Celebrating Ten Years: Canada’s Oldest Secular AA Group
By Joe 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?
I was a member of an online AA freethinkers’ International group and the Yahoo Group, AAWR (AA Without Religion). From these contacts, I found out about the New York website that listed secular AA meetings, Agnostic AA New York. (Today, the worldwide list of secular AA meetings is found here: Secular AA.) From 2004 to 2006, I attended a few New York City agnostic meetings and thought, “Toronto is going to love this!”
Those of us on the planning committee for the Toronto agnostic meeting talked about group names, times and locations. We 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 we 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 we discussed meeting formats. Should we serve or not serve coffee, what kind of literature might the meeting rely on? We 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. We discussed at our business meeting how this could lead to more extroverts and less introverts sharing and because everyone has something valuable to share, we elected to have group participation go around the room.
For a format, we borrowed from meeting scripts and notes from San Francisco and New York City groups that we 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 us 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. Roger C would join Beyond Belief and later go 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 our meeting listed including (popular at the time) our group’s own website homepage which was approved by the GTAI Executive committee. Our site also included our 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 our 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 we moved to 2-295 which held 40 or more attendees. By 2011 we were talking 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. We are 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 we hosted this biennial conference in August at the Marriott Eaton Centre Hotel. Provincially, we started the biennial Secular Ontario AA Round Up (SOAAR) and the first one-day gathering was held in Toronto in 2017.
Of course, what I haven’t shared yet is the expulsion of our 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 we had our 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, our 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.
One of the founders of Beyond Belief Agnostic and Freethinkers AA Group, Joe is the author the ever-popular book Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life. This is a book of daily reflections that is often read at the beginning of secular AA meetings and followed by a round-the-table discussion.
He is also the creator and manager of the secular AA website, Rebellion Dogs Publishing.
Joe also gets around quite a bit as a secular AA speaker. For instance, in February of 2019 he was in Los Altos, California as part of a Symposium on AA History. In September, he was the keynote speaker launching the Secular Ontario AA Roundup (SOAAR) in Hamilton.