within the fellowship of AA.

So where to now?

The Convention

For those who can afford it, we would recommend attending the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention November 11 – 13, 2016 in Austin, Texas. You can buy tickets and book rooms here: WAAFT IAAC.

There will be a variety of speakers, panels and workshops. And as John S, at AA Beyond Belief, puts it: “No matter what, people will have fun. It’s really about getting together”.

He is absolutely correct.

We just started our own “We Agnostics” meeting in Hamilton, Ontario, and so far three of the seven members of our group are planning to be in Austin. Give us a couple of months and we will add to that number.

At the convention in Santa Monica in 2014, all lucky enough to attend experienced a brand new and totally revitalizing take on life in sobriety. It was awesome.

We are unstoppable

The first agnostic AA meeting was founded in Chicago in 1975.

In 2001, when a small group of New Yorkers started a website to list secular AA meetings,, there were 36 agnostic AA meetings worldwide. Today, well, there are over 300, as you can see in the chart.

It’s not immediately obvious in the chart, but it is important to note that two thirds of the growth of secular AA has been in the last four years. And 2016 isn’t over yet. By the time it is, the line will be pointing straight up.

Let’s keep it happening. And you know, it will keep on happening because the need is obvious. The number of non-religious people – “nones” – is growing every year according to the Pew Research Center: America’s Changing Religious Landscape. There is an increasing number of alcoholics who simply can’t tolerate all of the “God” stuff at traditional AA meetings, meetings that invariably end with the Lord’s Prayer, and who simply turn around and walk out. Increasingly there are secular meetings that they can walk into and happily stay in order to work on the job of long-term sobriety. That’s what it’s all about.

And get involved in AA!

Become a GSR… Attend district and area AA meetings… Hell, become an area delegate and attend an annual General Service Conference.

The results of our involvement in AA can be phenomenal.

Almost two years ago, an article by life-j was posted on AA Agnostica, A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics in AA. This was the beginning of a campaign, led by life-j and Thomas B, to get the Grapevine to publish in one book some forty-two stories that the Grapevine had already published in its magazine since 1962.

No. In January 2015 the Board of Directors of the Grapevine met and decided not to propose to the General Service Conference – the permission of delegates at the Conference would be required – that such a book be published.

But the campaign continued. More letters were written. Various area assemblies in the United States were presented with motions about such a book and voted in favour of asking the Grapevine to publish it.

Yes. In January 2016 the Board of Directors of the Grapevine met and this time decided to propose to the General Service Conference that a book of its previously published stories by atheists and agnostics in AA should indeed be published.

The Conference agreed. The book is scheduled to be published in 2017.

This is just one of our victories as secular activists in AA.

If we want AA to grow and become inclusive of atheists and agnostics, NOT being involved in the service structure of AA is simply not an option.

Good Bye
We are coming to the end, dear friends.

Two final thoughts to share.

First, managing AA Agnostica was never a “chore”. It was always a privilege and a pleasure. From week to week, we so looked forward to, and were inspired by, the articles submitted to and published on AA Agnostica.

And the comments! The quality and thoughtfulness of the comments were more than outstanding.

Second, in closing, the final thing that we want to do is to wish everybody – each and every one of you – the very, very best.

We are, after all, AA. At its very core.

Ever onwards and upwards.

You can listen to a podcast about the origins and history of AA Agnostica right here: Roger C. and AA Agnostica. And Thomas B. – along with a number of other key players in secular AA – has put together this very touching article, A Tribute to AA Agnostica.

AA Agnostica will remain on the Internet.

The website will be kept fresh and up-to-date. For example, it will continue to include and add new images and links to websites for and about secular AA meetings. We will simply not have new articles. Nor will we continue our efforts to start new groups – thank you Chris G for your work on this project! – as we have found that this function is not nearly as necessary as it was a few years ago, as agnostic groups and meetings are now much more common and accepted. We shall, however, continue to work with others on putting together our special project, The Practical Book.

Any questions or comments on any topics can be sent to

The 360 articles on AA Agnostica are broken down into 15 categories, which you can find on the upper left side of the website.

