If you need one, start one

Fairhope UU

By Clay A.

Hello my name is Clay and I’m an alcoholic and a proud agnostic member of AA.

Starting an agnostic meeting was always something that I loved to think about, but like the old elusive thought of putting down the drugs and alcohol, I never really thought it was something that I could do. Thankfully, I was wrong. With the help of AA Agnostica, some close friends and I were able to start an agnostic meeting in our hometown of Fairhope, Alabama. Starting this meeting has been one of the high points of my recovery. After a little bit of action on our part, we now have a meeting where we can share freely our beliefs or disbeliefs without feeling judged or being pressured into prayer, and for that I am truly grateful. I would like to tell you a little bit about why and how we did it.

My wife started attending AA meetings about nine years ago. She was a blackout drinker, so she was the one that had the problem. I was just a hopeless alcoholic/drug addict living in what I now know to be self-centered fear, but that’s not so bad, right? Something changed in her and she stayed sober. I decided I should investigate these meetings to see if this was something that could benefit me.

I attended my first AA meeting and I noticed that these people were happy and sober – two things that I could not relate to. How were these people doing this? I looked on the wall and read the Twelve Steps. I read them all, but the only word I processed was the word God. I get it now – these people are delusional! These happy, joyous and free people are not in my tribe. If I was going to have to find God and be one of those religious bores then count me out. My intellect was far superior to the intellect of these unfortunate people. With this attitude, I would go on using recklessly for another three years.

Those three years were some of the worst years of my life. But why? I had a beautiful and sober wife, whose sobriety did not compliment my using and drinking very well. I had three healthy kids and a good job. I made good money and seemed to have a great life. The problem was that I could find no joy in life unless I was loaded. I finally had enough. I was going to have to give the Twelve Steps a shot.

I got a sponsor from home while I was away at my second stint at rehab. He was a Big Book guy, and he knew how to sponsor. We worked the steps as suggested in the book. After a year of multiple relapses, of which I must’ve picked up twenty beginner chips, I kept coming back and finally found a stride. A fellowship grew up around me, and for once in my adult life I had true friends that would help me in any way. I began to know a life that I never thought possible; a life in which I was sober because I wanted to be. AA gave me a life worth living.

I was happy; however, it seemed that most, if not all, of my new friends in recovery came to know a higher power with such ease. I prayed. I talked the talk. I did what was suggested. I tried the “fake it until you make it” technique. After two years of doing this and staying sober, the pink cloud lifted a bit and I just felt like something was missing. I had not developed that conscious contact with God that everyone else seemed to have. I didn’t feel that something “out there” was keeping me sober. I felt like the action and service that I was putting in, along with all of the amazing new relationships I had formed, was the real reason I was staying sober. I began to resent all of the God talk in the rooms.

It was at this time when I first came across the AA Agnostica website. I started reading the stories and articles on the site, and I was amazed. This is my tribe! These are my people! It was extremely refreshing to read stories of atheist and agnostic alcoholics that were living happy and usefully whole lives without feeling the “nearness of our Creator”. I saw there were agnostic meetings all over the world, and I thought how lucky are they to live somewhere that offers agnostic AA meetings. Living in lower Alabama, I felt I could never be so fortunate to have a meeting like that where I live. Though I had found freedom in the website, my resentment toward the God talk grew and I relapsed.

I stayed out for about seven months. Drugs and alcohol still were not the answer, but neither was the God that I felt that AA all but insisted I find. In my resentment I had stopped carrying the message – the resentment was all that I could carry.

I realized I had to get back in action. I stayed sober with the idea of action in helping the newcomer. I started sponsoring again. I was starting to share a little more honestly about the God issue. In sharing more openly about how I felt about God, I met others who were like me. Will P. was one of those people. We would talk a good bit after meetings about the God part of the program and how great it would be to not have to be propositioned to say the Lord’s Prayer after every meeting.  I told Will about the AA Agnostica web site and how much I loved it. I told him that there are meetings out there for agnostics and atheists in recovery and how fortunate alcoholics are that actually have those meetings available to them. Almost joking one night, I told Will that we should start an agnostic meeting in our area, never really thinking that this was something that we could do in our area.

