Secular AA Comes of Age

We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention

Though the history of secularism in Alcoholics Anonymous dates back to the founding of AA itself, for the purpose of saving time, let’s fast forward to the current century and to a place called Hollywood.

Pam W. and Dorothy H. met at the We Agnostics meeting in Hollywood, California, where it’s common to see out-of-town visitors who frequently comment on how refreshing they find the agnostic meeting format. Witnessing this, Dorothy and Pam began to ask one another if their group was really that unique. Could there be other agnostic AA meetings out there?

The answer, of course, was yes. Agnostic AA meetings have been occurring since 1975 with the founding of Quad-A in Chicago. After a little research, the two women learned of agnostic AA meetings in cities the world over. There were meetings in New York, Toronto, Austin, Washington DC, Paris, and London, just to name a few. However, like their meeting in Hollywood, each of these groups existed for the most part, in isolation from the others. They weren’t networked, and as a result, many of us were unaware that a secular movement existed within Alcoholics Anonymous.

One night while Dorothy was crashing at Pam’s apartment, the two were talking about these many visitors and newcomers to their home group, and what they were learning about agnostic AA. Dorothy suggested it might be fun to bring all of these agnostic and freethinking AA groups from around the world together in one place for a giant party.

In the podcast I recorded with Pam last September, “Pam W. and the Story of WAAFT IAAC,” she recalled the night when Dorothy came up with the idea of an International Convention for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers in AA. Dorothy’s energy and enthusiasm seem boundless and can be quite contagious to those around her. Pam described the experience during my interview with her last year, “Before I knew it, I was on the ride. I was on that train!”

The two women soon brought in their friend Jonathan G, and together, the three of them got the word out. In no time at all, AAs from the various agnostic meetings in Southern California pitched in, and as Pam put it, “the Fellowship made the Convention become a reality.”

WAFT IAAC 2014 wasn’t the first gathering of agnostic AAs, and there are many reasons for the resurgence of interest in secular AA meetings. More than a dozen years before the convention in Santa Monica, agnosticaanyc.org had an international list of agnostic AA meetings posted on the Internet. In 2011, just three years before Santa Monica, the situation in Toronto gave rise to  AA Agnostica through which a burgeoning online community was built.

Still, one should not underestimate the importance of WAFT IAAC 2014. This Convention was the first international gathering of secular AAs that took place during the age of the Internet. This is an important distinction because the Internet and social media gave us an efficient way to stay in touch with each other after the convention. We had a means to communicate, to share experiences, and to create a broader fellowship of secular AAs that extended beyond our home groups. We were now in a better position to organize ourselves as a special interest group within Alcoholics Anonymous.

WAAFT Central

There’s something that happened at the convention in Santa Monica which I believe is an important part of our history, and is a story that is little known and seldom told—the story of WAAFT Central. I’ll begin the story with my meeting Dorothy H. a few months before the convention in Santa Monica.

I belonged to a Google Group for agnostics and atheists in AA that consisted of just three people: myself, R.J. R., from Omaha, and Jonathan K. from Minneapolis. We met every Wednesday night at 7:00 pm for a very casual AA meeting. Dorothy, after discovering our group, became a regular at the Wednesday meeting.

RJ and I were friends, bound together by an interest in technology, and a shared frustration with an Alcoholics Anonymous that we perceived to be a Fellowship of Luddites. Together, we had great fun coming up with various plans for rewriting the Big Book, creating a recovery wiki, and other fun techie projects—none of which ever got off the ground.

Then, after one of our Wednesday night meetings, Dorothy told us about an idea, and she gave us an opportunity to do something other than just talk. She shared with us her dream of creating a central resource for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers in AA that she called WAAFT Central, and she explained her intention of presenting this idea at the convention in Santa Monica.

Intrigued, we were happy to join her in this effort, and we immediately went to work. RJ, built a prototype website that she would show people in Santa Monica. I researched special interest groups in AA and in so doing, discovered GaL-AA (Gays and Lesbians in AA), which I felt was the perfect model for WAAFT Central.

When I got to Santa Monica, I was expecting the idea of this new service organization to be introduced to the entire convention. Instead, it was presented during a smaller meeting that took place in one of the outer buildings on the church grounds. It was here, where Dorothy pitched the idea of WAAFT Central to a group of people, most of whom I didn’t know.  

I recall that some of the people in the room were suspicious about the idea of creating our own website, and they were concerned that it might appear as if we were trying to break away from AA. In response to their concern, I showed them the GaL-AA website and explained that other special purpose groups within AA also have websites. Our site would follow in that tradition. A consensus was reached to go ahead with the project, and WAAFT Central was born.

When we returned home from Santa Monica, Dorothy, RJ, Dianne P. from Toronto, Scott A. from Samoa, and I organized the Board of Directors for WAAFT Central and put together material for the website. We had an international meeting directory (most of which was borrowed from agnosticaanyc.org), pamphlets, group histories, a toll-free helpline, and links to various resources to assist people with starting agnostic AA meetings. We also created a Facebook group that we called, “The WAAFT Central Coffeeshop.”

