Episode 65: Garth R. and the We Agnostics Group in South Africa

In today’s episode of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast, we meet Garth R., a co-founder of the We Agnostics Group in Johannesburg, South Africa. The group started up in March of this year and meets every Wednesday night at 7:30. Our conversation for this podcast centers on what led Garth to help start a new secular AA meeting, and how things are progressing.

Garth says his story isn’t unique. Like many of us, he started drinking as a teenager without any real problem, but gradually alcohol began to take over his life. Eventually, he reached a point where nothing was working anymore. The drinking wasn’t working. Life wasn’t working. Nothing was working—and he knew he needed help.

Not knowing that Alcoholics Anonymous even existed in South Africa, Garth met someone who introduced him to AA and took him to his first meeting. This person cautioned Garth that he wouldn’t like everyone who he met in AA and that he should be prepared to hear a lot of “God talk.” It was suggested that he not let the religious language bother him too much, that there would be time to deal with that later on down the road. 

Though never particularly religious, Garth had a childhood belief God but became more agnostic as he matured. For most of his life, he never gave the idea of God or religion much thought, but by the time he arrived at his first AA meeting, he was desperate enough to do what was necessary to get sober. As it turns out, he bought into the spirituality of AA wholeheartedly and was quite the Big Book thumper during the first four years of his sobriety. Then the doubts started creeping in, and as he began to think about what he was hearing and reading in AA, he found there was a lot that didn’t add up. Why for example would God single him out for recovery and not others?

About a year ago, Garth said things flipped completely, and it just didn’t make sense any longer. He remembers the moment while making coffee one morning in his kitchen when it just hit him that he’s an atheist. This was a startling realization, and it concerned him. What was he to do as an atheist in AA? He didn’t know any other atheists in the program, and he was afraid that he might find himself cut off from the Fellowship altogether.

He struggled for a bit as he came to understand the program from this new perspective, but in time he was comfortable with it and found it not so difficult. He ultimately arrived at the conclusion that when it comes to his recovery, action is more important than belief. However, what was becoming ever more challenging was the theological language of AA. It seemed more noticeable than it was before, and he felt the meetings were no longer filling a need. 

Garth didn’t feel like he fit in anymore and he was now somewhat uncomfortable at meetings. He was experiencing a cognitive dissonance as he was going through this transition, and he was worried about becoming isolated from the Fellowship.

He knew about secular AA meetings from various AA Facebook groups where he participated in discussion and debate, so he thought he would put out the word that he was interested in starting a secular meeting at his house. Unfortunately, he didn’t find any interest, but just as he was about to give up on the idea, he met someone who is also an atheist but from another fellowship. The two of them decided to start a secular AA meeting, and in March of this year, they launched the We Agnostics meeting in Johannesburg.

Meeting by the fire in Johannesburg.

The meeting is the only one of its kind in South Africa, so they wanted to make sure that it was as open and inclusive as possible.

They begin the meeting with a reading of the AA preamble, followed by the agnostic AA preamble. Then, someone will speak on a topic for about 15 minutes and when done, the meeting is opened up. Everyone has an opportunity to share for a few minutes each. When a person is done speaking, they will tag someone else to share until everybody has spoken. The meeting ends with a recitation of the Responsibility Declaration.

The group meets outside at night, so they build a bonfire and gather around the fire for the meeting. Garth says this produces an intimate and serene atmosphere. People share authentically and honestly about their recovery. There is also a group of people who occasionally come to the meeting from a nearby treatment center, and they enjoy it very much. As I was talking with Garth, I conjured in my mind a peaceful scene of people gathered around a fire under a beautiful South African sky, and I thought to myself, I would love that meeting!

There was a little hiccup with getting the group listed in the meeting directory, which will hopefully be resolved this month. When the group was starting out, they created a flyer that stated they welcomed all in the recovery community. The intent was again to be as open and inclusive as possible, but unfortunately one of the people responsible for deciding to list meetings was concerned that this isn’t an AA meeting, but is instead a meeting for people with dual diagnosis.

Garth did his best to provide his assurance that this is indeed an open AA meeting, and the flyer was modified to clarify this. However, the “powers that be” still refused to list the meeting in the directory, so Garth filed a complaint with the South African General Service Office. He was told that the General Service Office can’t interfere in the decision to list the meeting, so they referred the matter to the Board of Trustees who will make a decision when they meet at the end of this month. The We Agnostics group doesn’t know if they will have an opportunity to speak on their behalf and Garth questions why his group is receiving this treatment. No other AA meeting has had to be discussed by the Trustees. 

Still, he understands the resistance to a secular AA meeting, and though he finds it bothersome, he won’t allow it to become a resentment. In the meantime, every Wednesday night in Johannesburg, people gather around a fire under a starry night sky, sharing their experience, strength and hope with each other. 

Thank you, Garth, for taking the time to talk with me. I enjoyed the conversation, and I wish you and your group all the best as we continue to trudge this road to happy destiny.

Meeting Information

Johannesburg’s We Agnostics Group Listing at Secular AA


The images used for this story are photographs of the We Agnostics meeting space in Johannesburg and were provided by Garth.