The 2018 International Conference of Secular AA

ICSAA Toronto Featured

By Carolyn B.

I am a relative newcomer to Secular AA (just over one year) and on attending the International Conference of Secular AA in downtown Toronto at the Marriott Hotel this past weekend I experienced the same feelings of joy, relief and of having finally found my people that I experienced in my first meeting of secular AA.

With 268 delegates from around the world – including countries such as Great Britain, France, Australia and Poland – the conference was filled with a sense of fellowship and lively debate. Secular AA is alive, vibrant, willing to consider change, tackle difficult questions and to consider how we will move into the future. The theme and focus of the conference was on inclusion and diversity.

There were many topics discussed in the conference plus there were concurrent sessions. There were seven panels held in the main ballroom. And a total of 30 workshops! I could not attend as many as I would have liked. Topics ranged from online meetings, anonymity, LGBTQ meetings, atheist beliefs and secular AA. Other sessions included starting Secular groups and organizing regional conferences, women’s issues in AA, and Secular Al-Anon to name a few. Here are some titles of the panels and workshops (you can see all of them here, ICSAA Agenda):

  • History of Secular AA
  • She Devils AA Meeting
  • Emotional Sobriety: The New Frontier
  • Are Atheist Thumpers Dividing Secular AA?
  • The Biology, Psychology and Philosophy of Spirituality
  • How to Start a Secular AA Meeting
  • My Pet is Step 2
  • Relationship Repair in Recovery

There were several sessions that stood out for me and may be of interest to others. They were on the themes of recovery and spirituality.

First, recovery. There was considerable discussion on what recovery means and as you and I know many feel it is a process rather than an actual state. There were interesting discussions on what has been found to be helpful in recovery; that quitting drinking is not enough as we all know. “Recovery Capital” was the name of a wonderful workshop conducted by Dr. Ray Baker, from British Columbia. Recovery Capital is defined as “the volume of internal and external resources that can be drawn upon to initiate and sustain recovery from addiction” (Granfield & Cloud 1999). This involves focusing on one’s physical, social, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual life. Of course this makes sense for those of us who are addicted.

Second, spirituality. There was a spectrum of opinion expressed by atheists on the place of spirituality in Secular AA. Some of the more militant atheist members feel that using the word spirituality in the secular groups makes us more like traditional AA and they oppose this. Others have a more broad concept of spirituality. Both atheists and agnostics share ideas of spirituality as not being religious; but, rather they used such terms as “ethical spirituality”, “self – transcendence” and “transcendence”. I offer these ideas for your consideration.

One Big TentOne of the people at the conference was Jon W, the senior editor of the AA Grapevine. Jon was part of a panel organized by Roger C on The History of Secular AA. The Grapevine has put together a book in which “Atheist and agnostic AA members share their experience, strength and hope”. The book contains 43 stories by nonbelievers in AA previously published by the Grapevine, the first in May 1968 and the most recent in October 2016.

Although it was not yet officially published, 250 copies were made available at the conference. The title of the book, One Big Tent, perfectly reflects the theme of the conference, diversity and inclusiveness, and is an important part of the contemporary history of the secular movement within Alcoholics Anonymous!

I need as well to report that there were three excellent keynote speakers at the conference. The first one to speak was Dr. Vera Tarman. Her topic was “More was my Higher Power”. In the panel on spirituality she also talked about the biology of spirituality, which was fascinating, to say the very least.

The second speaker was Deirdre S from New York who gave a talk entitled “The Cross-Addicted Mind: How Obsessive Use of Substances and Behaviors Fuels Alcoholism”. She also spoke at the Austin convention and you can read her talk here, A History of Special Interest Groups in AA.

And finally, the talk “AA: do we need God to make it work? A medical-scientific analysis” was presented by Dr. Ray Baker, who also did the workshop on Recovery Capital. He is writing a book about addiction, the working title is Recovery Medicine, and I really look forward to it being published!

As mentioned previously there were many ideas and questions raised throughout the conference. Questions that I need to think about and you may also want to consider are:

  1. Do we need to use the Secular 12 Steps in our meetings?
  2. Do we ever need the 12 steps at all in Secular AA?
  3. How do we make our meetings open to youth?
  4. Are there specific readings that we can use in Secular AA that are not part of traditional AA? If so what would they be?
  5. How closely affiliated do we want Secular AA to be with Traditional AA?

These are some of the highlights, ideas and questions that were discussed at the conference. I present them here for your consideration.

And while there was a stimulating and exciting diversity of opinion at the conference, there was also agreement on key issues. At the membership business meeting on Sunday morning two statements were adopted unanimously by those at the conference.

The first is our mission statement, the mission of secular AA:

Our mission is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or deny their own. Secular AA does not endorse or oppose any form of religion or belief system and operates in accordance with the Third Tradition of the Alcoholics Anonymous Program: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking”.

