Episode 20: Vic L. and Secular AA

My name is Vic L. and I am definitely an alcoholic. I first went to AA on February 11, 1979, when I was 35 years old. I do not distinguish between alcohol or any other drugs (i.e. pot, cocaine, opiates) or any other “dry goods.” I speak only for myself, not for AA, nor for the WAAFT Board of Directors of which I am a  member.

I was pleased and surprised when John S. invited me to write this post and do a podcast to express my thoughts and opinions about secular AA for AA Beyond Belief.

After joining the WAAFT Board of Directors this past January, members of the board were asked to suggest various topics and participants for the panels and workshops for the upcoming convention to be held in Austin this November. I suggested a panel, “Is WAAFT Necessary?” However, I soon realized that there was/is no agreement as to what WAAFT actually is. So I changed the title to “What is WAAFT?”

In order to appreciate how I arrived at my understanding of secular AA please allow me some context. I am a collapsed Catholic having stopped going to mass as soon as I went away to college. When I reluctantly attended that first AA meeting in 1979, it seemed like the Salvation Army; first, you listen to sermons and sing, then you get fed. All I could see was “God” on the window shades. I almost left AA because of that. Expressing my discomfort, I was told not to get hung up on the religious aspects of AA and just let the religiosity “wash over me.”

I was desperate. I did what I was told: I went to 90 meetings in 90 days, I tried “Group of Drunks,” I tried “Good Orderly Direction,” and I even tried “a  doorknob.”

I finally got down on my knees and prayed, I read daily meditations, I got a sponsor, and I did the steps — for at least 15 years.

Even so, my questionable religiosity was taking its toll.  During this time I heard about a “non-religious” AA meeting on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at the Jan Hus Church. I surreptitiously went there not knowing what to expect.

What I witnessed was a meeting where the majority of the sharing was devoted to bashing religion at other AA meetings! I was so disappointed because I just wanted to see what AA without religion would be like. So I bailed and went back to conventional AA — for at least another 10  years.

During that time religiosity in the rooms was noticeably increasing and my personal hypocrisy was really getting to me. Nonetheless, I just sucked it up and kept my mouth shut. But I wasn’t kidding myself. In due course, I ventured out again. This time I found a few secular AA meetings that actually put aside religion (with just a tad of religion bashing). After 25 years in AA, I was finally able to be more “rigorously honest” with myself. I did not have to convince or delude myself with other people’s beliefs in order to stay sober.

However, as crazy as this might seem, because of the utmost value I place on my sobriety, I would do conventional, religious AA all over again, if that were the only way I could get and stay clean and sober. But thanks to secular AA I don’t have to.

When I learned that the first WAFT convention was to be held in Santa Monica I was thrilled. But not for long.

I produce documentary films, and before Santa Monica, I had recently completed a documentary on church and state issues, “In God, We Teach,” (available free online. It’s not “Gone with the Wind” but it’s pretty good. It has Neil deGrasse Tyson, Alan Dershowitz, Stephen Colbert, et al).

As a result of producing that film I assumed that WAFT was like the US government, that is, secular. After all, the first two phrases of the First Amendment in the Constitution are, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” (N.B. As an indication of the importance that the Founders gave to of the separation of church & state these two phrases come BEFORE freedom of speech and freedom of the press).

As the second phrase states, even though our constitutional government is secular, we as individual citizens can freely express and practice whatever beliefs (or non-beliefs) we may hold. So I expected that WAFT would be like the US government: a big, secular organization consisting of members who were welcome to state their various (mostly non-religious) personal beliefs. Big mistake.

My first realization that this was not quite what the WAFT organizers had in mind was their announcement that the Reverend Ward Ewing would be the keynote speaker at the convention in Santa Monica! I was gob-smacked and sent out an email that was very critical of this selection of a man of the cloth (not to be confused with the man himself) to give the central speech at the inaugural convention of secular AA. The response to my email favored keeping the Reverend so I reluctantly dropped my opposition.

I still gasp for air when I think of it. The choice just seemed like a pathetic plea for approval to those outside of secular AA. Why else would a group of (mostly) non-religious members choose a cleric? Would an LGBTQ group invite a politician who voted against gay marriage to be their first keynote speaker? I don’t think so. Would a Spanish-speaking group invite a xenophobe? You get my drift. It is my understanding that the choice of a keynote speaker implies the imprimatur of the group doing the selecting. As a sop, the role of keynote speaker was somewhat watered down by adding two more keynote speakers (one of them another believer, I might add).

As it turned out the (now named) WAAFT convention was a success, and I enjoyed myself very much despite having to suffer through the three keynote speeches. I even moderated the panel ”Is Spirituality Compatible with Agnostic AA” in which I attempted to draw attention to what I consider our most contentious subject. And for the record, the Reverend Ewing and one of the other keynote speakers, Marya Hornbacher participated on my panel.

I am often reminded that we attend secular AA to avoid “the god stuff” (which includes the “supernatural”) while also keeping in mind that anyone can share anything at any meeting. I am of the opinion that whatever one believes is of concern to that person only, not to WAAFT as a  whole.

Recently I ran into Sharon, an old AA friend on the subway. She asked me where I was going. I said, “To an AA   meeting.” And she asked, “Oh, which one?” And I  sheepishly replied, “An agnostic AA meeting.” To which she nonchalantly said, “Oh, those are the meetings where everyone always talks about  god.”

A few months after the convention in Santa Monica, I wrote  a post for AA Agnostica entitled, “Perils Facing Agnostic AA.”

