The Kawartha Freethinkers

Mount Community Centre

By Bob K

It must be almost three years since Jim M. first came down from Peterborough to see what we were doing at our Whitby Freethinkers meeting. As a long sober secularist in a town with only conventional AA meetings, Jim knew that there was a significant portion of the small city’s (80,000 population) alcoholics who were not well served by what traditional AA has to offer. A second resident, of the cottage country town, Ollie C., has also attended our Whitby meeting.

Thus, Whitby co-founder Craig C. and myself were like a couple of proud uncles on Tuesday, May 2nd, as we took to the road for the 80 kilometer drive (50 miles) to the inaugural meeting of Kawartha Freethinkers. A rainy night did not dim our enthusiasm. The proud uncles were excited uncles! I am also proud to report that our rainy cruise was in Craig’s Prius, leaving a minimum carbon footprint. Rarely have I been so politically correct, or so ecologically appropriate.

Of course, the cursed (two syllables) Bob K. cynicism feared that Craig and I would save the meeting founders, Jim, Ollie, and Val C. from having a three-way conversation with the coffee pot. This was to be a night of surprises.

The first delightful surprise was the venue:

The Mount Community Centre came into existence out of a single belief – that the option to redevelop the historic former home of the Sisters of St. Joseph was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This 10 acres in the middle of the City of Peterborough has 131,400 square feet of buildings – including housing, a commercial kitchen, chapel and so much more. (Mount Community Centre)

The Sisters of St. Joseph bought this land in 1893, moving into its original farmhouse on Jan. 1, 1895. The original farmhouse had previously been the residence of a local magistrate, and the AA meeting takes place in this 19th Century structure with 12 foot ceilings, tremendous woodwork, and remarkable windows. This latest secular AA meeting takes place in a onetime convent. The kitchen and washrooms are less delightful, but it’s a great venue.

The second big surprise came with the attendance. More and more chairs were fetched to accommodate the 21 souls (pardon the term, but we were in what was once the dining hall of a residence for nuns) who came out to the first-ever secular AA meeting in Peterborough. Although one might expect a certain number of curiosity seekers, and perhaps hostile investigators, the introductions confirmed that the target audience had been reached, and that Peterborough has a real need for such a gathering.

Some had come from other towns like Bobcaygeon, Lindsay, and Port Hope. Most were not quite sure what a freethinker meeting was, but they had hope. A very handsome fellow familiar with “agnostic” meetings, the movement, the Toronto situation, the websites, and the growing body of secular literature, described the mission of freethinker meetings. The nods showed appreciation, but the tears did  so more poignantly. It was a terrific meeting!!

The desire for a non-religious meeting was not the motivation for all who felt a need for a “freethinking” meeting. Two gay men felt that they would find less prejudice here. They did. A feminist-activist had her own, and not unique, objections to fundamentalism and much that’s in AA literature. There were many agnostics, and there was much talk of spirituality, but spirituality outside of the usual template. Love, good, humanity, connectedness were discussed. It was a tremendous AA meeting. These folks were interested in recovery.

We had a Jewish man who expressed his feelings of being excluded by the strong Christian theme in AA’s literature, and in its meeting rituals. There weren’t a lot of folks there who’d be likely to object to the lack of “The Lord’s Prayer”. Don’t get me started. I must add that the discussion was respectful. The beliefs of traditional believers were not denigrated. Any venting was very gentle. The common tack was more “I don’t fit in”, “I’m uncomfortable with ABC”, “I was told I needed to XYZ, and I didn’t think I could do that”.

It was a terrific meeting! Did I say that already? Good.

I went back May 9th, and I have a report on the second meeting. It was a terrific AA meeting! Attendance was 20, with 9 women, including my new feminist friend, and some new faces. We read and discussed the daily reading from Beyond Belief – Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, by the incomparable Joe C. There were more young people. I think that trend of appealing to the youth demographic is certain to continue. There was a former DCM present and he said he supports the existence of the meeting.

There were three attendees who introduced as “recovered” alcoholics (ruh-roh) which is generally fundie talk, but only one shared her evolution from the heathen darkness, to a group higher power, and (cue the organ) eventually to the REAL Higher Power, who she calls God. (Should that be “Whom” with a capital “W”?)