The second is our vision statement:

Secular AA recognizes and honors the immeasurable contributions that Alcoholics Anonymous has made to assist individuals to recover from alcoholism. We seek to ensure that AA remains an effective, relevant and inclusive program of recovery in an increasingly secular society. The foundation of Secular AA is grounded in the belief that anyone – regardless of their spiritual beliefs or lack thereof can recover in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Secular AA exists to serve the community of secularly-minded alcoholics by supporting worldwide access to secularly formatted AA meetings and fostering mutual support within a growing population of secularly-minded alcoholics.

The conference was an opportunity to think about the larger issues facing Secular AA and my place in it. It was a very exciting conference for me. While the conference was intellectually stimulating, in no way does takes away the importance from what we do in our groups each week. For me, our group provides safety, fellowship, an opportunity to learn from others and to share my issues on my path to recovery. While the conference was stimulating I am so grateful I have my group!


Carolyn B is 68 years old and a retired educator. She was initially involved in traditional AA but always found the “god” part not true to her beliefs. On moving to Hamilton Ontario over a year ago she discovered the We Agnostics Group. She has been an active and grateful member ever since. Carolyn attended the Secular Ontario AA Roundup (SOAAR) in Toronto in 2017 and is co-chair of the committee for SOAAR 2019, which will take place in Hamilton.


During his workshop on Recovery Capital at the conference, Dr. Ray Baker talked about how AA helps the alcoholic. Here is a slide that lists the ways in which recovery can be achieved and supported within Alcoholics Anonymous:

Therapeutic Components of AA


<p style="text-align: justify;">Hey! Want to share this article? You should! You can share it with your group. Better yet, share it with your local Intergroup. It’s a great story about the nature of Secular AA and its impressive growth over the past decade. To get the article as a great PDF just click on the image on the right.


 

Share this post:
FacebooktwittermailFacebooktwittermail

Comments

The 2018 International Conference of Secular AA — 20 Comments

  1. Enjoyed reading all the comments being made here including those trying to define what spirituality might look like to a humanist like myself. I tend to agree with Adam’s view on the lamentable overuse of the term as vague and ambiguous. Arguably for many of us, it puts the problem and the solution in the outer realm of the supernatural. I stopped trying to translate the spiritualese of AA’s program into the humanese encompassing my own worldview a while back and found that it actually improved my overall experience.I’m rarely, if ever, prescriptive in my views and still a strong proponent of whatever floats your boat and keeps you sober…right? Always grateful and appreciative of the hard work and effort made by most of you here. Wanted to attend the conference in Toronto but was unfortunately conflicted…again. Still quietly reaching out to newcomers here in the overtly religious deep South with a secular alternative. I’m never an apologist and always a firm believer in the human spirit of AA.

    Cheers, Dan K in Tallahassee.

  2. Can someone post a summary or perhaps a full transcript of Deirdre S. presentation of “The Cross-Addicted Mind: How Obsessive Use of Substances and Behaviors Fuels Alcoholism”? This would be helpful for sharing in our local group. Thanks!

    • Hi Thomas,

      We will be posting transcripts of the talks from Deirdre, Dr. Baker and Dr. Tarman on AA Beyond Belief as we have them ready. We will also make all of the audio available for download at AA Beyond Belief. I hope to have those transcripts available next week.

      You can also listen to the audio from the conference on the ICSAA 2018 YouTube Channel.

      We are still working on editing the audio and we are posting on the YouTube Channel as soon as they are ready.

  3. I don’t have a problem with the word “spirituality” as I think of this as a “sense of purpose in life” or “a sense of meaning in relating to people around me” or “centeredness.” In this sense, spirituality is quite different from the vocabulary of psychiatry, where you have “schizophrenic” or “manic depressive” or “ADHD” and so on. However, spirituality as I have given examples here, doesn’t have to invoke religion in any way, either.

  4. Thanks Carolyn. You captured the essence of the conference very well. It is an honour to be part of the committee with you for the Secular Ontario AA Roundup (SOAAR) in Hamilton, Ontario on September 7th, 2019.

    Murray

  5. Carolyn, Please take a look at the script for the Agnostics and Atheists in AA in Putnam, Conn. I don’t know of any other group that keeps it as simple. Also, not every meeting is a step meeting. Most nights we don’t even mention the steps..

    Take care. Totonto was quite inspiring.

  6. I’m sorry that I live so far away – in Sweden – that a trip to Canada would be a major financial undertaking. After reading the notes, I’d just add my own thought: that the 12 steps can be important, particularly for newcomers. They’re a sort of reference point, boiling everything down into a specific plan for action.

