The Austin Convention – Survey Results

Austin Featured

By Thomas B.

Approximately 400 persons attended the second biennial convention of We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International Convention (WAAFT IAAC), which took place November 11 – 13, 2016 at the Austin Crown Plaza Hotel with the theme “Human Power Can Relieve Our Alcoholism — May You Find Us Now.”

Following the conference, the former WAAFT IAAC Board under the leadership of Dianne P., Chairperson, and Vic L., Outreach Chair, drafted a post-conference survey to elicit feedback from attendees about the conference. This draft survey was  submitted to Thomas B., Outreach Chair, of the newly named and elected members of the International Conference of Secular AA (ICSAA) Board of Directors, who were elected at the Austin business meeting.

The new Board revised the survey, and it was sent out to 270 attendees whose emails were garnered from those who used PayPal to pay for registration fees. Five of these emails bounced back as invalid emails, resulting in a survey cohort of 265 attendees. 79 persons responded to the survey, resulting in a 29.8% response rate. The tabulated results of the survey can be seen here: Secular AA – 2016 Austin Survey.

Summary of Survey Results

Herein follows a summary of pertinent results from this self-selected, non-random survey of those who attended the November 2016 WAAFT International AA Convention in Austin, Texas:

  • A substantial majority of those who responded were satisfied (38.0%) or very satisfied (53.2%) with the Austin Convention.

  • The majority of those who responded were atheists (43.0%) or agnostics (21.5%) with a wide range of other beliefs to include freethinkers, Buddhists, non-theists, a secular humanist, a Wiccan, an atheistic yogini, a pantheist, etc.

  • The majority of those who responded were raised either as Protestant (42.3%) or Catholic (32.0%) along with 9 “nones”, 4 Jewish, 2 atheists and a Quaker.

  • A majority (68.8%) of those who responded developed their current belief system before they were members of AA.

  • A majority (63.2%) of those who responded have been involved in various levels of AA General Service work at the group, district, and area levels as well as with Intergroups.

  • There are many paths from which those who responded became aware of Secular AA to include secular AA meetings, the Internet, including AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief, Intergroups, and AA Conferences to include four who attended the secular AA meeting at the Atlanta International AA Conference.

  • A majority of those who responded did not attend the Santa Monica Convention in 2014.

Comparing Santa Monica and Austin

Of those who did attend Santa Monica, here is a sampling of comments comparing the Santa Monica Convention with the Austin Convention:

I especially appreciated that it included Phyllis H., GSO Manager, and Rev. Ward Ewing, retired GSO Board Chair, who both are most supportive of secular AA.

Austin was more “official” and organized. Santa Monica will always be the first!!

Yes. Great being part of first conference.

I preferred the Santa Monica conference.

Austin conference had more negativity.

Equally worthwhile.

I could see a tremendous growth with more speakers and great camaraderie.

They were both fantastic experiences.

Loved Ward Ewing’s speech in Santa Monica, however Austin felt much more organized. Was also nice having hotel on-site.

Both great.

I preferred the conference in Santa Monica.

Santa Monica more intimate and the venue was better but the content in Austin was superior.

There is nothing like the first one, I liked Austin but there was such excitement in Santa Monica.

Both were outstanding. The second built on the first in terms of focus and a way forward for our movement within AA.

Austin event more professionally organized.

I like Santa Monica better. Although necessary, I felt like the tone of the Austin conference was a bit less heartfelt and more “political.” Again this was necessary in that we needed some procedural things decided, but Santa Monica felt more recovery based.

Austin was bigger, more convention-like.

It was somewhat better.  Santa Monica was more intimate with much better opportunities for networking. Austin was less intimate and to be honest attracted more of the “lunatic fringe”.

A majority (78.5%) attend traditional, or religious, AA meetings. A majority of those (62.5%) report that they identify their secular, or nontraditional beliefs, regularly and another 22.2% sometimes do. Of those who don’t share their secular beliefs, three are fearful of doing so.

