Staying sober without keeping the faith

Sober agnostics

On Tuesday, by a two-thirds majority, the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society voted to “list all groups that wish to be listed”.

This is, after almost three and a half years, a reversal of its decision towards the end of 2013 not to list agnostic and atheist groups. 

Bravo GVIS for this week’s decision!

Below is an article that was recently published in the Vancouver Courier about one of these groups, Sober Agnostics.

Agnostics and atheists step outside the traditional AA model

By John Kurucz
Originally published in the Vancouver Courier February 27, 2017.

In a past life, it would have been akin to uncovering a winning Lotto ticket, if not a gift from God.

Less than five years into his newfound sobriety, Steve B. found an untouched and unattended crack pipe, filled to the brim with the insidious substance that’s ravaged thousands of lives in Vancouver. (In keeping with rehab protocols and to respect their privacy, the Courier has chosen to not publish the last names of those currently attending meetings.)

“I picked it up, looked at it and walked back inside to work — that reinforced my commitment to sobriety,” Steve said. “When I think of alcohol and when I think of crack, I don’t jones for it. I am repelled. I want anything but that. I had 40 years of that s***.”

At 67, Steve has been through rehab countless times. He has relapsed daily, monthly, annually. There are five DUIs on his record. A marriage has fallen by the wayside, along with lucrative career paths. By the early 2000s he was living on the Downtown Eastside addicted to crack.

It was, in addiction parlance, his “bottoming out.”

Steve’s journey toward recovery has come by way of addition through subtraction. He is a co-founder of Sober Agnostics, a faithless rehab program based in Vancouver that shuns any mention of God in its 12-step philosophy.

That’s a marked departure from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other traditional 12-step programs, where references to God are included in most steps.

“If AA is the lifeboat for alcoholics, and if you’re an atheist, you’re out,” Steve said. “Trying to force people to believe in God is condescending and it’s condemning people to an alcoholic death.”

Making it work

Sober Agnostics began nearly five years ago. Ironically enough, the group meets at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, at the corner of 12th Avenue and Hemlock Street. That setting is chosen based on cost alone, as rental fees are 90 per cent less than other venues, Steve said.

Anyone experiencing addiction issues, whether they be drugs, alcohol, gambling or otherwise, is welcome to attend weekly meetings. Members range in age from their early 20s to their 70s and are predominantly men. Most come from middle-class families, others are “rich white people,” Steve said. The numbers range between five and 12 at each gathering.

Where AA has the “Big Book” to espouse its tenets, Sober Agnostics rely on what’s referred to as the “Little Book.”

Within both publications is the 12 steps, referred to as “How It Works.” Hilary J. modified those steps within a faithless context for the Sober Agnostics, and she now chairs weekly meetings and serves as the group treasurer.

She also happens to be Steve’s partner of eight years. Hilary is poised to celebrate six years of continuous sobriety, while Steve is on the precipice of his seven-year mark.

Both freed themselves from the shackles of addiction only after going Godless.

“I re-wrote [‘How It Works’] to focus more on our own self-empowerment, that we are taking responsibility for our own recovery, we are striving to overcome our weaknesses, as opposed to the traditional steps where you’re asking God to remove your defects of character,” said Hilary, 51. “I’m not asking God to do anything. I’m taking it upon myself to try to correct my defects of character.”

Stand-up comedian and life-long atheist Mark B. Hughes — who agreed to have his last name published — used personal work-arounds during his 12-step recovery.

“Lots of atheists go through them,” he said. “When they start talking about God, you try not to roll your eyes. You do your best to get along, and go along. For the most part you can adapt those steps to however you want.”

Out of step

The 12-step tradition was first championed in the 1930s by an American who went by the name of Bill W. He was Christian. Step 3 of the traditional doctrine states that AA participants “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Five other points within the 12 steps make allusions to God.

Despite Steve and Hilary’s reticence towards faith’s role in recovery, AA has undeniably helped millions. According to Vancouver-based addictions counsellor Careena Sharma, that’s because the traditional 12 steps hammer away at accountability.