Will took it from there. He checked out the How to Start an AA Meeting link on the AA Agnostica website. It was here that he discovered that Unitarian fellowships would sometimes be receptive to the idea of an agnostic AA meeting. Will then contacted the Unitarian Fellowship of Fairhope, and to our surprise they offered to rent us a space to conduct a meeting!

We set the start date and began to announce it around our local AA community. The announcement met some resistance, but not near what we were expecting.

Here is a link to the Fairhope We Agnostics website.

Will made a website for the meeting and contacted AA Agnostica about adding the link to the website. That was such a surreal feeling for me to see that link on the very website that gave me the strength to open up in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I used to look at all of those links just wishing that a meeting would pop up there closer to my area. Now there was, and it wasn’t just close, it was two miles away from my house!

We looked through several agnostic meeting formats online and cherry picked what worked for us. We decided to start our meeting with a moment of silent meditation followed by the Agnostic AA Preamble that we found in the Beyond Belief meeting format. We then read the Twelve Steps from Big Book with the caveat that although we read them as originally written, we invite the individual to interpret them in a way that they find meaningful. We did it this way because we felt that changing them may hinder us from being listed locally with our AA district. We are here for the newcomer after all; the more suffering alcoholics that can find us, the better we can be of service.

We then read Appendix II – Spiritual Experience in the Big Book. In deciding what the third reading would be, my wife suggested a paragraph on page 317 of the Big Book. This is a passage in the story My Chance to Live in which the spirit of willingness and action are key. It fits perfectly in the tone of what we are trying to achieve with this meeting. We then pass out chips, make any recovery related announcements, and present the topic for our discussion.  We will typically use the Big Book, but we will not limit ourselves to only conference-approved literature.  We close the meeting with the responsibility pledge.

We had our first meeting on January 26, 2017. What an amazing night!

Akron Coffee Pot

For information on how to start your own AA meeting, click on the image.

Will and I were quite anxious about how this was going to go, but in the end the night was a total success.  Here on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay we have an amazing community of recovering alcoholics.

We had twenty three people show up for the first meeting including our DCM, his alternate, and other GSRs from local groups. They are going to add our meeting to the Fairhope district list and our area AA website!

There were some that came to the meeting very skeptical but left telling us how much they enjoyed the meeting and that they would be back. When putting the chips together for the meeting, I was able to find nine of my beginner chips in a drawer in my room. We were surprised and happy to give away one of those beginner chips at the very first meeting.

I heard people that I’ve known for years share more honestly about their relationship with their higher power, or lack thereof, than I ever had. Not everyone at the meeting identified as agnostic or atheist, but that didn’t matter – everyone enjoyed the meeting. We are going to have a group conscience after our fourth meeting to decide if we want to be a group and elect a GSR to represent Fairhope We Agnostics at the local level. Our goal with becoming a group is that we can have our voice heard at local and area levels.

Starting this meeting has been an amazing experience for us. Something that we thought was going to be impossible turned out to be anything but that. Any fear and anxiety that we had in relation to this endeavor vanished after the first meeting.

I truly believe that these meetings are extremely important for the future of AA. Agnostic AA meetings must be there to serve the growing number of people that do not identify with any form of religion or omnipotent creator God. We are here to carry the message to the newcomer. We Agnostics of Alcoholics Anonymous can relate to the fellow freethinker better than anyone else can.

If any of you out there are thinking about starting an agnostic meeting, go for it! There’s no time like now.


Clay A. is 37 years old and attended his first AA meeting nine years ago. At one point he put together three years of sobriety and now his new sobriety date is December 16, 2015. Clay is happily married and his wife has six years of sobriety. Over his years in AA, he has tried his very best to work the steps as they are, prayer included. There was always something missing, and that was a Higher Power who many choose to call God. Clay has a new sense of freedom in recovery as a result of working on and participating in the new agnostic AA meeting. He is able to realize that his truth is just that, his truth. He doesn’t have to pretend to be someone else now at AA meetings. As soon as Fairhope We Agnostics becomes a group (via the GSO) it will become his home group.


