Agnostic AA 101

Before we even decide on what we call ourselves (‘Agnostic’, ‘Secular’, ‘WAAFT’, ‘No-Prayer’, etc.), we should also agree upon what exactly makes an AA group or meeting ‘one of ours’… And yes, we should agree on a name too.

“We want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.”

—Malcolm X

Hi, my name is Ed and I’m an alcoholic. To the other sober alcoholics reading this, my story is probably much like any other drunk’s at its core. Rather than open with a drunk-a-log, I will simply state that I have over two years fully clean and sober and helped start an Agnostic AA group that many people have told me has the best AA group name ever.

As the WAAFT International AA Convention nears, there is a lot of talk about what “Secular AA” is and isn’t about – reflecting minor differences of opinions amongst us like-minded drunks. There have been many articles and posts that have explored this topic.

Today, I just want to focus on what actually makes an AA meeting “Agnostic” – the baseline format that I believe most WAAFT meetings already embody. This may seem obvious to members like myself who attend regularly. Yet this may not be so for newcomers, traditional AA’s, or those still suffering. These folks may want or need to know more about what we are.

None of the criteria I put forward is meant to supersede or subvert AA’s primary purpose: “To carry its message,” etc. We are still AA and we adhere to many if not all of the Twelve Traditions. We just have a slightly different format that arguably makes it more feasible to carry that message to drunks who stay away from AA for reasons of belief or conscience.

I use the terms “agnostic,” “secular,” “freethinking,” etc., interchangeably here. I will close with my suggestion for the umbrella term we should use going forward. Plus (the standard disclaimer): I do not speak for AA; my opinions are mine alone.

The Three Criteria

These are the three criteria that I believe, through experience and observation, make up the sine qua non of a Freethinkers’ AA group:

1) “A Tradition of Free Expression”

Many agnostic groups beginning of most meetings with this statement that is read usually before or after the AA Preamble:

This group of AA attempts to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their own.

Source: Agnostic AA NYC

Some call this the “Agnostic Preamble.” I prefer to call it the “mission statement” or “sub-preamble” to avoid confusion. It expresses what I believe to be already an unwritten rule in any AA meeting:

You can say whatever the heck you want!”

“W.W.J.B.D.: What Would Jimmy B. Do?”
“W.W.J.B.D.: What Would Jimmy B. Do?”

However, this rule is enforced as best as any unwritten rule: many meetings do, but just as many don’t. What you say at a regular AA meeting could draw the ire of the Unsolicited Advice Brigade (the “U.A.B.SM”), that secret society within AA who likes to dictate to you how you should run your program according to their standards. You may get out of the meeting alive, but be prepared to run the gauntlet of pointing fingers afterward, or worse, the cold shoulder, for espousing certain ideas or beliefs.

Thus, our “sub-preamble” effectively codifies this rule, putting everyone on notice that the meeting is a completely safe space to share about anything and everything: God, not-god, Steps, no-Steps, Traditions, drugs, psychology, resentments, other groups, even AA itself … the list goes on. So long as there is no crosstalk or disruptive behavior involved, no topic is taboo or off-limits.

The tradition of free expression is also here for any believers in our rooms. I know a few people who have God or a “Higher Power” in their program, yet they also prefer agnostic meetings. For them, God may not be the problem. Their “doubts or disbeliefs” in AA may lie with their overbearing sponsors, run-ins with U.A.B.SM, Bill Wilson’s arguably chauvinistic prose, an overuse of slogans, groups that close only with the Lord’s prayer, etc. They delight in the freedom of thought and open-mindedness we engender. For whatever reasons alcoholics find WAAFT meetings, this tradition helps welcome them all. It is AA in its freest form.

2) A De-emphasis on Traditional “God-based” AA Literature

I’m guessing that “God as we understood Him” was the most forward-thinking the language could be in 1939. Since then, fellows like Jim B. and others have been helping widen that gateway further.

However, even if attitudes evolve, it is unlikely the literature will change anytime soon. Between the “Big Book” and the “12 and 12” combined, the word “God” appears 298 times; “Higher Power” pops up 23 times. Between the “We Agnostics” chapter and the “suggested” prayers throughout, the prose and spirit of this literature just doesn’t resonate with or help many of us.

So, we keep all that “on the shelf.”

You won’t find many agnostic “Big Book” or “Step” meetings out there. The best “Conference-approved” option we have is Living Sober, which seems to be the de-facto literature of choice at Secular meetings.

It is important to note that we respect any alcoholic or group who wants to use “Big Book” and the “12 & 12” in their recovery. For many of us, it is just not our cup of tea. The stories we share in the meetings themselves is what keeps many of us sober.

