By John S

On September 7, 2019, I attended the second biennial Secular Ontario AA Roundup (SOAAR) held at the First Unitarian Church in Hamilton. Having now been home for a week, I’ve had enough time to reflect on my experience to hopefully give you a good idea of what the conference was like. I think the best I can do to describe it is to tell you that I felt at home.

I spent the night at an Air BNB in a quaint neighborhood of older well-kept homes, not far from where the conference was taking place. After a short Uber drive to the church, I was warmly greeted by Murray who was working the registration desk. I got my name tag, and visited with Carolyn, Roger, Joe, and Dave for a bit, before checking out the venue.

The church is beautiful and how nice that we had the entire building. The speakers and panels were held in the main sanctuary with comfortable seating and excellent acoustics. There was ample space to hang out and visit with friends, and a good-sized dining area. I enjoy these smaller conferences, and I especially liked that it wasn’t at a hotel. It actually reminded me of the first secular AA conference I attended in Santa Monica back in 2014, which was my favorite AA conference of all time.

Roger asked me to meet with the woman who was recording the conference, so I touched base with her and helped test the microphones. The entire conference was professionally recorded.

The audio will be posted soon on the audio page at AA Beyond Belief, as well as the AA Beyond Belief YouTube Channel, and I’m happy to tell you that the quality of the recordings is very good.

And now a summary of the day:

The conference started promptly with opening remarks by Joe C. from the Beyond Belief group in Toronto. Joe recently returned from British Columbia where he attended the Recovery Capital Conference, and he talked about his impressions of that conference.

After Joe’s talk, time was given for personal introductions by conference attendees. Those who chose to come to the microphone to introduce themselves were encouraged to also name one of their recovery assets. There were people from all over Ontario, as well as other provinces, and a good number of people visiting from the US. Recovery assets mentioned included things such as recovery websites, podcasts, meetings, books, and friends in recovery.

There was always a fifteen-minute break between each panel, which allowed sufficient time to change panels, and for Bob K. to grab another muffin.

The first panel featured Dr. Vera Tarman, and Dr. Conrad Sichler. They spoke about the science of addiction and how spiritual practices can help addicts and alcoholics to recover. One of the more interesting comments came from Dr. Sichler who talked about the over prescribing of antidepressants and the lack of science to support their efficacy. Dr. Tarman told him that he was brave for bringing that up. It certainly got my attention.

Jowita Bydlowska, author of Drunk Mom appeared on a panel with Jeffrey Munn, author of Staying Sober Without God, and Thomas B., author of Each Breath a Gift. They spoke about the inventory process of Step Four. Each panelist had a different take on the step, but they all agreed that it’s best to leave out the word “moral” as that is a bit of a loaded word.

After that panel, we took a lunch break, and I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. There was a nice variety of sandwiches, and all included with the price of the registration. It was nice to have the opportunity to visit with people, though I left shortly after eating, so I could figure out what I was going to say for the panel I would be participating in later that afternoon. I had written out my talk prior to the conference, but I didn’t want to just stand there and read from a piece of paper, so I tried to organize my thoughts so as to speak more extemporaneously.

After lunch, we returned to the main sanctuary to hear the panel on General Service. The presenters included Jim W, former Delegate for Area 86 and former Chair of the Hamilton AA Central Office, Richard B, past Eastern Canada Trustee on the General Service Board, Dale S, current Delegate for Area 86, and Anna P, the District Committee Member for downtown Hamilton, District 10. Anna talked about how service has helped her recovery, and the other two panelists talked about how they got involved with service and how important it’s been to their sobriety.

The Mindfulness in Meditation panel was presented by Dr. Sichler and Heather C. and featured actual meditation followed by discussion about the experience. I didn’t attend that panel, but I did walk in once in a while and it seemed that people enjoyed it.

Jeffrey Munn and I participated in the panel titled The Practical Steps. Jeffrey talked about the steps from his book Staying Sober Without God. I then shared my experience with the steps, and how my understanding of them has evolved over time.