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If you need one, start one — 34 Comments

  1. As the expression goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. A freethinker’s AA community in a city/town starts with one meeting of two or more members. In 1975 there was only one Quad A in Chicago. In 1986 there was only one in New York City. As the year 2009 drew to a close in Toronto, there was only one agnostic and atheist meeting there, too. Each of these cities have a meeting every day where the secular language of the heart is spoken.

    Roger and early regulars at this website remember Wayne. Wayne was in four treatment centers (2 12-Step based and 2 others) before he got sober. He couldn’t grasp the higher power idea. In his last stint in hospital he had an epiphany, “I don’t want to die a drunk,” he thought to himself. In a contemporary version of Bill W’s hospital moment, Wayne connected with a higher purpose. He didn’t want to die as a drunk. This higher purpose morphed from a moment at rock-bottom to a lifestyle. He gave up a prestigious sales position and became an addiction counselor. Wayne was a key player in Toronto’s first agnostic meeting, Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers AA Group. Wayne’s purpose made the impossible, possible.

    I like this concept of the role in a higher purpose and how it sustains us. Wayne died of cancer, sadly. But Wayne did not die a drunk and how many people did he help along the way? [Here is an article Wayne wrote a few weeks before he died: A Higher Purpose.]

    Reading a story like Clay’s I am encouraged. Maybe AA is healthier than it’s been in years. This is an idea that a friend of 46 years of sobriety offered to me recently. “The challenges are the spiritual journey,” one AA said to me and the idea of this statement rings true.

    I hope Clay’s story inspires another. The agnostic AA movement, part of a larger fellowship of people who have regained power over addiction disorders, helping others with addiction disorders and they both stay sober in the process – that’s AA in a nutshell. In a crazy world, this is a grounding purpose. Thanks for sharing, Clay. And as always, I’ve enjoyed the repartee that followed.

  2. I go to a “Atheist Agnostic Freethinkers” meeting. It’s a OPEN meeting so I started attending and now it’s my home meeting.

    One thing you should know. I’m not an Alcoholic, I’m a compulsive over eater. I was so pleased that these wonderful people welcomed me with open arms and an open heart and understand that an addiction is an addiction. I have in the past been a big OA (Overeaters Anonymous) advocate. I even started a meeting in HI when I lived there. I pulled away from OA for too many years. This wonderful AA meeting gave me the desire to start going again. But, to my disappointment, the God thing and the prayers really bother me. I can’t find a sponsor and I feel defeated. I’ve been in touch with our world service and they were very understanding and pleasant to talk too. But, in no way helpful to my problem. I’m just writing this to see if anyone out there knows of anything about OA Atheist Agnostic Freethinkers meetings people, sponsors or anything that I’m asking for. PLEASE contact me at claymaster69@yahoo.com.

    • Well I don’t know about meetings but the book A Skeptics Guide to the 12 Steps is about Agnosticism/Atheism and working the 12 Steps. It is written by an OA guy.

  3. Hawai’i needs an Agnostics meeting. I understand there is 12 yr old Agnostics meeting on Maui but we need one here on Oahu. I started one in the past but didn’t have the patience to wait till it caught on?

    Wouldn’y mind trying one out again.

    Aloha!!

  4. Wonderful Clay and Will — congratulations !~!~!

    What a marvelous and inspirational article to balance out the five year ordeal that Toronto secular AA meetings recently concluded by being re-listed by the Greater Toronto Intergroup Association, which Roger reported upon last week.

    This is how we grow AA not only for ourselves but for AA as a whole, whose membership has been declining for the past 20 or so years. It is so great that so many GSRs, District, and Area members attended the meeting, some feeling free enough to share honestly and openly without being forced to conform to the narrow Christian-only dogma that much of AA has devolved into during the past 30-35 years. This is very different from when I was gifted with recovery in New York City AA in 1972.

