Appendix II – Histories of ten agnostic groups in Canada
A Broad Highway
By Gord A
Nelson, British Columbia
Two long time members of AA in the vicinity of Nelson, BC were Shirley R and Gord A, and they had discussed the need for a secular AA group several times since about 2014. Gord had also discussed the possibility with his wife, and they both felt that perhaps Nelson was too small a town for such a meeting, and it could alienate other mainstream members.
Gord was an enthusiastic supporter of AA Agnostica and had visited Toronto, attending several of the agnostic groups there in the spring of 2014. Having attended AA meetings all across the continent, his appraisal of the Toronto agnostic groups was that they were totally AA – warm and welcoming and exactly what was needed for the newly searching problem drinker who had an aversion to the religious flavour of traditional AA. The agnostic meetings felt like old time AA where people connected and attended meetings together, went for coffee after the meeting and went out of their way to drive you home.
In 2015 Cate S and Wayne P started attending the 7 AM Attitude Adjustment group which Gord and Shirley often attended. This tipped the balance. While Shirley already had a home group, she was enthusiastic and helped with the early organization of our agnostic meeting.
We made sure that people understood that we considered this a true AA group by registering with GSO. We had a representative, Wayne, at the October, 2015 District 75 committee meeting for BC / Yukon Area 79. Wayne continues to complete his term as our GSR.
There was some overt criticism of this new meeting, but we didn’t let that stop us.
The group conscience has explicitly expressed that ours is an open meeting and that we strongly support AA’s singleness of purpose: to attain sobriety and to share the message with those who are likewise afflicted.
The first meeting of A Broad Highway was held on Thursday Nov 5, 2015 at 5:00 PM at the Cellar in Nelson, the meeting venue for almost all of Nelson AA. We have since had attendance of up to 15 people and are a solid group, in for the long haul. We stay active at the District level and our DCM has attended whenever he could.
Our meeting is one hour long.
We open with a moment of silence, remembering those that have helped us and those we may help.
Any announcements? Anyone here for their first or second AA meeting? Anyone coming back?
Any visitors from out of town?
On page 164 of the Big Book, Bill Wilson wrote: “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know but a little”, and in the Foreword to Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, he wrote: “AA’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.” With that in mind, here is a secular version, suggested as a program of recovery. At this point members take turns reading the Bay Area version of the 12 steps as found and adapted from The Little Book.
We read the current day’s selection from Beyond Belief by Joe C of Toronto, and have half a dozen copies on the table for people to follow. We also have copies of The Little Book, the AA Big Book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and Daily Reflections. After the opening, we use the “popcorn” method of sharing, where we sit in silence until someone wants to share.
We close with the AA Declaration of Responsibility.
By Hilary J
Vancouver, British Columbia
Sober Agnostics, Vancouver, BC, District 26, Area 79, meets every Tuesday at 7 PM in the Activity Room in a church basement at 1440 West 12th Avenue.
The organizing meeting was held in February 2013, hosted by Stephanie S, with Denis K, Michael D and Hilary J attending.
Michael secured us a space at a very reasonable rent. Denis arranged to get the meeting listed in the Vancouver Intergroup directory, and our inaugural meeting was held on Tuesday, May 7, 2013, chaired by Michael. According to Denis K’s account in Don’t Tell: Stories and essays by agnostics and atheists in AA, five men and four women attended the first meeting.
At first, the format was the “uncomfortable silence” model: after the daily reading from Joe C’s Beyond Belief, the floor was open, and anyone could speak (or not) if and when they felt the urge. Last year, the group decided to change this to “go around in a circle”, with the floor re-opened for more informal sharing after everyone has had a chance. We still read from Beyond Belief, but have replaced the “Serenity Wish” with the “Responsibility Declaration” to close the meeting. We first used the “agnostic adaptation” of How It Works from the AA Agnostica website, but later revised this to better fit the character of the group.
Our meeting soon attracted the attention of the Vancouver Intergroup operating committee. The Committee chair, Jim J, attended incognito to “see what we were up to”, announcing himself at the end of the meeting. When the next edition of the directory was published (September 2013), Sober Agnostics had been deleted.
