A New Agnostic AA Group and a Hat Tip to Unitarians

San Antonio

By Dave B.

I spent 35 years as a functional alcoholic. By that, I mean I didn’t drink before or during work, but after 5 pm I drank about a pint of bourbon almost every day. Whatever I did after work was accompanied by liquor, usually Southern Comfort, including driving. Then in 2013, I got that long overdue DUI. It was suggested to me (imposed on me, that is) that I go to rehab and sign on with a certain professional agency created just for guys like me, requiring random urine screens, twice a day breathalyzers, AA meetings, and a few other fun obligations, for 5 years.

My sobriety date is Sept 7, 2013 – the day I entered rehab. I was introduced to the 12 steps there and I immediately noticed its godliness and redundancy. I decided I could easily edit it down to 6 steps (later, I found out Bill W had started with six).  A speaker at a large meeting I attended introduced me to “Don’t drink, no matter what”. I’m not above using slogans, and I latched on to that one. At rehab, I was accused of boiling the 12 steps down to just one. Eventually, however, I ended up liking several of the steps, especially 1 and 4 – but not all 12 – and I liked AA, especially the good friends I’d made, religious or not. I decided to take AA at their word: “Take what you like and leave the rest”. If I had to continually reword a step in order to believe in it and rely on it, why not toss it? I later met several committed AA members with decades of sobriety who hadn’t used the steps at all nor had some even had a sponsor.

When I got out of rehab, I did 90 meetings in 90 days and tried to figure out how to handle the religiosity. Mainly, I’d get bored and irritated and not want to share – which is bad.  After my obligation dropped to 4 meetings a week, I decided if I was going to get my full dollar’s worth out of a meeting without letting a resentment start to seed, I’d have to form an agnostic group. I considered trying to start a SMART meeting or an SOS meeting (both secular-based recovery programs), but I came to believe there was something special about AA – a certain power. Not only that, AA is everywhere and stood a greater chance of success. My decision toward AA was confirmed when the monitoring agency decided not to accept non-12 step programs.

Agnostic Groups

Click on the image to connect with kindred spirits in your community.

AA Agnostica introduced me to three other kindred spirits in San Antonio and I found one on my own. All had far more sobriety that I did, and all were atheists like me. First, we had to find a place to meet. A few years ago, two of them had attended a short-lived agnostic group in San Antonio. They had met at a popular designated AA spot that hosted a lot of meetings. Somehow, they felt conspicuous (in their non-belief) and ostracized and the group fizzled after a few months. With that knowledge, we looked for the closest Unitarian Church.

* * *

Unitarian Universalism, or Unitarianism, is a liberal religion characterized by a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. The name “Unitarian” stems from rejection of the notion of the “Trinity”.  Unitarians purposely don’t have a creed – a characteristic I appreciate. To me, that means they’re not wasting their time splitting hairs over meaningless issues that can never be proven either way, for lack of evidence. Instead, they are unified by their shared regard for intellectual freedom.

The theology of individual Unitarians ranges widely and includes Humanism, Atheism, Agnosticism, Pantheism, Deism, Christianity, Judaism, Neopaganism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and many more.  Members may or may not self-identify as Christians or subscribe to Christian beliefs. Each member is free to search for his or her own personal truth on issues such as the existence, nature, and meaning of life, deities, creation, and afterlife.

UUs see no contradiction in open Atheists and Agnostics being members of their community. Many of them reject the idea of deities and instead speak of the “spirit of life” that binds all life on earth.

Since they are without creed or dogma, many Unitarians make use of their seven “Principles and Purposes” as guides for living their faith. The Principles are as follows:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

They don’t hold the Bible – or any other account of human experience – to be either an infallible guide or the exclusive source of truth. They openly admit that much biblical material is mythical or legendary – not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is and should be read as we read other books – with imagination and a critical eye.

