Secular Alcoholics Anonymous: Nonreligious Treatment for Nonreligious People

UU Church

By Dorothy H.

I got sober on Sunday, March 27, 2011. I woke up with a hangover and no excuses for my behavior. I saw my alcoholism for the first time and it was selfish, abusive, and ugly. It had busted out my front teeth when I was nineteen years old while on a binge. It had made my life so unmanageable that I couldn’t figure out how to replace my shoes when they fell apart, so I duct taped them together. I had only two pairs of underwear; my clothes had countless holes; I couldn’t keep a full-time job longer than one and a half years and I couldn’t take responsibility for myself. I was tired of creating excuses for this behavior and tired of defending it.

I was tired of hiding.

I called my friend Eric, who was in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Eric found someone to give me a ride to a women’s meeting. Within a few weeks of attending mostly women’s meetings I became frustrated and exhausted with all the God language and the repetitious statements within AA. I began to practice “double think,” internally editing out the God word to be able to hear the positive message of recovery in these traditional meetings. I kept feeling that I was still hiding, like I did as a child. I came to my turning point when I was three weeks sober and was wearing a medical walking boot following foot surgery. One night I listened to a woman give her personal share in the style of a southern preacher.

I instantly felt trapped. I scanned the room and saw the other women praising and encouraging her. I literally couldn’t get up and walk out. I felt like the walls were closing in on me. For the first time, I actually looked at the Twelve Steps, which were on the wall behind the podium, and saw all the times God was mentioned. The thought came to me that if I didn’t “come to believe,” then I was doomed to die a loveless, alcoholic death.

I was done! I decided all AA had to offer me were religious testimonials about people turning to their gods. I called Eric and told him that all AA had for me was religion and that I could go to church for that, which I wasn’t going to do. So I might as well drink!

Eric, who is a believer, begged me not to give up on sobriety or on AA. He told me about the We Agnostics meeting in Hollywood and asked me not to drink until I went to that meeting. That Friday night I took a two-hour bus ride and walked two miles in my walking boot to get to the meeting.

I instantly felt at home when I heard these words read from the meeting format: “to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or deny their own.”  Jerry B., who was thirty years sober, led the meeting. Jerry stated in the beginning that he was an atheist. I was stunned! My first thought was, is that allowed? Are people allowed to be atheists within AA? His atheism and other members’ philosophical views showed me that intellectual diversity in AA was actually possible!

From that meeting on I felt I was home. I could be open and honest; I did not have to follow the practice that many people who believe in God say in AA, “Fake it ‘till you make it,” which more accurately meant for me, “Hide it until you believe in God.”

Over the years I watched people from other parts of the country come to our meeting to tell us that they started a We Agnostics meeting in their hometowns after visiting us or that they also attend We Agnostic style meeting in their cities because of the intolerance they felt in AA. I have also seen a deep relief from people when they entered their first We Agnostic meeting. I have witnessed believers act fearful when they hear there are meetings where there are nonbelievers. I never understood their fears because I have only experienced love and acceptance from these groups.

I had lost my job at the bank and had to give up my apartment. I was alone at a friend’s house—a friend who was letting me stay until I got back on my feet. While in the laundry room I fell to my knees and prayed to my ancestors for guidance in a plea of pain and confusion. That Friday I told the meeting about my moment of my prayer. I was not judged or scolded about having or not having a belief in something. Instead I was hugged, encouraged, and reminded that everything would work out as long as I did not drink. I didn’t.

Jerry B. and other members of that group instilled in me the value of being of service to others, which AA calls “Twelve Step work.” It has been instrumental to my growth and healing. Over time, the question began to form in my head, “How can I help people who struggle with faith stay sober?” This question simmered in my brain for several months until a new member entered the We Agnostic meeting. Pam L. had twenty-eight years sober and was an atheist. She found us because her boyfriend struggled with religion and she felt that was the reason why he kept relapsing. During her share all the pieces fell into place for me.

I realized that all the We Agnostics and other secular meetings needed to work together to carry the “message to the alcoholic who is still suffering.” We needed to raise our voice within AA to make room for people like us who either used religion and faith as an excuse to relapse, or those who just wanted a safe place where they could talk about falling to their knees asking their ancestors for help. To make room for those who couldn’t relate to the God-centric language and dogma that exists within AA.  To provide a place where what mattered first and foremost was not drinking and everything else was truly just a “suggestion.”

The answer was a convention.

UU Courtyard

The courtyard of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Santa Monica – the location of the WAFT IAAC convention

I brought it up to another We Agnostics member, Pam W., and she loved the idea. We spent three weeks sharing our ideas with each other, clarifying what the overall goals of the convention would be, and most importantly, how to make it clear that we wanted to remain in AA! That AA works and has worked for nearly eighty years we had no doubt; we just wanted to keep the doors of AA open for everyone. Out of these initial conversations, the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention (WAFT IAAC) was born.

