Celebrating Ten Years: Canada’s Oldest Secular AA Group

By Roger C.

Beyond Belief Agnostics and Freethinkers AA Group met for the first time at 6:30 PM on September 24th, 2009 in Room 2-298 at the University of Toronto (Ontario Institute of Studies in Education – OISE) on Bloor Street West in Toronto.

Twelve AA members attended the first meeting. Sobriety dates varied from newly sober to 33 years.

Where did the idea for an agnostic AA group in Toronto come from?

Joe C was a member of an online AA freethinkers’ International group and the Yahoo Group, AAWR (AA Without Religion). From these contacts, he found out about the New York website that listed secular AA meetings, Agnostic AA New York. From 2004 to 2006, he attended a few New York City agnostic meetings and thought, “Toronto is going to love this!”

Those on the planning committee for the Toronto agnostic meeting talked about group names, times and locations. They thought 6:30 was a good time to maybe attract curious AA members who might already have Thursday AA commitments at 8 or 8:30. In 2009 the committee started looking for space in earnest and agreed to book a room for 10-20 people in OISE from September 2009.

Many AAs from other groups supported Beyond Belief because, regardless of their worldview, they saw a need for a meeting that welcomed AAs who don’t believe in a sobriety granting, prayer answering higher power. At the first business meeting formats were discussed. Should coffee be served, what kind of literature might the meeting rely on? It was decided that reading a chapter a week from Living Sober would be a good way to start the meeting, followed by round-table discussion. More often than not now, it’s a 10-15 minute lead, followed by discussion. Many Toronto groups facilitate discussion with what is called locally a “popcorn style.” Anyone can start sharing once someone has stopped. At our business meeting it was decided that this could lead to more extroverts and less introverts sharing and because everyone has something valuable to share, it was decided to have group participation go around the room.

For a format, meeting scripts and notes were borrowed from San Francisco and New York City groups found online. Some had their own secular version of the Twelve Steps. Some groups didn’t read Steps as a meeting ritual. Some groups closed with “Live and Let Live” said out loud by all, some closed with the Responsibility Declaration and one group used a non-theistic Serenity affirmation, an irreligious version of The Serenity Prayer. Many secular/freethinker/agnostic groups used the preamble:

Agnostic groups of AA attempt to maintain a tradition of free expression and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbelief they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their own.

The next wave of members included Larry K, who was a pioneering regular who would, along with a core of other members, go on to start the second secular AA meeting, We Agnostics, in the east end of Toronto. Chuck D would later join the group and then went on to start the Friday night We Are Not Saints secular AA group. Two people – Bob K and Craig C – were connected via Beyond Belief and launched the Whitby Freethinkers meeting in January 2014. Carol M, a Beyond Belief regular would be one of the founding members of Beyond Belief Suburban West, Wednesday evenings in Mississauga. I joined Beyond Belief and later went on to start We Agnostics in Hamilton. Denis K was a Toronto native living in Vancouver and attended Beyond Belief any time he was in Toronto; Denis would take this idea back to his men’s AA group in Vancouver and they converted to start We Agnostics, Vancouver’s first agnostic/atheist AA group. Beyond Belief relied on many other regulars – of varying beliefs – who were very supportive.

By December 20th, 2009 Intergroup had the meeting listed including (popular at the time) the group’s own website homepage which was approved by the GTAI Executive committee. The website also included the AA preamble, links to other agnostic/atheist AA groups and both Beyond Belief’s secular/agnostic interpretation of the Twelve Steps along with AA’s 1939 original suggested Steps.

In January 2010, at the District meeting, Beyond Belief signed up to organize and participate in treatment centre meetings at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

By May of 2010, Beyond Belief had to book a larger room and moved to 2-295 which held 40 or more attendees. By 2011 there was talk about a break-out room for Thursday and starting a Saturday meeting as well. There was already talk of the second agnostic group in Toronto, We Agnostics, starting up on Tuesday nights.

Today Beyond Belief meets three times a week: a secular Step meeting Monday, a speaker discussion meeting Thursday and a topic discussion on Saturday. Instead of being the only agnostic AA group in Canada, 41 secular AA meetings are found in eight provinces from Dartmouth/Halifax, Nova Scotia to Nanaimo, B.C. (as of October 2019).

While Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers AA Group may be the longest running active agnostic group, archives show that in or around 1996, there was a We Agnostics Group at Main and Gerrard. AA Agnostica posted a June 2018 article by Michael D, past delegate for Area 81 (panel 66) who, having travelled to Chicago and experienced AA for atheists and agnostics (Quad-A) there, started AA for Atheists, Agnostics & Freethinkers group in 1992 which served members for a few years in Moncton. That New Brunswick meeting no longer meets but recently, a Fredericton secular group was launched and serves New Brunswick members.