Here are just seven of the fifteen categories found on the top left hand side of AA Agnostica.
If you want to read a chapter in Do Tell!, for example, just click on the category Do Tell! All of the chapters will be there, in reverse order. If you want to read about the struggles over the years to get “Conference-approved” literature for secularists in AA, just click on AA Literature for Agnostics. There are 8 articles in that category.

We also have eighteen articles that focus specifically on God, Religion and Prayer. And just click on Grapevine, and you will find 17 articles that have been published in the Grapevine since 1962, written by atheists and agnostics.

And on and on. All of the articles on AA Agnostica are well worth reading. Indeed, a great number of them are worth reading at least two or three times.

So: Keep coming back!

Recovery Pathways Are Not Always a Pathway

Dr. Bill Whites’s latest post carries this message: all viable pathways to recovery have not  been “mapped”. Recently, long term recovery frameworks have been coming from every variation possible of the older addiction recovery models. He says, “addiction recovery experience has been sliced and diced in all manner of categories: secular, spiritual, and religious; natural recovery, peer-assisted, and treatment-assisted; and abstinence-based, moderation-based, and medication-assisted, to name just a few. Recovery achieved through any of these frameworks is often referred to as a pathway of recovery. The growing consensus that there are multiple pathways of long-term addiction recovery marks an important public and professional milestone within the alcohol and drug problems arena.”

Bill goes on to say that there are, in most likelihood, many “pathways” to take, including those yet to be explored. In that respect, many of us are explorers of our own pathway. As we step out timidly into something new, we may not feel like Lewis and Clark when we try a variation that has worked for us (except when we dodge the arrows from “old time” 12 steppers).

Those embarking on a new pathway of recovery are more receptive to the less traditional (and even untraditional) ways of persons joining us in our journey. Those with the temerity to join us increases our confidence in a “new” pathway. We become confidentily more outspoken about the richness of experience we all bring to a particular pathway. Vive la difference!

Why I Share the Way I Do

Re-posted form The Fix website, comic Amy Dresner explains why she shares the way she does in AA meetings. Like many of us, Amy is a complex composite of recovery. In Amy’s case, she is influenced by “old time” AA, an extroverted personality, and an outspoken honesty some of us envy. Throw in a little bipolar and other “dual diagnosis” issues, Amy candidly and proudly discusses why shares way she does — in AA meetings and in comedy clubs alike.

For her piece on “sharing”, go to The Fix webite here.

Re-post: Step 2


As we did with Step 1, Step 2 in a 12-step program can be individualized to be more meaningful and personal to each of us.

Step 2 in the Alcoholic Anonymous book published in 1939 was this: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The key principle in this step is realizing that we can return to a life without substance abuse. We believe there is a path back to a normal life.

This “power greater than ourselves” could be anything that brings back the sanity we couldn’t achieve alone. When the AA book was published, the use of capitalized nouns (eg, “Power”) suggested something spiritual or more than human. We now know that there are many “powers” that can return us to sanity when we believe this is possible.

Some examples of that “power” can be more down to earth and easier to understand or grasp without requiring faith in a Judeo-Christian supreme being. Here are a few examples:

a. We came to believe that others who understood or had themselves recovered could help us return to and maintain sanity.

b. Came to accept and to understand that we need strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore our sanity.

c. We believe we must turn elsewhere for help.

d. Came to believe that we could recover.

These and other examples come from the compilation in “The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps”, by Roger C. (published by AA Agnostica).

Step meeting starting April 28, 2016

“Many Paths, a Few Steps” will start meeting at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Burien on Thursday, April 28, 6:30 – 7:30pm. It will then meet every Thurs evenings thereafter.

Materials for the study will be the Alcoholics Anonymous book and “The Little Book” (see previous post about books used at Many Paths meetings).

St. Elizabeth’s : 1005 SW 152nd St, Seattle, WA 98166
Many Paths will meet in the Library, 2nd floor. Entrance off
10th Ave SW at SW 152nd ST in downtown Burien.

