The Virtual 2020 Secular AA Conference

By bob k

On Saturday, December 5th, ICSAA (International Conference of Secular AA) held a condensed version of the biennial conference that was scheduled to take place LIVE in Washington, D.C. Covid-19 caused that event to be postponed until 2021. Previous venues for the same event were Toronto (2018), Austin (2016), and Santa Monica (2014)

Of necessity, my report will be superficial. The various panels are information-packed and I encourage one and all to follow the links to these remarkable presentations.

Perhaps you’ll find the enthusiasm of the panelists contagious. If you missed the event, take this opportunity for a do-over.

Keynote Speaker

In introducing the keynote speaker, the chairperson  said “This is a big deal!”

Dr. Koob is the Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The NIAAA is one of 27 separate institutions and centers that comprise The National Institute of Health. One of the other Directors, Anthony Faucci, has been on TV a lot in 2020. Dr. Koob is an internationally-recognized expert on alcohol and stress, and the neurobiology of alcohol and drug addiction. He’s an executive now but at heart, he’s a scientist.

We in secular AA tend to have an interest in science, and Dr. Koob brings us a good deal of that within a short presentation.

His department has some very up-to-date surveys and there have been changes in alcohol consumption in the pandemic months. Dr. Koob brings us some women’s progress that’s not good. Women are narrowing the gender gap in alcohol abuse numbers.

The Covid effect of increased drinking due to stress is greater for females. Folks reporting higher stress levels are showing marked increases in binge drinking. As we all know, alcohol consumption generates behavioral disinhibition. Drinkers are less likely to obey social distancing guidelines.

One thing we do not know in the Zoom era is the overall effect on recovery rates of the lack of in-the-flesh gatherings. These issues are also addressed by Dr. Koob, and also in the treatment professionals panel.

The psychiatrist ends with a shoutout to AA, shown through research to be as effective as any behavioral therapies and ahead in generating abstinence.

Thank you, Committee. This was indeed a big deal!!

Audio Link: Dr Koob

Are Gender Bias and Sexism Holding AA Back?

Three passionate women presented an unsurprising answer. Toronto’s own Joe C. turned over proceedings over to Marya Hornbacher, award-winning journalist and best-selling author. Marya humbly took a minor role and made the shortest presentation. Beth H. and Heather C. were the other panelists. Here are some sound bites touching on a few of the many points that were hammered home.

Females feel shut out by both the literature and the fellowship.

AA is not universal. There is one dominant experience — that of the cisgender male — white, Christian, and privileged.

AA sets out a program that, through religion, humbles the “typical alcoholic” described as narcissistic, egocentric, grandiose, and having feelings of omnipotence.

Women are socialized to a different personality.

60 – 80% of women entering treatment have been victims of trauma.

Women coming to AA are asked to check their feminism at the door.

“Apologizing for being in the way when someone has stepped on our toes” is not the answer for everyone.

One person’s character defect is another’s survival skill.

The steps are an outdated, male hetero, faith-based model. Particularly 4-9 might not only be helpful, but damaging.

There are no outside issues.

Audio Link: Gender Bias & Sexism

Is It Ever Okay to Leave AA?

This is a debate about whether or not the secular groups should leave AA. Two extremely bright, well-spoken gentlemen presented an argument that might have been more feisty, save for the fact that the two opponents share an obvious mutual respect and affection.

John Huey of the D.C. area presented the case for secular AA severing itself from traditional AA.

John has over 30 years sobriety and is a writer who has contributed several essays on recovery to various atheist/agnostic websites.

Jon Stewart of Brighton England, who left AA about seven years ago after embracing full-blown atheism, ironically argues for secular AA remaining a part of the larger organization. Jon may be God’s favorite atheist at the moment. In the past couple of years, a pop band he was in through the 1990s has reunited very successfully pre-Covid. Within the same time frame, he completed a PhD. As his mother is fond of saying, “My son is now a doctor, but not the kind who helps people. His thesis will be published this summer as “Dylan, Lennon, Marx and God” by Cambridge U. Press.

Your perspective on who won the debate is likely to be predetermined by your position on the issue. Moderator, Vic L. did a brilliant job and asked each participant a tough question or two.

Both men have done podcasts with John S. of AA Beyond Belief.

Audio Link: Leave AA

It Came From London

Although billed as some insider information from some folks involved in pushing for and producing “The God Word” pamphlet, the discussion reaches well beyond the brochure and examines what might constitute our best secular strategies moving forward. There are some excellent suggestions.

“The God Word” was born in Britain and then adopted in the United States. As one of the presenters mentions that “AA moves at the speed of a glacier,” it’s somewhat amazing that this pro-secular piece of literature was approved.

Cyril of London Freethinkers, Antonia of Stonehenge Freethinkers Steps, and Brendan of Rainham were the panelists. Karen moderated. These most articulate spokespeople should all receive some sort of Humility Award for the brevity of their presentations. We reach Q & A in less than a half hour.

