The Only Requirement Group


The fifth AA agnostic group in Canada is now holding regular meetings in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (There are three groups in Toronto and one in Montreal.) One of its founding members shares the experience, strength and hope of this new group, aptly named The Only Requirement.

By Reed H.

When I first joined the AA program in 1999, I was willing to do whatever it takes to stay sober. That included getting on my knees and praying to a higher power.

I never had much of a conception of a higher power prior to entering the program. I never went to church growing up and I never prayed. So when my first sponsor told me to get on my knees, hold his hands and pray, it felt strange, to say the least.

For years, I took the advice of AA members and prayed at night and in the morning. Although it didn’t do any harm, I never really felt comfortable doing it. As much as I tried, I was unable to develop a concrete conception of a higher power. Yet, AA encouraged me to continue to seek.

I took that encouragement to heart and searched and searched. In the end, I finally made a discovery: there is no supernatural higher power or paranormal overlord watching and influencing my every move. And there certainly is no “better place” than the one I’m in now.

This discovery, which ironically I credit to AA and the search for a higher power, suddenly made it more and more difficult to fake my way through the prayers and God talk at AA meetings. I felt like a hypocrite.

I also started to realize how religious AA really can be, despite its insistence that it’s not. That concerned me. In particular, I started to understand how AA could turn off newcomers, especially during a meeting with repeated droppings of the G-word.

Eventually, I left my home group, which is old school when it comes to reciting prayers, and I joined an excellent 12th Step Meditation group that de-emphasizes AA’s religious aspects. At the same time, I did some Internet research to see if there were any agnostic AA groups around.

I discovered that there are many such groups including Beyond Belief in Toronto, the city where I first got sober. I made contact with group member Stan R. and he gave me some great advice on how to start a group. He also warned me about some of the inevitable resistance that would arise in Halifax if an agnostic group were to form.

With this in mind, I decided to reach out to other AA members. I put a notice in the area newsletter asking if there were other atheist or agnostic AA’s who would like to get together and chat. I quickly received responses from three members, Allan G., Judi M and Arch M., all whom were quite eager to get together.

We met for coffee and it was like four long lost friends reuniting for the first time. We all shared some of our frustrations as non-believers in AA and had a few good laughs along the way. We were relieved to find others of the same ilk and immediately began the process of starting a new group.

Within a couple of weeks, we had a time slot at a local community centre. At our first meeting on November 23, 2011, we were joined by a few more members. Word had spread.

At that meeting, we decided on a name (The Only Requirement) and a format (a “topic” meeting). The next thing we decided on were the readings. Wanting to be true to our goal of creating a secular AA meeting, we decided on reading the Agnostic Preamble and the Agnostic 12 Steps, which Stan had graciously passed along.

We all sensed that choosing these readings would ruffle some feathers, particularly in light of what happened in Toronto – we had all read the article in the Toronto Star about how the Beyond Belief and We Agnostics groups had been turfed from Intergroup because of the Agnostic Steps.

Regardless, starting in early December, we forged ahead and began to have regular meetings.

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The meeting has not been well received by members of the old guard who are protective of tradition and concerned about change. Some of those members sit on the board of Central Service, Halifax’s answer to Intergroup.

The rumours we heard about the board’s displeasure were confirmed when I asked the newsletter editor to put a notice in the February edition about the group. The first time I requested a notice, the editor was very accommodating. This time, not so much.

As it turns out, he had been instructed by the board not to put anything in the newsletter about the group. Since we read the Agnostic 12 Steps, the board felt the meeting could “affect AA as a whole,” he said, and because of this, in their eyes we are not an AA Group.

We suspected this might happen. We could perhaps drop the reading of the Agnostic 12 Steps in order to be added to the fold. But that likely won’t happen. It seems many of us are simply tired of making compromises in spite our beliefs (or lack thereof).

Meanwhile, attendance has been solid fluctuating between 10 and 15 members. More importantly, the meetings have featured great discussion, great sharing and great sobriety.

