Joe C. comes from Rebellion Dogs Publishing and Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers AA Group. Here we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is family background, e.g., geography, culture, language, education, and religion or lack thereof?
Joe C: Grew up with a 2nd Gen Canadian Scottish father and a 2nd Generation Canadian Icelandic mother. My father was from a rural Ontario farm and my mom was 9th of 11 kids of Icelandic immigrants on a Saskatchewan farm. Mom and dad met at Ryerson University. My dad was atheist, my mother was religious, I went to a catholic school in the Montreal area, mostly as my dad wanted to please his catholic parents. I attended church until grade six or seven when I let religion go, along with tooth fairies, Santa, ghosts, etc.
Jacobsen: What is personal background including the discovery or development of a secular outlook on life and philosophy?
Joe C: The best I can recall, I didn’t reject religion; I just outgrew it. I loved music so there were songs about the Devil and the Lord that I might sing along to, but I didn’t treat that sort of storytelling as a literal interpretation or worldview. In my teens, I was increasingly engaged in drugs and drinking. If the topic of Supernatural intervening higher powers came up, I would say, “What’s more likely: that a god created humans in its image, or we created a god in our image?” I don’t know who said it but I would quote, “If there were no gods, man would create one.”
I bottomed out with drugs and alcohol in my teens and I was introduced to AA in Montreal in the mid-1970s. According to AA’s membership survey 1% (approx.. 20,000) of members are under the age of 20)[i]. A lot of the groups would read the 12-steps which refer to turning one’s will and life over to “God as you understand Him.” I was already a pretty committed nonbeliever, but I didn’t take the higher power and prayer part of the package seriously or literally and no one was pushing any monotheistic ideology on me. The early AA literature is of course informed by the Judeo/Christian 1930s America that it came from but in the 1970s in Montreal anyway, the focus of an AA meeting was talking about the characteristics and personal experiences of alcoholism and strategies for recovery.
AA, along with the book Alcoholics Anonymous (the Big Book) from 1939, published Living Sober (1973) which, to this day, is the most secular of AA literature. Living Sober is practical collective experience about just thinking about sobriety one day at time, how to find a positive attitude about recovery, how to avoid the mental traps and rationalizations that lead to drinking, how to deal with social situations that involve drinking, the evidence of alcoholism as a progressive, incurable disease, finding connections and making a new sober network. The older literature wasn’t a focus of AA meetings I attended in Montreal, certainly not in the mid-1970s. So, the blatant religious language of Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t dominate the meetings. I remember when Star Wars came out and the movies idea of “May The Force be with you” had more influence on how AAs talk about reliance on a higher power than the blatant monotheism of early AA. I was always encouraged to forge my own path in AA recovery and no one’s worldview was foist upon me.
Jacobsen: What is Rebellion Dogs Publishing? What are some of its activities, projects, and its overall vision?
Joe C: I’m a writer—songs and non-fiction mostly. I’d been writing about finance, music, billiards and odds-and-sods and at the turn of the century. As my son developed an interest in music, he and I shared a passion for songwriting – sometimes collaborating. We recorded an EP in 2005 of original songs when he was in grade 10. The turn of century and our adoption of the internet was the genesis of more addiction/recovery forums (magazines, blogs, social media). I started writing more about peer-to-peer recovery communities and the larger addiction/recovery/wellness complex. The Rebellion Dogs tag-line is, “A contemporary look at 12-Step life, now with less dogma and more bite!”
In the 80s I was part of a band with my son’s mother—we were all in AA—and Cathy wrote a song called “Rebellion Dogs” It’s a play on words from a line out of an AA book, Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions which reads, “Rebellion dogs our every step at first.”
I loved her song because she made a verb out of the noun and a noun out of the verb. The song stuck with me and the name, Rebellion Dogs sounded perfect for a forward-thinking publishing company focused on addiction and mental health. My publishing company is where I channel the bulk of my addiction/recovery writing. I write for TheFix.com under a pseudonym, Jesse Beach and I wrote a secular daily reflection book for people in recovery from substance use and behavioral disorders called Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life (2013). These daily reflection books are wildly popular in the recovery community, but they were almost entirely catering to those who believe in a prayer-answering, recovery-granting higher power. There are plenty of those, so I wrote a book for the rest of us.
https://rebelliondogspublishing.com also features links, resources and my podcast. For over ten year’s I’ve done a weekly radio show devoted to Canadian independent music (www.indiecan.com) so a magazine-style recovery themed radio show was something I had the skills for so I thought I would do it. It’s a gateway for talking to other authors, visiting trade shows and conference for addiction treatment professionals, policy makers etc.