This precipitated lengthy, sometimes hostile debates at the monthly Intergroup meetings.
Since we had changed the Steps, and did not use the official AA literature, were we really an AA group? Did the operating committee have the authority to decide whether we should be listed? A package was issued to all Intergroup reps to take back to their home groups for group conscience. After months of agonizing debate and delays, the final vote was on whether Intergroup should continue to discuss the matter. The verdict was “No” (January 2014).
However it was eventually decided to have an actual vote on whether or not the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society would list the agnostic groups. That vote took place on March 21, 2017. In order to have the required two thirds majority, 31 of those present would have to vote in favour.
In the end, 33 voted to “list all groups that wish to be listed”. After more than three years of being excluded, we were back in!
Like many groups, our membership has fluctuated greatly over the years. Only a handful of the original members still attend regularly. Most meetings range from 6 to 12 people, and we frequently welcome newcomers, who mainly learn about us from the website. We print business cards and deposit them in strategic locations around the city, and until recently, had a sandwich board sign on the sidewalk outside the meeting (we removed it at the request of the church). These methods have also attracted some newcomers.
Our dear friend, mentor and motivator Denis K passed away in 2016, having enjoyed more than 40 years of sobriety. He was the driving force behind the Vancouver Agnostic AA movement and is still much missed!
By Andrea M and Sandy T
Nanaimo, British Columbia
We Agnostics Meeting in Nanaimo, BC was formed by two women – one with 27 years and one with 12 years. Our first meeting was on Wednesday, August 13, 2014; Sandy T and Andrea M were the founders, with Michael L joining the group at the first meeting. The location had to be central, had to be accessible, had to NOT be a church and had to be cheap. Luckily there was such a place in Nanaimo, where the non-profit group 7-10 Club has a free breakfast program 6 days a week in a city-owned building. They do not charge the group rent, but gratefully accept the group’s donation every month.
The format was borrowed directly from the AA Agnostica website, and we read the extended Preamble explaining the purpose of the meeting. We open with a moment of silence to remember those who are still suffering, and close with the AA Responsibility Declaration. We do not read any AA literature thereby avoiding ALL debates about GOD or gender inclusive language. We have free AA brochures available for newcomers.
From the very beginning the group has been a contributing member to Intergroup’s Central Office, District 7, BC/Yukon Area 79 and GSO in New York.
Attendance started small with only 10-15, but after our first year attendance had grown to 30-40 people each week. In May 2016 the group started a Sunday afternoon meeting at 4 PM because the Wednesday night meeting had grown to have 50-60 people. The Sunday afternoon meeting now has a minimum of 15-20 people, and usually everyone gets a chance to share.
We currently have 25 group members and a strong showing at business meetings. All service positions are filled, and the Nanaimo Intergroup – Central Office lists both meetings on their website and printed directories. Our meetings are very well attended, the topics change and the discussion-sharing is rich.
We are very proud to be offering this option in Nanaimo’s growing AA community.
By Corinne L, Dan L and Neil F
Stony Plain, Alberta
Stony Plain, Alberta’s Beyond Belief Group and its 9 AM Saturday Meeting originated in October 2013 when Dan L, Neil F and Corinne L brainstormed at her house about a way to create an inclusive secular AA group that did not try to convert or de-convert anyone and allowed for any individual beliefs or non-beliefs. We also wanted to create a meeting where we were free of religious pressure and AA dogma. To be non-controversial and to avoid the problems Toronto’s secular groups encountered in being de-listed by the Toronto Intergroup, we chose to eliminate reading any form of the 12 steps or traditions and to place Conference-approved books on the table we sit around along with a variety of secular recovery books.
Enthusiasm permeated our first small meeting on 16 November 2013 and our meeting attendance over the next five months ranged between two to six people. On 19 April 2014, at the suggestion of Tom G who had just returned from his winter sojourn to the States, we decided to become a registered group. Our New Group Form was completed and submitted to GSO and Area 78 and we were recognized as a registered group in May of 2014. At this point, the group was comprised of five founding members: Corinne L, Dan L, Tom G, Leif P and Neil F. Since then, our membership has fluctuated; at this point we have ten active members and our typical meeting has six to ten attendees.