    In fellowship, Roger Ch

  7. Our mission is to provide for an AA milieu which is free of advocacy of an actual or implied requirement for adherence to any particular belief system defined as spiritual or religious. To honor the varied ways that individuals construct their world view we strive to provide a structure for AA meetings that is free from assertions of any such particular belief system, the goal being to maximize feelings of inclusivity.

    My mission statement for Secular AA.

    Phil O. 9/2/18

    • EVERYONE is welcome to Secular AA and may say anything they wish, and every AA meeting is autonomous. However, Secular AA is a special interest group not unlike LGBTQ meetings.

      Your mission statement seems better suited to traditional AA.

      Here is the Secular AA Vision statement:

      Secular AA recognizes and honors the immeasurable contributions that Alcoholics Anonymous has made to assist individuals to recover from alcoholism. We seek to ensure that AA remains an effective, relevant and inclusive program of recovery in an increasingly secular society. The foundation of Secular AA is grounded in the belief that anyone – regardless of their spiritual beliefs or lack thereof – can recover in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Secular AA exists to serve the community of secularly-minded alcoholics by supporting worldwide access to secularly formatted AA meetings and fostering mutual support within a growing population of secularly-minded alcoholics.

      Secular means non-religious not anti-religious.

  8. Thank you, Carolyn. This was the 1st time I couldn’t make it to the international, and it’s good to hear it was the usual great event.

    Regarding the issue of whether to read some version of 12 steps or not, the 2 secular meetings I attend have no doctrinal/instructional readings. We have a handful of set materials about our format and other information, and end with the AA Commitment: “When anyone, anywhere, etc.” We make copies of the AA Steps and Traditions available to our rare newcomer, along with a schedule of all AA meetings, but the rest of the time is devoted to individual sharing.

    I’ve found it helpful to write and re-write my personal steps, which number 13 currently and somewhat parallel the original 12, but would never try to make them part of a meeting.

  9. Indeed, Carolyn, an excellent summary report on the Third Biennial International Conference of Secular AA in Toronto. — Thank You !~!~!

    I am especially pleased that you highlighted the adoption of the Mission and Vision statements by the membership at the Sunday morning Business Meeting, which succinctly and clearly state that secular AA is a part of the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

    I look forward to our gathering in Bethesda, MD during the fall of 2020 to experience our continued growth and evolution within “The Big Tent” of Alcoholics Anonymous.

  10. Carolyn S,
    Thank you for your report. However I have a few comments/questions:

    “militant atheist…?” Seems rather prejudicial. What’s wrong with just “atheist?”
    “Both atheists and agnostics share ideas of spirituality as not being religious…” No. Might you please explain how “spirituality” is “not being religious?”

    Might you also please define such terms as “ethical spirituality”, “self – transcendence” and “transcendence?” They seem rather vague.

    Sincerely,
    Vic L. (Moderator of “Are Atheist Thumpers Dividing Secular AA?” panel in Toronto)

    • Hi Vic,

      In response to one of your questions, I suggest you read the book by Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. You can click on the image below for a wonderful review of the book, posted on AA Agnostica:

      Waking Up

    • Funny how everyone can get so carried away arguing over what spirituality is. Bill Wilson himself, in just about the only thing I would still quote from the Big Book quotes Jung on p 27. I can’t think of a better, secular definition:

      …vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.

      Oh one other thing I’d quote, from Dr Bob: “Let’s keep it simple.”

      • What is spirituality? Whether it’s Sam Harris, Carl Jung, Bill W., or Dr. Bob they all seem to have an answer, albeit all different. Being many things to many people seems to render “spiritual” as meaningless.
        “Might you please explain how “spirituality” is “not being religious?”
        I never seem to get an answer.

      • Religion is dogma. Spirituality involves an experience of a larger understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live than is traditionally provided by our culture or education. Not acknowledging the possibility of such an experience is often just another form of dogma. That’s what methinks, anyway.

  11. “… I experienced the same feelings of joy, relief and of having finally found my people that I experienced in my first meeting of secular AA.”

    This was absolutely my experience as well Carolyn. And I need to feel that sense of belonging to survive and thrive.

    Thanks for the great overview.

  12. Thank You Carolyn for this summary of ICSAA 2018. I particularly appreciated your list of points to ponder moving forward.

    Do we need to use the Secular 12 Steps in our meetings?
    Do we ever need the 12 steps at all in Secular AA?
    How do we make our meetings open to youth?
    Are there specific readings that we can use in Secular AA that are not part of traditional AA? If so what would they be?
    How closely affiliated do we want Secular AA to be with Traditional AA?

    These will be important Agenda items to consider for the Host Committee for ICSAA 2020 Washington DC October 30-Nov1.

    Thank you for your excellent report.

    Courtney S.
    Board of Directors SecularAA, Inc.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *