A History of Secularism in AA


This talk was delivered by Roger C., the manager of the website AA Agnostica, at a Conference for secularists in AA held in Olympia, Washington, on January 16, 2016.

The Conference was called Widening the Gateway.

By Roger C.


I am really pleased to be here today. The opportunity to come here – to escape from Toronto and arrive in Vancouver where I have some dear friends and some family members – is just spectacular for me.

I am going to talk about secularism in AA and where that started for me was when the two groups in Toronto on May 31, 2011, were booted out of Intergroup. They were booted off of the meeting list and they were booted out of Intergroup and it was an extraordinarily traumatic moment for those of us in those two groups.

One of the first things we decided to do was start a website, AA Toronto Agnostics, so that people would continue to know that these agnostic meetings existed and that they were welcome to attend them.

Having done that, as I say it was the end of May 2011, I decided to write a book or an essay called A History of Agnostic Groups in AA. I thought, well, this is going to be easy, we have the Internet today, I am going to do a few google searches and by the time the weekend is over I am going to have written this book. It was shocking to me that there was simply no information out there and it eventually took me about six months to put the thing together and it was the beginning of my understanding of AA.

I was new to the fellowship at the time. I had about a year of sobriety and I didn’t know anything about it and it was this project that introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous and its history.

In googling one of the first people I ran across was Bill White and he was so helpful. And he said, you should contact Ernie Kurtz. And I thought, “Who is Ernie Kurtz?” And I got a hold of Ernie and he was so supportive. Ernie is, of course, the author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is such an important book. But he hadn’t mentioned anything about agnostics in AA in his book and he was very excited about the fact that I had undertaken this project and tried to be as supportive as possible. It was interesting because I also had huge support from the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous. Michelle Mirza is the chief archivist and she did everything she could to help me but there was no information in the archives about agnostic groups.

So I began to work on it. I began to work on the project. It was a lot of work. I eventually completed it and Ernie loved it. I am going to quote him here and it’s partly ego that is causing me to do this but Ernie said: “I appreciate your work, and I am sure many others will. I also hope, with you, that this information will help atheists and agnostics in other, smaller places to be able to find comfort in AA…  The fellowship owes you a debt of gratitude, though it may take time for them to realize that.” I want you to know that it’s been about five years and they still have not expressed their profound appreciation for “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA”.

Origins of AA

I want to start at the beginning because from the very beginning agnostics and atheists were a part of AA. Some of the first were people like Hank Parkhurst and Jim Burwell and Jim was part of the first of the two groups of AA. He was a member of the group in New York that met at Bill Wilson’s house and he was anti-religious in a ferocious kind of way. So much so that a lot of members of his group were hoping he would either get drunk or go away. Over the years he was a very important part of AA and started a number of groups and meetings across the United States always remaining, if you will, faithful to his lack of faith.

In 1939 there was a big battle over Alcoholics Anonymous, the book, and particularly all of the references to God. I write about it in The Little Book. I put a little essay in there called The Origins of the 12 Steps because I wanted to describe the battle that occurred. It was all about the God part in the book, in the Steps, and because of people like Jim Burwell changes were made to the Steps. The idea of “God” was changed to “God as you understand Him”. That was Jim Burwell.

Bill Wilson at one point aftewards, after the Steps were changed, said “This was the great contributions of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.” So if any of you were wondering why this Conference is called “Widening the Gateway” that’s where the name comes from.

Bill was quite excited about that. He thought the solution had been found and he went on to say that it was a “ten strike”, this change to the Steps. Obviously a reference to bowling and in The Little Book I write, “In hindsight, it was certainly not a ‘ten-strike’. The ball didn’t end up in the gutter but it turned out instead to be more of a ‘split’ rather than a ‘ten-strike’, with pins on both sides, and far apart.”

