Chapter 16: A Growing Secular Movement
Riding the Tide
We are a rapidly growing and evolving secular movement within Alcoholics Anonymous.
Our “godfather”, if you will, was Jim Burwell, back in the 1930s. That’s where we all – I trust – learned the importance of “widening our gateway”.
There were the first agnostic AA meetings in the 1970s and 80s in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City thanks to men and women like Don Wilson, Charlie Polacheck, Megan D and Ada Halbreirch.
And then there is the explosion in this decade. It’s a tide that promises to bring about a new era in Alcoholics Anonymous. And we didn’t create this tide. That’s not how a movement happens. It happens as a result of a real need suddenly experienced by a significant segment of a population: people who find it impossible to go forward without real change, a transformation that respects them and their needs. Ask the black or LGBTQ people. We are like surfers riding that tide. And our end goal is really quite simple. As an AA trustee put it in 1976, we non-believers need to know that we “are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.”
It’s quite the tide within Alcoholics Anonymous.
And we are going to look at two ways in which this tide has grown and gained momentum within our Fellowship: websites and meetings.
* * *
The first website we want to talk about is one in New York City, a website which actually came to be because of 9/11. September 11, 2001 fell on a Tuesday, the same day as the home group meeting of Deirdre S. Her meeting was cancelled as it turned out to be in a closed off part of the city. Trying to find people was a real problem. Deirdre shared the following at the Austin convention:
It was just after that that Charles P. floated the idea of having a website where NYC members could check and see if a meeting was happening or not. The website came to be in mid-2002. He also created some email lists at the same time. He carefully wrote a questionnaire about what people wanted and needed in a website and created it. The website started with a list of NYC meetings, Frequently Asked Questions, a national list of meetings put together by Leonard V. and others, and some meeting scripts and other documents.
Deirdre took over the site in 2006. A Website Committee was formed to get a group conscience of the New York City members as to what should appear of the website. It was then revised to be a “facts only” information resource after the issue of what to do about some more personal reflections that had been added to the website in an area called the “Member Zone” was opposed by one member. After the formation of the Website Committee, a report about the costs, content, and growth of the New York City and Worldwide meetings was to be issued once a year and distributed.
The expansion of the “national” list of meetings in 2002 had by then become an “international” list of meetings. This was enormously helpful over the years for anyone looking for a secular AA meeting. And it was a key component in deciding to hold the convention in 2014. After all, there were other agnostic AA meetings across the world. And there were people and groups that could be contacted and invited to participate at the convention.
After hearing about the proposed convention and meeting Dorothy H, on April 2, 2013, Deirdre did just that. She sent out a message to her contacts who for the very first time heard about “A call for an agnostic AA Conference coming out of California” (the subject of her email).
In the email, Deirdre quotes Dorothy, who is grateful to and relying upon the agnosticAANYC website: “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.”
The website played a crucial role in providing essential contacts for this convention.
Let’s back up just a bit to share that, over the years, the website was not without its own controversies and challenges.
One of the documents it had decided to include on the website was a secular version of the 12 Steps. This got the attention of the AA General Service Office.
On September 28, 2010, Gayle S R, a GSO staffer, wrote to the administrator of the Agnostic AA NYC website. In the letter Gayle points out that the website refers to “addicts” as well as alcoholics – still a no-no in at that time in “old school” AA. Worse, the secular version of the 12 Steps was available on the website.
“So we respectfully request that your group stop calling itself an AA group,” Gayle concluded.
The “group” removed the modified 12 Steps, and any reference to addicts, from the website and that has not changed, to this very day.
Finally, on February 25, 2017, the agnosticAANYC website turned over the job of listing all international agnostic AA meetings to another AA website, “Secular AA” (more on this later). The website will remain but just for its New York City members and meetings. For fifteen years it had listed – and constantly updated – secular AA meetings across the world. For many years, this website was one of the only places for people to find answers to queries about meetings for agnostics, atheists, freethinkers and others. Much of the business of answering those questions was done by Charles P, Jason N, Sam M, and Mel D, all members from New York City.
“It’s the end of an era for agnosticAANYC!” Deirdre wrote.
