By Thomas B.
Like many folks at AA Agnostica and elsewhere, I’m most disappointed by the decision of the General Service Board and Conference to again not publish the proposed pamphlet, “AA — Spiritual, Not Religious.” I was further dismayed to learn from Roger C.’s article The General Service Conference Stumbles that this has happened repeatedly since 1976, when such a pamphlet was first proposed by the Trustee’s Literature Committee.
Having lived in recovery from 1972 through 2001 in or near New York City where AA meetings are much more focused on “higher power” spirituality with less emphasis on the “God” language of the Big Book than perhaps other areas, I was mostly unaware of the conflict between spirituality and religion in the rooms of AA. Once in 1990, while visiting Orlando, I was somewhat taken aback at the end of the meeting, when group members not only said the Lord’s Prayer, but also knelt while saying it.
But I really became aware of biblically-oriented Oxford Group practices when Jill and I attended a meeting in Frederick, Maryland, that I described in First AA Meetings. “We all surrender on our knees in prayer to Jesus Christ,” Jill and I were told at that meeting, before bolting out the door.
And then of course, there was the delisting of two AA agnostic groups in 2011 by the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup. You can read about that here: Does religion belong at AA? The arrogant picture of Father Pete Watters, despite his 50 years of sobriety in AA, aptly demonstrates to my mind the term “bleeding deacon” as a result of his callous disregard not only of our Third Tradition (“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking”), but the Eleventh Tradition (“We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films”) as well.
However, in 1991 Ernest Kurtz wrote about this spiritual versus religious dynamic. In his seminal academic history of AA, Not-God, he describes what he terms “Akron-style AA,” which is prevalent throughout the south, Texas, Arizona, Southern California and in the Great Lakes region. He describes it as being much more explicitly Christian in its discussion of spirituality, and that this Christian orientation is accompanied by “the feeling that Alcoholics Anonymous has been in decline at least since the death of Bill Wilson and probably since the death of Dr. Bob, and that the main cause is ‘those New Yorkers’.” (p. 302)
Now that I am aware of this “Akron-style of AA” I am becoming increasingly concerned about the regressive trend in AA to revert to adherence to Oxford Group practices that were influential during our founding days. And I’ve developed the strong belief that any member’s religious affiliation is an outside issue.
One’s religious dogma and theology have minimal relevance within the meeting rooms of AA’s spiritual program. From my understanding of the history of AA as the traditions evolved, it’s my firm belief that this is what was intended by both of our co-founders, Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, along with a good proportion of AA’s membership for most of our 78-year history.
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Though a devout Christian who, along with his wife Anne, was the prime mover of the Akron Oxford-based wing of AA, Dr. Bob came to agree with Bill that the still unnamed fellowship, then the so-called “alcohol squad,” needed to break away from the evangelical Christian Oxford Group. Though most grateful to T. Henry Williams and other Akron Oxford Group members, he volunteered his and Anne’s house for initial meetings of the “alcohol squad,” when in the late fall of 1939 the sober Akron members also decided to split from Oxford Group affiliation, which Bill and the New York “alcohol squad” had done a couple of years previously.
Dr. Bob also fully agreed with Bill’s strong advocacy for our Twelve Traditions. This included, of course, the Third Tradition, which clearly states, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” The short form of the Twelve Traditions was formally adopted in Cleveland during the first AA International Convention in June, 1950. Another highlight of this convention was the last public appearance of Dr. Bob, who was deathly ill at the time. Along with defining the essence of the Twelve Steps as being “love and service,” he ended his short talk with this statement:
And one more thing: None of us would be here today if somebody hadn’t taken time to explain things to us, to give us a little pat on the back, to take us to a meeting or two, to do numerous little kind and thoughtful acts on our behalf. So let us never get such a degree of smug complacency that we’re not willing to extend, or attempt to extend, to our less fortunate brothers that help which has been so beneficial to us.
