Widening the Gateway


Such were the final concessions to those of little or no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.
Bill Wilson
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (p. 167)

By Tom L.

My Path in AA

So I was an alcoholic, or so I had been convinced in my rehab stint. Told I had to get into AA, get a home group and get a sponsor, I did as directed. This led, in rapid succession, to getting fired by my sponsor for taking an antidepressant, followed by his suggestion to find a different home group that allowed those taking “mind altering substances”, but there was no recommendation of a group for me. A rocky beginning to my AA “hope, strength and experience”; it became my discouragement, disillusionment and quick exit from AA as I knew it.

I looked for an AA substitute, meanwhile not drinking as I considered the alternatives. I was soon back in the AA rooms. Over the next few years, I had almost forgotten that I had wanted to check out a meeting nearby, “We Agnostics”. This could have been my first AA experience. That is, it could have been if the meeting still existed. I went to the location twice, but there was no meeting there. It no longer met, if it ever did.

Conformity of any kind, let alone to Big Book AA meetings I only tolerated, was not my strong suit. But I did get a home group of the traditional bend in the Seattle area. There were readings from the Big Book, and each meeting ended in a circle with us all reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

Religion had been a part of my upbringing. I left that behind at age 20, as my family’s Pentecostal religion had nothing to offer me but lies and condemnation. I did not dwell on what I was or was not philosophically.

In recent years, on occasion, I have gone to church with my religious friends and relatives without feeling any attraction or revulsion. I began to read philosophers, with the work of Jacques Derrida appealing to my newfound yearning to find out where I belong, in “the grand scheme” of things.

Derrida was a 20th century philosopher who, though saying he could rightly pass as an atheist, still was haunted by the religion of his youth. He could be brought to tears and prayed, yet he had no assumption he was praying to a god. Likewise, in AA I found some positivism in the serenity prayer and the prayer of St. Francis. I knew I wasn’t a “believer”, but I had no revulsion when saying the Lord’s Prayer to close an AA meeting. What I eventually came to reject were claims of miracles and God’s work in the lives of alcoholics (which I didn’t believe) and sealing an AA meeting with a prayer. I would cringe when asked to pray to “invite God into the room” to start a meeting. For a program like AA that has honesty at its bedrock, it seemed disingenuous to say it was not religious and then use Christian prayers and claim miracles happen (“don’t leave before the miracle”).

In my Big Book study home group of a few years ago I was tolerated as a heretic. However, I felt compelled not to destroy the physical unity of clutching sweaty hands in a circle and mouthing the Lord’s Prayer to close the meeting. But this cognitive dysfunction had to be righted internally for me.

In late 2014 I began attending an Atheists’ in Sobriety Meetup group in north Seattle. The people I met there had only two things in common: atheism and a history of substance addiction.

Many Paths

It was from this weekly meeting that I decided to start a secular AA meeting in my Seattle suburb community of Burien in 2015. Fearing the fate of that We Agnostics meeting I had looked for initially in my sobriety, I committed to start a meeting that would establish a permanent group, and one that fit AA definitions of a “group”. Thus the first Many Paths in Washington state group was born, with the first weekly meeting on Sunday, November 1, 2015.

That first Many Paths meeting was planned so as to be accepted in our local Greater Seattle Intergroup directory, and it got it without hesitation. The intergroup manager attended our Sunday meeting and seemed satisfied. Simultaneously the group was listed with W. Washington Area 72 AA and the General Service Organization in New York (group service number 000717089).

Shortly thereafter, a second weekly incidence of Many Paths was started on Wednesday evenings. Both meetings have met weekly ever since their inception. In May of this year a third weekly instance of Many Paths was begun on Capitol Hill in Seattle, meeting at 5 PM Sundays. Expecting outrage from conventional AA members in the area, there was none.

Others started secular meetings, including a secular NA meeting. This sense of normalcy was heightened when soon after our group’s start there was a conference of like-minded AA members held in Washington state, “Widening the Gateway”.

Our Burien groups participate in district meetings, and recently attended the W. Washington Area 72 annual assembly, sitting and voting as members of District 31. In every sense, we belong to W. Washington AA.