It certainly was. And Deirdre deserves a great deal of credit for the role she and the agnosticAANYC website played in that era.
And at first it was called “AA Toronto Agnostics”. It was created immediately after the expulsion of the two groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, from the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup. David R, the long-time secretary of Beyond Belief, was sent out to purchase a domain name and launch a website, with the sole purpose of letting the newcomer to AA know the locations and times of the two groups’ meetings.
In the first few weeks I took over from David as the site administrator. David was devastated by the booting out of his group and would leave AA, never to return.
And the website began to grow. At the time I was working on “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA” which I thought would be completed over a weekend or two but which took a full three months. And that project, and the need to share it online, led to the thought that the website could be more than simply a notice of agnostic AA meetings in Toronto.
On June 22, 2011, “Anarchy Melts”, an article by Bill Wilson originally published by the AA Grapevine in July 1946, was posted on the website. It was thought to be entirely appropriate to begin with an article by the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. On September 27, 2011, “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA” was finally published. Between the publications of these two, only five other articles were posted on the website.
Six months in, in early January, 2012, inspired to go fully international, AA Toronto Agnostics became AA Agnostica and adopted the motif: “A space for AA agnostics, atheists and freethinkers worldwide”.
And it discovered it was surfing atop a ferocious tide.
On its first anniversary it was reported in the post One Year Old!3 that, “To date, forty-six articles have been published on this website, and these have been written, remarkably, by twenty-two different people. These writers are from two continents (Europe and North America), and over a dozen cities (London, England and Toronto, Canada through to New York and Minneapolis and Austin and Los Angeles, United States)”.
And that post goes on to report:
There is lots of history here for the history buff. “AA in the 1930s: God as We Understood Him” is a good example. And there’s a biography of the first atheist in Alcoholics Anonymous to make a difference in terms of the accessibility of AA to all with a desire to quit drinking: “Jim Burwell”. Last year also saw the death of the very first person to use “We Agnostics” as the name of a group in AA. Charlie P had 41 years of continuous sobriety when he died in February of this year at the age of 98. “Father of We Agnostics Dies” tells the story of this remarkable man, for whom an AA meeting was held at his bedside in the week before he died. (One Year Old!)
And so it would be for the next six years.
And for the record, AA Agnostica has never had a Board of or a Committee of any kind. In the early months I organized an ad hoc committee meeting, consisting of members from each of three agnostic groups in the Toronto area, to talk about the website. At that meeting, Dianne P, later to become the Chair of the Austin convention Board, rather surprisingly moved that a secular version of the 12 Steps be removed from AA Agnostica. Everyone voted in favour of her motion except her husband, John M.
The Steps were never removed. And as I left that meeting, I thought, “Well, that’s it. That’s the last Committee Meeting”. And it was. It should also be noted, however, that if an article was in any way dubious or controversial, I would send it to three or four people to get their feedback as to whether or not it should be posted on AA Agnostica, and over the years that certainly proved to be helpful. So there was something of a “group conscience” for the website.
On its fourth anniversary (mid-June, 2015) it was reported that 94 articles had been published over the previous twelve months and this was in comparison to 62 the previous year and 46 in both years one and two of AA Agnostica. The 94 articles had been written by 50 different people and eight articles had been devoted directly to the We Agnostics, Atheists and Free Thinkers (WAAFT) convention in November in Santa Monica. (Four Years Old!4)
And other projects had been undertaken by the website. From February 2 until November 15, 2014 AA Agnostica hosted a chatroom. This was managed by life-j and ended when he became ill for a prolonged period.
And more importantly, for three years, beginning in mid-March 2013 and ending on June 15, 2016, AA Agnostica helped nonbelievers start their own agnostic AA meetings. On the Home Page was a message that read, “Want an agnostic AA group in your town or city? Click here”. And thousands of people did just that, and filled out a form with their location, email address, and an optional phone number and comment. If others nearby did the same, they would be connected, filled in on what needed to be done, and often a new meeting would be launched. This was all managed by Chris G who estimates that this project helped start approximately eighty meetings throughout North America, at a time when people felt very uncomfortable doing just that. The situation is not nearly as bad today.
