The Second Secular AA Convention

Austin Convention

By Roger C.

The second international convention for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA will be held in November in Austin, Texas.

The convention will run Friday through Sunday, November 11 – 13, and will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Tickets can be purchased and rooms booked here: WAAFT IAAC.

The first convention was held in 2014 in Santa Monica, California, and was a huge success with, on the final day, three hundred participants from forty states and thirteen different countries. The convention featured exceptional speakers including Reverend Ward Ewing, former chair of the AA General Service Board, and Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, as well as variety of very diverse and compelling panels and workshops.

You can read more about that convention beginning right here: We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention – Day 1. It was organized by three people: Jonathon G., who died on Saturday, October 18, 2014, just three weeks before the convention, Pam W, and Dorothy H.

They did a superb job.

On the first day of that first convention, a new WAAFT (We Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers) IAAC (International Alcoholics Anonymous Convention) Board was elected with its mission being to organize the next convention for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. Also at that meeting, Austin, Texas, was selected as the location for our second international convention.

Dysfunctional

Things have not gone all that well since then.

Today, only four of the initial eleven people elected remain on the Board. Early on a battle developed between Dorothy H, the founder and chair of the Board, and several other people, both in and out of the Board. They wanted her out and they succeeded.

In December of last year, Dorothy stepped down. As John S, the manager of AA Beyond Belief, aptly put, “There was an organized plot to overthrow her, and the plotters ended up taking over the show”.

One of these plotters, John C, has twice threatened to organize scorched earth demonstrations at the convention if the Board voted against his wishes. Fights have raged over speakers and panel and workshop topics. As a result, it has taken more than sixteen months since the Board was first elected to come up with a first draft of an agenda.

We will share that agenda shortly.

But, prior to that, a few questions need to be addressed.

First, should the WAAFT IAAC Board continue to exist?

Some with knowledge of the history of the WAAFT IAAC believe that it should be abolished, that it is simply unnecessary. They argue that delegates at each convention could simply vote on the next location for the (biennial) conventions. The “Host” Committee, the folks who have volunteered to organize the convention in, say, New York, Chicago or London, England, would then be responsible for all aspects of the convention.

The Host Committee in Austin, Texas, is chaired by Nick H. This Committee was put together in February 2015 and is made up of representatives from all of the freethinker groups in Austin and is officially named the “WAAFT IAAC Austin 2016 Steering Committee”. Up to 15 people attend each monthly meeting. It chose the Crowne Plaza Hotel in April 2015 for the convention. It consists of many talented people quite capable of putting together an engaging and well-run convention.

Oddly enough, to date they have very little to do directly involved with the convention, other than to pick a good location for it. Nick reports that he initially thought the Host Committee would be in charge of the convention agenda.

Not so. That is done by the WAAFT IAAC Board, which has its own Program Committee. And this is precisely where the roadblocks to putting together an agenda – speakers, panels, workshops – have emerged.

Two members of the Program Committee, John C and John H, are apparently at least as extreme as Big Book Thumpers but on the opposite end of the spectrum: they are atheism thumpers. John H is aggressively opposed to any mention of the 12 Steps, secular or otherwise, and is contemptuous of words like “agnostic” or “spiritual”.

After the wars between the Program Committee members – and then the wars at the WAAFT IAAC Board, where John C was joined by the newest Board member, Vic L – the agenda was imposed upon Nick and his Austin Host Committee.

This is a problem.

Where, for example, is the input from others, who are not on the Board?

Certainly the WAAFT IAAC could indeed continue to exist, but as a “service” Board, in line with Tradition Nine. It could provide guidelines for a Convention – no “musts” – and involve as many others as possible in developing a agenda, including the Host Committee. What it could also do to help would be to collect delegate fees for the convention and it could also be an effective and important voice in promoting the convention.

And here now is the current agenda for the convention in Austin.

Austin Agenda

Speakers

None have been selected to date.

