The first meeting of the Mostly Agnostics of San Antonio AA group was in September of 2014, but like any AA group, how and why it came to be is a story in itself. It is said in AA that all you need to start a new meeting is a coffee pot and a resentment, which sounds cynical, but it's actually a lighthearted jab that is more of a celebration of AA’s resiliency and its ability to turn human shortcomings into assets than it is a criticism.
Whatever the motives, the proliferation of new and different groups is central to AA’s success. AA owes its effectiveness in no small part to the diversity of its groups. Each group has a unique ability to reach certain individuals, which illustrates the importance of the fourth tradition (“Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.”), probably the most underappreciated AA Tradition. Without group autonomy, AA would lack the adaptability that makes it accessible to so many disparate individuals.
AA is not a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one person might completely turn someone else off, so rather than expecting to conform to set norms, AA gives individuals the freedom to choose what works for them. It’s been said that for every nut that ends up in AA, there’s a wrench that is the right size to fit. That happens through one-on-one relationships, but the diversity of the groups plays a big part.
Each group has its own identity. The wording of AA’s fifth tradition suggests that each group even has its own distinct message: “Each group has but one primary purpose— to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” Individual groups, by tailoring how they talk about recovery, are able to be responsive to specific needs.
In short, secular groups are the epitome of AA’s commitment to accessibility.
According to the book, A History of Agnostic Groups in AA by Roger C, the first groups for agnostics were in Chicago (1975), Los Angeles (1980), New York City (1986), and Austin (2001). With the new millennium, the number of groups getting started began to grow. As of the publication of the book in 2012, the meeting schedule posted on the Agnostics AA NYC website listed 87 groups in North America. The number has grown even more rapidly since and undoubtedly will continue to grow as more millenials (famous for their lack of religious commitment) become ready to get sober.
A contributor to the recent rapid growth in secular groups was a website, AA Agnostica. The website was started in 2011 after two agnostic AA groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, were evicted from the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup. Since they were taken off the meeting schedule, they needed a way to share with the public the locations and times of their weekly meetings. However, the website filled a void and quickly grew into something bigger. It came to include a blog with posts mostly by guest contributors accompanied by lively comment threads, attained wide readership, became the hub of an international online community, and began actively facilitating the formation of secular AA groups by providing a way for alcoholics who were interested in getting a meeting started to find others in their local area.
In 2013, two women in the Los Angeles area organized an international convention that was held in Santa Monica. The gathering led to the formation of We Agnostics, Atheists, and Freethinkers (WAAFT), which has since changed its name to Secular AA Inc., a nonprofit organization with a board of directors, biennial conventions, and website (https://secularaa.org/) with many valuable resources, including a schedule of meetings worldwide.
Meanwhile, back in San Antonio, three alcoholics, Dave B, Sam M, and John G, found each other through the AA Agnostica website. John B, a colleague of Dave B, and Kim G, the spouse of John G were also present at the organizational meeting. Four of the original five members already had considerable experience in traditional AA.
From the beginning, the group was committed to the primary purpose as spelled out in the fifth tradition, but we didn't come up with our uniquely tailored message overnight. It evolved over time and benefited from being able to compare notes online with members of newly formed secular groups in other cities and with individuals all over the world who brought various perspectives to the question of how to carry a secular message that is securely embedded within the framework of AA.
Early on, there was the inevitable tendency to bash religion and traditional AA. The core group members talked among ourselves about the need to not feed into that and to model a version of AA’s message that any alcoholic, even if they were religious, could relate to. The disagreements we might have with theists, with traditional AA, and with each other are unimportant compared to our agreement that any alcoholic who comes our way deserves to hear a message of recovery that is as free of irrelevant details as possible. None of us can control what other people say or do, but our experience within our group has been that norms tend to be followed and that each of us can contribute to the creation of healthy norms.
In the spirit of the 1989 film, “Field of Dreams” (“If you build it, they will come”), the group’s message began being influenced by new perspectives brought in by those who were attracted enough to what we were trying to do to keep coming back. While there was a steady stream of alcoholics who showed up looking for a way to get sober almost from the beginning, it wasn't until the group was a little over two years old that something finally clicked and newcomers to the group began connecting with what they were hearing.
Not only did the group experience growth spike, but since almost all of the new members were new in sobriety (though not necessarily neophytes with regard to AA), we got a burst of fresh energy and enthusiasm. The meetings became lighter and more cheerful and thus more attractive.
As of this writing (August 2019), we meet six times a week with usually around 10-15 in attendance. A large portion of our members state freely that they may not have been able to get sober had they not found us. A true community has emerged. People who didn't even know each other not that long ago have become great friends. We believe that our success is due to our commitment to AA’s central theme: Finding ways to connect with any and every alcoholic who still suffers needs to take precedence over opinions about what the content of the message needs to be.
The larger secular AA online community has continued to grow. A website similar to AA Agnostica, AA Beyond Belief (aabeyondbelief.org), now posts additional original articles and provides another point of connection for the community. Several secret Facebook groups, including one for our group, also offer a way to connect with each other.
The growth of the secular AA movement has not gone unheeded. The October 2016 issue of the AA Grapevine (https://store.aagrapevine.org/grapevine-back-issue-october-2016) included a special section devoted to the stories of atheist and agnostic members of AA. In April of 2017, AA’s General Service Conference approved a pamphlet specifically for atheists and agnostics “The ‘God’ Word” (https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/aa-literature/p-86-the-god-word-agnostic-and-atheist-members-in-aa). An AA Grapevine book, One Big Tent: Atheist and agnostic AA members share their experience, strength and hope (https://store.aagrapevine.org/one-big-tent), a compilation of stories from previous years, was published in 2018.
According to the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, atheists and agnostics within AA have been successfully advocating for greater inclusivity since before the publication of AA’s basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book, yet as the book title One Big Tent suggests, what we stand for is not just about making room within AA for those for whom the God talk in traditional AA groups is a problem. It is the very heart of what AA is all about.
(c) The A.A. Grapevine. Used with permission.