In this episode Joe K. from The Only Requirement Group in Chatham, New Jersey shares his story of recovery as an atheist in Alcoholics Anonymous, and his experience with helping to start a secular AA meeting.
00:01 John: AA Beyond Belief is a podcast by, for and about people who have found a secular path to sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.
00:29 John: Last week, I posted something in the AA Beyond Belief Facebook group about the podcast, and Joe K from New Jersey mentioned that he might like to participate in an episode, so that day, I send him a private message, and a few days later, we recorded this episode. So here he is, Joe K from New Jersey, and all I know about Joe is he’s from New Jersey, and he helped start a secular AA meeting. How you are doing, Joe?
01:00 Joe: Good morning, thanks. Yeah, it’s funny, when I had emailed or Facebooked you or whatever, I thought it was going to be a couple of months from now, and you’re like, “Oh, how’s this weekend?” So here we are, which is great.
01:10 John: And I was actually kind of excited to do it, too, because I recently upgraded my podcasting equipment, and it’s been a lot of fun to play with this stuff, so any opportunity I have to do a podcast, I’m always happy to do it.
01:23 Joe: Oh, cool.
01:24 John: So, where are you from?
01:26 Joe: I am from… I’m in New Providence, New Jersey, I pretty much grew up here.
01:30 John: Oh, okay.
01:31 Joe: Moved around a little bit for… I just turned 50, but I’ve lived most of my life New Jersey, for the most part.
01:36 John: Cool. And how long have you been in AA now?
01:39 Joe: I’ve been sober since November 3rd, 2016. I tried AA two other times, but… But not really seriously, but this was… I consider this my first try. And so far, I’ve been finding ways to make it work.
01:52 John: So, how’s that? How you are doing it?
01:55 Joe: I guess it was a little difficult because I’m also an atheist, so the whole not believing in God thing, it was like, I don’t know how I’m going to do this. And I guess… I guess I’ll tell you a little bit about myself, I guess, and… My story is, I grew up here in Chatham. Well, that’s the town I grew up in. I’m in the middle out of five kids, and so… But my older siblings are about seven years older, and they’re 18 months apart, and then my younger siblings are about five years younger, and also 18 months apart, so I’m kind of out there in the middle.
I grew up in a town where athletics are really big, and I am non-athletic, so I remember playing baseball in school, and… I went to go sign up, and I would stand right on second base, and the coach would be like, “What are you doing?” I’d be like, “I’m playing second base,” and moved me over to where you’re supposed to stand, and I would walk right back and stand on the base, and I got promoted to right-field after that. And basically, I didn’t fit in at that school.
02:54 Joe: So, I got a job in a neighboring town, and I’m started just unloading trucks since about 16, and I think that’s where I kind of started drinking. We would go out afterwards with people. This was my after… My high school job, but a lot of people, it was their after work, their second job. And we would go to the bar, Gasoline Alley, which isn’t there anymore, and I think I would just get served. They would just throw pitchers down and we would just be there.
At the time, I didn’t really think I had a problem, because I would just drink. I would… When I look back, I would definitely drink… I wouldn’t stop, but it would be only on social occasions. I would go out and do things and never think about drinking, and that was kind of… I think later… I think basically, the shorter version of the story is, I just kind of self-medicated into a drinking… Into a problem drinker, and then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t control it anymore.
03:44 Joe: Just to jump up to… Basically, my first experience with AA is, I’ll just jump up to there. It was in 2001. Had a suicide attempt and I was… Briefly before that, I had moved to California, and that’s where I got diagnosed with depression and clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder, and that was in 1999, and then I moved back home, and in 2001, it was just kind of like a year of epic destruction and kind of ended up with a suicide attempt. And that’s where my first exposure to AA was in 2001.
I went with someone after I got out of the hospital, and we went to the meeting, and didn’t really know anything about it. And then, at the end, they talked about God a little bit and this… But at the end, the girl who took me had said, “We have a nice way of closing.” And then I thought we were going to have cake or something, or dessert, and then they did the Lord’s Prayer. I’m like, “Oh, this is pretty intense.”
