An AA Pamphlet for Agnostics – The 1970s

Social Rejection

Edited by Roger C.

A “Conference-approved” pamphlet for agnostics and atheists in AA was first proposed in 1975.

The proposal was the result of a letter from Al L., an AA member in Florida, who asked the trustees’ Literature Committee to consider publishing such a pamphlet.

(The trustees of AA consists of 14 alcoholics and 7 non-alcoholics. These trustees are the principal planners and administrators of AA’s overall policy and finances, which is about as high-level as it gets in Alcoholics Anonymous.)

This is what Al wrote to the trustees:

I’m a happy non-belligerent agnostic. I feel that many non-believers miss the AA boat before they find out that they are also welcome. The ‘God bit’ frightens then off before they learn that their spiritual beliefs or non-beliefs need not deprive them of the blessings of AA.

Is it possible for the “powers that be” in AA to publish a pamphlet designed specifically for agnostics? I don’t mean the Big Book’s version – Chapter IV We Agnostics – that doesn’t make sense to me. Never did…

Many agnostics believe at first that AA, with all of its “Let God Do It” and “That one is God, may you find him now” is really a thinly veiled attempt to shove “religion” down their throats. You and I of course know that isn’t the case…

I would not advise that such a pamphlet for agnostics imply or infer that “God” will get you sooner or later or that you will necessarily come to believe in the power of prayer or that you must “turn it over.”

My logic, common sense and dedication to AA keeps me sober – and I don’t think the non-spiritual have been given a fair shake.

There’s much of course in Al’s letter that makes a great deal of sense. Nonbelievers in AA have definitely not been given a “fair shake” over the years.

After all, what does an agnostic do when an interventionist God appears a total of six times in the 12 Steps? What does he or she do when the AA meeting – in a church basement, no less – ends with the Lord’s Prayer?

Welcome. Stay strong.

It is important to note that Al is asking for a pamphlet that lets go of the idea that God is necessary for recovery. The pamphlet would acknowledge straight out that agnostics and atheists can and, quite commonly, do get sober and maintain their sobriety within AA – and do that without God.

To its credit, the Literature Committee was open to the idea, at least initially. The trustees thought Al’s proposal was important enough that in February 1976 they appointed a two-member subcommittee to study the issue and report back. “The Committee recommended that the preparation of a pamphlet for Agnostics be studied by a sub-committee consisting of Ed S. and Paula C.”

We know nothing about Ed and Paula, except that they were obviously committed and hardworking. They completed their task in four months and in July 1976, they submitted a preliminary report strongly recommending the publication of this pamphlet. Here is what the report recommended, divided into three parts:

A Reasons for the pamphlet. A pamphlet for the agnostic and/or atheist should be compiled and written using mainly existing AA material on this subject as a consequence of the following:

    • This pamphlet is vitally needed to carry the message to both newcomers and old timers.
    • Alcoholics Anonymous, despite first appearances, is neither sectarian nor religious, and is open to all alcoholics of every persuasion or non-persuasion. The number of nonbelievers in the program, or who need the AA program but are discouraged by its theism, may be more substantial than is probably realized.
    • The chapter “To The Agnostic” in the Big Book is fine as a start but more material
    • This pamphlet will probably also help the God believer in AA to understand his/her own spiritual values better, as well as to develop tolerance and understanding of many newcomers to AA.
    • The pamphlet would affirm in clear and concise fashion that “the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking” and that our founders and the group conscience of the fellowship does not and has never considered an alcoholic’s spiritual beliefs as necessarily relevant to the achievement of healthy and happy sobriety.

B A draft should begin as soon as possible. The sub-committee will collect material from extant literature including the Grapevine. George Gordon (chair of the trustees’ Literature Committee) and Al L. will serve as consultants on this project.

    • If it appears that this pamphlet geared to the agnostic and/or atheist will not achieve the aims listed above, then it will be discontinued by the Committee at this time.

C This type of pamphlet does not fall under the category “special groups of alcoholics” literature.  Rather it concerns a more fundamental and worldwide problem that has resulted in much misinterpretation of the AA Fellowship.

This last point is very important.

What the subcommittee is saying is that the goal is not to make room for agnostics and atheists in AA in the way that there are groups and meetings specifically for young people or our LGBT friends. Instead, the subcommittee is saying that what AA needs to do with this pamphlet is affirm that sobriety is indeed possible in AA without an interventionist God. Ultimately, that is the only way that it is possible for agnostics and atheists to participate in AA as “full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.” It is the recognition of the fact that “our founders and the group conscience of the fellowship does not and has never considered an alcoholic’s spiritual beliefs as necessarily relevant to the achievement of healthy and happy sobriety.”

