Chapter 13: Santa Monica Convention

Chapter 13: Santa Monica Convention

Word about a plan to hold a first international convention for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA began to circulate in early April 2013.

The plan had originated with two alcoholic women, Dorothy H and Pam W, both members of We Agnostics, the meeting started in Hollywood in 1980 by Charlie Polacheck and Megan D.

They had discussed the idea of the convention between themselves rather cautiously over the month of January. But then, having discovered the AA Agnostica and Agnostic AA NYC websites, they realized that they were not alone, and that agnostic groups didn’t only exist in Los Angeles. And then, reaching out to people like Deirdre S, the manager of the New York website, they discovered there was both support and enthusiasm for such a convention.

Dorothy, whose sobriety date is March 27, 2011, sent out an email to as many people as she could find on April 16, 2013. It contained a flyer about a We Agnostics / Free Thinkers International Alcoholics Anonymous Convention (WAFT IAAC) to be held in November 2014.

“Be of Service. Be a part of history.” That’s how it began.

And then it had several points including the following:

  • Many of us struggled with religion and faith or know others who relapsed or left the rooms because they couldn’t live the lie of belief. In this convention we want to address the struggles that each of us faces as we find our way in recovery and service work.

  • Our goal is to ensure that We Agnostics, non believers, and people who think god and religion is an outside issue know that they have a place within AA.

  • There are 22 states and 4 countries that have We Agnostic type meetings. Our goal is to bring us all together to discuss OUR experience, OUR strength, and OUR hope and to share solutions as free thinkers within the AA program.

And then it ended with “Be of Service. Be a part of history. What you do can change things. We need your help.

A convention planning meeting was held on June 8, 2013. It brought together a small group of Californians and two people from Maui, Hawaii, Rich H and Joan C.

And the first official announcement came on June 16 when an article was published on AA Agnostica: An AA Convention for We Agnostics1.

It featured an interview with Pam W and some of the details of the convention were shared. It would be held in Santa Monica, California, from Thursday to Saturday, November 6 through 8, 2014 at a Unitarian Universalist Church. Here’s Pam:

We found a lovely location at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in the center of Santa Monica, only a couple of miles from the beach. It has a courtyard with a BBQ and enough classrooms for several workshops and marathon meetings. The UU community is very embracing of non-believers and it has a special place in our history as the location of Chicago’s Quad A’s first meeting in 1975. It is a perfect place for this historic event.

The convention would consist of panels, workshops and speakers, the details of which were still being worked out. There was also a plan to have back-to-back marathon-style meetings in a dedicated room. Agnostic groups from around the world would host these meetings with their own formats and agendas, allowing delegates at the convention to “travel” to meetings in New York, Chicago, Toronto, London, etc., without having to leave the room. Pam thought it would be helpful and “fulfilling to experience other non-religious styled meetings and share our different paths to recovery”.

And the panels, workshops, speakers and meetings would all be part of the theme of the convention: “Many paths to recovery”.

Santa MonicaWhile there were regular planning meetings for the convention, most of the convention work was in the hands of a three person Steering Committee, consisting of Dorothy, Pamela and Jonathon Goley, another person who regularly attended the We Agnostics meeting in Hollywood. (Jonathan was found dead on October 18, 2014, less than one month before the convention.)

And the most active of those was certainly Dorothy.

In July and August 2013 she did a tour, visiting agnostic AA meetings in New York, Toronto and Chicago, successfully generating interest and enthusiasm.

As it turns out, speakers would be an important and inspiring part of the convention. There would be two types of speakers: “Keynote Speakers” and “Fellowship Speakers”.

And why did people attend this first-ever convention for we agnostics? Let’s hear from them. Here are reasons given by several people, all of which is excerpted from an article by Dorothy, Convention Fellowship Speakers2, published on AA Agnostica on October 19, 2014.

* * *

Convention Fellowship Speakers

by Dorothy H

The convention registration so far represents how we agnostics and freethinkers in AA span the globe, with people from Canada, U.S., Philippines, Costa Rica, England, Spain, France, Ireland, Australia and American Samoa.

