Talia Gordon is Features Editor at the University of Toronto’s independent student press, The Newspaper. She prepared this article on agnostics in AA for “the boozepaper,” an edition of the paper printed at the end of each school year. As part of her research, she attended a meeting of the “We Agnostics” AA group on St. Clair Avenue in Toronto on April 17. A recent McGill University graduate, Talia will be moving to Detroit in September to begin a Master’s in Medical Anthropology at Wayne State University.
By Talia Gordon
Founded in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was among the first formally established fellowships solely dedicated to attaining – and maintaining – sobriety. Today, the organization and its tenets have famously come to represent a tried-and-true model for recovery from alcoholism. Popularly depicted in television shows and movies as often-somber church-basement gatherings, AA group meetings have become iconic representations of support-group subculture, and of what the road to sobriety might look like.
However, these dismal depictions are rarely congruent with the positive experiences of scores of people who have considered themselves part of the AA fellowship over the past 70 years. Unfortunately, for many people (alcoholics or otherwise), AA has remained shrouded in secrecy and membership or meeting attendance stigmatized by shame. The double-edged social stigma of alcoholism and abstinence as well as the negative portrayal of AA in popular culture has deterred many would-be sobriety seekers from attending a first meeting.
When I contacted Roger, the AA Toronto Agnostics website administrator about attending an open meeting as a writer, his response was immediately enthusiastic: “Yes, you can come – it’s a great meeting!” In a later telephone conversation reiterating his encouragement, he added kindly, perhaps in unspoken reference to assumptions I might have: “Of course, you must be terrified.”
I had assured Roger otherwise, but as I walked toward the First Unitarian Congregation on Tuesday evening, my heart was pounding. After I found the meeting room and joined the seated circle of people, the first name call-and-answer introductions began: “I’m John, and I’m an alcoholic.” “Hi John!” and so forth. When it was my turn, I stuttered out my name and my reason for attendance, to which everyone responded, “Hi Talia!” After the introductions finished, however, a fellow raised his hand in protest; he felt that my presence at the meeting was inappropriate, and in violation of the principles of AA’s twelve traditions.
As he spoke, I was overcome with shame at realizing my imposition – how my presence could be a rude intrusion into the sacred space cultivated by a common experience I did not share. But as I stood up to gather my things, a chorus of voices erupted protesting my departure. The woman beside me reminded the group, “We do things by consensus here.” As others responded emphatically that my presence was welcome, it was decided that I should stay.
The meeting began and people took turns sharing their thoughts and feelings on the three topics elected for discussion: compassion, anonymity and public controversy. A far cry from dreary scenes of folding-chair circuits of despondent strangers, the meeting atmosphere was warm and comfortable, marked by a strong undercurrent of mutual respect and friendship. The topic that drew the most attention was public controversy – sparked by the discussion about my place at the meeting and the involvement of the media in a recent conflict within the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup of AA.
The conflict, which involved the removal of the agnostic branches of AA, including We Agnostics (whose meeting I attended that evening) and Beyond Belief from the GTA Intergroup official roster of meetings, was made public last summer in a Toronto Star article. Torontonian members of AA felt that the city’s agnostic groups had diverged from the traditional doctrine through their modification of the “Twelve Steps” to exclude the word ‘God.’ However, Toronto’s agnostic AA groups felt that God had no place in their path to sobriety, but wanted to follow the AA framework.
In particular, AA’s success is often linked to adherence to the principles of its “Twelve Steps” program, which has long drawn fire for its religious language and Christian overtones. Historically, AA emerged from the folds of the Oxford Group, a religious Christian movement that emphasized personal salvation through individual conviction, confession and surrender to God. Much of AA’s doctrine and language still echo these principles.
Indeed, the role of religiosity – whether in spiritual belief or devotion to sobriety – is a foundational element of the AA model. For many, however, the inclusion of God in AA’s “Twelve Steps” and other publications has discouraged participation in the program.
Even for those who are initially involved with AA, the agnostic groups can be a welcome alternative. Ylana, 27, came to her first AA meeting when she was 22, six months after finishing her undergraduate degree. For her, the religious aspects of the program held little interest. “At first I blocked it out of my head – a lot of people were talking about God and I didn’t understand what that meant or why they were talking about it. It didn’t have any real meaning for me,” she explained.
For Ylana, it was the community of people she encountered that made AA helpful right from the start. “It was successful because there were a lot of supports and people at the meetings who were really friendly, offered me their number and just held my hand, basically,” she explained. At that point, Ylana was attending meetings every day, where she knew there would be people who she could talk to about her problems. “They all had really, really, similar characteristics and disabilities, and I felt like I could really easily connect and that they could understand me and offer me the kind of advice I needed,” explained Ylana.
However, Ylana began to feel that the language and belief system embedded in the AA doctrine was limiting. “A lot of the meetings had a lecture-like, dogmatic tone to them. It felt like people were saying the same clichés; they seemed to just fall back on things that they’d read or things they’d heard and it just didn’t sound real – or as real or open,” she explained. While the sense of camaraderie rooted in the shared experience of alcoholism remained, Ylana became interested in finding people who were open to discussing topics that veered away from the AA’s rigid spiritual doctrine.
“I stumbled upon the agnostic meeting, and what I liked about it was that they were more open to just talking, to exploring philosophies and ideas with a more open mind. It felt more comfortable, less like church,” said Ylana. She felt that the traditional AA meetings were too “formulaic,” and described sometimes feeling alienated, “I just stopped going to meetings, because I thought ‘Okay, I don’t feel like having this conversation anymore.’ I thought, ‘I don’t want to drink but I don’t want to follow this either.” Through the agnostic groups, Ylana was able to find a space to discuss her own thoughts and experiences more freely.
As the conversation continued at the We Agnostics meeting Tuesday night, people offered their thoughts on the place of the group under the broader AA umbrella and discussed the ways that anonymity can sometimes perpetuate the stigma around alcoholism. Many addressed me directly, warmly and thanked me for coming. When it came to the gentleman who had earlier expressed discomfort with my presence at the meeting, he elaborated his concern, “You can’t just come to one meeting and think you know what AA is all about; you could come to ten meetings and still have no idea. I’ve been coming to meetings for 33 years and I’m still figuring it out.”
His words struck me powerfully. In attending, I had sought to capture at the very least, a facet of the AA experience, and to break open the misconceptions that might prevent people from coming to meetings. I had hoped perhaps, to gain a better understanding of the agnostic approach to the AA model. That evening, as a stranger – an observer and an outsider – I found myself folded into the atmosphere of collectivity and support created by the people who welcomed me and shared with one another that night. Certainly, the human experience of acceptance and connection is the fabric of the AA experience.