The Secular AA 2016 Austin Convention


by life-j

I missed out on the Santa Monica Convention, and I almost didn’t make this one either, but the tooth fairy came through at the last moment.

And now I’m really stoked.

I had met a few of the people at a regional conference in Olympia, Washington, back at the beginning of the new year so I didn’t feel entirely lost when I got to Austin. Even many years sober, occasions like this can be scary. Was I going to “fake it till you make it” and power through, or was I going to be a wall flower?

I started out with the former, as I was walking off to the Ethiopian restaurant down the freeway from the Crowne Plaza with a group of people I had just met, but I did manage to settle down after a fellow alcoholic asked me about it. Maybe it was too conspicuous. But after all, I was with my own kind here. In the end I came away with many good conversations with so many people that I’m having a hard time remembering who’s who. You have to forgive me, I have brain damage.

But I will remember their faces two years from now in Toronto. I’ve never felt at home in a big crowd of people like I did here. And big it was, over 400 people registered for the convention, including people from several other countries, even as far away as Australia.

I’m not a suit and tie kind of guy, and I have felt out of place in hotels like this in the past, but even the hotel staff was pleasant and helpful and not judgmental. Maybe they had been warned by all the good people that put this together, that this might be an unusual bunch. Or am I just getting to be and act and feel normal, and haven’t figured it out myself yet? Wouldn’t be the first time I’m the last to see when I’ve changed.

I owe all of it to this program. God or no god, AA is where I learned how to live.

But on to the convention.

I’m amazed at how well it all came off. Thank you out-going board! There were many AA meetings, and I didn’t manage to go to a single one – there were just too many interesting topic panels and workshops to go to, often more than one at a time: ranging all the way from hardcore atheist rants to the spiritual, talks on AA history, on the future of AA, on all the odd aspects of AA mythology, and inconsistencies in our literature, on legal matters, including the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal suit, and on our relations to medical and psychiatric problems, GLBTQ and other subgroups.

We had a banquet Friday night, and I sat down at a table with people I didn’t know without feeling self conscious for even a minute. It probably didn’t directly do much for my sobriety, but let me tell you, I have been to too many AA get-togethers with gross spaghetti dinners. This was absolutely fabulous. With the banquet we also had 3 speakers, and they were all good. It was especially good to hear the talk delivered by Deirdre S, from New York City.

Ami from the Grapevine was there, giving us feedback about how we can help the Grapevine help us. We are after all only one of the subgroups they have to look after, but with the October issue, “Atheist and Agnostic Members”, it really feels like they do try to help us. We’re finally seeing real signs of the service structure supporting us as real members of AA.

One topic I heard brought up several times was why we’re not simply making our own program entirely. But we’re all aware that AA got us sober, AA is where we belong, and it’s where we have an obligation to the newcomer unbeliever so they will not have to feel as alone as we often did before we found each other. AA is just too big an entity to abandon to the fundies.

I got to go to a local regular Austin AA meeting with a couple of other attendees, and of course there I heard several people say the same thing I’ve heard so many times: I’m really having trouble finding my higher power.

We’re still needed out there to help them know that they do not need to!

As a convention we also looked forward to the next one in 2018. It was decided to hold it in Toronto, at the downtown Marriott hotel from August 24 to 26, and we also voted in a new board. There were a few tense moments, but I think we eventually wound up with a group of very talented and dedicated people. I was especially pleased to see at least one young person on the new board.

We also chose a new name for the next convention. WAAFT IAAC would still have served us, especially if we had just added a couple of more letters to the acronym, but eventually we arrived at the name, International Convention of Secular AA (ICSAA) instead. I like it. One thing which carried it was the thought that since a secular alternative to AA is being called for from several corners, we might as well begin calling ourselves secular.

