“It must never be forgotten that the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made on anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.”
– Letter to Father Marcus O’Brien, written in 1943, and quoted in The Soul of Sponsorship by Robert Fitzgerald
Brief history of AA
AA members in New York in the 1930s. Public Archives.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was founded in 1935 in Akron Ohio by Bill Wilson (Bill W.) and Dr. Robert Smith (Dr. Bob). Not much was known about alcoholism at the time, and the treatment of the condition was plagued by ignorance and misunderstanding. It was often viewed as a moral failing, or a weakness of sorts, and treated either in hospitals, sanatoriums or by religious groups, such as The Salvation Army.
Bill and Bob drew the initial inspiration for the foundation of AA from the Oxford Group, a Christian fellowship founded by American Christian missionary Dr. Franklin Nathaniel Daniel Buchman. The Oxford Group practiced “first century Christianity”, comprising of six basic steps: A complete deflation, a dependence on God, the need for moral inventory, confession and restitution for harms done, and the need to help others.
This approach was effective in helping many different people with many different issues. History relates how Bill Wilson came into contact with Dr Bob while Bill was away on a business trip, and feeling the temptation to drink, was motivated to seek out another alcoholic to help. After some minor difficulties Dr Bob (who was also a member of the Oxford Groups at the time) managed to stay sober. A short while later at Akron’s City Hospital they were joined by a third man, Bill Dodson.
These three men made up the nucleus of the first A.A. group. In the fall of 1935, a second group of sober alcoholics slowly took shape in New York. The number of sober drunks in the Oxford groups began to grow, and by 1937, for various reasons, it became apparent that the “Drunk Squad” of the Oxford Groups needed to split off and form their own fellowship.
The fledgling fellowship continued to grow, and by 1939 they had succeeded in opening a third group in Cleveland Ohio, and had an estimated membership of 100 sober alcoholics. They also expanded the Oxford Group’s 6 steps into the present day 12 steps for which AA is famous, and in 1939 published the first edition of the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”.
The Start of Secular AA
Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers have been around AA since the beginning there was quite a bit of conflict among the AA membership at the time that the AA “Big Book” (AA’s name for it’s basic text Alcoholics Anonymous”. Some members, particularly from the Ohio Group were quite evangelical in their beliefs, while the New York members felt all the “God stuff”would frighten people away. An atheist by the name of Jim Burwell, suggested they use the phrase “God as we understood Him” be written into the Twelve Steps. This small, yet vitally important, change to the wording of the steps has enabled many thousands of atheist and agnostic alcoholics to find sobriety.
The first Secular AA meeting was started by Don Wilson, ironically – in a church. As he puts it: “I joined this church free of dogma or creed, and have ever since shared in the music-making and the Sunday services of one or another Unitarian-Universalist congregation.
In the early sixties Don had tried AA and left, put off by all the religiosity. “I was unable to work it, because of the religious language in which the 12 steps are couched,” he said.
A decade later he returned, after his drinking almost killed him, determined to make it work no matter what.
At about four years sober in 1974, he gave a talk at the Second Unitarian Church on the topic, “An Agnostic in AA: How it Works for Me.” and he ended up delivering it in several Unitarian churches. It went so well that one of the ministers encouraged him to start an AA meeting especially for atheists and agnostics.
- 1975 – “Quad A” the first agnostic AA meeting is founded in Chicago
The first ever meeting in AA explicitly for nonbelievers was held on January 7. In a church. And this started Quad A – Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics (AAAA). A member writes: Perhaps it was just as inevitable that a group for atheists, agnostics, humanists, free spirits and “bad attitudes” would be created for those who wanted sobriety without conformity.
Over 30 years later, a Quad A Unity Conference was held on September 13, 2009, in Chicago, with over a 100 people attending. It consisted of talks around basic human values and working the 12 steps without the God factor.
- 1980 – “We Agnostics” meeting launched in Los Angeles.
The term “We Agnostics,” was then coined by Charlie Polacheck
- 1986 – “We Atheists” meeting opened in New York City started by Ada Halbeirch, David L and John Yablon.
- 2003 – 38 agnostic AA meetings in the United States
- 2004 – 56 agnostic AA meetings (55 in the U.S. and 1 in France)
- 2009 – 71 meetings worldwide
- 2010 – 89 meetings worldwide
- 2012 – 99 meetings worldwide
- 2014 – 149 meetings worldwide (February)
- 2014 – 195 meetings worldwide (November)
(unofficially as of 2017 there are over 400 registered secular AA groups)
Currently there is an increasing number of groups within AA all over the world that are not religious in their thinking or practice. Some of these groups don’t recite prayers at the beginning or end of their meetings, nor do they suggest that a belief in God is required to get sober or to maintain sobriety. If the readings at their meetings include AA’s suggested program of recovery, then a secular version of the 12 Steps will often be shared.
“From our earliest days arguing for a softening of the religious language in the 12 Steps, to our fights for inclusion, to our battles with Intergroups, and our battles with each other; we have reached a point in our history whereby we are no longer some fringe group within AA. We are as mainstream AA as any other special interest group, and that’s a big deal because that is how we will widen the gateway to recovery, and that will ultimately save lives, including our own.”
– AA beyond belief
Secular AA in South Africa
AA IS a secular society…. AA promotes the idea that one must have faith in some sort of higher power, however there is a firm line that is drawn between the AA program and a person’s personal beliefs. That is where the Secular element fits in. One must have faith, but what you have faith in is entirely up to you.
Time and time again were told that we are free to believe whatever we want to believe, which is repeatedly supported by the AA literature, yet one only has to sit in a meeting or talk to a few well-meaning AA’s to see how this boundary of personal belief is repeatedly crossed. The message is almost “you must pick a personal God of our understanding”.
Secular AA attempts to restore the balance to mainstream AA, creating a safe environment in which people of all theological convictions may recover, as was intended by our founders.
Garth R, co-founder of South Africa’s first secular meeting, had felt increasingly isolated within the fellowship due to his atheism. He relied mostly on the WAAFT fellowship on social media.
He came into contact with the second co-founder Anastasya E, who was in a similar position, having previously left the rooms due to feeling alienated as an atheist.
Realizing that there might be many other alcoholics (both in and outside of the rooms) just like them, they decided that starting a meeting was necessary.
Secular AA in SA started in March 2017 in Johannesburg by Anastasya E and Garth R. The group “We Agnostics” is the first of its kind on the continent of Africa.
The group is currently listed internationally with Secular AA, as well as GSO in New York and enjoys significant online support from the international community. They are currently attempting to get the meeting registered with AA South Africa, while continuing to spread the word through word of mouth and their online presence.