Of course, try telling that to some of “our more religious members.”

In August 1976, the trustees’ Literature Committee reviewed the two-page report. It suggested that the subcommittee now write a new version of their recommendations in greater detail and present it to the 1977 Conference Committee on Literature before further action is taken on its preparation.

And here, unfortunately, is where light turns to darkness.

The committee reviewed the revised report in October of 1976.

And turfed it.

Moreover, the trustees Literature Committee did a ninety degree reversal and “decided not to ask the 1977 Conference Literature Committee to consider a pamphlet for agnostics/atheists.”

(The Conference meets for a week once a year every spring. It consists of roughly 130 members: delegates from 93 Conference areas in North America, trustees of the General Service Board, and various directors and AA staff. It functions as the active voice and group conscience of the fellowship. All official AA literature must be “Conference-approved.”)

To this day, even after “an exhaustive search,” a copy of the subcommittee’s final report has never been found.

What we do know, however, is that the effort to get a pamphlet for, about and by agnostics in AA continued on and on and on, into the 80s, 90s and continues in the new millennium.

In fact, the 2013 General Service Conference rejected such a pamphlet, called “AA – Spiritual Not Religious,” and referred the matter to the 2014 General Service Conference. You can read all about that right here: The General Service Conference Stumbles.

Maybe they will get it right in 2014. After all, it’s only been on – and off – the agenda for the past forty years.

One thing’s for sure: we’ll keep you posted.

Stay strong.

———-

This post is based entirely upon the following document: History –  Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Nonbeliever / Agnostic / Atheist Alcoholic.

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An AA Pamphlet for Agnostics – The 1970s — 25 Comments

  1. Thanks, Roger, for another important and well reasoned contribution to our history. In 1976. when I visited the General Services office in New York, to donate a copy of my “Proposal to Eliminate the Lord’s Prayer from AA Meetings”, I was shown Al’s letter, and later tried unsuccessfully to contact him. Even back then, a freethinker was by no means alone. In the Perry Street Workshop, Greehwich Village, where I got sober in 1968, there was a hard core of us who defiantly remained seated when the faithful stood up to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

    Your statement, “Al is asking for a pamphlet that lets go of the idea that God is necessary for recovery”, gets to the crux of the matter. The many non-theist contributors to AA Agnostica with long-term sobriety effectively falsify the hypothesis that divine intervention or religious belief is necessary to get sober, stay sober, or lead a good life in sobriety.

    AA literature is filled with contradictions and doubletalk, especially on god/higher power issues. I think that our theologically muddled members feel threatened by an acknowledgement that nontheists can and do get sober, stay sober and live fulfilling lives. We must indeed *Stay Strong* — and be honest and persistent.

    • AA, like a religion, treats it’s literature like scripture. They can’t even get rid of the gender bias that was rampant when the book was written. If something as simple and obvious as the gender issue with the condescending chapter to the wives can’t be touched then what chance do we have of altering THE founding principle in AA that “only God could and would if He were sought” be changed. It would be equivalent to asking the Pope to soften his stance on the virgin birth or the resurrection when it took them 400 years to admit that Gallelo was right.

  2. After 21 sober years in AA my agnosticism grows rather than dwindles. I’m grateful to a friend in my home group for introducing me to this site. I never realised how “not alone” I am.

  3. Roger C.: (The trustees of AA consists of 14 alcoholics and 7 non-alcoholics. These trustees are the principal planners and administrators of AA’s overall policy and finances, which is about as high-level as it gets in Alcoholics Anonymous.)

    LonMc: About 25 years ago I heard someone liken the AA service structure to an inverted pyramid. At the apex on the bottom were the trustees; and at the base on the top were innumerable sober alcoholics. That would make the trustee about as low as you can get in AA service. (Was that possibly Class A trustee, Dr. George Valliant? I don’t remember.)

  4. I agree with the general tone here that a secular approach to AA recovery shouldn’t be a dirty little secret and no minorities in AA should be second-class citizens.