Service has always been a suggested component of our AA program of action. Beyond Belief is involved at Intergroup and with the help of other AA members in Ontario formed a committee to travel to Austin in 2016 to bid for the 2018 International Conference of Secular AA (ICSAA) and the group hosted this biennial conference in August at the Marriott Eaton Centre Hotel. Provincially, the biennial Secular Ontario AA Round Up (SOAAR) was launched and the first one-day gathering was held in Toronto in 2017.

Of course, what hasn’t been shared yet is the expulsion of the Beyond Belief group – as well as the We Agnostics group – from the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) on May 31, 2011. And the Widening our Gateway group on April 24, 2012. Why was this done? Because the groups had their own secular versions of the 12 Steps. The expulsions lasted a long time. Until Larry K. launched a formal legal challenge against this action via the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal on September 18, 2014. Until AA World Services unanimously decided on the expulsion of the GTAI on October 31, 2016. Until, finally, the chair of the GTAI announced at a meeting that the ousted secular AA groups were to be re-listed and treated as respected members. This happened on January 31, 2017. Almost six years after the expulsion. And since then, the secular groups have indeed been treated as legitimate and respected members of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup.

A lot has happened in the ten years since the launch of the Beyond Belief Agnostics and Freethinkers AA Group! We are delighted with the growth of our group and the creation of other secular groups in Ontario and across Canada. We are honoured to help alcoholics in recovery. As we celebrate our tenth anniversary we are also determined to continue to grow and to be a part of a secular movement within AA which is, quite clearly, committed to help anyone, anywhere who reaches out for help.

The celebration of Beyond Belief’s tenth anniversary took place on Saturday November 23rd at 6:30 PM at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE) on Bloor Street West in Toronto.

20 Responses

  1. Jabu says:

    Well done!! This is inspirational. Living in a township in South Africa, it is almost impossible to be a member of an Agnostic/Atheist/freethinkers group. There is a big resistance to these group starting up. HUMANS COULD AND WOULD IF THEY WERE SOUGHT!

  2. Marty N. says:

    Congrats, Canada! You have been a huge inspiration to me. So much that my wife, Catherine, and I had to go the convention in Toronto. It was a classy operation. I was inspired enough to round up the few atheists I knew and, with their help, start two groups. One in the tiny town of Eastford, Conn. {thanks for the visit Joe} and Putnam, Conn. We have enough, maybe ten, to start a meeting Worcester, Mass. That’s a good sized city in central Massachusetts. It will be the only meeting central Mass. All they need is a location; it looks promising. All of this thanks to Ontario Intergroup!

    • Murray J says:

      Way to go Marty and Catherine! It was an honour to meet you at the Secular Ontario AA Roundup (SOAAR) in Hamilton in September. Your enthusiasm is infectious. Keep up the pioneering work.

  3. Bob K says:

    I’ve attended many secular meetings, including a dozen or so that were group anniversaries. With a head count of about 75, the Beyond Belief anniversary is now the biggest I’ve ever been to. How appropriate that the grand-daddy of Canadian heathen groups should have the Mac-Daddy of celebrations. Many thanks to our hosts.

    Keep the (lack of) faith, Baby. Power to the people!!

  4. Ralph B. says:

    A big congratulations and thank you from Langley BC!! It’s true that all that is required to start a meeting is a good resentment. We had two big resentments happening in Langley and with your example and leadership, we have 2 successful meetings happening.

  5. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you for this history, Joe! It’s so inspirational. I am so grateful for Secular AA and for the beautiful, tenacious minds that serve it (us) every day, all over the world.

  6. Linda K. says:

    I guess I’m a Late bloomer… but i am becoming a Gnostic Agnostic… lol

  7. Thomas B. says:

    Congrats Joe and all members of the Secular AA groups in Toronto and the surrounding area to include the Thursday night Hamilton group, which hosted the Secular AA Roundup this past September. I’m so grateful for the biased and prejudiced actions of the Toronto Intergroup which delisted the secular AA meetings in Toronto. In accordance with the law of unintended consequences, this has resulted in a great expansion of secular AA meetings throughout North America — onward non-Christian soldiers !~!~!

    • Murray J says:

      Well said Thomas!

      We had a first timer at our Beyond Belief meeting tonight. I say first timer at our meeting but she’s been in traditional AA for 3 years. After the meeting and in context, the 2011 GTAI secular delisting episode was discussed briefly. The context was this lady’s on again, off again higher power issue and her interest in secular AA. She was aghast when she heard the story.

      And I agree with Thomas. The Law of Unintended Consequences has been the best thing for secular AA compliments of the GTAI.

    • Bob K says:

      BRILLIANT comment, Thomas B.!!!!! The secular AA world owes a tremendous debt to Toronto Intergroup. We should consider erecting a statue honoring the moron who brought the original delisting motion, and his stooge who seconded it.

