The Second Biennial Arizona Secular AA Conference

By Dave H.

The conference was held on December 9, 2017 in Tempe Arizona. Preparations began in August when a committee of volunteers drawn from several secular AA groups in and around Phoenix began a series of planning sessions.

Among the committee members, sobriety ranged from days to decades—enthusiasm was not lacking when it came to hosting this get-together. Several of the committee members were veterans of the 2015 conference and their experience was advantageous. New members were excited to be a helpful part of the planning or the program panels.

None of the veterans had gotten drunk in the intervening two years since the first conference, but one beloved instigator was lost with the passing of Ann M., a co-founder in 2014 of Phoenix’s very first secular AA meeting.  

Ann’s mantra was simple and inspiring— “Well, they told me I would either get God or get drunk, and after more than forty years I’m still waiting to find out which will happen.” 

As it turned out neither was to happen.

The venue for the 2015 conference had been a meeting room at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix. This year we had to find another location because, unfortunately for Phoenix library patrons but fortuitously for us, the Burton Barr Library closed for nearly a year to repair water damage indirectly related to the 2017 summer monsoon. Little was it known that attendance at the 2017 conference was destined to be more than double the 39 that attended in 2015, and that the Burton Barr meeting room, packed as it was in 2015, would have been a standing-room-only disaster.

Playing with the cards we were dealt, a meeting room at the Tempe Public Library was secured and it just happened to be more than twice as large—thankfully adequate, as it turned out, to accommodate this year’s eighty attendees.

Subway had been chosen to cater lunch for the first conference and was readily approved by the committee for this year also.

In 2015, preparations for recording the conference had begun too late and had ended in failure, but the failure was an incentive to get ahead of the curve in 2017. This year the conference was recorded and is now available, warts and all, at waaft-az.org. There is still room for improvement the next time around.

Drawing on his professional background, Joel Y. easily kept things rolling and on schedule as emcee during the first conference and happily he agreed to emcee the second one as well.

With lunch, location, and master of ceremonies decided upon, the committee then focused on the search for a keynote speaker and the topics for the panel discussions. 

A few nontheistic AA groups have been around for years, notably in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but a response to the headline generating de-listing (and subsequent re-listing) of the secular AA meetings in Toronto in 2011 by the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) is generally credited with the recent influx of interest in agnostic AA. 

Local freethinking AAs’ interest in learning more about these events made for a compelling case to invite long time sober cofounder of Toronto’s Beyond Belief group, Joe C., to deliver the keynote address at our conference. 

Joe is the author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life and is host of the podcast Rebellion Dogs Radio. He graciously and without hesitation agreed to come. 

Topics chosen for the four panels were drawn somewhat from recollections of those who had attended the previous international conferences in Santa Monica and Austin and partially from the ideas of those who volunteered to sit on the panels. 

The conference was kicked off with a general introduction by Joel which he then segued into an introduction of Joe.

In the morning talk Joe provided a brief explanation of the secular Toronto groups’ delisting by the GTAI. As the groups have since been re-listed, Joe called it “a good news story about how AA self-corrects.” AA has always done so, he said, but nevertheless, “This isn’t a new problem, and we haven’t solved the problem.”

The topic of the first panel was Secular Twelve Steps, with Maureen B., Scott S., and Tim H. The panelists had prepared four questions about the steps that each panelist in turn would expound upon.

Tim was a last-minute addition to the panel, replacing a no show, which inadvertently got him introduced as “Eileen.” Not having the benefit of preparation on the panel’s topic, he improvised.

The committee had planned for Q and A with the audience, but Tim gave it a twist and instead of adopting the role of panel member and responding to the question in rotation with Maureen and Scott, he became moderator, reading the question and then asking for a volunteer from the audience to offer an opinion rather than ask a question. This went over great guns and added much fresh insight by providing attendees with a chance to participate.

The questions which the panel posed for discussion were:

Why talk about the steps?
If there is no cure why bother?
What does working the steps look like from your perspective?
What do you say to a newcomer who expresses disinterest in working the steps?

The next panel, with Jennifer A., Beth H., and Jerry F. was entitled Gaining Acceptance Within AA. Leaving little to idle speculation, these panelists’ discussions were backed by some rather amazing (and humorous) research into the question, including the citing of polls and statistics.

Diversity of opinion in the larger AA community about secular AA was reflected in the comments of this panel. The polarization of views illustrates ongoing controversy over our present and future acceptance in the AA fellowship. 

