The purpose of the Pacific Region AA Service Assembly (PRAASA) is to develop a greater unity among the AA members, groups and Areas of the Pacific Region (Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington), to encourage the exchange of ideas and experiences; and to provide an opportunity for members to discuss pertinent aspects of AA.

By Thomas B.

I was privileged to attend the 2015 gathering of alcoholics at PRAASA, the Pacific Region Alcoholics Anonymous Service Assembly, in Layton, Utah, this past March 6th, 7th and 8th. It was the 48th PRAASA gathering of AA members, Area trusted servants, delegates, and GSO staff, as well as a good number of former delegates and trustees.  All together there were some 1200 alcoholics in attendance to discuss topics and issues that will be discussed at the 2015 General Service Conference and which challenge AA’s continued growth and its ability to help suffering alcoholics anywhere, anytime.

When PRAASA first began, I was somewhat skeptical and ambivalent, but by the end of the weekend, I was reaffirmed that the service structure of AA — despite how ponderous and complicated it may be — remains vibrantly viable, even for we agnostics and atheists who differ so radically from the ideology of mainstream North American AA that is predominantly Christian.

The weekend was full of numerous panels, presentations, roundtables and discussion forums that included comments from the floor. Herein follows a summary of pertinent issues and challenges which were discussed throughout the weekend:

  • There is a range of differing opinions regarding how our primary purpose in AA to help alcoholics may conflict with our desire to be all inclusive: Can we openly extend the hand of AA to include all who have a desire to stop drinking but who may also have other debilitating conditions, such as other addictions or mental health issues? A number of panel members and several poignant comments from the floor discussed the need to better accommodate these people.
  • Many are concerned about safety issues in the rooms of AA, not only protecting ourselves from sexual predators, but also from the well-intentioned but perhaps faulty advice of sponsors, none of whom are licensed nor necessarily knowledgeable about medical matters, who frequently dispense their opinions regarding, for example, the use of medications.
  • There’s a growing awareness of the need to integrate Intergroup and Central Offices into the formal AA service structure, giving them both a voice and a vote at the District and Area levels of service.
  • There is a strong push for AA to fully embrace 21st Century digital technologies for communication and information, but with hyper-alertness regarding security and anonymity concerns.
  • It was reiterated by several panelists that all AA literature – not just the Big Book – as well as non-conference-approved literature, are vital resources for enhanced recovery.
  • There is considerable awareness that the demographics of AA inside our meeting rooms do not match the demographics outside of AA, especially regarding people of color, age, gender and non-traditional spiritual beliefs.
  • It was noted that not only is it inappropriate to end meetings with the Lord’s Prayer, but it is also very much a violation of our traditions to have a Bible prominently displayed at meetings, as is the custom throughout the south.
  • There was strong advocacy on behalf of the transgendered – one of the most moving moments was when Sammy, a person undergoing a lengthy and complicated sex change process, spoke poignantly at the microphone about the challenges s/he faces at some meetings during the transitory period of sex change. When s/he finished, s/he received a standing ovation from the some 1200 persons in attendance.

Last, but certainly not least, there was strong support to include agnostic, atheistic and freethinking members fully within AA.

Ashley M. from Idaho gave a heartfelt talk in a panel on the topic “Does our Fellowship make agnostics, Buddhists, spiritualists, etc. feel welcome in our recovery meetings?” Not only did she cite relevant AA literature, but she presented it in the most effective manner, utilizing AA’s language of the heart. She allowed her compassion to express itself in an overflowing of tears. The text of her moving talk can be read here: Presentation by Ashley M.  Keep in mind when you read it that you only get one layer of its depth and effectiveness. About two-thirds way through she talks about what happened to a woman, Amy, who came out as an atheist after 18 years in her small town home group. Ashley breaks down in tears of compassion in telling this story. It was powerful to witness in person.

Perhaps the panel I most enjoyed with was on Sunday morning, consisting of ten past trustees of AA’s General Service Board. Herein follow some excerpts from five of the former trustees:

Roberta from Nevada:

Our estimate of membership in AA each year shows lack of growth in the Fellowship. When I think of this limited growth the first thing that comes to mind is the groups of alcoholics that we exclude because they have difficulty identifying through our practices and individual group interpretation of the steps and traditions. If I had a magic wand I would assure that we might attract those who may be of a different spiritual persuasion. I refer specifically to atheists, agnostics and other nonbelievers. I do not think that our recent spirituality pamphlet does what we set out to do in the beginning… Somewhere along the line in the development of the pamphlet we lost the focus.

