In this episode, you will meet Kim L., who helped start a secular Al-Anon meeting in Boise, Idaho. While Kim isn’t entirely uncomfortable at traditional Al-Anon meetings, she was motivated to start a secular meeting because she knows of people who wouldn’t avail themselves to the help they can find in Al-Anon because of their perception that it is religious. Unfortunately, her group has been met with resistance from the Al-Anon World Service Office as well as the local Al-Anons in Boise. Kim shares the story here.
Mentioned in this episode:
The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide
Paths to Recovery: Al-Anon’s Steps, Traditions, and Concepts
Meeting Script for Secular Al-Anon Boise
John: Kim, how are you doing?
Kim: Pretty good, and how are you?
John: I’m not doing bad. I’m doing good. So, you are here to talk about a secular Al-Anon meeting that you helped start in Boise, Idaho.
John: Can you start by telling me when and where you meet?
Kim: We meet on Wednesday nights at 7:30 pm at the Peer Wellness Center in Boise on Franklin Road.
John: Okay, and when did you start?
Kim: This summer, so in July.
John: Oh, really!
John: So, it’s been going for a little while.
John: You know, I think this might be the first that I’ve heard of a secular Al-Anon meeting.
Kim: As far as I know, we are.
John: What motivated you to start a secular meeting?
Kim: Well, the fact that I’m an atheist, and although I’m not as uncomfortable as others are in traditional Al-Anon meetings; I know there are definitely people who are more uncomfortable than I am, and who aren’t getting the help they need, to be able to join Al-Anon, and get what they need out of it and get the support of the people in the group.
John: Have you been going to Al-Anon for a while?
Kim: A little less than a year.
John: Oh okay, but as an atheist, you’re not totally uncomfortable, but there is some discomfort?
Kim: Essentially, in the meetings where there’s a lot more “god-speak”, it gets kind of… it gives me the willies a little bit in some of those meetings, and I know several people who would be even more uncomfortable and they won’t go to meetings because of that.
John: Yeah, there’s a lot of people in AA as well, and I learned when we started our meeting that the majority of the people who were coming, found us from our website, and they were coming to our meeting because they wouldn’t go to an AA meeting otherwise, because they had the impression that AA is religious, and understandably so, if they go to a meeting that closes with the Lord’s Prayer and admonishes them to find God now and so forth.
John: So, did you have any problems getting the meeting started? Did you get any resistance?
Kim: Oh, we’ve had plenty of resistance.
John: Oh, my God! Well, this is the fun part.
Kim: During the last couple of weeks, we have been in touch with the WSO, and they are refusing to list our meeting.
John: Crazy! That’s the World Service Office for Al-Anon?
Kim: Yeah, they’re refusing to list us on the grounds that the dictionary defines secular is basically not spiritual.
John: Oh, okay.
Kim: And Al-Anon is a “spiritual program.”
Kim: And I’m just like, “Okay, yes, the dictionary meaning of secular is not…not…
John: Not having to do with religion right?
Kim: Well, the widely accepted definition in society is that it doesn’t have to do with religion in general and it’s non-religious, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
John: The problem they have when they use the definition from the dictionary is that spirituality is defined as relating to religion. I can’t remember the exact definition, but if you look it up, spirituality is defined as religious or quasi-religious.
Kim: Yeah, and that’s where we’re getting hung up with them. We need to let people know that even though they won’t list us, and even if they won’t list us locally, we can still have our meeting. We can still get the word out there that we’re meeting and we have people who are willing to help those who aren’t affiliated with any kind of religion.
Kim: We have our website, we have our email. and we’re putting the word out there at the local atheist meetings that we have this Al-Anon meeting and we’re just trying to let people know that if you’re not comfortable in regular Al-Anon, come see us, and maybe you’ll like it.
John: You know, it’s kind of a misnomer as far as WSO is concerned about the whole spiritual thing because believe it or not, there’s a lot of atheists who are spiritual, or consider themselves spiritual. Who go to secular AA meetings, and define spirituality in their own way, and it’s fine. We’re okay with that. In fact, we are okay with anyone coming to our meeting. We’re not excluding anyone. You can believe anything you want, it really doesn’t matter, that’s the thing. We do have, and I’m assuming that your meetings are the same way, a format where it takes that heavy religious tone off the table, so it’s not even an issue.
