What If We Built It… And No One Came?

By bob k

There are some parallels existing between the LGBTQ+ and the secular communities in Alcoholics Anonymous. Both are outliers in a sense, or in multiple senses perhaps. Many in the traditional recovery community don’t quite know what to make of either group. Obviously, we have supporters. On the other hand, some mainstream AAers do a poor job of veiling their prejudices, while a great many are overtly hostile without shame.

Some substantial percentage simply wishes that we’d just all go away.

By forming separate freethinker or LGBTQ-friendly meetings, we have gone away without really going away. Introduce yourself in a mainstream AA meeting as “Bob from Whitby Freethinkers” or “Diane from We Agnostics” and there is at the least a subtly different reaction from that received by “Peter from Keep It Simple.”

When my friend Bridget, a self-described “purple-haired queer girl” (of 28) was trying to navigate to sobriety in the choppy waters of conventional AA meetings in Oshawa, there were problems. Hearing that men should sponsor men and women should sponsor women, she asked “Who should sponsor me?” There were no volunteers, nor even suggestions. She found understanding, a sponsor, and sobriety (two years April 11 – YA BABY!!) at the Whitby Freethinkers.

Both gays and atheist-agnostics have felt similar vibes within the rooms. The traditional member struggles to verbalize what would be the simplest of solutions – Why don’t you just go away?

Freethinkers often are asked pretty directly: “If you are uncomfortable with the God idea, why don’t you form your own godless organization to pursue sobriety?” Google Translate is not required to realize that recommendation is another way of saying: Why don’t you just go away?

Rarely does it even dawn on the speaker that his words are of the unkindest sort. “If we wanted to form our own godless sobriety organization, do you not think the idea would have occurred to us? But thanks for welcoming us to leave. By the way, you might consider waiting twenty minutes or so before making your speech about the tremendous inclusivity of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

Similarly, it’s best to leave a bit of time between the “choose your own conception of God” injunction or the “We’re spiritual, not religious” palaver, before closing with the extremely generic “Lord’s Prayer.” It was written by a Jew, you know? Pray tell.

The AA traditionalist finds himself trapped in a largely unwelcomed era of political correctness. He is somewhat pressured to feign tolerance for the gay community. In 2020, overt hostility has fallen out of fashion. At least the damn atheists can be more directly invited to fornicate elsewhere. After all, they are openly defiant and in denial about “no human power” etc. “God could and would if he were sought.”

There it is in black and white, ya damn Christopher Hitchens wannabe!

Not wanting to be seen as prejudiced, it’s a trickier business suggesting to the multi-lettered demographic that they just go away? In an era when folks like Jordan Peterson become heroes and sell a zillion books – I’d KILL to sell a zillion books! – for refusing to use gender neutral pronouns, it’s understandable that the average GM retiree wishes that we could return to simpler times. In the olden, golden days were they just not all homosexules??

Group autonomy is a wonderful thing.

We atheists and agnostics are forming our own AA meetings all over the world. Sadly, they are least likely to be found in the regions where they might be most needed, communities like Bibletown, Jesusville, or Redneck Gulch. Large cities have their share of fundamentalist mouth-breathers, but bigger populations offer a broader range of choice as well as more liberality regarding higher powers or sexual preference.

Urbanity = refinement of manner, suavity. Synonyms = sophistication, diplomacy, cultivation, worldliness.

See the connection?

The queer community has had its challenges with mainstream religion – homosexuality being an unnatural act, and all that. Freethinkers are the allies of the LGBTQ community. I am reminded of the most emotional AA meeting I’ve ever attended – the inaugural gathering of Kawartha Freethinkers.

The desire for a non-religious meeting was not the motivation for all who felt a need for a “freethinking” meeting. Two gay men felt that they would find less prejudice here. They did. A feminist-activist had her own, and not unique, objections to fundamentalism and much that’s in AA literature.

The Kawartha Freethinkers – AA Agnostica

In Peterborough, Ontario, one encounters some of the small-town thinking more stereotypically represented in the southern United States. Decent folks are openly wary of queers and nonbelievers.

It just ain’t right!