Madeline from Oregon:

I want to point out something — every single woman on this stage has on pants. Boo yah people, it’s 2015! We’re not being clubbed in the head and dragged into caves by our hair. We get to vote and shit and run the office (a reference to Phyllis H. retiring General Manager of GSO, who attended PRAASA). I truly want AA to be true to its promise of being inclusive… But are we as inclusive as we could be? I love the article by Bill, “Our Critics Can Be Our Benefactors” because when people call us cultish and religious, there is truth to that. Now AA isn’t – our principles are very clear – but our membership out of egocentrism and fear bring these into our meetings and call it autonomy, throwing the other traditions under the bus. I see people telling us what to say, what to read, what to dress, what ink they have to use in our Big Book, all kinds of things under the guise of sponsorship and group autonomy, usually with the statement “because we’ve always done it that way”. That’s not sponsorship; that’s spiritual abuse… “But here we must remember that AA Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership…” My grandfather came to this country, changed his name, changed his religion to escape religious persecution. Many of those who didn’t escape died in the holocaust. I don’t want to see a spiritual holocaust in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.


I don’t have any wisdom, all I have is some experience.

(This echoes a theme of the speech – experience trumps explanation – that the Rev. Ward Ewing gave at our November conference in Santa Monica.) Jim then quoted at length the 1986 speech by former General Manager of AA, Bob P., regarding his concern then about the growing rigidity in AA. He indicated rigidity is still evident in AA today, saying,

I was really happy to hear Roberta talk about the spiritual pamphlet, and I too have read it and thought that it was a great pamphlet, but not exactly what I had in mind… I’m one of those agnostics – maybe we’re not a minority, maybe more of us need to come out of the closet — who has found a spiritual way of life in AA. I hope you don’t pin me down as to who my god is, because not only do I not know, but I probably can’t tell you, but I do know that I have had a spiritual experience sufficient to keep me sober.

Julian C. from Nevada:

Unfortunately, the locality where I entered AA focused more on the religious aspects of AA than on the spiritual aspects and my acceptance of their higher power was most difficult and this continued for a good number of years, until I heard speakers and other members sharing about it, talking in terms of a power greater than themselves, about their AA group and they’re involvement in it, about a group of drunks, good orderly direction, and a gift of desperation. The time soon came when the last of these three terms became extremely important to me. These people I heard talking had something I wanted… And I was assisted by a gentleman by the name of Jim B. You’ve heard me talk about him a time or two. He’s one of my favorites, because he is the one who is credited with being the person most responsible for the phrase, “God as we understood him” in Step 3 and Step 11.


I love the Third Tradition. It says, you know, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, it doesn’t even says whose desire it is. It certainly wasn’t mine at the time. So you can be pushed in and it will work. Not for everybody, but it does work. That’s all I have done, and how do you get 44, 45 years of sobriety, or over 50 like George? You don’t drink, and you don’t die. I like to keep things simple. We were talking about it last night, if you want to lose weight, eat less, move more. That’s what it is. And so, I don’t drink one day at a time, and I try to keep my side of the street clean, and I try to pass on what I have learned. And, that’s about as simple as I can make it. Thanks.

One of the pithiest statements I heard at PRAASA was this: It takes two years for AA to make a cup of instant coffee!~!~!  I find this especially soothing, since it’s somewhat quelled my outrage about the Grapevine Board rejecting our request for the General Service Conference to consider publishing a book for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers, consisting of the some 40 articles previously published by the Grapevine since 1962. It offers me the perspective that we can choose to keep requesting it until it comes to pass. Perhaps, unlike the “Spirituality” pamphlet, we’ll make some progress and publish it within 15 to 20 years. There is certainly support for it among the lower rungs of our inverted triangle of service structure.