I would heartily recommend that the first speaker at the convention be one of the members of the Austin Host Committee. He or she could talk about Charlie Polachek – you can read about him here: Father of We Agnostics Dies – who started the first agnostic meetings in Austin. And she could talk about the fascinating history of the growth of agnostic AA groups in Austin, Texas. The Host Committee deserves at least this attention from the full convention.

Panels
(Panel moderators or participants are in brackets)

  • WAAFT Introduction (Board of WAAFT)
  • The 12 Steps in Secular Meetings (Roger C)
  • GLBTQ (Mikey, John C)
  • International Panel
  • Afternoon with Atheists (John C, John H, Vic L, Jane J)
  • AA and Non-AA Literature Discussion (Ami Brophy – AA Grapevine)
  • Spirituality: An Enhancement of or an Escape from Reality
  • What is a Free Thinker (Nick H)
  • AA and the Law (Martine R)
  • WAAFT – Should we Change our Name?
  • What is WAAFT? (Vic L)
  • Mental Health Issues and Recovery
  • Toronto Agnostics and the Human Rights Tribunal (Larry K)

Workshops

  • Starting a Secular AA Meeting
  • Slogans (Mikey)
  • Meditation and Recovery (Flint S)
  • Freedom from Fear: Coming out in Traditional AA
  • Yoga and Recovery (Sober yoga teacher)
  • Media and Recovery (Deirdre S)
  • Carrying the Message to WAAFTs
  • Atheist, Agnostic, ADDICT and Alcoholic (Ken S)
  • Why is AA in Decline ((Jerry F, John H)
  • Atheist, Agnostic and Free Thinker Al-Anons
  • WAAFTs Relationship to Conventional AA (Thomas B and John S)
  • Young People’s Meeting
  • Avoiding Relapse
  • Reunion en Espanol
  • Women’s Meeting
  • Newcomers’ Meeting
  • Recovering from the Committee in my Head
  • Spirituality vs. Religion (Jeb B)
  • Changing the Big Book (Jerry F)

Moving Forward

The convention is now just six months away. After climbing over the summer, that’s not very far from today.

Going forward, I believe our code should be one of “love and tolerance”.

One of my favourite quotes is from Thomas Jefferson: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Forcing our own creed or dogma on others is wrong. This is no doubt one of the worst things done by we humans. It is disrespectful. It leads to hate. It leads to war. It can be, and of late often is, a problem in our fellowship of AA.

The venue for the convention is a great one, as the Austin Host Committee reports. The Crowne Plaza has great room rates in addition to excellent facilities for the convention. There is a large ballroom for main gatherings with ten smaller conference rooms for round the clock AA meetings and workshops. The hotel, located in north central Austin, has a restaurant, outdoor pool, and 24 hour fitness center on site. Several good quality eateries are within walking distance, and many others just a short drive away.

The Host Committee will be offering excursions to several Austin tourist attractions.

Moreover, since Austin is the Live Music Capital of the US, the Host Committee felt that for a truly Austin experience lots of live music should be part of the convention. They are currently working with several sober Austin musicians to provide musical interludes during meal times and between speaker and panel sessions.

Again, tickets and rooms can be purchased and booked here: WAAFT IAAC.

Should you go, even though there has been brouhaha in the early planning of the convention? Of course you should. That’s kind of par for the course at this stage of our movement but it is something that must be honestly acknowledged if it is to be dealt with as we go forward. And besides, as John S, the manager of the website AA Beyond Belief puts it: “No matter what, people will have fun. It’s really about getting together”.

He is absolutely correct.

See you in Austin.


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The Second Secular AA Convention — 38 Comments

  1. I was reading Richard Dawkins yesterday, and he described organizing atheists as “herding cats”… nigh impossible because we are all such independent freethinkers who dislike authority. It sounds like this is what is going on here, and I am not surprised.