04:44 Joe: I think I didn’t have health insurance at that time, so I guess whatever… It was some sort of state-run thing, I guess. If I… I applied for something, and it basically made my hospital stay go away, so I did that for 30 days, and then I started drinking again. And then, jumping up to 2006, I got another DWI, and the lawyer was like, “Do you go to AA?” I’m like, “I’m an atheist, I can’t go, please don’t make go, anything but… “
05:12 Joe: And he’s like, “It’ll look really good for court if you do this.” He’s like, “Just trust me.” I’m like, “Okay.” I did everything my lawyer said, and sure enough, he knew the judge and I got a shorter sentence, and… because I was really worried, because it was my second DWI. They were 14 years apart, but I just didn’t know what was going to happen, I was really worried about it. And it’s funny, I kind of liked some of the… Where I lived, it was more fundamental part of New Jersey at that time, and then I was vocal not believing in God, I would be like “I’m an Atheist, I don’t believe in God,” and that’s how I would start all my shares, and I got a little bit of pushback on that.
05:49 Joe: Yeah, people would be like, “How do you get out of a jam?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I just think about things, or ask someone for help.” So that was kind of like 2006, but jumping up to… It just… I did go to meetings for a little while, and then, I don’t know, I just maybe, where I lived, it was kind of isolating, so I think I kind of liked the companionship, I guess, or the fellowship, but just the fundamental part of it just didn’t really stick. So, I started drinking again, and then, kind of jumping up to the what happened part of the story.
06:23 Joe: In 2000; well I guess it’ll be three years ago. It’s easier for me to do the math that way. It was… I was drinking every day, I had gotten married and I think for me, I had to have something to lose to make me realize how serious this was. Because prior to getting married, I kind of just stayed at home and watched TV, so I wasn’t really out doing a lot of damage and I would just constantly come home and I would black out and I’d send angry texts to family members maybe. That’s kind of my drinking style.
But my wife had noticed how much I was drinking, and I think at one point it got serious where the next thing I know, it’s kind of either you or me. And I’m just kind of like, that seems kind of serious. And I worked a very isolating job; I worked at home, and that was really detrimental to me. I remember I had gone to the liquor store… This is the night I went to the hospital and the lady had said, “Oh you’re in here all the time. What’s your name?” I’m like, Oh, this probably isn’t a real good sign. [chuckle]
07:32 Joe: So basically, I just started drinking… I went into the bar that just opened up and I started texting… I guess I got sick and tired of being sick and tired. I started emailing family members that I couldn’t go on and they came and asked me if I wanted for help. Two of my younger brothers live in town. I asked one of them to come by and then both of them came. I’m like “Oh, why are you here?” This seems kind of serious, you know. [chuckle]
07:59 Joe: So, I went to the ER, and that’s kind of where this whole journey started. It’s the real brief version. Just other stuff to get to where we’re trying to go, that I went to the ER, and then I went to the psych ward was next; a dual diagnosis psych ward, and that’s where I was talking to a social worker and then she said, “Well what about AA?” and I said “That’s a hard no.” [chuckle] I can’t, it’s too religious, I don’t believe in God. And she had said, “Well what if when you see the word just think of a good orderly direction? If you try doing that maybe that’ll help.” And I kind of thought about it and I guess this is where I started taking suggestions versus normally, I’d be like, no, and I would be like, “I’m going home.” and I would have just waited out… I would have waited out the time, but I’m like, “Oh this is just really serious.”
08:50 Joe: So, I did that when they read the literature and this kind of makes sense. It’s like instructions, and you take out the supernatural element, this can work on a secular kind of plain. And for me, I definitely need that. And I was kind of thinking, but what about when I get out of here? How am I going to find that?
It came time to leave, and I was set to go to an IOP and I’m like, “Oh that’s not going to work. I’m going to go right back to the liquor store.” Because before going I remember I went, and I would do some other things that says in the book. I remember I went I changed clothes one day to go to the same liquor store because I was worried with the guy you might think I have a problem. [chuckle]
09:29 Joe: So I said, “You know what, I have to go to a facility to get to go away because I just remembered, I remembered I was sitting in my car in the parking lot, constantly buying whiskey, and I didn’t know why I was doing it. I remember I’m not getting anything out of it, but I have to do it and it kind of scared me because I was also, too, I was hiding bottles. I got to that point.
My wife had asked me not to drink inside the house and I’m like, well that doesn’t mean I can’t drink outside the house. So, I took into drinking… Yeah, I would drink… Yeah, I’d get a pint and drink in the car. And that got kind of tiring, so I started hiding bottles in the house.
I think at one point I had a black out where I hurt my leg and I remember the next day I told my wife I wouldn’t have any bottles in the house, and the next day I got up. I love to do a lot of hiking and she came in and I had pulled the liquor basket out of the laundry… The liquor out of the laundry basket and just the look on her face that just to this day, it just crushes me.
