The second biennial Arizona Secular AA Conference recap

Preparations began in August when a committee of volunteers drawn from several secular AA groups in and around Phoenix began a series of planning sessions.

Among the committee members, sobriety ranged from days to decades—enthusiasm was not lacking when it came to hosting this get-together. Several of the committee members were veterans of the 2015 conference and their experience was advantageous. New members were excited to be a helpful part of the planning or the program panels.

None of the veterans had gotten drunk in the intervening two years since the first conference, but one beloved instigator was lost with the passing of Ann M., a co-founder in 2014 of Phoenix's very first secular AA meeting. 

Ann's mantra was simple and inspiring— "Well, they told me I would either get God or get drunk, and after more than forty years I'm still waiting to find out which will happen."

As it turned out neither was to happen.

The venue for the 2015 conference had been a meeting room at the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix. This year we had to find another location because, unfortunately for Phoenix library patrons but fortuitously for us, the Burton Barr Library closed for nearly a year to repair water damage indirectly related to the 2017 summer monsoon. Little was it known that attendance at the 2017 conference was destined to be more than double the 39 that attended in 2015, and that the Burton Barr meeting room, packed as it was in 2015, would have been a standing-room-only disaster.

Playing with the cards we were dealt, a meeting room at the Tempe Public Library was secured and it just happened to be more than twice as large—thankfully adequate, as it turned out, to accommodate this year's eighty attendees.

Subway had been chosen to cater lunch for the first conference and was readily approved by the committee for this year also.

In 2015 preparations for recording the conference had begun too late and had ended in failure, but the failure was an incentive to get ahead of the curve in 2017. This year the conference was recorded and is now available here warts and all. (There is still room for improvement to be made next time.)

Drawing on his professional background, Joel Y. easily kept things rolling and on schedule as emcee during the first conference and happily he agreed to emcee the second one as well.

With lunch, location and master of ceremonies decided upon, the committee then focused on the search for a keynote speaker and the topics for the panel discussions..

A few nontheistic AA groups have been around for years, notably in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, but a response to the headline generating de-listing (and subsequent re-listing) of the secular AA meetings in Toronto in 2011 by the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) is generally credited with the recent influx of nascent interest in AA of agnostic mien.

Local freethinking AAs' interest in learning more about these events made for a compelling case to invite long time sober cofounder of Toronto's Beyond Belief group, Joe C., to deliver the keynote address at our conference.

Joe is the author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life and is host of the podcast Rebellion Dogs Radio. He graciously and without hesitation agreed to come.

Topics chosen for the four panels were drawn somewhat from recollections of those who had attended the previous international conferences in Santa Monica and Austin and somewhat from ideas of those who volunteered to sit on the panels.

The conference was kicked off with a general introduction by Joel which he then segued into an introduction of Joe.

In the morning talk Joe provided a brief explanation of the secular Toronto groups' delisting by the GTAI. As the groups have since been re-listed, Joe called it "a good news story about how AA self-corrects." AA has always done so, he said, but nevertheless, "this isn't a new problem, and we haven't solved the problem."

The topic of the first panel was Secular Twelve Steps, with Maureen B., Scott S. and Tim H. The panelists had prepared four questions about the steps that each panelist in turn would expound upon.

Tim was a last minute addition to this panel to replace a "no show" (inadvertently getting him introduced as 'Eileen') but not having benefit of preparation on the panel's topic, he improvised.

The committee had planned for Q and A with the audience, but Tim gave it a twist and instead of adopting the role of  panel member and responding to the question in rotation with Maureen and Scott, he became moderator, reading the question and then asking for a volunteer from the audience to offer an opinion rather than to  ask a question. This went over great guns and added much fresh insight by providing attendees with a chance to participate.

The questions which the panel posed for discussion were:
Why talk about the steps?
If there is no cure why bother?
What does working the steps look like from your perspective?
What do you say to a newcomer who expresses disinterest in working the steps?
The next panel, with Jennifer A., Beth H. and Jerry F. was entitled Gaining Acceptance Within AA. Leaving little to idle speculation, these panelists' discussions were backed by some rather amazing (and humorous) research into the question, citing polls and statistics.

Diversity of opinion in the larger AA community was reflected in the commentary of this panel. Evidence regarding the opposing poles on the spectrum of acceptance brings to light the controversial nature of opinion about our present and future acceptance in the AA fellowship.

Will secularism eventually be embraced as a legitimate variation as had come about with men's stag, women's  and LGBTQ groups? Or would the rancor toward atheism within AA harden and eventuate a schism from the fellowship? Both cases were presented, and the jury is still out.

Discussion was then opened to audience participation, informal but very  AA-like.

A panel on Secular Sponsorship was conducted by Gary S., Stephanie P. and Michael C. Being  of a non-theistic persuasion in no way detracts from the benefits of sponsorship. Most with long term sobriety got sober before the availability of secular AA, and they were nevertheless able to become honest with an understanding sponsor, despite the sponsor's personal faith-based approach to the program. However, sponsorship within an agnostic approach to spirituality can facilitate sponsor-sponsee bonding more readily and with less preliminary dancing around the 'higher power' issue.