    I feel very uncomfortable with the Convention’s seeming refusal to have anything to do with the AA Grapevine or the AA General Service Office. Are we AA or are we not? At the 2014 Convention, there was no question in my mind that we were definitely a part of. Now, it seems we have gone in a different direction, one that will cause WAAFT to lose valuable members who love AA, in spite of its less favorable parts.

    I think it would do us well to remember that we are alcoholics first and atheists/agnostics second.

    • I understand your concern about being seen as separate from the fellowship rather than a part of it. I believe that WAAFT is on the same track as before and that the conflicting opposition is the minority voice. I like that though. I’d hate to be in any organization where everyone’s viewpoint was basically the same. It would feel too much like church. The convention is going to be kick-ass regardless of anyone’s personal views on recovery because we’ll all be together and joined by the common bond of having licked alcoholism.

  2. Hey everyone, new in sobriety, again. I have been wanting to get to Austin for a long time and this conference seems like a real good reason but now I am bit disheartened with all this drama. I should still go right? Thanks.

  3. I live in Portland Oregon and have been sober for 36 years. I had almost given up on finding any joy or incentive to help others in AA until I learned of Secular AA meetings in Portland. I began attending these meetings last September and have found a new life and joy in sobriety because of them.
    Thomas B is largely responsible for bringing this movement in Portland and the joy many others have found as well. I am eternally grateful to him for his inspiration and encouragement.
    It is very disappointing to hear of this brouhaha around the convention in Austin.

    • Thanks, Janie, for your kind words . . .

      I truly accept and am at peace with what happened. As I wrote in a communication to the BOD this afternoon, me being no longer a member of the BOD is good for them and also most good for me. It’s definitely a win-win. I believe you were at the meeting when I expressed how frustrating it has been for me to work with some members of the BOD.

      Jill and I will still attend the convention, and I will urge that others from our vibrant Portland Secular AA Fellowship attend if possible. Further, I will be urging people to volunteer both to fill the many empty slots on the first draft of the program, as well as to propose to present other workshops or panels.

      As my associate, John Sheldon, moderator of AA Beyond Belief was quoted in Roger’s article the best part of the convention is gathering with mostly like-minded-and-spirited people from around the world with whom we can share experience, strength and hope !~!~!

  4. Regarding Thomas B., he has been such an inspiration to many of us old-timers in AA, along with a source of hope of sobriety to newcomers who have been put off by “the God talk” in traditional meetings. Personally, after decades of filtering out what I feel is an increasingly dogmatic Judaeo-Christian tone in AA meetings, I have found my AA spirit re-ignited by attending atheist/agnostic/free-thinker meetings, which, thanks to Thomas, have been growing in number and attendees here in Portland, Oregon. Thanks to him, and others like him, our meetings are listed on the website and some held in the Alano Club. His efforts truly embody the message of inclusiveness, tolerance and service. To deny others the use and practice of ANY verbiage or path, spiritual or non-spiritual, makes secular AA complicit in shutting out many. (For me, 37 years sober, after two years of secular meetings, my spiritual life has deepened. Am I no longer welcome?) Too many feel put off by the dogmatism of traditional AA. The same can happen when agnosticism or atheism in our meetings takes on the same intolerant tone. Thomas is owed an apology. His quiet resignation was a tremendous loss to the Board.

  5. WAAFT: We agnostics, atheists AND FREETHINKERS.

    Freethinkers would include ANYONE with ANY OR NO beliefs.

    I am in Austin and regularly attend a freethinkers’ meeting and would like to be in contact with and maybe be a part of the Host Committee for the convention in Austin. Can you please send me information regarding this? (I am a contact person already, but know nothing of the Host Committee.)

    Thanks!

  6. I just noticed the poster for the Austin convention at the bottom of the web page. The title seems deliberately provocative. I do not see how any good can come from this at this time. There are a wealth of phrases in existing AA literature that support the full inclusion of atheist and agnostic in our fellowship. It seems someone has an axe to grind. I am very disappointed.