Personalizing Steps 8 and 9

These steps are already “personal”. Some of us stall here, delaying because of the personal work — actions — needed. We may want to “think” our way through these steps rather than actually do the work. But these steps are “walked” or worked to ease the guilt we may feel for past actions. Our feelings after completing these steps may be all over the map, from relief to elation, from nothing at all to disappointment. Disappointment? Yes, we might have anticipated some great lifting of a burden, and anything less could be a letdown. The long-term benefit comes naturally, and this gives us the practice to do this naturally & easily in later steps.

These steps are considered to be “cleaning our side of the street”. This is an apt description because the cleansing is for our benefit. The “other side of the street” is none of our business, and we can have no expectations of what happens as we do these steps.

Rather than go into detail personalizing steps 8 & 9, I refer you to a good summary from Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. The chapter on Steps 8 & 9 is conveniently online at the AA Agnostica site:

Spiritual, Not Religious

The phrase “spirtual, not religious” has been with AA since its beginning. Do we know what it means? Aren’t they related or similar?

We sense there is a difference, but what is it? Bill Wilson knew and wrote that the Big Book was a beginning, yet more would be revealed. The first 164 pages of Alcoholics Anonymous were not the final word; he feared that we would never consider the “more revealed” over the years. He knew previous attempts at sobriety movements failed because they weren’t flexible. He wanted AA to be adaptable to the times, changing over generations. He wanted the “spirit” of AA to take precedence over the “letter” of words published in 1939.

“Spiritual” is a hard word for many of us to understand. It seems abstract, or vague, or squishy when we try to give examples. Rather than getting into all the uses and meanings of spiritual, let’s focus on how religious vs spiritual can differ.

The following comes from I don’t expect us all to agree on these differences, but they are worth considering.

Deepak Chopra said that “religion is belief in someone else’s experience, spirituality is having your own experience”.

Religion asks you to bow – Spirituality sets you free
Religion shows you fear – Spirituality shows you how to be brave
Religion tells you its truth – Spirituality lets you discover it
Religion separates from other religions – Spirituality unites them
Religion makes you dependent – Spirituality makes you independent
Religion applies punishment – Spirituality applies karma
Religion makes you follow another’s journey – Spirituality lets you create your own

What is secular spirituality?

It is almost as old as AA itself: “AA is spiriual, not religious”. Some AA meetings don’t make that distinction clearly. These meetings look for all the world to be religious.

How can something like AA be “spiritual” but not religious?

The casual oberver who sees or attends AA meetings is likely to see religious elements. During meeting shares you may hear references to “my Higher Power”, even adding “whom I choose to call God”. Frequent mentions of a “miracle” are common (eg. “don’t leave before the miracle”). These references in meetings — even ending some meetings with the Lord’s Prayer — would seem to be religious. How is this “not religious” then?

A number of AA members claim no religious faith. Others may have a religious faith but it doesn’t include a Judeo-Christian concept of god. How do these members deal with the “God stuff” as it’s frequently termed in AA? Well, they don’t deal with it well. Some just do a mental “translation” into a non-religious concept. Others allow it to build up into a resentment that festers if they continue in many AA meetings. Others may leave AA.

For many of these members (and they are members if they say they are), simply not saying “God” before the serenity prayer when others intone it is not acceptable. Telling meeting attendants that closing a meeting with the Lord’s Prayer “for those who want to join us” is not acceptable. Telling them to find a meeting that better suits them is not acceptable.

So, can we be “spiritual” in AA without the religious trappings? So-called secular spirituality is a definite consideration.

Secular spirituality suggests this: “Secular spirituality refers to the adherence to a spiritual ideology without the advocation of a religious framework. Secular spirituality emphasizes the inner peace of an individual, rather than a relationship with the divine. Secular spirituality is made up of the search for meaning outside of a religious institution; it considers one’s relationship with the self, others, nature, and whatever else one considers to be the ultimate. Often, the goal of secular spirituality is living happily and/or helping others.” (Wikipedia, as of 3/30/2016)

We’ll explore this secular implication as it applies to AA in a subsequent post.