“Some people aren’t really accountable to themselves or really anybody else,” said Sharma, who works for Jericho Counselling on West Broadway. “With the traditional 12-step program based around faith, people say that they now have someone that they’re accountable to. Whether it’s the almighty or even a friend, something about that is working for them because they’re accountable to someone or something else.”

Growing movement

The faithless movement sprung up in the mid-1980s in New York City. Steve suggests more than 400 groups now exist across North America and the U.K.

Steve and Hilary met on Commercial Drive while taking in a forum on addictions. Steve was attempting another go at getting clean, while Hilary was one year removed from when she bottomed out.

He took her to AA meetings, and for two years she didn’t say a word. Both relapsed in the early days of their courtship.

“We’d leave some of those meetings and head straight to the liquor store,” Steve said. “But we kept going back to meetings. The periods between trips to the liquor store got even longer.”

The revelatory experience they felt in a Godless setting is shared by virtually everyone who also relies on the meetings, Steve said.

But not everyone knows about them. That’s because Metro Vancouver’s AA governing body doesn’t recognize faithless groups. As such, Sober Agnostics is not listed on websites or directories that compile rehab services under the AA banner.

“People are ecstatic when they find out about us. They’re thrilled,” Steve said. “They often spend the first year or so bashing traditional AA. After a while that falls away, because resentments are the biggest issue in the program. It’s like the person or the thing you resent is using your head rent free. That’s what will lead to another drink.”

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15 Responses

  1. Nicole M says:

    Very inspiring article! I’m almost two years sober and struggling with traditional (and heavily Christian) AA meetings – which seem to be most of them in my area. Currently in the resentment stage and know that I need to let that go. I have kicked around the idea of starting my own and your article was very encouraging. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Larry K says:


  3. Bob K. says:

    Great news regarding the relisting.

    I surely would like to hear how this was presented to the groups. I suspect that the executive committee recommended the relisting, and laid out the potential consequences of NOT doing so.

  4. life-j says:

    This is good news. Now the question is which Intergroups are still holding out? Toronto, Vancouver, and Mendocino Inland have given in, who’s left?

  5. Al says:

    Any AA person wishing to exclude any member of the public for whatever discrimination, MUST therefore be OK with that person head-on crashing into them.

    You can’t have it both ways. You are either saving an alcoholic’s life (and often their contacts) or leaving him/her to threaten your own.

  6. Jeb B. says:

    This is wonderfully encouraging. I keep hoping that Denver Central Office Committee with eventually discuss and respond to our continuing requests for recognition and listing. It appears that they defer to the officer manager, violating traditions and concepts. Of course, they really aren’t AA!

  7. Joe C says:

    Hey VanCity! Congrats on restoring unity to Intergroup from the lower mainland. It’s great news to hear the vetting and de-listing language has fallen by the wayside and cooler, more AA-headed thinking and actions have been restored.

    Secular AA only appears to be “different” AA. AA, as defined by our preamble and our Traditions is a fellowship of alcoholics sharing their struggles and successes around alcoholism and living sober.

    Yes, AA has a program – a suggested program, an optional program because the journey is the same yet the paths to sobriety in AA are many.

    Many of the rituals of our home group may have made us uncomfortable at first but we adjusted. Now, groups with unfamiliar rituals may make us uncomfortable and we might think they–not us–have it wrong. But there is a difference between customary rituals and mandatory adherence. AAs are unique in that we can reject anything with impunity and for those of us who wish to interpret the Steps in a humanist or agnostic or secular or atheist (or whatever we want to call it) way, we are free to do so. When gathered with like-minded individuals, we are free to read our interpretation of the Steps and we are free to apply the principles as religiously or irreligiously as we fit – or reject the Steps entirely.