Kim: Yeah, absolutely, so we’ve pretty much just taken the mention of God especially God big “G” out of our format, and we don’t open and close with the Serenity Prayer. We use the Al-Anon Declaration, and we have a whole list of different things we can use that still fit with the Al-Anon principles, but aren’t religious.
John: Right. You know, I was reading your meeting script, and I can’t really remember how it went, but it did seem to me that you were pretty clear that this is a very inclusive group.
Kim: Yeah, we didn’t want to exclude anyone because part of Al-Anon is being able to include people, so we want to make everyone feel comfortable and that means Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, Christians, Muslims, anyone. Whoever wants to come, they can come and feel comfortable because we’re not overwhelming them with Judeo-Christian beliefs.
John: I’m not that familiar with Al-Anon and I haven’t been to many Al-Anon meetings, but do a lot of them or do the majority of them, like AA and close their meetings with the Lord’s Prayer?
Kim: I haven’t been to one that does.
Kim: No, most of them use the Serenity Prayer.
John: Okay, so how about that? That’s interesting.
Kim: Yeah, which is more comfortable than closing with the Lord’s Prayer.
John: Oh, absolutely!
Kim: For instance, the first AA meeting, that my husband went to, he counted that they said “God” or “Jesus” 78 times during the meeting, and then closed with the Lord’s prayer. He said, “I’d rather go to church, then go back to that meeting.”
John: Yeah, that’s one thing that has changed over the last several years in AA is, and maybe it just has to do with our society. I came into the program 31 years ago, and you never heard anybody talk about a specific religious reference like Jesus, you never heard that, but now you do. I’ve even heard of some groups where people actually bring the Bible with them to the meetings. It’s kind of strange that as our society seems to become more secular on the whole, our little niche in AA is becoming more rigid and more overtly religious. Talking about a specific deity, that used to never be heard in a meeting, but that’s changed.
John: Okay, so that’s really interesting that WSO was giving you a hard time and won’t list you. Is that how it works in Al-Anon? In AA, we have Intergroups that list meetings, or we have Areas and Districts that list meetings. Is Al-Anon like that or does the World Service Office list all of the meetings for Al-Anon?
Kim: So, we have our Districts that list meetings, and then we have the WSO hat lists list meetings.
Kim: We started with the local District and they refused to list us.
John: This is so interesting because every Al-Anon who I’ve talked to who wanted to start a secular Al-Anon meeting told me that they got resistance.
Kim: Yeah, the local said basically the exact same thing as WSO. We tried with the local and then recently we started with WSO. We were like, “well maybe if we get WSO to list us, then the local will just have to fall in line.” And WSO was like, “Oh, hold on, hold on a second here… no!”
Kim: So, we’re working on that to see how it goes.
John: Of course, I know that AA is a totally separate fellowship, but I wonder if Al-Anon considered all the secular AA meetings that exist, and have existed for a long time?
Kim: Well, and that’s the thing. We tried to say something to local. I said, “Did you know that we have at least two atheist/agnostic meetings every week for AA. They were like, “Oh no, I didn’t know that”, and I said, “Well did they do.”, and they were like, “Oh okay”, and that was it.
Kim: Apparently there’s, I guess, to not put too fine a point on it. There are pissing matches between AA and Al-Anon.
John: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Kim: Al-Anon is really protective of their whole thing. I mean, I understand they don’t want AA taking over, but at the same time, they want to work in conjunction with AA, and at this point, it doesn’t seem like they are.
John: Well that’s pretty interesting.
John: Tell me this, there’s a group of ladies who I met from Lawrence, Kansas, who are also interested in starting a group. Have you met them or talked with them?
Kim: Yes, Marilyn, yeah we’ve talked, and they said they were going to talk to WSO about getting their meeting listed. I haven’t heard anything, and I need to get in touch with her to see how things went.
John: Do you know if they started their meeting yet?
Kim: I think they have.
John: Oh, okay, I’ll have to send her an email to see how that’s going.
John: That’s really interesting. That would be cool if you had at least two secular Al-Anon groups out there.
Kim: Yeah, and like Chia and I have discussed, if we start and just do our meeting, local and WSO aside, and just let people know we’re out there, and if we get enough people going to secular meetings then that will show WSO and the local districts that, “Hey we’ve got all of these people who aren’t comfortable in the standard meetings, and they need the help that Al-Anon gives, just not in the way that you’ve been giving it. So, let’s try this.
John: Right. It’s kind of like meeting people where they are.