Unitarians also respect the sacred literature of other religions, contemporary works of science, art, and social commentary. They believe all religions can coexist if viewed with the concept of love for one’s neighbor and for oneself. Members who do not believe in a particular text or doctrine are encouraged to respect it as a historically significant literary work that should be viewed with an open mind. It is intended that in this way, individuals from all religions or spiritual backgrounds could live peaceably.

I didn’t know all this about them at the time, but I knew they were liberal. I called the Unitarian Church in San Antonio and made an appointment. It was a church, so I got myself ready for rejection – projecting a dialogue in my mind where I’d be asked a question like, “Why should our house of God want to rent space to a bunch of heathens?”  I prepared a “defense of atheism” speech.

“Hi, I’m Dave B,” I stammered, “and my group wants to use one of your rooms for an agnostic AA meeting.”

“I’m Mary”, said Mary. She smiled, stuck out her hand and said, “and I’ll be glad to help you make that happen.”  This was going better than expected.

I tried to get it for free, but Mary hammered out a hard bargain: a dollar a head per meeting. Then she presented me with a half-page contract. I left shortly thereafter with a signed contract, a room key, and a smile on my face.

* * *

Armed with information from How to Start a Meeting from AA Agnostica, I called and emailed the other four charter members and gave them the time and place.

Our first meeting had several decisions to make:

  1. For a name, one of us five hated “We Agnostics” because he thought that Big Book chapter was so condescending. He also preferred the word “secular”. We settled on the name “Mostly Agnostics” – a kinder, gentler name, stolen from the “Orlando Mostly Agnostic Group of Drunks”. We wanted a name that would readily identify us as not religious but didn’t identify us as overtly hateful.
  2. To avoid having district listing problems, and because some of our group are very loyal to AA official literature, we voted to officially accept the 12 steps without change. Any member, of course, could adjust his/her own program to suit, as per in any AA meeting. Like I said earlier, I know some very dedicated AAs who love the fellowship, who’ve been happily sober for decades, but who’ve never done the steps at all or even had a sponsor.
  3. Although we had one touchy-feely member, we voted not to hold hands, nor to have prayers (a no-brainer), and to say the Responsibility Pledge together to end the meetings. A good option or addition would have been a non-prayer version of the Serenity Prayer, but nobody brought it up. We had a lot to cover.
  4. Finally, we ended up with 13 organizational assignments – among them, arranging district listing and worldwide AA agnostics listing. Fortunately, I had plenty of volunteers, so I only ended up with four of them. I didn’t want this to be “Dave’s meeting” and the others were anxious to take ownership of the new group.

Within a week or so, I contacted the “Orlando Mostly Agnostic Group of Drunks” by an email link on their website to own up to our theft of their name. A contact person emailed back within minutes.  Before long, we were talking by phone. Turned out, he wasn’t satisfied with just sharing their name. He was kind enough to also let us plagiarize their website – and helped me do it. We soon had a beautiful website, up and running, thanks to my AA friend in Orlando.

By the fifth month, we were having between 10 and 20 enthusiastic members every Tuesday night, but some of us wanted another night – so we expanded.  We now have a Monday night meeting, as well.

I tell this story in order to demonstrate to anyone who is interested just how easy it can be to start an agnostic group in a large city. All I had to do was follow the directions from AA Agnostica, be there, and make sure things ran smoothly – you know – Available, Affable, Affordable. Other members chipped in and started taking over. Most all of the members and visitors, at one time or another, have voiced their appreciation for an AA meeting where they don’t have to get irritated, pretend, or otherwise tolerate a religious atmosphere they don’t believe in. Although parts of some meetings evolve into anti-godly rhetoric, why not? Where else could they vent? This is the proper forum for that and one of our roles. Mostly though, our meetings proceed just like any other meeting.

