Beyond Belief Agnostics and Freethinkers

Toronto's City Hall

In January of this year the discrimination against agnostic groups by Intergroup in the Toronto area ended as a result of a settlement mediated by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. In the very next Intergroup Newsletter, called Better Times, this candid history of one of the previously excluded groups was published. Imagine that.

By Joe C

Thursday, September 24th, 2009 at 6:30 PM, the first meeting of Beyond Belief Agnostics and Freethinkers Group took place at the University of Toronto. There are now 14 GTA meetings “without a prayer”. I’m a regular around the AA History Lovers clan and periodically, I write and speak about our collective history. Eddy G from Toronto archives was excited to show me a late 1990s meeting list with a We Agnostics Group on Danforth, in District 22. So, if any East-enders remember We Agnostics, I’d love to hear from you.

At the turn of the century, I found an active group of AA atheists / agnostics form around the world, online. I found an international website of agnostic / atheists AA groups that included New York City. “Great,” I decided, “Next New York trip, I’m going.” I told some of my homegroup friends. I got to a couple of New York agnostic groups and I couldn’t wait to help start a Toronto group with my fellow AAs.

Many agnostic groups had web pages with meeting scripts and readings. Living Sober is a popular reading. We adopted this popular opening:

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

There was no praying; some groups recited the Responsibility Declaration or “Live and Let Live” and some just close with “Our next meeting is ___ ; who’s going for coffee?”

BB Better Times

Click on the image above to view this article as posted in the February issue of the GTA Intergroup Newsletter.

A lot of the early Toronto members came from Midtown, Stepping Stones and other groups in the Annex. Alcoholics from Ajax to Mississauga joined us. A lot of long-timers talk about AA recovery, not fitting their beliefs into G.O.D. acronyms or start every share with, “I don’t mean to offend anyone but…”

There are those newcomers who tried faking it and repeatedly not made it but have now found sobriety in our gathering of mostly nonbelievers. Some AAs never have the experience of a prayer-answering, sobriety-granting higher power. At Beyond Belief, we just share from our heart, unabashedly.

There are 400 secular AA meetings around the world. From 2009 to 2017, we went from zero to over 24 Canadian meetings for atheists / agnostics.

The International Conference of Secular AA is coming to downtown Toronto, in 2018. Many of us are busy with our first local gathering called SOAAR (Secular Ontario AA Roundup) September 16, 2017.

AA History isn’t something that happened “way back when”. AA evolves before our eyes. It’s an exciting time to be sober in Toronto AA.

16 Responses

  1. Steve V. says:

    Well said Joe. I think it was your and Larry K.’s example that encouraged me to help start an Agnostic/Atheist/Freethinkers meeting in Windsor Ontario last year. Thanks!

  2. Joe C says:

    I think of Intergroup as two Greater Toronto Area Intergroups; there is the ad hoc committee (not elected) and the intergroup reps from neighbor meetings.

    The Intergroup which is our fellow members are glad we’re back, happy to move on. This Intergroup would be glad to see us helping on the phones, standing for executive committee, volunteering as liaison for Public Information, Treatment, Archives etc. This is the Intergroup that extended the invitation to write a group history in what may be the most widely-read issue of the year. March is one of few colour issues and it is circulated at the Ontario Regional Conference March 10 – 12, at the Royal York Hotel where 2,000 – 3,500 AAs, AlAnons and AlAteens will be in attendance. So, in my mind, this is a noteworthy gesture to have us grace our community publication this month. I think it is a classy and empathetic gesture that says, “We, the members, are glad you are back.”

    Then there’s the Ad Hoc committee made up, in part, by the architects of this discrimination complaint before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in the first place and in part by the new guard, keen to restore unity and move on.

    But for today, let’s think about this “welcome home” gesture from Intergroup and remember this was never secular AA against AA as a whole. AA as a whole is glad we’re back. We are neither precious nor are we any threat to AA, we are rights-bearing equals.

  3. Thomas B. says:

    Excellent !~!~!