I won’t address whether “outside,” “alternative,” and/or “non-conference-approved” literature has any place in an AA meeting, as that is a whole topic unto itself.

3) No Prayers During the Meeting

Most importantly, so that all may feel comfortable regardless of one’s faith, conscience, belief, or lack of any of these, our groups do not open or close our meetings with a group prayer. Not the Lord’s Prayer. Not the Serenity Prayer. Not any prayer at all.

If our meetings close with any sort of individual or group invocation, we usually read the AA Responsibility Declaration:

“I am responsible: When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that, I am responsible.”

Adopted in 1965 at the Thirtieth International AA Convention in Toronto, this invocation has a distinction that neither the Lord’s Prayer nor the Serenity Prayer can claim: It was written by AA, for AA.

Many groups also join hands at the end and recite the AA slogan: “Live and Let Live!”

Together, these statements remind us that we are here to help others as well as ourselves. They evoke the essence of love and service in our Fellowship.

Some meetings have no closing statement or invocation whatsoever… and that’s okay too.

These criteria are not a strict syllabus dictating how any secular group should format their meetings. Like all decisions, that is up to each group’s conscience. What I’ve written here is just a suggestion.

If you are interested in starting a WAAFT-style meeting in your neck of the woods, check out this Agnostic meeting script library.

The Name for It All

So what’s my suggestion for an ultimate name for this format, this approach to recovery, and these AA group and meetings?

“No-Prayer” AA

Even though they may have become AA terms-of-art in their own right, the terms “agnostic,” “atheist,” “humanists,” “freethinker,” etc. still connote a focus on the particular identities and beliefs of the attendees. What about Buddhists, Wiccans, New-Agers, and open-minded believers in god who like our style of recovery?

Will we need to amend the “WAAFT” moniker to “WAAFTBWNAOMB” one day? Clearly not. But then how does our name reflect that we are inclusive to all alcoholics?

The term “No-Prayer” puts the focus on our format, not on us. It’s not about so much about who we are. It’s more about what we do at our meetings.

I am also mindful that “No-Prayer” defines us more as what we are not doing at meetings, rather than what we are doing. I originally thought these should be called “free-expression/no-prayer” meetings, but that’s too long.

In essence, what we are doing is no different from the rest of AA: getting sober. It’s just a question of “How?” The “No-Prayer” format is a clear and concise answer to that question. It’s something we can all agree upon: that we don’t engage in group prayer at our meetings. So let’s agree upon it as our overall moniker.

Finally, The Long Form Third Tradition states

“Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.” (emphasis added)

Identifying ourselves as “agnostic,” “secular,” etc., could be construed as identifying with our beliefs as separate affiliations outside of AA. Whether or not this is actually the case, or a violation of any Tradition, is less important than the optics it presents. If we have learned anything from the “Toronto Situation,” it is that a perceived controversy can become a real controversy, especially in the eyes of our fellow alcoholics.

“No-Prayer” is an intellectually honest, wholly inclusive, and politically expedient description of our fledgling tribe of drunks, and our approach to recovery.

I am grateful to the No-Prayer group and AA as a whole for helping me stay sober and be of service to others.

Thank you for reading my share. Keep coming back.


About the Author, Ed W.

Ed regularly attends This Ungodly Hour in Brooklyn, New York. He kindly suggests you drop by if you’re ever up really late on a Friday Night in Williamsburg and looking for a meeting.

Carl G. contributed to this article.


Artwork

Featured image created by Cope C.

Jimmy Burwell composite image created by Ed W.

Audio Story

The audio story was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len interested in s tarting a secular AA meeting in his community. If you would like to join him, please send an email to lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/301175300″ params=”auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true” width=”100%” height=”300″ iframe=”true” /]

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Iain

    Thank you for writing this article. I would like to suggest that there be no hand holding at AA full stop. Personally for myself this practice alienates me. If a group wants to hold hands the choice not to do so should be given. Iain. UK

    1. boyd p.

      There’s a second no hand holding comment, UK sourced.  A choice not to participate should always be granted with not strings attached.  But recovery is a social project.  We can’t do it alone.  So for many of us holding hands affirms that fact, without cumbersome language.

  2. Dan L.

    Thanks for the article, Ed. I’m not in agreement with renaming WAAFT to no-prayer AA, though. I don’t think it comveys strongly enough what we’re about. We’re not just about not saying any prayers.

    I was involved with starting up a WAAFT group over here in the UK. We don’t have problems with the “get God or die” crowd around here, all kinds of beliefs (Christian, Buddhist, Wiccan, atheist etc) can be found in the “mainstream” meetings in my town, and none of the meetings close with the Lord’s prayer. We started the meeting specifically for those new to AA, or those investigating prior to attending, with doubts & concerns about the “God stuff” to know that there is a space for atheists & agnostics in AA.