It is rumored that there are some local AA members who feel that we are not a real AA group because we do not include prayer in our meetings and do not open our meetings by reading from the Big Book or other AAWS Conference-approved literature. Over time, this has prompted AA members to investigate what is going on; at the end of the meeting a number have indicated that they enjoyed our meeting and its format and a couple have said some variation of, “I’m glad I didn’t have contempt prior to investigation because you guys have a real meeting “.
We open our meeting with an explanation of our format, which welcomes everyone to an Open Meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, a safe environment in which there will be no prayer. The AA Preamble, the AA Responsibility Pledge and a reading from the book Beyond Belief follow. Discussion is based on the reading or any recovery issue. If there is time left over, we have open discussion until time for announcements and we end with our Serenity Affirmation, “May I have the serenity…”
A number of members of our group felt oppressed by what they felt was overt religiosity and AA dogma expressed in some of the other AA meetings they had attended. We found that after some initial venting, regular participants tend to focus on how to live peaceful sober lives full of sanity and stability. All attendees are safe to express their woes as well as their joys in our meetings without being attacked or told what they should do.
We are extremely fortunate to have several members who have decades of continuous sobriety and service under their belts and are highly respected in our local AA community. They give our group “street cred” as young people might say.
We participate in the District 10 and Area 78 Meetings and contribute financially to both as well as other service entities. In addition, we keep AA brochures stocked at the Serenity Center on behalf of all of the groups that meet there.
To date, the Stony Plain Beyond Belief group consists of a strong core membership with many regular and occasional visitors. A few of our regulars are snowbirds and bugger off for the winter but always return, happy to be back home. If you are in the neighborhood, please join us.
By Cathy M, Doreen D, Gayle K
The first “secular” meeting in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada met on January 4, 2016 at the St. Vital United Church, 613 St. Mary’s Road. Doreen D and Cathy M had the notion to start this group after attending the 2015 International AA Convention in Atlanta GA.
It was there at a panel entitled “We Agnostics” that they heard speakers discussing aspects of “secular” AA and the need for inclusive, non-denominational meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. There were many international groups already formed with a focus apart from a “Christian” outlook – new and long term members who recognized storytelling and individual experiences as a power greater than themselves.
After finding the space to meet in the St. Vital church, we (Gayle K, Doreen D and Cathy M) commenced regular, closed AA meetings, using a format that welcomed freethinkers and other seekers, and those who worked with other agnostics, atheists or non-believers in recovery. Taking a page from others before us, we were mindful of remaining in the AA fold and stressing the importance of the steps (however one interprets the steps), sponsorship and service.
After six months, Beyond Belief registered with New York AA office (June 2016) and was listed on the Winnipeg AA meeting list in September. Given the small number of regular attendees (5 – 8) at our group, we rotate the responsibility of opening the meeting space and chairing meetings – splitting duties and positions as necessary to promote our group with Intergroup and General Service (Area 80, District 7). We have had two business meetings to date to structure our group and to focus on growing our membership.
Two of our members attended the WAAFT Convention in Austin, Texas in November 2016 to meet and share with others in this international AA community. The message is that AA is slow to welcome changes or alternatives to the original 12 Steps and our acceptance will take time and patience.
At this writing we are pleased at our one year anniversary and continue to seed greater exposure through word of mouth.
All are Welcome Group
By Steve V, Dave J and Bill K
The All Are Welcome group of Alcoholics Anonymous in Windsor, Ontario started with a chance meeting between two of the founding members at the We Agnostics meeting on a November 2015 Tuesday evening in Toronto. Dave J, from Windsor was in Toronto on business and to attend the meeting and met Steve V who mentioned in his sharing he was moving to Windsor in March 2016. The two chatted after the meeting and agreed to meet up and talk about starting an agnostic / atheist / freethinkers meeting once Steve moved to Windsor. After Steve moved to Windsor, he met with Dave, Bill K and John T and discussed setting up a meeting together. They agreed on a format that was modeled after the We Agnostics meeting and held the first All Are Welcome Group meeting on Saturday May 14, 2016 with 14 people in attendance.
