A History of Agnostic Groups in Alcoholics Anonymous: Part 1

By Roger C


Two agnostic groups – We Agnostics and Beyond Belief – were kicked off the official list of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group meetings in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) on May 30, 2011. It made the front page of Canada’s largest daily newspaper, the Toronto Star: “Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups.”

The GTA Intergroup passed a motion at its regular monthly meeting that the two groups “be removed from the meeting books directory, the GTA AA website, and the list of meetings given over the phone by Intergroup to newcomers.” The motion passed 24 to 15 with 9 abstentions.

Beyond Belief had been around for more than a year and a half. Twelve people attended its first meeting on September 24, 2009. We Agnostics had its first meeting almost a year later, on September 7, 2010. And both meetings were growing. To give more people an opportunity to share, Beyond Belief had added another room to its Thursday meeting, and it had recently added a closed weekly meeting on Saturdays.

The action taken by the GTA Intergroup was extreme. But there has always been tension between agnostics and the Christian members of Alcoholics Anonymous. What happened at the Intergroup meeting in that church basement in Toronto merely exposed a long-festering wound in AA.

Bill and Jim

The “God” part in the 12 Steps comes from Bill Wilson. The rest of it, “as we understood Him,” was Jim Burwell’s contribution. But let‘s start at the beginning.

The first meeting of AA took place when its soon-to-be co-founders met on Mother‘s Day in 1935, with Bill trying to help Dr. Bob sober up in Akron, Ohio.

In January of 1938, Jim Burwell joined the fellowship. AA consisted of a group in Akron and another one in New York. The latter group held one meeting a week, at Bill’s home in Brooklyn, which was attended by six or eight men. Only three men in that group, including Bill, had been sober more than a year. AA was a fledgling organization, to say the least.

Bill and Bob were both members of a Christian revivalist movement, the Oxford Group. ?The early meetings were quite religious, in both New York and Akron. There was always a Bible on hand, and the concept of God was all biblical, Jim reported.

Into that mix came Jim, “their self-proclaimed atheist, completely against all religion.”

Jim presented quite a challenge to the group, as he later wrote in Sober for Thirty Years. “I started fighting nearly all the things Bill and the others stood for, especially religion, the ‘God bit.’ But I did want to stay sober, and I did love the understanding Fellowship.”

At one point, his group held a prayer meeting to decide what to do with him. “The consensus seems to have been that they hoped I would either leave town or get drunk.”

At around this time Bill finished Chapter Five of a book about the fellowship. This chapter included the all-important 12 Steps, AA’s program of recovery.

It sparked a lengthy and heated debate about some of the wording of what was to become known as the  Big Book, and especially of the 12 Steps.

There were two camps in the fellowship. One was a pro-religion camp that felt the book should incorporate the teachings of the church. In fact, much of the 12 Steps are based on the Oxford Group‘s Four Spiritual Practices. At the other end of the spectrum were a few atheistic and agnostic members, including Jim.

In Bill’s original draft of the Steps, the word “God” appeared six times. In the final version, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism (the name of the 1939 edition), the number of specific references to God was reduced to four, and in two of the Steps, courtesy of an insistent Jim B, “God” was qualified with “as we understood Him.”

It was the best compromise that could be achieved by those men in that epoch.

Twenty years later, Bill would look back and acknowledge that his early Christian evangelicism had been a serious problem. In an article in the AA Grapevine in 1961, “The Dilemma of No Faith,” he makes a startling admission:

In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking … God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.

Bill would also say that the atheists and agnostics of the day ?had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief—or lack of belief.

But was the gateway widened enough? Looking back 75 years after the humble beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous, the question has to be asked. Many of the nonbelievers in this century are not at all comfortable with the language of the Big Book or of the 12 Steps, language which pre-dates World War II.

And so it is asked, today: What about the “God bit”?

Jim Burwell went on to start AA groups in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Diego. Among the first ten members of the fellowship on the East Coast, he is often considered the third founder of AA. Jim is the first agnostic AA member to die sober: His sobriety date was June 15, 1938, and he died on September 8, 1974.