You know, Bill actually understood over time that there was a problem. In “The Dilemma of No Faith”, which he wrote in 1961 in the Grapevine – 1961, so we are talking twenty years after writing the Big Book, and it’s actually one of the more dramatic things he ever said, I think – he said “In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking… God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.”

A few years later, in 1965, at a General Service Conference in New York, Bill did an inventory of AA’s history, “the better to reveal the areas in which we can improve ourselves”. I heard about this speech and so I sent an email to Michelle Mirza at the GSO and asked for a copy of it. But there is no written copy of this speech so she very kindly went to the trustees and they sent me a CD of it. I wrote an article about called Responsibility is Our Theme which is on AA Agnostica. It’s one of my favourites because of the things Bill says in that article and I am going to quote a few of them.

Bill talked about the hundreds of thousands of men and women who had come into AA over the previous 35 years and left. “Newcomers are approaching us at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists and agnostics,” he said. “We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion.”

And then he asked this question: “How much and how often did we fail them?”

Finally towards the end of his talk, Bill got to the heart of his message of responsibility. And I am going to quote:

In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views. Let us instead accord to each other the respect that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way towards the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.

I’m running into all of this literature as I am writing “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA” after two groups were booted out of Intergroup in Toronto. And what I am trying to say is that secularism in AA is not a new issue nor is it an outside issue. Inclusivity – being bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering – is at the heart, the very core of our fellowship. It has to be at the very top of our priorities and not an afterthought. AA is an umbrella. When I first, by the way – I do go on, I apologize – when I first saw the flyer for this Conference and saw the title, Widening the Gateway, and read down through the agenda, I thought “I gotta be there!” Because to me this is pure AA. Reaching out to other human beings is, if you will excuse the expression, the very soul of AA. I would like, if we may, to applaud the organizers of this wonderful Conference.

Quad A

Okay, so apparently I am supposed to talk about the history of secularism in AA. So let me start with the first meeting, the first secular AA meeting, and it took place forty years after the origins of AA in 1935. It took place in 1975 in Chicago. That’s the first meeting.

And it was founded by a guy by the name of Wilson, but not Bill, Don Wilson. In the early sixties he had tried AA and he had attended meetings for six months but left, put off by the religiosity. “I was unable to work it,” he said, “because of the religious language in which the 12 steps are couched.” He came back a decade later. His drinking had almost killed him.

This time he decided he had to tough it out no matter how hard. Some of us may be familiar with that. After about four years of sobriety, in the autumn of 1974, he gave a talk at a Unitarian Church, “An Agnostic in AA: How It Works for Me”. The talk was well received and he ended up delivering it in several Unitarian Universalist churches and in fact one of the ministers encouraged him to start an AA meeting for atheists and agnostics.

The first ever meeting in AA explicitly for non-believers was held on January 7, 1975.

In Chicago. In a church.

The name of the meeting was Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics which was very quickly shortened to Quad A. And Quad A has had a hugely interesting history in Chicago.

In 1995 an article was written about it in The Chicago Tribune while Quad A was celebrating its twentieth anniversary. It’s a wonderful article and for some idiotic reason I have never posted it on AA Agnostica but I am going to in February. It’s kind of the equivalent of the Jack Alexander article published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1941 only this one is for we agnostics in AA and it’s called “A Different Road”. That’s the name of the article and it begins like this:

Six o’clock Saturday night and the drunks are having a party. This is news? It is when the party is in Chicago’s Second Unitarian Church on Barry Street. The drunks are sober, and the party is to commemorate the 20th anniversary of a controversial 12-step recovery group – Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for Atheists and Agnostics, known in AA circles as Quad A (AAAA).

Today Quad A is going strong. There are twelve meetings in Chicagoland. They are listed by the Chicago Intergroup and in fact and one of the search options when you are looking for a meeting on the Chicagoland Intergroup site is called “Atheist / Agnostic”. So you can actually look for those secular meetings in Chicago.

And there is something else I want to mention.