Will secularism eventually be embraced as a legitimate variation or special interest, as has happened with groups for men, women, physicians, lawyers, and LGBTQ persons? Or will rancor toward atheism within AA harden and eventuate in a schism? Both cases were presented, and the jury is still out.

Discussion was then opened to audience participation.

A panel on Secular Sponsorship was conducted by Gary S., Stephanie P., and Michael C. It was felt that a non-theistic orientation in no way detracts from the benefits of sponsorship. Most with long term sobriety got sober before the availability of secular AA, and they were nevertheless able to become honest with an understanding sponsor, regardless of the sponsor’s personal views on religion and spirituality. However, sponsorship between people of a shared orientation can facilitate sponsor-sponsee bonding more readily and with less preliminary dancing around the higher power issue.

And the last panel was The Role of Connection in Recovery by John R., David C., and Penelope G. The fellowship, it was agreed, is all about connection—each alcoholic connecting with others. The AA fellowship in general offers opportunities for this, and ideally it should be an environment free from recriminations about alternate spiritual beliefs.

Many find a deeper level of connection in meetings free from religious dogma, where it is easier to be completely honest. A bar to connection with the community and with individuals in the community falls away when religion is not an issue. After all, what we really desire is simply to be accepted.

In his keynote address, Joe C. told the enlightening and entertaining tale of Joe himself, teenage alcoholic, getting sober in the era of disco. He concluded with an invitation to attend the next International Conference of Secular Alcoholics Anonymous (ICSAA), which will be held in Toronto from August 24 to August 26.

It must be said that no small part of the success of this year’s conference, from the increased attendance to the innovative audience contributions, can be attributed to Joe’s attendance and the attendance of some of his friends who traveled from as far as Montana and Washington DC to hear him speak and to be with other friends they hadn’t yet met.

A great deal of help was also provided by AA Agnostica‘s Roger C., AA Beyond Belief‘s John S. and Secular AA‘s Courtney S. Without the online exposure these webmasters’ organizations provided, far fewer conferees would have learned about our event.

And for those in other parts of the country who crave a similar event closer to their home I would make a personal observation: the committee and the energy it brought to bear on getting this conference first organized in 2015 was not born full blown as a huge body of collaborators in a flurry of agreement. It was kick started by one individual, Jerry F., who, shortly after the first international secular conference, piqued the interest of a small number of friends who may (or may not) have known of Margaret Mead’s admonition never to doubt that a small group of caring people can change the world. As she had said, it always has.

Widening the Gateway, a regional conference was held in January, 2016 in Olympia, Washington and another Widening the Gateway conference is scheduled for March 31 of this year in Tacoma. Toronto recently had a regional conference, and the ICSAA will happen there August 24 thru August 26, 2018.

We plan to have our third biennial Arizona Secular AA Conference in 2019, and we hope to see other regional secular AA conferences spring up in other places around the country.


About the Author

Dave is 73 years old. He took his last drink February 18, 1982. He had acquired a taste for beer in Colorado where, in the sixties, it was legal to drink “3.2 beer” at age 18. The legal theory at the time was that beer of only 3.2% alcohol wouldn’t make a person drunk. He disproved that theory on his eighteenth birthday and became an inveterate beer drinker thereafter. Dave, the beer drinker, has been heard to claim that he probably didn’t drink enough whiskey during the following twenty years to fill a bath tub. Nevertheless, he became a hopeless alcoholic—hopeless until he found Alcoholics Anonymous. Happy these days about the growth, at long last, of non-religious AA around the country, he tries to help, as best he can, with Arizona’s secular AA conferences and also by carrying the message that AA is available to any alcoholic, even those without religious inclinations.

Conference Audio 

Listen to the panels and the keynote speaker at the conference website. 

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  1. Roger C. March 13, 2018 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    An excellent and very helpful article, Dave. A group of us folks in Ontario are meeting this Thursday to discuss the venue and timing of the next Secular Ontario AA Roundup (SOAAR) to be held in 2019 in Hamilton. It’s quite exciting. There are some 16 secular AA groups in Ontario but only the one We Agnostics meeting in Hamilton. The roundup is not only a wonderful opportunity to meet up with others in recovery but it can also inspire other people in Hamilton and other parts of the province to start their own secular groups and meetings. Reading your article, it is clear that conferences / roundups are a really good way to grow our secular movement and make sure that AA is there to lend a hand to “anyone, anywhere who reaches out for help”. Thanks Dave!