One of the interesting things about the formation of the group was approaching the priest of the Catholic Church that would end up being the venue where the group meets. When told of the idea of starting the first AA agnostic / atheist / freethinkers meeting in the Windsor area, the priest was very supportive. In fact, he identified as a “friend of Bill W” and attends the meeting once or twice a month himself!
Each Saturday it’s a topic discussion selected by those in attendance. Topics range from Step 1 to “Loneliness”, “Gratitude” or “Handling relationships while being sober”. Frequently our attendance is six to ten people and sometimes fewer. The size of the group makes for some intimate sharing and sometimes people simply share about what they’re currently dealing with rather than any of the three topics.
The make-up of those attending our group is diverse. We have agnostics, atheists and believers who are attending in order to escape some of the dogma and rigid thinking they sometimes find at some other AA meetings. We have lots of people who have been visiting the Windsor area and came to check out our meeting not realizing we’re an agnostic meeting. They tend to be pleasantly surprised to find we’re really not much different from “regular” AA meetings and end up enjoying themselves. We also have some people who like our meeting but come perhaps once every one or two months.
Six months since starting our meeting we as a group have decided to raise more awareness about our group in the Windsor Area so we’re planning to attend our first District meeting this month to let other AA members know about us. We have some pamphlets printed up to give out to various DSR’s so they can take them back to their groups. As well, we’re starting to go to other AA meetings here in the area to make an announcement about our group and to also leave pamphlets. We’re really not sure how we will be received but we’re willing to take this risk under the belief there must be other AA members like us who want to get and stay sober while still being able to keep their own beliefs and not having to accept anyone else’s beliefs.
We love our All Are Welcome Group and are confident and encouraged as we move forward.
The Broader Path AA Group
By Don M and Dennis K
During a conversation in 2015, Martin D and I (Don M), confided that we were atheists and felt increasingly uncomfortable in some AA meetings. With a third member of the fellowship, an agnostic named Dennis K, we formed a Steering Committee to start an agnostic / atheist AA meeting in the Kingston area. Resources found online at AA Agnostica proved quite helpful.
Participants at the meeting would study both Conference-approved and non-AA materials related to recovery from alcoholism. All comers in search of sobriety were welcome. Twelve people attended our first gathering on 8 July 2015 at the Emmanuel United Church in Odessa, Ontario. John B, a believer with 20 years in AA, came to pray for us, eventually joined, and embarked on a spiritual journey that has forged his belief in a power greater than himself that he calls LOVE.
Over the next six months our Group Conscience agreed on a secular set of 12 Steps for internal use. By then we had 13 members representing more than 200 years of sobriety. Some were new, while one had been sober over 45 years.
In December of 2015, our Group presented its first medallion to Fred B for five years of continuous sobriety. Fred didn’t expect many people at his celebration but was delighted that there was standing room only that night.
The Group contacted the Kingston Public Information Committee to request a Website listing. We were welcomed by Connie K, Bill H, the webmaster, and Jeff L, Chair. They were pleased to have a secular alternative to offer suffering alcoholics who contacted the website but indicated an aversion to regular AA meetings because of the “God thing”. To ensure that the hand of AA would always be there, they immediately listed The Broader Path.
However, when news of our secular Group reached the District 36 Table there was some apprehension. In August 2015 we had registered with GSO and, in October 2015, received service number 716632. Despite this, a motion was made to remove The Broader Path from the website and deny our GSR a seat at the Table. District 36 facilitated an e-mail debate. Some letters of support advocated inclusion while others passionately promoted exclusion. We experienced the timeless wisdom of placing principles before personalities.
In December 2015, the motion to de-list our Group fell just short of a 2/3 majority. A subsequent motion placed a moratorium on further efforts to de-list The Broader Path until January 2017. We are hopeful that ongoing experience with our group, and the results of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, will resolve this divisive controversy.