To my mind, this includes not being at all concerned with whatever religious or non-religious beliefs a newcomer might have. Since the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking, one’s religious beliefs or lack thereof is an outside issue, about which AA and its members have no opinion in accordance with our Tenth Tradition.
Throughout the AA membership it is generally acknowledged that Bill was an eclectic spiritual seeker all of his life. Some more rigidly fundamentalist Christians even accuse him of practicing satanic rituals from which AA is derived. What is not as commonly acknowledged is that Dr. Bob was also an eclectic spiritual seeker, according to the Conference approved biography, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers. He also studied spiritualism and deeply explored many of the world’s spiritual traditions. On pages 309-310, his son, Smitty, is quoted as saying, “He read about every religion, not only the Christian religion. He could tell you about the Koran, Confucius, even voodooism and many other things.” Bob and Anne with Bill and Lois participated in séances and consulted the Ouija Board in efforts to communicate with spirits of those departed.
In the spring of 1939, there had been an earlier break of folks away from the Akron Oxford Group. This was the Cleveland contingent of some 13–16 alcoholics under the guidance of Clarence S. Their parish priests forbade the mostly Catholic members from Cleveland to attend the evangelical Protestant meetings at the Oxford Groups in Akron. To top it off Clarence S. is reported on page 162 of Doctor Bob and the Good Oldtimers to have told Dr. Bob that they were using the wrong Bible.
Throughout his life, Clarence S. contended he was the true founder of AA and developed a large contingent of followers throughout the south, especially in North Carolina and Florida, who followed a heavily bible-oriented approach to the 12-steps. Clarence also retained the Four Absolutes, Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love, from the Oxford Group. In addition, he openly disagreed with Bill and Dr. Bob about the need for Traditions, especially anonymity, often using his last name in public forums and with the press.
In his proselytizing Clarence S. obviously disregarded instructions suggested in the Big Book chapter, “Working With Others.” These instruction were agreed to by the first 75-100 alcoholics who got sober in both Akron and New York. Their shared experiences were the basis for the Big Book. On pages 93 and 94, it states:
If the man be atheist or agnostic make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God. He can choose any conception he likes, provided it makes sense to him… We represent no particular faith or denomination. We are dealing only with general principles common to most denominations.”
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Bill, as aforementioned, both in practice and belief, was an eclectic spiritual seeker, who explored spiritualism and read extensively about various world wisdom traditions. Anyone visiting the Griffith Library in East Dorset, Vermont, where he grew up in the house of his maternal grandparents across the street from the Wilson House where he was born in a backroom behind the original hotel bar, or Stepping Stones, where he and Lois lived from 1941 until she died in 1988, can marvel at the eclectic range of their reading to include history, psychology, medicine, religion, and spirituality.
Joe C. in his meditation for July 1st from his daily meditation book, Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, makes mention that when the 2nd edition of the Big Book was published in 1955, Bill “delighted in the fact that in regions of the globe dominated by various faiths (Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism) AA’s doctrine was being adapted to local world views.”
Susan Cheever in her 2004 biography of Bill Wilson discusses on pages 202-203 his decision in the 1940s not to convert to Catholicism after taking instructions from then popular radio host, Monsignor Fulton Sheen. Cheever quotes a portion of a letter from Bill to Akron member Bob E. in which he says, “The thing that still irks me about all organized religion is their claim how confoundedly right they all are.” As the man who was most associated with representing AA, Cheever reports that Bill was concerned that were he to convert to Catholicism it “would profoundly hurt AA.”
Another biographer, Francis Hartigan, who served for many years as Lois’ secretary and confidant, wrote in his biography, Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson, published in 2001, that Bill and Msgr. Sheen met on Saturday mornings for almost a year in 1947. He also reports that Bill decided not to convert to Catholicism because he didn’t want AA to be associated with any religion.
Perhaps one of the most definitive statements that Bill made about keeping AA spiritual, not religious, is the following quote from a letter to Mary M. in August of 1964 that Ernest Kurtz notes on pages 152-153 of Not God: “Nor have we ever had the slightest success in insisting upon some particular form of salvation. Nevertheless we can bring people within the reach of salvation – that is, of the salvation they choose.”