AA member Number 4: The first atheist in AA

Excerpted from Glenn F. Chesnut’s article in

Jim Burwell: early AA’s first famous atheist

Tradition 3 says that “the only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

“Ed the Atheist” was a pseudonym and the title of a story in the Twelve and Twelve. But we know his real name, and we know a good deal about who he was. This was Jim Burwell, a famous early A.A. figure, who had his last drink on June 16, 1938. He founded the first AA group in Philadelphia in February 1940, and helped start the first AA group in Baltimore. He participated in the debates over the pre-publication manuscripts of the Big Book in 1938 and 1939, and he is the one who is credited with the insistence that the phrase “as we understood Him” be inserted into the 3rd and 11th Steps.

This is the way his story is told in pages 143-145 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which came out in 1953:

“A.A.’s [New York] group received into its membership a salesman we shall call Ed …. Ed was an atheist. His pet obsession was that A.A. could get along better without its ‘God nonsense’. He browbeat everybody, and everybody expected that he’d soon get drunk … Distressingly enough, Ed proceeded to stay sober.”

“At length the time came for him to speak in a meeting. We shivered, for we knew what was coming. He paid a fine tribute to the Fellowship; he told how his family had been reunited; he extolled the virtue of honesty; he recalled the joys of Twelfth Step work; and then he lowered the boom. Cried Ed, ‘I can’t stand this God stuff! It’s a lot of malarkey for weak folks. This group doesn’t need it, and I won’t have it! To hell with it!’…”

“The elders led Ed aside. They said firmly, ‘You can’t talk like this around here. You’ll have to quit it or get out.’With great sarcasm Ed came back at them. ‘Now do tell! Is that so?’ He reached over to a bookshelf and took up a sheaf of papers. On top of them lay the foreword to the book Alcoholics Anonymous, then under preparation. He read aloud, ‘The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.’ Relentlessly, Ed went on, ‘When you guys wrote that sentence, did you mean it, or didn’t you?'”

“Dismayed, the elders looked at one another, for they knew he had them cold. So Ed stayed.”

“Ed not only stayed, he stayed sober — month after month. The longer he kept dry, the louder he talked – against God. The group was in anguish so deep that all fraternal charity had vanished. ‘When, oh when, groaned members to one another, ‘will that guy get drunk?”

“Quite a while later, Ed got a sales job which took him out of town. At the end of a few days, the news came in. He’d sent a telegram for money, and everybody knew what that meant! Then he got on the phone. ‘In those days, we’d go anywhere on a Twelfth Step job, no matter how unpromising. But this time nobody stirred. ‘Leave him alone! Let him try it by himself for once; maybe he’ll learn a lesson!”

“About two weeks later, Ed stole by night into an A.A. member’s house, and unknown to the family, went to bed. Daylight found the master of the house and another friend drinking their morning coffee. A noise was heard on the stairs. To their consternation, Ed appeared. A quizzical smile on his lips, he said, ‘Have you fellows had your morning meditation?’ They quickly sensed that he was quite in earnest. In fragments, his story came out.”

“In a neighboring state, Ed had holed up in a cheap hotel. After all his pleas for help had been rebuffed, these words rang in his fevered mind. ‘They have deserted me. I have been deserted by my own kind. This is the end . . . Nothing is left. As he tossed on his bed, his hand brushed the bureau near by, touching a book. Opening the book, he read. It was a Gideon Bible. Ed never confided any more of what he saw and felt in that hotel room. It was the year 1938. He hasn’t had a drink since ….”

“So the hand of Providence early gave us a sign that any alcoholic is a member of our Society when he says so.”

“So in Bill Wilson’s interpretation, it was God himself — ‘the hand of Providence’ — who told the AA fellowship that they were not to exclude atheists from their AA groups. The principal message (to Bill’s mind) was one which was directed towards those AA members who had a strong belief in a personal God, people who wanted to talk about spirituality in biblical and Christian language. These members were deeply frightened by open atheism, that is, the total denial that God exists. But Bill was telling them that they nevertheless had to accept people into the fellowship who did not believe in God, because AA experience proved that these God-deniers also could be gotten sober in life-changing experiences.”