The final panel of the day highlighted the history of secular AA groups in Ontario. Several groups participated in the sharing of their history, even a few nearby American groups who were influenced by the secular groups in Ontario.

Dr. Tarman wrapped up the conference at the First Unitarian in Hamilton with a talk about her struggles with addiction to alcohol and food. Dr. Tarman did a wonderful job. She has a great sense of humor about herself, and everyone was super engaged as she spoke.

At the end of every panel, there was time for audience participation with people asking questions or make a comment about the speaker or panel. I’ve heard it said that diversity is being invited to the party, but inclusion is when you are asked to dance. This conference was all inclusive, true to the theme of widening the gateway. Everyone was invited to participate to whatever extent they chose.

After saying my goodbyes, I went back to the Air BNB totally exhausted, but also excited and happy from the day. I was on a bit of a high, so I managed to edit a podcast and write an article to post on AA Beyond Belief the next day. Crazy, I know!

The following morning it was time to leave Ontario. I took the train from Hamilton to Toronto and met up with a friend who drove me the rest of the way to the airport. I had plenty of time before my plane arrived, so he drove me through this neighborhood on the shore of Lake Ontario. It was so beautiful and peaceful. What a great way to remember Ontario!

Thank you to all who worked so hard to make this conference happen. It was definitely successful, and everyone seemed to have had a good time. I would also like to thank those of you who told me that you listen to the AA Beyond Belief podcast, and for encouraging me to continue with the work.

In closing, I would encourage you, if you have never been to a regional secular AA conference, to give one a try. The next regional conference on the calendar is the third biennial Arizona Secular AA Conference, which will be held on November 9th at the 24th Street Conference Center in Phoenix. You can visit the website Arizona Secular AA for more information.

John S. is from Kansas City, Missouri where he attends meetings at his home group, We Agnostics. John and his wife Susan enjoy travel and theatre. They have adopted two cats, Phoebe and Luna, and an Australian Shepherd, Bonnie. John enjoys podcasting, and since September 2015, he has hosted the AA Beyond Belief Podcast, which features conversations with recovering people who have found a secular path to sobriety in AA.

SOAAR Evaluation Summary

By Carolyn B

The day was very successful with over 100 participants. Sixty-four of them completed the evaluation questionnaire at the end of the day. The evaluations indicated that participants enjoyed the day and felt that the speakers and panelists were very informative. The comments of participants are summarized below:

What I Liked Best

  • The prevailing atmosphere of unabashed honesty. The speakers were professionals, authors, many of which were addicts and some of whom are involved in treatment of addiction. It added a great deal of credibility.
  • I loved the open minded atmosphere
  • I liked everything… the entire day
  • I liked the concept of AA for everyone
  • Meditation/mindfulness
  • Spiritual panel of doctors bringing science to spirituality
  • The scientific discussion of the secular 12 steps

Something I Learned

  • New approaches to meditation
  • The science of addiction
  • A different way to do the twelve steps
  • The growing number of secular groups
  • AA service
  • That there are a lot of people with long term sobriety that don’t believe in God
  • I am not alone

Something I was Surprised By

  • My feelings of relief and hope as a result of attending
  • That there were not a lot of shots at traditional AA
  • How meditation is relaxing
  • That I could still learn more about myself
  • The beautiful setting
  • Inclusivity

Something I Would Like to See at the Next SOAAR

  • More inclusiveness, minorities, LGBQT, younger
  • More on the scientific factors of addiction
  • More time for questions
  • A real meeting somewhere in the day
  • No bottled water and Styrofoam cups
  • A two day conference
  • A panel on secular sponsorship

We look forward to the next Secular Ontario AA Roundup! And, as said earlier on, if your group and other AA friends in your area are interested in hosting it in 2021, please contact us at And for those who attended: thank you for soaring with us at SOAAR!