This podcast features a conversation with Ernie P, who spoke at the 2018 Northeast Regional AA Service Assembly on the topic “Is God a Requirement for AA Membership?” Ernie will talk about his experience preparing for and delivering the talk, as well as the reaction he received from the audience.
John S: This is episode 87 of AA Beyond Belief, the Podcast and I’m your host John S. Today, I’ll have a conversation with Ernie P, who spoke at the 2018 Northeast Regional AA Service Assembly on the topic “Is God a Requirement for AA Membership?” Ernie will share his experience preparing for and delivering the talk, as well as the reaction he received from the audience.
John: Hello. I’m here with Ernie P from Hopaken, New Jersey. We’re going to talk about a panel he recently participated in at the…Now, tell me if this is right, Ernie. Is it North East Regional Service Assembly of Alcoholics Anonymous?
Ernie P: Yes. Northeast Regional Alcoholics Anonymous Service Assembly.
John: Got it. Okay.
John: NERAASA, okay. You participated in a panel about agnostics and atheists in the AA, and you are also the DCM for your district.
Ernie: Yes. I serve as a DCM for District 9 in area 44, which is North New Jersey.
John: Why don’t you tell us about all of this? How did this thing come up? How did you ever get involved with this?
Ernie: I definitely did not ask to be involved with it. It was of one of those things where somebody asked, and I just ended up saying yes. It was quite an experience and an opportunity for growth that I didn’t realize at the time. A couple of months ago, I didn’t know that I was going to look at it like that. I really just dreaded talking in front of all these people. There was a guy named Craig W. who was a past Delegate in Connecticut, and it was Connecticut that was hosting the service assembly. There were six panels, different panels for different topics, and he reached out and asked if I would be interested in doing a panel. Eventually, I found out that the topic was “Is God a Requirement for AA Membership.” Immediately, I was like, “Oh boy, this is going to be a controversial one.”
Ernie: I was able to select a subtopic. An individual who was on one of the committees for NERAASA told me there were three different subtopics, and I chose the topic, “Are We Inclusive Or Are We Subtly Divisive?” I ended up writing out a report about what happened to the Toronto groups, and how the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup de-listed the We Agnostics group. I believe there was another group, but I forgot the group’s name.
John: Beyond Belief.
Ernie: Yes, yes. How they were de-listed and how Larry K. had taken them to court with the Human Rights Tribunal and filed a claim and won the lawsuit. I spoke also with Greg T. who’s our General Manager of GSO who gave me a bit of a background.He told me that AAWS was never against the groups, and they also stated that we are not a religious organization. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.
John: That’s right. AA World Services was on Larry’s side, and he released them from the suit because they were nothing but cooperative and helpful to his position. What the Toronto Intergroup did was absolutely insane. Their first defense was to claim that to be a member of the Toronto Intergroup, one must believe in God. [chuckle] And practice the 12 steps as written or something like that.
Ernie: Right, which is not the case. You do not have to adopt the 12 steps at all. You can change whatever you want with the steps. That is not a requirement. However, I do think that like if a group does change the steps, they should, and this is my personal opinion, but if a group does change the steps, they should provide a disclaimer and say, “Hey, these are not the actual published 12 steps,” just to let people know. That way, they’d know what the actual 12 steps are, and they can go investigate them for themselves.
John: That’s actually what those groups did. They used to read before their meeting that this is an adaptation of the original 12 steps written in 1939. Interestingly enough, those alternative 12 steps were posted on the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup’s website for a little while. The Toronto Intergroup had pages on their website for different groups, and they had the alternative 12 Steps posted on the Toronto Intergroup’s website for a little while anyway. I thought that was kind of funny.
Ernie: [chuckle] Yeah. So, with the 12 steps, I personally carry around the Cleveland Ohio agnostic version of the 12 steps. I carry that around in my service books and my binders for my DCM position. I’ve allowed numerous friends who believe in God to read them, and they’re just shocked that… They’re like, “Wow, I already do all this.”