In it I listed three perils that I thought we members of WAAFT should address:

  1. Purists
  2. The “S” Word
  3. Religion Bashers

It’s probably the “S” word, “spirituality” that I believe is at the bottom of most disagreements within the WAAFT community—and it is potentially explosive. Some members  of WAAFT ask, “Why can’t the convention be more “balanced?” By “balanced”, I take to mean more panels that include some form of  “spirituality.”

OK, then one must ask, “What exactly is “spirituality?” According to Merriam-Webster it is: “the quality or state of being concerned with religion or religious matters.” (Perhaps just as interesting is Merriam-Webster’s definition of secular: “of or relating to the physical world and not the spiritual world”).

Are we calling everything we don’t quite understand “spiritual?” Is it the awe one feels in nature? Is it the love one feels for a child? Is it the strong sensations one feels when listening to music? It’s probably all those examples and many more. In fact, spirituality is many, many things to many, many people. And your spirituality may not be my spirituality. On top of that, most people imbue their spirituality with some form of divine certitude. Even so, spirituality for some unknown reason is claimed to be different from the assertions of major religions. Spirituality is somehow given a secular pass.

And as we know AA has a long history of linking spirituality to “God” or ”Higher Power.” Although spirituality is not part of the AA triangle (Unity, Service, and Recovery), AA literature is littered with references to spirituality, usually as a fig leaf for “a belief in god.”

By definition “spirituality” is not evidence-based. Rather, it is reached by more intuitive means. That said, I am very cognizant of the fact that many WAAFT members hold heartfelt personal spiritual beliefs. Those beliefs are certainly welcomed to be shared in any AA meeting, either secular or conventional. My problem is with WAAFT itself, as a secular organization, espousing spiritual beliefs as something other than what they are.

Don’t we attend secular AA as a refuge from religious proselytizing? If one would like to learn more about say, “Buddhism and AA” or “Universal Unitarianism and AA” one would be well advised to attend a conventional AA meeting, or better yet, go to a Buddhist temple or a Universalist church. The best way for WAAFT to be “balanced” and embrace all beliefs is to ignore all beliefs.

We will never know the exact number of alcoholics who have shunned or quit AA because of religious dogma. For some, it’s a deal-breaker. I know. I almost left because of it. We have an obligation to these newcomers (as well as refugees from conventional AA) to provide an AA that is unfettered with religious doctrine. After all, secular AA is simply non-religious, not anti-religious. It’s just AA sans the “Almighty”. Otherwise, might we end up with an organization that is “sorta secular AA,” “secular-lite AA” or “secular-ish AA.”

At the risk of pouring even more fuel on the fire, I should mention that I am also scheduled to moderate a second panel at the convention in Austin, “The Future of WAAFT.” Among the topics, I would like to discuss are a possible new name for WAAFT, as well a possible new  “preamble.”

Here’s what I hope a new name for WAAFT would be. Or  am I the only person who cringes when mentioning the  name, “WAAFT?” In NYC most of us refer to non-religious  AA as “Agnostic AA”, and I have always been comfortable with that moniker. But it was pointed out to me that “Agnostic AA” is non-inclusive: no mention of atheists, free thinkers, humanists, et al. I have come to agree with that assessment. Sooo, guess what I would suggest? Yes, “Secular AA.” But I’m sure others might disagree, and I am sure there will be a much-heated discussion if indeed a new name is ever chosen.

In addition, I would like to comment on what has informally been adopted as our “secular  preamble:”

This group of A.A. 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 A.A. without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their  own.

I would suggest that it be dropped. Of course, each AA group is autonomous so I am speaking only of WAAFT as an association of groups. We all agree that WAAFT meetings are indeed AA meetings. And the standard AA preamble has been in use at all meetings since it was first written.

Reading only this traditional preamble removes any needless friction with GSO, as well as removing any needless friction within WAAFT. The “secular preamble” is not inclusive as it mentions only “spirituality,” “religion,”  or “atheism,” and fails to include “humanists,” “free thinkers,” “agnostics,” etc.

Again, I thank John S. and AA Beyond Belief for asking me to offer my opinions, and mere opinions they are. I must also reiterate that I speak only for myself, not for AA, nor as a member of the WAAFT Board of  Directors.

I am very sensitive to the fact that many WAAFT members have strongly held positions that are very different from the ones I have espoused here. I hope that responses would offer substantive,  alternative rationales.

Those of us who make the extra effort, and spend additional time and money to attend secular AA meetings can get very emotional when these subjects are raised. And these disagreements can easily get out of hand. They can become the “we and they” of tribalism that ironically has been spread by organized religions throughout history. We can avoid any such schism within our ranks by remaining respectful of each other and, addressing the issues at hand and not the personalities.

I sincerely hope to hear from readers and listeners before and at the convention about these concerns. The many panels and workshops at the convention in Austin will extensively cover these and other topics. In fact, the convention is actively seeking from WAAFT members more suggestions for additional panel topics and participants.

I remain convinced that our primary purpose is indeed “to stay sober, and help other suffering alcoholics to achieve sobriety” … regardless of beliefs.

See you in Austin

© Vic Losick MMXVI All Rights  Reserved

About the Author, Vic L.

Vic L. is a documentary film producer in New York City.  His date of sobriety is February 11, 1979, and he is the founder of two AA groups in New York City. In the 1990’s he founded the “Columbus at 5” Traditional AA Meeting, and on January 17, 2015 he founded the “Without a Prayer” Agnostic AA meeting.

Vic was featured in the New York Times Article, “Alcoholics Anonymous without the Religion” (February 21, 2014) , and he moderated “Is Spirituality Compatible with Agnostic AA” at the Santa Monica Convention in November  2014. Vic authored the “Perils Facing Agnostic AA”, published in AA Agnostica on June 29, 2015. He has been serving on the Board of Directors for the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention since January 2016.