    • I happen to think the title “Human Power Can Relieve Our Alcoholism – May You Find Us Now” is an excellent one, Garry. I have always found the part of How It Works that says “Probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism” and “God could and would if he were sought” to be offensive and just plain wrong. It is human power – in particular, one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic – that is at the root of the effectiveness of AA, and has been key to my recovery and sobriety. So: “May You Find Us Now”, good Sir.

  7. I have no intention of leaving AA, having earned my seat at the tables, and found a way to accept others having their views, opinions and beliefs, whatever works for them. Since both the Big Book and 12 & 12 are supposedly chronicles of other people’s experience, strength and hope, they present a huge variety of concepts and ideas, some of which I can identify with and others not. That is the wondrous diversity of AA, which Bill W. tried and tried to emphasize as our great strength. Personally, I refer daily to the William Paley quote at the end of Appendix II, which Bill falsely attributed to Herbert Spencer. However, Paley was first quoted in an interesting monograph, “The True Function of Relaxation in Piano Playing: A Treatise on the Psycho-Physical Aspect of Piano Playing, With Exercises for Acquiring Relaxation.” Since open-mindedness is one of the essentials we continue to talk about, I therefore try to identify myself as a freethinker, in addition to atheist and non-deist, both of which describe my current worldview.

    I would hope that in Austin we can at least try to listen to differing views, beliefs and disbeliefs, but also feel comfortable in sharing our own.

  8. Well, I’ve made reservations for the Austin conference, and enthusiastically look forward to it. The agenda looks interesting. So far as the squabbles go, I’d have to hear all sides before coming to an opinion, and I’m not sure I care. We’ll be able to meet and talk with each other, and plan and network, and have fun. And, as I always say, “if we always agreed with each other, what would we have to argue about?”

  9. We went through the “G/god” bashing stage early on at our local Freethinkers meeting. I think it offended many of the first time at that meeting attendees that our membership has stayed small. I expected much larger participation if only from the intellectually curious from the regular meetings. I was wrong.

  10. I urge you to Google “Form, Storm, Norm, Perform”, and you’ll find many explanations of these common phenomena in new task groups, such as WAAFT. It’s an old and accurate description of growth stages, and I think the secular movement with AA is clearly “storming”. I also believe we will get over it if we practice love tolerance, and honesty, one day at a time.

    I sure hope I’m in Austin, and hope to see old & new friends there.

  11. I appreciate reading more about the struggles and plans for the Austin Convention. I’m sure it will be what we make it. My biggest concern is the sort of narrowmindedness or “contempt prior to investigation” emerging from some quadrants. There is absolutely no reason for me to be threatened by anyone else’s belief or particular nonbelief. However, I can’t help but be concerned about a tendency to force one way of interpreting a “common solution” over another.

    If others don’t identify with my personal application of and experience with the process of the 12 Steps, that is fine and I have no need to debate. All opinions or beliefs are subject to change as we continue to listen to one another and pay attention to our own recovery process.

    It is my personal belief and hope that everyone can find a place at the table in AA, with honesty holding a first place position, and real unconditional self-acceptance and other-acceptance the best expression of the “love and tolerance.” I’m convinced that we can definitely do together what we can’t do alone. In my understanding, that’s what the Fellowship has to offer, but it is up to us, all of us working together!

  12. This is an important opportunity for all of us. We should work together to consolidate a message that is concise and succinct. This convention should be about our future. We and we alone carry a special message. lets put aside our own bias and work toward shaping that message in the best spirit of our community.

    (P.S. If you are short of speakers call me. I am a humble free thinker that has made it this far on the good and the bad of AA.) Namaste.

  13. This is troubling news. My hope was that we were trying to reform AA so that we could help more alcoholics. Not push a world view. I got a sense that some of those attending Santa Monica were disappointed that the majority opinion was a strong desire to stay within AA.