Five from our Many Paths groups went to Austin for the second international convention in 2016. We felt a warm sense of camaraderie among secular AA members at the convention, and this at a time when AA generally was having a drop in membership in North America. It seemed the secular membership was in an upswing internationally.

Widening the Gateway Conference

Widening the Gateway

For further information, click on the image.

As mentioned above, in January 2016 there was a regional secular AA conference in Olympia, WA. Called “Widening the Gateway”, several of our group’s members attended it and felt part of a larger community with our way of doing AA. Keynoted by Michael B from London, and with the participation of Roger C providing a historical background of secular AA in North America, attendees came from the west coast and beyond.

Attendance that year was probably double what was anticipated by the organizers in Olympia. We from Many Paths felt finally at home in a setting we didn’t have to interpret into our framework to feel welcome. We knew that we wouldn’t be pressured by the group to pray or thank a higher power. We knew we weren’t the black sheep of AA, and not some aberration to be tolerated or pitied.

Buoyed by that first conference in Washington last year, we are planning a second Widening the Gateway conference for March 31, 2018. To be held in Tacoma, it will be a one day event on Saturday, and opportunities to fellowship will be available. The day will provide breakouts for discussions of recovery, unity and service in a secular context. The website for this conference is under construction now, but a Widen the Gateway 2018 announcement is in AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief websites.


So I was an alcoholic, as I had been convinced in rehab. But I was not doomed to be part of my grandfather’s AA. The blossoming of a more relevant AA experience is now part of the AA I know, a secular AA where there is truly a singular purpose. Honesty is sincere, our experience is more pertinent to the times, and we can attest to the Big Book quote — we have ceased fighting anybody or anything — as we welcome all in AA who wish to join us.

16 Responses

  1. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks for this article, Tom. Your experience in Seattle mirrors what my experience was when my wife Jill and I moved from New York to southern coast of Oregon, where we experienced AA as a neo-Nazi fundamentalist Christian cult before we moved closed to the Portland area. There was a “We Agnostics” meeting listed at the Alano Club but when we went no one was there except us and an atheist from Alanon. With trepidation, and the help of Roger C.’s connecting us with secular folk from Portland who wanted to start a meeting, we did on December 1st, 2013. Seven folks attended and within a year we had 25-30 people attending our Sunday morning meeting. Now there are three secular groups in Portland who participate in General Service work with meetings every day of the week.

    • Tom L. says:

      Thanks, Thomas … those of us here in the Seattle area admire the success of secular meetings in the Portland area. Hope to see you and Jill at the March conference!

  2. Joe C says:

    Seattle/Tacoma atheist/agnostic members are trend-setters. In 1990 the first ever We Agnostics panel was added to the AA International Convention and there has been such a panel ever since.

    It’s great that you are keeping a friendly place for secular-minded AA’s in the NW. I will keep checking in with interest regarding your second all-day gathering in March.

    Will there be a delegation coming to Toronto in August 2018? Maybe a NW bid for the 2020 ICSAA (International Conference for Secular AA)? That would be awesome to see ICSAA back on the West Coast sometime soon.

    Like you, I’ve been tolerated as the “meeting heretic.” Every meeting ought to have one. Thanks again, Tom.

    • Tom L. says:

      Thanks, Joe. Yes, there will be members from W. Washington Many Paths groups coming to Toronto in August 2018. It would be great to have the 2020 ICSAA in the Pacific Northwest; I think our conference in March 2018 could be an opportunity to gauge interest in making a bid for 2020.

    • Tim S says:

      Since you mention it, 1990 in Seattle was also the first Online Recovery panel.

      And 27 years later, here we are.

  3. life-j says:

    Thanks. I got to attend the widening the gateway roundup last year, and it was a really good thing for my recovery. I’m hopeful that we will get to have a local one here in northern California while I’m still around, and hoping that the good folks running the ICSAA meeting lists will get around to make it possible to contact other groups. I think it was decided at their last board meeting in Toronto to do that. If we can’t contact each other, we can’t do anything together. The success of our secular/agnostic movement within AA is entirely dependent on networking. I did get to meet a couple of northern California people in Austin, and that was good, but we need to get local networking going locally. Hopefully soon, ICSAA?