      If William James, Anne Smith, Sam Shoemaker, et al. were honorary cofounders of AA, the two guys who led the mission to purify Toronto AA are dishonor-ary cofounders of AAAgnostica.org, a website which prompted a worldwide movement. I sincerely believe I am NOT overstating that.

  8. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    The city of Whitby, east of Toronto, is best known for being the site of Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health. I prefer the old name, Ontario Hospital for the Insane. Truth in advertising, and all that. “A psychotic by any other name would smell as sweet,” in the immortal words of my ancestor, Shakespeare Beach. Contrary to rumor, I do not reside at the “asylum,” but I live conveniently close. You know, just in case.

    Whitby is also home, for the past six years, to Whitby Freethinkers, the FINEST and only secular meeting in Whitby. We recently moved to a larger room in the Whitby Library. “If you build it, they will come,” works not just for Kevin Costner, apparently.

    Anyway, we were going to load up two cars and trek down for the big hoo-hah, but as our group wasn’t important enough to be mentioned in your little announcement, maybe we’ll just go to the very cool new meeting in Oshawa — The Rainbow Group.

  9. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    My friend Bob K was at the two year anniversary party for Beyond Belief, and filed this report:

    Heathens, Spies, Websites, Waterboarding & Carrot Cake

    Most of the stuff he writes is really boring, but this was pretty good!

    Happy Anniversary! Buy yourself a present, Joe C. – a freaken haircut would be good. You look like a damn hippie!

  10. Larry G. says:

    So proud and inspired by your all’s example. I’m contemplating starting a similar group here in North Carolina north of Charlotte.

    • Pat N. says:

      DO IT! I suspect there are a lot of folks just waiting for it. It only takes a place, a time, and a couple of secular volunteers. And I encourage you to stick with it even if it seems like you’re the Lone Ranger. A couple of us started one about 25 years ago, and it was a few months before word got around and we developed a stable core. Now we get 10-30 every Sunday morning, and have helped spawn 4 others, one of which has just reached a stable core of 6-8 members, after 3 years.

      There is nothing as rewarding as seeing the relief in those who’ve hoped, hoped, hoped they didn’t have to be hypocritical or submissive to get sober. And then to watch them become the stable oldtimers welcoming newcomers.

      DO IT!

  11. Mike O says:

    Congratulations! Just so you know your website reaches beyond Canada. We here in the United States also read your site and I’ve personally referred many people in agnostic recovery here as well. Hope you continue to grow and fight the good fight for a place for secular people at the recovery table! 🙂

    • Roger says:

      For the record, Mike, eighty-five percent of the viewers on AA Agnostica are from the US of A! But we also have viewers – and authors – from parts of the world other than North America, such as Great Britain, Poland, Australia, France… It’s very much an international website.

      • Mike O says:

        Given the size and proximity of the USA I guess I’m not surprised. Still, it’s good to hear that the site’s reach has extended so far into other countries around the Western world. It’s such an important resource to have for us secularists in recovery. When I feel itchy after a particularly religiously themed or colored mainstream AA meeting it helps to have this site to come to and relax and know that I’m not alone. As I tell so many people, especially new people, in my local agnostic recovery groups you CAN get and remain sober WITHOUT buying into all of the aspects of the traditional AA doctrine. I’m also quick to remind people to NEVER let anyone define the quality of your sobriety based their interpretation of “spiritual condition” and how you decide to “work the program”. If you’re sober that’s a beautiful thing. Period.

  12. Faith R. says:

    Congrats! Wonderful that secular AA started and that this meeting is still going 10 years after starting.

  13. Murray J says:

    I am so happy I discovered secular AA! It rejuvenated my recovery. I knew back in 2011 on the floor of the GTAI that something was desperately wrong with traditional AA and something so refreshingly right with secular AA…for me.

    My deepest thanks and congratulations to Beyond Belief Toronto for having the courage and vision to reach out to fellow alcoholics.

    Well done!

  14. Harry C. says:

    Congratulations guys and gals for being a key part in the growth of Secular AA as it stands today.

    You Toronto folk delivered an excellent ICSAA 2018 and the ‘fellowship’ was second to none. We all owe Larry a huge BIG ‘TA’ for fighting the fight and taking the blows in bringing some sense back to the GTAI, and in stopping GSO from doing a Pontious Pilot!!

    Thanks to you too Joe for picking Dante and I up and taking us to the Thursday night meeting. A true gentleman indeed. And how can I not say thanks to Roger too for giving us AA Agnostica. This was my main link in Scotland to what was developing elsewhere in the world of ‘belligerent’ AAs.

    So New York helped you Joe, and that was my first ‘secular’ meeting too in 2008. Enjoy your 10th anniversary for you’re all certainly Beyond Belief. Here’s to the next decade. ??????? ? ? ? ??

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