In September of 2015, AA Agnostica announced that, in the AA spirit of rotation, it would be turning over much of its work, in particular the regular Sunday posts, to another website, AA Beyond Belief, managed by John S. (More on this website later.) It would continue to help people start meetings and to post the occasional article, however, mostly on Wednesdays. And then on its fifth anniversary on June 15, 2016, having by then posted a total of 360 articles, AA Agnostica announced that it would cease posting any new articles. (The Last Post5)
But it didn’t. Why not?
The answer is simple and was mentioned earlier on: the wave we are on is just too ferocious. It’s near impossible to jump off and put the board away. It’s gratifying to be a part of letting the still suffering alcoholic – especially the one who does not believe in an interventionist deity – know that she or he is not alone in Alcoholics Anonymous. But we will stop. We’ll publish this book and post it – one chapter at a time – on AA Agnostica. And come mid-June in 2017 we’ll post an article, “Six Years Old!” to bring things up-to-date.
After that? Well. We’ll see. One day at a time.
Rebellion Dogs Publishing6
This website, launched by the author of Beyond Belief, Joe C, posted its first blog on September 21, 2011 and that was about Joe’s interview with Marya Hornbacher and her book, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power.
Joe wanted a place where he could archive his musings about life in recovery.
As well as having a number of articles on the site, there are also audio recordings and podcasts. The first podcast dates back to the de-listing of Vancouver agnostic AA groups in late 2013.
Rebellion Dogs Publishing. Where does the name come from? In the mid-1980s Joe was in a band called Skid Row and it played a song by Cathy R called “Rebellion dogs our every step” and an actual scary dog was a metaphor in the song. Of course the sentence “Rebellion dogs our every step at first” is from page 73 of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
As Joe puts it, “Rebellion Dogs is a twenty-first century look at 12-Step life, now with more bite and less dogma”.
WAAFT Central / Secular AA7
The Secular AA website was a result of the Austin convention and was launched on December 10, 2016, immediately after the convention.
WAAFT Central turned over its functions and contents to the Secular AA site. That occurred on January 18, 2017 and a few weeks later WAAFT Central ceased to exist. Those looking for it were redirected to Secular AA.
Here is how that all unfolded.
A private meeting was held at the Santa Monica convention to discuss the WAAFT Central website. The vision for the site was very ambitious and came largely from Dorothy H, the key member of the Steering Committee responsible for the first international gathering of agnostics and atheists in AA. The website would provide a platform to help we agnostics start meetings, host online meetings, publish new literature, develop a list of WAAFT circuit speakers and, eventually, acquire and work out of “brick and mortar” offices.
Of course most of those goals were never realized.
This is how the purpose of the website was described, online:
WAAFT stands for “We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers”. WAAFT Central provides an international service network and a central location for sharing resources to support agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA, and to make AA as a whole more inclusive. We hope to eliminate the cultural bias against nonbelievers that sometimes exists in AA, and we feel that through sharing our experience, strength, and hope as nonbelievers, we will help widen the gateway to recovery for all, making AA even more accessible and welcoming to a greater number of people.
We don’t isolate ourselves from the mainstream of AA. Quite the contrary, we adhere to the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous and participate fully in the AA movement. We encourage our members to share their experience with AA through the General Service structure as described in the AA General Service Manual, and we work within the Fellowship in the spirit of Unity, Service, and Recovery.
WAAFT Central is not a policy or decision making body with respect to agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. We exist to serve and support the alcoholic in recovery, and to reach out to those who are seeking help. We don’t affiliate with outside enterprises, but we may cooperate with any organization or institution that is involved with helping the suffering alcoholic.
Most would agree that this is a rather perfect model for the purpose and goals of an organization of atheists and agnostics in AA.
John S (the same John S who would launch Beyond Belief) was the webmaster for WAAFT Central. But things hadn’t gone all that well. While the site had its own Board, John did much of the work. And getting others involved had not been a success. One of the things that the site did was to manage a list of agnostic meetings worldwide, but even that was problematic. As Deirdre put it in her talk in Austin, “Why two lists?”
