Interview with Vince Hawkins – Author on Secular AA

by | January 10, 2020

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Vince Hawkins is a writer and published author on Secular AA.

Here, we talk about his life, work, views.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background, e.g., geography, culture, language, and religion or lack thereof?

Vince Hawkins: I was brought up in Kent in the south of England as the eldest of three boys by a former Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant who was at the battle of Alamein in the 8th army – a desert rat – and a grammar school / land army girl from Wiltshire. My parents devoted their resources to the family and my own cultural seeds were sown by the English grammar school system. At school I studied Advanced Level English, History and Art, but left home at 17 before sitting the exams to avoid parental control over my drinking. Religious background was Church of England. How could the product of a King of England’s lust for a young girl be taken seriously? One can have any belief or none in the church of England. It provided me with a tiny income as a choirboy, supplemented by a paper round and, later, supplanted by a more lucrative window-cleaning round. My parents allowed me to make my own decision as a young teenager about being ‘confirmed’ and I opted out. I could always apply more serious consideration later.

Jacobsen: Following from the last question, how have these factors influenced personal life and views?

Hawkins: I suppose self-reliance was the big factor. Some things seemed to be lucky or unlucky like a roll of the dice. Others seemed to be the product of hard work and applying one’s talents which, in my case, was an ability to write. After my first job, spending a summer at a holiday camp, I went to London where I became a financial journalist. Later I worked for stockbrokers and banks writing reports on commercial sectors and companies’ share price prospects. I once turned down a job on the Daily Telegraph because it was for a temporary summer appointment and at the time I had a permanent job on a magazine. When I found out this was a common route to a permanent newspaper job I thought my decision could have been an unlucky one. But by my late 20s I was writing freelance for The Times, Financial Times, Telegraph and Irish Independent and still had the magazine job when a stockbroking company doubled my income in a trice, taking me on as a gold mining investment analyst. From this point there was a long downward slide until I was 48 and stopped drinking. Since then there has been a recovery in my  fortunes. Some would say a ‘miraculous’ recovery, but not me. At the time I was deputy editor on a trade magazine based in a provincial town, basically running the creche containing young aspiring journalists who needed knocking into shape. Three months after I stopped drinking I wrote to a company in London that produced business reports on retail sectors, saying that I could contribute to its success. I was hired as managing editor to run the production half of the company; the other half being the sales function run by the sales director. Later I went self employed and continued the editorial function at this company but added freelance journalism as well. It was as though the last 20 years hadn’t happened. There had been a lot of fun moments, but the darker side had got much worse towards the end when my second wife said: “I’d rather you didn’t comeback to the house until you’ve done something about your drinking.” It was a life-saver. I would have been dead in six months.   

Jacobsen: What is the essence of addiction, e.g., alcoholism? How does this provide an explanatory framework for the comprehension of the issues facing numerous members of every community?

Hawkins: No control over the consumption/habit. Can I quote from one of my books Everyone’s an Addict: For the inquisitive drinker asking the question ‘Am I an alcoholic?’ the question is: Do you have trouble stopping drinking once you have started? If so, you are most likely an alcoholic. Is it the same for you with drugs, eating, gambling or violent behavior? Did you indulge in it when your intentions were dead set against it? Do you have other disorders around eating, like bulimia? Is sex something that preoccupies you unduly? Do you have behavioral problems in other directions such as anger, over-dependence on other people, hiding away from the world, lying, bullying and so on? Sometimes it is a multiple problem and the prime addiction needs to be identified.

Addicts themselves can gain comprehension of what they face by joining a 12-step program, taking a course in a clinic, or joining alternative self-help organisations like SMART Recovery. If you are asking how non-addicts can gain comprehension of the issues, it is extremely difficult for them to put themselves into the shoes of the addict, but there are some rules to follow like; Don’t enable the addict in any way. Don’t obtain their substances for them. Don’t clear up after them. Make them face the consequences of their actions. This may bring them to the point of helping themselves earlier than would otherwise have happened. But if it gets too much there must be ‘detachment with love’ to save the relative or partner from unbearable unnecessary anguish. There are organisations that help non-addicts affected by addiction such as Al-Anon, an organisation parallel to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). 

