The First Secular AA Meeting in Canada

AA Areas in Canada

By Michael D.

Around 2 or 3 am the morning of my 37th birthday – January 20, 1979 – I was in a serious car accident. Like many other alcoholics, I had reached a point where I hated my drinking but also hated the prospect of stopping. The only way out of this opposing struggle I could conceive of was death, and this “accident” was a deliberate attempt to end the misery.

The police officer who attended the accident came to see me in hospital a week later. He told me if I promised to go to AA, he would not charge me with driving while impaired. As I travelled for business of course I had to make that promise. And as he left the room he told me there were ways of his finding out if I kept it or not. My city was quite small and news travelled fast.

I knew very little about AA but had heard of a few people who had stopped drinking through the program. After a couple weeks I hesitatingly attended my first meeting. I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome I received from a lot of the members, but shocked by the prayers at the beginning and end of the meeting, and the frequent mention of “God” in the talks I heard that evening, even specific religious references. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into; it looked like it was some kind of a churchless church or just outright religion, using specifically religious prayers. But I accepted that I had little or no choice.

The welcome and warmth I felt at that meeting kept me going, despite my reservations. The mutual support was working – I had my last drink a few months later – May 29. Yes, I did feel isolated, even disdain from a few members for my comments about religion, but to be fair I probably showed the same disdain for the god pushers. I tried to just ignore what I didn’t like, and soon got in the habit of arriving late and leaving early to avoid the prayers.

I described myself as an atheist in my late teens, while in university. More than an atheist: an aggressive, militant atheist. I grew less aggressive about it, and began to think of myself as an agnostic. Yes, nobody can prove to me that there is a God, nor can anyone prove there isn’t. More important to me is how humans treat and respect each other, how we treat animals, how we treat nature. I had some bad experiences with my church in the early teenage years, seeing actions that were not very godly, and because I was (am) left leaning in my politics, atheism or agnosticism (humanism really) seems to me a better solution to world problems that are to a large extent caused by religion.

MonctonAs part of my work, in the 80s and 90s I travelled yearly to Chicago for a week long fall conference. I found a listing somewhere for the Quad A group and attended at least one of their meetings on each trip. After several years sober, I started to think my home city of Moncton, New Brunswick, needed a similar meeting.

With one other member with similar “grievances” we started a secular group in 1992 – the “AA 4AF” group – Alcoholics Anonymous For Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers. The group was registered with GSO February 14 with the Service Number 000170694.

We never had more than three people attend the weekly meeting; some I’m sure came because they felt sorry for us non-believers. For all I know they may have even prayed for us – despite what AA writes or officially says, in the meetings there is a real feeling of stigma against those who question or deny the existence of God or the Higher power.

I moved from that city in 1995, joining a local regular group in a small town. The 4AF group closed shortly thereafter, for lack of participation. So it lasted three years.

I mellowed over the years and stopped arguing with members about the God and religious parts of the program. After about 20 years sober I was staying for the whole meeting and even began saying the prayers, not wishing to stand out anymore. They still meant nothing to me. One aspect that I was quite happy with was the service work in AA: I liked doing it and have been involved in service for almost all of my AA life at group, district and area levels. In 2015 I was elected Area 81 Delegate (New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, Canada), Panel 66 – 2016 & 2017. I was generally enjoying my sober life and felt secure in my own beliefs while trying to respect the beliefs of others.

Yet despite this, most of the time I have felt like a bootleg AA member, that I didn’t really belong in AA. Along with the service aspects of AA, I really liked the social contact with the members, but was this a good basic reason to attend AA? I don’t think AA is meant to be a social club. At the end of it, I have to answer one question for myself – does AA provide what I need to maintain and support my own personal way of life? In many ways it does not. AA moves very slowly, though the religious aspects appear to be changing little by little. The UK publication “The God Word” has been made part of North American AA. It is an improvement over Chapter 4 of the Big Book, with its statement “To one who feels he is an atheist or agnostic”. Atheists and agnostics don’t “feel” they are that, they are that. And though AA may change at the Conference level, it may be many decades before the groups change – the fear of drinking and the need to belong and “be the same” makes it difficult for members to change. And the Big Book – frequently described by members as the “AA Bible” – cannot be touched, though the real Bible has been through dozens if not hundreds of versions.