Ernie: That’s because there’s not really… There’s still self-improvement. This is me still trying to get better, be better, to be a better person. The only thing is God, the word God was removed. That’s it.
John: I know, it’s funny when you look at the steps, and even the Big Book describes this a practical program of action, and every single step has an action. They are something that we’ve either done or experienced. The belief in what empowers us to do those things is immaterial. I might believe that it’s God that empowers me, and someone else might believe that it’s the person sitting next to them in the room. It doesn’t really matter. We take the same action, we do the same thing.
Ernie: Yeah. I had a woman come up to me after I had given my presentation in NERAASA. She said, “I don’t understand why you’re here. Why don’t you guys just go start your own AA? Why don’t you just break off, branch off and go start your own AA as an atheist agnostic AA?” I told her, “Well, number one, I don’t think we’re organized enough for that.”
Ernie: And then I said, “Look, I’m sure that you’ve worked the steps and I’m sure that you went through the book.” I then asked her, “Do you follow the steps the exact way that Bill Wilson did?” Because he’s the one who wrote these, and that was his experience for getting sober and how he had stayed sober. She told me no. And I said, “Well, neither do I. I just happen to follow them in my own way just like you do.” I think she shut me out after that, and that was pretty much it for that conversation.
John: I was surprised at some of the comments at the end of your talk. One of the comments was from a guy who read some warranty. I’m not that familiar with the warranties, but he said something about the warranty of AA is that you grow closer to God or whatever. Then he said, “If you guys want to go do your own thing, we invite you to secede,” That was kind of weird. [laughter]
John: What’s that all about it? I guess I can get my service manual and read that, but is there a warranty like that?
Ernie: I personally would need to go look as well. I don’t doubt him, but that brings up another point of what direction are we really headed. It’s kind contradicting.
John: I know. It’s like he’s basically saying we are a religion.
Ernie: Right, right. I’m hearing one thing and then I’m hearing another. It’s like, would you have me go drink because I don’t believe in God? Is my sobriety not worth it because I don’t believe in God?
John: Good point. Also, even the guys who wrote the Big Book, and they were religious as hell, but they said, “If you’re approaching somebody who isn’t particularly religious, lay off the religious stuff. Don’t really push that.” [chuckle] because you want to reach somebody from where they’re at, anyway.
Ernie: Yes, yes. Going back to my presentation. I shared about how there has been a controversy since the beginning of AA. I’ve gathered this from some of your other podcasts and reading Key Players in AA History by Bob K, and from doing my own independent research online. But there has been like a lot of controversy from the very beginning. Bill Wilson wanted the steps written a certain way. At one point, he worded the Steps to read for example, “On your knees in prayer,” and Jim Burwell and Hank Parkhurst were trying to push against that tone. The same thing with the word “God.” They got him to add “as we understand him”, which really opened a path for other people of non-Christian faith to succeed in AA.
John: That’s right. That history points out how insulting it is for someone to say, “Why don’t you guys just leave?” I’m like, “Wait a second, that’s like telling me to leave my own house.” We atheists are just as much a part of this fellowship and have done just as much to build it as anybody. Hank Parkhurst wrote the chapter “To Employers,” but he also was instrumental in getting the Big Book published. He was promoting it.
Ernie: Right, and without him, it would have been very, very hard. Just like without Bill Wilson writing what he wrote in the Big Book. I think without Hank Parkhurst, we would not have had such an instrumental player with getting the book out to the public.
John: I agree. So, let’s get back to your presentation. You were asked to do this thing, to participate in this panel. Tell me about it. How many people were in the audience and who was in the audience?