    • Bob K. says:

      “Someday I’m going to be as positive as Thomas B.”

      “Are you sure, Bob?”

      “No, I’m not positive.”

      ^^You see what I did there?^^

  4. David B says:

    Kudos Toronto Agnostics and Atheists in AA! And thank you. You’re an inspiration to those of us in need of this support.

    Anybody in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, area interested in starting a meeting?

  5. Bob K. says:

    The Whitby Freethinkers closes with “Thanks for coming, we hope to see you again next week,” aka The Bob K. Prayer. People new to our group, but not new to AA, are sometimes taken aback by how the meeting ends. “So, is that it?”

    We’re into our 4th year, and serving a previously underserved element of the alcoholic community, including a good number of young people. We had 21 last Monday, and 28 the week before. Among our regulars are some traditional AA members who like our nonreligious format. But make no mistake – we have an AA meeting.

    We discuss 3 topics per week, including one step. There’s lots of sharing from experienced members on how to translate the steps to terms that bypass the religiosity.

    Toronto’s current executive committee seems to be more open-minded than the 2011-2012 folks whose error in judgment turned out to be an expensive one.

  6. Jan A. says:

    I really appreciate your vision, your work, and all your support, Joe. I am reminded each day of the power of one when I read from Beyond Belief. Thank you!

  7. Peggy H. says:

    The fact that there is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership for AA goes back to the very beginning of AA. It is extremely important that we continue to practice this if we want to exist.

  8. John L. says:

    A fine history article and good news that Intergroup published it – truly a “welcome back”. Regular AA can go back to or evolve towards the true AA. It just takes time. The Perry Street Workshop took decades to get rid of the “Lord’s Prayer” and smoking, but it did get rid of them.

  9. Bill G. says:

    Please keep up the good work of making AA open and inviting to anybody seeking recovery.

    I’ve stood outside of the closing prayer circle for over thirty some years now. Most of the time with no problem. Just because the herd just jumped off the cliff you need not follow. At times well meaning people try to pull me in but I politely resisted and explain I’m agnostic / pagan / born again cosmic naturalist.

    This last week in Northwest Michigan Big Book country a couple of members expressed there unhappiness with me standing outside of their circle which I explained wasn’t even around the first ten years of my 38 years of sobriety. They were even less pleased.

    I remember when this circle thing started in our area several members stood outside but the pressure to be one of the herd became stronger and stronger. In my home group it got to the point where one old timer 50 plus yrs and I stood out alone. He died and now it’s just me. That circle is not inclusive but exclusive. We still have a long ways to go to open this recovery up.

    Thanks. Bill G. Stepping out for the minority.

  10. Diane B says:

    I am the ex-wife of an alcoholic. I dislike greatly the religious “coercion/conversion” therapy I’ve heard at both AA and Al-Anon meetings. I would like to start a group without religion in the New Castle, Pa./Youngstown, OH area but I am bewildered as to how to start. How do I obtain the materials and how do I encourage others to join?

  11. Brad S. says:

    I just stumbled on to this website and what a meaningful coincidence! I have been sober in AA for 13 years and have stayed close to the program. I give AA credit for my sobriety. However, I am not a believer and have continually tried to skew my thinking, mainly by “faking it ’til I make it.” It has not worked. My sharing doesn’t feel very authentic or honest, because it isn’t. I have felt stuck and stifled for a very long time. So grateful that I found you!

  12. Ian S. says:

    I’m spending the winter in Florida and after a bit of a controversial big book study, I was forced to look for a open-minded meeting. I thank them now.

    I found the Freethinkers meeting in St. Petes.

    I hope to start a Freethinkers meeting in Chatham, Kentucky when I get home. Love and service.

  13. Wisewebwoman says:

    Great to read this.

    Our tiny group closes with the Responsibility Pledge, one of the most powerful statements in our fellowship.

    I am so happy that Toronto Intergroup is more inclusive now. I was in AA service in Toronto for many years.

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