Response to the London Islington Agnostic Atheist Freethinkers Group

John Huey responds to the London Islington Agnostic, Atheist, and Freethinkers Group’s commentary on his article The God Word Delusion

First off, I wanted to thank you so much for the thoughtful and measured reaction to my review of The God Word pamphlet that originally appeared on the Atheist Recovery page back on June 6, 2018 and was recently reprinted in AA Beyond Belief.

Early in my AA “career”,  back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I found myself in London with some regularity on business and I recall the noon meeting at Hind Street with great fondness. I have been to your country many times since my first trip in 1972 and have a good grasp of the culture and general environment there. One thing for sure is that, despite our common language and close association, the United Kingdom is a foreign country vastly different from the United States.

My personal reactions to any organization such as Conventional AA, closely affiliated, by word or deed, with organized religion or unorganized “spiritual” concepts, are framed by my own experience as a lifelong (since age 12) highly committed and motivated Atheist living in an extremely religious country very unlike the UK. The negative societal and political results of such beliefs in the United States (obvious on their face these days) need not be described here. My reaction to The God Word should be viewed from overseas in that light.

Around three years ago I decided that I personally would no longer have anything to do with Conventional AA and ceased being a member of that fellowship or attend Conventional AA meetings. I do, however, consider myself a very committed member of the group currently referred to as “SecularAA” since our first convention in Santa Monica in 2014 and as a long-term member of our Washington, DC secular meeting known as “We Agnostics” since its founding in 1988. There is a tape of me speaking (as a questioner from the floor) at the first recognized AA International Convention Workshop for Atheists and Agnostics in Seattle, WA in 1990 and I have, obviously, been around and engaged with these topics for some time.

The struggles you had on the pamphlet with your own AA Headquarters in the UK , as you described it, were, to my eye, epic, and it really is an interesting addition to the annals of Atheist/Agnostic members dealings with the Conventional AA program. As I implied, I was fascinated by your “process” there but not at all surprised by the result. Organized AA is an essentially religious program inspired by the Oxford Group and remains so no matter where it plants itself. The way they behaved over there is perfectly consistent with that despite a desire to be “liberal” with us.

Given the above, my “qualifications” in speaking about AA itself are somewhat conflicted as a former long-term member who no longer is involved but I still feel that a general observation might be in order.

I have had some time to review my initial reaction to The God Word and I stand by those reactions to the pamphlet as it was presented in the US and adopted here. I do, however, have a few more thoughts on the matter.

You mention “members delight that for the first time in our history we had a Conference-approved document giving AA’s imprimatur to AAF members”.

After nearly 34 years exposure to AA and its “works” as a determined atheist, the very last thing I would personally look for is “AA’s imprimatur” and would find any such implied approbation as false and misleading in the extreme. At the very best the “mainstream” in AA barely tolerates us and would be far more comfortable not having to deal with us at all. There are, of course, always going to be a number of exceptions on the individual level, and there are many wonderful people in Conventional AA, but, as an organization, we make them extremely uncomfortable.

Instead of dealing with the outmoded, retrograde, inherently condescending concepts and ideology that dominate the vast majority of AA members and meetings would it not make more sense to align our thinking and focus our energy on a purely Secular group that could evolve from what is now SecularAA? Could some of you in the UK get behind something like that?

For me it all boiled down to making a decision about my drinking, finding and attending meetings I could tolerate and thrive in, learning about how the concept of sharing could begin to enhance my understanding of my own and others situations as related to recovery from alcoholism, forging a real understanding of what abstinence means and how life is immeasurably enhanced by it and, at the last, doing my best to help someone else given my own abilities and limitations. For this atheist all the other trappings of AA are meaningless.

Once again, I really appreciated the response to the review and, despite the unlikely event of an agreement on all of the details that I spell out in terms of resolution here, I was gratified to see that a group of committed atheists over there attempted to secure a place for representative stories in the publication as it evolved. The fact that this was not possible is what really told the tale.

I would be pleased to communicate with any of you in the future. I will look forward to that.

Warm Regards,

John Huey


About the Author

John Huey’s student work of the ’60s-’70s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf. After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017.

Full information on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at john-huey.com.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Chris Rawlinson

    Thank you John. A little context here: 5 years sobriety while ” going along to get along” and after recently discovering secular AA have come out of the closet as an agnostic (most days) and an atheist on other days. I have found freedom in this discovery, and have decided to start an agnostic AA meeting here in my city…in the bible belt of my province.
    What I believe I hear near the close of this letter is an appeal to form a secular recovery group that is entirely divorced from AA. I agree that even after all these years, AA barely tolerates the idea of atheist, agnostic, free thinkers and we have been nothing but a thorn in the side of AA. The little tolerance they’ve ever shown us outliers is, in my humble opinion, due to our common purpose: to remain sober and to share the message of recovery with other suffering alcoholics. As a subset of AA, we tend to want to cling to the AA label in our descriptors of ourselves ( ie.. Secular AA or AAFT AA) in part I suppose because there is a lot of good that has come from AA principles. This is evidenced by the fact that nearly every other self-help group in the world fashioned their recovery program using the 12 steps of AA. Even ” The Little Book”, which many AAFT people are familiar with, includes no less than 18 different versions of non-theistic AA 12 steps. There is, I’ve noticed, a fundamental adherence and admiration to the AA program for how it has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people..including me, and at the same time a reluctance to fully distance ourselves from AA completely. Yet we struggle to be fully acknowledged and accepted by AA. Are we fighting a losing battle, if I may call it that, with AA? Sadly, I believe we are. If after 80+ years the only recognition agnostics and atheists can get from traditional AA is “The “God” Word” pamphlet, then perhaps a dialogue about divorcing ourselves from AA is a conversation we should be having. Just my opinion.