    I grew up in Jackson, MS and whenever I visit I try to attend a meeting in which I identify openly as a sober alcoholic in my 45th year of recovery who today does not believe in or have a personal deity as a Higher Power. The last time I was there, they asked me to lead the ending prayer. I chose the Serenity Prayer, but when I said it, due to my Scotch-Norman heritage, I intoned, “Goddess grant me . . .” The Lady leading the meeting at the end, announced loudly with a scornful look, “We’ll say it again, this time the right way.” I just smiled and thanked her.

    • Thomas,

      At a meeting back in the fall the secretary asked me to lead the closing, well knowing that it would cause a moment of conflict for me were I to say out loud the word god as an opener.

      The Lord moves in mysterious ways.

      In a moment of divine inspiration, it must have been right around halloween, I opened with “Great Pumpkin…..”

      Interestingly, and surprisingly several members joind in with the Great pumpkin repeat before reciting the rest of the serenity prayer. I could barely keep from cracking up all through the prayer.

      The secretary wisely said afterwards, guess I should have seen that one coming.

      He is generally an openminded sort.

    • That’s hilarious. I love it. People like you are who give me the strength to do this. 45 years without the all powerful God almighty. Thank you for sharing that.

  5. We started a seasonal We Agnostics meeting in Bradenton, FL last month, which will run thru April. Very satisfying to be with like minded alcoholics! We are listed on the waaft.org site and the local SARA-MANA INTERGROUP is aware of us as well in case visitors to SW Florida inquire. Welcome to the “club” of trailblazing recovering agnostic alcoholics! 🙂 Our numbers continue to grow. Congratulations on your success in Alabama.

  6. Clay, congrats for pulling it together. I had quite a hard time with starting a meeting here in liberal northern California. But holding on.

    Here is a suggested format for “reading the steps” which I would also appreciate feedback on:

    Showing up at meetings, sharing our experience, strength, and hope, and working the 12 steps of AA are important tools of recovery for us. We freethinkers have found it better for us to work the 12 steps of AA without making a god central to recovery.

    It seems that any formal reading of the steps, even modified steps, only feeds an expectation that the steps should be worked one way and one way only, so we will not do a formal reading of them at all here. The most important thing at first is to quit drinking and start going to meetings. The steps can easily be found in AA literature once it is time to start working on them. Instead we will just list some of the principles we have found to work in the 12 steps.

    The first thing we needed to do to get started with recovery was to fully admit that we had lost control of our drinking and that our lives had become generally unmanageable as a result. From seeing AA at work we came to realize that help from other alcoholics in recovery would be necessary for recovery. We could not do it alone. We decided to start living our lives based on the core principles of the AA program, as we saw them. We took a good honest look at how we had lived our lives, and how our alcoholic personalities had gotten in the way of our relations with those around us. We shared honestly and without reservation what we had learned about ourselves with another person, and became willing to change whatever was necessary in our lives. We also took a look at who we had harmed and who had harmed us, and made amends for what we had done, so long as it did not cause further harm to anyone involved, and we sought to forgive others for wrongs done to us.

    We realized that quitting drinking was not enough. It would be necessary to keep working on all these changes, so we continued looking honestly at ourselves, and our relations to those around us, and whenever we did something wrong, we promptly admitted it and did what we could to remedy it, so we wouldn’t have it gnawing at our newfound serenity.

    We found that a broader awareness of life and our place in it was important to our recovery, and that meditation or other work such as what is often called spiritual practice would be helpful to our recovery. We also realized that working with other alcoholics would be essential to our own continued recovery, both to help us keep our focus, and because when other alcoholics in recovery took it upon themselves to work with us, it had given us a place to go to seek recovery for ourselves. We needed to pay it forward, both for our own sake, and for the next suffering alcoholic. So we tried to carry the AA message as we had experienced it to other alcoholics.

