The first agnostic AA meetings in New York

New York City

This was the third of three main talks at a workshop on the history of secular AA at the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention in Austin, Texas, in November 2016.


By Deirdre S.

Hi. I am Deirdre, a cross-addicted alcoholic.

Since everybody said their sobriety date, I am February 10, 1997. I was 36 at that time and I thought at 36 I should have figured everything out. I should have been a professor with patches on my elbows and stuff like that, but instead I was a mess.

We talked last night about the three people who read about agnostic AA meetings in an atheist publication “Free Enquiry”, wrote to the author in California, were introduced to each other by him, and then started the first agnostic meeting in New York City on Wednesday, September 10, 1986.

When Roger asked me to talk about this, I wanted to in order to get to know one of the founders of that meeting, Ada Halbeirch, a little bit better. I met her in the Thursday night meetings in New York and she was always very lovely but I didn’t know her very well. She died 29 years sober in 2005.

That first agnostic AA meeting was in Ada’s apartment with the other founders, John Y. and David L. They began to look for a public space and went to a Synagogue not so far from where Ada lived and asked for permission to have the meeting there. It took them several weeks to decide and then they said “Okay, go ahead.” And so the first public “We Agnostics” meeting in New York was at the Stephen Wise Synagogue.

Everyone I talked to said that Ada was a leader, she was a business woman, she was a red-diaper baby, her father a socialist in the lower East Side. She was very ambitious, very successful and also a gambler and alcoholic.  It somehow kind of all went together.

ada-halbeirch

Ada H. One of the Founders of the We Humanist meeting.

Jane J., who many people know as she was at the Santa Monica convention two years ago, told me a story about how she met Ada. She was out walking the dog and she saw Ada with her dog and the animals started communing and so somehow Jane got around to asking Ada, “Do you have a Higher Power?” And Ada replied “Oh, you poor dear. You must be in a 12 Step program.” And she said “Come with me” and brought her into the Thursday meeting and Jane has stayed sober ever since. Jane’s husband died unexpectedly just a little over a year ago and I know that she hung out in meetings to be in a safe place and has made it past a year in widowhood. She is just beginning to bloom again. She would have been here had she not broken her foot.

It was very uncomfortable for Ada at regular meetings. She started the agnostic meetings in both New York and Florida. She’s buried in Queens or Brooklyn and she was so justifiably proud of her role in starting the meetings that she had it put on her tombstone. I am going to find it and get it out so people have that. I think it’s fantastic that Ada would have that put on her tombstone.

The second person who was part of starting this first agnostic meeting was John Yablon. He was a public atheist which meant that he participated in demonstrations. For example, he demonstrated against the Pope when he came to NYC.

He was very outspoken. The thing I remember about John is that he would stand in the doorway of the meeting and he would grab you with two big hands and shake your hand and look you in the eye and say “I’m John and who are you?” While he was just trying to make people feel welcome, some people recoiled at that.

John was a World War Two veteran. He told people “I never said a prayer in my life”. For many years he worked as a repairman and mechanic for the New York Central Railroad. I just found out that after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, he went down to the pile and got the word out that he was going to have a special AA meeting for the people who were there clearing the debris and looking for human remains as well as the other workers there.

john-y

John Y, another of the founders of the first agnostic AA meeting in New York City.

In early 2003, John developed an aggressive form of stomach cancer. Within three weeks he was dead. All of sudden the chair John sat in each week was empty. For a while we kept a hat on the chair so nobody else would sit in it.

It was just like here today, gone tomorrow. And that is sort of the essence of this “One Day at a Time” slogan. One of the things I learned in AA is that if you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future, you’re pissing on the present. It is so true. I am glad that I got to meet both of those people, and it shows just how recent our history really is. There are people still alive today who were at our first agnostic meeting in New York City.

And David L, the third founding member, is a gay man, he lives in Texas. He is very friendly, and still goes to AA meetings regularly, and is still so grateful to agnostic AA for his sobriety. He is like a real mensch.

So it started in Ada’s apartment in 1986 and they went to the Synagogue and then they went to a church called Jan Hus on the East Side and Jan Hus said, “We Atheists? No we won’t have you”. So they came back and said “How about We Humanists?” And they said OK.

The third agnostic AA meeting in New York was started in 1988 by Martha and Bernie, and it was on Sundays. I met Martha when I called Intergroup with a question. I called and I said “Hi. I need an atheist sponsor. Where do I find that?” And Martha who,  as it turned out, was working the phones whispered to me, “Go to the Sunday meeting and we can talk there”. I didn’t quite understand at the time that I was apparently asking the wrong question in AA.

