Contextualizing the First Annual “We Agnostics and Free Thinkers” AA Convention, Nov 6-8, 2014

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by the venerable Trysh Travis, former Points managing editor.

A friend with a drinking problem has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings lately, and finding them not very helpful. “I can’t stand all the God talk,” she explained. She was raised in an Islamic country where God is routinely invoked—sometimes consciously, other times mechanistically—as a punitive, fearsome presence whose main purpose in the world seemed to be to limit the freedoms of women like herself. God was the last person she felt like turning to for help.

Before you go getting up on your Fox News soapbox and calling in more drone strikes in the name of an oppressed Third World Woman, let me just note that I’ve had American friends—Baptists, Catholics, and Jews—who had the same gripe with 12-Step culture. Twelve-Step recovery’s official posture may be that it is “spiritual, not religious,” but the niceties of that distinction may be lost on people for whom “God” is hot-button issue.

In addition, because the discourse at any given 12-Step meeting reflects the predilections of the regular attendees, groups may become religious, either by default or by intent. In the course of researching my book on the history of the recovery movement, I moved from the secular Northeast to Texas, where I was shocked to hear people in meetings talking not about a generic “Higher Power,” but about “my lord and savior Jesus Christ.” In the staid Connecticut 12-Step culture with which I was familiar, believing Christians were careful to invoke “my Higher Power, whom I choose to call ‘God.’” This kept them, and the meeting, aligned with the spirit of AA’s Preamble to the 12 Steps, which states “AA is not allied with any sect [or] denomination [and] neither endorses nor opposes any causes.” But such personal reticence on matters of faith, I soon discovered, was not generally a part of Bible Belt 12-Step culture.   A meeting was an opportunity to witness.


This regional variation has taken on an institutional cast in recent years. Within AA, “Back to Basics” proponents—like Barefoot Bill, James H. and Dick B.—focused on 12-Step Culture’s origins in the evangelical Oxford Group have become increasingly vocal and visible. In fact, as Glenn C. has argued, a variety of religious traditions informed the AA co-founders’ thinking about drink cessation, but the Back to Basics movement tends to emphasize their connections to Christian pietism. The internet and the increased ease of self-publishing and –distribution have made it incredibly easy to systematize and extend the reach of what once might have been isolated sub-cultures.

And there’s an evangelical bent to the Back to Basics movement: program friends across the country have mentioned to me over the last few years that individuals invested in the movement—sometimes called “Big Book Thumpers” or “Oxford Groupers”—have come into their meetings with the clear agenda of shifting the discourse towards a conventional Christian (if non-denominational) God. Such a shift intends to improve the amount and quality of sobriety among individuals within the fellowship, but is also meant to reform AA itself, which many Back to Basics advocates see as having fallen away from a sacred beginning. As Barefoot Bill puts it, “It was never intended that phrases such as ‘higher power,’ ‘power greater than ourselves,’ or ‘[God] as we understood Him’ [serve] as an enabling device to justify our membership’s continued avoidance of a connection with our Creator.”

So if we want to understand what’s driving the First International “We Agnostics and Free Thinkers” AA Conference (WAFT) next week in Santa Monica, California, we should know that there have always been regional (as well as local and neighborhood-level) differences in the way people live 12-step culture. That culture has also changed over time, and in recent years, a vibrant populist version of 12-Step thinking that emphasizes its Christian dimensions over and against its commitment to spiritual pluralism has grown in visibility. Now, in a countermove, the agnostic tradition in the fellowship is pushing to the fore.

AA conv

That tradition, like the evangelical one, is a rich one, sketched by Roger C. in a 2011 article in the American Humanist. The phrase “We Agnostics” is from the Big Book’s Chapter Four, which explores the difficulty the original members faced with the idea of a spiritual solution to their drinking. Their solution to that problem, and the one that the reader is encouraged to take as well, was to find “your own conception of God.” This tolerance—indeed, this invitation—to agnosticism is the foundation of AA’s “spiritual but not religious” platform. It was, to co-founder Bill Wilson’s way of thinking, the thing that separated AA from the Salvation Army and other proselytizing missions devoted to “saving” drunks.

AAs loyal to this strain of thinking within the fellowship have founded Agnostic AA and AA Agnostica, among other groups, and created a list of World Wide Agnostic AA Meetings, which is maintained by the New York City Agnostic AA chapter. Next week’s International Conference is another step towards visibility. That it may be seen as something else is suggested in the FAQ section, which contains questions about whether WAFT is, in fact, AA; whether it is trying to split from AA; whether it uses “God-free” steps; and whether the General Service Office (the administrative arm of AA) “will shut us down.” (If you’re not moved to visit the site yourself, the answers are yes, no, no, and no.)

Consternation within AA about who represents the true spirit of the fellowship, and who is a self-interested interloper whose hubris is likely to make him start drinking again is nothing new. The AA History Lovers group, to name only one group of stakeholders, has already seen some discussion of the WAFT’s legitimacy. Doubtless there will be more, and it will probably get heated. At the heart of American political and cultural life today is the post-liberal quarrel over which special interest groups have too much power; should we be surprised that AA can’t see itself any differently than we see our school curriculums, our health care, and our electoral politics?