In terms of vision, the initial inspiration for Rebellion Dogs was to give more of a voice and legitimacy to the secular approach to mutual-aid recovery. AA and Narcotics Anonymous (NA), while their aim is inclusivity, not exclusivity, it seemed to me—I don’t represent the views of AA as a whole—that AA meetings were getting more rigid and dogmatic while the rest of society was growing more liberal. Insistence on adherence to the Twelve Steps, exactly as written, isn’t the AA I grew up in and, in part, Rebellion Dogs was a vehicle to give a voice to a more secular narrative of AA philosophy.
Belief in God isn’t going out of style anytime soon but there is a healthy and growing secular culture inside AA (and other 12-Step fellowships). Also meeting the demand for an irreligious approach, we see the emergence of SMART Recovery, Life Ring, Women for Sobriety and SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety). James Christopher, who founded SOS in the mid-80s was frustrated by the automaton talk about dependency on an intervening higher power to get sober. He shared with me once in an interview, “AA Is a religion in denial.”
While I don’t think that’s a universal truth; every AA group is free to conduct itself as it sees fit so there are many flavours of AA. Still, I share his frustration as I’ve heard AA members, in so many words, say to a newcomer, “AA is spiritual—not religious. Now hold my hand while we recite the Lords Prayer.”
Today, the options are better than ever, and peer-to-peer groups are meeting the growing appetite for a secular narrative about recovery. At the other end of the spectrum there is Alcoholics Victorious and other fellowships that are very Christian. So, while Rebellion Dogs is still catering to a secular-minded audience, I spend less time legitimizing atheist/agnostic 12-Step approaches within Rebellion Dogs Publishing and I just focus on the issues at hand in AA and the larger addiction/recovery community.
Jacobsen: As a member of the Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers AA Group in Toronto, what is the community there? How is this important for alcoholics, i.e., a freethought community of alcoholics as a coalition of the supportive?
Joe C: AA isn’t needed or wanted by everyone who’s choosing sobriety over alcohol use disorder. But just like if you want to get in shape, hanging out at the gym will be a better influence than hanging out with your smoking friends. Secular AA groups are like other special purpose AA groups. There are AA groups for the LGBTQ+ community, women only, men only, young people, and sometimes career specific—pilots, lawyers, doctors, for instance. In my early AA, as a youth, I wasn’t so excited about being sober the rest of my life. I didn’t share my ambivalence with fellow AAs but I was planning my exit strategy in the back of my mind while I shared how grateful I was to be sober in AA. At the time, young people’s groups connected me with AA in a way that mainstream meetings hadn’t. Getting to know sober people in their teens and twenties framed living clean and sober in ways that made being an alcoholic seem less like a handicap. Young people’s AA groups were full of people who spoke my language about addiction and recovery. So the idea of secular meetings to help meet the needs for atheists and agnostics made sense to me.
There were six to ten of us who started Beyond Belief in 2009. AA is very regional, some meetings are more conservative, some liberal, some structured, some more spontaneous, attendance might be six people, or six hundred. Formats vary from group to group. There is no mandate from centralized AA about how to run a meeting; any two alcoholics who have an idea can start their own meeting. AA’s Fourth Tradition is “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.”
In Toronto, at the turn of the century, I felt up against a surging fundamentalism in AA. The majority of AAs are moderate but this louder, dogmatic view of AA was going unchecked and I was tiring from the dismissiveness of some that was directed at a freethinker’s approach. I had been part of an online agnostic/atheist AA community and, at the time, New York City agnostics/atheists in AA’s website posted a list of all the secular AA meetings worldwide. While there have always been AA meetings that were more secular, more liberal than some of the others, the first weekly AA for agnostics and atheists meeting started in Chicago in 1975. Not long after, there were meetings in LA, New York City and by the turn of the century there were over forty of them. In 2019, there are 500 worldwide face-to-face AA meetings + online groups.