We instinctively knew WAFT IAAC had to be about the international We Agnostics and Freethinkers fellowship as a whole — not about individual groups, nor the individual steering committee members — and that we needed to see ourselves as servants to the fellowship. Knowing we could not do it alone, Pam W. and I, and later, Jonathon G., turned to the fellowship for help. We learned there are over 150 meetings worldwide located in five different countries. I began to contact the other groups and got an overwhelming response of excitement, joy, and relief at the idea of the convention.

During my outreach work I began to see the historical picture form around what I was doing.  The first agnostic groups were formed in Chicago, Illinois in 1975, followed by my home group in Hollywood, California, which was founded in 1978. I see the convention as a new phase of secularism in AA where the fellowship can convene to address itself for the first time.

It has saddened me to learn how deep the rift is among WAFTs and traditional AAs. The majority of our active supporters are people with ten to forty-five years of sobriety who are terrified to make announcements in traditional AA meetings that a convention for WAFTs even exists. Yet there have been people like Jane J. of New York City who hand addressed nine hundred envelopes to send to AA meetings across the USA, and others who clock multiple hours of online research to spread the word that AA is available to nonbelievers. WAFT meetings were formed so people could stop hiding; the convention will accomplish the same thing on an international scale.

Agnostics and freethinkers have always been a part of AA’s international fellowship, yet only since 1975 have there been WAFT meetings. The long-term sobriety of many members of these meetings shows that you do not need to believe in God to stop drinking. We want to make sure that all suffering alcoholics know that AA is available to them.

Since announcing the convention our support has grown far and wide. We have gotten reports from England, France, Japan, Canada, and nearly every state in the USA that AAs and their groups are organizing to come to the convention. WAFT IAAC’s appeal is simply part of AA’s promise: the ability to live a completely honest life in action and belief.

Our support has given us two distinguished key note speakers, Marya H., a professor and author with Hazelden publishing, and the Reverend Ward Ewing, who has been an ally of AA for over thirty-three years and was one of AA’s nonalcoholics trustees for eleven years. The convention is an open event; everyone is welcome to attend on November 6, 7, and 8 in Santa Monica, California. For more information and to purchase tickets please visit our website here: WAFT IAAC.


This article was originally published in Counselor Magazine. The featured image at the top of the article, is of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Monica, where the WAFT IAAC Convention will be held in November.

Dorothy H. is the co-founder of the We Agnostics and Freethinker International AA Convention (WAFT IAAC) and the chairwoman of the steering committee of WAFT IAAC and president of the WAFT IAAC LLC. Dorothy H. is originally from the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, CA. She received her BA in English from San Fransisco State University, her MA in History, and a graduate certificate in Archival Administration from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.


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Secular Alcoholics Anonymous: Nonreligious Treatment for Nonreligious People — 13 Comments

  1. I wish you wouldn’t use the word “bigot” to describe those with a different point of view.

  2. I’ve found some very interesting articles on the aaagnostics site. Some people sound overly whiny and seem too thin skinned. When I drank, I never had a problem telling people to kiss off, why don’t the non-believers do so? Why sacrifice sobriety and fellowship to some goof who doesn’t know what they’re doing themselves?? We don’t crawl before anyone . . . Stand up for yourselves!! Stop running away. You’re depriving some close-minded folks of a needed education.

    • Wow. I’ve learned over the years that if I call someone else a “goof” or insinuate that “they” don’t know something, I’m really talking about me. Who are “they” anyway?

    • People shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that AA has no professional facilitators like group therapy, someone to guide discussion. A secretary of a meeting is not following some script approved by AA central office. Meetings are run by very imperfect human beings trying to get sober. When someone talks about Jesus at a meeting, who knows how many people are irritated? It might very well be the majority no matter what their views of a higher power might be. People are allowed to share whatever they want to a point and sober alcoholics can think and say all kinds of crazy things, this shouldn’t be a reflection of the entire group or of the organization. If a majority in a meeting is fundamentalist Christian, it wouldn’t shock me if I hear Jesus mentioned too often, I would find another meeting. If a Christian is offended by the sharing they hear at an atheist/agnostic meeting, why would they go back for more abuse?

      We do need more atheist/agnostic meetings for sure and people in rural areas have very real issues because of limited options but looking for ways to feel victimized by other sober alcoholics can sound like whining at times.

      • Thanks for your sensible post, Michael. I also hear some victim and resentment talk in many of the agnostica posts. I think that kind of talk could be a turn-off to those who are seeking a non-spiritual path to sobriety, just as it could turn off those who are on a spiritual path. Although it might be attractive to those who tend toward victimhood and anger.