So I met her and found a sponsor in my Tuesday night meeting. The Tuesday night meeting was the next in the lineup and that was started in the fall of 1995 by Greg S.

Today we have thirteen meetings in the city. And what I am learning now is that in a lot of towns and cities people have “groups” which I never really understood before. Quad A in Chicago is a group and meetings there are under its auspices. But in New York, let a million flowers bloom but we just keep popping up with meetings and we have not yet got ourselves terribly organized. But Vic and I are going to try and work hard to get us a little more together in New York.

As an excellent example of how untogether we are in New York City all of a sudden several meetings popped up that were agnostic meetings and they weren’t based on one of the core members going out and starting a new meeting. They were just spontaneous meetings. We found out about them through lists and by accident.

We put them on the website and went out and met the people. To me it shows that there is this growth of secular AA that is happening and that it’s outside of our control. You can’t control it. And certainly AA is not controlling it even if there are some within AA who see it as a threat. This is the most hopeful thing that I can say. I got sober. Other people are getting sober. And it’s happening just because we’re there. We’ve put the flag up and people are shooting at it or saluting it. Whatever is their pleasure.


Deirdre S. has been a proud member of AA for over 19 years. Her sober date is February 10, 1997. For the last ten years she has been the webweaver of www.agnosticAANYC.org. She spoke at the international conferences for secular members of AA in both 2014 and 2016.


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The first agnostic AA meetings in New York — 27 Comments

  1. I loved your presentation in Austin too, Deirdre! As to the question of why there weren’t more meetings (secular) earlier, I draw on what Ernie Kurtz always emphasized which is “context – what else was going on at the time.”

    I don’t know that this was true everywhere but in the mid-1970s in Montreal I don’t remember unconventional worldviews being the target of either ridicule or hostility. While belief in a prayer answering, sobriety granting, defect lifting supernatural force was popular in my recollection of AA then, the rejection of such a belief was inconsequential to others in the rooms.

    It seems to me that it wasn’t until the mid-1980s, a whole generation after the death of our last co-founder, that a more militant, literalist faction of AA felt that AA needed to circle our wagons and defend ourselves from perceived threats. Inside AA newcomers were flooding AA with new age treatment language such as “triggers,” “inner-child,” “trauma,” “coping mechanisms,” “dual addictions” and such. Outside our doors the ’80s were the moral majority/Ronald Regan years.

    It makes sense that the first need for the safety of our own meeting space to talk recovery/alcoholism in our own language would have come from a mid-west city (Chicago) first. It would have had the ingredients of the Cleveland/Akron influence + a scale of rugged individuals to start a “place of our own” as LGBTs, women and young people had already been doing.

    It makes sense that it would take a few more years in liberal LA and NYC for a need to be felt for a special meeting for members who shares secular views of AA.

    And today it is not only the agnostic/atheist groups that are thriving. So is the back-to-basics movement. In the same way we see more noise and mobility from polar opposites in politics, one extreme giving rise to the other, we see a louder and more vibrant secular AA voice as well as a more fundamentalist view.

    In someways, the growth of the secular AA movement is in keeping with the rise of atheism in America. But in part, our growth has been from a more hostile environment from “our more religious members” who sincerely feel threatened by our influence on the AA mainstream.

    • Joe, That’s a very interesting way to look at it. Thanks for the additional perspective. This from the guy who heckled me. Wish we had more time to talk while at the conference.

    • Good thoughts, Joe. Even in our We Agnostic meeting in the mid-eighties we were lamenting all the treatment center language filtering into the meeting. The word “co-dependant” started many arguments between old-timers & newcomers.

  2. As regard “Daily Reflections” and its proclivity to end with god talk . . .
    Yes it is all too common, though last Saturday’s reading was a pleasant oddity.(12/10) “When I truly committed to this purpose (the principles), it matters little what clothes I wear or how I make a living. My task is to carry the message, and to lead by example, not design.”

  3. Hey Deidre — one of the highlights of the Austin convention was hearing you speak, and reading it again reiterates how important it is for us to remember and document our secular AA history.

    I’m one of those long-timers who was gifted with recovery in New York City AA, where I found many non-religious members whose formula for recovery a day at a time was, “Don’t use, Go to meetings, Help others”. Essentially, I still do use this formula these 44 years later.

    Thank you, Roger, for publishing Deidre’s talk, another important milestone in the history of secular AA, which you have been documenting so well the last several years. Again, I am so eternally (oops, maybe not . . . 😉 ) grateful that I found AA Agnostica in early 2012 – verily, it has saved my serenity, if not my sobriety !~!~!