    To add some context to this time in our history, the mid-1970s was hardly a slap in the face for nonbelievers. We had two momentous comings-of-age. At the time this letter from Al was being read, Barry L. was working on a pamphlet called, Do you think you’re different? devoted to “different strokes.” There was a story of a high-bottom, low-bottom, clergy, movie star, lesbian, gay man, one black and one Native North American alkie, a Jew, a teenager, someone in their late 70s, + one atheist and one agnostic. It was a run-away hit with the fellowship.

    Also a book with the working title, Staying Sober, eventually became Living Sober, which we know is AA’s secular look at AA recovery with only casual mention of God, prayers or 12 Steps. It was a best seller inside AA selling 150,000 copies in 1976, its first year. Both pieces of literature still do well. Living Sober sold about 50,000 copies in 2011 and the pamphlet was within 200 of 100,000.

    All special interest literature at the time got halted. A pamphlet for the aged got shelves, while they evaluated how “Do You Think You’re Different” met the need.

    The literature department also had their hands full with the Third Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous.

    Just a little nerdy perspective to add to this lively and productive conversation.

      • The first We Agnostics meeting in Hollywood was actually in 1980 (please see A History of Agnostic Groups in AA).

        Although laudable in and of themselves, the events mentioned by Joe C. and Dorothy H. do not change the fact that the group conscience of AA – the General Service Conference – has, in the 1970s and subsequent decades, consistently refused to approve and publish a pamphlet (about, for and by atheists and agnostics in AA) which would acknowledge that sobriety is in fact possible without an interventionist deity.

  5. AA is for kicking alcohol. Not a religion. Spirituality and Religion same house different color. Mind – some while degrading religion point to AA as superior to Religion. We hear the childhood story over and over. To be religious you concur with a community view. Many have adopted AA as a religion and when Atheists get sober it shakes their world view. They may grow spiritually by facing facts. Will AA be enough at the hour of death? Mind – Friends and AA help with sobriety. With life and its trials. Passing from this world is an unknown. Religions hold out because people fear death. Do this or don’t do that and you jeopardize your position as regards eternal life. Its a big carrot held in front of you. It brings fear. Those who work this out are comfortable and may even welcome this passage thru death. An Atheist firm in their view. Not an attention getter but an honest searcher who arrived at his own conclusion may just find God more accomodating than the religionists would think. Its the eye of the needle we look at here. Many firsts last and lasts first. Mind – will AA publish that pamphlet for Atheists? If they don’t it sure shows a Bigotry often seen in religious folk. Believe as we do or the devil’s gonna get you. Or do it this way or you’re gonna get drunk. Lets hope AA as an organization rises above that and welcomes Atheists not bans them from the kingdom as we saw in Toronto and elsewhere. Meantime I’ll not lose sleep over it. I know bigotry when I see it and as an organized entity the conferences are not looking like too bright of a light here. Let’s hope in the near future we see better. Meanwhile patience and tolerance. Love and forgiveness for their very misguided and innapropriate decisions on this crucial matter. Will we have a mini inquisition here? Will the self appointed AA police be testing for orthodoxy. Sad. History already went there. Didn’t work. Schism. Welcome all Atheists. Let us graciously accomodate and extend the hand of welcome.

    • Thank you Steven. I share your hope that we Atheists/Agnostics/Freethinkers can remain within the fold of AA, but only IF “they” allow us to.

      If an AA Inquisition with gestapo-thought police evolves, such as happened in Toronto recently, then we have the fallback position of our groups organizing for our first International Convention of WAFTS in Santa Monica during November of 2014. Hopefully an AA/WAFT schism doesn’t occur, but if necessary, we shall survive either within AA or apart from it.

      Your emphasis on us remaining true to AA’s founding principles of Love and Tolerance along with patience and forgiveness is most appropriate. I know as a WAFT, I can be just as dogmatic and intolerant as any born-again Christian or Buddhist . . . ;)

    • Stephen, I’m glad you mentioned conferences. When I first started going to conferences I expected to see presentations on membership, progress being made, stats on recovery rates, burning issues in AA, speakers who “Came Out” as atheists, the latest research/findings on addictions and recovery, information booths set up by alternative groups, etc. I assumed that AA ought to be the most interested group in partaking in research and new drugs. Doesn’t that sound like what a recovery group as large and influential as AA ought to be involved with, rationally speaking?

      Ah, but what other group of people ignore rationality and science and tell people how to live, but religions.

  6. 2 PM AUG 30 SOBER 60 YEARS

    My name Is Ivan K and I am an Alcoholic, at 2:00 pm August 30 I will be sober a day at a time 60 years.