Our fellowship speakers have labored in love and anonymity for decades. Some are founders of meetings, prison panel leaders, authors, GSRs, webmasters, and founders of Internet groups and have dedicated years to WAFTs in AA. They gave countless hours of volunteer work to guarantee that our convention in November will be an amazing historical event…

Each speaker’s contribution to AA is distinct and their stories follow.

Deirdre S

Deirdre S’s service work is one of the pivotal reasons that people like me were able to get sober and stay sober. Deirdre’s website, Agnostic AA NYC3, with the World Agnostics AA Meeting List, would lead me to my homegroup, We Agnostics of Hollywood, CA.

The world list taught me WAFTs exist internationally. Deirdre was the first person I contacted about the convention. Deirdre responded to me by email on 3/31/13, she wrote: “I strongly believe that the goal of any discussion must be about staying IN AA and not trying to form a second organization and it looks like that’s part of the agenda”.

I addressed Deirdre’s concerns that we were not a split! Once that was clear, Deirdre sent an email to her contact list to announce that we “were thinking of creating a convention”. My inbox and voice mail was full of messages from people across the country and Canada pleading with us to move forward. Deirdre’s response was the turning point that told Pam W and me that WAFT IAAC was possible and the Fellowship wanted it!

When I asked Deirdre why she thought the convention was important to her, she wrote:

I don’t have a lot of faith. What I have is experience. For the past 17 1/2 years it has been my experience that within the unstructured structure of Alcoholics Anonymous I have found a new way to live. I was never able to make my numerous decisions to stop drinking or cut down stick. I began finding my place in AA. This is something that didn’t happen in my first six months of sobriety. I had to walk into an agnostic meeting before I met people who I really identified with unreservedly. There I could be completely honest. There I found real friendship and help. We each need to find our place and that is why coming to the first-ever conference for agnostics, free thinkers, and others was a must.

We all need to find our place, and Deirdre has been a pivotal resource for people within AA.

Joan C

This movement in AA is growing.

The first step of outreach work was to call people from the World AA Agnostic list. I called Maui, HI, and spoke to Rich H. Rich is one of the co-founders of three agnostic groups on Maui. After a three-hour talk, Rich called Joan C. She was his co-founder of the Maui groups.

Joan, as an old-timer, had left AA a few decades before. She felt her voice wasn’t respected and that AA did not want her sober experience. When Rich approached her, it changed her life and the face of Maui AA. Joan did not stop at forming three meetings. She also started an independent women’s prison panel. She continues to be of service to her local central office and has been a part of countless committees.

When I asked Joan why she thought the convention was important she said:

This convention is very important to me. It is something that I, in my forty-five years of sobriety, didn’t think I would ever see. It confirms that we agnostics and free thinkers in AA are numerous enough to reassure the non-believing newcomer that he is in the right place for recovery. This movement in AA is growing and will continue to grow as more and more We Agnostics meetings are formed.

Tim M

Tim spent his early sobriety in San Diego, CA. Tim comes from a Catholic family and has a wonderful relationship with his brother who is a Jesuit priest. He has been a cornerstone for the We Agnostics meeting in Los Feliz, CA, for over twenty years.

In shares, Tim describes his alcoholism as a desire not to feel.

When I asked Tim why he thought the convention was important he wrote:

What I am is a skeptic and non-believer; a philosophical perspective developed both honestly and independently of other important currents in my life, including alcoholism and recovery. What I am not is a proselytizer for atheism or any other creed. I respect the right of others to believe as they will. I contend that belief or non-belief is a matter of individual conviction and conscience. I believe that the point of the Convention is to assert that right of honest conviction and conscience with respect to belief or non-belief, to do so on behalf of every individual in the fellowship, and to insist that it be respected by all. Nothing less, nothing more.

Respect for all is our goal. The Fellowship Speakers have been an inspiration to everyone in the WAFT world through their love and service! And they continue to give of themselves to make AA a place where we ALL can live honest and open lives.

* * *

We are a part of AA. And AA needs to be more inclusive. Those would be the central themes of the convention.