In a worldwide fellowship of over 125,000 AA groups (5,000 in Canada), secular AA isn’t taking over but we have always been out there. I decided to go to a secular AA meeting when I was in New York and I brought the idea back to Toronto. A group of us AA members formed a committee, rented a classroom at U of T to hold our weekly meeting and we committed to trying it out for a few months. Well, that was ten years ago; we meet three times a week, now. Another meeting started called We Agnostics and visitors to Toronto would come and check us out and some of them took the idea to their hometown. As of October 2019, of the 500 worldwide secular AA groups, over forty are found spread from Vancouver Island to Halifax.
Some of our early members were outspoken atheists and others were closeted doubters, going along to get along in AA. It was very liberating for me, when it was my time to share, to not have to preface my comments with, “I don’t mean to offend anyone but…” I could just talk about my addiction and recovery in a language that feels natural to me.
Many others feel the same way. Some find a certain microaggression about atheism in some AA meetings. Many meetings pray as part of their format and it’s very popular to read the AA Twelve Steps, written in 1939. To a nonbeliever, you can feel excluded or that you have to bend yourself into the popular higher power vernacular. For those who find that uncomfortable, secular AA avoids all the God-talk. We even have religious people who like our meeting because they don’t want to mix their religious practice with sobriety. Our meetings are neither religious nor irreligious. While the majority of attendees are atheist/agnostic, everyone is welcome.
Jacobsen: What are some of the more touching stories of the individuals who come through secularized forms of AA?
Joe C: I got sober in the mid-1970s. A member who stumbled across our Friday meeting, We Are Not Saints, came to check us out, liked it and came back. As she started telling her story, she’d been introduced to recovery back in the 1970s, too. I got sober in Montreal, and I stayed clean and sober. But Sharon’s Toronto’s east-end experience was different. I found AA members to be indifferent to what I did and didn’t believe; “take what you like, leave the rest,’ was the policy. Sharon found the Toronto meetings alienating with all the God-talk; she never stayed in AA. She’d come to AA when she was pregnant and stay sober for a while but always go back out, not being able to relate to other AA members. In and out she went and when she found an east-end agnostic group over five years ago, she thought, “This could work for me.” Sharon hasn’t had a drink since.
Some of our members started their recovery journey in treatment centers. Some of the Twelve-Step Facilitation based centres can misinterpret a skeptical, questioning client as resisting treatment and some of our members got kicked out of treatment centres or got fed up and left themselves. They didn’t think AA was for them and wondered how they would stay sober. Google searches lead these people to our secular meetings some of the time; hearing how welcome and hopeful they feel, is gratifying. In 2009 we had no idea if we were just a band of rebels or if there was an unmet need for secular AA.
Secular AA groups are better connected than ever before. In the 1970s and ‘80s when agnostic/atheist meetings were started in LA, Austin, Seattle, New York and Chicago, they didn’t have any means in which to communicate with each other. The internet changed all that; we found each other. In 2014 the first International Conference of Secular AA (ICSAA) was held in Santa Monica. In 2016 we gathered again in Austin. In 2018, Toronto hosted ICSAA and in 2020 we’re off to Washington DC to enjoy AA “without a prayer.” An active online secular AA community exists, Zoom meetings, social media groups have formed. A secular AA committee meets quarterly between our biennial conferences to discuss matters of concern for our members. At the 2020 World Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous in Detroit, we’ll have a hospitality suite where likeminded AA members can gather.
One of our joint efforts has been to encourage AA to offer more secular literature. Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers Groups, along with meetings in Kansas, New York, Seattle and others, all petitioned our district committees to have AA World Services adopt a UK pamphlet (2016) called, “The ‘God’ Word: Agnostics and Atheists in AA.” AA’s 2018 General Service Conference voted with substantial unanimity to adopt the pamphlet and immediately print it in English, Spanish and French. AA’s monthly magazine, AA Grapevine is full of contributions from members. In October of 2016 they devoted the edition to Agnostics and Atheists in AA and last year they published a book called, One Big Tent, a collection of atheist/agnostic contributions from the 1940s to 2017.
Jacobsen: What is an open meeting through the group? What is a closed meeting through the group?