10:31 Joe: So anyways, I went to the rehab and it’s funny… People, they kept saying… “Can you read the first 164 pages of the big book?” I kept telling everybody, I had done that, I had done that and then I found that eventually got out of rehab and it’s funny, I met my sponsor, and we were going through the book and then we got to the “We Agnostics” chapter and then I got to the bookmark at the end and then I realized, where I stopped and realized I couldn’t do it. It’s something to be overcome. And even when I was starting to go to meetings afterwards, they talk about the belligerent savage and the guy who bristles with antagonism. But I don’t always bristle with antagonism.
11:20 John: Yeah.
11:20 Joe: And I’m not really a belligerent savage.
11:23 John: No.
11:24 Joe: I could be a savage sometimes, but I don’t think I’m belligerent.
11:27 John: Yeah.
11:28 Joe: You know? And I remembered I guess in 2006, there was Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and I think I wrote to them and they weren’t in my area and when I got out of rehab, I thought… Oh, I know what I… Before I left, I had a counselor, and we had one-on-one counseling. And then the whole higher power thing came up. Step one, that’s fine, that doesn’t… I have no problem with that but when it came to the higher power, he’s like no, it can be anything.
I said, “Well what about my cat Leroy Brown, can he be my higher power?” I try to work him in everywhere I can so, and he’s like… Well, how’s your cat going to help you with your sobriety? But then you’re telling me my cat… You just said, it could be anything, but now it can’t be my cat. So, I feel like you’re trying to steer me into a direction. So that kind of fostered me, a little bit. I know that I always thought through the literature, it’s kind of steering you into the group is okay but my impression is, the literature is trying to lead you to the Judeo Christian God.
12:21 John: Yeah, it is. It’s…
12:31 John: And because the people who wrote it of course that was their background. I find it really almost comical that the guy at the meeting said, “Oh, we have a nice way of closing here.” And it was the Lord’s Prayer. What a funny way of saying that. Now I remember my first meeting when they closed with the Lord’s prayer, I wasn’t expecting that at all. In fact, I didn’t grow up in a religion. I had never prayed around people, with people, so it was a really horrible experience. I hated it, the way that it felt to be holding hands with people and praying. It just felt weird to me, but in my case, I just kept going back and kind of dealing with it. But what a huge obstacle that is that we put up for people by having them join hands and say a prayer that is really specifically a Protestant version of a Christian prayer. It’s just… It’s just… And then at the same time you say you’re not affiliated with any religion.
13:35 John: So yeah, I can see that’s a problem. And then also you were talking about the chapter to the agnostic and everything. And actually, you were talking about how you would say, “Okay, I can somehow secularize this. I can figure… I see how… I can take out all the supernatural stuff and I can see the… What works underneath.” And I kind of did that too in the beginning when I started off in AA, but what happened with me is I kind of… Because I was going to meetings for so long where the God talk was so prevalent, I just kind of fell in with that. And I kind of forgot about how I was trying in my own mind to work things out. So, I admire you, that you were able to stick to your own principles and…
14:19 Joe: Yeah. That’s definitely difficult too because you have the people that are like… Well, other people that have said things like, “If you’re not praying, you’re not abstaining,” Or like.
14:26 John: Yeah.
14:27 Joe: “You got to have your slippers under the bed.” But I don’t pray. That’s like a hard… It’s a hard no for me.
14:33 John: And how funny that one guy said, “How do you get out of a jam?” Does he really think that God is getting him out of jams?
14:41 Joe: Yeah, that’s what…
14:42 John: Anyway, I guess.
14:43 Joe: I’ve always wondered the same thing. I think about it, and sometimes I do get overwhelmed or I’ll ask someone for help or like you’ll get there. But it’s funny though even with the praying. It’s funny I always thought I was kind of like, I’m like this little dude who doesn’t believe in God. And then I came into the praying part and then I talked to other people that are atheist too and they pray. I’m like, “What? You pray?” I’m like maybe that’s their thing.
15:08 John: Yeah.
15:09 Joe: Like at first it was strange to me but…
15:10 John: I know. I don’t. I don’t pray at all. In fact, I actually stopped many years before I even told anybody. [chuckle] Here’s the deal. I never really… Like I said I wasn’t a religious person, didn’t know anything about religion, it wasn’t my thing to pray. I always kind of thought that I just didn’t have that gene that enables you to believe, to have faith. I just thought I’m just not capable of it for whatever reason. But when I got into AA, I was so desperate that when they started suggesting prayer, I was kind of working out of my mind, “Okay, there must be some psychological benefit to this that you’re just telling yourself something.”