The experience in Santa Monica was so inspiring to us that we felt it paramount that we all stay in touch between conventions. The Facebook group was a success and today is a thriving community of over 600 people. However, WAAFT Central’s future was less certain.

Principles and Personalities

We began to have disagreements at WAAFT Central, and things slowly started to unravel. Scott A. departed a few months after we started, and later RJ would also leave. We picked up three new board members to replace them: Michelle H. from Ventura, Jesse S. from Reno and Steven W. from New Jersey. It’s hard to understand, even for myself as a participant, but we started fighting about things that just didn’t make sense, that didn’t really matter. Eventually, after several months, we reached a point where our differences were utterly irreconcilable, and we agreed to part ways. Dorothy and Steven would leave the Board, and Dianne, Jesse, Michelle and I would carry on. 

Unfortunately, it seemed that we could never regain our initial enthusiasm and commitment for WAAFT Central. I think part of the problem was the fighting just wore us out, but this was also during the time that I became involved with AA Beyond Belief, and Dianne and Jesse who were both on the IAAC Board, were spending the bulk of their time preparing for the convention in Austin.

At WAAFT Central, we were still taking phone calls, answering emails, and maintaining the website and meeting directory. However, we stopped involving the rest of the Fellowship, and we stopped taking donations because it was too much trouble to maintain a nonprofit organization.  

From the inception, it was always our plan to take WAAFT Central or the idea of it to the convention in Austin and to give it to the Fellowship — that is if they wanted it. Unfortunately, we weren’t up to the task, and because we stopped engaging with the people we were supposed to be serving, we were not that well known. We were really nothing more than a group of people with a website.

Alas, WAAFT Central would not be on the agenda at the business meeting in Austin, nor would there would be an opportunity to present the idea to the entire convention as I had originally hoped would be done in Santa Monica. I accept my share of the blame for this. I could have tried harder, but it was a daunting task to educate people about WAAFT Central. Most assumed that we were one and the same as WAAFT IAAC. Again, that’s our fault, born from our own dysfunction.

Wanting to keep WAAFT Central going, I went to the conference in Austin hoping to find some talented people who would take up the responsibility. I had plans to speak with some people who I knew and respected, but I couldn’t find anyone who could help. I was losing hope. This saddened me, and I felt burdened with the responsibility of somehow finding a way to make this work.

Furthering my sense of despair was the fear of letting down Dierdre S. who had been maintaining the Worldwide Agnostic AA Meeting Directory since 2001. She gave a fabulous talk on the first night of the convention in Austin, and during her presentation, she asked, “Why do we have two lists?” She then suggested that WAAFT Central might be the proper entity for maintaining the international meeting directory since it was an organization with a board of directors. “Damn,” I thought. “If she only knew.”

I had no plan other than to contact Ed W. from Brooklyn when I returned home. I got to know Ed online and from the podcast that he and I did a few months back. I knew he had the technical skills and the interest in such a project, but would he have the time? 

Though I wasn’t very optimistic, I attended the business meeting in Austin with a wee bit of hope that maybe there would be an opportunity to talk about WAAFT Central, but early on it was apparent that would not come to pass. Feeling frustrated, I left the meeting before it ended.

It may have just been my own mood, but it seemed the room was full of tension and anger, and I was still harboring warm memories of what I recall as a genteel and cozy business meeting in Santa Monica two years earlier. It troubled me that we had seemingly devolved. Anyway, the only business I was interested in resolving was WAAFT Central. I could not care less what they called the conference.

Later, I learned that a new board of directors was elected and people were happy with the outcome. They also voted to change the name of the convention from WAAFT IAAC to ICSAA (International Conference of Secular AA). Most of the people with whom I spoke were okay with the business meeting. I suppose in AA, business meetings can be a bit contentious from time to time. I’ll never learn to like that.

ICSAA and Secular AA

On the last day of the convention, my home group was hosting an AA meeting, and when the meeting ended, and as we were heading out to lunch, I received a phone call from Thomas B. He told me that the new Board of Directors of ICSAA wanted to see me right away. He said they had questions about WAAFT Central and they were confused because they all assumed that WAAFT Central was part of WAAFT IAAC, that WAAFT Central and WAAFT IAAC were one and the same.

I rushed over to the room where they were meeting, and I gave them the history of WAAFT Central. It was a relief to speak with people who seemed interested in learning about it. Furthermore, they were talking about Traditions and Concepts, and they made a proposal. They asked if ICSAA could merge with WAAFT Central, the idea being that a single umbrella organization would combine the convention with the services previously carried out by WAAFT Central.

The feeling in the room at that moment reminded me of the warm spirit that I recalled from Santa Monica. I felt as if a sack of bricks was lifted off my shoulders.

I was happy with the idea that the work at WAAFT Central could survive, and that Deirdre’s wish for a single organization to house the meeting directory would come to pass. I trusted these people, and to this day, they still have my full confidence. Besides, I knew the history of this organization, and I have seen it survive in spite of itself. WAFT IAAC became WAAFT IAAC which became ICSAA, and now WAAFT Central would become Secular AA.