“It is important to note though, that in Bill Wilson’s version of Jimmy Burwell’s story as he published it in 1953, it was completely assimilated into the genre of the traditional Protestant frontier revivalist conversion story. In effect, he had Jimmy saying, ‘I was once a drunkard and a Godless wretch, abandoned by all right-thinking people, when suddenly I was SAVED by an overwhelming spiritual experience which coursed through me, when I stretched out my shaking hand and opened the sacred text of Christ’s own holy book.”

“Bill Wilson put Jimmy’s story into the basic format of the nineteenth-century and early twentieth century evangelical Protestant conversion story. But in doing so, Bill W was not only gravely altering and distorting Jimmy Burwell’s real story — which didn’t show an atheist found Christ or the biblical God — but how an atheist found his own kind of salvation.”

Jim Burwell in the second edition of the Big Book (1955): the Vicious Cycle

“But two years later, in 1955, Jimmy Burwell was allowed to write his story in his own words — it was entitled ‘The Vicious Cycle’ — for the second edition of the Big Book (pages 238-250). Or at least a good deal more of it was Jim’s own ideas and his own words. He began by emphasizing the way in which forcing religion down people’s throats in a way which gives them no freedom and no choice, can produce a horrible backlash, turning out men and women who believe that exact opposite of what the neurotic authority figures are trying to coerce them into believing:”

“At thirteen I was packed off to a very fine Protestant boarding school in Virginia, where I stayed four years …. developing a terrific aversion to all churches and established religions. At this school we had Bible readings before each meal, and church services four times on Sunday, and I became so rebellious at this that I swore I would never join or go to any church except for weddings and funerals.”

“This backlash effect would of course affect people in AA meetings in the same way if they started having required Bible readings and insisting that all members spend their time in AA meetings reciting all of the ‘correct’ doctrines and scriptural interpretations which a rigid group of authority figures was demanding (with threats of hellfire and eternal damnation heaped on the heads of any AA members who rebelled).”

“When Jimmy first came in contact with AA (he got sober the first time on January 8, 1938) the man who made the twelfth step call on him ‘said something about God or a Higher Power, but I brushed that off — that was for the birds, not for me.’ And so for six months, Jim and the rest of the New York AA group fought one another nonstop, with neither side gaining an inch on the other, until finally — if we look at the story carefully — both sides finally backed down and quit standing on their pride, and worked out a way they could live together with mutual respect.”

“First however was the six-month standoff. Jimmy went to New York City and joined the little AA group there. ‘There was one meeting a week at Bill’s home in Brooklyn, and we all took turns there spouting off about how we had changed our lives overnight, how many drunks we had saved and straightened out, and last, but not least, how God had touched each of us personally on the shoulder. Boy, what a circle of confused idealists! At our weekly meeting … I took every opportunity to lambaste that ‘spiritual angle’ as we called it, or anything else that had any tinge of theology. Much later I discovered the elders held many prayer meetings hoping to find a way to give me the heave-ho, but at the same time stay tolerant and spiritual.”

“I rocked along my merry independent way until June [of 1938], when I went out selling auto polish in New England. After a very good week, two of my customers took me to lunch on Saturday. We ordered sandwiches and one man said, “Three beers” …. I spent the next four days wandering around New England half drunk, by which I mean I couldn’t get drunk and I couldn’t get sober. I tried to contact the boys in New York, but telegrams bounced right back …. This was when I really took my first good look at myself. My loneliness was worse than it had ever been before, for now even my own kind had turned against me. This time it really hurt, more than any hangover ever had. My brilliant agnosticism vanished, and I saw for the first time that those who really believed, or at least honestly tried to find a Power greater than themselves, were much more composed and contented than I had ever been, and they seemed to have a degree of happiness which I had never known …. I crawled back to New York a few days later in a very chastened frame of mind.”