The agnostic meeting has been warmly embraced by AA members who have hidden for too long and have faked their way through countless AA meetings. Members who choose to call their higher power “God” have also attended our meeting and have made great contributions to our discussions.

If you’re ever in the Halifax area, please be sure to drop by our meeting.

14 Responses

  1. Ronald B. says:

    Thanks for the blog. Five sober guys (hopefully ladies too soon) got together here in Thunder Bay, ON, and discussed starting an agnostic group. The members from Toronto are being such a big help. Two of us have been active members for quite a while…

    That first get-together felt quite amazing. We are meeting again on Tuesday night at the detox centre. They have a great meeting room which is used by other AA & NA. groups all week long. I first heard about an agnostic AA group on CBC radio. I had just gotten in the van after my Wednesday mtg and there they were, interviewing a few members from the Toronto Agnostic and Beyond Belief members. They were sharing about how Intergroup had kicked them off their mtg list. The interviewr mentioned the story being on the front page of the paper. It was a great interview.

    When I got home I got on the CBC website and found the Agnostic groups. I wrote a little reply on the website and let it be. That weekend was our area spring assembly and I went to replace our GSR. At a break, Neil, came and asked if that was me who had put a reply. He was very eager to get together. We were both sponsoring guys who were having a very hard time with the religion in AA.

    And hopefully, the rest will be history. We are so happy about this. To us, this group means freedom at long last. So all of this to say that sometimes, seemingly terrible and hurtful things happens but as the result of that, we, in Thunder Bay, are taking off in an incredible journey.

    Thanks for your blog from Halifax. Thanks for sharing your story with us. As soon as the group is going we will let everyone know.

  2. John M says:

    I hope everyone knows that The Better Times had to post Mary Clare’s correction two issues later with an apology.

  3. Roger says:

    I agree that this does not on the surface bode well for AA. On the other hand, actions like that taken by your Central Service committee may serve a purpose in bringing this long simmering issue to the surface. We can only hope that when Bill W said that AA was “self-correcting” he was correct.

  4. Reed H. says:

    Looks like I spoke too soon.

    Central Service (i.e. Intergroup) here in Halifax has voted not to list our group in the area newsletter, website and meeting list. They voted at their monthly last night. The vote was about 12-2, with a few abstentions.

    Interestingly, during discussions on this matter, a committee member brought up the letter written by Mary Clare L. which was published in Better Times (July 2011). This was used by some to justify their vote.

    During the meeting, I pointed out that I had sent this newsletter to G.S.O. along with our meeting format, including the Agnostic 12 Steps. With respect to the letter and our meeting format, I asked whether we would be listed by G.S.O. I was told that we will be listed. Not surprisingly, this information fell on deaf ears.

    Overall, we’re not surprised by the vote. We kind of anticipated this would happen. I actually kind of feel sad that AA is deciding to paint itself into a corner in this regard. Such decisions might not bode well for the future of the organization.

  5. Larry K says:

    Good luck with those meetings. Take heart about one thing at least…objection, is the evidence of the groups necessity.

  6. Pat N. says:

    Congratulations on your group. The first 1-2 years of our group saw similar challenges. On the other hand, at the first few meetings (we meet Sunday morning), one guy had to leave early because he sang in his church’s choir, and another was a retired minister. We neither endorse atheism nor oppose it. We neither oppose religion nor endorse it. Our only purpose is to assure alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA regardless of their beliefs or lack of beliefs or rejection of beliefs.

  7. Amelia C. says:

    I’m so happy to hear about the existence of this group. I got sober and attended AA meetings in Halifax for over three years before moving to Toronto in August. I was and am so grateful for the community there and I miss my home group, my sponsor and many other people very much. But I always had a difficult time with the whole “fake it ’till you make it” thing and although I generally felt comfortable and authentic at meetings, I also felt there were a few untouchable subjects. I remember feeling so conspicuous as generally the only person not reciting the lord’s prayer that closed nearly every meeting I attended in Halifax. Discovering the agnostic group in Toronto has been great for me. I feel comfortable, open and involved in a way that feels easier and more honest.