John: A growing number of people, especially people in your generation, I’m assuming, don’t identify with any sort of religion. Those who I have spoken with at our meeting might not necessarily identify as an atheist or agnostic, they don’t have anything against religion, it’s just that it just doesn’t seem pertinent or relevant, and it just seems weird to have to engage in praying, and so forth.
John: Anyway, enough of that. So tell me, what is a typical meeting is like for your group?
Kim: Well, it’s not that much different from standard Al-Anon. We start our meeting. “Welcome, please join me in a moment of silence to use as you wish.” And we continue on with reading the Steps and the Traditions.
John: And you read the traditional steps not altered or anything?
Kim: No, we did slightly alter them so that they don’t have God in them.
John: Oh, how about that.
Kim: But they do mention “higher power” because anything can be your higher power. So it’s just…
John: That’s been a sticking point in AA, by the way. Any groups that have altered the steps…actually, we had a little lawsuit in Canada over that, which kind of settled this issue anyway.
Kim: It’s nice to know they haven’t had that problem here.
John: What happened in Canada, if you’re not familiar with the story, the agnostic groups in Toronto wrote their own damn steps, and they would read them at their meetings. They were quite happy with them, posted them on their website and everything. Their meetings were doing just great, and they were listed with the Toronto Intergroup for a long time without any problems. Then, a new group of people started managing the Toronto Intergroup, and they decided to delist these agnostic groups because they changed the Steps. So a lawsuit ensued.
John: One of the people who was going to the agnostic groups sued through the Human Rights Tribunal in Ontario because his rights were being violated because the Toronto Intergroup wasn’t making a reasonable accommodation for non-believers to have their own meeting their own way. Unbelievably, the defense of the Toronto Intergroup was that to be an AA group, you had to profess a belief in God and work the Steps as written. It was crazy, but they finally settled and the Toronto Intergroup had to list the agnostic AA groups. I think the settlement required the agnostic groups to affirm and acknowledge the original steps. Anyway, long story, but yeah there was a little lawsuit.
Kim: Yeah, well, we do mention that they’ve been changed, a little bit from the originals. However, all of the literature is standard Al-Anon. There’s nothing agnostic or atheist for Al-Anon literature, so pretty much everywhere you turn, you get the standard 12 steps and 12 traditions anyway, but yeah, we’ve edited them a little bit, but not a whole lot.
John: When you talk about the literature, and I’m definitely not familiar with the Al-Anon literature, but I’ve had an Al-Anon on our podcast before, and actually, she’s an AA member, but she gets more benefit from Al-Anon. She really likes Al-Anon literature, she says it’s more up-to-date and she thought it was less religious than the AA literature, which is really old. Is that true?
Kim: I have noticed that, yeah, so there’s, in particular, there’s one book Paths to Recovery, and there is a section in I think the second step that talks about how this woman was very uncomfortable with the fact that all of the God bit. She was an atheist or agnostic and realized that anything could be here higher power. So they do have these type of mentions in the books, which is nice but there’s…there’s still a lot of religiosity.
John: Well, in AA, it’s really bad. The literature anyway, because… Well, the big book was written in 1939, and that’s what most of the groups use and the language, of course, is old and dated. It’s written by men and from that perspective, so it has a real paternalistic feel to it. In fact, even the chapter “To the Wives” that Lois Wilson was supposed to write is just awful. So, we can’t really use it. We do use our own literature, and we happen to have a lot of it. In AA, you have that right. You can use alternative literature in your meetings if you want. Not everybody knows that or agrees, or understands that we can, but we do in our group.
Kim: Yeah, well, and that’s the other thing, is that you have to use the approved Al-Anon literature, conference-approved. I know in some meetings, they say not to mention anything other than Al-Anon literature. Conference-approved is all well and good, but it’s not the only stuff out there, so… I know that personally, I have adapted some of the AA reading from the atheist and agnostic material. I’ve adapted them for my own use. It just makes a lot of sense to me to adopt that. I will make copies and just stick it in with my other stuff, so that I have it to reference back.
John: I might be wrong, but I think that the Alternative 12 Steps book, written by two women and I can’t remember their names off the top of my head, but I believe they were in Al-Anon. Do you have that book? It’s called The Alternative 12 Steps.
Kim: I don’t think I do.
John: Okay, well, check it out. It’s a pretty good book, written by two women, and I’m pretty sure that one of them is an Al-Anon. It was written back in the 1990s, and it’s actually a very good book. it’s pretty popular in our group. If you know Angela, she used that book to go through the steps when she was first in the program.