On May 16th, I made it out to the third meeting. The topics “Can you be good without God?” and “How does a secularist do Steps 2 and 3?” drew some insightful comments from those who have navigated the path. Once more, it was a terrific AA meeting. Attendance was back up to 21, with almost half women, and more young people.

The thirst for secular AA is sustaining in Peterborough. There is a thirst for recovery, and a hunger for help.

The whole thing is electrifying for me. Five or six years ago, I was jaded, somewhat disenchanted, and considered becoming an AA dropout, or a once-in-a-whiler. Instead, I’m an activist. An active activist, and a presence  both in secular and traditional AA. I’m enthusiastic!

We toil in a worthy cause.  We’re serving a previously poorly served element of the alcoholic-needing-help market. We’re helping people. The Kawartha folks are going to help a LOT of people.

I’m stoked!!

The featured image at the top of the article is of the Mount Community Centre, 1545 Monaghan Rd, Peterborough, where the Kawartha Freethinkers meet on Tuesday evenings at 8 PM. All alcoholics with a desire to stop drinking are welcome.

To view a differently detailed history of how this meeting came into existence, written by its three founders, you can click here: Kawartha Freethinkers.

21 Responses

  1. Bob K. says:

    The Peterborough folks report an attendance of 22 (including some “observers”) at Week 4. Remarkable attendance for a new discussion meeting.

  2. Bob K. says:

    Jimmy B. also was the first to write an AA history – a lengthy pamphlet best described as a booklet, perhaps. Unfortunately there are multiple errors. He frequently gets wrong the name of people and places, so his credibility is suspect. In THE VICIOUS CYCLE, Jim tells us he blacked out the first time he drank, and elsewhere he’s stated he blacked out every time he drank. Clearly there was some brain damage.

    He does sound coherent in the tape where he mentions the limited sobriety at the time of the book publication, but he makes other errors of fact.

    My suspicion is that the truth lies somewhere in between Jim’s account and the official version. I discovered evidence that the Akron folks fudged the time of sobriety of AT LEAST one early member to the Rockefeller people in something called the Amos List. I presented my undeniable evidence to AA History Lovers (where the big fish swim) and got “crickets.”

    In the final analysis, the BB, which I view as a mixture of the weird and the wonderful, was penned by a salesman who partnered with a promoter.

  3. Bob K. says:

    The fundies of the modern era bring God into Step 1. They can’t wait, I guess, and they like the simple choice to be between individual willpower and God’s power. A 1930s version of Step 1 is “We admitted we were licked,” i.e. couldn’t drink successfully. No mention of God. Step 1 is about the problem.

    There is an AA description of Step 1 in the opening paragraph of the dreaded Chapter 4. For me,

    Step 1 = a) I can’t moderate my drinking; b) I couldn’t quit on my own resources (I tried); c) life had become unmanageable means I was pretty messed up, and it wasn’t all fixed by stopping drinking. I didn’t need a new Manager (capital “M”), but I did need to be open to new ideas, strategies, lifestyle, etc. I accepted AA’s program (in a modified form) as a management consultant, perhaps.

    Step 2 = The steps 12 have helped millions of people; maybe they can help me.

    Step 3 = Made a decision to give the rest of the AA program a reasonable effort. I secularized it where I needed to.

    Self-examination is an age-old idea. Amends have brought me improved connectedness and self-respect. Helping others accomplishes those things and more.

  4. life-j says:

    Ollie, indeed! According to a 1957 talk by Jim Burwell, at the time the big book was published there were 8 members with more than 6 months sobriety

  5. Dana says:

    Thanks so much, I really appreciate this information. You have much better search skills than me 🙂

    When I get my license back, I look forward to the 30 mile trek to Cypress (30 miles)!!!!

    Very Thankful,


  6. Roger says:

    Hi Dana: Great comment! I was able to find one agnostic AA meeting in Orange County on the Secular AA website. My very best wishes. Roger.

  7. Dana says:

    Great post! Forced to go to AA meetings and DUI programs, I discovered and accept that I’m an alcoholic.

    The downside of traditional AA is that I have been stuck on the traditional AA step 1 for 5 months (the length of my sobriety).