Most 12-step programs have a list of questions that an addict can use to identify themselves. In AA if you answer yes to as few as three questions, you have a problem. Here are the questions in Narcotics Anonymous (NA): Do you ever use alone? Have you ever substituted one drug for another, thinking that one particular drug was the problem? Have you ever manipulated or lied to a doctor to obtain prescription drugs? Have you ever stolen drugs or stolen to obtain drugs? Do you regularly use a drug when you wake up or when you go to bed? Have you ever taken one drug to overcome the effects of another? Do you avoid people or places that do not approve of you using drugs? Have you ever used a drug without knowing what it was or what it would do to you? Has your job or school performance ever suffered from the effects of your drug use? Have you ever been arrested as a result of using drugs? Have you ever lied about what or how much you use? Do you put the purchase of drugs ahead of your financial responsibilities? Have you ever tried to stop or control your using? Have you ever been in a jail, hospital, or drug rehabilitation center because of your using? Does using interfere with your sleeping or eating? 

Does the thought of running out of drugs terrify you? Do you feel it is impossible for you to live without drugs? Do you ever question your own sanity? Is your drug use making life at home unhappy? Have you ever thought you couldn’t fit in or have a good time without drugs? Have you ever felt defensive, guilty, or ashamed about your using? Do you think a lot about drugs? Have you had irrational or indefinable fears? Has using affected your sexual relationships? Have you ever taken drugs you didn’t prefer? Have you ever used drugs because of emotional pain or stress? Have you ever overdosed on any drugs? Do you continue to use despite negative consequences? Do you think you might have a drug problem?

Jacobsen: As an atheist, how does this present a problem for standard AA content, especially at the time of its founding? 

Hawkins: The founders of AA were deeply influenced by a Christian group called the Oxford Movement. A peculiar aspect of this movement was that it called itself non-religious when what it really meant was that it was non-denominational – a ruse to maximise membership. The group’s members were meant to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Forgive me, another quote: Founded by American Christian missionary Frank Buchanan in 1921, his basic tenet was that at the root of man’s problems were fear and selfishness. The solution was to surrender to God’s plan. The Oxford Group was  a social gathering seeking to be led by a Christian God, building on the work of Jesus. Participants should share their thoughts and test their intentions against honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. However, when the founders of AA met, Bill Wilson explained two non-Oxford ideas to Bob: that he had kept himself off drink by trying to help others, and that he believed alcoholism was a disease instead of a sin. Then Dr Bob stopped drinking, too. From its Christian roots the Oxford Group is now an informal, international network of people of many faiths and backgrounds seeking world peace. Now known as Initiatives of Change, it encourages the involvement of participants in political and social issues. One of the Oxford Group’s core ideas was that change of the world starts with seeking change in oneself. While AA also acknowledges the importance of change, ironically this does not apply to its basic textbook.
So Christian members of AA see a belief in god as essential to treating alcoholism successfully. This leads to plainly dishonest practices such as advising non-believers to “fake it to make it”. The idea is that new non-believing members will eventually come to believe in a god and so, save themselves. It is no less than religious conversion, missionary work on the side. These religious nutters effectively expel members who refuse to accept their god ideas. Can you blame any atheist addict for refusing help from the likes of these nuts?

Jacobsen: How does a secular point of view provide room for accommodation of the inclusion of religious content in the methodologies, for the religious?

Hawkins: Thanks for the opportunity to plug my books. They are not the only secular books for addicts, of course, but my other two are: An Atheists Unofficial Guide to AA and An Atheists 12 Steps to Self-improvement. All three of my books re-write the 12 steps for the non-religious. They encourage addicts to construct their own individual programs with the help of more experienced members and, eventually, to re-write their own version of the steps. Also, being an atheist does not exclude a spiritual side as some religious members claim. There is a spiritual aspect to members having a special understanding with each other of their shared problem. And it is easy to name “greater powers” that are not gods. They just have to be something bigger than oneself to help keep ego down to a “right” size. Examples might be evolution, energy, the universe and so on. 