    I was just like instant water, as soon as I took my first drink I drank alcoholically.

    I retired in 1989 with 20 years service in the RCAF, and April 1953 at 21 years of age I came off a 58 day drinking spree landed in a military hospital six months from Eternity.

    Dr. Doyle informed me they were releasing me the next day, and recommender that I quit dunking, and I asked if I could have a couple of beers, and he replied if I started to drink I would be back in six months and I would be measured up for a wooden suit.

    I stayed sober May, June and July went home on annual leave and at 2:00 pm on August 29 began drinking in the Legion. Dr. Doyle’s voice kept ringing in my ear, and this is what I said, “Stand up Ivan, drink up Ivan, walk through that door and you will never drink again.” The rest is history.

    I stayed sober for six years without AA, and in April 1959 I went to my first AA meeting, and I have been going ever since.

    When I first came in I was told that AA is spiritual not religious, and I bought it. Then one day I began to think for myself, and I said, “Ivan AA has more religion then religion.”

    The Steps and Traditions are full of God, the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer starts with God, and one day I said God has nothing to do with my sobriety, and that was many years ago, and my sobriety has never been better.

    When I speak at meeting and I say that God has nothing to do with my sobriety, and I add this: that an eight year young girl from Woodstock, Ontario, Canada was kidnapped coming home from school taken out to the countryside and raped, hit over the head with a hammer, murdered and buried in a garbage bag. And you’re telling me God is concerned about us staying sober? Let me tell you I sure upset some members.

    On my 60 year birthday dinner I will toast all of you with a diet Coke.

    Ivan K.

    • Ivan, I like your style! The examples other members set by speaking their honest truth reassures me that I fit right in whether I’m agnostic or not. I’m a sober alcoholic, and sure glad to be here at all! Your living proof of long term sobriety matters more to me than any bureaucratically approved pamphlet. Thank you and congratulations on sixty years!

      • “When I speak at meeting and I say that God has nothing to do with my sobriety, and I add this: that an eight year young girl from Woodstock, Ontario, Canada was kidnapped coming home from school taken out to the countryside and raped, hit over the head with a hammer, murdered and buried in a garbage bag. And you’re telling me God is concerned about us staying sober?”

        Damn well put. Never have I come across a more succinct and devastating refutation of the sense of believing in a personal, interventionist god. I might use this the next time I get asked why I don’t talk about god at meetings.

  7. Thanks Roger. I guess it’s hard to teach religious/oxford group historically based AA anything that may expand a narrow mind. I am personally grateful to the Beyond Belief group, as three years ago at Christmas you guy’s and gals came to CAMH detox to put on a beautiful warm all inclusive meeting. I personally believe getting our message out through CAMH and other like minded recovery programs is an effective way to carry our message of secular happy GoD free Sobriety.

  8. Roger, another invaluable post to keep us all informed! Especially relevant is “part C” of Paula’s and Ed’s report that you highlight for us: that the need for a pamphlet addressing atheists and agnostics does not fall under a category of “special groups of alcoholics” literature. It recognizes that the very foundation of AA is non-religious – if indeed we are serious and not hypocritical when we claim that AA is a spiritual program not a religious one.

    I know that Bill Wilson is not the sole “authority” of the AA group conscience and world service but what part do our members not understand when he writes in As Bill Sees It (used by many groups each week as a source of topic discussion): “We are only operating a spiritual kindergarten in which people are enabled to get over drinking and find the grace to go on living to better effect. Each man’s [woman’s] theology has to be his [her] own quest, his [her] own affair.” (p. 95)

    And to those who say that Bill implies here that you still have to have some kind of theology, and atheism and agnosticism isn’t a theology, those members must come to understand that apophatic or negative theology (i.e., divine experience eludes definition) is historically older than the positive (or cataphatic) theology that most westernized people identify with religion/theology today (and what we are up against in AA at present).

    Be that as it may, we atheists, agnostics and free thinkers are only asking for recognition (in the form of a pamphlet) that our “not-God” is our own affair as Bill, likewise, sees it.

    And Roger, thanks too for providing the link to the historical proposals to create a pamphlet for nonbeliever’s at the end of the post – it was fascinating (though frustrating) reading.