    • Tom L. says:

      Thanks for the comment, life-j … I know you are a dependable, constant friend in our corner of the fellowship. Yes, networking and secular group contacts are encouraged — however we get it done. I know Jim M (a former delegate from N. Coastal CA, if I’m not mistaken). He now resides in WA and was consulted for advice as we started the W. WA Many Paths meetings.

  4. Tim S says:

    Looking forward to Tacoma in March!

    I’m tickled – I suppose that’s the word – by the “no mind-altering substances” absolutists, who see no hypocrisy in conveying their point of view while drinking strong coffee and smoking a cigarette. I also was told early on about one such person who insisted his sponsee discontinue Lithium. FWIW, I drink black coffee and take an anti-depressant without considering my 3 decades of sobriety from alcohol to be invalid.


    • Tom L. says:

      I’m with you 100%, Tim … the sponsor who fired me for taking an antidepressant used to mangle large wads of nicotine gum in his mouth whenever we met. Looking forward to seeing you in Tacoma in March!

  5. Dan H. says:

    As one who does not believe in a god an the traditional sense, I wrestle with the cognitive dissonance Tom mentions. I have mellowed, however, about the use of the word “miracle” since I found this entry in Merriam-Webster (second definition): “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment. The bridge is a miracle of engineering.” I can live with that as a description of my recovery.

    • Evan B. says:

      I use this definition for the word miracle, “a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.” The fact I have another opportunity to choose to be sober, by this definition, is indeed a miracle. As an atheist, educating myself on different definitions of the 1930’s terminology used in the Big Book, has made a world of difference. My sponsor, who is a pastor, has not worked with one of us until me. When a seemingly religious word comes up such as miracle, he always asks, “So what’s that look like for you?” We look up words regularly to find a way to apply it to my recovery, AND IT WORKS BECAUSE I WORK IT.

  6. Pat N. says:

    Thanks for the article, Tom, and I look forward to seeing you in Tacoma!

  7. Gogoguy says:

    I am always astonished at completely unqualified people who attempt to make medical decisions for other people.

    Whether it is a ʻsponsorʻ demanding an immediate end to anti-depressant use (an illegal and very dangerous demand), or communities banning safe injection sites, or farmers in the legislatures trying to interfere in reproductive medicine; none of these people have any business involving themselves in PRIVATE medical matters.

    This is absolutely what AA literature terms an “outside issue”. But that never stops a controlling busybody, does it?

    There are religions/cults that opppose any kind of medical intervention, and their members are just as welcome to build sobriety as anyone else.

    But this idea that a lay person has authority to demand medical compliance with their own quirky ideas has got to be shut down on an official level. The legal liability of practicing medicine without a license ought to stop that kind of bullying in itʻs tracks. And it IS bullying.

    This is extremely dangerous for vulnerable people! Some PTSD vet right out of rehab could be on strong meds. Some arrogant sponsor demanding cessation could cause severe health issues and would be liable for it too.

    I feel that way about sponsors in general. Too many take their ʻserviceʻ position as some kind of authority over another person, and that often leads to abuse of power. Iʻve heard too much to be remotely interested.

    Egalitarianism is fundamental.

    • Tom L. says:

      I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments. I could have been a victim of that malpractice had I not stayed sober before I got back into local AA rooms. In considering my next home group after my first rejection in AA, I vowed I‘d put my prescribed antidepressant use up front when introducing myself to any group I participated in. Rather than rejection, it led to a discussion of prescribed medication use by others in those groups. The unspoken yet tacit acquiescence to that taboo — not talking about taking medications that might even help us stay sober — seems medieval in some ways, but it still exists in some AA groups.

  8. Austin S says:

    Thank you for the article, Tom.

    I credit the Many Paths meeting for helping me not only put together some significant (to me) sobriety after years of trying in traditional AA and anything-but-aa, but to feel like I’m “in recovery” instead of just “not drinking.”

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