    This freedom has been available and exercised since many of us have been alive and certain since all of us have been sober. Buddhists first replaced “God” with “good” and some AAs grumbled about their non-conformity. The authors/founders of our Steps made it clear that this artistic license isn’t a loop-hole; it’s by design.

    “We know only a little” and “more will be revealed” humbly reminds me that I don’t have all the answers and no group has a 100% track record for sobering up everyone who claims to seek sobriety. Until that day comes where a flawless method is available, let’s keep this great AA experiment flexible and accommodating. I’ll keep talking about what works for me and about my successes and failures. I’ll listen with interest about your experience. Let’s not start telling others what would be good or better for them.

    Hostility still is expressed by some of our more religious members. They call secular AA a “watering down” and see it as threatening the integrity of AA’s message. Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness are the keys–not conformity. Secular AAs don’t claim we have found a better way for everyone, just a way that works for us. We have as legitimate an AA way as any other AA way.

    We are equal, not identical. Sadly, like the hetro-normative AA narrative makes it uncomfortable for some lesbian/gay/bi/trans members, we still have agnostic and atheist members and groups “in the closet,” afraid of wrath and discrimination such as Vancouver, Indianapolis, Des Moines and Toronto have faced. Agnostic groups in Ontario are still being scrutinized by local service structures that should be serving and not governing.

    There are other underrepresented minorities that I think we as a fellowship could do more to welcome and engage. If we do have a singleness of purpose it is sobriety – not theology. I hope we grow more inclusive and more compassionate. We still have much to learn and many who can teach us.

    Again, thanks to the greater Vancouver Intergroup we see that as a society, AA can overcome our small differences and better serve our primary purpose.

  8. Steve V. says:

    Always heart-warming when someone recovers from addiction/alcoholism regardless of beliefs or lack thereof. This story proves that when addicts/alcoholics get together, share their stories and help and support one another, recovery happens. Good for you fellow AA Agnostic members in Vancouver rightfully being listed as an AA meeting. Here’s hoping that trend continues!

  9. Jack B. says:

    Thanks Roger. The AAWS in New York sided with the Toronto AAAA Groups. The Ontario Human Rights Comission played its part as well. Vancouver Intergroup saw the writing on the wall and backed down. While it may be a pleasant belief that Vancouver Intergroup did the “right” thing, the hard truth is that it was their only move.

    I have no patience for religious bigots. Hopefully this decision trims their sails somewhat. They’re a small holdout group in the wider AA whose time in the sun is gone. AA as a whole will benefit from this decision and begin to grow again.

    Cheers Roger, Jack B. Vancouver.

  10. Bill D says:

    Thanks for this update Roger. 2/3 majority… Good on ya GVIS. And kudos to the Courier for the privacy concerns. Here in the States publishers don’t want to accord that same degree of respect.

    What is more amazing to me is that the motion to include passed given the Tradition 5 concerns that must have been raised “Anyone experiencing addiction issues, whether they be drugs, alcohol, gambling or otherwise, is welcome to attend….”

    Stay the course, I’m going to.

    • Roger says:

      There was no kowtowing on the part of Sober Agnostics. Many people at AA meetings have other addictions and Sober Agnostics doesn’t pretend otherwise. Enough lies and pretense in AA already.

      • Bill D says:

        Certainly wasn’t an indictment of GVIS, Roger. Was intended to convey message that there must have been some hard liners willing to supply that body with an excuse to continue banning non-theistic groups other than their stance on religion. As I said…Kudos GVIS

  11. Oren says:

    Congratulations once again to our Canadian brothers and sisters. Thanks for publishing this, Roger.

  12. Thomas B. says:

    Excellent Roger. Thanks for posting this. It was refreshing to read at the beginning of the Vancouver Courier article that privacy and rehab protocols were used instead of anonymity to explain why last names were not used for subjects of the article.

    I also greatly appreciate the emphasis on accountability to self and others, our human power, instead of God’s hand and direction being the source of recovery.

    Despite all seeming odds, we keep truckin’ onwards and upwards and progress inevitably evolves…

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