Ernie: Oh boy. I was initially told there would be about 1,000 people and I ended up getting the count and finding out there was closer to 1,200 people. I went to each panel throughout the first two days. Friday, were the first three panels and Saturday, were the last three panels. I noticed as each panel went on, more and more people were there. So, I’m a programmer, I see patterns, and I just automatically knew that there was going to be an outstanding number of people in the last panel. Of course, more people were at our panel, which was the final panel. I’m sure a lot of them had come to hear about, “Is God A Requirement for AA Membership?” I found that some people really believe that God is a requirement for AA membership. I was quite frightened and I had a feeling that I was going to be attacked by people afterward. Maybe chased out with a pitchfork!
John: Right. [laughter]
Ernie: Fortunately, nobody chased me out with a pitchfork. Some people did say some things which was okay. The way I see it as an atheist in AA for the last seven years of my sobriety, is that we don’t speak out as much because there are often times when people cross share at us, come up to us after the meeting, and tell us in a condescending tone, “Keep coming, you’ll get it eventually.” For me, what happened on that day was that the people who don’t know that this goes on got to see it from the microphone. If nothing else succeeded in my presentation, I’m happy at the very least that people got to see some of the things we go through.
John: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. People would not be aware until they hear it from somebody and it is kind of surprising. I think. I went back to my home group at one time and people were almost willfully ignorant of the situation. They didn’t even want to believe that such a thing could happen in AA because I guess they personally haven’t experienced something like that. It’s also very subtle. You pointed out that subtlety part, but it truly is. Even the crosstalk is subtle. When you’re on the receiving end of it, you know what they’re getting at. You get “shared at.” Put it that way. That’s what would happen to me. I would get “shared at” more than anything else. They would let me say my piece, but after I shared, people would go around the room, but not just sharing their experience—they have to contradict whatever it was that I just said. They had to put me in my place.
Ernie: Right, right. I don’t see a place for that either. That was in my presentation. I shared about how when I take a sponsee through the book, I allow them to tell me what it means to them because they’re the one who has to figure out their own path. I can’t figure it out for them. Just like others couldn’t figure out my path for me. There were people who were saying, “Well, you need to find God.” Well, that didn’t work out for me too well. I found my own path. Fortunately, there were individuals who allowed me to find that. I have to do the same to believers and non-believers. When I sponsor a guy, I have a couple that kind of tether on the idea of having a higher power. I allow them to have that experience because I’m really taking from them if I don’t. I shared during my presentation that that’s kind of how AA works, and that was the beauty of AA working in both of our lives.
John: So, you had a lot of people in the audience that were actually on the General Service Board or on the board of AA World Services?
Ernie: Yes, there was some staff from AAWS that were there. All the northeast region delegates, DCMs, GSRs, Committee Chairs of different committees. Trustees were there, and Committee Members. I believe that when you become a delegate, that you’re assigned to a committee which you’ll be on before the General Service Conference to vote on topics.
John: Right. Did you get any feedback from them about your presentation?
Ernie: From a few, most of them said, “Thank you. Thank you for going up there and thank you for your courage.” I realized that it did take some courage even though I was just going up there to share my message. I also realized that the dynamic of relationships I have with some people were going to change after this because this isn’t something I openly talk about. Now, here I am exposing myself from the microphone and it’s being recorded and people across my northeast region who listen to this tape are going to hear this. For the most part, most people were supportive. Most people were very supportive. My delegate called me on a Monday to ask me to participate in a presentation at the next Area Assembly because the next General Service Conference will have on its agenda the question of adopting “The God Word”pamphlet or creating some sort of new literature for the atheist and agnostic. I’m like, “No. Yes.”
Ernie: I have a baby coming next month or this one, so it’s going to be kind of crammed and I had to let them know that. For the most part, there has been a lot of support from a lot of people in my area who were past delegates, and it’s been a warm feeling, a really good feeling that I’ve had.
John: Do you think it’s because of the upcoming General Service Conference and “The God Word” pamphlet, and the atheist/agnostic pamphlet being on the agenda? Do you think that’s partly why they had the panel?