We generally get the impression that Santa Monica was the first Convention or the first collective gathering of agnostics in AA. That’s the rumour. But it’s wrong. On September 13, 2009, a Quad A Unity Conference was held and it was called “Beyond Alcohol and Addiction: Sobriety, Sanity and Serenity”. And over a hundred people attended it. I’ve got a sixteen page leaflet which was sent to me by Chuck K. in Chicago while I was working on “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA”. And it’s wonderful! It contains, for example, the Conference schedule which included a number of speakers, terrific speakers. It includes an article about “A Man of Distinction”, Don Wilson, who started the first group. It contains a copy of the 1995 article written in the Chicago Tribune called “A Different Road”. It contains several versions of secular Steps and in the end it decides to describe AA in eight words, which is like four times two words. The first two words being “Quit Drinking”. The second two words “Trust AA”. The third two words “Clean House”. And the last two words “Help Others”. A pretty simple understanding of AA.

We Agnostics

So that was the first agnostic meeting, in Chicago, January 7, 1975. It would take five years for the next group of meetings to start. And that happened in California, that happened in Los Angeles, and that happened because of a wonderful guy by the name of Charlie Polachek.

If you want to read about Charlie, there is an article on AA Agnostica called Father of We Agnostics Dies.

I talked to Charlie on the phone. He died at the age of 98. He told me, he was about 96 or 97 at the time, very proud, he says, “I am the daddy of We Agnostic groups!” Because he started the first group ever called We Agnostics, in 1980, in Hollywood in Los Angeles.

It was very hard for me to find Charlie. Very hard. I talked to people who would have known but didn’t want to tell me, quite frankly. And I am going to talk about this a little bit later, but there were a number of people I talked to at the time, agnostics in AA, who pushed me away. They thought this is going to be far too controversial. And so, strangely enough, the fellow who told me about Charlie Polachek, was James Christopher, who started SOS.

When I talked to Charlie on the phone, again he was quite surprised. I told him that I was writing a book, writing an article “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA” and his response was “Really!” It was so exciting to him that we go public on this. It was so exhilirating to him that this would cease to be a secret within AA. Charlie described himself as both an atheist and a number of people I talked to described him as one of the most spiritual human beings they had ever met. I contacted his daughter Angeliska and shortly after his death – and I’m throwing this in because I just like it – she did a post online and talked about Charlie’s favourite haiku and it goes like this: “In the midst of a meadow / a skylark singing / free from everything”. I like haikus.

Around the year 2000 Charlie moved to Austin, Texas, where he again started a meeting called We Agnostics. He became friends with Nick H. who then started the second meeting for agnostics and atheists in Austin called “Children of Chaos”. Nick is the chair of the host committee that is organizing a Convention for we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA which is to be held, of course, in Austin in November of this year.

I will also note as well that Intergroup for Austin – Hill County, it’s called – also lists “Atheist / Agnostic” as a “meeting type”. So if you are looking for a meeting for atheists and agnostics in Austin there is a category called “Atheists / Agnostics” that you can click on.

By the way the meeting that Charlie started in Hollywood in 1980 still meets every Tuesday and it’s going strong. AA and agnostic AA flourished in California in ways that it didn’t flourish in other areas.

New York

So now I would like to talk about New York. Because we had these meetings in Chicago and we had these meetings in California but there was nothing in New York, strangely enough.

So, a guy by the name of Harry, a Californian, placed an ad in – are you familiar with this? – it’s called “Free Enquiry”. It’s a magazine that continues to exist today, it’s published today for atheists and agnostics. So Harry wrote this little ad in Free Enquiry, he’s a Californian, knew that the thing was circulated throughout America, and his ad was addressed to atheist and agnostic members of AA who were having trouble with the religious nature of many AA meetings.

So Harry does this ad. And strangely enough three people in New York answer it. They send a little letter to Harry. They don’t even know each other. But three people from New York do this.

