A History of Agnostic Groups in Alcoholics Anonymous: Part 2

By Roger C.

AA’s Missteps

In the rooms of AA, alcoholics are often told to interpret the “God” found in the 12 Steps any which way. It’s God “as you understand Him.”

This goes back to the original formulation of the Steps. As was mentioned earlier, there was a fierce debate over the wording of the Steps. In Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, Ernie Kurtz reports that Bill W “accepted the utility of compromise” and quotes him from Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age:

In Step Two we decided to describe God as a “power greater than ourselves.” In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words “God as we understand Him.” From Step Seven we deleted the expression “on our knees.” And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery.” AA’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only. (Italics in the original.)

The steps are suggestions. It has ever been thus in AA. This is entirely consistent with the “attraction not promotion” of the 11th Tradition. Generally, the nature of a suggestion is such that it can be ignored outright without dire consequences, let alone just adapted.

Those who don’t always follow suggestions should hardly be subjected to expulsion, as there will be none left to close the door on the way out.

As for the “Higher Power”: By and large, agnostic, atheist and humanist members of AA have no more difficulty than anyone else understanding that they are powerless over alcohol (Step 1) and must turn their lives over to resources or forces more powerful than themselves (Steps 2 and 3). In one of his books, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote:

We always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not always obvious. It need not be overtly a god … It can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life …

The difference for an agnostic is that this “higher power” is most often a secular one, or simply unknown, too big to find in a head.

Since the beginning of AA there have been secular versions of the 12 Steps of recovery. Of necessity, for people like Jim Burwell. Of necessity, for the agnostics, atheists and humanist alcoholics in the rooms of AA.

This with the blessing of the co-founder of AA so that all who suffer, “regardless of belief or lack of belief,” can pass through the doors of AA.

However, the mortal sin of Beyond Belief, at least in the eyes of some in the GTA Intergroup, was to have a written secular version of the 12 Steps.

There will be “literalists” in AA. Bill W acknowledged this problem. In a letter in 1961, he wrote:

As time passes our book literature has a tendency to get more and more frozen—a tendency for conversion into something like dogma. This is a trait of human nature which I am afraid we can do little about.

What the adapted version does, perhaps not surprisingly, is remove words that typically create a great deal of discomfort for agnostics: “God,” a higher power referred to as “Him,” and a reference to a “Power” that, in the context, is supernatural. That’s it. Otherwise the 12 Steps are identical; it’s the “God bit” that has been removed.

Nor are these Steps a creation of the Beyond Belief group: this version has been available online since the first days of the Internet.

That there are a myriad of interpretations of “God as we understood Him” is both laudable and inevitable. Laudable because it has enabled any number of nonbelievers in AA to live a life of sobriety. Inevitable given that “any alcoholic is a member of our Society when he says so” (Tradition Four) and that word “any” covers a lot of territory.

In fact, AA is notorious for inviting the suffering alcoholic to interpret God quite liberally. For some, God can be Good Orderly Direction. For others it’s the fellowship of recovering alcoholics or the program of recovery itself.

All of which left some members of Beyond Belief perplexed. “They told us to interpret God any way we wanted and we did exactly what we were told,” Katherine, a young woman with several months of sobriety said.

“And then they kicked us out.”

AA’s Misdeeds

Beyond Belief was not the first agnostic group to be delisted by an area Intergroup. That dubious honor goes to the Indianapolis We Agnostics group. Founded on November 1, 2009 by Joe S, Heather B, and Chris W, the group is the first and only agnostic group in Indiana. And it wasn’t just booted out once, but twice.

In a letter dated November 3, 2010, coincidentally on the group’s first anniversary, signed by both the Indianapolis Intergroup office manager and the chairman, the members of We Agnostics were told that “your group reads a changed version of the Twelve Steps” and “it is the judgement of the Indianapolis Intergroup’s Service Committee that your group has decided it is not an AA group.”

It was quite a surprise to the group that they had made such a decision.

The authors of the letter go on to explain the reason for their de-listing. “Early in the Big Book our founders made it clear that we alcoholics suffer from a disease which only a spiritual experience can conquer.”

Several group members met with the Indy Intergroup and We Agnostics was re-listed. They agreed that an adapted version of the 12 Steps would not be read at their meetings. In fact the We Agnostics “group conscience” was that literature that was not GSO-approved would not be included in the meeting format.

Nevertheless, the group was officially booted out for a second time on May 8, 2011. This time no reason was given. Group members were not contacted. They were not told in advance that the issue was on the Intergroup agenda. They were not told of the allegations against them. They were not provided with an opportunity to offer any kind of defense. They were not even informed of the decision by Intergroup to de-list them (but learned of it afterwards from a third party, accidentally).

It was kind of a hit and run incident.