Audio Link: London

AA History Authors Panel

Enthusiastic history lover Jackie B. hosted.

William Schaberg, author of THE WRITING OF THE BIG BOOK — The Creation of AA was the headliner. One of the other panelists rightly assessed Schaberg’s November 2019 release as “the most important AA book in 40 years.” Fundamentalists might not appreciate Schaberg’s honest look at Bill Wilson but the level of research makes his conclusions virtually inarguable.

Mr. Schaberg was joined on the panel by Chris Finan, author of 2017s Drunks – The Story of Alcoholism and the Birth of Recovery, and bob k penner of 2015s Key Players in AA History. Schaberg spoke mainly of Dr. Silkworth, Jimmy Burwell, and Hank Parkhurst and their lobbying for secularism. Finan brought some tales of AA-like mutual aid groups that helped alcoholics many decades before AA. Bob brought the story of lay therapist Richard Peabody, author of the Common Sense of Drinking. The case was made that much from Peabody’s 1931 publication found its way into Alcoholics Anonymous. Peabody was never credited, likely because he was an atheist.

A general theme from the authors was that human power can indeed have efficacy.

Audio Link: AA History Authors

Treatment Professionals Panel

In the early 1970s, George Kolodner started his pioneering work in developing a model of out-patient treatment for addicts and alcoholics. Traditional AA is not terribly excited about psychiatrists providing therapy for people of our ilk. “Just Say No” and “Pray Like Hell,” I suppose. Nonetheless, professionals like Dr. Kolodner (cofounder of Kolmac Outpatient Recovery Centers) have helped a lot of people.

Brian Gill, Clinical Director of the Kolmac Centers, gave a fascinating talk on Sobriety in a Virtual World – the effects of social isolation on recovery. There are amazing things going on, and most of them are not good.

Audio Link: Treatment Professionals


It was a tremendous event!! You can audit the whole thing in about seven hours – no hotel costs; no airfares; no struggling to get a good seat. Bring your own popcorn. Enjoy.

You’ll be educated and entertained. That’s a great combination.

Key Players in AA Historybob k is the author of Key Players in AA History, and a regular contributor to this website. He is enjoying his 30th consecutive year of No-God sobriety.

He is readying a new history book – The Road to AA – From Pilgrims to Prohibition. Watch for it in February.


7 Responses

  1. Larry g says:

    I love that these are happening. I would have attended this year but I had my right knee replaced Nov 30 and I just wasn’t ready for the focused attention.

  2. Peter S. says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing this to me. I too am one who longs for 3 dimensional conferences and meetings to restart, but in the absence of that, this recap and the links are great. Without the online AA Agnostics community as well as traditional online AA my serenity would have been seriously challenged. Thanks again for what you do.

  3. Lisa M says:

    I agree with Doc. This is a great recap. I appreciate all the time and care it took.

  4. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    There were a few glitches. That’s understandable tackling a unique set of circumstances. The content was EXCELLENT!!

  5. Brilliant recap; I wouldn’t have another word that can be added to the commentary on the presentations.

    What I would like to add, as an aside, is that while it wasn’t a perfect virtual conference, it was a perfect learning experience. We had some tech glitches but as Bob has articulated, there wasn’t any problem with the content.

    There was an entertainment component to virtual ICSAA 2020 featuring stand up, Dave from KC We Agnostics, who kicked off and hosted our after-party and from the Higher Palooza creators, Freethinkers of Cleveland, the comedy skit: Dialogue with Grod: Is belief in god(s) necessary for long-term recovery in AA?

    A shout out also to the volunteers who hosted the ICSAA hospitality suite and helped with tech in the OMAGOD and Beyond Belief rooms. The conference’s debrief was yesterday and ideas kicked around included more audience participation, breakout rooms following presentations for anyone who wanted to speak longer with presenters, and maybe a longer planning cycle to rehearse tech transitions and get volunteers trained to help participants better.

    Stay tuned: There could be an announcement early in 2021 of a possible summer version of virtual ICSAA being hosted outside North America.

    And, COVID permitting, plans are underway to host an in person International Conference of Secular AA in Washington DC October 29-31, 2021. It will surely be nice to see everyone in three dimensions, again.

  6. John S. says:

    That’s some good reporting, Bob. Thank you for taking the time to write about the event and helping to get the word out about Secular AA | ICSAA. The next virtual ICSAA will take place in June and it will be hosted by the group in London who presented on “The ‘God’ Word” pamphlet.

    There was a meeting yesterday with conference organizers and lessons were definitely learned from this first venture. The next conference should benefit from the lessons learned, one of those lessons being to get the word out sooner.

    All in all, this event beat my expectations. Every single one of the panels was interesting and well presented. I look forward to the next virtual event coming to us from London.

  7. Doc says:

    Thanks. Good recap.