Joe C: Alcoholics Anonymous is not a secret society but it goes to great lengths to protect the confidentiality of members. The stigma associated with addiction is very real. AA meetings are listed as either “open” or “closed.” Anyone can attend an open AA meeting. Family members, media, students, or curious onlookers can go observe an open meeting. Closed meetings are reserved for people who self-identify as alcoholic or think they might have a problem with drinking. AA talk can get pretty intimate and graphic. Some members would prefer to share their troubles and secrets with others who have been there.
Jacobsen: How can people support the group and become involved?
Joe C: AA doesn’t accept financial support from non-alcoholics. Expenses for room rent, coffee and pamphlets that groups give away are paid for by “passing the hat” at each AA meeting. Only AA members contribute. It’s one of the Twelve Traditions: “AA ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.” Any group that collects an excess beyond a prudent reserve will pass the money on to area committees that do outreach to corrections facilities, treatment centers and the general public, or forward the money on to AA World Services where, unlike at the local level, paid staff are needed to manage publication, communication, etc. So if you’re a non-alcoholic wanting to support an alcoholic in your life, you can attend AA with them for moral support but AA accepts no financial help from the public.
If you’re considering how serious your own drinking is getting away from your control, google Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings. If you specifically want to know more about secular AA, visit https://secularaa.org
According the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction (https://ccsa.ca) “Alcohol is the most commonly used substance in Canada. It causes more substance use related costs than either tobacco or all other drugs combined.” 80% of Canadians 15 years of age+, report that they drink. While there are 12-Step programs specific to Marijuana, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Heroin, or Narcotics more generally, AA’s own membership survey reveals that over 60% of AA members have other substance use disorder as well as alcohol.
Jacobsen: What are some good books on secular AA from Canadian authors?
Joe C: Drunk Mom: A Memoir by Jowita Bydlowska if, like me, you enjoy being disturbed by art, Drunk Mom will twist your guts and keep you up at night. Jowita took a beating for writing this book. Critics loved it, but if you think stigma inflicted on persons with addiction is real, there’s a readership who believe there’s a special place in hell for a mother who can’t stay sober. Truth is a pathless land and recovery journeys are no exception. This book will open your eyes to the insatiability of the addictive cycle.
AAagnostica.org has a number of titles published. Not all the authors are Canadian, but publisher, Roger C lives in Hamilton. He’s got a couple of titles of his own. Start with Do Tell! a follow up to Don’t Tell! Both are collections of AA stories. Don’t Tell looks at, how in more conservative AA circles, atheists stay closeted or sometimes face microaggression or discrimination for refuting the cherished idea held by AA’s more religious members that only consciousness with God can ensure a real alcoholic lasting sobriety. Do Tell has a more liberated tone as these stories are drawn from a time where there is growing access to atheist and agnostic AA meetings – here in Canada, at the time of writing BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia all have secular AA meetings and https://secularaa.org has several online meetings to choose from throughout the week. Considering there were no active secular AA meetings early in 2009 and ten years later there are 41, AA “without a prayer” may be the fastest growing subculture in the peer-to-peer recovery community. Besides AA meetings, there are regional gatherings starting all the time and secular recovery podcasts, social media groups and blogs available. So, my point is that Do Tell articulates the secular AA journey from a number of different places, personalities and viewpoints. While at https://AAagnostica.com consider A History of Agnostics in AA and The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps – both by Roger C.
Key Players in AA History is by Durham’s Bob K. It’s not about secular AA; it’s about AA’s checkered pasts and remarkable personalities, told through the eyes of an AA heathen with 28 years of continuous sobriety.
Michael Bryant’s 28 Seconds is another memoir that includes a descent into addiction and 12-Step recovery. While Bryant’s worldview isn’t clearly articulated, he does focus his discussion about the secular aspects of AA recovery: fellowship, mentorship, personal reflection and an attitude adjustment. His follow-up, Mere Addiction is worth adding to your basket, too. It’s a critical look the Canadian justice system and the counter productive results of criminalizing addiction. As an alcoholic and a former Attorney General, he’s got most of the bases covered.
There are some other Canadian authors who don’t faun over the 12-Step approach but they offer an intelligent and independent look at addiction today. Try Ann Dowsett Johnston’s Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women And Alcohol and Marc Lewis, who has two books I’ve enjoyed but for drama, start with Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines his Former Life on Drugs.
Jacobsen: What is the typical internal narrative colouring the journey of alcoholics without supernaturalism?