I credit my sobriety to AA, appreciate and am very grateful for the program, yet I am amazed how slow AA has moved to accept today’s reality. For various reasons, inflexible churches are closing all around us – at least in Canada. As I write this I read news of nine more closing in one of my province’s dioceses. On the other hand and sad to say, in other countries the fundamentalists are getting more and more involved in politics.

On May 29 I was 39 years sober. What does the future hold for my sobriety? Well it will go on, with or without AA. I live in a small town now and there seems little prospect of starting another 4AF type group. I have considered other sobriety movements but there are none in my area. So I will continue to attend meetings from time to time, basically to keep in touch with the people who have helped me in the past and help me today. I will no longer be fake praying though, and if that bothers someone it’ll be up to them to accept or reject it.

I will not be doing any more service work. The organization just moves too slowly, the frustration is enough to drive a person to drink. But the web has opened other doors that may help give the big push for change in AA. There is now plenty of competition to “traditional” AA.

The early part of Michael D’s life was lost due to his drinking. After becoming a registered radiology technician, he enrolled in Dalhousie University in pre-med, continuing a dream he always had. In his third year his life was so overwhelmed by drinking he dropped out and began the multiple relocations he hoped would work for him, but which didn’t. Though AA’s 12 promises say you won’t regret the past, he says quitting university remains one of the biggest regrets of his life, along with his poor treatment of his family.

After an attempt at suicide, Michael had his last drink May 29, 1979. He credits his sobriety to the Alcoholics Anonymous program and especially its members. After many years of service in the program, he has chosen to back away from service work because of the clash between AA’s use of prayer and the “God word” and the inability of AA to reflect the realities of 2018.


4 Responses

  1. Diana says:

    Thank-you for your well written and honest article. I enjoyed reading about the evolution of your thinking over the years. I continue to attend some secular AA meetings occasionally as part of my recovery. I appreciate the support and fellowship that it provides.

  2. Thomas B. says:

    Late coming to this rodeo, Michael, but thank you for your forthright and most appropriate article describing not only how you got sober, but also how you also got involved in AA Service work. I’m convinced that we secular AA members must get actively involved in AA General Service Work to insure our voice is included as AA slowly and tediously becomes part of the 21st Century. Sam E., current chair of the ICSAA board, which is involved in manifesting the August 2018 3rd Biennial Conference, has made the observation that many agnostics and atheists are involved in General Service because the general service literature, the AA Service Manual and the 12 Concepts are mostly secular, hardly any mention of the “God” Word at all.

  3. life-j says:

    Thanks. The difference between your efforts then, and our efforts now, is communication, networking, critical mass.

    We need to get even better at it.

  4. Michael,
    I sure hope you’re coming to Toronto for the International Conference of Secular AA August 24 -25. How about the Eastern Canada Regional Forum in Victoriaville Quebec, the end of July?

    It would be great to get you involved in one of our panels. I find service work more rewarding than Big Book or 12&12 study meetings. There is not much “let go and let God” in service work, it’s more about who will do this – who will do that. Service is more secular than most AA recovery discussions.

    In 1996 there was a short-lived We Agnostics group in Toronto. I lived here but I wasn’t really going to many meetings back then. I had family and life problems, I was tiring from what I called, “bumper-sticker AA” which is a kind of anti-intellectual repetition of slogans and quotes that, while providing comforting and reinforcing familiarity for many, for me, this was becoming a repetitive strain disorder. If I’d know about the 1996 secular meeting I would have supported it in Toronto but I wasn’t around much so how would I have known? In the 1970s my AA was Montreal and the early 80s it was Alberta and Western Canada (I traveled for business, too). I found plenty of true believers in AA everywhere but a more secular view was not out-of-place in those days and some groups back them were pretty much secular, focusing on Living Sober, discussion topics, etc. Toronto was a shock to my system because, other than a vibrant young people’s movement in the mid-80s, the rest of AA had unmistakable Judeo/Christian rituals/influence.

    Now that we have a healthy secular AA offering in and around Toronto it makes AA recovery/community more engaging and vital for me. I’m more active than I was 20 years ago.

    Roger told me about making contact with you, Michael and this is an essay I have been looking forward to; many thanks.

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