Specific panels? It’s kind of a blur, still. I got something good out of every one I went to. One that stands out to me was the Mental Health Issues and Recovery, where we had a couple of psychiatrists, both in the program, talk with us. Though Bill Wilson himself knew mental problems all too well to claim that AA could fix it, we have heard way too much about that from many recent members. It was good to have these two doctors here to talk with. I have a friend with severe mental issues who is very dear to my heart, and we need much more involvement with the professionals among us, rather than more step work, so we can help them instead of making them more desperate for supposedly not working that program right which, which we are so often falsely told, fixes absolutely everything if only it is done right.

Sunday night I went to dinner with a couple of other people. One of them I knew pretty well, one I had never really met before, and then there was Roger. I know you’re a humble person, and would be inclined to strike this from the article, since I’m publishing this on your site. But you can’t do that. As I’m sitting here in the airport on my way home writing this, this is so big, I’m sitting here and I’m beginning to cry. It’s not something I do often. But I’m aware that none of all this would probably have happened if it wasn’t for you. Granted, our secular movement has gotten me into a lot of trouble with local AA, but it has also given me a new life, a new group of people with whom I can relate with honesty.

And that new life was reinforced dramatically at the convention in Austin.

All too much to handle with a straight face. Tears are actually rolling now, I better stop here. Probably everyone sitting here around me thinks I’m flying away from bad romance behind me or something. On the contrary, I have a wonderful woman waiting for me at home, another gift of the program, since I don’t have to be an asshole anymore. Life is good. Thank you. Thank you everyone.

I look forward to seeing you in Toronto in 2018.

Human Power

life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA.

He has written eight articles on AA Agnostica over the past several years including My Path in AA (June 30, 2013), A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics (September 7, 2014), and Science May One Day Accomplish This (May 12, 2016). His article in the October 2016 issue of the AA Grapevine, Open-Minded, was shared here on AA Agnostica on September 22, 2016.

25 Responses

  1. Kit G says:

    Tears of joy and gratitude. Thank you Life. Thank you all.

  2. Suzanne G. says:

    Best AA convention I have ever been to.

    I am usually known for isolating at conventions, but I really threw myself into this one. I had travelled from UK with my al-anon husband. Unable to sleep at 4 am on the Thursday morning I went down to the lobby and there I met another insomniac – Larry from Toronto. I could not believe that I had stumbled across a living legend. We talked about his pending human rights case. HUman rights was my speciality as a lawyer. I loved the two talks that he did about AA and the law, and then the one about his own case. My husband was bowled over by the workshop on stoicism.

    There were so many workshops I ordered 12 CDs for the ones I missed.

    Brilliant convention and I will be following Larry’s case closely – what an awful mess the GTAI has created. What a shame our convention could not have been there this year, as a show of support for the Toronto Freethinkers. But I have an awful feeling this case will still be trundling through the Courts at the time of the 2018 convention.

    Best wishes to all.


  3. John L. says:

    For me the conference was a great success, in terms of attendance and talks. It was refreshing to hear forthright atheists criticise aspects of AA religiosity.

    I’m not sure the new name is an improvement. As I see it, our short-term goal is to get complete acceptance within AA of non-religious groups and individual members. Our long-term goal is to reform AA — to make it fully secular in literature and practice. I liked WAAFT because it cited who we are: agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers. Also, WAAFT is a memorable and pronounceable acronym, whereas ICSAA is forgettable. (Pronounced ICK-suh?)

    While playing around with various potential names, I came up with Sobriety Without Religious Dogma (SWORD), which at least is a word and pronounceable.

    • life-j says:

      Hmm, John, hope you don’t die by the sword…

      Anyway, if our goal as you state it is “to reform AA — to make it fully secular” – we agree on that – then what could be better than calling ourselves “secular”?

  4. John S says:

    Thank you Life for an excellent report on the convention/conference. It was nice to read your experience, especially since you were not able to attend the event in Santa Monica that was held in 2014.

    Tonight, I will record a podcast for AA Beyond Belief with Benn B., Vic L and Willow F. We will talk about our experiences at the convention/conference and maybe mention a few things that we would have liked to have seen done differently.

    With the podcast, we will post an article written by Vic that consists primarily of his thoughts and assessment of the convention/conference. I will also write an article to go with the podcast that will be published this coming Wednesday.

    It was nice to finally meet you after reading your work online. You have done a lot for our Fellowship, and your talents are needed and appreciated. Thank you very much.

  5. Dale K says:

    Thank you, Life, for sharing an Ethiopian meal with me & the others on Thursday evening. It was a great precursor to so much wonderful fellowship in Austin. Your shy, humble & simple example for living was an inspiration. You reinforced my belief that the “good life” is an inside job!

    My only regret about the convention was that there were so many great panels & meetings to attend that some overlapped. That, of course, is a high class problem. Can you regret something & welcome it at the same time? Of course! Dichotomies are a wonderful part of my life today.

    As much as I enjoyed the convention’s program, the fellowship of so many like-minded people was the favorite part of my experience in Austin. This was no surprise. The fellowship of AA has, always, been more important to my sobriety than AA’s program.

    The special way of sharing an Ethiopian meal set a great precedent for many more meals, group conversations & one-on-ones with all my wonderful new friends!

    I want to thank the board for all their hard work in creating such a great convention. And, a big “thank you” to the new board for committing your time for the benefit of all of us.

  6. John C says:

    I wonder why the only negative comment in the article was in regards to “hardcore atheist rants”. Rant is defined as to speak or declaim extravagantly or violently; talk in a wild or vehement way: rave. As one of the participants I wonder why atheists are accused of ranting.

    Perhaps the author of the article would enjoy traditional AA and should attend their activities rather than a conference for atheists and agnostics.

    • life-j says:

      John, I have attended about 4000 of those and found them wanting, that’s why I came here.

      We had no hardcore god rants at the convention, thankfully, only hardcore atheist ditto.

      My definition of rants is a bit different. It’s about persuading rather than simply presenting, it’s about having an axe to grind, and it’s about going on about it a bit longer than it is perhaps needed.
      Believe me, I have gone on plenty of rants myself. I still do.

      I have not simply arrived at a nonchalant non-belief. I was raised by religious bigots with a purpose, and I detest religion. Get me started on that, and I will rant. Try to shut me up, and I will rant even worse.

      For me this convention was a safe place, no-one was going to push my religion-hating buttons.

      In turn I didn’t have to go on any rants.

      On the other hand, I go on rants nowadays at almost every regular AA meeting I go to – all they have to do is read the Daily Reflection. Of 365 entries, probably a couple of dozen don’t push my buttons. I don’t get tremendously popular for it.

      Let’s see, where are we going with this?

      Atheist rants are probably not tremendously necessary at a gathering like we just had, because it is a safe place to be an atheist. I am probably one myself. Probably? I can hear you scoff. Yes, I don’t care all that much what we call it. I usually call myself an agnostic, just so I don’t have to get into arguments with people that want to prove me wrong for thinking I can prove that god does not exist, since that supposedly is the definition of an atheist, which I can’t and I really couldn’t care less whether I could prove it or not. The other, which I increasingly call myself is a non-believer. I simply don’t believe, I dont have anything to prove, nothing to argue about, no axe to grind (well of course I still do, but I’m working on it).

      With the atheist rants I heard at the convention, it felt like a few people were trying to convince me of stuff I did not need to be convinced of, we both don’t think there are any gods, so what?
      I’m sure both you and me are going to keep ranting out there among the religious people, but in here, together, all we need to do is gently present stuff for each others’ consideration in order that we together may improve our lives.

  7. Iain says:

    Where can one start?

    I have dyslexia and find writing in the little box really difficult so I’m just going to post as it’s doing in my head trying to respond to the OP.

    My main highlight was that my wife Denise did the whole convention!


    This was awesome as she planned just one meeting in support of me being at the convention. The one meeting thing was due to her witnessing how badly I was treated as an atheist at “normal” AA.

    She thought this would happen again even though I told her it really was different this time for me in AA.

    But instead of frightening her off, this time AA stole her heart.

    I guess you all stole her heart.

