Vancouver Sober Agnostics – 2013-2020

By Hilary J

Sober Agnostics had its first meeting on May 7, 2013, and its last meeting on March 10, 2020 (the last Tuesday before the COVID lockdown in B.C.), at Trinity Anglican Church in Vancouver, B.C. As one of the first explicitly agnostic/atheist AA groups in Vancouver, we were in the forefront of the movement to include non-believers in mainstream AA.

Everyone was welcome, regardless of their type of addiction, personal beliefs, gender, or any other characteristic.

Our preamble stated:

“Sober Agnostics welcomes anyone suffering from any type of addiction, not exclusively alcohol. We encourage free expression of any doubts or disbeliefs we may have, our own personal form of spiritual experience, our search for it, or our rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering addicts that they can find sobriety in the Program without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.”

We ended every meeting with the Responsibility Declaration:

“I am responsible. Whenever anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA to always be there, and for that, I am responsible.”

Much has been written about our lengthy struggle for acceptance with Vancouver Intergroup. At first, the agnostic groups were listed in the meeting directory. After a change in Intergroup leadership a few months later, they were de-listed. We appealed, and the issue was subject to interminable debates and voting, which went on for many months in 2014. Intergroup eventually voted to “stop discussing the issue”, and agnostic groups remained excluded from the Vancouver AA meeting directory until 2017, when a human rights case in Ontario gained wide publicity. At that point, Vancouver Intergroup decided to include any group that requests to be listed in the meeting directory, with no conditions. It was a sweet, if belated, victory for many of our members, who had fought the good fight for inclusion!

Membership ebbed and flowed over the years, as with most 12-step groups. In the last two years, most meetings had between four and six people, with an occasional surge of up to 10 or 15. By the time of the lockdown, we were down to only four regulars, plus a few other occasional attendees. Due to personal circumstances, two of those four withdrew from the group. At that point, it became clear that the group would no longer be viable.

At least three other groups, none currently active, were started by members of Sober Agnostics. Over the years, the agnostic arm of the Vancouver fellowship has helped dozens of addicts to achieve and maintain sobriety. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved in this service.

Hilary J. is a Canadian woman in recovery. She grew up as an anglophone in Quebec, and has lived and worked in British Columbia since 1998. After more than 20 years of struggling with various addictions, she attended her first 12-step meeting in 2007. She has been an active member of the Vancouver AA Fellowship since 2010, holding service positions with four different groups over the years. Although she first got sober in mainstream AA, working the traditional Steps, “the God thing” was always an issue. That’s why she jumped at the chance to become one of the founding members of Sober Agnostics, and to help rewrite the Steps and How It Works to reflect the group’s philosophy.


9 Responses

  1. Bruce M. says:

    Thanks, Hillary. The We Agnostics meeting in Edmonton, AB, has been trickling along since the summer of 2017 with 4 to 8 regulars plus drop-ins. With the COVID situation we are now a hybrid meeting (in-person plus Zoom) and are getting support from local and remote alcoholics and addicts. Gratefully, Edmonton Central Office has been quite accepting of our existence. We currently meet at 6 pm on Monday evenings and would welcome attendance from Vancouver.

  2. Ralph B. says:

    Two meetings in Langley.

  3. Ralph B. says:

    Thanks Hilary, your group was a stepping stone for us starting secular AA in Langley. We still have 2 in person meetings per week. I host a zoom meeting that a couple people you referred to me still attend. You have helped more than you’re aware of.

  4. Barb L. says:

    Does this mean there are no agnostic meeting left in the Vancouver area?

  5. CathyM says:

    Hi Hilary – we met a few times when I was in Vancouver … sad that both of us (groups we attended) experienced a lull in participation…our last mtg for Beyond Belief was Jan 2020 after 4yrs trying to make a go. I am convinced that alternative programs such as Dharma Recovery, Smart Recovery got a foot in the door here in Manitoba and provincial rehab centres – it had to be something other than AA for newcomers. Such a shame cause AA has an established network of service – it should have been a natural extension to welcome secular groups – but alas, not the case.

    Virtual and hybrid groups are a whole new ball game and will have to test their organizational strength to see if they stay within AA proper.

    Maybe see you in Langley.

  6. Sharon M. says:

    I was wondering if Vancouver Sober Agnostics were going to form a zoom group?

  7. I am pleased to have attended this meeting with Hilary and other, in December before it closed. It was a great meeting. I’d been a fan from afar for so long and what a joy it was to get there in person. It was a great AA meeting.

    I have seen some groups not catch their groove in terms of sustaining sufficient attendees. We Are Diversity was a LBTBQ+ secular meeting in Toronto’s ‘Gay ghetto’. It was on a Tuesday night, either because that worked best for the facility or because it suited the founding members. Well, at the same time, on the same night, Gay Sober Men, a very popular AA group met around the corner and We Agnostics, secular Toronto meeting #2 met about six or seven subway stops away. I don’t know the whole chronology on the demise of We Are Diversity but the fact that potentially interested members may have had other meeting commitments in that day/time slot could have played into it. It can be other things too, right idea, wrong location, too late, too early, poor parking options. We don’t know, always. It’s possible that some Phoenix will rise from the ashes with a new location, day or time that favors a growing group.

    I kept looking on the zoom list of meetings for some of the British Columbia and other Western Canada secular meetings to appear – I surely would attend. A Nanaimo meeting did have a zoom meeting for a while and I did enjoy it but it stopped after a while. Maybe they’re meeting face to face, I don’t know. Some of the Langley secular AA members check out the Toronto zoom meetings and I see some also in LA and up and down the PST time zone.

    It is worth noting that while AA member has been relatively flat since 1991 growth and contraction hasn’t been equally divided. From 2000 to Jan 1, 2020, membership in the USA is up in the mid teens. In Canada, AA membership is down about 15% and non-AA members outside of USA/Canada are down over 30% for the same period. [source: AA’s Box 4-5-9 News & Notes from GSO]. So starting a new meeting in Canada or Europe may have a different fate that a new meeting in the USA, simply because of growth/contraction of AA attendance where you live.

    It was great to see you’re name come up Hilary; it was nice to read this article from you. I hope to see you at a zoom meeting sometime. Keep us posted with the next chapter for you and secular AA in Vancouver.

  8. Pat N. says:

    Thanks for the summary, Hilary, and thanks to the Vancouver pioneers who persisted in the face of the fear-driven hostility of some. Secular blessings on you all!

  9. Doc says:

    Over the years, I have been a part of several groups which have had similar problems with the local intergroup. Part of the problem seems to stem from not closing the meeting with a prayer, particularly one that affirms christian faith.

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