That’s how I kind of got started, but then I forgot about that rationalization too. But I never ever believed that there was a guy in the sky that was taking care of me. That was just never a belief that I had. But for me it took a long time to get to the point where you were in the beginning telling people that this isn’t working, this isn’t working for me. So, I also find it interesting that you reached out to SOS and there weren’t any meetings in your area. And I thought to myself when you said that, “It’s funny that that has never taken off.”
16:24 Joe: Yeah, I’m not even sure if they still exist.
16:28 John: I don’t know if they do either.
16:28 Joe: I think I tried looking recently, also because in rehab I did ask. I’m like, “What are the alternatives to AA?”
16:35 John: Yeah.
16:36 Joe: Someone brought up Smart and Rational Recovery and look, “Oh, we don’t talk about this here.” Why not? [chuckle] Yeah.
16:41 John: And even those didn’t… Aren’t as prevalent as AA is. In fact, I think I know of one smart meeting maybe here in the Kansas City area. Oh no, yeah, no, there’s a couple of smart, but there’s one that’s outside of the VA. All the other ones are actually in the VA center because the VA uses it.
17:03 Joe: There’s a couple around here, but ones not at a good time and the other’s in a library and like… But I think by the time I found it, I asked three different reference librarians like, “I’m here for… Like… “
17:11 John: Yeah.
17:13 Joe: And not… Not that I don’t feel the need to hide my anonymity, but for other people it’s just like, “Yeah, I got to ask three different people how to get to the recovery room.”
17:21 John: I know it’s kind of… Kind of awkward. So how did you hear about Agnostic AA meetings?
17:30 Joe: Well, that’s… I guess, when I was talking to that counselor, he was like, “What do you believe in?” I’m like, “Well, I really like Buddhism.” And then I was just kind of saying that just to kind of not talk about the God stuff. And he’s like, “Well what does that mean to you?” I’m like, “Oh man, he’s calling me out on it.” I don’t really know what to say. I’m like, “Well you know there’s like the equal path and being present.” [chuckle]
So, when I got out I kind of looked that up and I found there was a group called Noble Steps and there was a book called by Kevin Griffin One Breath at a Time and I read that. And that kind of opened the door for me. And then I’m like, “Oh, I wonder… Because I don’t think in 2006, I don’t know if AA agnostic was around, but that’s when I Googled secular versions of the steps or something like that. And that led to me AA agnostic. I’m like, “Oh my God, there’s like a whole nother world out here and nobody is talking about it.”
18:14 Joe: And I think… Yeah. And there’s so many books there already too. And okay, huge skirt on the rabbit hole podcast in the crux. And I bought the Commonsense Recovery for Atheism. And because every time I read the book, like I was saying, like we were talking about before, with like the belligerent savage. And like… It was also too I can’t go to Step meetings just because by then when they had that line about those who still cling to the higher power. I’m like, “But it’s okay if you have a higher power or you don’t. But why do you have to cling to it?”
And I’m like… And then of course I have all my suggestions on how I would improve the book. But I was reading in that book and it kind of said… That led in the process of how difficult that would be. So, I accept… That’s one I think I accepted. I’m like, “Alright, I have to reframe this into a secular language.” And I think that book kind of helped me do that.
19:07 John: I don’t…
19:07 Joe: Somewhere, I came up with the idea instead of higher power… I don’t really have this entity. It’s like, I can’t… I have a hard time believing if someone had the doorknob and someone had a suitcase and someone had God, do they all talk to each other? How do they dispense the energy? But I do have… And I think like we were saying before, it’s just the language… And I don’t think I ever realized this because I started reading up history, to the whole being founded in 1939, like, “Oh this makes a lot more sense now”.
19:36 John: Yeah, it is interesting, isn’t it? When you just think about it as it’s just the words, the words and language that they were using to describe their experience.
19:45 Joe: Yeah, so I needed a new language for my experience, so I setup higher power, and I try to show this at meetings now and I try to share more from a secular perspective, but then I’m like, “Oh I… The guy like it says on page 417, accept differences”. There goes Joe, with his secular thing. But I don’t think… It’s funny, I guess going back to finding… I lost my train of thought, but going back to finding the meeting, I found agnostic and I’m like, “Oh I wonder if there’s meetings”. And there were, in New York, there was a bunch. I’m about a half hour from New York City and I’m… They’re all mostly way up town, but I did find some in the Village and I’m like, okay, I can’t get to these, but I know they’re here.
I’m like, maybe there’s some in New Jersey, and I found two. There was one in Jersey City, and there’s one way down, it’s about two hours from the Fort Hood River. So, I started writing to these people, like, “My name’s Joe, what was it like putting a meeting together? Or, I’m thinking about putting one together. And actually, a guy on Staten Island, he referred me to the guy George, and he was really instrumental in helping.