Kim: Yeah, I know she’s mentions the book a lot, and she brings it with her to pretty much every meeting as far as I’ve noticed.
John: Oh, how about that? That’s funny…
Kim: Angela and Wally have been a big help with starting the meeting as well.
John: Oh, good. Okay, so you read the steps and then the basic format of the meeting is just like any other meeting?
Kim: So, we have our introduction, “This is What Al-Anon Is”, then we pass around our basket and we have an open discussion if anybody’s got a topic, and then we go on with the meeting. It’s an hour-long meeting and when we get to the end, then we have, like I said, the Al-Anon Declaration, or we have I think three or four different versions of things we can read at the end to close the meeting. If anybody has questions, we have pamphlets, we have the resources they can use if they want. If they want literature, they can contact me and I’ll get the literature for them if they want it.
John: Are people finding you okay?
Kim: We had one guy who found us by accident. He saw our meeting information on the board at the wellness center where we meet. He thought he would stop by and have a try at our meeting. We haven’t seen him since. It was just the one time that he came, but I don’t know if he’s been busy, but so far it’s been kind of slow going but we’re dedicated to making sure that this is a thing.
John: Yeah, it takes a while. Our group was the same way when we started off. I think the first year, most of our meetings were five, six, eight people was a big meeting, and then the next year it got a little bigger. We still see a wax and wane in the membership numbers, but I got to the point where I don’t really judge the success of the group by how big it is. It doesn’t really matter to me how many people go to meetings, but the meetings seem to be helping people and working. People are getting sober and they’re making friends, and I see lives changing, so yeah, our group is doing pretty well in that respect.
Kim: Yeah, and that’s kind of where I was. As I said, I’m not as uncomfortable as some people are, but that was my whole reason for wanting to start this meeting, and that was why Chia and I got together and started the meeting. We saw a need for something non-traditional.
John: There absolutely is a need. I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve received over the years from Al-Anons who we’re looking for a secular alternative.
John: I was thinking about something and I forgot what I was going to ask you, but that’s okay. Oh yeah, I know what I was going to ask you. So, despite the fact that they won’t list you, you’re still an Al-Anon group. There must be a similar tradition like in AA where you are a group if you say you are.
John: So, nobody can deny that.
Kim: No! Hey, we’re a group just because they won’t list us, doesn’t mean crap. It’s there.
John: Okay, so that’s like AA too, but that’s so weird about not being listed. Anyway, I think the word’s going to get out and this podcast will help. We’ll also post an article on our site, AA Beyond Belief that gives your meeting information and so forth. We have Al-Anons who listen to our podcast and view our website. Hopefully, after a while, Al-Anons from around North America, if not the world, who are secular will start networking with each other. That’s what happened in AA. We got together online and started networking, and that’s when our meetings started growing and taking off. We realized that we’re not alone.
Kim: Yeah, well, and that’s what I’m hoping. I can email you a link to our website that you can include in an article, and anybody who wants to or who has started a meeting, who would like help, is welcome to contact us. We’re very free with giving meeting information. “This is what we use. You can adapt it however you like.”
John: Yeah, your meeting script is really good by the way.
Kim: Credit for that goes pretty much all to Chia. She did the work on that. For the most part, she would email me copies. We would do a little editing, but for the most part, it’s all Chia. She’s the one who built the website, and so… But yeah, contact us and we’re happy to help. We are here. Every Wednesday night, somebody is here.
John: Well, this is interesting and it’s been a great conversation. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast to let us know about your meeting. As time goes on, we might touch base again and see how things are going. I’m going to reach out to the women from Lawrence to find out what’s going on with their meeting, and what kind of issues they’ve had. They’re a nice group. We had a little anniversary for our group, and they came out to that. They listen to this podcast too.
Kim: Well, I’m glad to hear that our numbers are growing, because like I said, it’s important for people to know that there’s help out there even if you don’t believe in God.
John: Yeah and that’s the thing about having that option available. In Wichita, Kansas, there’s a District Accessibility Committee that is wanting to start a secular AA meeting. It’s just like not having a wheelchair ramp is an obstacle for some people, for other people, the perception of religiosity is an obstacle. So, by having the option of a secular meeting, it removes that obstacle and helps more people.
Kim: Oh yeah, yeah.
John: Alright, well, thanks again, Kim. I appreciate it and best of luck to you and your group. We’ll be talking again after a while to see how things are going.
Kim: Great, thanks for having me, John, I appreciate it.
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