5 thoughts on “Contextualizing the First Annual “We Agnostics and Free Thinkers” AA Convention, Nov 6-8, 2014”

  1. Thanks for this great piece. I’m a recovering woman who began in AA 29 years ago. Even in ostensibly liberal coastal northern California I encountered what I call a “spiritual wall” at four years of recovery because patriarchal Judeo-Christian AA I found in meetings no longer felt supportive. I explored alternatives which eventually led me to identify with aspects of feminist spirituality and adopt a variety of ritual and other practices which I experienced as woman-affirming and sustaining of my long term recovery. At about ten years of sobriety I no longer had a sponsor or any sponsees and had stopped going to meetings. Along the way I worked at increasing levels of responsibility in the treatment industrial complex, first as a counselor, than a program director, and eventually as an executive director of women’s programs – always seeking to develop services informed by feminist values. In my view, the status of recovery options for women remains abysmal.

    Four years ago I returned to graduate school for a doctorate in Philosophy and Religion focusing on feminist spirituality. My research is a feminist, heuristic study of some women in recovery whose experiences have been similar to mine. Your post is another helpful example of the many paradoxical elements of AA, especially for women seeking access to affirming recovery options.

  2. Page 70 AA Service Manual Concept 12 – Encouraging secession:

    If an A.A. member says he doesn’t like his own group, we are not disturbed. We simply
    say “Why don’t you try another one? Or start one of your own.” When our actors and cops
    and priests want their own private groups, we say “Fine! Why don’t you try that idea out?”
    When an A.A. group, as such, insists on running a clubhouse, we say “Well, that sometimes
    works out badly, but maybe you will succeed after all.” If individual A.A.’s wish to gather
    together for retreats, Communion breakfasts, or indeed any undertaking at all, we still say
    “Fine. Only we hope you won’t designate your efforts as an A.A. group or enterprise.” These
    examples illustrate how far we have already gone to encourage freedom of assembly, action,
    and even schism. To all those who wish to secede from A.A. we extend a cheerful invitation
    to do just that. If they can do better by other means, we are glad. If after a trial they
    cannot do better, we know they face a choice: they can go mad or die or they can return to
    Alcoholics Anonymous. The decision is wholly theirs. (As a matter of fact, most of them
    do come back.)
    In the light of all this experience, it becomes evident that in the event of a really
    extensive split we would not have to waste time persuading the dissenters to stay with us.
    In good confidence and cheer, we could actually invite them to secede and we would wish
    them well if they did so. Should they do better under their new auspices and changed conditions,
    we would ask ourselves if we could not learn from their fresh experience. But if it
    turned out they did worse under other circumstances and that there was a steady increase
    in their discontent and their death rate, the chances are very strong that most of them
    would eventually return to A.A.

  3. No one benefits from any idea of Alcoholics Anonymous as religious. Some atheists and agnostics will not attend. Others will not stay. Even religious people may stay away or stop attending for reasons ranging from competition to theological differences. Any drunk not attracted to A.A. may die. Who wants or needs that? Anyone who believes that A.A. meetings are for anything other than where newcomers may bring their problems, and where we may say in a general way what we used to be like, what happened and what we are like now, has not read Alcoholics Anonymous thoroughly. It seems at times that many know page 417, but not page 93, where it is suggested that we use everyday language to describe spiritual principles. When in doubt, read or listen to founders talks. What they meant is what they said, and wrote, and did. And, what they did not say, write or do. For example, they intentionally omitted “on your knees” from the Big Book. And yet, in many meetings, some “smarter than the message” person uses the expression. And, some are “praying for others” when it is repeatedly suggested that we pray only for knowledge and power for us to help others, not have a God do it for us. Of course, on that same page 93, we are advised to tell someone exactly what happened, but only when asked, person to person.

    Alcoholics will die if A.A. is thought to be religious. I do wish that some attorney might appeal court decisions that A.A. is religious on the following grounds. Does an organization have the right to say it is not a religious organization? (Alcoholics Anonymous, page xx) If so, does any Court in the United States have the authority under the Constitution to determine that it is a religious organization? If so, how is this fundamentally different from a Court determining that an organization is the “right” religious organization. Sure A.A. uses the word God in founding and organizational documents. But, so does the United States of America. But, unlike A.A., the United States has paid clergy, and almost always has paid officials publicly asking God’s blessings from the pulpit, I mean podium. Is the United States a religious organization?

    Finally, I wish someone would start a list of “Top Twelve Reasons Alcoholics Anonymous Is NOT Religious” since it has to be twelve rather than ten. Of course, it could grow to 12 by 12 by 12 …

    12. What religion would let every member choose their own conception of God as long as it makes sense to them?
    11. What religion would be used and honored by people of every known religion or against every known religion in the world, or universe?
    10. What religion would own no real property?
    9. What religion would have no paid hierarchy?
    8. What religion would tolerate so many member’s use of colorful language?
    7. What religion would have any member only because they want to stop drinking?
    6. What religion would have no paid clergy?
    5. What religion would have its singleness of, or even primary purpose to stay sober and help others achieve sobriety?
    4. What religion would authorize the smallest group autonomy in the organization?
    3. What religion would allow the newest member the ability to speak as much as the oldest member?
    2. What religion would tolerate A.A. members range of rebellion and anarchy?
    1. What religion would have millions of members attending an average of two and a half times a week having so much fun helping drunks?

    I am certain many can improve and enlarge this list exponentially.

    • There are already lots of folks that don’t go to AA because they believe it is religious, before these Book Thumpers try to make it so.

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