Whenever we see previously unknown faces – which is almost every meeting – I always ask them how they found out about us. We are in the UU Church bulletin, the district listing, the worldwide listing, and we have a flyer – the first page of our website.  About every 2 months, I take new fliers to the meetings and they promptly get distributed to bulletin boards at other meeting sites. Mostly, they stay up. About 75% of our visitors come from our district listing. The other 25% come from various sources, including all the above, but this demonstrates how important the district listing is and how crucial it is to stay on good terms with the powers that be. I understand that can be harder in some locations but will no doubt become easier as agnostic groups become more commonplace in our fellowship.

Good luck in starting your meeting and many thanks to AA Agnostica from the members of Mostly Agnostics AA of San Antonio for the superb assistance they provided in getting us started.

__________

Dave B. is a physician who is pleased and proud to have been sober now for over eighteen months. He achieved nonbeliever status during his senior year at an ultra-religious college. Since then, he claims, “the longer I live, the more it looks like nobody’s watching.” AA, in particular Mostly Agnostics AA of San Antonio, has become a big part of his life (check out www.mostlyagnostics.com).   He and his Catholic wife have six kids, all married and productive, for which he is grateful. He takes as much credit for their success as his wife will let him.


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A New Agnostic AA Group and a Hat Tip to Unitarians — 29 Comments

  1. Thanks for a brilliant article and congrats on your meeting.

    I struggle mightily out here with (a) being the only woman at the AA mtgs within 100km and (b) the only atheist. AAagnostica is my lifeline.

    Lately, I’m up against my own reluctance to attend the now 3 person meeting that is my home group in a very rural area. The prayers and religiosity serves to isolate me even further and references to God are spattered about for most of the meeting. I am being prayed for, to return to the “fold”.

    I attended UU when I lived in Toronto and admired and respected the welcoming of all beliefs and non-beliefs. Exploration was the key.

    There is no UU out here and I still desperately seek freethinkers in the larger meetings in the St. John’s area.

    • I feel your PAIN & “aloneness” I live in sober living that is a very “Christian” atmosphere. Here in SoCAL (orange county) there’s nothing but “Christians”, especially at all the myriad of meetings… I’ve been accused of everything from Witchcraft to atheism… I’m a serious Agnostic & practicing SGI-Buddhist – definitely atheistic. Please feel free to email me! Thx. Shari.

  2. Hello Dave…

    I wanted to congratulate you for taking your fate in your own hands and getting behind the formation of your group.

    I’ve never been able to sort out “Church for Atheists” but if you need to go to one you could do a lot worse than the Unitarians.

    When I was at wAAft convention in CA last year I was looking at their “principles” on the wall there in that Unitarian Church in Santa Monica and found them quite reasonable. Though what I might be personally doing in any sort of church would be totally accidental and or incidental to a funeral, wedding or AA meeting.

    As a matter of policy and preference we have always held our Downtown DC “We Agnostics” meeting in a secular spot first at GW University Hospital and now at The Hill Center and this was done quite consciously.

    We felt that our meeting (founded by mostly hard core Atheists) had no interest in even being tangentially affiliated with any sort of religious institution and this has served us well since 1988.
    Like you we have no opinion on alternatives to the 12 steps and have always relied on the preamble and the preamble only when referring to the program as a whole.

    As to the name “We Agnostics” the adoption of that name by us was fully intended to be sort of a “stick in the eye” to anyone who might be tempted to take that particular chapter of the “Big Book” literally. It’s totally ironic and I suspect that many of the other groups who use that name had that intention as well.

    Once again, best of luck with your efforts in San Antonio. I’ve been to regular meetings there on business trips in years past and “god” was indeed in grim and determined evidence as I recall. You are doing real service at a very “young” AA age. That’s great to see!

  3. All good stuff Dave. They say there are many paths up the mountain but the view’s the same from the top (though that ain’t necessarily so!). I recognise similarities between un-dogmatic non-creedal Unitarians and un-programmed Quakers, i.e. those that hold our meetings in silence and where individual attenders’ understanding and interpretation of the word God is theirs alone, as in AA, e.g I’m an agnostic and belong to the Quaker Non-theist Friends Network. I wrote about my experience in my posting Don’t Throw the Baby Out. Go well my friend.