    I feel “rebranding” to ‘no-prayer” wouldn’t convey the same message, that you can have no belief in the supernatural and still find recovery in AA & a programme of 12 steps.

    1. Lola in TC

      Agree!! I believe many who already look down their noses at us would be equally offended by a declaration of “no prayers here!” We are more about secular recovery than simply not praying.

      1. Roger C.

        Very well said, Lola.

  3. XBarbarian

    Thanks Ed. good stuff raised.

    overall though, I’m left with a quandary really. AA is a religious program. Period. god referenced 298 times, you say, (I couldn’t be bothered to actually count, but I celebrate that you did). the very steps reference god more than addition. we can dance around that truth all we want to, but the truth is, it’s religious as I see it. “it’s spiritual, not religious” lolwut? come on.

    it’s pretty absurd isn’t, it? the hoops we have to jump through. the accommodations we make. to appease a society still intent on worshipping idols and invisible man in the sky. and why is that? I would suggest the simple reason is just fear. (which, incidentally is the one true “character defect” – unmanaged minds and it’s tendency to be afraid) fear of just dying, there being no afterlife, blah blah blah.

    I don’t have to defend my disbelief. I didn’t state “there is a god”. those that make such statements carry the full burden of actually having to prove their claims, not me. my atheism isn’t a belief, its a state of mind arrived at due to the lack of evidence to support “there is a god”.

    people believed the moon was made of cheese. once we went to the moon and brought back samples showing it wasn’t, that ended the belief “the moon is made of cheese”. we dont have to continue to bother arguing with made of cheese disciples. there will always be disciples, facts and reason are not 100% with all people. so be it. they “get to” believe in the cheese theory, and I get to ignore them, or occasionally mock them, for their idiocy.

    I imagine, any effort to move aa from a religion to something else will be done on an individual basis. attraction rather promotion. the men I sponsor know I am a atheist. I dont evangelize, nor tolerate their attempts to evangelize me. imagining group conscience as a force, to impose a position, is antithesis. I am a atheist in aa, and yet I seem to attract sponsees.

    at 22+ years recovering, I have come to believe the 12s can be summarized as “change your mind”. I achieve mindful change best, when I do that in fellowship with other people that identify with my condition of addictive mind.

    I’m not sure if as atheist recovering people, the best path forward is to work within the brokenness off aa (hard to change a broken brain using a broken brain) or to start fresh. I recognize the branding and capability to reach more people, faster, by adopting a certain element of aa and naming, riding the established coattails.

    but am I following my own tenets when I attempt to control something else, like aa? not really. I prefer to practice letting go of everything, especially fear, and control, and model a healthy life, sober, without invisible man in the sky.

    1. Kit G

      very good points. my sentiments also. old aa was the cocoon for my apostasy. it would be insane for a butterfly to drag around or change a useless cocoon because it no longer works or is useful.

  4. Thomas B

    Thanks much, Ed, for a cogently proposed description of “How It Works” for those of us members of AA, who do not follow the prescribed religious beliefs of the Christian evangelical, pietistic Oxford Group, wherein our society had its origins. Some 80+ years later, those Christian religious concepts are still central to their  practice  of AA by the majority of orthodox AA members throughout North America.

    You present a well-reasoned proposal for what we non-traditional AA members are and the core concepts of our beliefs, perhaps more appropriately stated as non-beliefs . . . 😉

    This article provides good fodder for our deliberations concerning these issues at the upcoming Austin  convention in November. Looking forward to seeing many of you there . . .

  5. Mikey J.

    Thanks Ed, and you’re right, This Ungodly Hour is a fantastic name. I just want to share something from our group.

    1. The regular preamble is fine for us. No mention of gods or spirits there.

    2. We sometimes use the literature, but we change it to something that works better for us. For example, the promises are great but we change that one annoying line to “The program is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

    3. We consider our meeting a complement to our programs not a replacement for them. We regularly involve ourselves in service opportunities and try to be as tolerant as we can with Traditional AA. It shows that we’re “official AA” and it allows irreligious members a way to find us easier.

    Again, thanks for the article. See you in Austin!

  6. jennef

    “…..may call themselves an A.A.group,provided that,as a group, they have no other affiliation.”

    I have never been able to grasp how reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the end of a meeting does not clearly and logically indicate an affiliation with all denominations of the Christian Church .