Taking the AA group as his Higher Power(June 1938-February 1940)

“Jimmy was the first one to bend slightly. He began thinking of ‘the power of the group’ as his Higher Power. This was far more than I had ever recognized before, and it was at least a beginning. It was also an ending, for never since June 16th, 1938, have I had to walk alone.”

“But then the rest of the AA group also began to unbend, and more than just slightly, as they began writing the Big Book. Jimmy notes only one of his contributions, his insistance that the phrase ‘as we understood Him’ be inserted into Steps 3 and 11 (Big Book page 59), but this little four word phrase has stood ever since as a guarantee to atheists that they cannot be excluded from AA.”

Jimmy B added, “Around this time our big A.A. book was being written and it all became much simpler; we had a definite formula which some sixty of us agreed was the middle course for all alcoholics who wanted sobriety, and that formula has not been changed one iota down through the years …. my only contribution to their literary efforts was my firm conviction, being still a theological rebel, that the word God should be qualified with the phrase ‘as we understand him’ — for that was the only way I could accept spirituality.”

“The insertion of that key phrase was, however, only the tip of the iceberg. It was what did NOT appear in the Big Book, and Jimmy Burwell’s influence on that, which was decisive to the future of the movement. The name ‘Jesus’ did not appear even once in the first 164 pages of the Big Book. And the word ‘Christ’ occurred but one time, and that only in the kind of negative context which one would expect in a book written by an angry atheist (Big Book pages 10-11). ‘With ministers, and the world’s religions, I parted right there. When they talked of a God personal to me, who was love, superhuman strength and direction, I became irritated and my mind snapped shut against such a theory.”

“To Christ I conceded the certainty of a great man, not too closely followed by those who claimed Him. His moral teaching — most excellent. For myself, I had adopted those parts which seemed convenient and not too difficult; the rest I disregarded.”

Jim’s reasoning was this: “The wars which had been fought, the burnings and chicanery that religious dispute had facilitated, made me sick. I honestly doubted whether, on balance, the religions of mankind had done any good. Judging from what I had seen in Europe and since, the power of God in human affairs was negligible, the Brotherhood of Man a grim jest. If there was a Devil, he seemed the Boss Universal, and he certainly had me.”

“In all the subsequent books written by early AA members for other early AA members, references to Jesus Christ and the Bible progressively became fewer and fewer: look at The Tablemate (1943), The Little Red Book (1946), and Twenty-Four Hours a Day (1948), just to give some of the more important examples.”

Working the fourth step forced Jim to begin looking at moral psychology (1940 and after)

“It was moving to Philadelphia that pushed Jimmy into the next stage of his spiritual growth, when he began, piece by piece, to work on his own fourth step character defects, and had to begin looking at the moral dimensions of the program.”

“Most early twentieth-century American psychiatrists, following Freud’s teachings, believed that speaking of right and wrong, or good and bad, or any other moralistic distinctions of that type, would push patients back into the realm of introjected parental admonitions and other superego issues that would drive these patients even further into crippling guilt and all sorts of bizarre neurotic behavior.”

“But early AA had from almost the very beginning combined the neo-Freudian belief that it was our childhood traumas and blockages which created our most damaging psychological problems, with the conviction that, in sorting out one’s past, one could not escape having to deal on many occasions with what were in fact moral issues. So AA fourth-step work of necessity involved having to engage in what many AA’s (and their friends among the psychiatric profession) called ‘moral psychology’, bringing these issues up out of our subconscious minds so we could process them, and learn new and better ways of dealing with them.”

Jimmy expanded, “After the book appeared we all became very busy in our efforts to save all and sundry, but I was still actually on the fringes of A.A. While I went along with all that was done and attended the meetings, I never took an active job of leadership until February 1940. Then I got a very good position in Philadelphia and quickly found I would need a few fellow alcoholics around me if I was to stay sober. Thus I found myself in the middle of a brand new group. When I started to tell the boys how we did it in New York and all about the spiritual part of the program, I found they would not believe me unless I was practicing what I preached. Then I found that as I gave in to this spiritual or personality change I was getting a little more serenity. In telling newcomers how to change their lives and attitudes, all of a sudden I found I was doing a little changing myself. I had been too self-sufficient to write a moral inventory, but I discovered in pointing out to the new man his wrong attitudes and actions that I was really taking my own inventory, and that if I expected him to change I would have to work on myself too. This change has been a long, slow process for me, but through these latter years the dividends have been tremendous.”

