The first meeting of the Mostly Agnostics of San Antonio A.A. group was in September of 2014, but like any A.A. group, how and why it came to be is a story in itself. It is said in A.A. that all you need to start a new meeting is a coffee pot and a resentment, which sounds cynical, but it’s actually a lighthearted jab that is more of a celebration of A.A.’s resiliency and its ability to turn human shortcomings into assets than it is a criticism.
Whatever the motives, the proliferation of new and different groups is central to A.A.’s success. A.A. owes its effectiveness in no small part to the diversity of its groups. Each group has a unique ability to reach certain individuals, which illustrates the importance of A.A.’s fourth tradition (“Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.”), probably the most underappreciated A.A. Tradition. Without group autonomy, A.A. would lack the adaptability that makes it accessible to so many disparate individuals.
A.A. is not a one-size-fits-all solution. What works for one person might completely turn someone else off, so rather than expecting everyone to conform to set norms, A.A. gives individuals the freedom to choose what works for them. It’s been said that for every nut that ends up in A.A., there’s a wrench that is the right size to fit it. That happens mostly through one-on-one relationships, but the diversity of the groups also plays a big part.
Each group has its own identity. The wording of A.A.’s fifth tradition suggests that each group even has its own distinct message: “Each group has but one primary purpose— to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” Individual groups, by tailoring how they talk about recovery, are able to be responsive to specific needs, which is to say that secular groups are the epitome of A.A.’s commitment to accessibility.
According to A.A.’s book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, atheists and agnostics within A.A. have been successfully advocating for greater inclusivity since before the publication of A.A.’s basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book, yet what we stand for is not just about making room within A.A. for those for whom the God-talk in traditional A.A. groups is an obstacle. It is the very heart of what A.A. is all about.
The book, A History of Agnostic Groups in A.A. by Roger C documents the birth of pioneering secular A.A. groups. The first groups for agnostics were in Chicago (1975), Los Angeles (1980), New York City (1986), and Austin (2001). With the new millennium, the number of groups getting started began to grow. As of the publication of the book in 2012, the meeting schedule posted on the Agnostics AA NYC website listed 87 groups in North America. The number has grown even more rapidly since and undoubtedly will continue to grow as more Millennials (famous for their lack of religious commitment) become ready to get sober.
A website, aaagnostica.org, was started in 2011 after two agnostic A.A. groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, were expelled from the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup. Since they were taken off the meeting schedule, they needed a way to get the word out about their meetings. The website included a blog focused on recovery without God, which quickly reached people outside Toronto, gained a wide readership, became the hub of an international online community, and began actively facilitating the formation of secular A.A. groups by providing a way for alcoholics who were interested in getting a group started to find others in their local area.
In 2013, two women in the Los Angeles area organized an international convention that was held in Santa Monica. The gathering led to the formation of We Agnostics, Atheists, and Freethinkers (WAAFT), which has since changed its name to the International Conference of Secular A.A. (ICSAA). Besides putting on biennial conventions, they have a website (https://aasecular.org/) with many valuable resources, including a schedule of meetings worldwide.
In San Antonio, three recovering alcoholics, Dave B, Sam M, and John G, found each other in 2014 through the AA Agnostica website. Having been put in contact with each other, we had an organizational meeting at which John B, a colleague of Dave B, and Kim G, the spouse of John G, were also present. Four of the original five members already had considerable experience in traditional A.A.
As the word of our group’s existence got out, alcoholics looking for a way to get sober started showing up, but few of them became regular attendees. The group was committed to carrying a message of recovery with which the specific alcoholics who come our way can connect, but we didn’t learn how to adequately articulate that message overnight. Our message evolved over time and benefited from being able to compare notes online with members of newly formed secular groups in other cities and with individuals all over the world who brought various perspectives to the question of how to carry a secular message that is securely embedded within the framework of A.A.
Early on, there was the inevitable tendency to bash religion and traditional A.A., but then the regular members talked among themselves about the need to not feed into negativity and to model a version of A.A.’s message that any alcoholic, even if they are religious, can relate to. The disagreements we might have with theists, with traditional A.A., and with each other are unimportant compared to our agreement that any alcoholic who shows up deserves to hear a message of recovery that is not adulterated by negativity or extraneous issues. While we can’t control what other people say or do, our experience within our group has been that leading by example inspires others to live up to what we exemplify.
In the spirit of the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” (“If you build it, they will come”), we steadily plugged along, slowly putting together the building blocks of a positive message that makes sense and that alcoholics who have a desire to quit drinking can connect with. After two years, something finally clicked. Visitors to our meetings began resonating with what they heard and were attracted enough to what we were trying to do to keep coming back. Almost all of the new members were newly sober (though not necessarily neophytes with regard to A.A.). A large portion of them stated freely that they would not have been able to get sober had they not found us. Their gratitude was palpable.
We got a burst of fresh energy and enthusiasm. The group’s message began being enlivened by tragicomic accounts of recent experiences on the front line of addiction and became more relevant and helpful. The meetings became lighter and more cheerful and thus more attractive. The new members found true friends, and a vibrant and robust community emerged. Our growth accelerated. We quickly went from having two meetings a week to meeting six times a week with usually around 10-15 in attendance. We believe our success was due to a commitment to a central theme in A.A.: Finding ways to connect with any and every alcoholic who still suffers needs to take precedence over worrying about whether the message is “correctly” worded.
Meanwhile, the larger secular A.A. community was flourishing. More and more people were connecting with each other online. The proliferation of groups accelerated. The increasing popularity of secular A.A. has not gone unheeded. The October 2016 issue of the A.A. Grapevine (https://store.aagrapevine.org/grapevine-back-issue-october-2016) included a special section devoted to the stories of atheist and agnostic members of A.A. In April of 2017, A.A.’s General Service Conference-approved a pamphlet specifically for atheists and agnostics, “The ‘God’ Word” (https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/aa-literature/p-86-the-god-word-agnostic-and-atheist-members-in-aa). An A.A. Grapevine book, One Big Tent: Atheist and agnostic A.A. members share their experience, strength, and hope (https://store.aagrapevine.org/one-big-tent), a compilation of stories that had appeared through the years in the Grapevine, was published in 2018.
When COVID hit, our local group was no longer able to meet in person. Even if we had wanted to, the church where we were meeting wouldn’t allow it. Like many groups, we began meeting via Zoom, and because our meeting times did not depend on room availability, we were able to meet every evening of the week. Not every member of our group made the switch, but attendance has been robust, drawing attendees from all over the world, including a faithful contingent from Australia for whom our meeting occurs in the morning.
Once a critical mass came to accept living with COVID as the new normal and started coming out of isolation, we formed a new group, Secular A.A. of San Antonio, which meets in person at 11 a.m. on Saturdays at Los Patios, situated on the bank of an especially beautiful section of the Salado Creek. After a few months, we resurrected Mostly Agnostics in-person meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays only, with the Tuesday meetings being hybrid (in-person and online), and a few months after that, the thriving Secular A.A. group added a Wednesday evening meeting.
Unfortunately, the turnout for the Mostly Agnostics in-person meetings has been poor, especially on Thursdays, so we have discontinued the Thursday meetings. However, the online meetings and both Secular A.A. meetings are going strong as we continue to build back and hope to eventually surpass our pre-COVID participation.