Not so long ago, two “agnostic” groups were delisted and disenfranchised. That all went swimmingly well until, with the help of Ontario’s Human Rights Commission, a satanic pit-bull named Larry K growled them into submission. Decades earlier, the very same Toronto Intergroup had delisted the city’s first gay meeting based on the rather clever pretext that a second “requirement” was being introduced beyond the desire to stop drinking. Let your imagination run wild.

That problem was solved by the meeting’s descriptor being changed to “Gay friendly.” AA ain’t all about the labelling, but it’s a lot about the labelling.

Toronto Intergroup is consistent if nothing else. They successfully delisted the Muckers for being too druggy and gave Bern B. and Moe K. grief when they started NOSMO, Toronto’s first non-smoking meeting. Times have truly changed in many ways. Being oldtimers who were neither gay nor secular, the non-smokers easily steamrolled over the objectors.

In the 1989 film Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character hears an inner voice – If you build it, he will come. Without delving into the details of a nuanced plot, the Iowa farmer plows up a portion of his corn farm and builds a baseball field. The ghosts of disgraced Shoeless Joe Jackson and the other members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox “cheaters” show up and start playing.

Some of us have followed our inner voices to build more user-friendly AA groups targeting either the atheist-agnostic or the LGBTQ+ communities. There are now some five hundred and fifty secular AA meetings. Ten years ago, there were less than one hundred. There have been some frustrations along the way. The third ever Toronto area meeting, Widening The Gateway in Richmond Hill was Jesus-bombed, week after week, by a preachy Christian on a mission to convert the heathen horde. The group ultimately folded after making a strong beginning.

The first-ever secular LGBTQ meeting came and went within a year in spite of the brilliant organizational and promotional efforts of a small group of folks. Andrew H, who made a fascinating presentation at the 2018 secular world conference, drove in weekly from Oshawa to set up the Toronto meeting. Toronto is a huge city with a large LGBTQ demographic and a large recovery community, and the LGBTQ folks generally lean notably away from the religious end of the spectrum. What was the problem?

Apathy, unfortunately.

The Whitby Freethinkers has been a success, operating since 2013. Tom C started a similar group in Ajax in October 2016. That group has floundered. Only a very cheap rental fee for a tiny room has kept the meeting from folding. Some weeks, no one at all shows up. Surprisingly few of the Whitby folks (five miles away) have ventured over to support the meeting.

A few months back, AA Agnostica brought the great news of some intrepid folks bringing an LGBTQ meeting to Oshawa, Ontario. Already, the Rainbow Group is struggling despite noble efforts from a dedicated half dozen within the community, and some empathetic liberals outside the target demographic. The rednecks of the ‘Shwa have not been the problem. The area’s gay recovery community is not too small to support a meeting. We know that’s not the case. Dozens of different people have been at the meeting, from time to time.

If we build it, they will come, once in a while.

The same indifference is prevalent in traditional AA. I love AA – it saved my life. I’ve been really busy and haven’t dropped in for two months, but it’s good to be back at a meeting. Of course, the difference in the indifference is that traditional AA is many orders of magnitude larger. The apathy there is less obvious.

Some of us were in Alcoholics Anonymous long before “agnostic” options appeared. We rightly whined about the religiosity of conventional meetings. We LOVED it when prayerless alternatives appeared. For all too many, the enthusiasm was short-lived.

If someone builds it, we must come, and not just once in a while.

Not just when there is nothing good on TV. Not just when you are not too tired. Not just when you have no hot date, good book to read, or bathroom tiles to grout. We will be crushed if our more personally tailored option disappears.

Let’s not let that happen.

This may be the worst of times for a rant about supporting a cause by attending and supporting the meetings that we want to be there for us. In my defence, it may be that, as my Texas friends might put it, I ain’t quite right in the head. In the meantime, let’s make some effort to search out the needed Zoom numbers and passports needed in the current conditions.

The only thing worse than being on the outside looking in, is being on the outside not looking in.

Key Players in AA HistoryBob K has been something of an activist in the secular AA community. He has been one of the most prolific contributors to the websites AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief. He co-founded Whitby Freethinkers in 2013 and has made some efforts to support those who have started other nonreligious AA groups. In 2015, AA Agnostica published bob’s Key Players in AA History, a book that continues to sell well. Coming soon is The Secret Diaries of Bill W. We will announce the date of bob’s funeral after the fundies kill him.


22 Responses

  1. Dean W says:

    Hi Lena! Thanks for the clarification, I’m sorry if I misunderstood you.

  2. Lena R. says:

    Hi Dean! I think you have misunderstood what I was saying. I have no interest in denying who we are. Of course I support anything that helps strengthen the reach and message of Secular AA and I support Secular AA having its own meetings, websites, and service structures. What I’m saying is, people suggest to me that Secular AA is “not AA” and I should be working on a different program entirely, like SMART Recovery and lesser-known alternatives. So this is simply my explanation of why I choose Secular AA rather than something else entirely.

  3. Jack B. says:

    None of the atheists and agnostic AA members that I love as friends ever thought that winning the various de-listing attacks would stop the religious attacks.
    It might be appropriate here to say Wake Up!!!

    The extraordinarily vicious religious cretins lost several of the listing battles but never forget: THEY view those losses as merely losing round 1! These ugly people are all still there; still vicious; still oblivious and utterly uncaring of the wretched, damage they do to newcomers – all in the name of jebus.

    The need to get into the faces of the religious and BB thumpers has not declined. Now more than ever the religious hijacking of AA must be exposed if for no other reason than for the sake of the newcomers. Please! Try to remember your very first meeting. Remember how nervous you were? And probably a bit scared? You may have been lucky as I was and was befriended by one or two members who were NOT religiously inclined. But it didn’t take very long before you saw and heard a thumper or two and, if you were religiously neutral, how confused and perhaps uncomfortable the thumpers made you feel. And then you had to begin the quite difficult journey into your own addiction whilst, at the same time, dealing with the sometimes extreme religious Intrusion into your own life by those who are convinced that a god or hp of some sort is responsible for your own, hopefully successful treck towards recovery from an addiction.

    There is nothing gentle or nice or good intentioned about the thumpers objectives and methods. Remember always that the thumpers objective is the conversion to a religion; NOT the recovery from an addiction. That fact alone exposes the utter and most profound immorality of the thumpers and their greatest danger.

    AA is about recovery from alcohol addiction AND NOTHING ELSE!!

    That fact alone must always be the alpha and omega of AA.


  4. Dean W says:

    Lena, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. Please don’t take this personally; the point of view you express seems to be the majority in Secular AA and has its justifications, but I take issue with it. Are you saying Secular AA should accept its designation as the ugly red-headed stepchild of the fellowship just so we can gain access to newcomers? We should be willing to deny who we are in the name of “carrying the message?” Can you see where some might see that as disingenuous, if not a bit hypocritical?

    Instead, why not start the admittedly hard work of establishing the independence of Secular AA? Wouldn’t we be acting out of a greater sense of integrity to do so?

  5. Lena R. says:

    Thank you so much for your perspective, David. I completely agree! We did receive a start-up donation from a secular group in Toronto, which really helped us get the ball rolling in purchasing literature and other materials. I thought that was a really cool idea to help groups start up. We did receive criticism locally about this apparently being an “outside contribution”, which is ridiculous because it was still an AA contribution, and money moves throughout the AA structure all the time. I guess you just can’t win when you market yourself as a heathen 😀

  6. David W says:

    Lena it’s really sad to hear of the uphill slog that occurs with secular groups striving to gain what are just basic rights, the right for people to manage their recovery and beliefs in a way that works for them. The bigotry and intolerance that exists in some traditional groups is pitiful.

    I really admire the fight you’re putting up to get established where you are. Secular AA needs to continue to grow it’s own identity and footprint. I think a key going forward is how to best support secular groups in smaller communities where the repression is the greatest. It’s a pity the trash talkers don’t understand they’re scorching the earth for all AA not just groups different from theirs. I do believe AA is going to whither and die if it doesn’t evolve and broaden it’s horizon beyond the perspective held in its eighty year old book.

  7. Lena R. says:

    Such a fantastic article, wow. Even fellow secularists have asked me within the last week, “why not work on an AA alternative instead if traditional AA is so intolerant?” For me, the answer is simple – exposure. Doctors know AA, the courts know AA, media portrays AA, and AA is the first name on everybody’s mouths when they think of recovery. Starting a new international organization from scratch is not an easy process (to put it mildly), and even if successful, I fear for the poor atheist, agnostic, or LGBTQ+ person that stumbles into a highly fundamentalist traditional AA meeting during their few days of sobriety. I don’t want them to have to stumble around to all kinds of meetings just to feel like their beliefs, sexuality, or gender identity is compatible with sobriety.

    My secular home group is pretty small, and I’m sure that’s in no small part due to the perpetual trash-talking that occurs about our group in my area. Every step of the way has been an uphill battle, including getting listed on our local meeting lists. When a drunk calls our local AA hotline, I am highly doubtful anyone will inform them about our secular group. Early recovery is hard enough – I don’t know why anyone would want to stick their neck out, be honest about their atheism, and get torn to pieces by the local fundies who rule the roost. We have to do better.

    Finally, thanks so much for highlighting the often-overlooked truth that making a commitment to a meeting and showing up to that meeting regularly is a crucial form of service.

  8. Tom J says:

    As a queer non-believer who is celebrating his 29th anniversary today, I was fortunate to have started my journey in San Francisco where being either or both was not an issue in most meetings. Moved to Hawai’i from there and no biggie there either.

    BUT, I’ve been in Central Virginia, on the cusp of the Bible Belt, for 22 years. Even LGBTQ AA here has a significant number of proselytizers who are not always sensitive to the religious-based trauma many of their peers had at the hands of family and churches. That said, there are many LGBTQ people in local and area service positions and I think that a.) they are there; and b.) they work harder than anyone else, makes a difference too.

    On the other hand, though, the 2 non-believer meetings I sometimes go to are always accepting of everyone, and I’ve never heard anything remotely close to sexually-oriented slurs.

    So no great point to this, just experiences to pass on. To those of you who have been beaten up by the AA hierarchy, my thanks for your persistence. Sometimes living well is the best revenge!

  9. Tom J says:

    Lived in Mass in ’72 and while I couldn’t vote for another 18 mos, I sure wish I had kept the bumper sticker!

  10. Doc says:

    I’ve had some experience with delisting. Many years ago, the local intergroup dellisted my home group claiming that it was an atheist group. It was not! I was the only open atheist that attended and the topic of atheism was never mentioned. However, there was also little discussion of god.

    My current home group, Red Road, is an American Indian group. The local intergroup refuses to list us. We use smudge during the meetings and close with a traditional Anishinaabe song.

    On the other hand, many, many years ago (perhaps 45 or so), in another community I was involved in organizing the first gay group. We listed it with the local intergroup with absolutely no hassle.

    With regard to sponsorship, I came into sobriety with a woman sponsor (I’m male) and over the last 51 years have probably sponsored as many women as men. At the present time, I’m sponsoring four people, all straight: 2 men (1 evangelical Christian, 1 agnostic) and 2 women. My gender, sexual orientation, atheism, age, and ethnicity are irrelevant to sponsorship.

  11. Arlene J. says:

    As a gay 82 year old alcoholic sober sense May 9, 1969 I have enjoyed aaagnostica.org. When I mention I don’t believe in god, seems like people sharing after me have a need to tell me I an not doing it right.

    Fortunately Jimmy B was in my home group in 1969 and told me I would be welcomed. He also suggested I look up the word god in my dictionary. Mine had three descriptions and the one I chose was and is the chief object of my affections. AA is that power.

  12. Pat N. says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Bob.

    I’m convinced that the reason AA meetings help so many people is that they are MEETINGS – 2 or more people with a common problem sharing as honestly as they can. Straight or gay, secular or religious, male/female, etc. – they are meetings. Literature, sponsors, formats, customs, other factors always are secondary to fellowship. We’d had enough of loneliness, despair, and hopelessness. We had all vomited in the same toilets so to speak.

    One of the things I dislike about “How It Works” is Bill’s pronouncement that anyone who doesn’t get sober using his steps is somehow faulty as an individual. At that point, in early recovery, he hadn’t realized that his steps just aren’t everyone’s. I’m glad he outgrew that, but AA hasn’t outgrown his 1939 pontification.

    Neither of the secular meetings I attend reads the Steps, nor any other part of the BB, except for an altered version of the Promises.