In summary, I experienced a renewed admiration and respect for the collective wisdom of our Fellowship at PRAASA. As a result, I am re-energized to continue to be active in AA General Service, so as to enhance our agnostic, atheist and freethinking voice within the AA Fellowship, and I urge others to join me. Thus, we continue the cherished legacy of Jim Burwell, who was so instrumental in AA’s early history to widen the doors of AA for all alcoholics.


29 Responses

  1. Ed S. says:

    Regarding “Letter from the Group,” I believe our best bet is to ask for a Grapevine Book of articles previously published in the Grapevine written by atheists and agnostics.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Yes, Ed, Roger C. and AA Agnostica have already requested that such a book be published by the GV, as detailed here in this article No Grapevine Book for Atheists in AA published on February 18, 2015. Rest assured, many of us will continue to request that this Grapevine book be published until it is, hopefully sooner than later.

      Tomorrow, as GSR of the Portland, Oregon Beyond Belief group, I am sending a similar letter to the Delegate of Oregon Area 58. You might do the same to the Delegate of your Area.

      • John R. says:

        I agree that a book would be great, but the purpose of a pamphlet is to make a brief and inclusive statement that all are welcome and without the expectation that they must believe any particular ideology, philosophy, or religion (even if couched as “spiritual not religous”) in order to find recovery in AA.
        Most of the newcomers with whom I am familiar would be less likely to buy and read yet another book than simply read a pamphlet. This might also be an important read for the more religious among us).

        I’d love to see both happen, but my focus is mostly on the still sick and suffering alkie. I was also very encouraged by the PRAASA gathering and appreciate the report, Thomas!

  2. John L. says:

    Thanks,Thomas,for your fine report. Things seem to be looking up. The statements by the five former trustees were amazingly supportive of us freethinkers in AA. Secular AA is an idea whose time has come — did come, a long time ago.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Indeed, John L., and I am forever grateful that I found recovery in New York City, where one of my early meetings was the Perry Street Workshop, along with the Midnight Meeting, where secular recovery thrived and still does today.

  3. Chris G. says:

    Thanks for the excellent reporting, Thomas. I find this very encouraging.

    You know, what the official literature says (re: Ashley’s piece) and how groups actually behave can be startlingly different. While Chapter 4 (and other bits) are pretty bad, we can’t really kick about the literature… it’s the group behaviour that really gets under our skin and turns away many who come to try AA. How did so many groups get that way? I have one example that gives me a hint.

    I went to a meeting yesterday for a friend who was celebrating his 5th anniversary. Old, old group. The speaker was completely incoherent, and a Back To Basics nut. He sprayed spit, vituperation, God and personal belief nonsense in equal parts for over an hour. He was dis-coordinated, confusing, mis-informed and generally ghastly. And about 40 people just sat there and took it. Without a blink.

    After the meeting an acquaintance came up to me and made some comment about “what a great message” the guy had. So I asked what the message was. “Well, you know, he was so spiritual…” No, I didn’t know – I poked and prodded and asked for some detail about this great message. Finally the guy got quite angry with me and stomped off, muttering “shit disturber”, that I should “have faith”, or some such. Oh well.

    Most of the people in that room: over 50, and mostly with years and years of AA under their belts. Conditioned, comfortable, used to it. If not rigid, at least glued to the chairs.

    Personally, I think that meeting is hopeless, and I agree with whoever said it above: the members will just have to die off to fix it. This is societal old age in action. I get to say that: I’m 70.

    On the other side of town, Wednesday mornings, I help lead a small group in a meditation meeting; we read Beyond Belief, and close with the Responsibility Pledge. We do say the Serenity Prayer – that’s it for prayer. It’s a pretty new meeting, not officially agnostic, but it has more in common with my Shambhala group than that speaker meeting.

    Anybody who comes is a member for the day. Every meeting, we talk about the meeting, looking for ideas, little things, to make it better as an AA meeting. Mostly we have newer, younger people who quite like this. Occasionally an old-timer shows up, and they usually don’t come back. Maybe it’s the nature-sounds and the candle that puts them off (those are the latest experiments by group conscience).

    In spite of being a morning mid-week meeting in a small town, it’s growing slowly, and those who come mostly love it, and share real, honest, current sobriety issues. Mostly without god, sometimes with – up to each person. It’s keeping me in AA, and it’s about all that is, now.