  3. DJ, It was excellent to talk to you at the aaagnostica chat room tonite. You are an inspiration & I’m excited about how we know the same people in the flesh. What a beautiful small world from miles away. Thank you for setting the tone of hope toward the future. Let’s get these posters UP 🙂

  4. I am a believer. . . in God/Higher Power. But I’m so turned off by the double-speak and mixed messages in the AA literature and have been or years. So when I saw that the outdated God language in our books was being addressed by agnostics and atheists, I was thrilled. I have been rewriting the prayers and steps in my mind for years to coincide with my own understanding of God/Higher Power. I wonder if you could tell me whether believers are jumping on your bandwagon, or whether you can leave out the atheist/agnostic words and stop labeling so that everyone really does feel included. Just a thought! See you at the convention!

    • Dear Viki;
      One of the founders of my home group, Charlie Polachek, very insightfully added this statement to our meeting format: “to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or deny their own.” In my understanding this statement speaks to elements of what I understand the word Freethinker, means. That you are free to think or believe in whatever you wish to and at the same time you are not required to accept anyone else’s! Many of the Los Angeles Old Timers call the WAFT meetings “Free Speech Meetings” wrapped together it means true inclusivity for “all who suffer from our disease” and that we are and will not turn ANYONE away.

      Because, of the over use of god centric language and the bullying many WAFTs have experienced I believe it is important to use the terms, agnostics, freethinkers, atheist just as it is important for woman, LGBT and different language groups, (ie,…Spanish, Chinese, Armenian,..ect) to have the ability to name themselves and to be able to speak that name to global AA.

      Viki, where are you travelling? Would you be interested in helping us spread the word about the convention? If so please email me at weagconvention@gmail.com

      ~Dorothy

    • Hi Vicki.
      I am glad you feel comfortable to add what you have to offer on this website; after all Free Thinkers include those who are theistic. Thomas B has an article that details a good description of AA religious dogma within our fellowship. It is titled A Fellowship of the Religious? A good read.
      I believe there are many like yourself in AA that are open-minded, and it is your voice expressing how it is wrong to push people away from AA based on religious interpretations. This way AA’s real conscience can be expressed thru the individual groups up to the different levels of service, without prejudice closing the door. Thanks Vicki – always inclusive, never exclusive.

  5. Thank you, Dorothy — both for your marvelous story of how you have been guided? fortunate? led? to deepen your personal story of recovery through service. I was especially struck that you related in a crisis you “fell to your knees and prayed to your ancestors,” which resonates strongly with my experience.

    Thank you also for the heavy-lifting you, Pam and others on the Steering Committee have done to manifest the dream of your vision of service for a WAFT IAAC into an evolving and expanding reality.

    I can hardly wait for November to arrive so that many of us from around the world can gather together in Santa Monica to share our “experience, strength and hope,” which demonstrates that alcoholics in AA can recover utilizing secular ethical, moral and humanitarian principles just as effectively as the majority of AA members who rely deeply upon religious principles.

    We too are authentic and legitimate members of AA in accordance with the principles of AA’s Steps, Traditions and Concepts of Service forged throughout our 79 year history.

    • Thank you Thomas! The Steering Committee is excited to meet everyone in Santa Monica in a few months. Santa Monica/November, is only the beginning. We must and we will contuine to grow as WAFTs within AA’s international fellowship.

  6. Dorothy
    I really liked your article as I was reading it I thought why even bother with AA if we are the outcasts of AA.
    I quit AA about 3 weeks ago after 23 years due to intolerance from members due to myself being an atheist
    I truly feel an outcast because I just do not get the God thing.
    I am told to sponsor more people get into service etc. etc. I have been sober 23 years and I not sure atheists belong in AA so I am out.

    • Dear Beoz59;

      AA belongs to us ALL! Regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, belief or non-belief. The biggest problem I have seen among the non-believers is that most of them leave the rooms which in many case leads people to believe that non-believers can’t be remain sober. Luckily, I had Jerry B. as a solid sober example of quality long time sobriety! Jerry, did not leave AA but dedicated 30 plus years of his life to make sure that the We Agnostics group stays alive an well for people like myself could remain sober.

      I say, don’t leave AA but help us expand AA for everyone! Don’t let good intentioned bigots demoralize us or to leave us to an alcoholic death. Help us Beoz59! Come to the convention, speak up in the meeting you go to show that you are not alone in the AA world, start a WAFT meeting for people like me can find you, be active in your AA service community but never, ever, hide who you are! The convention is ONLY the start we meetings are growing everyday across the world don’t miss this opportunity to be able of AA history by leaving before the “miracle happens”…….hehehehehe…….

      If you would like to talk more about the convention you can email me at weagconvention@gmail.com.

      ~Dorothy H.