And the last panel was The Role of Connection in Recovery by John R., David C. and Penelope G.

The fellowship is all about connection—each alcoholic connecting with others. The AA fellowship in general offers opportunity for this, but we believe ideally it should be an environment free from recriminations regarding alternate spiritual beliefs. 

Many find a deeper level of connection in meetings free from religious dogma, finding it easier then to be rigorously honest. A bar to connection with the community and with individuals in the community falls away when religion is not an issue. After all, what we really desire is simply to be accepted.

The keynote address by Joe C.:   As he had promised in the morning, Joe gave us an enlightening and entertaining talk about "Joe, teenage alcoholic," getting sober in the era of disco. He concluded with an invitation to attend the next International Conference of Secular Alcoholics Anonymous (ICSAA) which will be held in Toronto next year.

It must be said that no small part of the success of this year's conference, from the increased attendance to the innovative audience contributions can be attributed to Joe's attendance and the attendance of some of his friends who traveled from as far as Montana and Washington DC to hear him speak and to be with other friends they hadn't yet met.

A great deal of help was also provided by AA Agnostica's Roger C., AA Beyond Belief''s John S. and Secular AA's Courtney S. Without the online exposure these webmasters' organizations provided, far fewer conferees would have learned about our event.

And for those in other parts of the country who crave a similar event closer to their home I would make a personal observation: the committee and the energy it brought to bear on getting this conference first organized in 2015 was not born full blown as a huge body of collaborators in a flurry of agreement. It was kick started by one individual, Jerry F., who, shortly after the first international secular conference, piqued the interest of a small number of friends who may (or may not) have known of Margaret Mead's admonition never to doubt that a small group of caring people can change the world. As she had said, it always has.

Widening the Gateway, a regional conference was held in January, 2016 in Olympia, Washington and another Widening the Gateway conference is scheduled for March 31, 2018 in Tacoma. Toronto recently had a regional conference, and the ICSAA will happen there August 24 thru August 26, 2018.

We plan to have our third biennial Arizona Secular AA Conference in 2019, and we hope to see other regional secular AA conferences spring up elsewhere between Toronto and Phoenix. Let us keep this movement growing.

About Us

WAAFT stands for We Agnostics, Atheists, and Freethinkers. provides an online presence to support the Arizona secular AA community, and to make AA in Arizona more inclusive.

In the foreword to the first edition of the book Alcoholics Anonymous can be found the sentence: "The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking." No religious belief was required of prospective members who sought to get sober. The only change ever made to that sentence has been the deletion of the word honest. Thus we believe that AA can be a program for recovery, and meetings a place of refuge for even those alcoholics who do not subscribe to conventional religious beliefs.

Our goal is to work toward an acceptance of AA meetings that "endeavor to maintain a tradition of free expression where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. In keeping with A.A. tradition, we do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in A.A. without having to accept anyone else's beliefs, or having to deny their own" (from the Beyond Belief Meeting Format).

Alcoholics Anonymous claims as its origin (officially) the date of Doctor Bob's last drink (June 10, 1935), but the seminal incident was the meeting several weeks earlier between Bill and Bob at Bob's home in Akron. Prior to their meeting, neither Bill nor Bob had been able to remain sober for long. Bill was about six months sober then but knew that he was on slippery ground. He had the crazy idea that he needed another drunk to talk to to stay sober much longer. He and Bob each had tried to get sober independently, but to no avail. Then they met. Bob had this to say about their meeting:
"[Bill] gave me information about the subject of alcoholism which was undoubtedly helpful. Of far more importance was the fact that he was the first living human with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience. In other words, he talked my language. He knew all the answers, and certainly not because he had picked them up in his reading. [Italics in the original]
    —Alcoholics Anonymous, third edition, p. 180

This nugget, tucked into the doctor's story like a hidden gem, is perhaps subliminal acknowledgement of the key to his long sought freedom from drink.

Bill never took another drink, and after one final fling on June 10, 1935, Bob never had another drink either. Following what has become the core of the AA program—meetings—millions of alcoholics have found long term sobriety. Many believe that a belief in a higher power has helped them achieve sobriety, and many who have found themselves unable to believe in a higher power have also been able to achieve sobriety by meeting with other alcoholics who also seek sobriety. It is salutary that AA started when two alcoholics who had both tried to get—and stay—sober were only able to get sober after meeting—and working toward sobriety together. The conclusion we draw from this is that the talking of one alcoholic with another about their common problem and their common aspiration is of paramount importance for AA. This conversation, many of us believe, is the true source of AA's power, irrespective of the belief in a supernatural power.


The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.

Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought A.A. membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.

Bill's explanation of the Third Tradition:

“So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so!”
    —Published in the July 1946 issue of The Grapevine

To thine own self be true

In 1957 Bill wrote in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age:
“...this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.” (p. 167)

I am responsible.
When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help I want the hand of AA always to be there, and for that I am responsible.

(Known as the Responsibility Statement, it
was written for the 1965
A.A.International Convention in Toronto by former AA trustee,
Al S.
Many secular AA groups choose to use
it to close their meetings.)