    So based on this highly scientific sample of two meetings, I say: let the old school meetings die off if they will not change, but let us younger folks start new meetings, avoid the unfortunate history, try new things, celebrate today’s culture in AA, and get a new generation going.

    We’ve seen about 200 new agnostic groups start up while GSO was making that cup of instant coffee… it really is up to us, you know, and nobody else.

    • Johnny says:

      I hope for the day to come soon that AA agnostic meetings come to my town there are none as of today!

      • Thomas B. says:

        Maybe soon, johnny. Have you queried Roger about starting a meeting? All you need is one other person and recently he related about an AA member in Prescott, AZ who just put up a webpage and waits for others to be attracted to his meeting.

        I’m ever so grateful that you, like my wife and I, had AA Agnostica to comfort and sustain us when we moved to a right wing inundated small town on the southern coast of Oregon several years ago until we could move up closer to Portland.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Thanks, Christopher. I really think evolution will take care of the majority of us aging baby-boomers as we die off, who unlike our heritage seem to be so mired in maintaining an ancient status quo in AA, proselytized by the “Back to Basics” folk, which truly if you read the literature and history of AA beyond the first 164 pages of the BB never was. Yes, I believe that either AA will change or go the way of the dodo bird.

      This weekend was the annual North Coast Roundup in my hometown of Seaside, Oregon which every April brings some 1,000 people from all over the Pacific Northwest to attend this non-AA event. You can tell by the left-hand column sub-headline, “This is God’s Party…” what the prevailing sentiment is. I avoided going to my regular meetings in Seaside this weekend because they are inundated with folks, who exhort that they have a sponsor who taught them how to read the Big Book and work the steps, who has a sponsor who taught them to read the Big Book and work the stops, who begat a sponsor etc. etc. etc.

      It’s definitely not my party and I’ll not go if I don’t want to… 😉

    • Duncan says:

      Hi Chris, I am also 70 and have been sober some 37 years so I have been young and older in AA. I really have no idea how meetings in the USA run but here in the UK there is no way that a speaker could speak for OVER AN HOUR, even at a speakers meeting. Maybe it could happen in Scotland where meetings tend to be speakers meetings but I doubt he’d be asked again. In England I doubt if that has ever happened. Even the usually very polite English would have shut him up. (I am Scottish but live in England and got sober here.) The other meeting you mentioned is just about par for a meeting in England but without the candles, although there are some speakers meetings.

      So I don’t think a change in age groups does it at all. What I have noticed in UK is that meetings are becoming more and more God like which did not happen in my early days. The emphasis was on getting sober and people could believe what they liked.

  4. Eric T says:

    I really enjoyed reading about this, thanks very much Thomas!

  5. boyd p. says:

    I’m with you Thomas, optimistic in spite of repeated bad news. The April Atlantic Magazine piece failed to quantify success of AA, therapy, drugs, etc. And the repeated hyperbolic generalities followed, which were equally unconvincing. However small our successes they are real and worth building upon.

    A new meditation meeting has begun in our District with an eleventh step focus. I was asked to read an opening piece from page 98 of the 12 and 12. I quietly dropped the two references to God. The text makes perfect sense! Don’t think anyone noticed until after the meeting when I pointed it out. “Now and then we may be granted a glimpse of that ultimate reality. Period. I find my ultimate reality in the great outdoors, in the natural world, the real world. However much we humans mess with it, there is still inspiration and direction to be found in the natural order of things. Humility and gratitude overwhelm, if we can find quiet moments, glimpses of seasonal movements. We are one with it.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Thanks Boyd . . .

      One of the gifts of my recovery in AA is that slowly I have been able to appreciate the reality that the glass is always half full, instead of my natural disposition to view it as half empty. I strive, even through gritted teeth at times, to be grateful for the beneficence I experience in my life rather than focus on how awful it is. Certainly not perfect, but with each passing day of recovery I am more enabled to appreciate the gifts and be distracted from the potholes — Yes, being outdoors in nature through the shifting hours of the day or the shifting seasons of the year brings much awareness and appreciation of being here now . . .

  6. Tommy H says:

    Well done, Thomas.