And in fact, that is what inspired the form on AA Agnostica for people wanting an agnostic group in their own community, which people complete, and then we hook them up. I have a dear friend, Chris, who lives in Fort Erie, and he is connecting people virtually on a daily basis who want to start agnostic meetings but don’t know that there is anyone else in their area that wants to do that.

So, anyway, these three people write to Harry and Harry writes back and explains how the agnostic meetings work, the formats and all that stuff, and then he connects them together. They are Ada H., John Y. and David L. The first meeting was held at Ada’s home on September 10, 1986. It was called We Atheists. It eventually moved to the Jan Hus Church where it still meets today and the name was changed to We Humanists. The three, Ada, John and David, met together for over a decade. For over a decade they went to these meetings together. Thank you Harry, in California.

David eventually moved to Pittsburgh. John Y. died on March 10, 2003. He was a co-founder of the Secular Humanist Society of New York City, a life-long resident of the Bronx and a veteran of World War II. Born in 1921, he got sober in 1962. Ada died in August, 2005, at the age of 83. She had more than 30 years of sobriety. She was a very passionate woman, a socialist and a very wealthy New Yorker. On her tombstone it says that Ada “started an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for Atheists and Agnostics”.

Today, there are sixteen meetings in New York City for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. Under the search again for meetings there is something called a “special interest” category where you can click on “Agnostic” and again find these meetings.


This is all in “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA”. And I am going to come back to Toronto because this is where, for me, the whole story started.

It was on Tuesday evening, as I mentioned, May 31, 2011, that the Greater Toronto Intergroup voted to boot out the two agnostic groups.

The next morning I sent an email to the Toronto Star fully reporting on what had happened. Later I took a phone call from a reporter, Leslie Scrivener. Her story Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups appeared on the top of the front page of the Toronto Star, just a few days later, on Friday, June 3.

Why did I do that?

There was one simple reason. It struck me that this story should not be buried in the basement of a church. I was not prepared to let that happen.

I want you to know that it took me a couple of years to admit that I did that.

Because I was afraid. At the time I did it I had a year’s sobriety and I was terrified that this behaviour was going to result in me relapsing. Because I had maybe violated a sacred principle in AA, Tradition Ten, “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”

Well, I told myself, it’s not an outside issue. It’s a controversy about an inside issue and, dammit, it needs to be dealt with…

I was still afraid.

I want to talk now a little bit about fear. Because if I am going to be honest and talk about a history of secularism in AA, I’m going to talk about fear.

I was personally afraid again later on when I went to a number of follow-up Intergroup meetings. There were more votes on booting out the groups, there were votes on booting another group out, and I have to tell you that at those meetings I was afraid of being beaten up. For the only time in my life I felt afraid for my physical safety. Because there were true whackos at those meetings, who were extremely aggressive and extremely hostile.

It was terrifying. And I am not making any of this up.

You know, and strangely enough, Bill Wilson understood this sort of thing. In the 1965 talk I mentioned earlier he said:

Simply because we have convictions that work very well for us, it becomes quite easy to assume that we have all of the truth. Whenever this brand of arrogance develops we are sure to become aggressive. We demand agreement with us. We play God. This isn’t good dogma. This is very bad dogma. It could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of thing.

Bill got it right. You’d think he had been at the Toronto Intergroup meetings. Or maybe the Vancouver Intergroup meetings. Or… But I think I will stop there.

I think we are familiar with fear as alcoholics. As drunks, we are often afraid of being attacked, of being called out, of being arrested. We are afraid of being hurt; we are afraid of hurting others. A few of us drank out of fear. In AA, we secularists are often afraid of being rejected by others in AA.

Fear, fear, fear. And it has affected and continues to affect the history of our secular movement.

Some examples.

One of my favourite websites and one of the earliest for agnostics and atheists in AA is called “Agnostic AA NYC”. It’s where the worldwide agnostic groups are listed. And it began, get this, in 2002. That’s a long time ago.