Ernie: Yes. From my understanding, they usually try to pick panels based on what the topics are going to be in line with. So yes, that would be the reason why.
John: That’s going to be interesting to see what happens with that. Is it like an either/or thing, where they either do the God word or they do the other pamphlet? Could it be both?
Ernie: I think they’re probably going to do either/or, I don’t know.
John: Yeah, it makes sense probably from a financial standpoint.
Ernie: Yeah. That’s if we get it as well, I’m hoping so.
John: What’s your feeling on that? How’s it look out there?
Ernie: Like I said, there was an overwhelming amount of support that I got, but there were also quite a few people who didn’t like what I had to say.
Ernie: This is a very controversial topic in AA, and people are strongly opinionated on either side.
John: The thing that gets me about it is, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this. I always think about regional differences within the United States or North America, and I think, “Okay, this part of the country, they’re going to be much more open-minded towards an atheist in AA and another part of the country is going to be less open-minded.” And you would think that here in Missouri that people would be closed-minded to the idea, but at our last Area Assembly, we had an excellent presentation and I wish I had a recording of it. The presentation was about safety in AA, and one of the topics of safety was religious harassment. This young woman, who I didn’t even know, gave the presentation about religious harassment and she did an excellent job. She talked about how people who are atheists or agnostics are sometimes harassed in AA, in very subtle ways sometimes, but she went all the way through that and the audience was very accepting of what she had to say.
John: When it comes to “The God Word” pamphlet, our Delegate thinks it’s a great idea [chuckle] and it doesn’t seem to be controversial at all among the other people at the Assembly. I never hear anybody say anything against it, but at the Northeast Regional Service Assembly, there were a lot of people speaking out about it. Maybe those people were in the minority, but they just had the loudest voices.
Ernie: Right, right. What I noticed was a lot of the people who were displeased with what I was saying, were the first ones getting up. It was like they hyper-focused on something like that and they’re like, “Oh no, that’s it.” And then they’re up at the mic. I think they missed the rest of my message. We don’t care to sit there and change all the text of AA. We’re just trying to change something that works for us. When I change something in the book or I change the steps to a way that I understand, that doesn’t mean that I want to change all of AA. I don’t think that’s the answer because then you’re going from one extreme to another extreme. If I’m on some mission to take God out of everything, then I personally feel that I’m just as bad as the person who is trying to shove God down my throat.
John: Right. There should be a way, in my opinion of moving forward, where you respect the history of Alcoholics Anonymous, how we grew up from the Oxford Group and respecting all the contributions of those people who believe in God and respecting those people who are in the program today, whose faith is important to them. It should, in my opinion, be that way with everything that we do. Our literature should encompass everybody. For those who have faith in God, this is their experience, and for those of us who don’t, this is our experience. It’s not just one way. That was a bit of a problem, I think with the Big Book. They did their best to be inclusive, right?
John: I think that they really believed in this experience that they had, and they were stressing that God was all important and the chapter “We Agnostics” was badly written about trying to convince us to convert. Unfortunately, they missed the mark, but we can correct that now. I’m not saying change the Big Book. Leave it is as it is. It’s great. That’s where we started, but going forward, what we write should reflect what we’ve learned since that time.
Ernie: Sure, sure. I agree. We’re starting out with very small strides. I think what, a couple of years ago, we had the atheist and agnostic compilation of existing stories in Grapevine. We’re still waiting on that to be published, I think.
John: That will be published this year.
John: Yeah. It’s to be published. Well, I don’t know if it’s going to be 2018, but it’s going to be 2018 or maybe early 2019. I think it will be the next book they’re going to be putting out.
Ernie: Right, and from my understanding, Grapevine didn’t have to ask for permission to do that, but they chose to go ahead and send it to the General Service Conference to see what people thought of this and the overall topic. It seemed that people were very accepting for the vast majority on that topic. Like I said, this is a very small stride. I’m hoping that the same thing’s going to happen with creating some sort of pamphlet for us, or at least, at the very least, adopting “The God Word” pamphlet.