  7. Joe C. says:

    Awesome Tom,

    I love it. CERAASA was happy to get a few hundred (Canadian Eastern Regional) out. While more isn’t better, it’s nice to see the support for service in the NW.

    The Ashley M presentation was remarkable wasn’t it. I was struck by the contrast of how arrogant and mean-spirited one old-timer was towards Amy who came out as an atheist vs. another story where after speaking honestly about not believing in Yahweh, the group changed it’s usual tradition of closing with the Lord’s Prayer and instead, everyone sung, “Zippity do-da, zippity day…” Honestly, it made me cry. That’s so empathetic and I hope it inspires others.

    Any time I hear talk of Bob P’s 1986 talk about rigidity-creep in AA, I feel like we’re going to be okay. We are so superstitious about so many things in AA. It’s not just quaint supernatural worldviews but we have some other weird ideas, too. Like everyone needs to keep going to meetings. Some people get what they need and the get on with their lives; that’s hardly an AA failure. Is fear the best motivator? Sure, some relapses start with declining meeting attendance, but some exceptional lives start with declining meeting attendance, too. I hear people say that online meeting aren’t a replacement for f2f meetings. These statements are baseless, superstition. Maybe f2f meetings are better; I don’t know. But we should never be afraid of trying new things.

    GSO is already on damage-control with Atlanta coming up with a Box 4-5-9 article about anonymity, smartphones and social media. This issue will be a bigger generational divide than Rock ‘n’ Roll was 60 years ago. To kids, facebook isn’t “at the public level.” it’s talking to their friends. While, to the silent generation and baby Boomers, a selfie with friends at an AA gathering on Twitter is dis-respecting AA Tradition. I think the next generation will have to set their own standards. The Traditions were written before there were TVs in everyone’s home. Today, what’s a TV?

    Anyway, Thomas, you sure covered some important issues that are on my mind and I see that the zeitgeist of AA seems willing to preserve the past AS WELL AS prepare for the future.

    Great post and insightful commentary, everyone.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Yes, Joe, I was literally blown away, as we elder folk used to say back in our day.

      We all know that AA will have to change to be relevant at all to the younger generations of alcoholic/addicts whose iPhones are as natural to them as wall phones were to us. I believe that membership in AA may continue to decline precipitously until those of us of the baby-boomer generation have finally slid off the mortal coil. However, I detect in young people in AA today the same enthusiasm for recovery as we had back in the 70s when the Young Peoples’s movement expanded. For the next 20 years the elephant-in-the-python of us aging boomers will perhaps continue to thwart and/or resist needed change to the carved-in-granite concepts of anonymity and humility, which at present reign supreme as being required for proper AA spirituality.

      Nevertheless, we see seeds of change sprouting with the Anonymous People movement, which applies the tradition of anonymity as it is intended, not the many myths that are prevalent about it throughout the general AA population. Also, many notable authors, such as Marya Hornbacher and Don Lattin, as well as politicians such as the major of Boston, Marty Walsh, are venturing into broader interpretations of anonymity Change will come slow, but it will come, or like the Washingtonians AA will fade into quaint obscurity.

      The more writing and carving of experience, strength and hope of longterm recovery without belief onto the digital wall we do, the more likely alternative approaches to recovery, which include broader interpretations of what the AA Fellowship essentially is, the more likely out of the ashes of irrelevancy new forms of recovery backed by expanding knowledge will arise as surely as the mythical Phoenix always has.

      In any event, I am extremely grateful to be joined with you, Roger and all of us involved in the Quad A movement — it is certainly helping to keep this elder young at heart and spirit !~!~!

  8. cynthia says:

    I’m done grovelling at the altar of AA for inclusion. I’m finished trying to translate the “well meaning” gibberish of god and god’s will spoken at meetings; exhausted by the “promise” of chapter 3 of the big book; the fundamentalism in my town’s meetings. I’m also sick and tired of being told I am diseased, my brain is diseased and I must bask in that knowledge the rest of my life and if I don’t do so, I will surely die drunk. I’m tired of “what it was like” needing to be in the forefront of my consciousness so I need not forget and relapse.

    I chose to stop going to meetings. What a relief. No longer subjected to the outdated, unscientific, nature of the big book I feel a tremendous release and relief. I am sober, free, and living in the present. I don’t have to start from the bottom each day, any longer.