However, on September 28, 2010, a GSO staffer wrote to the administrator of the website and pointed out that the website referred to addicts as well as alcoholics, still a “no-no” in old-school AA, and worse there was a secular version of the 12 Steps on the website. The GSO person wrote, “So we respectfully request that your group stop calling itself an AA group”.

The modified 12 Steps, any reference to addicts were removed from the website. The website is financed by groups in New York and it’s their call. I’ve also asked over the years, several times, that a link from that website be created to AA Agnostica. It’s never happened. The fear here is of not being considered AA because of (1) references to addicts (2) secular 12 Steps and (3) an outside affiliation.

So, I think personally, in terms of the fear thing – I’m not unfamiliar with fear – but I’m also no longer a child. It’s not as if my parents are telling me to do something and I’ve got to do it. It’s not as if traditional AA says well you can’t change the Steps… I’m an adult now. A certain amount of self-respect and integrity I think goes with that. And yet I acknowledge that the idea of fitting in and the idea of being welcomed are kind of key components in all human beings including we alcoholics but I just wanted to mentioned the topic and how I think it has played to a degree in our own history within AA.

Moving Forward

Now I want to talk about moving forward.

And the first thing I want to talk about is literature. Because we have made such enormous progress in so many ways.

In 2011, the first book for agnostics in AA was published. It is called Waiting: A Nonbelievers Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher. She was of course a speaker at the Santa Monica Convention. Terrific book.

In 2013. I have a friend you may have heard of, Joe C. He started the Beyond Belief group in Toronto, he was one of the people who started it, and Joe C. and I are members of it. That’s our home group. We meet there every Thursday. In 2013 Joe and I were in an incredible competition. He was working to publish Beyond Belief and I was trying to publish The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps. And I thought “dammit, no matter what happens I’m publishing this before he publishes his book”. And he beat me, by about two weeks. I think both books are great. I really do. Joe’s book Beyond Belief has turned out to be hugely helpful. It’s a book of daily reflections. I know any number of groups across the world who use it, who will read the daily reflection, and then have a discussion at their meeting following that reading. So it’s a very, very popular book.

I never planned to publish a book, a single book. But The Little Book just came to be. I was working with this woman Linda R. at the time and we were in touch with Gabe S. who was in England and Gabe had a collection of alternative 12 Steps and he sent them to us and I thought what an interesting idea a whole collection of alternative 12 Steps but we didn’t have enough for a book and then we started looking for secular interpretations of the 12 Steps and found some terrific interpretations. A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps: Linda condensed that down into short interpretations of each of the Steps. I ran into Gabor Mate who had written In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts and he had an appendix with a secular interpretation of the 12 Steps so now we had two. And then we ended up having four. And then as I say I wrote a history of the origins of the Steps as well in that book and then we decided to publish it. And that was the beginning of publishing books of that nature.

In 2014, AA Agnostica published two more books. One was Don’t Tell: Stories and Essays by Agnostics and Atheists in AA which were stories that had been published on AA Agnostica. And the other one was The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery, which I love. I love this book. It was written actually in 1991 by two women, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G. but had been out of print forever. And yet I discovered it and I approached a publisher and said can I publish it and they said no, not without permission, so I spent a year tracking down Arlys G. and she got together with Martha and they said, yes, publish it, do a Second Edition. 1991: A Secular Guide to Recovery. Alternative 12 Steps. I am so honored and pleased to be able to have published that book.

There are of course all kinds of other books that have come out. A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous which was reviewed by our friend Thomas here, written by John Lauritsen. A great book. What else do we have? The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous by a Brit. But all I am saying now in terms of the history of secularism in AA is there is a huge amount of literature today.

And you know what? I wish I would have had it. When I got out of rehab, I wish someone would have been able to hand me a book, other than the Big Book, because I found the Big Book offensive from Day 1. I just wish that someone would have handed me something and said, “Here read this. You will be inspired”. Today that can happen. And we should be very proud of ourselves for that.