    I live in the most conservative county of California – Orange County. There are no AA meeting offerings for Athiests, Agnostics or FreeThinkers (at least that I’m aware of or could find on the Internet). Yes, there’s LA but that’s too far and I can’t drive right now (suspended license).

    Needless to say, it’s been a struggle to follow the traditional AA process – this so-called method that if followed to a “T”, will give me ever-lasting sobriety.

    Initially, during the first 4 months of my sobriety, I have been secretly annoyed at the strong religious tones of the AA sobriety process. At times, I couldn’t help but to “share” my process, honestly and openly speaking about my non-religious lifestyle. To avoid all the “after-meeting-trolling”, I would follow-up my announcement with revealing my former Christian life (went to a religious college, was a deacon in the church, know the bible inside out until I took the “blue” pill). This also helped the leaders respectfully choose a less religious closing prayer as possible.

    Trying to relate to a “higher power”, I’ve purchased intellectual books that taught me the psychology, the physical and the social impacts of alcohol. Although on month 5 now, I’ve learned and practicing a more self-less, loving, respectful lifestyle – even though it’s closer to a “spiritual” ether, it’s not intellectually not 100% there yet (which is a no-no in AA terms).

    What severely lacks in the traditional AA is that although they welcome anyone, I have yet to meet anyone qualified to bridge the “spiritual” gap to Athiests or Agnostics. These meetings are not “truly” meant for non-God believers….contrary to AA traditions.

    The only good aspect about these OC AA meetings are listening to other alcoholic stories. They are similar to my story and seem to agnostic of race, religion or sex. Hearing how they recover helps (aside from the “faith in God” adherence). I take extracts of applicable goodness I can. To handle sitting through the religious AA discussions, I meditate to love, respect and be harmonious to my AA peers… this also helps keep the scowl of my face by the meetings end.

    I’ve often thought of starting my own Athiest/Agnostic AA meeting here in OC but I don’t feel qualified enough as I’ve got to get through one year first before I can feel comfortable with that effort.

    I’m thankful for these articles and to hear others journeys. Please keep them coming.


  8. John S says:

    That’s incredible to have so many people at the first three meetings. It took us over two years before we had twenty people in a meeting.

    The meeting location looks incredible. It was nice to experience this via Bob K’s amazing writing.

  9. Bob K. says:

    Very nicely stated!!

  10. Ollie C. says:

    Great article as usual Bob. We have been very fortunate here in Peterborough with the turnout from meeting one and the attitude of those who attend and want to share their experience. My program has been in a bit of an ebb prior to picking up Joe C’s Beyond Belief daily reader a few years back at the ORC. A breath of fresh air is an understatement.

    Having been out to Whitby Freethinkers several times over the last few years, mainly for intial support, anniversaries, medalions I have always liked the format. Jim had spoken about wanting to start a secular group for over a year and I was all for it but there was little else but talk until the beginning of this year. I was deeply offended by Toronto Intergroups treatment of the secular groups in Toronto and was completely shocked by their response to the HRTO claim asserting that “membership in AA required a belief in a higher power God.” Intellectual dishonesty is an understatement. For those of us who appreciate the history of AA the traditions, and concepts to claim a belief in God is required is insulting to say the least.

    AA loved me back to health in my darkest days and I have always been grateful. Over the past few years I have seen a doubling down on the fundamentalist belief in the program from a certain element and intolerance for those outside the norm. I have also heard a lot of misinformation about the history of AA in the rooms purportedly to support a certain ideation of what AA was, and the problem with it today. Unfortunately many believe the book Alcoholics Anonymous is the history of AA. The idea that I can find answers to all my life’s problems in 164 pages written in 1939 by a main author with less then 5 years sobriety is ludicrous.

    This meeting is what the doctor ordered for this alcoholic. It is exciting to meet those who have a need for inclusive, non judgemental flavour of AA who can be themselves without fear of reprisal or being pulled aside after a meeting to be told what to think, believe and feel or you will get drunk. Kawartha Freethinkers will be representing at the September Secular round up and are looking forward to meeting more members as the months go on. There seems to be more of a need in Peterborough and area for a freethinkers meeting than we had imagined. The first meeting was special indeed. To hear a young member show up curious and state “this is exactly what he had hoped it would be” told me our decision to start this meeting was a right one.