Most liked about Austin

Below is a sampling of comments of what those who responded to the survey liked most about the Austin Convention:

The fellowship of traveling with three others to get there.

Wide range of topics and panels; the opportunity to meet in person many other secular AA members with whom I connect online.

Free thinking & freedom to speak; to be myself.

The best thing about the Austin Conference was the chance to be with so many like-minded people.

Meeting fellow nonbelievers. Great workshops. Good selection of books.

Loved meeting the people that host the websites and podcasts.

Since it was my first secular conference and was new to the entire experience I was overwhelmed with it all.

Gathering of like-minded folks sharing diverse experiences. Got to meet the folks who post regularly.

The workshops and meeting so many like-minded AAs.

Being myself in a group of like-minded people (for the most part).

Being in a community of like-minded individuals working toward recognition and inclusion of secular AA.

I liked panels and the experience being among a global fellowship of like-minded folks.

Sense of community and shared purpose.

Learned more about history. Learned about challenges in creating atheist/agnostic/freethinker meetings.

The friendly, open, TRULY free-thinking spirit, and very stimulating conversation, both in and out of formal sessions. I was invited to speak as a panel participant at two sessions, although I belong to a church.

Seeing sober people who don’t insist on traditional [Christian] religion as necessary to being sober.

Knowing that I am not alone in finding the “God talk” unhelpful.

Ability to speak freely & be myself.

Least liked about Austin

Below is a sampling of comments of what those who responded to the survey liked least about the Austin Convention:

The location. The hotel was good but poorly situated.

The strident atheist voices who argued against secular AA being involved within AA General Service work.

Some of the break out rooms were too small.  No one at hotel to greet the night before start of conference.

The militant atheist approach is just as off-putting as the Bible thumpers.

The big speaker meetings.

The lack of good keynote Speakers.

Denigration of traditional AA, internal squabbles within the board.  Space for some of the break out sessions was inadequate.

Angry atheists.

Political comments from podium. Business meeting was a joke (i.e. voting on by-laws that hadn’t been published).

Some sessions were too crowded; singer at dinner actually sang Amazing Grace… WTF?

Poor tape quality, poor audio throughout… As I am hard of hearing it was brutal… And the tapes I brought back were echoes and lousy sound… Geez.

The contentiousness of the business meeting, atheist fundamentalist, and a few people that were overtly rude to the Grapevine rep.

The hotel was too far from downtown, with very few options for walking to restaurants. I also am not in favor of traditional religious leaders (priests, ministers) leading sessions at the conference.

I was embarrassed at the treatment of Ami Brophy, the Executive Editor Publisher of the AA Grapevine. She should have been a Keynote speaker to address the entire convention.

Many high importance workshops were on Friday, with very few on Sunday. If possible, just a Friday night welcome dinner/big meeting, then workshops Saturday all day and Sunday until early afternoon. Would be great to attract more young people.

Discussions about “how spiritual” secular AA should be.

Hotel location sucked and hotel itself was a bit dreary.

Some sessions were too full.  Angry people.

That I couldn’t experience a little bit of the Austin music scene AND, now that I think about it, the rancor at the business meeting was eye opening and upsetting.

Not a walkable location, not much shopping, eating or sight-seeing within walking distance.

Having to wait 2 years for the next one.

Angry, male-centric tone… what I felt was a very power/control driven tone and agenda on the part of some.

Rabid anti-spirituality and anti-AA/Steps comments; I left early on Sunday – couldn’t take any more.

Militant atheists are as off-putting as evangelists.

Most of the workshops contained little to no information on corresponding science (psychology/philosophy/biology/neurology etc) supporting/tying into the steps (except the one on meditation).

Politics.

There seemed to be a lot of bashing AA by several people at the conference. While my differences vary differently with traditional AA, I am very grateful for the program as written.

