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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Can an Atheist be in A.A.?

"A.A. is NOT a religious organization. All members are free to decide on their own personal ideas about the meaning of life.”
from "A Brief Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous: What is A.A.?"


Alcoholics Anonymous was born in the first part of 20th Century in the middle of white, Protestant America. That's not a judgement. It's just an historical fact. Women had only been given the vote 15 years prior. Jews were being overtly discriminated against. Juvenile diabetes still killed nearly everyone who was stricken by it within months. The polio vaccine was still 17 years away. Indoor plumbing was a distant dream for many Americans, and daily baths were out of the question for the vast majority of us.

It was in that time in history that A.A. was created.

In 1934, Bill Wilson was hospitalized, suffering once again from acute alcohol withdrawal (which is often accompanied by hallucinations and delusions). He was also being treated with belladonna (a known hallucinogen in its own right). It was under these conditions that Bill had his now-legendary "white light" experience.

Should we be surprised? DT's and a fat dose of belladonna and Bill was - as we used to say - tripping his brains out.

Combining Bill's own experiences with the influence of the very evangelical "Oxford Group," A.A. was born as a nearly all male, nearly all white, nearly all Protestant program. Many of its early precepts came from the Oxford Group and were adapted to meet the needs of the new group which was in its infancy. Bill W. and Dr. Bob - A.A.'s founders - were both members of the Oxford Group until the 1940's.

It's interesting to note that one of the first A.A. members was Jim B. He was a self-described "militant agnostic." After an early relapse, he remained sober and outlived the two founders of A.A. Jim started meetings in Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Diego. His story was even included in the First Edition of the book, "Alcoholics Anonymous," the book generally referred to by A.A. members as "The Big Book." Some of his story can be found here: Sober for Thirty Years.

A few things have changed since those early days. Our understanding of medicine and science and public health and sanitation has grown exponentially. One might expect that even A.A. itself would have matured and grown and advanced during that time, and in many important ways that it has. It has certainly expanded its thinking with respect to the participation of women, racial minorities, and those of non-Christian faith. A.A. now has meetings which exclusively serve the LGBT community, women-only meetings, men-only meetings, meditation-based meetings, and meetings for young people. It's time that A.A. expand itself once again to more actively include and support those members who might not have a belief in things which exist outside of nature, or for whom "god" is not a reality.

"What about the steps that mention God?" is a question that's often asked.

In numerous instances in the Big Book and in A.A.'s own conference-approved literature, A.A. makes it abundantly clear that members are free to use whatever notion of "higher power" works for them. We are now seeing some of those members gather together in formal A.A. meetings aimed to support those with a non-supernatural understanding of "Higher Power." They have found that being in a meeting where they can openly discuss their doubts to be tremendously refreshing. Those members share their experiences of using a "Group Of Drunks" as a higher power, or how the "God of their understanding" is more like Nature than Neptune. Members are finding the love and support they require to get and stay sober can be found in the rooms of A.A., more often now than ever in a meeting for Agnostics and Athiests.

There is good news. A.A. now has meetings where atheists, agnostics, humanists, free-thinkers and rationalists can find their own key to sobriety. They are few and far between, but they are marching forward and carrying the message that there is hope for recovery for ANYONE who is seeking it. Here's a link to several meetings around the world.

If you are an atheist or an agnostic, there is room for you in A.A. Absolutely. Without question. And unapologetically.

“It would be unrealistic to assume that all A.A. members are spiritually inspired. Many, too, are not committed to a formal body of religious doctrine. But innumerable A.A. members—including those of no orthodoxy—say they have experiences the transforming power of sharing, caring, trust and love." 

And, “...the A.A. program of recovery is based on certain spiritual values. Individual members are free to interpret these values as they think best, or not to think about them at all.”

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Intergroup Intelligentsia - The Thought Police

Many local AA members have heard by now that the "We Agnostics" group has been forever excommunicated from the Indianapolis Intergroup meeting directory. Some have heard of this author's rather dramatic exit from the charade that they chose to call a "Service Committee Meeting." While I'm not particularly proud of my behavior, I can assure you that the entire group in attendance knows where I stand on this issue, and the chairperson of the "committee" specifically knows my feelings.

It became abundantly clear very early in the evening that the committee had already made up its mind about what the outcome would be. It was not interested in Traditions or Concepts or Unity or Service. It was a war of opinions and anecdotes and popularity. One attendee of that "Service Committee" meeting even went so far as to suggest that the "We Agnostics" meeting was godless and therefore couldn't have a group conscience...violating the Second Tradition. Yet another attendee compared me to a mass murderer because I was passionately defending my right to be there.

The Indianapolis Intergroup Service Committee Meeting of June 9, 2011 was a Kangaroo Court if there ever were one.

I want to make it very clear that the "We Agnostics" group uses a simple meeting format. There is no reading of any "altered steps or traditions" as a part of the format. Many members do share their experiences, which often does mean that those members may interpret the steps when they share to help illustrate their own understanding of "power greater than ourselves" or "god as we understood him." I personally carry a version of the steps that have been "translated" into terminology that I can relate to, and will give that version to anyone who asks.

At the "We Agnostics" group, we strive to keep an open door where newcomers are welcomed no matter how they self-describe or identify. Attendees are welcomed to share whatever they wish, provided that they follow the Group Conscience and not suggest to other members that belief in a supernatural higher power is an absolute necessity to achieve sobriety. Many folks have attended and spoken about their own belief in a supernatural god. They are not ushered out of the rooom or shamed into trying to believe or speak otherwise. Any person who attends may share whatever they wish. Our group simply asks that when attendees share that they refrain from suggesting that such a belief is a requirement for other people. I file that under "sharing experience, not giving advice."

I'm left with a few unanswered questions...though I really do think that the answers are obvious.

Does Intergroup monitor and sanction other groups when members of those groups individually offend the opinions of the Intergroup Service Committee? (I believe that the answer is NO 99.9% of the time.)

Where will the line of discrimination stop? Now that they believe that they can determine what individual members can and cannot think and believe, which unfavorable belief system is next? Will Intergroup sanction other groups because they pass out non-approved literature in their meetings? Will they sanction individual members who - as a part of their lead - reference specific non-christian deities or distribute non-approved charts and graphs? Will groups that exclude individuals based on their gender or sexual orientation be excommunicated because they limit attendance based on a certain "affiliation?"

"We Agnostics" is an AA group. The Intergroup Service Committee and its members might believe that they can tell a group that it's not a group, but Intergroup can only remove the meeting from its own directory of meetings. It does not have the power to tell any AA group whether or not that meeting is a group. The General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous recognizes the meeting "We Agnostics," and it is a meeting because - according to the Traditions - it says it is.

Here's the great news. The group is thriving and will continue to do so. We routinely have 20+ people in attendance, collect 7th Tradition money, pay rent, and send contributions to the GSO. Several of our members have in excess of 20 years of continuous sobriety, and an increasingly enthusiastic group of newcomers is choosing to make the "We Agnostics" group a part of their ongoing sobriety. I hope you'll attend some time.