Joe C: Spontaneous remission is a thing for people suffering from alcohol use disorder (and/or other substances). Many people reach a crossroads with addiction, chose recovery and spontaneously—without outside agency— “put the plug in the jug” and live sober. What peer-to-peer members, like 12-step members, have in common is that their unaided will was insufficient to quit, or more accurately, stay stopped.
In my case, I quit drugs and alcohol on more occasions than I can remember, to pursue my own goals, to win the trust of loved ones, from the shame and shock of unintended hospital visits. In my cases, between the age of 14 and 16, I was brought to hospital on a Friday night three times:
First, having been found unconscious, face-up in my own vomit on a bathroom floor by the Zamboni driver of my high school arena.
Secondly, to have emergency facial reconstruction for a beating taken from Satan’s Choice bikers because I was selling hashish in their territory and my freelancing wasn’t to be tolerated.
My third visit was to have my wrists stitched after a suicide attempt in a drunken stupor. All of these events startled me into quitting for good this time, only to be back to my own behavior before the wounds healed. I could quit; I did many times. I could not stay stopped. No indignity was so great that I couldn’t normalize it and continue my addiction.
I didn’t stay stopped until I was in the company of fellow addicts/alcoholics, I didn’t join AA, signing up for a life of abstinence. I was bringing my cousin whom I thought would die without finding sobriety and I was her sober alcoholic/addict buddy. I don’t recall exactly what my exit strategy was but loosely I thought I would stay until she was stable, she would carry the message of hope to others while I slipped out the back door and died a tragic alcoholic death. I don’t know why I was resigned to death from addiction but when I was new to recovery, I saw sobriety as a punishment for admitting I was alcoholic. Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll sounded inseparable. Sobriety sounded to me like a provisional life.
The unintended consequences of helping my cousin was that I began to see value in recovery. Straight-edge people I met were joining bands and going to concerts, mountain climbing, travelling, finishing school, starting jobs and seeing all these things through with integrity and competence. I came to see that recovery might be the key to a more meaningful life—not just the life of a quitter.
What did I need to stay stopped? Outside agency. For me, it was the power of example of other alcoholics, especially the youth who seemed to speak my language and share common goals and dreams. I found connection in positive example and that wore off on me. I felt accountable to someone other than myself. I was immersed in an AA community. So, the times that I got thirsty or sought oblivion, I didn’t want to let others down. I felt that they were counting on me. I don’t know if that was true or not but feeling that way certainly aided my abstinence.
What I just described is a secular explanation of addiction and recovery. A believer might describe this transformation as being touched by the hand of a loving higher power. When AA was a few years old, founder Bill W wrote, “Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling and powerful. But there is One who has all power, that One is God. May you find Him now.” He would later concede that this binary narrative led to erroneous conclusions.
I felt a power, but it wasn’t supernatural. It was a power of example. It was hope, it was accountability.
All AA members share the same relatable experience of spiraling alcoholism and how each alcoholic found sobriety. Recovery isn’t a reprieve from troubles, it provides better coping mechanisms to deal with sorrow, anger or self-doubt. This experience of AA is universal. A supernatural vs a secular explanation of addiction and recovery can make it sound like this same experience is two different things. The experience is the same. Explanations vary greatly.
Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion?
Joe C: AA has some zealots and some outspoken critics. I believe they both share the same myth about AA being a one-size-fits-all solution. That hasn’t been my experience; nothing is sacred, and nothing is forbidden. AA meetings are as varied as drinking establishments. Some might like fancy cocktails served by waitstaff in tuxedos. Others want live music and others prefer a skid row vibe. Secular AA isn’t a better system than a spiritual approach but it’s legitimate AA. It’s been ten years since we started Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers AA group. Some of our members stick to a strict diet of atheist/agnostic meetings. Others mix in secular AA with mainstream AA, taking what they like and leaving the rest. I first saw AA and living sober as a real possibility from my exposure to Young People’s AA meetings. For other people, LGBTQ+ AA or women’s only meetings were the jam that helped them connect.
AA has an outreach slogan: If you want to drink and can, that’s your business. If you want to quit but can’t, that’s our business; call AA. Abstinence isn’t the answer to everyone and AA isn’t the only road to abstinence, but for someone test driving sobriety, try a variety of things and consider secular AA.
Anyone with questions or comments can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Joe.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.