  4. Very refreshing – more than refreshing, it was comforting. I just came from a weekend of our regional conference that has, for the last several years, developed a Pacific Group, “Wasn’t it great back in the days of black and white TV and sexist humor?” kinda feel. It felt like part Amway Convention, part zombie Apocalypse B-movie. If AA’s made a parody of ourselves, this weekend would be the script.

    Don’t get me wrong; most attendees were having a good time, I think. Meetings were over capacity. I don’t think I was alone in my discomfort with the propensity for the same singular big-book message. About 30% of the members filed out of the room as the remainder held hands and droned the Lord’s Prayer. I don’t know if it was to smoke, pee, talk to friends or a protest of the religious, repetitive rituals. But there was a take what I want/leave the rest feel to things.

    There was one really charming hour. Amy B, currently of NYC and AA’s Grapevine Editor gave a heartfelt and very secular message. I have no idea what her worldview is but it wasn’t reported to us as a part of her malady or remedy.

    But most speakers were of the Clancy disciple variety. The talks were entertaining enough but laced with cheap theatrics and a singular message about recovery via a hierarchy of sponsors and sponsors sponsors that lead back to Chuck C and Clancy I.

    So my point is that I got home, feeling that a brand of subtle-nuance AA, that has nostalgic appeal to me, is lost forever and this B2B brand that seemingly occupies and controls my local AA community. But reading this weeks story from Texas, I am reminded that there is – as always – many stripes in the AA flag and even among the secular-affirmative movement, there is room for imagination, fellowship and recovery.

    Best wishes to everyone contributing, reading and responding here. You make me feel like there’s always a place for an alkie like me.

  5. Dave, thanks.
    Yes typically the Unitarians are supportive of us. In the late 80s in Berkeley there was a humanist AA meeting located in one of the Unitarian churches there. That meeting saved my life. Eventually I found another, daily meeting where they on principle didn’t end with the LP, while many others still did, even in Berkeley. Once early on I went to an uptown meeting somewhere in Oakland and complained about all the god stuff, especially I complained about the LP, and hey, there was a near majority of Jewish people there, so they all cautiously chimed in with me – only to end the meeting with the LP anyway. Tradition dies hard.

  6. Hi, Dave.

    Great share. I’ve contacted a couple of people in my local area, but so far the only response has been “yes, that would be nice to have a non-religious meeting”.

    So glad you found others anxious to step up and work to establish the group. Wonderful convention every year I’m certain that in time we will have a group in Gainesville.

    Dave, don’t know if you are aware of IDAA, International Doctors in AA. If not, please check us out at IDAA.Org. There is a wonderful convention every summer, this year in Norfolk, VA. (2009 was in San Antonio). Would love to meet you in person.

    And, as others have said, thanks for the straightforward information on how your group got things going.

    Mary R

  7. Dave,

    Your article has made me smile today, for so many reasons. I am coming up 23 years sober this spring and I was raised in a Unitarian family… I was a young man when I voted to support the seven principles that you quoted.

    I believe I’ve said it here in AA Agnostica before, but our first brochure “Mr X and Alcoholics Anonymous” was based on a sermon by Rev Lufton. He was a Unitarian minister in Cleveland.

    The value of a fellowship of seekers (in our case, from the pain and hopelessness from alcoholism) is not lost on UU’s. There are other friends as well. Quakers too come instantly to mind.

    It may never be said publicly, but so many of UU’s cherished members have been helped by our work in AA…

    We help ourselves by helping others… It is an interconnected web of existence, of which we are all a part.

    • Hi Larry,

      Thanks for that. Hope I got the principles and the rest of it right. I noticed the Unitarian church where we meet has has a wealth of humanist-type meetings I’d like.

      Dave

  8. I qualify as one of those AA members who have been sober for decades, four in fact, and don’t really have much use for the steps. One, three and twelve are the only ones that made sense to me. |The rest always seemed as so much psycho babble.