As we enter 2017, The Broader Path continues to grow, and to attract newcomers. We neither endorse nor oppose atheism or any religion. Our secular Group carries the message that suffering alcoholics can find sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or deny their own. Love and tolerance of others is our code.
The Secular Step Meeting
By Jo-Anne K
The Secular Step Meeting (now Beyond Belief Secular Step Meeting) was started out of concern that the newcomer to atheist, agnostic, and free thinker groups were not being introduced to the steps of the AA program. Not every person that comes to AA needs to embrace the 12 steps but it was felt that at least they should have an introduction to them. Each person can then decide for themselves whether the 12 steps will be a part of their recovery. Many people in secular groups, as well as mainstream AA groups, stay sober by working the 12 Steps and many stay sober without working the Steps.
I mentioned this to other members of the group and a small working group was formed. This group included Genevieve F, Amelia C, Steph G, Brian N, and myself, Jo-Anne K. We wanted this to be an organic process which defined the needs of members. Brian created a survey to discern who was interested in having a step discussion and on what day and what time. Compiling the surveys, we found that Monday at 7:00 PM seemed to be the best day and time to have this step discussion. And so, on Jan 4 the first meeting of Secular Step Meeting was held at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
The group was (and still is) a work in progress and we needed to be flexible and make changes based on the needs of the members.
The working group had decided to use the 12 Steps as they had been originally written, God and all. At that very first meeting this was discovered to be problematic. A number of people were very upset that they had come to a secular meeting and were still being confronted with literature that contained the word god. One person was actually in tears. The working group decided to use an alternative version of the 12 steps and developed a version of the 12 steps to be used at this group.
The original format of the meeting was to have a 10 minute speaker on one of the steps each week and that would be followed with a group discussion. However we quickly ran out of people in agnostic, atheists and freethinker groups that had experience with the steps and were available to speak.
It was decided that we would read from one of the many texts written on the 12 steps and follow this with discussion. This is the current format but we have widened the literature selection, changing books with each go-round of the steps. There are many texts written explaining the 12 steps, from many different perspectives. We hope to get it across to members that they can interpret the steps and all of the other AA literature in a way that helps them to stay sober.
The wording of the steps is not as important as the principles which inspire them; it is these principles that guide us in our continued sobriety. In April 2016 it was decided that the Secular Step meeting would become a part of the Beyond Belief Group. This made sense for financial and logistical reasons. Room bookings at the university could be made for all three of the Beyond Belief meetings at the same time, literature could be ordered in bulk etc.
This meeting has not always been well attended. However, now that the Beyond Belief Group has been re-listed in the GTA meeting list of Alcoholics Anonymous that has changed. The first Monday after the Beyond Belief meetings could be found in the online Greater Toronto Area general AA list, five newcomers showed up at the step meeting. Three of these were people who had previously been to mainstream AA and two of them were at their very first meeting.
It is our hope that this Secular Step Meeting of the Beyond Belief group will continue to grow and provide an option for those members wishing to discuss the 12 Steps.
By Tom C and Cecelia R
In August of 2015 Tom C and Cecelia R were in attendance at the Monday Night Whitby Freethinkers Meeting and started discussing the possibility of having another Freethinkers meeting in the district and that Ajax might be a possible location. Whitby Freethinkers was only on Monday nights and another meeting throughout the week would have benefit.
A discussion was held with the co-founders of Whitby Freethinkers Craig C and Bob K for their thoughts and if we could follow their format. It was given full support by them and the search was on to find a place in Ajax to hold the meeting.
Seeing that the Library seemed the most appropriate place to start, that’s what we did. Ajax Library was contacted and a room made available at minimal cost. The library was thought to be a great resource available for folks after the meeting to do some research on what was discussed that evening.
Tom and Cecelia discussed requirements… coffee, cookies, and it was agreed that most folk do bring their own coffee and at this time this expense could be eliminated until the group got going financially. The first meeting would be held on a Thursday night at 7 PM (later changed to 7:30 PM), on October 8, 2016.