In no way are religious members excluded from this process. When I look at the science of addiction I use the conclusions of a professor I met at a convention. He said that the key to the door of treating addiction and producing a healthy human of use to others was abstention. A belief in god was not a requirement, though it helped addicts of a religious bent. In AA, each meeting is autonomous so secular and standard Christian meetings can be accommodated in the same organisation. Religious members are welcome at secular meetings but after completion of the 12 steps, in whatever kind of meeting, members are supposed to help others, first other addicts and then other people in the wider world. At that stage, say after a couple of years, I think religious people will find it difficult to help the atheists or agnostics because preaching is definitely not a part of any AA meeting. It is completely beside the point of treating addictions. Having said that, there are plenty of other places in which to exercise their religions.     

Look at it another way. Until the recent mushrooming of secular AA meetings (more than 500 now), atheists who attended standard meetings had to find their own way by constructing a DIY program that shut out the religion and absorbed all the good stuff that was left. Other 12-step addiction programs are much less religiously orientated than AA so the problem is not as marked. 

But in AA, for religious members in a secular meeting, they will simply think of god as their greater power and, hey presto, the meeting will work for them, too. We find that they don’t have to bang on about god all the time, though, like religious members in some ‘standard’ meetings. 

Jacobsen: How does being an atheist gives a better, more scientific and naturalistic, account of dealing with addictions? 

Hawkins: I think you’ve just made the point yourself there, Scott

Jacobsen: What are some of the main nuggets of advice for those who have alcoholic family members/friends or have succumbed to alcoholism themselves?

Hawkins: For the non-addicts, it is don’t enable the drinker. Don’t buy drink for them. Make them face the consequences of their own actions. Don’t phone up work for them. 

For the alcoholic, get treatment in a clinic or at an AA meeting, or both. If you try to stop on your own it’s a miserable existence.  

Jacobsen: Who are some recommended speakers, authors, or organizations?

Hawkins: Go to conventions from your earliest time in a 12-step or other addiction treatment organisation. You will always find a speaker or two, or many more, that you like. And the camaraderie is tremendously uplifting. I don’t know if I would have found the amateur live podcasters on Facebook of interest when I first started but, sorry, now that I have a few years under my belt I find them so full of pretentious claptrap.

I only promote my own books on my website but provide links to other sites that do recommend many others:  

AA Agnostica is a treasure trove of secular literature, regular articles and information for recovering atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. (Type ‘Everyone’s an Addict’ or ‘Guide to AA’ under SEARCH FOR ARTICLES and click on the relevant picture.)

AA Beyond Belief is a continually growing library of podcasts and sound recordings in the secular genre. It also invites submission of articles. (Click ‘literature’ and scroll down to An Atheists Unofficial Guide to AA.)

ICSAA, the International Convention of Secular AA has been held three times to date, at two-yearly intervals, in Santa Monica 2014, Austin 2016 and Toronto 2018. The next one will be in Washington DC in 2020. (Click ‘secular aa/links’/scroll down to click on ‘Vince Hawkins’.) 

Rebellion Dogs Publishing is an online magazine for, and about, the secular AA community in printed and sound formats. (click ‘Reading Room’ and scroll down to the Amazon link for An Atheists Unofficial Guide to AA.)

Secular AA is a constituent of Alcoholics Anonymous. It runs ICSAA and has its own website with a list of secular AA meetings and its own resources for members. (Click on ‘Links’ and scroll down to click on ‘Vince Hawkins’.)

A word of warning on clinics. The ones that are set up like five-star hotels can provide a very comfortable detox but may be more interested in seeing you for another detox later, rather than treating your addiction. I get the strong impression that the ones that are set up like boot camps are far more effective. You can look up 12-step organisations online, and I list them in my books, and there are non-12-step organisations like SMART Recovery that you can also look up online. Where organisations have incomplete geographical coverage, they often run meetings online. 

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Hawkins: Atheists are ‘coming out’ in AA, just as gays did a while ago and I’m so pleased about the global march away from religion. Another issue that remains under the carpet is overpopulation. How much more sensible it would be to give sex education and free condoms to everyone on the planet rather than listen to the non-contraception mantra of the Catholic church. Addicts need to be selfish at first to get well, but then they can turn their minds to saving the planet. Can I repeat my favourite quote? It is from Einstein: “To help each other. That is the answer to the question ‘why are we here’? ” 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Vince.

Hawkins: No, it’s my pleasure, thanks very much to you, Scott.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

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