    I think another, simpler explanation for the inability of some fledgling secular groups to grow is the question of day, time, and place. Some years ago we started a group at 6 PM on Wednesday, and it’s never grown a lot. Many meetings had 1,2, or 3 attendees. A bonanza was to get up to 8. I think one of the factors is time of meeting. Now that we’re a Zoom meeting, we’re up to 15 or so. Same day/time, but for some reason it’s more appealing online.

    Very early in sobriety, I was in Seattle at a work-related conference, and the most convenient meeting was a gay meeting at noon, I believe the 1st one in town. I’m not gay, but I dropped in and found the welcome, acceptance, and good humor that kept me in AA initially. I can’t remember the topic, but it wasn’t any aspect of sexuality.

    Unity in diversity, singleness of purpose – that’s what it’s all about, and why we need to expand the same old fellowship in new ways. If the only AA meeting in town was the Transvestite Muslims, I’d be there.

  13. Jeff P. says:

    Great post. I have recently been reading Abraham Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being and it is downright spooky when you think of it in terms of AA orthodoxy. For anyone who cares, THIS is the Big Book, the one that should be read and studied at meetings, not a bunch of Biblical nonsense masquerading as pseudo-scientific bullshit, with tales of drunken hobos and Indians for your enjoyment.

    Toward a Psychology of Being

  14. Bob K says:

    You may remember 1972 when Richard Nixon won re-election in a landslide. A great bumper sticker appeared a short time later: DON’T BLAME ME — I’M FROM MASSACHUSETTS. AA is as it has always been, extremely regional in its practices. I live in a quite liberal area, but when my sponsee introduces himself as a member of Whitby Freethinkers, he is told “that’s not a real AA group.” When we started the group, we only made it into the third “WHERE & WHEN” directory. They “forgot” us a couple of times. About two years ago, we were “accidentally” omitted again.

    Things have improved in Toronto. Other places not so much. The LBGTQ+ folks have it worse than secularists in areas like Oshawa.

    Of course, the thrust of the essay is that folks in the “special interest” demographic need to do their best to support the meetings that they want to be there, regardless of the level of prejudice.

  15. Lance says:

    Thanks, Bob.

    I have been interested in my own reduction in enthusiasm for secular AA. I often describe the Santa Monica convention as life changing, and yet I’ve felt a little less jacked up at each succeeding convention.

    Why is that? I’m guessing part of it is the fact of 25 years of subtle and often unvoiced discomfort in traditional meetings. Heck, I did not even know the words which would describe my own suspicion there was no supernatural being involved in my sobriety. We all have developed those thoughts and words for me (I love all of your articles and bought at least one copy of your book – also called a recent article my new favorite of all time) and you have been a large part of that development.

    Then, after a few years of excitement at each new visitor who is usually not ready to decide what he really thinks about all that stuff in the BB, even more enthusiasm for the one or two non believers who come by and may be supportive till they move away (or, occasionally, drink).

    It seems the alcoholics most driven to make a place for all including secularists in AA are those of us with much frustrated unexpressed experience in AA. And we get older. And wish to turn it over to younger members who don’t seem to have the drive we had. That happens in traditional AA here in unpopulated (and uncovided) SE Montana as well, of course. But we need more verve than larger traditional AA does just because we have fewer supporters.

    I do appreciate your pointing out the greater need for open secular AA in small religious communities. That’s what makes my own insistence upon being at our tiny meeting every Sunday morning seem worthwhile even if we don’t get a lot of people. One wishes to be more interesting or charming or whatever it takes to draw the religious members who seem afraid of losing their beliefs if they hear what we say. Maybe next year!

    As per usual, great article.

  16. joan :) says:

    As a 61-yo gay woman, I remember having to ask why men sponsored men and women sponsored women. The concept seemed so foreign to me, but makes sense in a ‘straight’ world. I naturally gravitated away from the sparkly hearts, flowers, and cutesy sayings the women seemed to thrive on, melding more familiarly to the back-slapping, hearty laughter, gentle ribbing, and directness of the guys in my home group. Once I came out, a few of them took me under their wing and they continue to mentor me through this process.

  17. Teresa says:

    “If we build it, they will come, once in awhile.”