All of these things were resolved immediately after the Austin convention. The new International Conference of Secular AA (ICSAA) Board had the talents and willingness to take over WAAFT Central and turn it into Secular AA. As mentioned above, that happened on January 17, 2017. And Secular AA took over management of the international list of secular AA meetings on February 25, 2017.
Courtney S is the manager of the Secular AA website. Ed W looks after the list of meetings. Courtney actually manages three websites: the main one, Secular AA, a site for the ICSAA conference in 2018, and one specifically for the ICSAA Board. As he puts it, “We can see that websites are an integral part of the present and future of the secular AA movement”.
And as John put it in an email, “We agreed to turn things over to ICSAA. It was hard for me to let go, but I did and I am glad. Things are moving forward as they should”.
They are indeed.
AA Beyond Belief8
It was in the summer of 2015 that John S and I began the transition that would have the new website take over the commitment to post articles by atheists and agnostics in AA each and every Sunday.
Why was John approached to do this work?
To begin with, it was clear that he understood the problems faced by secularists within the Fellowship.
With a sobriety date of July 20, 1988, John had joined AA and for the next decade he accepted the religiosity of AA. However, by 2011, having read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, he knew that he was an atheist. What to do? He found that it was impossible to be honest about that in conventional AA. “It got to where I couldn’t stand it any longer. I started speaking honestly, and people at my home group didn’t like it. I felt that I was no longer accepted.”
Does any of that sound familiar?
With a friend, Jim C – the only open atheist he knew in AA – John launched the first ever agnostic group in Missouri, called We Agnostics Kansas City. It held its first meeting on August 7, 2014. A few months later, in November, he would attend the We Agnostics and Freethinkers convention in Santa Monica. That is where we first met. John also had a great deal of experience working on the Internet and had launched a website for his home group on July 20, 2014, a few weeks before its first meeting. As noted earlier on, he also became the webmaster for WAAFT Central, launched on November 12th, just after the convention.
So what would stop John from launching AA Beyond Belief and taking over much of the role played until then by AA Agnostica? Nothing at all. The first article on the website, by Roger C, was posted on Sunday, October 4, 2015, and was called “Platitudes in AA”.
AA Beyond Belief has grown impressively since its origins. It has a Board of Directors responsible solely for the finances of the website. It also has an Editorial Board, which includes Doris A, the chief editor, as well as Galen T and Mary K. And it has three people who are responsible for art and photography: Cope C, Jan A and Kathryn F. All of these people are unpaid volunteers.
AA Beyond Belief also does podcasts, a role at which John excels. More than 50 podcasts have been produced with 69,000 downloads by people from across the globe. “In addition to personal stories, the podcast covers such topics as the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, AA service work, alternatives to AA, and news and announcements. Going forward, we hope to include interviews with authors in the recovery community, as well as professionals in the field of alcohol and drug addiction treatment.” (AA Beyond Belief9)
All podcasts are posted on YouTube and Sound Cloud. As well articles are now also in audio format, work done by Len R, and are also available on YouTube.
In less than a year and a half, AA Beyond Belief has achieved great goals and great successes. Articles are posted every Sunday, which express the diversity of our secular community within AA. They are about AA history, book reviews, current news as well as the experience, strength and hope of people who in other forums would be unable to be open and honest. And, for some, the podcasts have made Wednesday their favorite day of the week.
Doris and John describe the mission of AA Beyond Belief: “This is all about sharing our experience that recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous is open to anyone regardless of belief or lack of belief”.
* * *
When I first began writing “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA” back in the summer of 2011, there were a grand total of 87 agnostic AA groups across North America. Today there are…
Well, let’s go back and start at the beginning, or at least as the numbers were reported by Deirdre in her talk at the Austin convention. (A History of Special Interest Groups in AA10)
Deirdre reports that when she came into the rooms in 1997, there were 26 agnostic-type meetings nation-wide. “As of September 23, 2001 there were 36 meetings nationally. In 2003 there were 38 meetings, in 2004, there were 57, in 2009 there were 71, in 2012 there were 99 meetings.”
When Deirdre spoke at the 2014 conference in Santa Monica that number had grown to 181 agnostic AA meetings worldwide.
In the next year growth spiked to 288 meetings.