An article in the July issue of the Indianapolis Intergroup, Inc. newsletter, The Paper, boasted that “Indy AA remains undiluted” as a consequence of the expulsion of We Agnostics.

“Nothing in the committee’s decision in any way attempts to exclude or limit ANYONE from AA membership, so long as he/she has the requisite desire to stop drinking” the article goes on to say, suggesting that it’s not acceptable to exclude an individual but it’s okay to boot groups of nonbelievers—such as We Agnostics–out of AA.

One nonbeliever, no. Two or more, yes. But is that true?

One of the co-founders of AA, Bill W, wrote this in the July 1946 Grapevine:

So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other—these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so! (Italics in the original.)

The Indy Intergroup clearly made an effort to present both sides of the debate around the de-listing of this group, or perhaps even any group. In the August issue of The Paper there is a lengthy article entitled, “The Other Side of the Story – Expelling a Local Group.” In that article Donna H takes great exception with the expulsion of We Agnostics:

Simply, the Service Committee has greatly over-reached its boundaries (they are trusted servants, they do not govern) and have completely ignored at least six of our Traditions.

There was neither respect nor careful consideration; neither trust nor love. Personalities were everywhere and sadly not one Service Committee member asked themselves if there “might be another way to deal with this” or “maybe we should consult the traditions” or even “let’s decide not to decide tonight.” Instead there was a pound on the table, the decision made (not voted on mind you) and the meeting was ended.

In some detail she then explains how Intergroup’s actions violated six of the Traditions of AA. Still, as of the posting of this history, We Agnostics remains off the list of AA meetings in Indiana. Nor is it just Intergroups that are taking shots at agnostic groups these days.

The General Service Office (GSO) in New York City has also gotten into the debate. On September 28, 2010, Gayle S R, a GSO staffer, wrote to the administrator of the Agnostic AA NYC website. In the letter Gayle points out that the website refers to “addicts” as well as alcoholics—still  a no-no in “old school” AA. Worse, the secular version of the 12 Steps was available on the website. “So we respectfully request that your group stop calling itself an AA group,” Gayle concluded. The “group” removed the modified 12 Steps, and any reference to addicts, from the website.

It may be worth noting at this point that it’s often not easy being a nonbeliever in AA. Even in the best of groups there can be a good deal of peer pressure and intimidation. Those infected with the “God bit” are inclined to spread it. It appears to be the nature of religious conviction.

A conscience effort to accommodate nonbelievers is thus sometimes necessary. And this is what happened in the Hill Group in Toronto.

Denis D reports that in the years before there were explicitly agnostic groups in AA, “the Hill Group on Monday nights split into several rooms: beginner room, step discussion room, woman only room, etc. One of the rooms became informally known as the ‘No God’ room. I was a Hill Member and a regular at the No God room.”

The “No God” room was a feature of the Hill Group from the late 1970s until the mid-1990s–almost  two decades. And it had a lot of members, such as John R, Ray C, John F and Marlene C. Most have passed.

Denis D—a devout agnostic and who has been sober since February 1978—is now a regular at Beyond Belief.

The AA General Service Office in New York played a role in the delisting of Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, according to the July issue of the GTA Intergroup’s newsletter, Better Times.

A GSO staffer, Mary Clare L is quoted in the newsletter as follows: “If we are aware that an AA Group listed here at GSO has in any way modified the AA Steps we do not list them.” This is from an email she wrote on April 4, 2010, responding to the question, “Can an AA group change the words to either the traditions or the 12 steps?”

But Mary Clare realized that she had made a mistake, and, to her credit, in a letter to the GSO area delegate, Robb W, on June 14, she wrote: “I need to correct a misstatement on the text that I sent you because my understanding of what happens here at GSO was wrong.” She continued:

As embodied in the Fourth Tradition, the formation and operation of an AA Group resides within the group conscience of its members … Groups listed in the directory are listed at their own request … It is not any AA member or AA group’s right to stand in judgment of another.

Mary Clare offered to “make amends” by sending her correction to groups in the area. And to the credit of the GTA Intergroup, Mary Clare’s correction is printed in an “apology” in the September issue of Better Times.

But the damage had already been done. The groups were out. Perhaps not forever, though. Underline that word: perhaps.

At the GTA Intergroup meeting on September 27, 2011, Allison B of the Responsibility group moved: “That the two AA groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics be: (a) re-listed in the next Toronto Intergroup meeting directory and (b) be allowed to participate in the Toronto Intergroup meetings as “groups in good standing.” It was duly seconded by Joan F of the North Toronto group.

The discussion that ensued bounced all over the place.

Finally, the Intergroup Executive asked for a five minute break to review its procedural rules. It decided that a motion could not be reconsidered until at least six months had passed.

A motion to re-list the two groups will be considered by the GTA Intergroup at its meeting on November 29.

In light of these misdeeds, the apparently flawed and occasionally brutal procedures employed for “policing” the practices of AA groups, the question must be asked: Is there any legitimate basis at all in AA to evict groups because of their belief or lack of belief?

Of course, even if the answer is no, that won’t stop some from trying.

What AA Can Learn from Vatican II

The Second Vatican convened in the mid-1960s, a time when the Catholic Church had within it some deep divisions.

While most Catholics just wanted to practice their faith, a group of biblical literalists took offense with those with a more contemporary interpretation of scripture and a somewhat more nuanced understanding of how salvation was to be achieved.

When Pope John XXIII opened the Vatican Council in 1962 his goal was to bring the Church into the modern world and to restore unity among all Catholics.

After three years of deliberations, on December 7, 1965, the delegates voted on a Declaration of Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae). Typical of the declaration was this simple statement:

All men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others.

It passed by a vote of 1,997 to 224. The war among the groups within Catholicism was put to rest.

The situation in Alcoholics Anonymous is eerily similar to that faced by the Catholic Church prior to Vatican II.

If, in the second sentence of this section, the word “scripture” is replaced by “Big Book” and “salvation” by “sobriety,” the inner conflict in the two organizations is identical.

Alcoholics Anonymous is and must be a wonderfully diverse fellowship. As Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power, put it in a recent blog:

I‘ve become aware that 12-step programs are home to people from every religion, denomination, sect, cult, political tilt, gender identity, sexual preference, economic strata, racial and ethnic background, believers in gun rights and abortion rights and the right to home schooling, drinkers of coffee and tea, whiskey and mouthwash, people who sleep on their sides or their stomachs or sidewalks.

And, increasingly, a lot of agnostics, atheists, humanists, secularists and outright nonbelievers.

For example, in 1939, when the Big Book was first published, virtually all of the recovering Alcoholics in AA in New York City and Akron, Ohio, expected a religious ceremony when they died.

According to studies conducted by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of nonbelievers today has now reached 15 percent in America, twice as many as twenty years ago. Two thirds of these people don’t want or expect a religious service when they die. Many of them are – or will become – alcoholics.

These men and women too will need a home in the rooms of AA. They must not be booted out, either one at a time or in groups. The vast majority of the members of AA merely want to maintain their sobriety and be a part of a fellowship that helps other suffering alcoholics who reach out for help.

And that’s what AA is all about. The responsibility declaration, originally adopted by AA at the 1965 International Conference in Toronto, affirms:

I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there; and for that I am responsible.

However, some have a more religiously tinged understanding of the role of the fellowship. For example, a shy German-American woman told the Quad A conference in Chicago in 2009 that: “People told me that if I didn’t get on my knees and pray to God, I would go out and drink again.” A statement like that can be a game-ender for a nonbeliever seeking sobriety in AA.

It’s bad enough when one individual says it but when a group—or  an Intergroup—promotes  it, then there are the makings of a serious problem. At that point even those with the deepest faith, perhaps especially those with the deepest faith, know that something is terribly out of kilter and that neither AA’s Traditions nor the responsibility declaration are being respected.

Perhaps AA needs its own Vatican II. It would not be without precedent.

There was a time when gays and lesbians did not feel welcome in AA. That changed in the seventies. In 1973 the question of gays being listed in the AA directory was raised and put off. A year later, after two days of heated debate, the 1974 General Service Conference voted 131 to 2 to list groups as gay in the AA directory.

While Vatican II had to write one from scratch, AA already has its own Declaration of Freedom. It’s the Third Tradition (long form):

Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA Group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.

The festering wound revealed by the expulsion of agnostic groups in both Indianapolis and Toronto no longer can, or should, be ignored.

When Catholics met back in the 1960s, participants were prepared to listen to each other with openness and respect. A Bishop from Hong Kong described the famous “spirit” of the Second Vatican Council that led to its historic achievements: “Only dialogue and negotiation can solve conflicts.”

May the spirit of Vatican II prevail in Alcoholics Anonymous in the days ahead.

Roger C is looking to hear your story of creating an agnostic/atheist/humanist group in AA. He can be reached at aatorontoagnostics@gmail.com.

Roger C. is currently a government writer and a member of Beyond Belief, an agnostic group which was booted off of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings list in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Perhaps ironically, he has a Masters degree in Religious Studies. He was known as the “resident atheist” at university where, he says, he was treated with respect. “In AA, not so much,” he reports. Nevertheless, he is convinced that the inclusivity that was a core value of AA’s cofounder Bill W and is central to the meaning and mission of the fellowship will ultimately prevail in Alcoholics Anonymous.

To learn more about the AA Toronto Agnostics, visit www.aatorontoagnostics.org