    I think having Ami Brophy as a speaker is a great idea. Getting our stories into print will go a long way towards the acceptance of agnostics and atheist in AA as well letting kindred spirits (ironic?) know they are not alone and that sobriety has been achieved by many before them. Even prior to the writing of the Big Book.

    • I agree with Garry. I would think we would want some allies in mainstream AA unless the goal is to become completely separate from AA. That’s nothing I would be interested in.

  14. Thank you Roger for this enlightened report. I knew that things were not going very well and I heard rumours in New York and Vancouver during my travels. In fact I simply refused to get involved in matters which frankly could have been just gossip (personally I avoid gossip in The Fellowship). On reading your excellent report my judgement was sound and my suspicion that a “Night of the Long Knives” was approaching was correct.

    I hope that we can all learn from this and it is obvious that an agreed structure must be formulated with recognised lines of authority – as you rightly say.

    On a lighter note – If my memory serves me right, at the meeting in Santa Monica, Toronto put in a bid for this years WAAFT Convention but the large American presence objected as travellers would require passports! As an European this still amuses me as children here usually have their own passports from infancy.

  15. The first International Young People’s AA Conference was on the USA/Canada border, Niagara Falls, NY in 1968. I remember Vancouver 1979, I’ve been to Boston, Montreal and Nashville, too. A lot of our growing pains have already been worked through by this sometimes marginalized subculture in AA which has it’s own unique language and attitude. For anyone who wishes, there is a wealth of information here: ICYPAA Advisory Council Documents.

    There are webinars and archives and a formula for seamlessly accomplishing situations we seem to be frustrated by. How do you have a conference that is both unique to the host location and carries on a familiar look and feel for long-time attendees? Their host committee proposes a program and the advisor has to approve it; there is give and take.

    Their advisory (from my memory of being on a 80s bid committee) is made up of three members from each of the last five conferences. Three rotate out every year, three are added.

    I like to think of what we are experiencing as our first decade, the learning years. Once we’ve had five conferences (if we stay with the every two-year format) we will have a rhythm of how to deal with people pleasers and disagreeable folks, introverts and extroverts all getting what they need and, to a satisfactory degree, getting along… if we make it that far because having a future isn’t something we’re entitled to.

    ICYPAA has a human rights policy ensuring a discrimination and harassment free experience for all and an environment that accommodates any who suffer from alcoholism Everyone is assured the right to dignity and to be heard. “Everyone gets their say, but not everyone gets their way.”

    I’m looking forward to Austin; I plan to go to wherever the next one is. While I have spent my fair share of AA service work being highly engaged and over invested in panel topics and favorite speakers, none of that matters too much. Panelists can drift from the topic, plans change for people and last minute replacements make up some of every program. It’s the attendees (the delegates) that make the conference and it’s the one-on-one chats and new friendships I most fondly remember from Santa Monica.

  16. Great article and very informative about where WAAFT is today. We shouldn’t be shocked by this infighting – disappointing though it is.

    I consider myself an agnostic who still gets benefits from prayer at times.To whom or what? Doesn’t matter. I’m not praying to a Christian Evangelist god, don’t harbor those beliefs and I’m sure I never will. Beyond that, whose business is it to regulate my sobriety program? My beliefs have changed over the 29 years I’ve been sober – but I am still sober and interested in helping others.

    We’re a young and fragile group still. Let’s make the circle broad and roomy enough for all who don’t think conventionally, disparate as we may be.

  17. I had heard if you have a DUI in the US when you land in Canada they tell you to get on a plane and go back home? If true it could be a big problem for a Convention there.

    • The main AA convention was held in Canada a few years back – and I have been told that they would even let felons through – if you told the border guards that you were going to the AA convention, but yes, that ought to be investigated, and it would probably be a bit more tricky to get it across since we would be a thousand, not 60 thousand

  18. Hi Bob O, not an alcoholic, recovered.

    To me leave all religions/politics at the door and get on with the hard work of “Choice in Recovery”, that will help more people. That includes the Religion of any HP, Agnostic’s, Atheist’s, Freethinkers, Buddhist’s, Secular, Spiritual and Everything in Between.