  11. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Bob, an excellently fashioned report about the first several meetings of the Kawartha Group, full of your usual aplomb and wonderful humor — thank you !~!~!

    Yes, we are indeed fulfilling a need that traditional AA has been lacking for the last number of years for previously underserved populations, the young, the differently-gendered, the skeptical, questioning and non-believing alcoholics among us, and we are not only helping them get sober, we are saving lives.

    I had a similar experience with Roger last night at the first anniversary of the the Windsor, ON group, and my sometimes cynical, jaded self was re-enthused to continue my secular activism within AA, both in secular meetings as well as in so-called traditional (i.e. religious) meetings . . . 😉

  12. life-j says:

    Glad to see yet another meeting, and thanks for your entertaining style Bob.

  13. Joe C says:

    I would think that any North American town with a college/university in it is a ripe for a freethinking/questioning/dogma-lite view of AA. Peterborough is just such a college-town. There is a certain liberal ethos associated with higher-learning. Not that secular AA is anti-conservative; the most back-to-basics core of AA is one alcoholic talking to another.

    While AA membership troubles (decline) are modest on the whole, in Canada we are about 25% off our membership highs of 20 years ago.

    In 1976 I joined an AA that had 47,800 Canadian members in 2683 groups. Twenty years ago (1997) we’d grown to 102,500 members and 5277 groups. In 2017 we ring in at 77,145 members in 4,312 group.

    Freethinkers/Secular AA is modest – about 25 of 4312 meetings (1/2 of 1%) in Canada. We are going in a very different direction than Canadian AA as a whole since 2009, though aren’t we?

    Hopefully the Secular Ontario AA Roundup will be well attended September 16th and maybe there will be several city/town bidders to bring the next one to your community. Hopefully more of us will get active at district and help out with local hospital and institutional meetings. Our CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) attendees at the AA meeting always offer a warm welcome when Beyond Belief, We Agnostics and We Are Not Saints members attend and share.

    I don’t know that we are “the taste of a new generation,” but not everyone who is thirsty wants Cola. I think there is a growing appetite for our alcoholic talking to another alcoholic approach to Alcoholics Anonymous.

    I hope to see some of the newer Peterborough/Lindsay members who come to the meeting online; I look forward to hearing them share. Thanks everyone for sharing.

  14. Bob K. says:

    The real shoutout here is to the group founders, Jim, Val, and Ollie. With 80 something years of sobriety among the 3 of them, they don’t need this for their own sobriety, but I suspect they will get a warming satisfaction from those that are helped.

    Peterborough is going to be a tremendous success for non-religious AA. The vibe up there is fantastic. I had no plans to be a regular, but it’s an exciting thing to be a part of.

  15. Lisa M. says:

    Great posting. Restores my faith in freethinkers and godless sobriety.

    Your politically correct comments and mocking self humor are appreciated, as in, who couldn’t use some comic relief?

    I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear there are possibilities (however few and randomly located) in the agnostic/free thinking world.

    My confusion is why the Steps have not been removed altogether and the entire AA program modified. Oh don’t get me going… while I am a mere dabbler in AA activity, how it has ever gained such status with such low success rates makes me pull hair. Or drink. Not.

    All of this to say, stay the course, fight the good fight and come to Connecticut!!! Thank you, Lisa.

  16. Craig C. says:

    Fabulous start and great article Bob. However I would not be entirely honest if I did not say that I am a wee bit envious of how quickly this group got out of the gate! Hit the ‘market’ dead on here – way to go.
    Craig C.

  17. Bob K. says:


  18. Steve V. says:

    Thanks Roger! It was a terrific evening and you helped make it so! Dummy me, I didn’t see the meeting info at the bottom of the article. I hope to attend in the coming months.

  19. Roger says:

    That info is at the very bottom of the article, Steve! Hey, that was a wonderful first anniversary of the All Are Welcome group last night in Windsor! I was delighted to be be a participant.

  20. Steve V. says:

    That’s terrific! I go to Peterborough every month or so and would love to attend. Sounds like Tuesday evenings at at what time and what location?

  21. Jon S says:

    What a fantastic piece. It sounds like it was a great meeting! I’m sure more will follow. Atheist AA is the future of AA. Well done, Bob. Jon S

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