Five Years Old and Growing Stronger

Originally published in Our Primary Purpose,
the newsletter of the Ottawa Area Intergroup

Covid-19 helps Ottawa’s secular sobriety movement

Little did Michel D know when he started Ottawa’s first secular AA group, in early March 2016, that five years later there would be three weekly secular meetings on the calendar. And that a global pandemic might be helping to encourage both newcomers and old-timers alike to try a new and different Alcoholics Anonymous experience.

When Covid-19 shuttered doors to the rooms of AA, members started going online. And some have decided to take advantage of the opportunity to explore new approaches like secularism.

What is Secular AA? It’s a movement that seeks to widen our view so that all who suffer may discover long-term sobriety in AA regardless of their belief or lack of belief in a God.

“I already had 30 years of sobriety when I started that first secular meeting and it was still scary to go against the flow, and to try doing something outside the AA mainstream,” said Michel.

But as Ottawa’s secular movement celebrates it’s 5th anniversary, Michel can take pride in the idea that he and others are truly part of a growing global effort pushing AA to become an ever more inclusive fellowship, one that welcomes the suffering alcoholic no matter what their religious affiliation or belief system might be.

“With over 500 (secular) fellowships world-wide using the 12 Steps as a framework for recovery, there’s no denying the impact that AA founders Bill W and Dr. Bob have already had. And just as these far-reaching fellowships have reinterpreted the 12 Steps, AA must continue to do the same if it’s going to survive and stay relevant,” said Michel.

Like other so-called “special purpose groups” under the AA umbrella, secularism can be, for some, a polarizing notion, pitting believer against non-believer. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“Our goal here in Ottawa is to be as open-minded as possible, so that anyone, no matter how they approach their sobriety, can feel at home in our midst. Our secular credo gives everyone the ability to freely express themselves, while asking that they offer the same courtesy to others in the discussion,” said Michel.

Andy Mc had almost 40 years of sobriety when he discovered Secular AA, and he’s convinced the pandemic played a role in opening the door to a whole new chapter of his recovery journey. If not by design, then perhaps by the grace of a Higher Power.

Last spring, Andy, who is retired and spends his time between Bracebridge and London, Ontario, was focused on trying to help his home group transition to virtual meetings. Unfortunately, his group did not survive the move online, so he went searching for alternatives.

“I wasn’t necessarily looking for a secular option when I googled AA meetings online. But a group in Florida, called OMAGOD – Our Mostly Agnostic Group of Drunks, caught my eye, so I decided to check it out. I really liked their approach, and after the novelty of going to a Florida-based meeting wore off, I decided to look for secular groups closer to home.”

That’s when he discovered Ottawa’s Secular Sobriety Group which meets Sunday night, online, at 7:30 pm. Now, almost a year into the pandemic, Andy is attending upwards of five secular meetings a week, mostly based out of Eastern Ontario. He also attends Ottawa’s Beyond Belief Secular Group, Thursday night, 7 pm.

“I’ve learned to tone it down over the years; at one time I could get into a pretty heated discussion with some members of the fellowship who I thought were a bit too rigid in their thinking. I just couldn’t let others try to tell me that I would only stay sober if I believed in God.”

Andy said what keeps him coming back to secular meetings is the free-thinking; he’s convinced that more and more members are taking advantage of online platforms to kick the tires on Secular AA.

“No doubt in my mind, Covid-19 and the endless list of online meetings all over the country, and the world, has cemented the ‘secular’ movement within AA. And I think that’s great. It’s given people like me who were feeling restless and disenfranchised a way to stay more engaged and connected to this amazing program.”

The AA tent is getting bigger

As recent as 2000, there were no more than 50 secular AA meetings across the globe. By the time the pandemic hit there were around 600. Now, a year later, there are easily more than 1,000 such meetings worldwide.

“It’s been most encouraging to see how quickly AA adapted to the new normal after Covid-19 arrived,” said Joe C, a leader in the Toronto secular movement, and a founder of the group Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers.

“We are seeing our numbers swell. Our Saturday discussion group is now attracting more than 100 participants. And it’s not only agnostics and atheists who are showing up. We have plenty of so-called believers who are also joining us. Some of them had simply walked away from AA. They weren’t mad, just fatigued, and simply looking for something new and different to fill the void.”