    I’m looking forward to attending your meeting next time I visit Halifax, and I hope things go smoothly for you. I’m glad to hear you’ll be included in the newsletter for now. I truly believe your group’s existence will save lives, as long as people can find out about it. If I had known about an agnostic group in Halifax – or about one anywhere, for that matter – the idea of approaching AA for help would not have seemed quite so terrifying and I would likely have gotten to my first meeting much sooner than I did.

  8. Reed H. says:

    Thank you to everyone for the kind words. Just wanted to provide a quick update. I attended our area’s Central Service (i.e. Intergroup) meeting tonight. The topic of our meeting was brought up by the newsletter editor who wanted clarity on whether The Only Requirement Group should be included in the area newsletter and meeting list. There was some very spirited discussion, some in favour of including the group, some opposed. A motion was tabled to prevent the group from being included. The motion was voted down by a small majority. Members of the Central Service committee will now bring the matter to their groups for discussion and input. A follow up motion will likely tabled at the next Central Service meeting. I’ll keep you posted on the results.

  9. Paul H says:

    Congratulations on the new meeting. A couple of my friends and I have been talking for over 4 and one-half years of starting an agnostics meeting in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Maybe we will actually do it, although I have never hesitated in saying in meetings in southern Delaware ( or elsewhere ) that I am an atheist but believe I got help in staying sober by going to meetings in the early years. Of course I wanted to stay away from drinking, which is essential with or without AA. I haven’t had a drink in over 29 and a half years and – except for perhaps a year to two years before I retired in June 2007 when I attended AA meeting only sporadically – I have always gone to many meetings each week.

  10. John M. says:

    All the best on your new group, Reed. My wife has already been talking with a friend who is bit north of you and who now knows where to find you. Your group would be the only kind of group she would attend so thanks for being there.

    And a hearty congratulations to Billy F. from Garnerville, NY, who recently wrote in a reply to one of the other posts: I just celebrated 25 “secular” years of sobriety and I finally figured out this one thing: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience strength and hope with each other so they can solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.” That’s it.

  11. Robin R. says:

    Congrats on the forming of your new group. I too got sober through regular AA in 2000, but am finding it increasingly hard to conform to the religious format of the groups in my area. I would like to get in contact with similarly minded individuals in the Brantford/Cambridge Ontario area. If interested you can contact through this site.

  12. Andy Mc says:

    Congratulations on the founding of your group. I am hopeful that somewhere in the near future I may become part of a movement to organize a freethought meeting in my home town of London, On. You are inspirational to those of us that do not yet have a meeting that accommodates the skeptic in us.

  13. Bob K. says:

    I was delighted to hear of this expansion into Halifax by Reed and his intrepid fellows. As is Reed, I am cognizant (and grateful) for the fact that I have been able to achieve and maintain sobriety through ‘regular’ AA, but I entirely relate to the discomfort of squeezing a round peg into a square hole. Some days, I am lacking in the requisite grease.

    It is particularly disconcerting that while the real world becomes increasingly secular, AA, from my perspective, is more religious and significantly less accommodating than in the 1990′s. Growing movements of Big Book fundamentalism are essentially telling newcomers to “get with God or get gone.” The belligerent adherence to Lord’s Prayer use in AA is astonishing. For many intelligent people, this very Christian ritual completely contradicts all of the “spiritual NOT religious” protestations.

    It is so encouraging that we are able to take these lemons and form a refreshing lemonade. Our fellowship within the fellowship is outstandindly special, and we are joined in pursuing a noble purpose. Good luck.

  14. Eric T. says:

    I can certainly identify with this experience! It’s great to hear that yet another group of alcoholics are practicing the HOW of sobriety – honestly, openly, and willingly facing an unpopular perspective together. I hope that someday we will all see that there is no “us” and “them” in this. We are simply a fellowship of people coming together for the purpose of sobriety, and even that is but one interpretation. I am inspired by your efforts. Thank you Only Requirement Group!

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