    That’s just me and I needed to say it.


    • steve b says:

      I understand where cynthia is coming from. There is much about traditional AA that is disagreeable and absurd, and I enjoy taking breaks from going to meetings. Once, about 6 or 7 years ago, I stopped going for about 8 or 9 months, and it was a refreshing vacation. Right now, I’ve haven’t gone for about a week, and I’m ready to go back. Perhaps I’ll go this afternoon. And it can be fun. What other religious gathering can I attend where I can tell everyone there is no god and not be thrown out on my face? I’d like to do that during a Catholic Mass, but I’m chicken.

    • life-j says:

      Thanks for saying that. It is time we recognize that not everyone needs to go for the rest of their lives. Even though I have personally chosen to do so. The ritual of going helps me, and it is my tribe, even if the ritual of the readings etc offend me often. I have seen quite a few people relapse after 10 or 20 years, who had stopped going, but the sensible way to look at that would be to see why those particular people relapsed, and especially to compare with those like yourself that haven’t, and what makes independent recovery work better for some, so we can establish what makes some people need to keep going rather than dogmatically conclude that everyone needs to keep going.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Cynthia, I absolutely respect your decision. Had my wife and I not have had the opportunity and means to more closer to an urban area, Portland, where I have found a growing community of like-minded & spirited companions to “trudge the road to happy destiny,” I may very well have made the same decision as you have made.

      I’m grateful for you as well as for all of us here on AA Agnostica, who have this digital means of establishing Fellowship and community within AA. Thank you again, Roger !~!~!

    • Johnny says:

      Thanks for your honesty cynthia! I too like the keep it simple life style…

  9. Dave B says:


    Great contribution. I’m overwhelmed that amount of support came from other than an agnostic/atheist/freethinker AA group. I even scrolled back to the beginning to make sure I had the source down correctly. Maybe we’ll get some progress. Now to go back and read the contribution by Ashley.

    Dave B

    • Thomas B. says:

      Dave, I was somewhat overwhelmed as well and very moved, very grateful for the wisdom that is inherent in our overall Fellowship, despite the narrow-minded views of many individual — perhaps a substantial majority of — AA members.

      Our nontraditional movement within AA is growing and has substantial support among the elder states-persons within AA General Service Structure. We just have to keep speaking our truth with dignity and respect for those who sometimes appear “constitutionally incapable” of extending the same dignity and respect to us.

  10. life-j says:

    Thanks, a beautiful and well written piece. Honest to god, i don’t understand wherefrom you get that positive attitude you always bring to the table. Mine lacks sorely at times.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Thanks much, life-j. It helps immensely that I have a growing community of like-minded & spirited AA members in the two secular meetings in Portland to sustain me. There were 27 members and visitors at our meeting this morning, including several there for the first time, and two visiting from the Bend, Oregon meeting. Like you, when my wife and I first moved to the hinterlands of Oregon we felt very isolated and alienated. About that time I found AA Agnostica for which I am as grateful as I am to have found recovery in New York City AA in the early 70s before AA became so rigidly doctrinaire in the Oxford Group influenced Christianity of the Big Book as Bill initially conceived recovery. He changed over the course of the next 32 years of his life, but AA has steadily devolved into a dogmatic, doctrinaire interpretation of the Big Book primarily with scant attention to his other writing, especially his rumination in his Grapevine articles and the snippets of correspondence that are in As Bill Sees It.

      I was greatly encouraged by PRAASA, which has energized me to continue advocating for diversity and inclusiveness within the rooms of AA anywhere in accordance with our history, traditions and Responsibility Declaration.

  11. larry k says:


    Very nicely reported! It seems optimistic and a powerful representation of what one might call our plight of silence… perhaps the silence has become less deafening.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Yes, Larry, as onerous and ponderous as it may be, I’m committed to stay actively involved in General Service work, certainly through until November I rotate out of my two-year GSR Commitment, which ends in November. Then I may volunteer for one of the Area’s committee’s to stay involved at the Area. Or, maybe become GSR for the other secular meeting in Portland. The more active we become in General Service, the less likely ardent believers are to shun or shame us out of AA.

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