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