Beyond The Big Book

Local members are drawn to the secular approach of agnostic AA meetings

Pat is one of the attendees at a Saturday morning meeting at the Fitchburg Serenity Club. That’s the Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse at 6048 McKee Road, near the New Vision Theatres. (In keeping with AA tradition, last names of participants are not identified in this story.)

In most ways, it’s like any other AA meeting. One by one, people sitting around a big table introduce themselves by first name, some adding, “I’m an alcoholic” or “I’m an addict.” But there’s no mention of God, and when attendees rise and clasp hands after an hour of sharing, there’s no recitation of the “Lord’s Prayer.”

This is a meeting of “We Agnostics.” Launched in April 2016, it was the first secular AA meeting in the Madison area.

AA’s 12 steps are closely tied to seeking help through a deity; six of the 12 mention God, “Him,” or a “higher power,” and step 3 is “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Not surprisingly, some are uncomfortable with the emphasis on God and religion.

Non-Christians, agnostics, and those seeking a humanist or more research-based perspective can find the emphasis on religion frustrating and off-putting — to the point that it can hinder their attempts at recovery, or cause them to flee the program entirely.

“I’ve spoken to many others with a substance use disorder who have said something like, ‘I tried AA but, you know, the God thing. It disturbed me and I’ve never been back,’” says Pat. “I am deeply saddened when I hear this. These are folks who have reached out for help and didn’t feel welcome.”

Seeing the need, a few AA members finally decided it was time to start their own secular meeting in Madison. Robert says he and two friends met at the Fitchburg clubhouse to discuss the idea and contacted a “freethinkers” AA group in Denver, which provided a sample meeting format and recommended the daily reflection book, Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for a 12 Step Life, to use as a guide for meeting topics.

Robert notes that he and others wanted to make sure the secular meetings were “open and inviting to all” and that they didn’t show any bias toward religion.

After the first We Agnostics meeting in Fitchburg nearly three years ago, word spread and a Sunday morning meeting was added at Monona Serenity Center in 2017; a Wednesday evening meeting started in Fitchburg in 2018, and a Tuesday evening group was added in Monona in January 2020.

A Friday night group at Meriter Hospital recently folded, due to low turnout, but the original Saturday meeting in Fitchburg continues, meaning there are four We Agnostics options a week. The group maintains an email-based Google Group to stay in touch between meetings and share topics of interest or inspiration.

Erik, who attends the Fitchburg meetings, believes the agnostic approach is more flexible: “There’s more the idea of meeting people where they are and going forward from there with harm reduction, life skills, and fellowship.”

Noting that absolute honesty is considered essential in the AA program, Pat B. says that the “We Agnostics meeting is the only place I’ve found I’ve been able to consistently speak the whole truth of what has led to my recovery — including that it has not required a belief in God.”

With Alcoholics Anonymous membership numbers on the wane, there are questions of whether the group, whose core literature still reflects the Protestant culture of the 1930s, needs to do more to adjust to a changing world.

More secular groups, like SMART Recovery and LifeRing, are gaining adherents. And according to the Secular Alcoholics Anonymous website (secularaa.org), there are now more than 500 face-to-face secular AA groups worldwide. Still, those numbers fall far short of regular AA meetings, established over decades.

“[Secular] groups in AA provide the opportunity to help more people stop drinking,” says Pat. “Don’t we all agree this is desirable?”

Making changes to AA hasn’t come without friction. But the We Agnostics meetings are listed in the Madison area’s meeting directory, unlike in some cities. And people in recovery keep coming back for the conversation and fellowship. “The Big Book and God thing got me nowhere,” says one Fitchburg attendee. “I use the people around the tables as my higher power.”


This article was written by Susan Dopkins and published by ISTHMUS on February 20, 2021.

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