New York City

The very first agnostic group in New York City was called ‘We Atheists’ and its first meeting was held on September 10, 1986. The group had three founders. They were Ada H, David L and John Y. How they came together to do this is a remarkable story, all on its own.

The three – all unknown to each other – answered an ad in the spring 1986 issue of Free Inquiry. The ad was from Harry, a Californian, and was addressed to atheists and agnostic members of AA who were having trouble with the religious nature of most meetings.

Over the next several weeks, Harry wrote to the three Easterners and provided encouragement and reassurance that they were not alone as agnostics trying to work the AA program to the best of their ability. He told them how it worked in Los Angeles and sent them a copy of the materials read at the agnostic group meeting he was involved with, We Agnostics of Pasadena.

Ada made the necessary arrangements with AA offices in New York and offered her apartment, on the upper east side of Manhattan, as a meeting site. Ada was a very passionate woman, a socialist and a very wealthy New Yorker (her foundation continues to give to charities across the U.S.). She put together a meeting script, which is still used by the group today. It contains an extensive excerpt from Dr. Bob’s last talk, delivered at the First International AA Conference on July 30th, 1950, in Cleveland. In Ada’s script, the meetings end with the group standing in a circle, holding hands, and chanting: “Live and let live.”

Regular meetings of the We Agnostics of New York City AA group were soon in full swing with John Y and David L in attendance. Later the ever-growing group moved to its present location at the Jan Hus Church, where it still meets. The church found the word “Atheist” a bit harsh, and so the name of the group was changed to “We Humanists.”

Much of the history in the preceding paragraphs is excerpted from Sampler, the group’s 1989 newsletter. The article was called, “Now It Can Be Told: A Bi-Coastal Tale of Two Cities.”

Ada H died in August, 2005, at the age of 83. She had more than 30 years of sobriety. Joan F, who is currently a member of We Humanists of New York City and will have 27 years of sobriety this November, visited Ada’s grave site recently. She reports that, at Ada’s request, her tombstone states that she started an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for Atheists and Agnostics.

John Y died on March 10, 2003. He was a co-founder of the Secular Humanist Society of New York City, a life-long resident of the Bronx and a veteran of World War II. Born in 1921, he got sober in 1962. He was the kind of guy who makes a point of shaking hands with everyone in the room prior to an AA meeting. In November, 2002, John celebrated his 40th anniversary of sobriety and told those present that “I never said a prayer in my life.”

David L, now in Pittsburgh, is still a regular in the rooms of AA. He is 74 and got sober in 1980. He remembers as a child trying to figure out what people meant when they talked about God. “It didn’t make any sense to me and I just couldn’t do it. That lasted the rest of my life, pretty much.” He said that when he got to AA, he had to “hang on to everything else,” except the God part, to make it work.


It all began, ironically enough, in a church, the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Don W was a member and had been for a number of years. He had first joined the Unitarian Church in his mid-teens, in his home town of Omaha, Nebraska. “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.” He was also an alcoholic and a member of AA.

It hadn’t always been easy for Don. In the early sixties he had tried AA and had attended meetings for six months but left, put off by the all the religiosity. “I was unable to work it, because of the religious language in which the 12 steps are couched,” he said.

He came back a decade later. His drinking had almost killed him. This time he decided he had to tough it out, no matter how hard.

After about four years of sobriety, in the autumn of 1974, he gave a talk at the Second Unitarian Church on Barry Street on the topic, “An Agnostic in AA: How it Works for Me.”

The talk was well received by the congregation, and he ended up delivering it in several Unitarian churches. In fact, one of the ministers encouraged him to start an AA meeting especially for atheists and agnostics.

The first ever meeting in AA explicitly for nonbelievers was held on January 7, 1975. In Chicago. In a church.

And thus was born Quad A: Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics (AAAA).

As Don explained in an article in the Chicago Tribune in 1995:

The first two As, for Alcoholics Anonymous, are far more important than the last two in AAAA, because a 12-step program will work for anybody who works it, regardless of religious belief, understanding or refusal to understand.