And when she spoke at the 2016 conference in Austin the number of “agnostic type” meetings, according to the agnosticAANYC website, had reached 320 meetings worldwide. As she correctly noted: “That number of meetings and people have real weight in AA. As we have seen by the gatherings at our conventions in Santa Monica and here today, those 320 meetings represent thousands of people and decades of sobriety. This is a material force that must be dealt with by AA.” (A History of Special Interest Groups in AA)
The last number she provided was for November 11, 2016 and that was 320 secular meetings worldwide.
The last time I checked, there were 384 secular meetings worldwide, according to the folks who manage the Secular AA website. That’s an increase due in small part to combining all of the lists but it is mostly the result of meetings that have been launched since the Austin convention.
That’s impressive. Truly.
So let’s talk a little about these secular meetings.
First, they are not clichéd in a way that is the case for many conventional AA meetings. You won’t find the 12 Steps (“Power… God… God… God… Him… God… Him…”) on a huge placard at the front of the room. How It Works from the Big Book will not be read at the beginning of the meeting. And it won’t end with the Lord’s Prayer.
A big difference already, right?
Here is what many of the meetings do have in common, however: There will probably be readings at the beginning of the meeting, and these could very well include the AA Preamble and/or the Agnostic AA Preamble. And many of the meetings for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers end with the Responsibility Declaration.
That’s it, that’s all. And none of this is universal.
For instance, some meetings end with “Live and Let Live!” in the same way that the first meetings in 1986 at Ada’s house in New York ended. And the way that the meeting she started – now called “We Humanists” and held at the Jan Hus Church – still ends to this day. Bob K reports that the Whitby Freethinkers (Ontario) end this way: “Closing the meeting is rather straightforward and without ritual – the chair simply thanks everyone and encourages attendance the following week”.
At my We Agnostics meeting in Hamilton, as a result of group consensus, we start with four readings – a secular version of the 12 steps, the AA and the Agnostic AA preambles, and an edited version of Appendix II. I personally think that the readings help people to settle down, remind them that they are at a meeting for alcoholics and generally set the tone for a good meeting. We end with the Responsibility Declaration.
Formats for secular meetings also vary a great deal, but most of them provide an opportunity for those present to share in an honest way. Meetings can begin with a reading (usually from Living Sober or Beyond Belief) or a speaker who shares for ten or fifteen minutes. Another option is to choose and discuss two or three topics. All of this can change though, if there is a newcomer present. At our “topic” meeting in Hamilton, if there is a newcomer the first and most focussed upon topic automatically becomes Step 1 and Tradition 3.
Those are some options. But remember: there are no rules.
Are you an alcoholic? Is there an agnostic AA group nearby? If not, why don’t you start one?
All it takes, we are told, is resentment towards the other meetings in your neighborhood and a coffeepot. You can get some more information on how easy it is here, How to Start an AA Meeting11, on AA Agnostica, or here, Start a Meeting12, on Secular AA.
Your meeting could be one of many agnostic AA meetings launched next month.
That’s right: climb on top of this ferocious tide!
You will be doing yourself and others a favor by becoming a part of a wonderful and healthy movement within the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Ride the tide.
2AA Agnostica: https://aaagnostica.org/
3One Year Old!: https://aaagnostica.org/2012/06/10/one-year-old/
4Four Years Old!: https://aaagnostica.org/2015/06/14/four-years-old/
5The Last Post: https://aaagnostica.org/2016/06/15/the-last-post/
6Rebellion Dogs Publishing: https://www.rebelliondogspublishing.com/home
7WAAFT Central / Secular AA: https://www.secularaa.org/
8AA Beyond Belief: https://aabeyondbelief.org/
9AA Beyond Belief: https://aabeyondbelief.org/2017/03/05/aa-beyond-belief-the-thinking-persons-grapevine/
10A History of Special Interest Groups in AA: https://aaagnostica.org/2016/12/15/a-history-of-special-interest-groups-in-aa/
11How to Start an AA Meeting: https://aaagnostica.org/how-to-start-an-aa-meeting/
12Start a Meeting: http://www.secularaa.org/start-a-meeting/
A History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.
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