  2. Piya March 13, 2018 at 12:21 am - Reply

    I’m from Montreal. I have 8 years of sobriety and also to do sevice in AA. I am tolerant with the religious. But if there are people interested in forming a WAAFT group. Here is a soldier who does not back down. I speak Spanish and French only but I am committed to studying English to be in Toronto in August and be able to join this chain and always march forward and be able to live in peace without many medieval things. I wrote this comment in Spanish and translated it with an application in English. Alcohol tattooed my brain and James Burwell saved my life.

    • Joe C March 16, 2018 at 1:48 pm Reply

      Piya,

      I owe my sobriety to meetings around Montreal from Ste Anne du Bellevue to St. Jerome. If there was an agnostic meeting in Montreal, I’d love to visit. If you can get to the Ottawa meeting (Tuesday I think), some AAs there might be helpful in getting your group going. It would helpful if you could get to the Kingston area meetings too – great people there as well.

      It would be great to hold our first French or Spanish meeting as a regular weekly meeting.

      Here’s a great idea for Toronto (what’s everyone thinK???) Le’t have at least one French and one Spanish meeting during the ICSAA2018.

      What do you think?

      • Piya March 16, 2018 at 8:03 pm Reply

        Greetings to all Secular Friends.

         

        Joe C. I am happy to know that there are people willing and grateful to the community in which we have found sobriety.

        I would love to visit our colleagues from Ottawa and Kingston but I am limited by not having a car or driving license.

         

        As regards a possible reunion, that will be a fact. And whether in English or Spanish, it will not be something that divides us, on the contrary, we can do something beautiful.

         

        Concerning the ICSAA2018 Convention. I am willing to participate in Frances or in Spanish.

        We would have to agree. It would be a wonderful experience.

  3. Mary G., Tucson March 11, 2018 at 9:07 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this article.  I really enjoyed the conference, the fellowship, the format and the location.  There were about eight of us that drove up to Tempe from Tucson.  A good time was had by all!  Next stop:  Tacoma and then Toronto-bound!  Yeah!

     

  4. life-j March 11, 2018 at 4:13 pm - Reply

    C’mon, I can’t be that hard an act to follow. Let’s get some debate about this.

    • John S March 11, 2018 at 4:16 pm Reply

      I am currently editing our podcast we recorded when this topic was discussed. I’ll post it with your article on the topic. There are definitely limitations and shortcomings to our current ability to network and communicate among individual AA’s.

  5. life-j March 11, 2018 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Dave, thanks for this. Glad you have pulled it together. guess the first one is the most difficult. We still haven’t had a get-together in Northern California, because I (as if it only hinged on me) can’t see how we can get it going. There is no way to contact other groups. We have no horizontal communication. I have managed to contact a couple of groups by driving there even though they’re 3 hours away or more. We need help with contacting each other, and I have pleaded for this help from those who have e-mail lists, but none have stepped forward so far.

    This is a serious shortcoming of all our organizational efforts, and we will soon hit a growth wall if we don’t remedy it. I agree regional get-togethers are very important, and personally attended the one in Olympia, 1500 miles away, and the one in Toronto, 3000 miles away. Not exactly regional for me. but brought home, of course, what a great tool this is.

    Wake up, people, we need to do this! I’ve been pleading for any of those in position to help make it happen for a couple of years now, by facilitating contact with just about a couple of dozen groups, that’s all we need, and nothing is happening. Nothing.

    WTF?

    • John Runnion March 13, 2018 at 9:42 am Reply

      the secular aa site has our information listed alongside the group meetings.  I don’t know how many groups have included emails or phone numbers, but we have and are happy to get phone or email contacts.  Perhaps this is one place to start collecting this data, if the Secular AA folks will allow it to be done from their database.

       

       

    • Willow March 11, 2018 at 9:49 pm Reply

      What do you envision, life? A number of people are conversing on various FaceBook groups and that’s been really helpful for me, but I know not everyone uses FB or is comfortable doing so for recovery related things.  The Secular AA site has the meeting list, but I don’t think there are contacts for all of them.  I’d be willing to put some effort into getting something started,  but don’t have the bandwidth right now to lead anything.  I’d love to hear the ideas for meeting this need.

      • life-j March 12, 2018 at 3:01 pm Reply

        – and oh yes, I’m not on facebook. Thomas B suggested facebook too, I just can’t really get behind having to use this most obnoxious outfit. I detest everything about facebook, and we ought to be real careful about coercing people into using it for purposes which are essential for our functioning and growth.