    Bill found Aladin’s lamp then he had to explain it! And there lies the rub. (Worst pun ever maybe?) Can only hope.

    • Hi Dave,

      LOL – Can’t be the worst. There’s too much competition.

      I had to look up #3

      DB

  9. Dave,
    Glad to hear about your success at the UU. I spent a few years at my local UU and what I truly appreciate the most is the absence of dogma and the lack of judgement – across the board. UU’s do have a ‘creed’ and it varies from ‘church’ to church. But open minded, loving heart and service are common denominators. Our previous long standing minister considered himself a Buddhist. God is optional. Churches like AA meetings vary greatly depending on the needs of the community. Just saying, for me, AA and UU has been a good combination. Peace. Lisa

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m learning more good things about Unitarians all the time.

      DB

  10. In 1981, after I had been sober for about a year, a friend and I started a meeting in Park Forest, Illinois, which we called Agnostics and Others. Before starting the meeting, we attended a few meetings of Atheists and Agnostics in AA, which met at a Unitarian church in Chicago, in order to get ideas on how to start our own meeting.

    We got our meeting going at a Unitarian church, and we eventually moved – I don’t remember why – to a different church. After a while, I got tired of the meeting, and stopped going. Years later, the meeting moved to a church in Homewood, and was renamed Believers and Others! I went to a few meetings there, and although the meetings retained much of the original format, they were now much more in the AA mainstream, and although not bad, didn’t interest me enough to make me want to attend them.

    I don’t feel like driving to Chicago or Oak Park to attend atheist and agnostic meetings, so I make do attending local traditional meetings. At the meetings, I feel free to speak my mind, and have mentioned that I am an atheist and that I do not rely on any “higher power” to stay sober. One lady told me that she was going to pray that I would see the light and believe in god, and I told her to do whatever would float her boat.

    I don’t respect the false belief that there is a god, and I consider it unfortunate that so many people claim to believe that god is keeping them sober. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt for me to start a new atheist group, but at 72 I am no longer an enthusiastic fireball, and so I muddle along in traditional AA.

    • Hi Steve,

      Thanks for your entertaining note. Whenever I am told I’m going to become the beneficiary of someone’s prayers, I try to appreciate their sentiment. Depending on the situation, I might just say thank you, but if I think I can get away with it, I say, “Thanks, and I’ll sacrifice a goat for you!”

      DB

  11. Yes, Dave, congratulations on starting the “Mostly Agnostics” meeting in San Antonio, and the balanced way in which you and founding members approached doing this with maximum respect for all and seeking to avoid controversy in the spirit of AA unity.

    I especially salute you for doing it in early recovery and finding like minded/spirited non-believing members with longterm recovery who remain devoted to AA despite its religious bent, especially in south Texas, where the committee for the 2010 International AA Convention insisted on closing with the Lord’s Prayer, which mightily concerned the then chairman of the AA General Service Board, the Rt. Rev. Ward Ewing, who was one of the keynote speakers at the WAAFT IAAC convention in Santa Monica.

    I also greatly appreciate your view of the Big Book as an important historical document from which we non-believers can still derive much wisdom, regarding how much Bill, Dr. Bob and the early AA members got right.

    • Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for the kind words. However, I owe a lot of credit to aaagnostica.org. They gave me 3 staunch members and much organizational support. The other guy and I may have been able to do it, but it probably would have been much slower coming.

      DB

  12. Thanks for sharing your experience in getting a meeting started. I’m in the process of doing the same and I have thought of going to the nearest UU church. Unfortunately, it’s not only nearly 30 miles away, but they have no domain as they rent space from another church.

    When I moved out of New York City to a small city in Western NY, it was a comfort to me to start going to the Unitarian church there, as that is how I found community. Both the ministers were atheists. My daughter got a great education there that included social action, sex education, a study of world religions and an introduction to writing and producing plays. The music was top-notch. The AA meetings held there were all liberal-minded either by design or osmosis.