I told this new Board that I first needed to get the approval of the other board members of WAAFT Central. Upon arriving home, I called a meeting of the WAAFT Central Board. Only Dianne and Michelle were able to attend. I let them know about the proposal in Austin, and I asked if they would like to make this move. They agreed that we would merge with this new organization and become Secular AA.

I informed the board of ICSAA that WAAFT Central accepted the proposal and that I would transfer the domains secularaa.org and secularaa.com to the new board. It was hard to let go, but I did, and I don’t regret it for a minute.

Just before transferring the site, I had contacted Ed W. to seek his help with updating the meeting list at WAAFT Central. He worked tirelessly, and his devotion was above and beyond the call of duty.

I asked Courtney, the webmaster at Secular AA if he would allow Ed to continue this work, and of course, Courtney was happy to have the help. Ed and Courtney have been working together ever since. The meeting directory is up to date, and Deirdre, having confidence in the new site to carry on the work, took down the meeting list at angosticaanyc.org. Visitors to the New York site are now directed to secularaa.org.

Today, Secular AA is a nonprofit corporation registered in Nevada. It is the umbrella organization from which ICSAA operates. Secular AA is committed to the Traditions and Concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous, and those who serve on its Board of Directors are Trusted Servants, responsive to the fellowship they serve.

The WAAFT Central website has been dismantled and the domains transferred to Secular AA. The WAAFT Central Coffee Shop is now known as the Secular AA Coffee Shop. Ed and Courtney have been engaging with the rest of the Fellowship, seeking volunteers, and reaching out to groups. The board of ICSAA and Secular AA meets quarterly online, and in September they will meet in person in Toronto.

Is it too soon to say that Secular AA has come of age? I don’t think so. We now have a service structure in place that comports with the concepts and traditions of AA. We agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers in AA, we secularists in AA are here to stay, and I believe that we will become ever more integrated into the general service structure of Alcoholics Anonymous.

From our earliest days arguing for a softening of the religious language in the 12 Steps, to our fights for inclusion, to our battles with Intergroups, and our battles with each other; we have reached a point in our history whereby we are no longer some fringe group within AA. We are as mainstream AA as any other special interest group, and that’s a big deal because that is how we will widen the gateway to recovery, and that will ultimately save lives, including our own.


About the Author

John S. lives in Kansas City, Missouri with his wife Susan. He attends meetings at his home group We Agnostics Kansas City. John feels fortunate that there is a secular AA meeting every day of the week in Kansas City, and two a week in nearby Lawrence, Kansas

Audio Version 

The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to joinh him, please send an email to lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

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Bill K.
Bill K.

Thanks for the very interesting history of secularism in AA. One of the AA 12 Step spin offs is Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families (ACA). It, too, is dominated by religious, specifically Christian, language and rituals. I would like to explore the idea of a Secular ACA. The primary purpose of a Secular ACA would be to provide support to those folks who suffer with a Wounded Inner Child. The trauma of growing up with alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional parents has left, in many people, such feelings as pain, anger, confusion, shame, and grief. These feelings can have… Read more »

Rob
Rob

whew, yes indeed. I qualify for ACA big time, but my experience of ACA is that it’s a terrible dogmatic place, unwelcoming to atheists and agnostics and freethinkers, and in that sense, it has failed miserably.  I was asked to leave a facebook group of ACA due to this. I’d love to find a secular ACA alternative. take care everyone.

Jeb Barrett

What a great summary update, John! Thank you. Having enjoyed the great fellowship at the Austin conference, including the very interesting business meeting where many things were hammered out, I am delighted with the refinement of the name Secular AA (SAA) and International Conference of Secular AA (ICSAA). This movement signifies the kind of unity we need moving forward, but also our identity with Alcoholics Anonymous as a whole. I have met no secularists who want anything less. The Austin conference demonstrated a universal desire to grow within AA.  I left with great hope for our future and looking forward… Read more »

life-j
life-j

John, thanks. I would like to reiterate a request for the schedule: I think it is really important that listings include a means of contact, preferably both telephone number and e-mail. I put it on our Laytonville listing. I have visited some of the groups that are within a couple of hours from here, because I think it is important that we network, but there are two which are even farther – about which I have heard rumors that they may have closed, and just not taken off the schedule – but I do not know! It shouldn’t have to… Read more »

Pat N.
Pat N.

Thanks so much for this excellent summary of our subfellowship’s birth pangs. I was vaguely aware of some of it, and will always be grateful to Dorothy, Pam, and the rest of you who struggled and blazed the way. I especially appreciate the temperate and accepting way you recite  the historical details, since I assume some of your scars still hurt. I’ve been reminded since the start of all this of the “form, storm, norm, and perform” concept in organizational psychology, which is worth googling, because I think it accurately describes what our movement has been through. I’m delighted that the new… Read more »