We Are Not Saints

My name is Roger and I am an alcoholic.

It was snowing on Friday evening, the last day of November, in downtown Toronto. I didn’t know that until I hauled my bicycle out of the porch and onto the driveway.

It made me a bit nervous. I would have to ride almost three kilometres (two miles, for those south of the border). It didn’t matter though; it was an important meeting and I very much wanted to be a part of it.

It was after 7 p.m. and dark. I attached lights to the front and back of the bike, a flashing red one on the rear fender. Snow flakes slapped against my face as I began to peddle my way. There weren’t many people on the streets as I wheeled the bike past Danforth Avenue, through Monarch Park, and under the railroad tracks onto Gerrard Street. When I got to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Hiawatha Road I could see Chuck waiting at the door.

“Hi Chuck,” I said.

“Hi Roger. The door locks automatically so we need someone to keep it open for others.”

“I’ll be the greeter then,” I said. “Am I the first?”

“Yep,” he said.

The first to arrive after me were Joe and Lisa. Then Denis. The next pair were Brian and Naomi.

Joe brought me a coffee. Starbucks! We chatted. Both Joe and I are on the verge of publishing books on recovery from alcoholism and addiction and we are, well, pretty excited.

Chuck was lugging chairs from the second floor down into the basement. He had taped a sign to the top of the stairwell:

We Are Not Saints
AA Meeting

Next to arrive were Kevin, then Ed, Eric, another Joe, Greg, Jackie, Larry, Julie and Frank.

Joe replaced me as greeter (Larry would take over later) and I went into the church basement to the meeting room. It was small. And it looked like a basement. There was a table with a pew against the wall and then the chairs that Chuck, and now Eric, were lugging down from upstairs. Some people were already sitting in a circle around the table, with a couple of rows on one side. I grabbed a spot on the pew. I hadn’t sat on one of those since I was a child. I felt,  well, at home. With friends and safe, is how I felt.

More people arrived: Frank, Bob, and Duncan. The last three were Wayne, Dianne and John.

It was 8 p.m. and Chuck started the meeting, on time. “Good evening,” he said. “I want to welcome you to the first meeting of ‘We Are Not Saints,’ an agnostic AA group in Toronto.”

I could feel the pulse of energy in the room. I took another look around the table. Twenty-one people in all: sixteen men and five women. Mid-twenties to mid-sixties. There was a flush of pride on people’s faces, a glow in the eyes, a smile on lips. Those present were participating, after all, in a noteworthy event in AA.

As the meeting started, the Minister of the Congregation, Wayne Walder, informally leaned into the room and welcomed those present, a courtesy appreciated by all.

Chuck read the Agnostic AA Preamble:

AA agnostic meetings endeavour to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. In keeping with AA tradition, we do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.

As is customary at meetings, Lisa then read “What is AA?”

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self supporting through our own contributions. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

The respect for privacy at AA meetings, of course, does not allow me to say much more, nor would I wish to. Suffice it to say that the first meeting of the agnostic AA group “We Are Not Saints” was an open meeting and three topics were suggested and discussed, in a lively and engaged fashion, by those present.

The meeting ended, as agnostic meetings invariably do, with the responsibility declaration. The adoption of this declaration at AA’s 30th anniversary convention in Toronto in 1965 was meant in large part to make AA more inclusive of agnostics and atheists. Bill W, the co-founder of AA, led the way as about 10,000 delegates from 21 different countries held hands and recited it then at Maple Leaf Gardens. Now, on November 30, 2012, almost fifty years later, on a Friday evening in a Unitarian Universalist church basement on Hiawatha Road in downtown Toronto, twenty-one atheists, agnostics and freethinkers held hands and said the declaration together, out loud, reciting it with pride and conviction on that memorable and special occasion: “I am responsible. When anyone anywhere reaches out for help I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that I am responsible.”

As is the case in AA, there was much fellowship after the meeting.