“To do this, Jimmy had to consider the fact that we each of us possess, as part of some kind of ‘deep conscience’, a fundamental knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. When we have to make an important decision, we can ask the simple question. If I go this way, will I be walking on the sunny side of the street, or on the dark side of the street? We all know in our hearts what it is like on the dark side of the street — people lying, cheating, manipulating, conning, taking pleasure from hurting other men and women, and walking away while other people lie bleeding and dying as the results of our actions. And we all know in our hearts what it means to walk on the sunny side of the street’.”

“But this means, as Jimmy slowly came to realize over the following years, that ‘the Good’ exists in every human being, even if many of us try to deny it and shut our eyes to it. The Good can be used as a kind of Higher Power that one can truly respect.”

Jim Burwell thirty years later (1968)

“To round off the story of Jimmy’s spiritual progress, we need to conclude by looking at an article he wrote a good deal later, entitled ‘Sober For Thirty Years,’ which was published in the May 1968 issue of the A.A. Grapevine. (It was reprinted yet another thirty years afterwards in the November 1999 issue of the Grapevine).”

“I came into the Fellowship in New York in January 1938. At that time A.A. was just leaving the Oxford Group. There was one closed discussion meeting a week, at Bill’s home in Brooklyn, with attendance by six or eight men, with only three members who had been sober more than one year: Bill, Hank, and Fitz. This is about all that had been accomplished in the four years with the New York Oxford Group. During those early meetings at Bill’s, they were flying blind, with no creed or procedure to guide them, though they did use quite a few of the Oxford sayings and the Oxford Absolutes. Since both Bill and Dr. Bob had had almost-overnight experiences, it was taken for granted that all who followed would have the same sort of experience. So the early meetings were quite religious, in both New York and Akron. There was always a Bible on hand, and the concept of God was all biblical.”

“Into this fairly peaceful picture came I, their first self-proclaimed atheist, completely against all religions and conventions …. I started fighting nearly all the things Bill and the others stood for, especially religion, the ‘God bit.’ But I did want to stay sober, and I did love the understanding Fellowship. So I became quite a problem to that early group, with my constant haranguing against all spiritual angles.”

“I was suddenly taken drunk on a sales trip. This became the shock and the bottom I needed …. for the first time I admitted I couldn’t stay sober alone. My closed mind opened a bit. Those folks back in New York, the folks who believed, had stayed sober. And I hadn’t. Since this episode I don’t think I have ever argued with anyone else’s beliefs. Who am I to say?”

“I feel my spiritual growth over these past thirty years has been very gradual and steady …. For the new agnostic or atheist just coming in, I will try to give very briefly my milestones in recovery.”

“This spiritual journey ended up bringing Jimmy real serenity and happiness. He never came to believe in any kind of biblical concept of God, or the kind of Protestant evangelical principles that the Oxford Group had taught, where it was believed that salvation could only come through a highly emotional experience where you fell down on your knees and took Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or something of that general sort. But he did find that he could totally depend on the AA fellowship as a Higher Power, and eventually found that the concept of the Good which all human beings had buried down deep in their hearts, could serve as a perfectly adequate God for him. As Jimmy put all this in his own words:

1. The first power I found greater than myself was John Barleycorn.

2. The A.A. Fellowship became my Higher Power for the first two years [1938-40].

3. Gradually, [in the process of starting the first A.A. group in Philadelphia] I came to believe that God and Good were synonymous and were found in all of us.

4. And I found that by meditating and trying to tune in on my better self for guidance and answers, I became more comfortable and steady.

“Learning how ‘to tune in on [his] better self for guidance and answers’, that is, how to contact what Emmet Fox and Richmond Walker called the spark of the divine within his own mind, Jimmy found true blessedness and a lasting and happy sobriety.