There are all kinds of websites. Rebellion Dogs Publishing. Joe C. manages that website. There is AA Agnostica which has been kind of succeeded by AA Beyond Belief, by my good friend John S., who is now doing that website and podcasts. You’ll hear this talk on AA Beyond Belief. Terrific website. And then there are 25 websites for individual or groups of agnostic meetings and I think there is one for this area as well. So there is all kinds of websites, all kinds of information.

Meetings. Let’s talk about meetings. We focussed a lot on meetings at the beginning of this talk, when they started, where they started. When “A History of Agnostic Groups” was completed in 2012, there was a total of 87 agnostic meetings worldwide listed on the New York website. Today, I just talked to Deirdre a few days ago, prior to this meeting and asked “How many meetings are there?” Today, there is 288. We’ve added two hundred in a few years. We have gone from agnostic meetings in three states to agnostic meetings in 40 states in the U.S. and four provinces in Canada. And I know of many, many more that are now starting. It’s fantastic.

Conventions and conferences. Well, the first one was in Chicago in 2009, second in Santa Monica in November 2014, Phoenix in November 2015, Olympia 2016 and Austin, Texas, coming up in November.

So there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. We are going strong my friends. We are with the tide, as it were.

As we go forward I would recommend two things. First, let’s drop the fear. At least as much as possible. Here’s my last quote from Bill Wilson, I promise, again from his speech in 1965: “All people must necessarily rally to the call of their own particular convictions and we of AA are no exception.  All people should have the right to voice their convictions.”

And finally, I want to share a bit of advice, something I don’t do that often. As we go forward as agnostics and atheists in AA, as secularists, one day at a time, let’s try to have a good time. Let’s enjoy ourselves. Otherwise what the hell’s the point? Thank you all for listening to me. It has been an honour to be here today.

For a PDF of this article, click here: A History of Secularism in AA.

Olympia 500

21 Responses

  1. Roger says:

    Hi Clint: Be glad to help! Just click on the image below and complete the form “An Agnostic Group in My Community”. If others are have done the same, Chris will connect you with them. Best wishes!

    New Group

  2. Clint M says:

    Hello. Great writing. You mentioned you know someone named Chris who connects people who want to start a meeting in their town and are trying to find other locals interested in one they are unaware about. I would like to be connected with such people in Nashville, TN if you are aware of any. I am A traditional AA member still as there isnt any meetings of agnostic AA in my state and I want to start the first. More upfront interest and participation would encourage it’s success. thanks!

  3. Richard K. says:

    You have made my day. I need the information for the Austin meeting or convention.

  4. Bill G. says:

    Thanks for your share. Very insightful.

    Thinking outside of the box or, in our case, the tables can be a fearful event for oneself and others at times. I’ve had a couple of table conversations about agnostic ideas. That were less than well received from people I thought to be open to free thinking. Fear of their sacred cow being tipped over… Fear took over. A friend and I share very similar views on fundamental religion but don’t question the Big Book. I also have recovering friends with very conservative Christian ideas that are very open to others. Free thinking. We are a mixed group of addicts.

    Living in die hard BB county in NW Michigan, born again cosmic naturist Bill G, 37 years clean. Thanks to the people of AA.

  5. Gilles D. says:

    Many thanks Roger. I am sober since 1972 and still uncomfortable with God. What a relief to know that I am not alone in willing to be free of my religious education.

  6. Ted F. says:

    Thanks for publishing this. It is heartening to know that there is support for atheists and agnostics, unbelievers and secularists, out there.

    We began our We Agnostics group here in Lafayette, LA in September 2003. It’s been rough going, trying to keep it afloat but we’re lucky to have some dedicated core members, and we’ve hung on.


  7. Sherril W. says:

    Enjoyed this very much.

  8. Lance B. says:

    One more thank you, Roger. Dixie and I loved your talk in Olympia and love it again here in a more permanent form.
    And that may be something to be particularly thankful for – both you and Bill W. have valued writing.