I had a lovely discussion with Duncan, a visitor from a small town in rural Ontario. How did he even hear about the meeting? Turns out Duncan was contemplating starting an agnostic group in his community, and looking for advice and information.

I chatted at some length with Julie. She had once talked at a Beyond Belief meeting of a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program she had taken at CAMH and I wanted to know more about it. And my friend, Bob! In the summer (long forgotten now!) he had taught me how to play golf. Bob had come all the way from Whitby in order to show his support to the folks in the room. And I chatted with Eric who had walked by an “old haunt” from his drinking days on his way to the meeting. How his life had changed in AA! And I chatted some more with Joe, first about Bill W, the co-founder of AA, and then about e-readers, like the Kindle, Nook and Kobo.

Oh the fellowship! How I love the fellowship of AA!

Eventually, I made my way back outdoors. A lot of snow had fallen during the meeting. The streets were white. “Winter is here,” I thought. I didn’t much care though. As I pedaled home, mostly uphill on the way back, there was a celebratory spark in my soul as I contemplated the fact that there were now five agnostic AA groups in the Toronto area. And I was so, so very happy at the thought of next Friday evening’s meeting of “We Are Not Saints.”

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23 Responses

  1. Andy Mc says:

    Beautiful piece Roger, can’t wait till I can make it to my first dedicated AA&F AA meeting, until then I’ll suffer……but not in silence:-)
    Andy Mc

  2. Gord A says:

    Great story Roger. Looks like we are gathering momentum.

    Nelson BC has a healthy AA community. We have 14 meetings a week in our dedicated clubroom, the Cellar, as well as various sized meetings in nearby towns. Attendance varies from half a dozen at the new 7 AM Attitude Adjustment meetings (my home group) to often well over 30 at lunch time and in the evenings.

    I’m thinking its time to float the idea of an Agnostic group. Nelson is a town of 10,000, with a trading population of 60,000. The built in anonymity of a city is absent here. It feels like going out on a bit of a dangerous limb to suggest the concept of an agnostic group. However, I’ll talk with my sponsor, and then likely enlist the opinions of the District Committee and the (non-AA) Cellar Committee. I’m expecting a lively discussion at both, and will keep you posted on our progress.

  3. John M. says:

    Thanks for this Roger. It was a really cozy night and your blog captures it nicely. Thanks to the folks like Chuck and Eric for getting We Are Not Saints up and running.

  4. John K says:

    That’s wonderful, an option: there’s another game in town! Actually five!

    I look forward to both authors when their books hit the press. I enjoy paper books as I’m old fashioned. Please guys don’t just have those E-books.

    I look forward to reading the recovery stories of people that drive cars and not just the horse and buggy bible-toting oxford faith healers versions, lol. Maybe there will be some intellectual content and heaven forbid, SCIENCE.

    Have a good week.

  5. Gerry S. says:

    Thank you for this, Roger. The possibility of non-sectarian meetings is a dream come true for me. Thirty months into my sobriety, I am at that point, in my “terrible twos,” where I can think clearly enough to know I have serious doubts (about my local meetings – not that I am an alcoholic) but feel trapped in all the churchy atmospheres I dwell in five days per week. On principle alone, I have decided to skip meetings that are held at non-inclusive or discriminating venues. Those would be, of course, certain churches and religious organizations, where I would normally be unwelcome as a parishioner or employee, but tolerated only as a guest. It’s difficult to “belong” when I feel just tolerated. I hope, with the help of your blog and site, that I will find Agnostic/Freethinker meetings in my home town. I will have to travel, though. Might be worth the ride! Thanks again! Gerry S.

  6. Tim C says:

    Good luck to We Are Not Saints.

    For heritage sake, why not add the complete date of that first meeting?

    For the uninformed like me, why not tell readers exactly where the “Agnostic AA Preamble” originated?

    Again good luck. Tim C Midtown Secularists in AA, Houston.