The format was the selection of two topics and a step discussion. With support from some of the members of the Whitby Freethinkers group our first meeting got underway. Cecelia brought some of her home baked goods that were totally appreciated… We had some folks from Toronto and the surrounding areas. A small group of the members started to go for coffee afterwards at Deb’s Cafe across the street from the library and the fellowship flourished in the after meeting coffee gatherings.
A small core has stayed together with Ajax Freethinkers and the discussions are open and honest and very considerate. We are part of the Lakeshore Districts (26-28) and Eastern Ontario Area 83. We have yet to inform our local Intergroup of our group meeting as some members wish to fully discuss it more. However, word of mouth is out there and we get different people showing up because we are listed on the AA Agnostica website.
The group is welcoming and willing to help others. The meeting is very thoughtful and considerate to all those who attend, including those who believe in a God or a higher power. We endeavour to be sensitive to the needs of all.
The Only Requirement Group
By Reed H
Halifax, Nova Scotia
In the spring of 2011, a loyal AA member in Halifax, Nova Scotia had a moment of clarity: As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as a supernatural higher power called God.
For the next few months, this member continued to go to AA meetings but struggled. It had suddenly become a lot harder to find comfort and meaning in AA with its strong religious influences and pressures to believe.
The member figured there must be others in the local AA community who were non-believers, and perhaps some of them were also struggling to reconcile their beliefs within the program. With the approval of the editor, a one-line note and contact email address was placed in the area AA newsletter.
Within a few days of publication, the member had been contacted by three other members. The four of them agreed to meet for coffee, and the idea for a non-religious AA meeting hatched.
Within a few weeks, the group had a meeting time and location, as well as a name: The Only Requirement Group. The group made a conscious decision not to be only for atheists and agnostics. Instead, it was open to everyone of all beliefs, however, the only thing not welcome was religion.
The group also decided to adopt interpretations of AA’s 12 Steps and 12 Traditions which did not include references to God. Adoption of these altered Steps and Traditions turned out to be a pivotal decision which divided the local AA community.
Once established, The Only Requirement Group approached the Central Service Committee and requested inclusion in the area AA newsletter and meeting list. When the meeting’s adapted 12 Steps and Traditions were presented, numerous representatives of area meetings balked and concluded that we were not a real AA meeting and that we should not be recognized as such.
It was decided that the issue of inclusion should be brought back the group level for consideration before the Central Service committee held a vote on the matter. In subsequent Central Service meetings, passionate arguments against inclusion of the group were heard. The committee overwhelmingly voted against inclusion.
Nevertheless, there were a few members of the Central Service committee who, despite their own beliefs, recognized the importance of a non-religious meeting lest AA turn away still suffering alcoholics.
Although disappointed with the decision, the group maintained its regularly scheduled meetings, and membership grew despite the lack of acknowledgement in local AA publications.
About a year after the group was voted down by Central Service, inclusion was once again brought to the committee for consideration. By this time, the Group’s supporters on the committee had grown considerably, and even though it was voted down a second time, it lost by only one vote.
Group members were once again disappointed by the result but encouraged by the closeness of the vote. For the next year, the group continued to plug along and pick up new members.
The group also made efforts to participate in service work such as answering the weekend AA phone, host meetings at the local detox facility, and make financial contributions to various service levels of AA.
About a year after the second vote, the Group was invited to participate in a third vote by Central Service Committee. This time, the votes tipped strongly in favour of bringing The Only Requirement Group into the fold.
It was a very welcome result for group members, who were especially thankful to a small group of Central Service Committee members that fought long and hard for the group despite their own personal convictions and strong opposition from fellow committee members.
That was a little over a year ago and The Only Requirement Group continues to thrive as acknowledged members of the local AA community. The Group, now in its sixth year, meets on Sunday nights at 7:30 PM at Club 24, 3 Dundas Street in Downtown Dartmouth, across the bridge from Halifax.
The group is proud to provide an alternative to traditional AA, while at the same time embracing the principles of a program that helps save friends and family from the ravages of alcoholism.
All are welcome!
A History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.
You can also get a Kindle or ePub version at the BookBaby BookShop. After you pay via credit card or PayPal you can get an ePub or Mobi and download it immediately.
It is also available as an iBook (for a Mac or iPad).