What Can We Learn from Traditional AA?

By Don M.

On September 16, 2017 Don M. addressed the Secular Ontario AA Roundup (S.O.A.A.R). The Roundup drew speakers from all over Ontario and North America including Texas and Las Vegas. Don’s subject was, “What Can We Learn from Traditional AA?”

As background, in 2011 the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) removed two secular AA groups from its meeting lists. This initiated a long battle by these groups to be restored to the lists. After several years, a member of one of the secular groups filed a human rights complaint against the GTAI. The complaint was heard by a human rights tribunal in Ontario and in 2017 the groups were added back to the GTAI meeting lists.

AA Beyond Belief is glad for the opportunity to post Don’s address.

Good afternoon. When I was first asked to share on this topic, I misread the topic as “What can we get from traditional AA?” My immediate response was, RESENTMENTS! Despite this being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the truth is the rejection and delisting of secular AA groups has resulted in a tremendous outpouring of energy.

The delisting of the atheist/agnostic AA groups in Toronto has resulted in the forming of websites, podcasts, and the writing, publication, and distribution of secular AA literature. The hurt and resentment was the catalyst that exponentially accelerated the growth of the secular AA movement.

Well, returning to the actual topic of this talk, “What can we learn from traditional AA?” I gave this considerable thought over the last three months and came up with four major points we can learn from traditional AA.

  1. Radical Inclusion
  2. Self-governance
  3. Principles of personal recovery
  4. Fellowship

Radical Inclusion

AA advocates a membership policy of radical inclusion. You are a member if you say you are a member and any two or three alcoholics gathered together may call themselves an AA group provided they have no outside affiliation. 

Two Bill W. quotes really emphasize the principle of radical inclusion:

“So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so!”

  • Bill Wilson, Grapevine, 1946

“Our AA door stands wide open, (We) sign nothing, agree to nothing, and promise nothing. We demand nothing. (We) join on our own say-so. We do not wish to deny anyone the chance to recover from alcoholism. We wish to be just as inclusive as we can, never exclusive…”

–Bill Wilson, the pamphlet “AA Tradition, How it Developed”

Although the principle of radical inclusion is firmly entrenched in our Traditions and Service Concepts, each AA group and service entity is autonomous and it is an understatement to say this principle is not always perfectly adhered to or respected in AA.

Granted to say the delisting of the secular AA groups by the GTAI was an egregious violation of this principle. We in secular AA owe Larry K. a debt of gratitude for his courage and tenacity in taking the GTAI to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal over this exclusionary and discriminatory behavior. When backed into a corner, the GTAI’s only defense was to declare AA a religion and ask for a religious exemption from the human rights legislation.

Although the GSO was not initially unambiguously supportive of the secular AA groups, when GTAI declared itself a religion, GSO reacted by delisting the GTAI. In the end, GSO stood by its principle of radical inclusion. But it did need a kick in the butt by the Human Rights complaint to get it to clarify its position and stand by its principles.

Now, radical inclusion MUST go both ways. The reason we in this room are still in AA and not starting our own fledgling fellowship is due to this radical inclusion. So, we MUST apply this principle in our own meetings and be welcoming and encouraging of people who believe in God.

About two weeks ago, an AA member who was new to the Kingston area, came to our meeting. They were desperate for a meeting but were unsure of what a secular meeting would be like. When they started to share they asked, “Can I talk about my Higher Power at a secular AA meeting?” I am delighted to say there was a spontaneous chorus of “Yes, talk about whatever you believe” from my group. Another one of our members came to our first meeting to pray for us. He enjoyed the open mindedness and acceptance so much he joined our group. He frequently states he learned more about spirituality from our group than any other AA group he has attended.

Let me now address one behavior in secular AA that troubles me. On many websites and online posts, people refer to some traditional AA members as “Fundies.” I’m quite sure I am familiar with these intolerant and rigid members. I believe Bill W. would have referred to them as bleeding deacons.

There definitely has been a rise in originalism and back-to-basic groups in AA. Some members believe the Big Book is the revealed truth from God and all the Big Book and steps are perfect and cannot be changed. They believe AA should be rigid and unchanging and they actively marginalize, silence, and exclude those with different opinions. I vehemently disagree with these ideas. I don’t believe this religious fundamentalism and literalism belongs in AA nor does it comply with our tradition of radical inclusion. My goal is to disagree without being disagreeable.

My concern with the label Fundy is that it is a put-down and derogatory and more importantly is dismissive of the person and a block to constructive dialog. I hope the dismissiveness and polarization we see in politics and society at large does not enter AA. I prefer to call these people by the labels they give themselves: originalists. We all are complex human beings and have paradoxical beliefs. It is better to engage and learn from whomever we can.