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The virulent animosity between various sects of religious Christians has existed from early Church history down to the present day. Heretical sects were obliterated. Popes and Anti-Popes allied with various political powers often battled each other. Numerous brutal wars occurred between Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe and Britain.
I was personally aware of and impacted by the animosity of Protestants towards Catholics. I was raised in Mississippi by parents who were from prominent southern Baptist and Presbyterian families. When I was twelve years old my mother and I converted to Catholicism. I joined mother because my best friend at the time was Catholic. I was fascinated with the statues, the pictures of bleeding hearts and the smell of incense. My girlfriend, Judy, was a southern Baptist, with whom I had won a jitterbug contest at Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio. Obviously, she was not a strict Baptist, because she was allowed to dance. However, when she learned I had become a Catholic, she dropped me like a hot potato, because, as she indelicately put it, I was a Satanist, who worshipped an idol of the Virgin Mary.
Brutal conflicts between religions have not been limited only to those between different brands of Christianity. I lived for two years in Sri Lanka, working as an unarmed peacekeeper between the majority Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority Hindu Tamils, two of our species oldest spiritual traditions, the central tenet of each being compassion for all living beings, who have been brutally killing each other since before recorded history. Shiite and Sunni Muslims have been in theological conflict since the battle of Karbala in 680 AD, when the grandson of Mohammad was killed, and this centuries old conflict is today escalating throughout the Middle East.
In her book, The Curse of Cain, Regina Schwartz argues that “all monotheistic religions, including Christianity, are inherently violent because of an exclusivism that inevitably fosters violence against those that are considered outsiders.” (Wikipedia) The missionary zeal and proselytising inevitably and inherently a part of religion - and the animosity towards those who don’t swallow the religious pill - has become an all too common feature of the rooms of AA. It is precisely for this reason that the co-founders of the fellowship tried so forcefully, and yet inadequately, given the predominance of Christianity in the thirties and forties, to keep religion à la Oxford Group and Protestantism out of the AA, and to replace it with “spirituality.”
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“But don’t try to make AA religious. The line between religion and spirituality has to be maintained strongly in this fellowship.”
Right Reverend Ward Ewing, Former Chairperson of the AA General Service Board
To my mind, it is crystal clear, as the Right Reverend Ward Ewing attests to in the above quote, that AA cannot become religious, that one’s religion is an outside issue relative to our AA spirituality. This is why it is so important that next year the General Service Conference and Board approve the pamphlet, “AA – Spiritual, Not Religious,” as has been recommended and in the works since 1976.
To this end, an agnostic Jewish friend and myself wrote strong letters recommending the pamphlet be approved to the incoming Chairperson of the AA General Service Conference, Mr. Terrance M. Bedient. We copied our Area 58 Chairperson, who thanked us, replying he was uninformed about this history. I strongly urge other members of the AA Agnostica community to do the same, so that at least if another decision by the General Service Conference Board is made not to publish such a pamphlet, it is an informed decision to violate our traditions and not one made out of ignorance of our history and traditions.
It may very well turn out that like many spiritual movements, and certainly most religions, AA will devolve into two sects, one Christian-based and religiously biased, and a sect of agnostics, freethinkers and humanists, which focuses on generic spiritual, humanist and democratic values. I hope this doesn’t come to pass, since I strongly agree with Megan D.’s article, An Atheist in AA, that it is not our goal to be “apart from” others, no matter their beliefs. Our goal is to be “a part of” a fellowship that ensures that the hand of AA is there for the alcoholic who reaches out for help, and that means any alcoholic, including the growing number of “nones” (those without religious affiliation).
In any event, I shall continue to share my truth at AA meetings and with newcomers as an agnostic seeking spiritual – not religious – progress, ever respectful and supportive of all in the rooms of AA, regardless of belief or lack of belief. That, at least as I understand it, is the mission of Alcoholics Anonymous.