      • life-j March 12, 2018 at 2:56 pm Reply

        Willow, thanks, I thought my idea was quite simple and I approached ICSAA about it, but didn’t get anywhere with my efforts. It could take several forms:

        (what do we have, 400 groups or so?)

        1) send out an email to each of those asking for both an email and a phone number which each of these groups won’t mind having published. (and there would be a few that would mind anything published but most wouldn’t)

        2) do something like craigslist does: when you want to send someone an email, you send it to something in the central database, which then converts it to the real e-mail address and sends it, and the original sender does not get to see the actual contact information

        3) make a whole separate contact database (probably a lot of duplicate work)

        this would be good for starters, and would allow us to communicate with each other. Now for the future, a couple of good measures would be:

        4) at the ICSAA event, make sure there are email lists, and make sure that it is specified that they spell out that it is ok to give them to the other attendees

        5) have a session where the whole conference breaks out into regional groups, so that all attending can get to meet with those from the same area.

        – should be relatively simple to implement, I would think. A year ago I volunteered to help with it, but at this point my energy is too unreliable.

        I even approached Sam about it, and he took it to the ICSAA meeting which happened in Toronto at the same time as the roundup, and I believe the result from the meeting was that “they were going to keep talking about it”

        So, this was intended to be for the benefit of all our groups, but since I got nowhere with any of that, I then asked to just be put in contact the approx. two dozen groups in my area (and I provided a list of which ones), but that didn’t happen either.

        And I’m looking to do this for the good of our whole secular fellowship, but there is of course also a part of me that would like to see it happen while I’m still alive. I know, once I’m dead it won’t matter to me whether a Northern California roundup ever happened or not, but while I’m still alive everything matters.

         

        • John Runnion March 12, 2018 at 5:24 pm Reply

          on the meeting lists for Secular AA there is a place to leave contact phone, etc.  I know we left one for our meetings in Cottonwood, AZ.

           

           

        • Willow March 12, 2018 at 4:52 pm Reply

          These are great suggestions,  and I think I recall talk about looking into creating some sort of “Regional” service network. There are some fairly simple ways to do what you suggest, and I agree that this would be a great service to our members. I will do some investigating.

  6. Pat N. March 11, 2018 at 9:50 am - Reply

    Thanks, Dave. I think these smaller regional gettogethers are invaluable, since  more people can afford to attend them. Having been at the Santa Monica, Austin, and Olympia hooplas, I know how invigorating it is to see so many varied and unified sober nonbelievers in one place. I’m looking forward to Tacoma and Toronto.

    By the way, if anyone is planning a major travelling vacation this summer, I highly recommend the secular Proton meeting in Victoria, B.C., which I got to attend recently (as if the gorgeous Vancouver Is. scenery wasn’t enough!).

     

  7. John Runnion March 11, 2018 at 9:22 am - Reply

    Thanx for the review of our conference.

    I just wanted to mention another passing of a member of our secular community who made it possible for several of us to attend the 2015 conference.  Jim H., who got sober at 81 and was one of the founding members of Freethinkers Living Sober in Cottonwood, AZ in 2014,  passed away in 2017 with 4 years of sobriety.  He is sorely missed by our group.

  8. Joe C March 11, 2018 at 9:18 am - Reply

    The Arizona secular AA scene is a real community. It is a mirror of AA itself how it’s caught on from a share in Santa Monica 2014, “I’m from Arizona and it’s tough being the only Atheist in AA.” a pregnant pause and then, “I’m form Arizona.”… “Me too.” Now, from Cottonwood to Tacoma Agnostic and Atheist AA groups are flourishing. We aren’t an invasive species taking over AA and choking out the dominant culture. But we do satisfy a growing need. If we look at AAs early growth from city to city, WAAFT-AZ follows the same pattern and the growth from 2015 to 2017 is a sign that people are stepping up and stepping into roles of service and responsibilities.

    I learn a few things every time I’m in Arizona that I try to take back to Toronto.

  9. Thomas Brinson March 11, 2018 at 8:56 am - Reply

    Thank you Dave for writing this report on the second Arizona biennial Regional Conference and John for posting it.

    I’m convinced that the more regional conferences we in secular AA can evolve, the more likely we will be to survive the sometimes not so loving and tolerant views of us by “traditional,” ie, religious members of AA. We have a right to be here and in truth they can’t, and GSO won’t, kick us out.

  10. edward calhoun March 11, 2018 at 8:37 am - Reply

    We are not going to go away

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