Lastly, let’s consider what a Fundamentalist is. It is a person that studies or believes in the fundamentals of an organization. I consider AA’s fundamentals to be:

  • radical inclusion;
  • there is no government;
  • governance is by informed group conscience;
  • we help each other without any remuneration;
  • people are loved and tolerated for who they are;
  • trial-and-error is encouraged;
  • groups are free to use any literature that is helpful; and
  • we meet regularly in fellowship to form relationships, encourage each other and help newcomers.

If these are indeed AA’s fundamentals, then I am happy to call myself an AA fundamentalist.


One of my favorite pamphlets in AA is “The AA Group … Where it all begins”. The pamphlet clearly describes our governance process by an informed group conscience. Groups are encouraged to take time discussing issues and reach substantive unanimity before taking action. The pamphlet also discusses the rights of the minority.

In our District, there was a motion to delist our group and remove our GSR from the district table. The District was committed to following the principles of AA in reaching its decision. A 2/3 majority was required to remove our group from the District. The vote was only 60% in favour of delisting our group and thus the motion was defeated. More importantly, the result was accepted by the majority based on their commitment to AA principle.

It is interesting to note that the GTAI vote that delisted the agnostic/atheist groups in Toronto was 24 for (61.5%), 15 against (38.5%), and 9 abstentions. This motion would have failed using the principle of requiring a 2/3 majority.

Principles of Recovery

AA is a fellowship of men and women that help each other recover from alcoholism. AA recovery is based on a set of principles: personal responsibility; rigorous honesty, tolerance and kindness to others; self-appraisal; continual improvement; service to others without reward.

Our 12th Step talks about how, “we tried….to practice these principles in all our affairs”. My beef is that the principles of recovery are not clearly found in the 12 Steps of AA. The 12 Steps talk about belief in a God, having God fix you, developing a conscious contact with this God, and praying and meditating. Personal responsibility and other principles of recovery are discussed in the text of the Big Book, but it is kind of like “Where’s Waldo” to find these principles in the 12 Steps contained in the Big Book.

This ambiguity and lack of clarity also exists in our Traditions. I recently read an entry in Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life by Joe C. in which he speculated what the effect would be if the 12th Tradition read, “Personal Responsibility is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions ever reminding us to place principles before personalities”. The original Tradition reads: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation”. If you read the explanations of this Tradition, anonymity is meant to remind us to be humble. So, humility is actually intended to be the spiritual foundation of the Traditions. Again, there is room for interpretation and I believe there is a lack of clarity in this tradition. 

One of AA’s biggest open secrets is that the original program had 6 Steps. These steps were passed on by word of mouth and were largely secular. The 6th of these Steps talked about God, if you had a religious belief, but it seemed largely optional. One version of these steps is:

  1. Admitted hopelessness
  2. Got Honest with self
  3. Got honest with another
  4. Made Amends
  5. Helped others without demand
  6. Prayed to God as you understand Him

Again, these Steps are not perfect but they are much clearer in the recovery principals that AA advocates. They are also in AA conference approved literature; which may reduce the resistance groups get from traditional AA members if they adopt them.


Lastly, the program offers fellowship, love, and encouragement for newcomers and long-timers alike. There are over 100,000 meetings in North America where people meet to help themselves and recover from alcoholism. This love and support is invaluable for recovery from alcoholism. 

I have the privilege of traveling for my work and have attended AA meetings all over the world. I have always been welcomed and included based on my self-admission of being an alcoholic. I have also noticed that not all AA meetings are the same. When we refer to “Traditional AA” there is actually a huge variety of meetings types and formats. Some of these meetings are extremely secular in nature. When I travel, I find the meeting nearest my hotel, and if the city is safe, I walk to the meeting and then walk home. I get exercise as well as a chance to meet other recovering alcoholics.

I believe the empathy and compassion (one alcoholic helping another) is actually the core to recovery in AA. The Steps, sponsorship and the rest of the program are suggested only. I have met many people who are sober strictly by attending meetings.

What we don’t like

I can’t resist adding a 5th topic to my list: we can learn from what we don’t like in traditional AA meetings. There has been much written in secular AA about the problems with the Big Book chapters, “How it Works,” and “We Agnostics” and other literature, so I won’t repeat it all here.

What I will discuss is AA’s singleness of purpose. I recently attended a speaker meeting at a mental institution where they read the singleness of purpose.

This is an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous…In keeping with our singleness of purpose and our Third Tradition which states that “The only requirement for AA member- ship is a desire to stop drinking,” we ask that all who participate confine their discussion to their problems with alcohol.

The speaker that night started to tentatively mention that they had a process addiction that they had to treat in addition to their alcoholism. They danced around the topic for a few sentences before finally spilling the beans that they had developed a gambling addiction during sobriety. I was so happy this person had the courage to speak about their second addiction in an AA meeting. How can we “practice these principles in all our affairs” (as the 12th Step advocates), if we are not free to discuss these issues in an AA meeting. This community that I was visiting has a large casino and many in the room seemed to nod knowingly when the speaker shared of their gambling addiction. 