  7. Dave B

    Hi Ed,

    When we started our San Antonio Group, we decided on “Mostly Agnostics” although we are more like mostly atheists.  One guy preferred “Secular” in the name.  I’ve come to prefer that.  The agnostic and atheist labels seem too polarizing – but they ARE clear.  “No Prayer AA” has a nice ring to it but doesn’t seem completely clear.   I still like it, and I like “The Ungodly hour.”  Like Lain, we don’t like holding hands and I REALLY like that.  We say the Preamble at the beginning (and a few other things I’d like to drop) and the Responsibility Pledge at the end while still seated – then we’re done and the group usually keeps talking for a while.

    What’sWhat’s so threatening about us not believing in ghosts is beyond me.

    Thanks for the good article.

    Dave B

    1. boyd p.

      Is objection to holding hands at the end of a meeting common to secular meetings?  This millennial ritual is rife with implication from many cultural and religious traditions. Still, a case can be made for it being secular.  I like it because any excuse to get guys holding hands is a huge step in the right direction.  And while I am not a polytheist pagan I like joining my ancestors in a circle, and appreciating their knowledge of the natural world.

  8. Pat N.

    Thanks for a good, thought-provoking article, Ed. I think we’ve all wrestled with this naming problem, as the early birds did with “Alcoholics Anonymous” itself.

    I like the word secular, i.e. unlrelated to religion, and would like to see it incorporated somehow.

    One of the groups in Olympia is called “Secular Friends Checking In”,  but that’s too cumbersome. Maybe some combination of “secular” and “sober”? “secular sobriety” sounds like an organization rather than a meeting within an organization, aand we’re definitely just a part of AA

    The best discussion I’ve seen on secularism in general is from the Secular Society in the U.K., which can be Googled. It emphasizes that secular doesn’t mean antireligious; it means nonreligious.  My home group (We Agnostics) says it’s the group that has no opinion, not the members. We all have opinions, and they’re not identical. I think “secular” reflects that better than atheist, agnostic, freethinker, humanist, etc.

    Thanks again for your addition to the discussion.

     

  9. steve b

    There’s already an organization called Secular Organization for Sobriety, or SOS. It’s modeled on AA, but with the religiosity (and steps)     stripped away. It’s unaffiliated with AA, and although the meetings are  good, it hasn’t caught on well, and it might  be hard to find a meeting.

    In keeping with the free expression we have at secular AA meetings, I think we should be free to call or name them whatever we want to.

  10. John L.

    This Ungodly Hour is neat — sort of suggests a radio or TV program, like The Twilight Zone.  Here in the Boston area we have two groups that have the upfront name, Atheists and Agnostics.  I personally would like to see a group called Dorchester Infidels, which could make a nice T-shirt.  I agree with Dave B and Pan N, that “secular” best describes the nature of our groups, but how to use it in a name?  Secular AA, Secular Recovery, and Secular Sobriety are pretty bland.  Reality & SobrietySpookless Sobriety?  All right, I give up.

  11. bob k

    Almost 3 years ago, Craig C. and I founded The Whitby Freethinkers AA meeting. Although we went with the “Freethinkers” name, I refer to our little gathering as a non-religious AA meeting.
    One, this dodges any question of affiliation, and two, it makes a statement about the TRUE nature of conventional AA groups. In my area, they are all religious in at least a broad sense, and they ridiculously cling to the Lord’s Prayer closing like a pitbull on a poodle.

    bob k

    dozens-selling author

  12. Don M

    Over a year ago I helped start a secular A.A. group near Kingston, Ontario.  We chose to call ourselves secular as opposed to agnostic/atheist/freethinker in order to be as inclusive as possible.  I don’t think the term “no-prayer” accurately describes the atmosphere of our group.  We in more “no-mention of or opinion on God” than no-prayer.

    In our group we use modified steps that do not use the term God.  Our members include theists, atheists, agnostics, etc.  Your three points (Free-expression, deemphisize God-based literature, and no prayers) are mostly accurate.  Our members have chosen by group conscience to recite the “Request for Serenity”  (I seek the serenity).  This is prayer-like but we do not address it (as a group) to God.  I believe what is important is that we offer recovery regardless of your religious belief.

    Although not completely uncontroversial, I like the term secular.  I also strongly advocate more modern literature.  I know it is another mine-field but A.A. groups are free to use whatever literature the group conscience chooses.  Thus, although not a requirement of the secular groups, I think using modern recovery literature (Alternative 12 Steps, Beyond Belief etc)  is extremely important in my secular AA groups.

  13. RonB

    A ‘name’ is best one that is simple and meaningful. Something like ‘Freethinking Alcoholic Recoverers’. Our goals are FAR from anything but finding and maintaining sobriety.

Comments are closed.