    She is completely amazed at the impact this type of AA is having on me. She actually couldn’t get enough of the convention!

    It’s so wonderful to see Denise happy and not sad and hurt, or worried and disappointed at my letting her down the thousand times I did. Each promise to stop I meant from the heart but I just didn’t know how until I bumped into you all.

    The other thing that stood out which I loved is the fact that people laughed!

    In meetings as well you naughty things you!

    I have never, in the 5 years I did “normal AA”, nor in the 7 years I tried getting back, ever saw folk laugh in meetings quite like you lot!

    It was the fellowship like I have never seen before and I feel so sad this type of fellowship can’t be with and for all in AA.

    Not once at the convention was a person shut down for speaking outside the narrative.

    I heard people say their experience was completely different from others in workshops and meetings.

    I didn’t see people preach, evangelize or tell others what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

    There was no elitism and just full respect for each individuals journey.

    One thing I lost when I first did AA was a sense of self. My recovery was a carbon copy of all others, and so was theirs, etc., etc.

    I was a clone!

    “Look for the similarities and not the differences” was one of many slogans used on me that helped slowly strip me of who I was.

    There was no use of slogans in such a way at the convention nor is there at my home group.

    Freedom comes to mind.

    In the workshops and on the panels the tales and accounts told of people’s journeys all had a common thread but the difference to the AA I know from the past, is that your recoveries are person centered to you as individuals and not generic as my recovery once was.

    I loved meeting every one of you and only wish I could have mingled more.

    I therefore shall work on my mingling skills so that I can mingle with the best of you skilled minglers either next December, or most definitely in Toronto in 2018.

    Lots of love to you all.

  8. Scot F. says:

    Bravo that the secular convention happened (lots of worthy work involved), and that so many were there to enjoy the connections!

    Temporarily transplanted to a bible-belted part of the SE USA (caring for health problems of my widowed, elderly Mom) where there are no secular or even tolerant meetings (and what I experience as stifling overt churchianity inside the rooms), I found the AA Agnostica website to be a recovery lifeline.

    Thanks to Roger C., life-j, all others who contribute here, and those among the founders who understood that religion was not required.

  9. Jerry F. says:

    Thank you, Life, for your heartfelt commentary. I enjoyed meeting you and meeting others who I knew and those who I’ve been reading but haven’t met.

    Austin went, for the most part, very well. As a board member, (well, now ex-board member) I have been considering what plans and steps we took that were beneficial for the convention and those that didn’t come off so well. It is an interesting exercise to say the least.

    After unpacking in my room, I took my copy of the Gideon bible down to the front desk and told them that I wouldn’t be needing it. And we were off and running!

    • Tony says:

      Awesome… I’ll remember to do the same at my next hotel stay and leave that awful book at the front desk. Thank you!!

  10. Anton D. says:

    Life-J, over the past few years, I’ve read quite a few of your postings, articles, and replies on this site and others, and I’ve always been delighted at how our thoughts and convictions seem to run in tandem. So many times, you’ve expressed exactly what I have wanted to be able to, and this article continues in that manner.

    I can only pay you one of the highest compliments I know – you give me hope.

  11. Jeb B. says:

    Thanks, Life, for your sincerity this writing. It was very good to gather with so many people willing to use the brain’s evolution and hold intelligent and honesty conversations. We are AA, I think, the best of what AA has to offer the 21st century world, inclusive, accepting and open-minded. That is perhaps our greatest challenge as we move forward, our commitment to keeping the program and fellowship available and digestible to everyone, believer or nonbeliever. Good job!

  12. Joe C says:

    I enjoy how diverse our community is. For some, it’s about authenticity, lifestyle, individuality. For some of us, it’s more political (small “p” politics) and supporting the voice of the atheist, humanist, etc., is a cause within the fellowship.

    It’s also a good point, as Bob K mentioned than many staunch atheists don’t feel any bother by a lot of prayer and god-talk. For some, it’s not oppressive or offensive, it’s just a foreign language for expressing the same experience. Not all women stick to women’s meetings, young people to 30-and-under meetings, LGBTs to LGBT meetings.