    I’m sure a great many of the ideas which we talk about here and in the books were said or hinted at by individuals all the way back to Jim Burwell.

    But until they are put into a form where they can be digested more slowly and carefully, discussed, and gradually added to the culture, we will remain a fragmented, splintering, isolated voice of reason.

    Thanks to all you guys who have put so much fruitful effort into codifying and recording various relevant ideas and thoughts which can be gradually assimilated into my mind to form a coherent strategy for living. I met several of you at this particular conference and Roger named a few more in his talk.

    We together are making rapid strides toward fitting in. I think we are anyway.

  9. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks Roger for a powerful talk and all the “hidden” work you do in researching the history of our tribe in recovery. I may be alone out here in Newfoundland but very much part of the movement outside of it.

  10. Denis K says:

    Thank you for publishing this talk, Roger. I enjoyed reading it today as much as I did hearing it last Saturday in Olympia. Thank you as well for researching this history of our Agnostic, Atheist and Free Thinkers Groups, a massive undertaking for anyone and especially someone in early sobriety, truly remarkable sleuthing and fact finding.
    I admire your inquisitive mind, your tenacity and all you have done and continue to do for AA Agnostica.

  11. Brent P. says:

    You touched on so many things that are important to me. First of all, Ernie Kurtz. His was one of the first books I was given to read when I came out of rehab. I didn’t read it or, at least, I never opened the book at page one and continued until I’d finished it. But what warmed my heart was, here was a book on AA written by a scholar. He actually was a writer, an historian or provider of facts as illustrated by his lengthy and robust bibliography.

    He wasn’t a guy with an hypothesis (or I never felt that he did when I consumed segments of his book), rather he put all the qualified information together to finally present a comprehensive, accurate history of AA.

    On Bill Wilson, a thirteen years sober journalist from New York set about to determine the accuracy of Bill’s story. One, among several juicy tidbits, was Bill’s telling of the story of him in the hotel (was it the Mayflower?) in Akron, just before he met Dr. Bob. The gripping tale of the bar at one end of the lobby and the church list at the other. Bill was the centre point in an intense battle between good & evil. The seductive sounds and smells emanating from one end and the list of churches at the other. Which would prevail? Good did and the rest, as they say, is history. The writer, whose book is called, Bill W. & Mr. Wilson, visited the hotel and discovered it couldn’t have happened as Bill described it. The bar and the church pamphlets weren’t on the same floor. And they never were. But for the sake of the story and its allegorical impact, Wilson used some of the poetic license allotted to all writers, to remove the stairs in an effort to make the whole thing more graphic and allegorical.

    I am one who believes Bill wouldn’t, were he around today, look kindly on the division that exists in modern AA. I think it would break his heart. And despite “God as we understand God”, it’s too close to also saying that we all need to support a political agenda, doesn’t matter whether you’re republican or democrat or commie pinko independent, we all need a party we can embrace. I think Wilson would recognize that God or higher power is what is cleaving the fellowship which, whether we like it or not, goes against the primary purpose of one alcoholic helping another. The question is, would Wilson approve of removing God from the equation entirely. I like to believe so.

    Agnostic/Atheist AA. While appreciating the objective and why it’s become so important to so many people, I look at many of the group names and it’s evident that some had real difficulty settling on a name that reflected its kind of splinter group status. What’s interesting however is, none of the names appear to suggest that they have much to do with drinking. The one that changed its name to the Humanist Group apparently doesn’t recognize that “humanism” is a recognized philosophical and ethical approach to life. Humanists have an articulated philosophical basis that some alcoholics might find compelling, but humanists have nothing to do with AA. So the potential for confusion is as real as if another group called itself the Charles Darwin Group.

    That’s all for now except to remind, that it is critical we don’t get so caught up in a controversy that we could eventually see the baby being tossed with the bathwater.