He was like, oh here’s what you need to do. And also, too, I’m like, how do I share that I don’t believe in God? Because I feel like, at that time, maybe a year or so of sobriety… It’s like well, you can tell people you know people that have 30 years of sobriety, and you can be quiet on the atheism thing in the beginning, but as your time grows then you could be more vocal about it, that’s the advice he gave me. So now, I try to share, when I need to, from a secular perspective, because I found some meetings are just fine and then some, the content gets little God heavy, and sometimes it doesn’t even occur.
The thing is, I’m too scared to do this alone, I don’t know. And I guess someone, another guy… A couple of guys locally knew each other. And I guess sometimes you don’t want to hear people share and I’m like, “Oh they might feel the same way I do”. And it was… There are no secular meetings around here and we’d like to start one, but we don’t know what to do.
Then there were three of us at the time and we got together and then we decided let’s start knocking on doors and maybe we can find a space first and then we’ll see what to do. And we found, actually, a Quaker meeting house here in Chatham and they’re actually kind of supportive, because I guess they’re all about finding the inner light. So, one of their members is coming and he’s like, oh yeah, you got to find your truth. I just found it ironic when a Quaker is our biggest supporter.
So, what did we do? We got together and we knocked on doors. And then the Quaker meeting house was the first place that said yes, and then it came time to announce. At meetings, we were like, “How do we announce this?” And we decided to call ourselves a freethinkers meeting and some people said, “Why don’t you say secular meeting?” And I think agnostic was just starting to get listed in the book, and I’m just like, “Well it’s just going to get listed in the book as agnostic, we might as well stick with the language that’s being used now”. Going back to language, it’s like, “Oh, they’re finally getting to agnostics and now people seem to want to switch to secular…
23:04 Joe: But, so we started out with about three or four of us, and now we kind of hold steady at about 12. The most we’ve had is 18. But it’s funny though, because I do get… There are days I’m just like, “I guess…Like, the other day. I told my wife, I’m like, “I don’t want to go to that stupid meeting, I started.” And I went, and a younger fella came, and it was his first meeting ever of AA, and I’m like, to encounter an open meeting versus a more dogmatic meeting.
I always wonder what it would have been like back in 2001, someone had said, “I don’t believe in God and here’s how I do this.” Would I have stayed? I guess it’s neither here nor there, but when we had speaker meetings in the rehab, I kept asking people at the higher power. I’m like, “What do you do if you don’t believe in God?” Well, you’ll get it. You’ll get it.
23:54 Joe: I’m like, “Why can’t someone just say? Are you not allowed to say it?” And so, I try to be open. Even like atheist has a pejorative term, I don’t know, sometimes I’ll say non-theist, or I’ll just say I don’t believe in God. And just to get that out there, because that’s not a really… Not a major point of view, or I feel like I finally got to somewhere I belong, yet I’m still in the minority. It was like… If that makes sense?
24:26 John: So, what’s the name of your group?
24:28 Joe: The Only Requirement.
24:29 John: Oh, okay. I’ve heard of that.
24:31 Joe: Yeah, I think there’s one in the city called that too. And we went… We were thinking Without A Prayer, that might ruffle some feathers, maybe. So we decided to go with The Only Requirement.
24:42 John: Yeah, and when do you meet?
24:44 Joe: We meet Thursdays, at seven o’clock.
24:46 John: Okay, seven o’clock.
24:48 Joe: Right now, we’re a discussion meeting. I kind of wanted with the secular… We don’t have a lot of secular speaking meetings, so we’re kind of thinking of maybe once per quarter. I don’t know, if we could get one per month. So, we were thinking, right now, we’re going to try doing one per quarter.
25:06 John: Yeah, that’s a smart idea. We actually, we’re the same way. We tried a secular speaker meeting in Kansas City, some time ago and we were doing it once a month and that was working pretty well, but for whatever reason, the guys that were doing it, decided they didn’t want to do it. So then a few years later, we started one where we would do it every week and that was going super well, but we started running out of people, because we just don’t have that many people to talk.
25:34 John: And we didn’t want to go out and get the people that are going to talk about God all the time. So, I think once a month would work out well, or even quarterly.