John: Yeah, and that “God Word” pamphlet is pretty benign too. I mean, when my delegate read it, she said, “Oh, this was great. Honestly, when you read it, it’s like, “Oh, these people are pretty much having the same experience as anyone else,” and that’s pretty much the truth anyway. Our experience is about the same. It’s how we describe or explain the experience that is what’s different between us and someone who believes in God. Everything else is much the same. I think that’s why people would be surprised when they read it, that the only difference is the belief factor.
Ernie: Right. And the reason to me why this is so important is because when I had about four years sober, all that I kept hearing was, “You need God to get sober.” Here I was filled with resentments and I didn’t know how to let go of them. I kept hearing God, God, God, God, and I’m like, “I just can’t get with it, I tried the whole prayer, I tried praying,” nothing was working for me. It’s just because it doesn’t make sense to me in my mind, and it’s not something that personally works for me. I stumbled across your podcast because I decided instead of relapsing to start researching and find if there were other alcoholics out there like me because you don’t see very many atheists in AA. They don’t speak up because they don’t want to get attacked. Then you have people like me who are misguided and don’t know what to do, and they don’t know what direction to head.
Ernie: I stumbled across your podcast, you maybe had like 12 or 13 out at the time and they really helped me. That was when I had reached out to you three years ago. It really helped me and kind of created a foundation for me and now I’m starting to see what direction I want to go in sobriety. This is important to me that something like this gets released because there are other people out there who are just like me, who don’t know what to do, and they don’t have other atheists or agnostics around to talk to. If there’s some sort of literature that they can read, and that lets them know, “Hey, it’s okay to be like this and you can make it because I made it too.” It’s important to me that gets out there to those people.
John: I agree. I also think it’s good for us to be speaking openly in our meetings and at Area Assemblies and at Service Assemblies because it hopefully will disarm people a little bit, and maybe put them at ease. They’ll understand that we’re not really trying to change everything. Here’s the funniest comment I found from the people who spoke after your presentation, it was the guy who was afraid that the believers were going to be run out of AA.
Ernie: Right. He spoke with passion.
John: Yeah, he went to that thing because he knew he was going to get mad.
Ernie: Yeah, yeah. He seemed quite angry.
John: Yeah. But hopefully in time, he’ll realize that all of us are out here, and maybe over time, he’ll settle down. He’ll say, “Oh, I see, these guys really aren’t that different. They’re not going to throw me out, they’re not trying to change everything.”
Ernie: Right. Here’s the generational thing that one girl had spoken about, she said, “Us, all of us who are under 45, you need us to keep AA running.” I have to agree with her and we’re going to have to be more accepting because that generation is eventually going to fade out because that’s just kind of what happens in life. We get old, we pass away.
John: We die.
John: That’s right, we do.
Ernie: That’s good that you laughed as it’s your legacy.
John: I know. Yeah. Here’s something kind of ironic too. Bill and Bob, they knew that. They knew that they weren’t going to be around forever, and they wanted to make sure that the Fellowship survived, so they gave AA to the groups. That’s obviously how the whole service structure was started. They knew this, but I don’t think they were expecting future generations to cling so closely to their words from the 1930s. It’s interesting, that demographic from 45 and younger, these are the people who are showing up in AA now. People who start having problems with their drinking in their 20’s 30’s or 40’s are showing up in AA, and they are much less religious than the baby boom generation. They are also much further removed from that language of the 1930’s. They are less likely to accept the patriarchal language.
John: It’s like in my generation, I learned how to read in the late 1960s. There was a lot of sexist language, there was a lot of ridiculous stuff out there. When I was growing up in the 70’s and the 80’s, as I would read this stuff, I could somehow realize, “Okay, that’s the way it was.” Now you have somebody now who was born 20 or 30 years ago, they’re not accustomed to reading crap like that, and then if they read our material from the Big Book, you would think that that would be totally foreign to them.
