If you’re interested in starting your own secular A.A. meeting or group, it would be good to begin by reading the A.A. General Service Conference-approved pamphlet The A.A. Group cover to cover. The pamphlet explains the differences between a meeting and a group, and many other important considerations.
There are a few things to keep in mind in starting a secular A.A. group that aren’t contained in official A.A. literature, however. The sad fact is that some A.A. members are convinced that A.A. groups and meetings must be run a certain way or they aren’t “real” A.A. Some question how any group can be a part of A.A. without the group relying on “a loving God” who expresses Himself in the group conscience, for example.
So, it’s a good idea, especially when you’re just starting out, to take some care in how you structure your A.A. meeting or group. Some secular groups have gotten into disputes with A.A. fundamentalists in their vicinity, and with their local A.A. Central Office or Intergroup Office, by doing things like reading an “alternative” version of the 12 steps as a regular part of their meeting format. Doing so makes it too easy for others to argue that your group is not really an A.A. group, but an “alternative” to A.A.
Although any A.A. group may use any literature it likes, some of A.A.’s fundamentalist members do not fully understand A.A. traditions, and this includes a few who are in important service positions. We recommend that you not start out by picking an unnecessary fight with any of these bleeding deacons by defying what they erroneously perceive as A.A. “requirements.” With so few openly secular A.A. members and groups at this point in history, we still need to pick our battles. We shall overcome one day.
If you do have people within your local A.A. service structure who are likely to oppose the formation or listing of a secular A.A. group or meeting, you might try registering your group with the A.A. General Service Office in New York first. You can obtain an official group service number from New York after your group has been meeting for one month. When you approach your Central Office or Intergroup Office to be listed locally, anyone who doesn’t approve of your secular A.A. group will find it harder to argue that you’re not a “real” A.A. group if you’ve already been recognized by the GSO in New York and have the A.A. group service number to prove it.
As for meeting formats, here is one sample format you might consider using.
Again, it is absolutely allowable for your meeting format to include readings from any source. Nonetheless, many of us have found that you can’t go wrong by sticking with A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature. This is especially so for the things you might read aloud at every meeting that are baked into the format of your meeting. Of course, anyone could discuss any kind of literature, or discuss any kind of topic, during the course of your meeting.
Here are a few A.A. General Service Conference-approved readings that you could consider including in the format of your secular A.A. meeting. Note that the Open Meeting Statement and the Closed Meeting Statement are standard A.A. fare. So is the A.A. Preamble.
Some secular A.A. groups in the U.S. and Canada like to use what they call the “Agnostic Preamble.” We advise against that. A.A. has only one approved “Preamble.” We advocate including in your meeting format a statement read by the chair of the meeting that briefly describes what a secular A.A. meeting is. That statement is included in the sample format we’ve provided.
Here are three additional readings you might consider including in your meeting format that are all A.A. General Service Conference-approved and do not contain anything suggesting that you need to get God to get sober. A portion of Chapter 3 from the A.A. Big Book is an especially good reading. In addition, Appendix 2 of the Big Book seems to walk back some of the religiosity contained in the first 164 pages of the Big Book and makes it clear that A.A. members can think about spiritual experience any way they please.
Also, a reading from the opening paragraphs of the relatively new A.A. General Service Conference-approved pamphlet Many Paths to Spirituality can really set a good tone for a secular A.A. meeting.
Many A.A. groups put together a binder with hard copy of their meeting format and all the readings which are handed out for volunteers to read aloud. In case anyone shows up at your secular A.A. meeting and starts asking pointed questions about why you think you can have a “real” A.A. meeting without prayer and repeated references to God, read them some of the Bill W. Quotes provided here. You might also might think about copying and pasting the Frequently Asked Questions from this website and including them in your binder if anyone shows up at your meeting with similar questions.
You’ll also need to think about a name for your secular A.A. group. Historically, many of the secular A.A. groups in North America have been named after Chapter Four in the Big Book, “We Agnostics.” This is a perfectly good name for a secular A.A. group, of course. But it’s been our experience that some people get the mistaken impression you need to be an agnostic or atheist to attend the meeting – which simply isn’t true. Nobody should start an A.A. group in which there is any other requirement for membership than a desire to stop drinking. To do so would clearly be against A.A. traditions.
It’s worth noting, too, that an international A.A. organization that once called itself the “We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International A.A. Convention” in 2016 changed its name to the International Conference of Secular A.A. (ICSAA). The use of the term “secular” to describe A.A. meetings in which atheists, agnostics and others can feel comfortable and speak freely is becoming the preferred way to label such meetings.
You might consider including the word “secular” in the name of your group or meeting. You could just be “The Secular Group,” for example, or the “Secular Sobriety Group.” Even if you decide to call your group something as ill-advised as the “Angry Atheists Group,” for example, you should consider characterizing your meeting and other secular A.A. meetings as “secular” on the key to local listings of A.A. meetings.
Not only is the term “secular” not a hot-button word as “agnostic” or “atheist” can be, the term “secular” is fast becoming a legal term of art. If you take the time to look at any of the court cases listed in this website’s Frequently Asked Questions section, you will see that courts are required to offer “secular” alternatives to traditional A.A. for those atheists and agnostics who are ordered to attend A.A. but decline to do so. The move toward using the term “secular” to describe certain types of A.A. meetings gives judges an obvious alternative to throwing atheist and agnostic alcoholics back in jail.
Remember that Tradition Five states: “Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.”