I myself am also recovering from a process addiction in addition to alcoholism. A friend of mine says that he is a “Try-addict…if I try it, I am addicted to it”. My experience is a large number of alcoholics identify with this and feel they have an addictive personality.

I believe the singleness of purpose does a great disservice to newcomers and old-timers alike who may be suffering from multiple addictions.

Lastly, and this really is my last point, I am concerned about the aging population in AA. My dad has been sober for over 40 years and when he visits from Alberta we attend meetings together. I went to three speaker meetings with him this summer. The average age of the membership in these meetings appeared to be over 70 years old. Unless these groups can attract younger members, they will eventually fold as the members age and die. 

I believe secular AA can help AA attract younger members and continue to exist. Given the demographics of our society (40% or more identify as secular), I think secular AA is more likely to be attractive to young(er) people. 

Secular AA currently has about 0.5% of the AA groups (about 500 groups out of 100,000 groups). Since July 2015 when three of us started a secular group in Odessa (we were 167 on the NYC list I think), this number has more than doubled. My hope is that secular AA can continue to double in size every two years. In just 12 years, this would give secular AA 32% of all the groups in AA (1%, 2%, 4%, 8%, 16%, 32%). 

If you are in a stable secular group with more than 15 members, I encourage you to consider starting a new group. I would love to have secular meetings in every community and every day of the week in large cities. Also, if you belong to a special interest group, why not start a special interest secular group. I would love to see secular-women’s meetings, secular-LGBTQ meetings, secular-men’s meetings, and so on.

Thank you so much for inviting me to share at the first ever S.O.A.A.R  roundup. I congratulate the organizing committee for a job well done and for including speakers from all over Ontario and the world.

About the Author

Don M. has been sober for 26 years and lives near Kingston, Ontario. He has helped start two secular AA meetings and is an advocate for secular AA.


The photography used in this article was created by Larry K. from the We Agnostics group in Toronto, Ontario. 

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3 years ago

I do take issue with the long round-about attempt to muddle the term fundamentalism. I see no point in re-defining it to the point where it is all-inclusive and meaningless. No term that can be used for anything is immune to this sort of re-definition, of course, and no term used for anything is immune to being called derogatory. The act of defining a group as compared to a larger or another group can easily be called derogatory, but what are we to do? Say we are all one, and we are all alike, and we all do the same… Read more »

Jack Blair
Jack Blair
3 years ago
Reply to  life-j

Agree completely with you life-j. I did not start a war with the fundies; they did with me. I did not loudly interrupt the fundies at traditional meetings; they did with me. I did not and never have said it’s my way or the highway; they did to me. I did not tell them that they should find another meeting; they did to me. All the above have happened to me several times in traditional meetings here in Vancouver. Every time the above happened I have tried very hard to have a genuine exchange of ideas with the fundies including… Read more »

bob k
bob k
3 years ago
Reply to  life-j

Although I’m no Bobby Beach, I am at times a satirist, and the “fundie” and “thumper” arrows are saying in my quiver. I agree with life-j regarding the definition of fundamentalism, and I will add that you’re not a real fundie until you invite some dissenter to start his own program, and tell him, “Just don’t call it AA.” 😉  🙂

Murray J.
Murray J.
3 years ago

Thanks Don. I agree that being open to all who attend secular meetings is vital. After my experience at Toronto Area Intergroup during the purge of the agnostic groups I could have developed a hatred and resentment against the purgers. Thank goodness I didn’t! At the last Area 83 Assembly in Kingston the vote on the God Word pamphlet to approve its consideration for the next General Service Conference was taken. It passed overwhelmingly. And in the row in front of me were two of the key purgers. One voted in favour and one abstained. That is progress!

3 years ago

Thanks, Don. This is the second time in less than a week that I’ve read about Bill W.’s periodic statements on inclusiveness, and his attempts to change his own “spiritual arrogance” and “spiritual aggressiveness” which he saw emerging in himself AFTER he got sober. This is useful information in my own recovery, and I appreciate it.

3 years ago

Thank you Don, well thought out talk!

radical inclusion. fabulous reminder, with support.

my biggest take away is the gentle reminder, that labeling is never good, and I need to back away from the rightly called out use of the term “fundies”. it is afterall, a trivialization, something which I abhor when used against my secular statements.

Thomas B.
Thomas B.
3 years ago

Thanks Don for your thoughtful and evocative essay. I especially appreciated your remarks about the potential disservice that some AA members do in regards to our Singleness of purpose. In our more enlightened times in the 21st century concern about anonymity and singleness of purpose are not required nearly as much as perhaps they were in the 20th century. A solution is to make more and more of our meetings open meetings so that anyone can attend and be welcomed to share their experience, strength and hope. I also recognize that there is much in the Big Book that is… Read more »