What would be desired in future conferences

A very slight majority (50.6%) of those who responded suggest every two years, and a large cohort (25.3%) suggest every year. Herein follow a sampling of responses from those who responded to the survey as to what they would like to see at future ICSAA Conferences:

Medical/scientific insights into addiction.

Emphasis on science of addiction to include the latest neurological findings, such as latest research on use of psychedelic substances in treatment of addiction.

More opportunity to meet people from other areas & hear their stories.

More regional conferences so more people can attend.  This organization feels very elitist. None of my sponsees could afford to take off work & take a trip to Toronto. I’m sure many people in AA can’t.

Live webcasts for those who cannot attend.

A variety of relevant topics for presentations and workshops. Stories about secular AA history. Talks by people from the GSO. I believe inviting people from the GSO will help build relationships between secular AA and traditional AA and this will help acceptance of non-traditional groups within AA.

Encourage representation from NY GSO. I liked the feeling of being with others who were willing to examine and question their own personal journey (free thinkers) without disparaging traditional. There’s a need for both.

More countries represented. More authors presenting their books. T-shirt sales!

A little more entertainment would be nice.

More GSO participation.

Austin had nice mix. Maybe more on taking meetings into institutions.

Would it be wrong to bring in outside AA folk like Tony Rosen, Gabor Mate, Sam Harris, Hemant Mehta?

More speakers, workshops for newcomers.

Atheist/Ag old timers panel.

Some common goal and call to action – mutual goals ?  Hah!

More people.

Lots of information from non-AA approved literature and other media.

I’d like to have AA believers who support us have a place at our table.

More help with starting a group.

Some more focus on how to start new meetings. At the first one we had well-attended workshop about that. I think we could have one each time.

More marathon meetings. Friday evening dance. Organized city trip, etc.

More diverse speakers (ideas/backgrounds), would love way to somehow identify/connect with Secular AAs from my state/local area while at the conference. If I hadn’t already known folks from Santa Monica, I would’ve never known who the other Colorado folks were. Perhaps voluntary participation in a Secular AA phone list and/or directory published before or during the conference so that folks can connect in person?

More time for fellowship without having to miss content.

Workshop on Secular meeting topic development.

I would like to see us invite GSO and the Grapevine and to treat them respectfully and allow them to address the convention. I would like to see an organized effort to get secular people involved in General Service to learn how we can affect change in AA.

More young people.

More real atheist speakers (younger that Cameron and myself)  and panels and no more representatives from traditional AA (like the Grapevine) on the platform. They are more than welcome to attend of course but it’s our conference that should be exclusively for and by our own membership. As I have pointed out many times as an example I don’t wish to speak at Catholic AA retreats (of which there are many around here) and if I were, for some reason, inclined to do so it would be inappropriate in the extreme.

2016 was excellent, all I can think of would be nice to have organized transport for non-conference outings (dinner/night on town etc.) or means to coordinate with groups for such.

Online access for those who can’t make it, audio or audio visual.

Let’s use the next conference to foster more 12th Step work.  I am especially enthusiastic about  local secular AA groups helping Sobriety Courts and government funded rehabs avoid running afoul of the 1st Amendment as always happens when non-believers are legally coerced into attending AA meetings and praying for God’s help.  We won’t “convert” most AA members, but we can help newcomers who might die without a wider, secular gateway.

Secular AA should be incorporated into the AA International Conventions.

Maybe a panel of people like myself who belong to traditional AA and to a religious denomination: What we can do to make secular AAs feel more welcome.

1. meeting on methods big and small on how to encourage others to  “come out” at AA meetings. 2. How to promote secular meetings while still observing the “attraction rather than promotion” tenet… aka Balancing traditions 5 and 11… and their religious (or lack thereof) privacy.

More support from AA (GSO).

More regional conferences so more people can attend.  Most AA members can’t afford to be off work & travel long distances.

More on ways to connect with/positively influence traditional AA; broadening the path to sobriety in AA by accepting drug addiction without prejudice; other ways to bring the program up to date, i.e. developing promotion of AA work, gathering reliable data on the program’s effectiveness in conjunction with medical/rehab professionals; redefining “anonymity” in contemporary terms.