    • Dave H. says:

      My name is Dave and I live in Houston, SE side. Tim, can you tell me about your Midtown Secularists meeting schedule and address?

      Good luck to We Are Not Saints.

  7. Larry K says:

    It was a fantastic meeting! What I was most impressed by was the strong support from all sides of the city. It was the first greasy night for travelling but recovering drunks of all descriptions were there to share their experience strength and hope with each other in open and honest ways.

    That isn’t possible in rooms filled with coded religious speak. Our lives are filled with trials and tribulations… doubts and dilemmas. It is comforting to share and listen to men and women who provide acceptance and understanding where all are welcome. It felt like the AA I got sober in years ago… before the monkeys took over the zoo.

  8. bob k says:

    Friday was indeed a special night. There was a vibe, a palpable cameraderie, and a sense of being present at an event of significance. In a tribute to the 70s and to Joe C.’s “do,” I’d call it “mojo,” and it was working.

    At some point in the not so distant future, AA archivists will speculate on who was present at these historical first meetings – “Beyond Belief,” “We Are Not Saints,” and others that so certainly, are soon to come.

    My one regret is, that considering the name of the new group, “We Are Not Saints,” I may have been there under false pretenses. There was that recent ‘incident’ at Whitby Psychiatric where in a desperate but ultimately futile effort to avoid Electroshock Therapy, I miraculously managed to levitate from the third floor to the first… My sprained ankle – stigmata!

  9. Marnin M says:

    It would be wonderful to be in the company of so many AA nonbelievers.

    If I attempted to start a “We Are Not Saints” group there would be very few.

    So far finding like minded AAers has elude me. The few I’ve met have dropped out of AA, disappeared, or just recently committed suicide (for medical reasons).

    I’ll keep looking.

    • Eric T says:

      Hi Marnin, I hope you remember that you are not alone while you keep looking. We may have miles between us, but we are still connected through our common experience, strength and hope. Best wishes to you.

    • Doris A. says:

      I too have had poor luck over the years finding like minded non-believers. This surprised me as I have lived on the west coast for decades and now live in a liberal leaning university town in Illinois. So my plan is to travel to Indy and to Chicago every so often to create a network with like minded folks. I love this web-site, and have bought and am reading several books it has referenced. First time in years I eagerly look forward to “daily reflection” and other readings. I also have a sponsor, who despite having a strong faith in god, is delighted to work with me on secular based step work.

  10. Karen B says:

    Thanks Roger. It’s so heartening to hear about agnostic or free-thinking groups for alcoholics taking off! The news was timely, as this is a particularly crappy time of year for me (and probably a lot of others too).
    Karen B

  11. Pamela L. says:

    I have been hoping to start a meeting here in the Inland Empire of Southern California. If anyone lives around Chino and is interested, please let me know. Just need two or three and there are plenty of places to “gather”.

  12. Pamela L. says:

    I went to a regular meeting of AA last night. I was not exactly loving life and there were no close options for an agnostic meeting. I went outside of my regular groups so I could say my truth and leave it there. My regular groups don’t understand my frustrations and get offended. Although I TRY NOT to offend them. I like my friends in regular AA… I just resent reciting the dogma at the meetings. These people also were offended but I do not need to go back to that area. All I had to say was I was an Agnostic Alcoholic and if there were any newcomers who were Athiest or Agnostic they too could stay sober and have hope because I had for 28 years. I also mentioned they could choose what they wanted to participate in and what they didn’t, such as the Lord’s Prayer. All of it is suggested. There was two newcomers that spoke to me afterward and told me they felt the same way about “finding” a HP. They seemed happy to have met me and I was happy to have shared at the end of it all.

  13. bob k says:

    Last night was Meeting # 3 for “We Are Not Saints”. Attendance was down a bit – it was, after all, a Friday night within two weeks of Christmas. It was good to see a couple of new faces, and I think we’ll see them again!

