Pandemics, Zoom, & Happy Heathens

The pandemic has taught us some things — one being that the thirst for secular AA exceeds our most optimistic imaginings. A very short time after face-to-face meetings began to be shut down, there was a notable spike in requests to join the various secular recovery groups on Facebook. An old-school Google group called “Atheists and Agnostics in AA” saw new member applications leap from 10-15 per week to 10-15 per day.

As Zoom found its footing, the trend continued.

No longer geographically limited, AA members, newcomers, and prospects began logging into meetings far afield from the local club, or the church five blocks from home. A popular Toronto “agnostic” meeting regularly sees visitors from British Columbia, Nova Scotia, England, Ireland, Australia, and the various U.S. States. Tomas from Sweden considers it his “second homegroup.”

Among these virtual voyagers are those who had never seen a secular meeting six months, six weeks, or six hours previously. Others are members or founders of their area’s single non-religious meeting.

Early lockdown boredom prompted many of us to seek out and attend more meetings, not less. The adventurous have “traveled” to Scotland, Scandanavia, Tennessee, New York, and Paris where they have found things more interesting than the “same-old, same-old” of the local gatherings in Mississauga, Detroit, Kansas City, or Oshawa.

By punching in a few digits, they find themselves far, far from home, but perhaps more at home.

A number of groups, both traditional and secular, elected to keep their meetings unlisted and private. These decisions were spurred by anonymity concerns, the fear of Zoom bombing, and by the desire to provide regulars with their normal three to five minutes of venting. God forbid we should go a week without hearing how Trevor’s wife disrespects him, and that marijuana smoke keeps wafting out from Mary’s daughter’s bedroom.

The “private” groups are obviously not fulfilling AA’s primary purpose. Further, they are missing out on something quite exciting. The “open” groups (in some cases) are drawing tremendous audiences, including many who are new to sobriety.

The recent arrivals and returnees to Alcoholics Anonymous are seen collecting virtual chips commemorating their one, two, three, or four months of sobriety — gained without ever having set foot in a face-to-face group. Others with four, five, or six months pre-pandemic have resisted the greatest excuse EV-AH to return to drinking. Instead, they are Zooming their way to a year and beyond.

There is some bombing in the “open” groups who don’t lock down their meetings five minutes in. It’s a small price to pay. The Zoom chit-disturbers are remarkably unimaginative. Most groups have a second moderator, a techie adept at promptly removing these would-be disrupters. The very cool OMAGOD group out of Orlando, Florida very coolly calls their fighter bomber a “backup dancer.” Quirky video and audio effects add further uniqueness to their gatherings. A crowd of 150+ is not unusual there.

Among those who have been introduced to their first-ever secular meetings are folks with medium and long term sobriety, residing in areas where secular meetings are unavailable, and perhaps unthinkable.

The more religious a region’s traditional AA, the more backflips or tap dancing required by the nonbeliever, and the more God-talk he or she is forced to endure. These folks are been invigorated by the fresh, clean air of free expression, perhaps after years of feeling pressured to hide their non-belief or to disguise it with a cloak of acceptable terminology. They are reporting delight in finding fellow heathens.

In the rooms (virtual or otherwise) of AA around the world, there are lots of people talking about a “conception of God” which in no way resembles a conception of God as described in either the dictionary or the AA literature. Isn’t the person saying “Nature is my God,” or love, or the universe, expressing disbelief in a way palatable to the mainstream?

Labeling is critical in AA.

If a person calls his higher power “God,” he is unlikely to meet with much criticism, no matter how un-Godly that “power” is.  Were the same person to say: “I don’t believe in God, but I think Love, Nature or the Universe is an excellent substitute for God,” he or she is now a heretic (despite the respectful capitalization) and open to being eviscerated.

There is nothing new in any of this.

Baruch Spinosa (1632-1677) lived in the Netherlands at a time when Amsterdam and Rotterdam were the most liberal cities in the Western world. Nonetheless, at the age of 23, the young freethinker was excommunicated from his family’s Judaic faith for “abominable heresies.” The details of pantheism and panentheism are beyond the scope of this short essay, but in his naturalist worldview, God and Nature were viewed essentially as the same.

For Spinosa, God existed “only in a philosophical sense.” There was no transcendent Creator in the lens grinder’s philosophy. He was frequently called an “atheist” by his contemporaries, and that’s likely what he was. It was safer for him to talk of God, even if he was using the term very loosely.

Earlier in the same century, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) had been forced to recant his heresies about a heliocentric universe. The Roman Inquisition had branded Galileo’s sun-centered system “foolish and absurd in philosophy.” His notions conflicted with the biblical accounts of what the one true God had revealed to goat-herders, centuries earlier.

More recently, the great British polymath, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), had his appointment to a professorship at the City College of New York canceled due to public outcry. Russell was “morally unfit” according to his detractors. The author of “Why I Am Not a Christian” may have been seen as unfit because of his agnosticism, but also for his published works questioning traditional sexual morality. Then as now, America was obsessed with sex but reluctant to talk about it.

Russell’s openness and honesty in expressing unconventional views caused him a certain amount of grief. Many alcoholics, facing whatever escalating ravages are being wrought upon them by their promiscuous drinking, come to AA in the hope of finding an end to their troubles. AA’s overt religiosity generally comes as a surprise, I expect. The “spiritual; not religious” claim doesn’t hold up terribly well under examination.

Those not feeling strongly, either way, might embrace a new world of prayer and “God could and would if He were sought.” Others, recognizing that expressing their cynicism would alienate them from their newfound sober friends, opt for a strategy of “going along to get along.” Those are the folks using the term “higher power” a lot and inviting prospects to choose their “own conception of God,” even if it isn’t God.

The totality of these folks is substantial.

They are appreciative of the freedom they discover in secular AA. They relish in being allowed to drop all pretense. “Fitting in” takes on new meaning. Their preference for secular environments is likely to continue.

Some notable percentage of these folks had fallen away from AA as the years passed and the compelling urge to drink had faded away. Of course, they had never quite been mainstream.  Possible embarrassment about their own capitulation may contribute to waning desire to participate. They “played along to get along,” but perhaps are none too proud of that.

Thank you, Covid-19. Alcoholics Anonymous of the non-religious brand bodes to be a good deal larger post-pandemic.

As we move forward, many of us see Zoom as something that’s here to stay. Happy heathens have tasted the world of abundant secular meetings. Many of us won’t be content to return to the “traditional AA only” or the “traditional AA mostly” options that were standard fare pre-pandemic.


About the Author

bob k is the author of “Key Players in AA History,” published by AAAgnostica in 2015. Two more books are coming soon. Another history book, “The Road to AA: Pilgrims to Prohibition,” looks at America’s love/hate relationship with booze and the various attempts to treat and reform the worst of its drinkers. “The Secret Diaries of Bill W.” is biographical fiction taking us inside the mind of AA’s founder as he frees his soul with a confession of his misdeeds.

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Jenny Turner
Jenny Turner
1 month ago

Bob, you have clearly been following me about for the past twenty years. I never spotted you. I never went back to the meeting where the chair said ‘Using the word god whether you like it or not …’

Steve K
Steve K
1 month ago

Thanks for this Bob!

Anonymous Philosopher
Anonymous Philosopher
1 month ago

Bertie also had a bit of a reputation for enjoying the company of female students, so the plaintiff, Kay, may have had some basis for claiming he would morally corrupt her.