Stand-up comedy/entertainment.

More explanation of other belief systems.

Entertainment and more free time to explore the local scene.

Demographics

Here is a demographic analysis of those who responded to the survey:

  • Sixty-seven persons who responded were from the US, 9 persons from Canada and 1 person from Great Britain; 12 persons were from Texas; 10 persons from California; 5 persons from Florida and Illinois; 3 persons from New York and Oregon; 2 persons from Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Nevada and Pennsylvania; and 1 person from Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin.

  • Thirty-two, or 40.5%, who responded were women, and 47, or 59.5%, were men.

  • The youngest person to attend who responded was 32 and the oldest was 86. Over half of those who responded were in their 60s (31 or 40.8%) or 70s (14 or 18.4%).

  • Fourteen, or 19.4%, had less than a year sober; 33, or 26.4%, had between one and 25 years sober; and 25, or 34.7%, had over 25 years sober.

Concluding Observations

  1. It is gratifying that a substantial number of responses from this survey indicate that the majority of our members are committed to continuing the evolution of our secular AA special purpose group fully within the AA General Service structure in accordance with AA’s history, traditions and concepts of service.

  2. We are heavily weighted toward older cohorts of the AA population with a dire need to engage in the younger segments of the AA population, many of whom are non-religious.

  3. Over a third of those who responded have more than 25 years of sobriety.

  4. The results of this survey and comments will provide excellent information to assist the Host Committee as they plan for the 2018 Toronto Conference.

A Personal Observation

I am most gratified by the number of comments in favor of our secular AA movement staying fully within traditional AA. As well, I am encouraged by the number of secular AA members, who attend and participate in traditional AA meetings, sharing as secular members of AA.  Further, I strongly agree with those who suggest that future conferences should have featured speakers, especially to include representatives from AA General Service Office and the Grapevine.

I am also gratified by the number of people who were as put off by the acerbic comments of the militant atheists as I was. Herein follow three of a significant number of comments expressing this sentiment:

The militant atheist approach is just as off-putting as the Bible thumpers.

Rabid anti-spirituality and anti-AA/Steps comments; I left early on Sunday – couldn’t take any more.

There seemed to be a lot of bashing AA by several people at the conference.

To my mind, such militant atheists disregard and are just as out of touch with AA’s history, traditions and concepts of service as those AA members on the other end of the spectrum, the Big Book and Bible thumpers, who insist that the only way to recover in AA is through the intervening grace of Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of their God the Father.

I am so relieved that we in secular AA are devoted to staying in the middle of the pack along with traditional AA members, maintaining a centrist position between the two extremes of irascible atheists and evangelical Christians. In this manner, we in secular AA shall adhere to basic AA essentials as observed by the following quote from the eminent AA historian Ernie Kurtz:

Whenever, wherever, one alcoholic meets another alcoholic and sees in that person first and foremost not that he or she is male or female, or black or white, or Christian, Buddhist, Jew, or Atheist, or gay or straight, or whatever, but sees… that he or she is alcoholic and that therefore both of them need each other – there will be not only an Alcoholics Anonymous, but there will be the Alcoholics Anonymous that you and I love so much and respect so deeply.

Thus, our  principles of love and tolerance, inclusiveness and acceptance of all who desire to stop drinking shall continue to guide and sustain us as secular members of Alcoholics Anonymous.


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The Austin Convention – Survey Results — 17 Comments

  1. Hello. My name is Jerry H. Let me express my gratitude and amazement at finding your website. I found Martha Cleveland and Arlys G’s book about nine years ago. I too have found it exceptional and remarkable. I’m sure I’ve shared it with a hundred people. It is my favorite book of my lifetime. I think it is the most intelligent, self and other loving, positive book I have ever read. I see here you were responsible for the second printing. Thank you so very, very much. Please let me know if there are any meetings in Portland, Oregon. I’m very glad I’ve found you. Thank you.