Ernie: Right. Which is why when I take my sponsees through the Big Book, I have something called the Little Big Book Dictionary and we will go at frequent times like, “What’s that mean?” I’m like, “Oh well, let’s go look it up,” and we go look it up and figure out what it means. Yeah, the language is very different.
John: You would think from some of the comments that there were a lot of people who were opposed, but you got a standing ovation.
Ernie: When when I finished with my speech, I just kind of looked down and pulled a Napoleon Dynamite, and just went off from the microphone straight to my chair and didn’t really look back up. My best friend who was sitting in the audience told me that some of the people at the front had stood up and gave me a standing ovation.
John: Isn’t that nice?
Ernie: Yeah. I thought that was really cool.
John: The vast majority of the people appreciated what you had to say, and that’s something to think about. I think, positively.
Ernie: Yeah. It felt good to be done with. It’s something that has challenged me to grow and, I thanked Craig, at the end, I said thank you for asking me to do this because it really challenged me to step out of my comfort zone. Where a lot of times, I won’t even share at meetings to go share about my beliefs and how I stay sober in front of 1,200 people and it will continue to be listened to by whomever. It really was a big opportunity for growth for me.
John: That’s great. Do you think you’re going to be able to do the thing at the Area Assembly?
Ernie: Yeah. I didn’t even get nervous when I was asked.
Ernie: Yeah. The Assembly, I was just nervous the entire time. I would just think about it and my heart would start racing. The funny thing is like they say, “the worst things happen in your head”. Every time I thought about giving the speech, it was so much worse in my head than when I was up there presenting.
John: Well, you did a great job and it was cool how listed your sources at the end.
John: Larry K, you got to talk to Larry.
Ernie: Yes. He was very nice, very helpful guy.
John: He knew that topic pretty well. Then you also spoke with the General Manager of the General Service Office.
Ernie: Yes, yes, I did. I wish I could have shared more on the topic because it was very important. I thought that it needed so much more than I was able to share in the 10-minute time frame.
John: Yeah. It’s incredible that you were able to get to be so concise and thorough in what you had to say. I thought it was just a perfect presentation because you put in exactly, I think, what people needed to hear in the time that you had to do it. You made a really good use of your time, in my opinion.
Ernie: Thank you. There were a lot of times in my head where I’m like, “Why am I the one being asked to do this? Why did he ask me?” Because I was going to do everything I could to make it the best because this was important to me. Now, I know that’s why I was asked to do it.
John: You did a great job and thank you very much for sharing your experience with us here on the podcast. That was nice of you. It’s been fun to talk with you.
Ernie: I appreciate it.
John: Stay in touch.
Ernie: And I hope to make it back out to Missouri sometime to one of your meetings.
John: Oh, please do. That’d be fun to have you out here.
Ernie: My mom’s out in St. Joe.
John: That’s right. I remember that.
Ernie: That’s where I’m from. I was born on Maryville.
John: Cool. Do you ever get out here?
Ernie: Maybe, every couple of years or so. I usually fly into the Kansas City Airport and she’ll pick me up. Maybe one day I’ll have to have you pick me up.
John: Absolutely. Please call next time you come out here.
Ernie: I definitely will. Thank you.
John: Alright. You take care.
Ernie: Alright. You, too.
John: Well, that’s it for another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the Podcast. Thank you for listening, everybody. I hope you enjoyed this episode as much as I enjoyed recording it and speaking with Ernie. What a great guy he is! Be sure to check out some of the links that we’ll post with the podcast. You’ll be able to listen to the audio of the panel Ernie participated in when he gave his talk at the Northeast Regional AA Service Assembly. Next week, we’ll be speaking with our friend Life-J, who is coming to us from beautiful northern California. So, please be sure to tune in for that. Until then, you all take care. Be well. We’ll speak again soon.
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