    • In my opinion, it’s far easier to get sober lacking belief in god than it is believing but having anger or resentments to god.
      There are different meanings to the words atheist and agnostic and a pamphlet might do better not to use those words. Does ‘agnostic’ mean God exists but is unknowable? Or that I haven’t made up my mind yet, but could be convinced. Does ‘atheist’ mean that god is impossible –or I don’t believe in god? see the definition in Merriam-Webster.

  9. I understand your position Lech—this is hardly an issue that keeps me up at night. That said, the fact this brochure has not seen the light of day is reflective of the AA perspective with respect to so-called non believers.

    Moreover, if we, as a group, wish to be inclusive it would be helpful if such a pamphlet existed. We have them for women, people of color, young people, Native Americans and for the LGBT community. It seems on the face of it, that such a brochure would reflect an inclusive culture. Does the absence of such a document keep me from meeting? Of course not. However, I am impelled to ask–What is the hold up?

  10. Stay strong indeed !~!~! This is quite the antithesis of AA’s focus on powerlessness, but like so much in AA, it represents the conundrum of being paradoxical, two opposites which attract. I am simultaneously powerless over addiction by myself, but strong in the fellowship with other agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. Thank you Roger.

    More and more I come to agree with what I heard the former Chairman of AA, the Rt. Rev. Ward Ewing, once say in a talk that the “fellowship” of drunk/druggies relating to each other is the primary source of healing a day at a time from our shared illness, or malady, of addiction, more important even than the steps. It’s what Ernest Kurtz referred to in the quote you included with your post.

    That’s been my experience since I stumbled and bumbled into my first AA meeting almost 41 years ago. I don’t pick up, and I go to meetings to relate with other drunk/druggies. The fellowship today — not the steps, not any god or goddess or nebulous force that I don’t understand — remains the primary source of the gift a day-at-time my recovery continues to be . . .

  11. We cannot expect too much from those people who are still patting themselves on the back for “letting” non-whites into the program and sometimes admitting that women might have a problem with drinking. They took many years to provide specific information for teenagers…who were no longer teenagers by the time it arrived. No help there. I think that AA is not designed to flip-flop on passing issues. It is my opinion that non-christians or non-theists should approach the matter rationally and without resentment lest we be perceived as attempting to force our will on a pious majority. Those who depend upon Santa Claus (or who ever their concept of a deity is) evidently feel this is necessary for their recovery and we should not disparage this… as I just did.
    They feel their beliefs are always under assault by outsiders like us but that is their problem not mine.
    At least until I am burnt at the stake. Thank you for the article.

  12. When I see the possibility for positive change that such a pamphlet would bring about, I am moved to endorse the idea and to work for it in a practical way.
    Seeing how the consideration of the idea seems to be spurred on by letters written to the Trustee’s Literature Committee, wouldn’t a campaign of letter writing be in order?
    What’s the address? I’m ready to start writing and urging my friends and neighbors to start sending in their cards and letters.
    The benefit for the non believing newcomer, and finally the acknowledgement and acceptance for the old-timer, will be celebrated.

    • Good plan, David. You can write to the chair of the General Service Board here:

      Clarence Bedient
      Chairperson
      AA General Service Board
      PO Box 459, New York, NY 10163

      Or you can send an email to the staff person for the trustees’ Literature Committee, Mary Dargan, at literature@aa.org.

      Best of luck and keep us posted on the results!
      Roger.

  13. A well crafted piece as usual Roger. Perhaps someone could take the pamphlet on as a project. While the brochure will not have the AA imprimatur per se, it could be made available to all groups. In fact, it could be made available online thus reducing printing expenses. I understand that it would be nice if such a pamphlet was an official AA approved document – but we may have to wait another generation or more for that. Thanks again for this post.

  14. This may be important for some, but does nothing for me. I will continue to think for myself no matter what the Kool-aid drinkers think and preach.

    I tend to see AA much as I view democracy. It’s far from perfect, and there is much I would change, but better than anything else I have run across.

    • Thanks for that, you expressed my views as well. I sometimes think of AA as near perfection, because of all of its imperfections. I’m a Buddhist which is a non-theistic religion which welcomes theists, atheists and agnostics. I once told a Catholic priest in AA that I could not separate AA from Buddhism, he said that he could not separate it from his Christianity. That’s a remarkable thing.

      I also agree with most of the criticism on this website when it comes to AA accommodating atheists and agnostics, respecting their success in recovery without needing a belief in a deity and allowing newcomers to hear about this success more easily. Perhaps the best solution is to branch out like OA, ACA, SLAA etc etc, and start a new 12 step program.

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