    • I have recently been in touch with Arlys and we are both proud and happy that a second edition of The Alternative 12 Steps was made available to those who want to work the Steps but are perhaps a tad uncomfortable with all the God stuff in the original 1939 version. And yes there are secular meetings in Portland, Oregon! They are listed on the website right here: Secular AA.

  2. Fantastic read. I loved Austin. I think the anger towards AA is justifiable and a natural process for folks to go through. I do agree that some atheists are becoming as fundamental as the more religious members. I want to be tolerant of all as hard as that is.

  3. Thank you very much for this great article, Thomas!

    I guess I thought that “we agnostics” and atheists in AA were perfect but now I understand that we are not (surprise!) and I am happy to report that I am comfortable with that.

    I am not finished growing up and it’s comforting to know that I am not alone.

  4. I feel it an abuse of board status that Thomas B. took it upon himself to add “A Personal Observation” within the survey report thus giving those observations a patina of official secularAA.com endorsement. He is welcome to add comments at the end like the rest of us.

    • I find his “personal observation” – which Thomas describes exactly as that – very interesting and relevant. It would have been silly, as the person who organized this article for posting in AA Agnostica, not to include his own reflections.

      • Silly? As we are all learning the blurring of the personal and the official can lead to problems.

      • “A Personal Observation” is quite clear. No blurring. This ain’t Trumpism, Vic.

        Let me also mention that Chapter 14 of the book A History of Agnostics in AA is devoted to problems in the organization of both of the secular conventions, Santa Monica and Austin. It is called “Progress not Perfection”.

  5. Thomas

    Thanks for compiling of the survey results, however slanted & acerbic your continued anti-atheist rants. It’s awfully odd that although over 40% of the respondents identify as atheists, those who do not seem so bothered by us – at least according to your published viewpoints. I certainly do not consider myself a militant or angry atheist. On the other hand, being in the closet about my atheism at a conference for (mostly) atheists seems utterly ridiculous. Many of the people I spoke to at the conference expressed liberation at being able to express themselves freely. The only issue I’m militant about is that suffering atheist alcoholics are forced to recant their ideas to find some kind of muddled agreement for the milk toast religiosity purported by the happy few.

    As we move forward to Toronto, I can only hope that the hippy dippy spiritual crowd you seem to represent in your article will be as open to rational, pragmatic, scientific & non-spiritual recovery topics as we were in Austin to encouraging any WAAFT member with a relevant topic the opportunity to speak or sponsor a workshop.

    Be forewarned that the so-called angry atheists will be closely watching the program and speaker choices of Toronto to make sure we are represented at the convention.

    Regards,

    John C.
    Austin board member/gaytheist

    • The “hippy dippy spiritual crowd”, John? Really? Thomas is talking about members of AA as described by Ernie Kurtz, people who “need each other” regardless of belief or lack of belief. If there is anything I hope we learned at the Austin Convention it is that the belittling and disparaging of others in AA hurts not only them but it hurts us as well. I am convinced that the Toronto conference will be a better one – without some of the God awful self-adoring atheist rants, excuse my language – as a result of the Austin Convention and this very helpful Survey.

    • The expression “militant angry atheists” seems like less of a put-down to me than “hippy dippy spiritual crowd”. The former expresses an opinion, the latter mostly a ridicule.

      Just from the fact that I am one of those strongly opinionated against any concept of a higher power because it only serves to sneak a god in the back door, I should think I would be closer to you than most. And yet I find that evangelizing for the choir, if you will excuse my expression, can get tiresome when we already all mostly agree.

      I still go to regular meetings, and there I keep ranting over the god stuff; that’s the only way it will change.

      Within agnostic and atheist meetings I don’t, I figure they don’t need convincing. Just like I can see you in a gay pride demonstration hollering, and I would support that, but if I was in your circle of gay friends and you’d be going around yelling hey Y’all, you gotta be more gay, I’d think what’s wrong with this guy?