There would be great panels. There would be great workshops. All of the workshops and panels were held on the last two days – Friday and Saturday – of the Convention. A rough count indicates that there were some fifteen panels and twenty-one workshops. And there would be some thirty agnostic AA meetings held one after another throughout the last two days of the Convention.

Many of these are reported on AA Agnostica, which posted articles online at the end of each day of the Convention. You can read those here: We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention: Day 1, Day 2 and Day 34,5,6. And a fourth article recording events at the convention was posted ten days later: Workshops at the WAFT Convention7.

Let us conclude this chapter with reports on the three rather exceptional keynote speakers at Santa Monica.

Marya Hornbacher, the author of several books including, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, ended the first day of the convention. Joe C, reporting on her talk, captured much of the mood of that first day of the first convention for non-believers in AA. First, he quotes Marya: “What I do have is the utmost faith in that I don’t know… I don’t get God but I do know awe and wonder and grace. I do know that I am grateful to be here and I do know that I am lucky to have found AA in you,” referring to the agnostics, atheist and free thinkers listening to her with rapt attention.

Joe continues,

I think that’s how we all felt at the end of day of the first International meeting of nonbelievers in AA. We felt lucky, grateful to hear a day of speakers from the UK, France, Canada, Hawaii, New York, Chicago and from the host-state, California… It was nice to be part of AA history for a change. It would not surprise me that… by the 100th anniversary of AA, this historical day will be remembered as a meaningful turning point in AA. Many of the two to three hundred that gathered felt this modest shift in the direction in AA’s future. Marya’s talk expressed this hope that AA is and will progress.

Phyllis Halliday, the General Manager of the AA General Service Board, ended the second day of the Convention and Thomas B described her talk as “one of the major highlights of this week’s magnificent milestone event”.

And finally the last keynote speaker was Reverend Ward Ewing, a former Class A (non-alcoholic) Trustee and Chairman of the General Service Board of AA.

Freethinkers ConventionBy the last day of the convention, attendance had grown to almost three hundred women and men. And, besides more engaging workshops, panels and marathon meetings, the rooms at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Santa Monica, California, were buzzing in anticipation of the closing talk to be delivered by Reverend Ward Ewing, who had been present throughout the Convention.

And as reported by Russ H: his talk was delivered “to a standing room only crowd of AA members”. Russ continued: “Ward stands with us in our efforts to gain full and equal footing with AA. His vision clearly aligns with our own that… our secular membership and meetings of AA will inevitably take our place along all of the other mainstream facets of the AA fellowship.  More importantly, he emphasized, is that this must happen.”

Russ reported that Ward’s talk concluded that for those who think that is impossible, well, as Ward “eloquently reminded us, AA is a place where the impossible becomes possible”.

It was a great talk and ended the convention with a standing ovation.

1 An AA Convention for We Agnostics:

2 Convention Fellowship Speakers:

3 Agnostic AA NYC:

4 We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention – Day 1:

5 We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention – Day 2:

6 We Agnostics and Atheists AA Convention – Day 3:

7 Workshops at the WAFT Convention:

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3 Responses

  1. Martin D. says:

    Many thanks for this, Roger. It’s great to learn more about the history of our movement. That was an impressive group of invited speakers and I completely related to Marya Hornbacher’s statement. Having read this and having participated in the second international conference in Austin, I am looking forward even more to the third conference in Toronto Aug 24-26 2018!

  2. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, Roger, for publishing this chapter. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again, basking in wonderful memories of the several days we shared together in LA and Santa Monica. Besides the featured speakers, panels and workshops at the Santa Monica Unitarian Church, I greatly enjoyed our conversations during the long commutes we endured from the Wyndham Resort Hotel where we stayed near Disney World.

    • Joe C says:

      What Thomas said, it was the first gathering of both atheist and agnostic AAs along with our more religious members who stood to be counted among the hundreds who were there to:

      A) just enjoy some everyday AA fellowship and sharing and

      B) make their voices heard that this is AA. To quote former Area 83 delegate Robb W. who wrote in response to concerns about the Toronto agnostic AA groups back in 2011, “There is only one requirement for membership in AA and it doesn’t include a belief in God.”

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