    The meeting was PHENOMENAL, one of the best AA meetings I’ve EVER attended – and I’ve been to a bunch. The first two topics “spiritual experience” and “the Steps” brought quite a diversity of understanding and practice. It was evident that all in the room had given thoughtful consideration to the issues. Quite likely the least “cliche-laden” meeting that I can remember.

    Topic # 3 “Is Roger C the MOST humble person you’ve ever met?” returned us to absolute unanimity.

    • Roger says:

      Thanks for your comment, Dr. Bob. It’s always a pleasant surprise to hear about an intellectually stimulating meeting, in spite of my absence. Roger C.

  14. Mona B. says:

    I’m sponsoring a young woman who had some sobriety time (about 18 months) in AA. She went back out because of the “God” thing. I personally believe in a HP of my own understanding and it took me many years to find something that I could “give my life and my will over” to. The key was to seek. All this to say that I’m so happy to have found this site. It is exactly what my sponsee might respond to.

  15. life-j says:

    Roger, and all, congratulations.

    Our freethinkers meeting here in Laytonville, California is now past the three month mark. Attendance is good for a middle of nowhere meeting, drawing people from 50 miles away, and even on Thanksgiving we were two people, enough to make a meeting. Intergroup meeting tomorrow, where I will probably have to concede that the god people have pulled off a heist of Intergroup.

  16. Annalia says:

    I am hoping to start a “Free Thinkers”, or “A & A AA” meeting in Chandler, AZ (part of the Phoenix area). Every time I read about a new one or the celebration of an old one, I am more inspired. My walking ability has been the stumbling block, but I just got a motorized scooter, and will pursue it further as soon as I learn how to take it apart, so I can get it in the car.

    • Elly says:

      Is there a free thinkers meeting in Chandler? My husband and I are having a hard time with the “God” aspect of AA.

  17. John F. says:

    Two years ago, near Akron Ohio, we started an AA meeting called We Are Not Saints. It is very similar to the one discussed in this article. We felt Akron area meetings had become very religious and more meetings for skeptics to be free of religious dogma was necessary. We felt this was especially important for the new person. None of us come to AA to be saved by Jesus, but some local groups have that strong religious bias. Meetings often open with prayer requests. Names are shouted out – “Pray for my friend to has a sleep disorder”, etc. They end with the Lord’s Prayer supersized: we all must form a circle, hold hands and answer the question “Who keeps us sober?” or “Who woke us up this morning?”, then say the Christian prayer. It’s like committing to Christ. Religious dogma – renamed spirituality – often permeates the discussions. People talk as if they are some god’s chief of staff- 99% of the time the chief being Jesus. He is openly mentioned by some as “their lord and savior”.

    There appears to be no concern about the new person. At our We Are Not Saints meeting – which meets Sunday mornings of course – we added the following counter-weight to spirituality. On the last Sunday of the month we discuss Steps 2 & 3, the goal being to share the varied spiritual paths to sobriety in AA. We have believers and non-believers at the meeting, so the discussion usually includes god beliefs, atheism, and many concepts in between. Respect is maintained for each speaker’s version of a higher power in their life. The end result is a clarity on the nebulous meaning of spirituality. Don’t drink and go to meetings and you will figure something out that works for you!

    We end with the Responsibility Pledge. I am surprised I have never heard any criticism of us for not using the Lord’s Prayer or for our skeptics approach to spirituality. I am an out of the closet atheist and try and show it is my path when speaking at meetings. Again, no criticisms from members. All of this has made me believe we are helping believers as well as skeptics. Many believers are also worried about the religious bent of AA in our area. And while they may not agree with my personal beliefs, they are glad there is a push on to combat the weakening of AA with overt Christianity. It helps them talk to the new person without having to convince him/her AA really isn’t religious, that it’s all about one alcoholic helping another through the giving of time and empathy. So speak out skeptics. You are stronger than you know!

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