    Life, it was great to meet you in person. So many bonds formed online in Google/Facebook and forums like aaAgnsotica, and it’s nice to get some f-2-f (face to face) time. I know so many now, I left Austin with a longing that I didn’t get more time to sit down and talk with more people. Is that my ol’ alcoholic “more is better” mentality poking it’s head out?

    On another post we’re having a chat about our gathering: is it a convention or a conference? We spent so much time talking about the “atheist,” “agnostic,” “freethinker” labels we didn’t really get a consensus of what the “C” stands for. All in good time, I suppose.

    I hope in 2018 we offer more live streaming online options for those who can’t make it Toronto. It’s a good way to embrace the 21st century.

    Thanks Life, thanks Roger, and one-and-all for your comments.

    • life-j says:

      Good to meet you too, Joe.

      And yes the “C” word is an issue. It is one of the auto-suggestions under google and here is what you get: Difference Between Convention and Conference.

      The main difference between convention and conference is that convention is a large meeting of people who come to talk about their shared work, common interests or to make decisions as a group whereas a conference is a meeting that is generally designed for discussion, problem-solving, fact-finding and consultation.

      Sounds like we’re more of a convention.

  13. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you, life-j, for a heartfelt and most cogent summary of the auspicious event in Austin last weekend where we in the secular AA Fellowship gathered together to transform WAAFT IAAC into ICSAA.

    What I am most pleased about our gathering is that I discern from our discussions and deliberations that the vast majority of the attendees in Austin — I would estimate it to be a substantial unanimity of some 90-95% — are certain of our desire that our secular AA Fellowship stay fully engaged within and be an integral part of the General Service structure of the mainstream AA Fellowship. We want to cooperatively function within AA, not separate or apart from AA.

    I am convinced and deeply believe that this is the best way forward for our future evolution and growth, not only for our minority cohort within mainstream AA but for mainstream AA itself.

    I am most privileged to serve as a member of the new Board of Directors we elected in Austin. We met for a couple of hours and are unanimous in our intention to remain fully engaged within AA in accordance with AA’s history, traditions and concepts of service.

    • Linda McQ says:

      I could not attend, but hopefully I can in 2018. It sounds like it was an incredible experience. I am happy to hear that so many want to stay within AA. To me that is where we belong. It’s our history, and story too.

  14. Joy says:

    Thanks, Life, for the wonderful article! It was so nice to meet you. It would be difficult to forget meeting someone named Life.

    The only thing I can add is that the name was changed to International CONFERENCE of Secular AA (instead of convention).

    I’m stoked, too, and looking forward to Toronto. One day at a time.


  15. Lance B. says:

    Thank you for another meaningful article, Life. I gave Liz a heads up to be sure she sees it. Your writing means a lot me since our situations and responses to life are so similar.

    I committed to opening the 12@12 Freethinkers meeting at Cherry Creek Plaza next Sunday, and have requested that others take on that responsibility. There are daily secular meetings in Austin already and I make at least one each day. But the We Agnostics Group which you did not get to attend is planning a new meeting and will probably find someone who will provide openers for the meeting we three attended Sunday night.

    It was a pleasure spending time with you last weekend.

  16. Bob K. says:

    Wow!! This simple report has a lot of Life!! It is a wonderfully written piece, and I was pleased to see some kind words about big, bad, old traditional AA. Many of us navigated to sobriety through those troubled waters with the aid of very kind people.

    Did anyone toss a glass of holy water at Larry K., just to see what might happen?

  17. Murray says:

    My only regret was not being able to make it to Austin. Some physical challenges make traveling a tad awkward. But my Beyond Belief Suburban West members in Mississauga have kept me informed. Mississauga is next door to Toronto so I can’t wait for 2018!

    Thank you for this heartfelt article. When you mentioned the tears welling up mine did too.

    Many thanks!


  18. Marnin M. says:

    Are speakers recorded? If yes, please let me know where I can get the recordings. Thanks!

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