  12. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, Roger, for this exceptionally well-written essay that presents “Just the facts, Ma’am,” regarding the truth of secular recovery from AA’s earliest beginnings. And, I agree with Pat N., that the passionate intensity with which you delivered this presentation at the Olympia, WA gathering comes through reading it on my computer screen.

    Despite the devolution of AA over the past 25 – 30 years to an Oxford Group based ideology of Christian evangelicalism in many parts of North America, we secular members of AA are the leading edge for AA’s continuance throughout the 21st century.

    Here’s a notable quote from the first biography written about Bill Wilson by William Thomsen published in 1975, which is based upon extensive interviews he had with Bill Wilson. On page 230, he writes:

    There were agnostics in the Tuesday night Group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and in the strength of the group. At some time each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then — whatever it was that occurred between them — was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves.

    This reiterates the main point of your excellent presentation at the “Widening the Gateway” conference in Olympia, WA that secular approaches to recovery in AA — without any dependence upon a religious interpretation of any god or higher power — have always been an integral part of AA’s history from its earliest beginnings.

  13. Neil F says:

    Thank you very much for this excellent, informative article. Wish I could have been at your talk.

  14. John R says:

    Should have also mentioned The Zen of Recovery, by Mel Ash, back in the early 90s. It was also very beneficial for my own recovery from religious addiction.
    The Zen of Recovery

  15. Roger says:

    That’s a very, very good point, John. I am a fan of Griffin and some others, such as Therese Jacobs-Stewart. I wrote an article on the subject back in 2014: Buddhism and the 12 Steps.

  16. John R says:

    Enjoyed it very much.

    BTW, there were many books written and published prior to 2011… several of them by Buddhists and psychologists whose secularization of the 12 steps was very helpful to me. For instance, Kevin Griffin’s One Breath At A Time (c. 2004) is one I still consider a “best read” for anyone looking for alternatives to the usual separate “god” view. Of course, some folks don’t consider this an “agnostic” book, I suppose, though I am not sure why.

  17. Kit G says:

    Great post, Roger! and a great resource of information on us!

  18. David B. says:


    I am reminded that it is immensely important to speak about and publish this information. This is what allowed me to find a place in AA when I felt I could not connect with others. It saved me from that fear you mentioned – fear of relapsing because I couldn’t assimilate what others were preaching – as well as the shame I felt for not getting what seemed so obvious to others. Additionally, this forum is a meaningful source of connection for me for another reason. I am moving from Chicago, where Quad A is quite active, to Milwaukee, where there are no secular meetings. I need to read here and elsewhere that I am not alone, as well as supported. Thank you for sharing, and for all that you do!


  19. Joe says:


    Thank you very much, lot of thought and I’m sure hard work.

    One of those times when I’d wished to have seen or read something like this when in Texas. I was in San Antonio, where I was confronted several times.

    Once was, you’re sick individual. Second was, What are you? As I was walking out to my vehicle after the meeting. He didn’t wait for an answer, as he suggested I was an effing Buddhist…

    One could on and on.

    My point, I started the agnostic group in Yuma, Arizona. It will be two years come this Nov 2016. Still a ways off. I started it when I questioned whether it was cowardly to do so because of the group at the Alano Club in the Foothills, Believe in God or Else. I announced the new meeting there and received ridicule and verbal attacks. Apparently, I had so much power (I say jokingly).

    I can relate is all.

  20. Pat N. says:

    Got to admit to tears in my eyes, enjoying your talk for the second time. You did such a good job of reminding each of us that we’re not alone, and never have been. I’m convinced that feeling within AA is what gave me hope and saved my life.

    I think your work to expand knowledge of the history of secular AA is providing major building blocks in the causeway that leads nonbelieving drunks to a new life.

    I’m sorry all the readers didn’t have a chance to hear you present this in person. Even so, the passion and dynamism of your talk comes through.

    Thanks, again and again, for helping make the Olympia rally a good experience. Keep coming back!

  21. Annette R. Smith says:

    Great stuff, Roger!

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