    I’m impressed that you had the wisdom and wherewithal to do this in early sobriety. It’s a good honest way to work your individual program of recovery, and it is true service. Look how far-reaching your work has come, into my home at my kitchen table this Sunday morning. Thank you, again.

    • PS: forgot to mention that I now live in a small town on the south coast of Oregon.

    • Hi Jan,

      Thanx for your kind words. Very interesting that your UU ministers were atheists. Nice to hear about the educational aspects. I’ve noted that my AA UU church in SA also has a complete educational agenda. Plan on cking it out. If you survey the mtg sites for the over 200 agnostic AA groups listed on the NY Worldwide agnostic AA site, you’ll find that UU is the most commonly listed – but still less than 40. Many other denominations are listed and are likely to help you. Happy looking!

      DB

  13. Great article! Thanks. Wish we’d had this before we started our meeting. So concise and clear. Very straightforward help for anyone who is curious about WAAFT meetings or who wants to start one.

  14. I go to the odd meeting Speaker meetings mostly. I agree the Big book is Historical. 43 years sober. My early years in AA are personal history. I find in AA today I suppress anger. Sometimes I express it and often the most loving thing I can do is just leave. The price of Honesty with the self is high. Self leadership is better than Group leadership. I hit the rooms all those years ago and that young man I was then seems distant but composed. He never ever bought it all. However the resolve not to Drink was easier in company than alone. What is infalleably true in the BB is More will be revealed. The writer I quote Thomas Wolfe You cant go home again. Mind – In the interim state of recess keep posting as this site has provided sustenance not to be found elsewhere.

    • Hi Steve,
      The price of honesty can indeed be high, but, like you, I’ve never faked it. I still vacillate about what to say. If I’ve just heard someone give an emotional example of how much Jesus helps them remain sober, I can’t see boldly announcing that he can’t because he’s long since dead (or whatever). I do know AAs who have figured out how to handle it gracefully and still maintain everyone else’s and their own respect. That’s the scenario I’m aiming for. Truth is, I don’t want to interfere with a concept that gives someone comfort. Sometimes I might, depending on whether I think I can swing it or whether they’re trying to evangelize me. Sometimes, I might say, “Well, I’ll be your token agnostic tonight” – and then go on to something else. Nothing wrong with a little change of subject.

      And it’s really true that the resolve to not drink can be more easily sustained with company.

      DB

  15. Well done, Dave! I just forwarded your article to a friend in Florida who’s hoping to start a nonbeliever’s meeting. That’s how we grow. I particularly like your group’s name and newsletter.

    I happened to develop my own set of 6 steps, inspired by the 12 but godless, before I learned that was a somewhat traditional number. Those gabby Buddhists use 8!

  16. That’s surprising, Dave. I was about to call you and see how your “up north” meeting was going and also to thank you for your part in the San Antonio website. I’m about to open the first WAAFT meeting in my home town at 10AM and thought I should give you a chance to wake up before my call.

    Of particular interest on your web site was “An Unofficial Introduction to AA for Nonbelievers” by John G.” It fit the bill for my introductory meeting and I printed out a few copies. Wonderfully concise and poignant truths for which I needed to thank him and did in an e*mail to your web site address.

    And then the Sunday morning gift turned out to be an article by you which I have yet to read. Probably can’t until after my meeting obligation at 10 MDT.

    I’ll call later as I’m sure you are busy with this web site for now.

    • Hi Lance,

      How nice to hear from you. Yes, please give me a call and good luck on your mtg. Might be tougher in those small towns, but you can do it.

      DB

  17. Thank you Dave.

    “They openly admit that much biblical material is mythical or legendary – not that it should be discarded for that reason! Rather, it should be treasured for what it is and should be read as we read other books – with imagination and a critical eye.”

    Just how I read the BB. I like the BB, as a historical document.

    • Hi Ian,

      LOL “that’s how I read the BB – as a historical document.” Me, too. Mainly, I read from that great website, aaagnostica.org.

      DB