    • Yes! The recover three step! Thanks for your kind words, Tom. I’d like to keep following digging through the history, but all of my sober projects are demanding some love and attention. It’s the gift we give ourselves when we stop all the elbow-bending. One thing we all must remember is that we are making history all the time.

  4. Hey Deirdre, thanks for the history lesson! I am 8 months sober (again) and I went to the “atheist ” meeting in Staten Island where I live. I’m sad to say there was only 4 or 5 people there, and it was just a regular meeting. They almost closed with a prayer, until the chairperson realized he wasn’t supposed to do that. I didn’t go back, but maybe I will try again.

    • That’s distressing! I wonder how we can build up that meeting. Let me know If you go back and find the same situation. I used to know John, the guy who started the meeting. He’s a good guy. I hope he’s still around. I hope to meet you there or in Manhattan at some point!

  5. Thank you, Deirdre! I loved hearing your talks at the convention. I am so grateful that Ada started our meeting in Florida. I don’t know what the last 30 years would have looked like for me without it. I, honestly, believe her & Henry H. saved my sobriety because of it.

    • Dale, which meeting is it again? I’d like to type up all the notes I took about Ada and the early meetings in NYC and get them to the archivist at AA.

      • Ada & Henry Hellmuth (deceased) started a We Agnostic meeting at the Crossroads Club (AA clubhouse) in Delray Beach, FL about 1985. After about a year, the meeting was moved to a Unitarian church in Boca Raton, FL where it is still held on Friday evenings. I started attending at the Boca location about 1986-87.

  6. Came into AA on May 1,1970! I never got the god dogma; but, just went along. I think that many get turned away by this god requirement. The kinship of universal suffering is the glue that binds us together! (Bill W.)

    I speak my mind at meetings and use my 46 years of sobriety as proof that even an atheist can attain long term serene sobriety! We are learning new facts about the disease all the time. How about the role of the Amygdala gland and the Pancreas gland in metabolizing and resisting temptation? Why do native Americans have such a high illness rate? “We realize that we know little?”

    • Exactly true! We also have to keep writing our own history and making certain that we send it to AA so that they also have a record of the overall development the organization as a whole.

  7. Deirdre, thanks.

    What I find the most puzzling is that these meetings weren’t started earlier. Seems to me like they would at least have popped up around the first rejection of a book for us, there around 1977, especially in a city like NY.

    When I got sober in 88 there was a humanist and an atheist meeting in Berkeley. I don’t know how long they had been going at that time, I just kind of presumed it had been close to forever.

    Be interesting to know whether that first book rejection indeed did spark any of the first non-believer meetings. But maybe it was rather stuff like the damned Daily Reflection that started polarizing the fellowship.

    • It is strange, 1986 seems rather recent. We absolutely know that there were many individuals in AA who were atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and others. But what got the first meeting rolling? Maybe the folks from California have a clue…

    • “the damned Daily Reflections”

      Do AA publications deserve to be summarily dismissed? Perhaps, if sobriety is served, but the reviewer risks missing valuable “experience, strength and hope.” I have found diversity in the anonymous contributions, and a precedent for future publications.

      • Boyd,
        As a non-believer I still find valuable, even brilliant passages in the Big Book, and the 12×12. Living Sober is of course my favorite official AA book.

        As for Daily Reflections however, I have to stand by my review, only it was kind of brief, and it deserves clarification:
        It was published around 1992, this is the time when AA started to stagnate. This may of course be a coincidence. however, here is my beef with it, briefly:
        No matter what the beginning quote is, absolutely no matter what it is – with very few exceptions the anonymous interpretation following is frequently barely related to the quote, which is not necessarily bad, if it says something intelligent and worthwhile, though it is certainly a formal fault of a book, but what really rubs me the wrong way, and gives cause for my bile against it is that no matter how it starts, almost without fail it winds up talking about god in the last 3 lines. In most cases it is, at least from a non-believer’s perspective completely unwarranted, out of the blue, and completely unnecessary. In fact, it is greatly offensive. And this book is read at the beginning of most meetings it seems, and thus those last 3 god lines set the tone for the meeting.

        I credit this book with the strongly religious turn AA has taken since it’s publication. It has definitely done much to poison our fellowship.

        Sorry to say it like it is, or, I guess, the way I see it, but I have found much agreement on this from fellow non-believers.

      • Appreciate that. I will look for the uniform closing three lines. Would also like to understand the editorial history of its publication. What prompted it? How widely was the membership notified of the opportunity. Some folks just accept it as more of Bill W.’s writing, perhaps because it is god centered. Many paths emerge from its pages.

  8. Thanks, Deirdre. As a freethinking AA of long standing, I always enjoy and appreciate learning more about the history of agnostic/atheist AA. Mel has it right: you’re a real mensch, too.