25:43 Joe: I think I shared this in a meeting. I think I have this irrational “fear of dog” and I’m like I’m going to go to meetings and it’s going to be super religious content? Like I was saying, sometimes it is, but that’s why I don’t go to speaker meetings. In the beginning, I was a lot, just because it gave me something to focus on. But then I’m just like, “Oh there’s going to be that part where they discovered God.” Or I noticed people dance around it, and I do this myself, I say the “good orderly direction” thing, but then I don’t say anything after that. I just kind of let people conclude, and I’m like, “I feel like I need to be more, not vocal or a forthcoming, but just to let people know that you can do this without believing in God if you want to do the steps or not do the steps or… “but the requirement is…
26:19 John: Over the last five years, I guess I’ve had to unlearn AA speak because I was, well, I’m 57 now, and I’ve been in AA since I was 25. And for 25 years, that was my life, and I knew the language and the lingo, and knowing the language and the lingo kind of got me by. And so, after that 25-year period when I realized I was an atheist, I had enough. I couldn’t even bear going to the meetings anymore. Like you were talking about the literature, it was just too much for me. And so, we did start a secular meeting here in Kansas City and since that time, I have been unlearning the language and the lingo. [chuckle]
27:10 John: So, like, “higher power”, that’s not the way I talk. I don’t even use the language, what are you talking about? That’s not my language. I never would have, the first place I ever heard that was an AA, you know. Yeah, I don’t know why I just mentioned that, but yeah, I just don’t use that terminology anymore. If people want to talk about that, that’s their deal. But I don’t use that language, I just use my regular everyday language. Other people help me.
27:34 Joe: Yeah, that’s what I do say. Like I was saying, I have a resource, the fellowship’s a resource I can draw strength upon. Totally enough having, I guess My sponsor is actually a pretty religious guy, but when we were reading the book, we were doing step two. I think there’s some line there about… Or when we were talking, I still remember it, he’s like, “Can you be open-minded?” and, “it’s something that’s not you.” And I said, “Yeah I can buy into that”. He’s like, “Alright, then you don’t have to do anything else, just go with that.” But then it came to step three, and it’s like, “Turn your will and your life over and care.” What does that mean? I just jumped over a hurdle, now I’m at a gate. [chuckle]
28:10 John: But to me, all that meant is, I mean it’s funny, I thought about when I was in school diagramming sentences. I’m like well I just decided, and everything else but that was parenthetical. And for me, making that decision was to stay sober, and find ways to stay sober, and help other people to stay sober. And then the rest of them all, I kind of figured out.
28:30 John: I always find it funny that people get stuck on the third step because they always focus on the God part like it’s all about God. But what about the decision? It’s a decision, you know. So, whatever, but I guess it’s a decision to do whatever, but I don’t know. They used to tell me, back when I was going to the traditional meetings, when I was getting started, they always focused on the decision more so than they did the God. I’ve always seen that as just a decision to make a change.
29:02 Joe: Yeah, it’s funny. We had someone come in and after we got listed, we went through the whole inter-group process.
29:07 John: Yeah, I was wondering about that.
29:08 Joe: It wasn’t as hard as I thought. George helped me out and got me the paperwork, and we submitted it. And then, I think to our benefit though, at night there was an excessive funds Committee and they were deciding on what to do with the excessive funds, and that took hours. So when the time for voting for the groups came in, everyone just raised their hands [chuckle] I just had to go up there and say why we’re doing this, and I said where I live, there’s only two meetings in the state. It says to go to any lines necessary and if people need… Even my sponsor asked me, I think at the first, “What’s that agnostic meeting about?” Well, you said any lines necessary, my man.
29:52 John: So, you registered the group with GSO right?
29:54 Joe: Yeah.
29:54 John: Okay, so then is it the inter-group that voted for you?
30:00 Joe: I forget how all the politics stuff worked.
30:02 John: Yeah, I’ve never heard of that before. But everything is different in different locations and inter-groups always are different from one place to the next.
30:11 Joe: It could have been GSO, I could be wrong. But whatever if it was that or… Whatever the process to get listed, that was the process. And then I just talked and then they took a vote. I think three people abstained and there were maybe like 70 yeses. And then it’s funny, the guy after me, George, he got voted in too, but he had like 10 people vote no. But I don’t know if they knew him or not [laughter]
After that, I think the Jersey City group was the first group. I think they fought for the agnostic label. Once they got listed, I felt like that hurdle was cleared. And then we came along and I think we might be the third or fourth group, and then two more groups have started in Fort Lee, which is a part of George Washington Bridge, and Lodi which is also kind of nearby there, on a Sunday night. So I think we have five or six groups now in New Jersey, whereas before there were only two.
31:05 John: So have you had any challenges along the way with getting the group going?