Joe points to the many and diverse AA special interest groups that have started over the past few decades. Groups for women, African Americans, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered people, young people, seniors, professionals, special needs people, Indigenous peoples, and many more.

“In the end, those who have moved away from the mainstream are simply doing what Bill W had wished for. He called it pioneering, and he insisted that AAs had to continue to go through the same pioneering efforts in order to keep the fellowship vital and relevant.”


For a PDF of the newsletter click on the image


15 Responses

  1. Bullwinkle says:

    >>>Joe points to the many and diverse AA special interest groups that have started over the past few decades. Groups for women, African Americans, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered people, young people, seniors, professionals, special needs people, Indigenous peoples, and many more.

    “In the end, those who have moved away from the mainstream are simply doing what Bill W had wished for. He called it pioneering, and he insisted that AAs had to continue to go through the same pioneering efforts in order to keep the fellowship vital and relevant.”<<<

    I have experienced for 50 + years, the diverse groups Joe points to and what Bill Wilson envisioned i.e., atheists and agnostics widened the gateway for all, whether faith based or not. In the early days, before the Alcoholics Anonymous text was published, Bill Wilson being an agnostic and Bob Smith a Christian learned from each other with their oversights of trying various methods to help alcoholics and their families understand alcoholism. Bill along with alcoholics and non alcoholics created the Alcoholics Anonymous text which wasn’t written exclusively for alcoholics. As more alcoholics and non alcoholics read the AA text, word of mouth began to accelerate abstinence, especially after alcoholics left the Oxford Group meetings. Their new AA fellowship / meetings were called Alcoholics Anonymous, taken from the title of the Alcoholics Anonymous text. Originally these meetings were for alcoholics and their families only.

    BTW, Joe McQuany and Charlie Parmley of Joe and Charlie “The Big Book Comes Alive” are faith based and as an atheist, I agree with them, specifically that “The purpose of the 12 Steps is to get from Step One to Step Two". In essence their statement is in agreement with my duality (paradox) that I’m my Higher Power and yet “lack of power is my most precious asset”, because I can only know (learn) in retrospect.

  2. Doc says:

    On the other hand, we have made a couple of attempts to start a secular meeting in Northwest Montana, but with no success. It may be that the community is too small, or that we haven’t found a good time and a good place for the meeting.

    • Lance B. says:

      You could drive 700 miles to SE Montana. We have restarted in person meetings Sun mornings in Miles City though it is just two of us regularly. I feel it important to be available whether there are more people or not.

      • Tim says:

        Lance,

        You are welcome to join the Rochester NY Freethinkers meeting at your convenience. 7pm Eastern time Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

  3. David W says:

    Thanks for the article. At the Saturday Secular Beyond Belief meeting last night a person in the chat room remarked there seemed to be more discussion about religion than she finds in non-secular meetings. She mentioned an intent to go back to non-secular meetings because of it. We often have as much discussion in the secular rooms as to why a god based approach doesn’t work for people as there is talk in non-secular meetings as to why god is essential.

    Recovery from addiction is deeper and broader than simply an emphasis on a 12-step approach be it traditional or secular. I hope AA evolves away from the narrowness of a debate about god/higher power, either yay or nay.

    • Tom F. says:

      Absolutely, Dave. To be “Secular” is to be inclusive (of Persons-of-Faith, too.) I had a strong R.C. background from which I extricated myself (even considered entering the Priesthood) but spiritual questions are constantly in my Agnostic Mind on a daily basis. Last week a young Woman at a Secular Zoom meeting marched in and censured me for daring to make mention that I have a friend who is a Pentecostal Minister. (Surprising how “undemocratic” can be some fellow struggling Alcoholics!)

    • Bobby Freaken Beach says:

      The chat commenter missed the humor of the “God” comments.

    • Jonathan says:

      Good point, Dave. The secular group that I joined in Kingston has always included a mention in our meeting readings that ‘love and tolerance are our code’. For several years we had a regular attendee with many years of sobriety who came because the meeting was close by, and was perfectly open about his deep personal faith whenever he shared, without trying to project it onto anyone else. He died suddenly a couple of months ago, and I miss him at the meeting. I know that he felt welcome at our group, and I figure we’re doing something right if it works that way.