    • Yes man! That’s good stuff right there for sure. So is this something that would be read in replacement of the steps? I like how it’s concealed in a way as to not throw too many people off. We read the spiritual experience as well, so having two readings this long probably wouldn’t work. We would need to use one or the other. I really like this though. You gave me something to think about. Have you started a meeting yet?

      • Yes, the meeting has been going for what, 3 years now, though it’s small. This reading will allow you to avoid the formal confrontation of changing the steps while still introducing them which i think is a good way to go. Besides not drinking I think what makes AA work is that we actually *give the alcoholic something to do* It doesn’t much matter what it is, so long as its objective is personal growth. the steps are fine, except for the god stuff, though they focus a bit too much on the guilt and shame of Christianity. But really anything would do. The main thing is to give people something productive to do with their upside down emotional life.

        So I toned down some of the Christian influence besides the god stuff.

        And of course the AA police can’t come and say we’re reading altered steps.

    • Hi Life. This is marvelous! I hope you don’t mind if I borrow this, maybe even tweek it a little more and use it for our meeting. It really is superb.

      • Kit, absolutely.

        I have also put a variety of pamphlets together on “our” topic.

        Anyone interested in an electronic file with printable copies of all can contact me at lifej@mcn.org.

        I also just got a shipment of the British pamphlet “The ‘God’ Word” which I need to distribute.

        I only got 180, for which I’m grateful, but we probably need 3000 to make a dent. Anyway, please drop me an email, anyone in the US, if you’d like a few, and we’ll see how far they go.

        You can see a copy of it at here: The “God” Word.

        They are UK General Service Conference Approved. Not that we typically think much of that, but it’s good to be able brandish that fact to would-be opponents of it.

  7. Hello, My name is Michele. I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been looking for a blog where other alcoholics who are atheists or agnostics support each other to stay sober. Did I come to the right place?

    • You sure did, Michele! And another great place for atheist and agnostic alcoholics is right here (just click on the image):

      AA Beyond Belief

    • Hi Michele! I sure think that you did. Finding this place and the folks here in early sobriety changed my life in so many good ways. Welcome.

  8. Great story ! Thanks for sharing this Clay as it’s always inspiring to hear about another AA Agnostic meeting starting up and having some success. We started one here in Windsor, Ontario last May and it’s been a terrific ride! Although there’s been some opposition from a few AA members in this area, most have been supportive and more importantly supportive of the principles of AA like inclusiveness and open-mindedness. At this rate there might be as many Agnostic meetings as “regular” in a few years. Lol! Good work Clay!

  9. Thanks, Clay – what a great story! And what a great name for a town with a secular meeting – Fairhope!

    I can really relate to your anxiety when starting a secular meeting. When we started We Agnostics in Olympia, WA, some years ago, many weekends the only attendees were me and my wife. (We met after I got sober, but she lives Al-Anon principles). Of course, we wondered if we were wasting our time, but things quickly changed and the group still thrives. I’m awed by your first meetings attendance.

    Thanks for your story.

  10. Thank you guys so much for all of the positive feedback so far on the story. We would love to assist anyone starting or thinking about starting an agnostic meeting in any way we can. Please email me or contact our meeting website to let us know if we can help or if you can help us. Our third meeting is tonight so we are not overly experienced with all of this or anything. I would like to reiterate what a liberateing experience this has been, and how much I have grown in this process.

  11. Wow! Clay what a great story. My Beyond Belief Suburban West Group in Mississauga will celebrate its second anniversary on February 15th. It too has become “my tribe” as you put it. I have found a sense of freedom in this group. I still attend a traditional AA group. Pushback here has been noticeable to agnostics/atheists. Change can be intimidating at times but change we must to reach out to the newcomer. We had one at our meeting last night. It was Ryan’s second AA meeting. He specifically came to an agnostic meeting as we was uncomfortable with the god references. I’m glad we were there for him.

    • While there are twenty-three active agnostic AA meetings in five provinces across Canada, there are none in Newfoundland. Yet.

    • I’d suggest finding one other freethinker & starting one – we’ll be with you in spirit.