Agnostic AA 101

By Ed W. 

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.