More than 30 years after Don W had founded the first ever AA meeting for nonbelievers, a Quad A Unity Conference was held on September 13, 2009, in Chicago. More than a hundred people attended. By their very presence, they were able “bear witness to the reality that there are hundreds of atheists and agnostics who are working the program and staying sober,” Chuck K, principal organizer of the event, told those in attendance in his welcoming remarks.

The keynote address was delivered by Lisa D, and it was called, “How a Humanist Works the AA Program.” Lisa described how she had come to understand that human values – “empathy, compassion, integrity, mindfulness, honesty, open-mindedness, diligence, excellence, serenity, courage, wisdom, and of course intimacy” – were the “greater power” to which she must strive to align herself.

Her talk was about how she worked the 12 Steps. Humanists, atheists, agnostics, secularists work the 12 Steps and, like everybody else following the suggested AA program of recovery, each does it according to their own belief or lack of belief.

Especially lately, a plethora of resources have become available to those in AA of a non-Christian persuasion. This includes, for example: Darren Littlejohn’s The 12-Step Buddhist, Phillip Z’s work A Skeptic’s Guide to the Twelve Steps and Marya Hornbacher very recent book, Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power.

Early in her talk, Lisa expresses her gratitude that “the very first meetings I ever attended were Quad A.” Otherwise, if she had heard the God bit in the early going might have “run out the door screaming” and picked up again.

Los Angeles, Austin and Beyond

“I am the daddy of all the ‘We Agnostic’ groups.”

Charlie P now lives in Austin, Texas. He is 97 years old and on September 9th, 2011 he received a medallion for having 41 years of continuous sobriety.

And Charlie may indeed well own the We Agnostic brand in Alcoholics Anonymous.

In 1978 he started the very first We Agnostic group in Los Angeles. And as far as anyone knows it was the very first nonbeliever’s group to use precisely that moniker. Of course the name “We Agnostics” is also a chapter in the Big Book.

He was 56 years old when he got sober. He waited eight years before starting the group when he decided he could wait no longer. “I was a nonbeliever and I felt that it was only fitting and proper to have a meeting which was friendly to nonbelievers.”

Charlie moved to Austin in 2000 to be closer to his sons. On August 21, 2001 he achieved another first by launching the We Agnostic group of Austin, Texas.

Charlie started something in that city.

Today, there are four meetings for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in Austin.

One of the advantages of being 97 is that the party comes to you. To celebrate his 41 years of sobriety, Charlie’s family and friends brought the anniversary celebration to his assisted living home. Charlie attended a lot of meetings in Austin, and medallions were brought from different groups in the city to honour the father of the We Agnostic meetings in AA.

Charlie was not the only founder of an agnostic AA group, although he certainly deserves credit and thanks for being the first among the first.

As does Don W.

And Ada H, and John Y and David L.

Agnostic AAs Today

Today there are agnostic groups in AA in virtually every major city in North America with 48 active groups listed by the AA General Service Office.

But that’s hardly an official count: There is no requirement for an AA group to register with any organization, including the GSO.

The Agnostics AA NYC website lists approximately 87 groups in North America. That’s no doubt more accurate than the GSO list, but again nothing is guaranteed.

What is certain from a quick scan of AA groups over the years is that there is an explosion of these groups in recent years. Of the 48 agnostic groups listed as still active with the GSO, 30 of them – almost two thirds – held their first meetings after the millennium.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of “A History of Agnostic Groups in Alcoholics Anonymous” in the November 9 issue of Humanist Network News.

Roger C. is currently a government writer and a member of Beyond Belief, an agnostic group which was booted off of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings list in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Perhaps ironically, he has a Masters degree in Religious Studies. He was known as the “resident atheist” at university where, he says, he was treated with respect. “In AA, not so much,” he reports. Nevertheless, he is convinced that the inclusivity that was a core value of AA’s cofounder Bill W and is central to the meaning and mission of the fellowship will ultimately prevail in Alcoholics Anonymous. He can be reached at aatorontoagnostics@gmail.com.

To learn more about the AA Toronto Agnostics, visit www.aatorontoagnostics.org