My name is John S., and I’m an alcoholic, and this is the history of an AA group that I helped found—We Agnostics Kansas City. Since I played a part in helping to start the group, some of this history includes my own personal story and is written from my perspective. Participating in the formation of a new AA group has been one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I’m grateful to the Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous that make it possible for groups like We Agnostics to exist.
Here is our story.
I was a sober member of AA for some 25 years when after a long period of doubt, I finally concluded and accepted for myself that I am an atheist. I have no belief in a supernatural deity of any kind. This was an unsettling realization primarily because I feared that I would no longer have a home in AA. The memory of my sponsor who once told me to “never become an atheist or he would fire me” was at the forefront of my mind. I began to think about who else might not accept me, so out of fear of rejection, I decided to keep my atheism a secret.
Searching the Internet for others like me, I eventually met nonbelievers in AA from all over the world. I learned that AA meetings for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers have been occurring since 1975. I also learned that atheists have been members of AA from our earliest days. The atheist Jim Burwell was responsible for helping to shape the wording of the 12 Steps by recommending the use of the phrase “God as we understood him” when referring to God in the steps. Bill Wilson once credited the atheists of those early days with helping to widen the gateway to recovery in AA. He said that AA owes them a debt of gratitude. So, we nonbelievers have always been an integral part of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I credit AA with saving my life, so I desperately needed to make the program work for me as a nonbeliever. I went back through the 12 Steps writing them out in my own words, and I became comfortable with an AA that I viewed as a practical program of action that brings about a personality change that the Big Book refers to as an “entire psychic change” or “spiritual awakening.” This experience and the support of other sober alcoholics in AA made my sobriety possible. There is, at least for me, no need for a belief in God at all. I was quite comfortable with this secular view of AA.
However, I still wasn’t comfortable coming out openly as an atheist at my home group, but little by little I began to test the waters. I started to share my experience as I now understood it. Maybe it was only my imagination, but it seemed that some of the other members of the group no longer accepted me. I often found myself the subject of cross talk from people who felt it necessary to explain to me why I needed something other than human power to stay sober. It got to where I felt like I was walking on eggshells every time I attended a meeting. It seemed that I would inevitably offend someone, simply by sharing honestly and openly. I no longer felt at home in AA.
I loved AA too much to walk away, so on July 20, 2014, I approached Jim C., the only other atheist who I knew at my then home group P3. I asked him if he would like to start an AA group for agnostics and atheists. He immediately agreed, and I consider that day to be the birth of our group.
We talked about what to name the group. I originally wanted to name it Beyond Belief as a tribute to an AA group in Toronto, Ontario. There were people in that group who I came to know, and I held them in high regard. However, I thought it was more important for people searching for an AA meeting to know that we were a special purpose AA group for agnostics and atheists and the name “Beyond Belief” may not make that clear, so we decided to call the group We Agnostics. This name is widely used by secular AA groups around the world, it’s sort of a code word to help other nonbelievers know that this is a secular meeting.
Within a week of deciding to form the group, we found a meeting place at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church at 4501 Walnut, Kanas City, Missouri, and we held our first meeting on Thursday, August 7, 2014.
Shortly before forming our group, we learned that a We Agnostics group had been meeting in Lawrence, Kansas for the previous two years. Jim and I attended their meeting a week before we started meeting in Kansas City. We loved it! We told them about our new group, and the following week, three of them attended our inaugural meeting; Dave, Austin, and Justin.
Jim and I decided that the meeting format would be to open with the AA preamble and a reading of the agnostic AA preamble. There would be no moment of silence and no opening and closing prayer. We would read something related to recovery and people would share their experience by going around the room one person to the next. We would allow outside literature that approached the AA program from a secular perspective.
We discussed the idea of printing our own version of the 12 Steps, but decided against it for two reasons; 1) we thought it might be controversial, and 2) we asked ourselves, “who are we to decide what the steps should mean to someone else?” Ever since we have always displayed the original Twelve Steps at our meetings.
We wanted our group to have regular business meetings and to participate with the broader AA community by getting involved with our Central Office, Area, and District. We have had quarterly business meetings ever since our founding, and we have been represented at Central Office, District, and Area Assembly since January 2015.
The group has been experiencing growth since its founding. By November of 2014, it was common to have between six to eight people at each meeting. Then by 2015, we began to see about 15 people at each meeting and a lot of newcomers who were asking for more meetings. At one of our early business meetings, it was decided to start the second meeting on Sunday and then the third meeting on Tuesday. The Tuesday meeting was at the All Souls Church, but the Sunday meeting was at an outside location, the KU Med Center.
We found that there are two distinct groups of people who are attracted to our meeting; those who would never attend AA because of their perception of it being religious, and those who attended AA but left with a bad taste for it. This created a challenge for our group as our growth picked up. We started to experience the phenomena that we in agnostic AA groups call, “God Detox.” This is when people who had bad experiences in AA need to vent, and it comes across as “God bashing” or “AA bashing.” It can make for an unpleasant experience, and it’s not helpful to those newcomers who have never before experienced AA.
One night we had a meeting with three newcomers, two people from another group resentful toward AA and a woman struggling with sobriety and going through a divorce. The woman was obviously struggling and needed support, but unfortunately, the two resentful members, dominated the meeting, speaking for long periods of time and talking out of turn. They put down the Big Book, the 12 Steps, and those who believed in God. They sucked all the oxygen out of the room, and the poor woman who needed attention, who should have been the most important person in the room was ignored. She never came back.
Those of us who were regular members of the group were sickened by the experience, and we vowed to never let it happen again. We added wording to our opening statement that the meeting leader may have to cut a person off who speaks too long. We felt it was vital that the meeting chair, keep the meeting focused. Everyone has two or three minutes to say whatever crazy thing they need to say, but then they can be cut off.
Around the time of our first anniversary, we were meeting three times a week and usually had about 15 people at each meeting. Then in July of 2015, our growth really took off, thanks to Erica K. Erica had attended a meeting at the Unity group, and after the meeting, she walked up to Richard W. and said, “You’re an atheist, you need to go to the We Agnostics Group.” The next week, he and several others from Unity came to our meeting.
These people from Unity liked the meeting and kept coming back. Now we were having over twenty people at each meeting, and after a couple of months at one of our business meetings, we talked about expanding. The new people from Unity told us that they wanted to start their own group to meet on the nights that we didn’t meet. They would call the group Freethinkers in AA Kansas City.
Today, both groups are thriving. We still see a lot of newcomers, and we are still growing. At a recent meeting at We Agnostics, we had 31 people, and the Freethinkers group recently reached a record of 29 people at a meeting. There are seven secular AA meetings a week in Kansas City, and we are talking about starting another group that we will call Beyond Belief. It will be an open speaker meeting with an agnostic format, but we will invite people from other groups to speak.
Group autonomy is important to us at We Agnostics, but that doesn’t mean we live in isolation from the rest of AA. We believe it’s critical to participate actively in General Service and to always think about how our actions may impact other groups or AA as a whole. We now have three members who participate at the Area Assembly and District. At our business meetings, we inform our membership of what is taking place at Area and the General Service Conference. We are trying hard to instill a culture of service in our group.
In August of this year, We Agnostics Kansas City will have been meeting for three years, and in September, we will have a combined celebration with the Freethinkers group, who will be celebrating two years. The celebration will be held at the St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Brookside, and we will invite the entire AA community in Kansas City, as well as the Western Area of Missouri to join us.