  19. Roger, thanks so much for this, I was entirely unaware.

    Sad thing that we shall be embroiled in the same religious squabbles about the one true un-faith as the those middle eastern religions squabble in hundreds of factions about theirs – and the political left squabble about their one true faith in many factions.

    Thanks for keeping your finger on the pulse and calling for sanity before it gets out of hand.

    I confess I’m ever more annoyed with regular AA meetings, but I do try to live by a principle of tolerance, interspersed with an occasional sortie just to keep them on their toes, and the combination seems to work well, there is much less deliberate, proselytizing god talk in the meetings I go to now, a bit of gentle back and forward pushing results, eventually, in everyone keeping their worst tendencies in check, and some mutual tolerance, even, occasionally, love.

    It isn’t easy to have had to be an unbeliever in AA and having had to put up with the god talk in meetings for, in some of our cases, 2, 3, 4 decades, just to feel safe from drinking, but it is important now that we are growing an unbeliever movement within the recovery community to not get too adamantly self-seeking about wanting it to be just so.

    I have to remember that I am in so much better company among all and every one of the people who are honestly seeking open mindedness than among those who would be dogmatic, whatever form that dogmatism may take.

    When it comes down to it, closed-minded atheists scare me more than open-minded Christians.

    Let’s all try to keep an open mind, including me.

  20. Most everyone following AA Agnostica, AA Beyond Belief, and similar sites have been working for several years to be included in AA, and in turn make it more inclusive for everyone. There have been comments and suggestions, at low points, that we should just say to heck with it, and do our own thing — maybe a “parallel AA”. But a sort of WWW Group Conscience has kept most of us on focus: stay with AA. Help build it, not tear it down or walk away from it. It just has too much to offer.

    It seems that every human endeavor contains a spectrum of behavior. There are always “tails” at each extreme end of the behavior distribution, and probably always will be. Often, radicals find ways to make the tail wag the dog, as it were, and usurp the intent of the majority in the middle. They can be very good at that!

    Knowing that an extreme group is trying to influence us out of bounds of their numbers is half the battle in not letting that happen. I hope that this post gives everyone who is concerned with the future of WAAFT, and it’s conventions, the heads-up to keep open ears and an open mind. Transparency is so important in any public endeavor. If we know what’s going on, we have a chance to come to the proper group conscience decisions.

    The business meeting at the next convention could be very interesting.

  21. It has been clear for some time that there are problems in the group. I can only hope that it gets straightened out a bit.

    I’ve been watching the dogmatism – from the other side – tearing AA apart in my area.

    I can only hope that doesn’t happen to us.

  22. Here we go… Lack of “Good Orderly Direction” many thousand would say… I prefer seeing it as the pains of growing… because growing we are! In Portugal we are just coming out of the closet. Thanks for all the help and strength that is transmitted by the websites run by the non-fundamentalist community of AA.

  23. Trying to see the positive is a continued lifelong practice for me and sometimes battle. I hope Austin is as eclectic and rich as was Santa Monica & am hopeful we can have as diverse a speaker population. But if not, it is as it is.

    I’m also hopeful I will be able to attend. I wish for an international convention in Toronto for 2018. I KNOW we will pull it off. Positive vibes to everyone who needs em.

    Be well everyone & happy in another 24.

  24. Freedom to be me in sobriety is what I get from our meetings. It would be horrible if our fledgling movement were destroyed by arguments over orthodoxy of any kind. And what fabulous ammunition for our critics if this infighting continues. We need to love and accept each other, not become our own version of Toronto General Service.

  25. The host committee should plan the convention. Toronto would be a great place for the next one after Austin.