    And good things often take time…

    It is unfortunate Bob, when groups have difficulty sustaining themselves or when I travel to more rural areas (and NC where I got sober) and find no secular type meetings available.

    It has given me an opportunity to be true to self and voice that I am agnostic, if applicable to the topic, or I do not have a belief in “A” higher power (certainly there are powers greater than me, myself, and I).

    The group I was a part of getting started in Monterey CA was to be delisted due to our reading “Live and Let Live Group version of the Twelve Steps” inspired by the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous on page 59 and 60 of the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”. Despite our prefacing it in that manner, we were “accused” of rewriting the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

    Ridiculous, right? At the time, extremely frustrating. We said we would not read “our” version because of desire to be listed in our area. We simply do not read any steps. It works, it really does.

    We do not have “freethinkers” or “atheist, agnostic” in our group name and therefore we get a great variety of members. After hearing the “freethinker” preamble, there have been many times the topic of spirituality or God or HP gets brought up and it sometimes gets boring and/or redundant (to me and others have shared that), yet the incredible thing is that when brought up, one gets to hear multiple people share their experience of living sober without a god or higher power… and others who utilize those resources.

    May we continue on a path of inclusiveness through honesty, open mindedness and willingness. Not always easy. Thanks.

  18. Murray J. says:

    Hi Marty. I met you and your wife at SOAAR 2019 in Hamilton. I was impressed by your efforts in New England. Bravo!

  19. Dean W says:

    Thanks for a very interesting article, Bob. I’ll comment on a few of the topics you covered: unity, and the success or failure of meetings.

    I don’t think you actually used the word unity, but you did discuss the often negative attitudes traditional AA members and groups have toward both secular and LGBTQ meetings. Part of the reason for this is simple prejudice. I suspect this is especially so for discrimination against LGBTQs. Prejudice also exists against seculars, of course, but there is another component to negativity toward us. Secular AA does not support the religious foundation of the fellowship. Therefore, it is debatable whether we can ever have true unity with them. And unity is the foundation of the traditions, the social fabric of the overall AA fellowship (Tradition One, “personal recovery depends upon AA unity”). How do you expect a religious organization to achieve unity with a secular organization?

    Second, in my experience meetings succeed or fail for any number of reasons. Apathy is certainly one reason, but the issue is much more complex and nuanced. Sometimes meetings fail to appeal to a “target market” because the market doesn’t exist or isn’t large enough to support the meeting, sometimes the individuals in the group don’t or can’t connect with the market for various reasons, sometimes it’s the target market and not the overall market that is apathetic. I’ve seen “good meetings” fail and “bad meetings” succeed. It’s a somewhat mysterious phenomenon, and there appears to be no sure-fire formula for success.

  20. David says:

    I find myself going back and forth about how much of AA’s intolerance is structural and legacy and how much to attribute directly to individuals in the fellowship in a given moment in time. I find when trying to understand the philosophical differences what is at the core is bigotry, intolerance and often downright hatred, often without any rationale. So many people are long term sober but either cannot or will not deal with their other internal repressed demons. Their sobriety to me seems like a pretty hollow unfulfilling victory.

  21. Marty N. says:

    Bob, I generally agree with most of your articles. However, this time I must disagree. Maybe there was a lot of push back in the early days when you folks were starting your meetings in Canada. It seems to me, the times they are a changin’. We have had no problem starting two secular meetings here in Northeastern Connecticut and one in South-Central Massachusetts with one more in the works. We have had complete co-operation with listings etc. Massachusetts Worcester Area Intergroup even lists our Connecticut meetings in their meeting lists.

    We have found, here, concentrating on what we have in common rather than what our differences are seems to be pretty well received. We have one meeting in Webster, Massachusetts in a hall that has about 15 meetings a week. Their vote to have us was unanimous [24-0]. Some of the non-secular people come. We do not attack the steps as written. As a matter of fact, we pay very little attention to them and concentrate on fellowship and helping the new-comers. As far as the non-secular people are concerned, we have found we get more flies with honey than with vinegar. We have found it is just too much of a problem worrying about how anyone else does the steps; after all they are only suggestions, aren’t they? Easy does it, Brother. Come see us sometime.

  22. Kathy O. says:


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