  4. Tim M. says:

    Hello All,

    This year will also mark the fifth anniversary of the Rochester NY Freethinkers meetings. We started with a Monday evening 7-8 meeting at the Mack Building in Penfield. Then another 7pm slot opened on Thursday evenings and we had two. Then COVID19 hit and we went virtual. Then we added a Wednesday evening in July and at the beginning of February, at the urging of some of the new AA’s who wanted more secular meetings we added a Saturday version. We usually have 30 or more during the week and sometimes that many on the weekend.

    When we first made the transition to online we were not all convinced that it would work. Well, many are getting sober who have not been to a traditional much less in person AA meeting. It is fun to watch and be a part.

    There is another Thursday night freethinkers meeting in Rochester called Terminally Unique that meets at 6pm.

    If you want to join us we are easy to find on the app or at Rochester NY’s AA site.

    • Joe C says:

      Someone asked me how many secular AA meetings there are now. I am a co-Listkeeper of the google sheets secular meeting sheet but not everyone who runs a meeting wants to be on the list.

      It’s great (to be on the list) if you want to mix up your local meeting but not everyone does. Some are afraid of zoom-bombers. And some don’t want to break the intimacy of a small gathering and replace it with the conference-like chaos of locals being overwhelmed by three, four (or more) times the attendees. A meeting of 70 isn’t better than 17, it may be worse for some.

      When we met in-person, primarily, we had a world director, geographically broken down with local times. Now every meeting in the world is the same number of clicks away. And people logging in may be from six different time zones.

      When we hit lockdown we had about 600 worldwide meeting time (some groups meet once, some have five meeting times per week). My sense is there are many more. Groups like yours have added meeting times; it costs nothing to add meetings to a zoom account. Other group that are six to ten months old have never had a brick-and-mortar location – some never will.

      We could be in the 1000 meeting times per week range – I don’t know for sure. I go to a lot of meetings in the list from South Africa and Australia to Ireland and Arizona. It’s rare that there aren’t a few people just finding secular AA or Sobriety for the first time. I guess all of AA, all of the larger mutual aid world is expanding, but secular AA seems to be growing exponentially.

      Happy anniversary to all the groups. This is proof that you serve a purpose.

      • Michel D. says:

        Thanks Joe for your comments and thanks Roger for publishing it. Starting a secular meeting in my city (Ottawa) was one of the hardest things I had to do in sobriety. But I was determined to do it in face of the religion-creep I witnessed in AA, at least here in Ottawa, in the last ten years or so.

        Thankfully, a group of six of us – it felt like being part of the resistance! – met at my friend’s Dave B.’s house. We all felt the same way about the shameless promotion of a religious God in the rooms. Although only Dave ever came to support our group out of the individuals who met that night, it feels like secular AA is here to stay.

        I did it because I truly believe that AA is the best way to become, and stay, sober and that it would be easier for people to come into AA without having to overcome the “God” hurdle.

        Thanks everyone for you support,

        Michel D.
        Ottawa
        Beyond Belief Secular Group
        Thursday, 7 p.m.
        https://us04web.zoom.us/j/957745238
        Password – serenity

      • David W says:

        I wonder if GSO has the capability to measure the number of meetings and groups that have come into being since the lockdown started. I would assume it would depend on how many new online groups are registering with the New York office. Since it’s so easy to add new groups and meetings to an existing Zoom account it’s very possible many are flying under the radar, both secular and traditional. They may need to shift from a primarily geographic model to one that also accommodates international meetings.

        The Tuesday 3pm secular meeting which was formally a noon physical meeting in district 12 in Toronto is currently looking for a new GSR. We may have to accept one outside of our district and area. Not sure how that will go over with the local district.

  5. Bob K says:

    The growth of secular AA is exciting to watch. Countless new people have discovered our nontraditional brand of AA through ZOOM, but I see NO evidence that there are now 1,000 meetings.

    • Lance B. says:

      Thank you for that, Bob. I want to keep reality my foundation, not wishful thinking.

    • Bob K says:

      I think someone took the 600-ish pre-pandemic meetings and added the 400-ish secular ZOOM meetings, ignoring the overlap. I do expect a notable post-pandemic spike as some of the many who have discovered the non-religious option will start groups of their own.

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