      I did go to the afternoon with an atheist workshop, but it didn’t really do much for me. That’s of course again my personal opinion. Some atheists are simply atheists, and while we do not find much support in AA at large so far, it feels to me like we are fully embraced by the agnostic and atheist quarter. I think it is the militancy that puts people off, not the atheism.

      Just seems that we could use our time together more productively than fighting about something we all agree on.

  6. Very interesting. I like to see regional conferences sprouting up in various places as that will make it possible for more people to learn about secular AA.

    I was probably the one who complained about the business meeting. I hate business meetings of any kind, but I know they are necessary.

  7. Thomas:

    Thank you so much for this.

    On the whole, the comments were pretty much what I would have expected though some were humorous and several were mystifying. The board was aware of some of the potential problems such as the locale but there were many issues to consider and compromises were necessary. As others have noted, Toronto will improve on this.

    There were six of us from AZ in attendance and only one (not me) was invited to critique the conference. Unfortunate as, in discussion with them, they had some insightful comments.

    Still, a successful conference as indicated by the commentary. As an attendee, I am very grateful to the people who worked so hard to produce this event. Well done, guys.

  8. Thank-you very much for compiling and assessing this data. It is both interesting and helpful to hear about other’s responses to the convention. I looking forward to the convention in Toronto.

  9. I’m not a militant atheist but some of us are.

    Some have suffered abuse in and out of the rooms for our beliefs. Atheists are not popular in America. Anger is healthy and appropriate.

    Rant away, I say. No one ought to be ostracized.

    Perhaps all of us could all share our experience in our own language and back off from pontificating – that would be a good code for everyone, regardless of how apologetic or militant we are.

    Great to get this feedback. I hope the program committee take advantage of some good ideas.

    Toronto will be right downtown with lots to see, do and eat day and night. We are talking about taking charge of our own audio content so we can make many panels and talks available free. It will be guerilla in quality but more accessible.

  10. Thomas,

    Thanks for doing this. Most of it reflects my own experience. First off I want to express puzzlement that so few of the attendeed got to weigh in in this. First off, it shouldn’t only be pay-pal customers. As I’m getting old I can’t even remember whether I was in the survey, but being as that I’m not a paypal customer I probably wasn’t.

    We really have a problem with networking. Obviously we have no accessible complete email list neither for this purpose nor for anything else.

    This also means that there is very limited opportunity to get input for next convention. I realize that this involves a lot of work on the part of the people who are doing it, but that is the only way it will get to be optimal.

    I see several calls for more regional conferences. Those are at present relatively impossible. BECAUSE we have no way of getting in touch with each other. If I want to arrange something, how do I contact the other secular groups in the area? Can’t do it!

    We need to address this.

    A couple of other observations:

    It is really important that we have some options/systems for networking/socializing/hanging out/going out on the town together both the evening of arrival, throughout the event, and at the end when a few stragglers are left. We need options arranged for this.
    Workshops were often overlapping which was irritating, and in many cases they were too short. I think most would have benefitted from being an hour and a half. Make a gridwork of time, so that things don’t get scheduled overlapping.

    Now is the time to solicit suggestions for workshop topics, but how are you going to do that properly if you only have paypal accounts to go by? Well you’ll get the same people as last time, but no new blood.

    I think I heard something at some point about not including the banquet in next year’s event. I don’t think that is a good idea, becauseit will encourage some people to not participate for economic reasons, if they have to pay after they get there. I realize that all it does to include it in the whole event price is to shift the economic burden out front, where people have to make the decision of whether they can afford to go at all, but at least that way there will not be two classes of participants within the convention, those who can afford the banquet, andthose who can’t. There ought to be some way of making scholarships. As with the rest of society there are poor and wealthy people among us. Maybe the wealthy could contribute to a fund according to their inclination, but that will only happen if such a fund exists. So please consider setting one up.

    Other than that of course I was happy to be there, and learned a bunch.

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