31:10 Joe: I think a little bit. I’m not sure if some people are afraid to check the group out. In the beginning, it was kind of like the same four or six. And we’d go to neighboring readings. That didn’t mean at the same time, but we’d announce it, kind of by word of mouth. But I thought we might have some push-back. I think we were all worried about more fundamentalists coming in, going like, “You can’t do this. This isn’t AA, that’s not in the book.”
31:32 John: That occurred to me that that could happen at our group, it never really did. In fact, we did have some people from one of the really hardcore groups. Actually, when we started our group, there were two young people that would come all the time and they were from this Clancy type, off-shoot group, but they were really cool with us, they loved the group. But they don’t come around anymore, just simply because they are out in the suburbs, and it was a bit of a drive for them. But they were there all the time.
32:09 Joe: Yeah, that’s what I thought for the most part. Like everyone’s been supportive, my sponsor is supportive… It’s… I guess I rely more on a network than I do… We see each other at the same meetings, but we don’t really talk to… He likes to check in once in a while, but I think for me, the network approach works. And… But when he gave me my coin for three years, he said… I think even in the past year, Joe has started with a couple other guys an agnostic and atheist meeting for people that need that. It’s like last year, when he gave me the coin, we had just started and he’s like, “It’s a meeting for people that struggle with their spirituality”, and I wanted to say, “No, [laughter] it’s not why we started.”
32:44 John: Struggling with their spirituality.
32:48 Joe: Yeah.
32:48 John: That’s so funny.
32:49 Joe: And then he told me he’s been like… The one Big 10 book, he’s been referring to that to people, but… Which is a great publication, but there’s actually an official AA… because, I want to… We’re always like, I guess fund-wise, we kind of… Sometimes we’ve fallen short… We were able to get our rent lowered; it was a little steep.
So, now hopefully we’ll have a little left over to maybe have some of the one big 10 books to sell a few books. Some people haven’t heard of it, and it’s just like it’s too… There’s this… Even though it’s like AA Agnostica, I always want to mention that, because there’s this whole world out there and I was thinking about this before we talked. If it wasn’t for say, the internet and all this… The resources there are, I don’t know if I could be doing this because if there wasn’t an agnostic, atheist format outright, I’d go crazy, probably.
33:36 John: Isn’t it funny that you don’t know about something until you actually search for it? And then Google brings it up to your attention. When I was first looking into all of this back in… God when was it? It was about five years ago, actually, it was more than that. About seven or eight years ago, I started searching for atheists in AA online, and I was hard pressed to find anything. I think I did run across the New York site and I ran across the site in California, and that really amazed me. But then AA Agnostica came online, and then I kind of learned more about that there were a lot of other groups out there, and that’s what got me motivated to start our group is when I learned that these groups even existed. They’ve existed since 1975. I had no…
34:29 Joe: Yeah, I can’t believe that. I think that’s so crazy. And then I think from AA Agnostica, I think that’s where I found Beyond Belief and like… I heard your podcast and like, “I want to go to Kansas now.”
34:44 John: That’s funny.
34:45 Joe: Oh yeah. Here we… Yeah. Here we can connect this way.
34:47 John: Yeah. Yeah. Well the podcast has been cool for me because I have gotten to meet people from all over and it’s just… Oh, it’s pretty cool. AA is done different no matter where you go it seems and there’s some common denominators I guess, but it’s always fun for me to know what meetings are like in other places and what the culture is like and it’s just, it’s pretty fascinating to me.
35:10 Joe: Yeah, same here. When I can, I like visiting meetings out in Pennsylvania or… My wife’s from South Jersey, and so where I live there are thankfully, there’s a decent number of meetings. We’re down in South Jersey, there’s maybe six over the course of the day, so you don’t have a lot to choose from. I’m kind of fortunate and then plus two if I can go to the city. I found meetings in the city are less dogmatic and even… It’s funny younger kids seem less into the… Yeah, the dogmatic part. They’re just, “Okay, whatever.”
35:39 John: Yeah, I like meetings in New York. I’ve only been to one group there and I guess they don’t even meet anymore, but it was a very nice group. It was a traditional group, but they were okay by me. They did close with the serenity prayer, they didn’t do the Lord’s Prayer, but the meeting itself was just fine. I didn’t have any issues with it at all. I enjoyed it. Their people were very nice, but I’d like to go to some of the agnostic groups in New York next time I go.
36:08 Joe: Yeah, same here. I still haven’t… There’s still way up on 86th Street. For where I live it’s a challenge to get to, but I want to go to them all. Even the ones here in New Jersey, I want to try to support them, but it’s Sunday at six in Rhode Island and the Tuesday one at seven and traffic-wise, it’s a nightmare to get up there.