    1. John Huey

      Thanks Chris,
      It will be a topic of discussion at our next International Convention here in Bethesda, MD in October of next year. I think it is going to take more time than I probably have left to fully accomplish but as long as I am able I will try to move that idea forward through democratic means despite other recent, unilateral attempts to set up parallel organizations. Good luck with your meeting up there and please consider joining us in 2021.

  2. Vic Losick

    Cheers!

  3. Dan W.

    I think John has a powerful perspective,and asked great questions, I’m in a Religious and Religious AA area and experiencing results from my defiance to traditional AA and leaving the church, Ostracized with my recent atheistic beliefs, I feel like I’m on my own out here at times, John has his decades of sobriety and experience which I respect, I am at 11 years sober “but” a 1-2 year old atheist/agnostic(3 years religious practice brought about by surrender in Canadian Prison system, suicide/dope or the Bible is usually the only option in Canadian prison system in my experience) then a relapse after release on parole and 7 years Traditional AA indoctrination then 3 years hanging on for dear life in the Bible Belt with no meetings as I came to “disbelief”), you have a powerful perspective because you’ve developed. Change for me is slow and gradual I want to be where you are, but I realize its a long way to go, my hope was literally reborn in this pamphlet, rain on dry ground …a chance , ya it can be better, ya it needs to be better ,and hopefully you write a better one and I would like to help it move into mainstream AA, because I need your powerful experience and also the new babies of Atheist/Agnostics like myself coming out of our religious coma, in a religious land.
    I think what I’m trying to say is where I come from “The God Word” is a totally new narrative never heard in a meeting here before, as there are few agnostic and atheists(proclaimed anyway) here, I run a meeting and it’s tonight in local detox and that pamphlet is our authority, Its all I’ve really got as conference approved to legitimize the meeting. And I’ve already seen results , I’ve already seen hope in new guys eyes who had none, Revival!.
    Maybe we can’t be friends, maybe we need another program , but from what I’ve read about Bill W.” we are bound in a common suffering and (ours is put aside for a greater purpose) a common purpose to help the Alcoholic who still suffers, who hopefully will come to a changing truth of they’re own, hopefully one of us is there.

    1. John Huey

      Hi Dan,
      You will follow your truth and your path when and where it leads you. A one who accepts “leadership” from no one but deeply believes in the validity of experience based on what can actually be perceived, your reality is what moves you forward despite anything I might say or do. As someone who has never been arrested (except for a political detention or two overseas) much less incarcerated I can’t possibly match or meet your experience and context. I have been raised, lived in, and worked in a very liberal East Coast City filled with highly educated and compensated professionals my entire life and have zero practical experience with anything like a “bible belt”…So, that’s a long way of saying, from a lifelong very determined atheist, that if “The God Word” helps you in your situation who am I to say otherwise? You will do things your way and use what works for you and the members you come into contact with. Best to you and thanks for writing your very nice note. John

  4. Lisa M

    John, of all the writers in this form “AABB”, you are just a favorite. I applaud you and also anyone in the world trying to “buck the traditional AA system” and get something new in the works to help those suffering with the influence of alcohol on their person and life. I don’t have the stamina so no way could I challenge anyone on their success or opinion about it as I personally haven’t put in the effort.
    What I wanted to add to this discussion is that in my relatively “non Regligous” women’s group here in Florida (we say the serenity prayer and not the Our Father that is!), when I brought in a bunch of the GOD WORK pamplet’s from our local central office, no one wanted one and they viewed my bringin up the topic with horror. So even that publication which doesn’t go far enough for you was too much! Maybe its like real estate “location location location” matters and only some location’s have AA members ready to branch off. Only in “agnostic atheist free thinker” meetings labeled as such could the meeting avoicd conference approved God literature (I still hate it when I run into people who will not accept anything in the meeting not Conference approved — pre Covid of course) . I brought in the Alternative 12 steps to my meeting as well and the one woman who also started going to the new Athiests AA meeting read it and everyone else was uncomfortable. So it feels the existing members are not going to really be inclined to a “new AA” as you suggest and without a “new AA without God” new members thinking that way won’t come in. What a dilemma! Perhaps the new ones needing help will go to another program or method of recovery like SMART for example. Anyway I am a rambling sober person when I really just wanted to thank you and tell you I get jazzed everytime I get my AABB email and you have written something.

    1. John Huey

      Thank you Lisa. Your kind words are greatly appreciated.
      Leaving Conventional AA and all its “works” behind will be a tall order for many and the thing I have to say to folks who can’t make the leap to true emotional and intellectual freedom in their recovery would be something like, “Maybe you should go back to Conventional AA, make your peace, and stay there.”
      For those of us searching for truth without the so called “steps” and other “spiritual” trappings there will come a day when we leave all that behind and turn the existing SecularAA into something truly Secular rather than the bastardized hybrid it is for many presently. We don’t need Smart or Refuge or SOS (at least I don’t) and it is possible to turn our current organization into an independent Recovery movement where true Fellowship and the special characteristics of our well attended and loved Meetings remain without the Oxford Group Christianity that dominates the ideas expressed in meetings elsewhere through those so-called “alternative steps” that have been “sold” under the false and inherently hypocritical guise of being actually Secular.

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