36:24 John: Oh yeah… Yeah. So, do you have any suggestions for someone who might want to start a meeting?
36:31 Joe: Definitely to have the courage to do it and to reach out, I guess… There’s the people you can contact on… I think there’s a secular AA… I went there and I think that’s maybe where I might have found the first-person, George, I contacted. And then I found locals, even not local… I just tried to find meetings that were agnostic. I would write to the people and ask them for help and then I kind of had a little network there. And then I think you can find like-minded people too. And then it helps to get together. Just once you have like two people, it kind of snowballs and…
37:10 John: Yeah. I would definitely say start with another person because you want to make sure that the door is always open, and there might be a time when you just can’t make the meeting. And then hopefully your partner can make it, and maybe it might take a while for the meeting to get known about and for people to start showing up.
I think in most cases, gradually, it will… More and more people become aware of the group. It takes a little while for a group to kind of come into its own because, AA it is kind of strange because people come and go. There always seems to be like a core group of people maybe that stick around, but then you have all these other people who might just come for a period of time, and they stop coming, they might start coming back again. And like I’ve seen my group… We’ve been meeting now for five years and it’s gone through different personalities, different cycles as new people come in, other people leave. It’s just interesting how that works.
38:06 Joe: I think what was really fun for me was I sat down with somebody in my home group. There was a snowstorm and he had texted me the night before and he was like, “Hey are you going to the meeting tomorrow?” And I texted him back and I said, “I would go to any length necessary to not take my car out tomorrow.” [chuckle] And then he was like, “Are you being sarcastic?” “Yes.” And then from that it turned out we had the same beliefs and also too you can find…
For me, finding someone local or nearby that I can talk to with a similar belief… I didn’t feel alone anymore. because I think it was frustrating too… because one of the frustrating things is, I think it was a Big Book thing and I mentioned, we were talking about prayer, I don’t pray, and I don’t believe in God. And then it’s like, “Well, CS Lewis was just like you.” Or I get the comment, “I was just like you.” I’m like, “You know, for a program about acceptance, you’re not really accepting someone different.”
38:06 John: I appreciate you coming on the podcast. I enjoyed the conversation and…
38:06 Joe: Oh, yeah, thanks for having me.
38:06 John: Yeah, absolutely.
38:06 Joe: I’m just glad I could be a part of it because I really want to… Anything that supports secular AA, I definitely want to be a part of.
39:08 John: Yeah. And it’s nice to hear about a group starting too. And I’d like to have more people on that will talk about that experience. Occasionally, I get emails from people that ask the question, “How do you go about starting a group?” And I usually refer them to an article on AA Agnostica and there used to be information also on the secular AA website, but it’s not on there right now. I’m not sure if that’s just temporary or what. But I thought… Well, we should really do some podcasts on the topic, because I wanted to write an article, but for me sometimes writing is such an effort and podcasting is fun, so I can always do a podcast about something.
So anyway, yeah, it was nice to meet you. Thank you very much. Yeah. Have a good… Thanks Joe.
39:48 Joe: Thanks, you too. I’ll talk to you later.
39:51 John: I really enjoyed that conversation, thank you Joe so much for sending me that message on Facebook the other day, or last week, and having this opportunity to talk with you. I really enjoyed it.
One thing I found interesting in speaking with Joe was what he had to say about his discomfort that he felt at his early AA meetings and particularly because of the religious overtones of the meetings. It’s perfectly understandable. I mean, what are we thinking when a newcomer shows up in the rooms for help and without knowing anything about them, we talk about God and close the meeting with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
It makes no sense whatsoever. But that’s the AA of today. Fortunately, we do have the option of starting our own meetings without any sort of prayer at all. That’s what Joe did. He and some friends started the Only Requirement group in Chatham Township, New Jersey.
40:48 John: It’s a secular meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. No group prayers, no chanting. No none of that. It’s the way AA should be in my opinion. So, thank you, Joe K for participating in the podcast. I enjoyed the talk, and I wish you well on your journey.
And thank you for listening. It’s always nice to have this opportunity to connect. Before I leave, I’d like to say again, please consider supporting our site and podcast with either a one-time contribution or even better, small recurring contributions. You can set up a recurring donation at our Patreon page at patreon.com/aabeyondbelief. You can also set up recurring or even a one-time donation through PayPal at paypal.me/aabeyondbelief. And you can always visit our site, aabeyondbelief.org and click on the donate button. Your donations are both needed and appreciated. So that’s it for another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast.