Booting the bastards out

Booted Out

By Roger C.

It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Thomas Jefferson (Notes on Virginia, 1782)

Out they went

“We booted the bastards out,” D said. “They wanted to water down AA and they tampered with the Steps.”

D was a representative at the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Intergroup. He was speaking immediately after the vote in May of 2011 to remove the meetings of Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, two agnostic groups, from the official GTA AA meeting list.

The Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society (GVIS) will soon decide on whether or not to list the agnostic meetings of two AA groups, We Agnostics and Sober Agnostics, on the regional AA meeting list and to include – or not – representatives of these groups in their monthly Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society meetings.

What many in AA don’t understand is that these agnostics and atheists are neither trying to water down AA or tamper with the fellowship’s program of recovery, as D so passionately put it.

And in the end we are not the foes of anyone in AA.

Appendix II: Spiritual Experience

As we all know, the Big Book – Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism – was first published in April, 1939.

What we don’t always know is that it immediately caused some real problems for some of those one hundred men and for other readers of the book.

And so in the second printing two years later in March, 1941, Appendix II: Spiritual Experience was added to the Big Book.

The appendix, just under four hundred words in length, is an effort to define more carefully and clearly the nature of recovery from alcoholism as it was understood by the majority of the men in the fellowship at that time. It is also more inclusive in its presentation of getting sober and living a life of sobriety.

In the appendix, sobriety is described as the result of a “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.”

Moreover, that recovery is described as a path that usually takes time, sometimes lots of time. It is an educational journey involving change, learning and growth.

You can almost hear the sigh of relief when those of us who are a tad short of a belief in a divine and miraculous salvation read these words, simply because they so well reflect our own stories of “what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.” It acknowledges the often-times hard work of recovery from alcoholism. For us there is and was no interventionist God involved and “our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the ‘educational variety’ because they develop slowly over a period of time,” as it is so very well put in the appendix.

Another valuable thing Appendix II does is redefine a “higher power” as an “inner resource.” Here it is: “Our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves.” We don’t have to look up into the clouds and stars for this higher power. Instead we can look within ourselves to find new insights into the nature and demands of our own lives and the absolute necessity, for us, of continuous sobriety.

The appendix still explicitly includes “God” as a higher power and a part of recovery for many alcoholics. Agnostics and atheists have no trouble with that, as a rule. Nor do we try to tell “our more religious members” that they should give up their faith and embrace agnosticism. What is extraordinarily disturbing – and sometimes amounts to bullying – is that the reverse is not true. Some believers never stop insisting that agnostics and atheists drop their own world views and adopt the believer’s God-based understanding of “how the world works.” Creepy to many of us, especially in a program that is meant to be based on attraction and not promotion.

Finally, the appendix embraces inclusivity, a hallmark of the guiding principles of AA. It acknowledges that the “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself in many different forms.”

“In many different forms.”

This phrase invites us to welcome the fact that there are different paths to recovery. We should not in AA suggest there is only one way – “my way, the way I did it” – to get sober and maintain our sobriety. Because if we look around us honestly, that’s clearly not the truth.

Tampering with the Steps

The argument used to boot the agnostic groups out of the GTA Intergroup and its list of regional AA meetings is that we have “tampered” with the Steps.

Agnostic groups sometimes use alternative versions of the Steps.

Appendix II of the Big Book makes a distinction between two types of AA members. There are those who believe and those who do not. For instance, when describing the importance of an “inner resource” or a “Power greater than ourselves” in recovery, the appendix points out that: “Our more religious members call it ‘God consciousness.’”

Quite correct. And our least religious members don’t. A commonly shared version of Step Three goes as follows: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.”

Many don’t relate to or find meaning in the word “God,” and the ideas that it represents. And many cannot engage in the mental gymnastics of saying “God as we understood Him” in order to please “our more religious members.”

Why don’t we just fake it ’til we make it? For one thing, being a hypocrite about one’s beliefs is the exact opposite of “rigorous honesty,” which is generally recognized as a crucial factor in recovery.

We are of course told, repeatedly and incessantly, that this deity of our understanding can be anything we want, a Good Orderly Direction or a Group of Drunks. So what’s wrong with reaching out to the “collective wisdom” of those who have searched before us?

Is the problem that this version has been written down?

It can be used because it’s the key to recovery “as we understand it” but it shouldn’t be written down? It can’t be shared in a group? It’s supposed to be a secret?

Or we get the boot?

Honestly?

Two things.

The Steps – even as originally written – are “suggestions” only. It says so on page 59 of the Big Book.

An AA member doesn’t have to do the Steps if that is her or his decision. Indeed, no one has ever been booted out of AA for not doing the Steps.

They are suggestions, not an order. Nowhere does it say, “To be a member of AA you must do the 12 Steps – and you must do them exactly as written.”

That’s not our fellowship.

AA is about unity, not uniformity.

The reality is that many agnostics and atheists in AA fully accept the premise that their sobriety depends upon “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.” That’s why some of us have a commitment to the 12 Steps. For many, the Steps can bring about that change. And we understand that change is possible without “Him.” Without an interventionist “God.” And so many of us have our own versions of the Steps – based upon the original Steps – that allow us to access the resources that will bring about that change and help us to grow as we nurture and bolster our ongoing and continuous sobriety.

As members of AA, we also recognize that the Steps are suggestions only. If someone feels that the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is more helpful as a program of recovery, then that is fine too.

We are not here to tell another person what to do, but to support her or him in recovery.

That is AA, as we understand it.

The last thing the Steps were ever meant to be was an excuse to boot suffering alcoholics out of the door of the fellowship, even if the Steps were ignored or if versions different from the original Steps were used and shared. The person who wrote the Steps summed all of this up quite perfectly:

We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written. (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 81)

A final thought on the Steps. We do not want to change the official and original AA Steps. No vote need be held by the General Service Conference. The various versions that are sometimes shared at agnostic groups are not meant to change the original 12 Steps but are solely for the use of the group, based upon the conscience of its members. Besides, these groups no more require their members to use any version of the Steps than does AA as a whole.

AA and Inclusivity

AA was always meant to be an umbrella under which any suffering alcoholic could find support. Any alcoholic. Any group of alcoholics. Practicing that is not watering down AA.

Tradition Three (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.

Some have argued that agnostic groups are affiliated to an outside issue,  the ideology of agnosticism or atheism. That is really quite silly as non-theism is as much an ideology as not stamp collecting is a hobby. It would be a lot more legitimate to say that groups that end their meetings with the Lord’s Prayer are affiliated to the Christian Church, an outside issue and one of the few things forbidden by our Traditions and promised in the AA Preamble: “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination…”

The affiliation accusations against agnostic groups are simply not worth any further discussion.

And just in case the wording of the Third Tradition is not clear enough, in an AA Grapevine article published in 1946, appropriately titled Anarchy Melts, Bill Wilson wrote:

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 A.A. Group if they think so!

Forced by the facts to admit that agnostic and atheistic groups are not in violation of Tradition Three, some of our “more religious members” then resort to the argument that these alcoholics are trying to change AA and that that is a violation of Tradition Four: “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting AA as a whole.”

Do agnostic groups affect AA as a whole?

Not at all.

Certainly, if asked, most non-believers in AA are of the opinion that there ought to be room for all under the big tent of the fellowship. Our understanding is that AA is inclusive, and accepts everybody with a desire to stop drinking, regardless of belief or lack of belief. But that’s not new: it has always been AA’s message and its primary purpose.

Historically, agnostics groups have trundled along quite unnoticed in AA. Just two examples of this are the Quad A groups in Chicago which have been in existence since 1975, and the groups in California which started with the first group called “We Agnostics” in 1980 in Los Angeles. You can read about one of the founders of that group here: Father of We Agnostics Dies.

This peace is only disturbed when agnostics and atheists and their groups are crudely and unexpectedly attacked, as happened in Toronto. Then there is exactly what can be expected: an explosion of unseemly controversy and unwanted publicity.

Most agnostics and atheists in AA want the fellowship to be what it was originally meant to be: inclusive of everybody! We are not trying to change AA, we are hoping that AA will be and do what it was meant to be and do in the first place, when it was first founded.

The attacks on agnostics and atheists in AA most often display an intolerance towards others, and a disrespect for the beliefs of other alcoholics.

It drives people away.

As Bill Wilson wrote in another article in the Grapevine, The Dilemma of No Faith, in 1941: “In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking… God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers.”

The “subtle and sometimes crude” aggression towards agnostics and atheists in AA, and their groups, ought to stop. The damage is too real, and much too serious, to far, far too many people. Proselytizing and/or attacking simply don’t belong in our fellowship.

Decision time

Decision time is at hand in Vancouver.

The Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society (GVIS) is in the process of deciding on whether or not two agnostic groups shall be “deemed as AA groups”  and “be allowed to be listed in the directory and on the GVIS website.”

How that decision is made is currently unclear. It may be a decision made by the Operating Committee or it may be put to a vote by group representatives at a regular monthly meeting of the GVIS.

As things now stand, the agnostic groups stand accused of “altering and/or modifying the literature of AA” and “using non GSO conference approved literature.”

Now, even the GSO will tell you that using literature that is not Conference-approved should never be considered a criminal act in AA, exposing a group to an ousting: The term Conference-approved “does not imply Conference disapproval of other material about AA. A great deal of literature helpful to alcoholics is published by others, and AA does not try to tell any individual member what he or she may or may not read.” (Service Material from the General Service Office)

And as for “altering and/or modifying” the 12 Steps – because that is really the issue here – well, we have dealt with that at length above and neither has that ever been a crime in the AA fellowship.

It’s one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic. It’s a fellowship of support. It has a “suggested” program of recovery.

It’s not about censorship. It’s not about rules. It’s not a “my way or the highway” kind of institution. That just isn’t AA.

Are those principles that hard to follow and respect?

One of the things that was shocking at the time the agnostic groups were booted out of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup was the incredible hostility towards these groups by some of the people in attendance, some of the reps.

D’s reference to “booting out the bastards” was not that atypical, sadly.

It begs the question: Why is there this sometimes rampant hostility towards the non-believer?

Appendix II - a final reference to this wonderful addition to the Big Book - reminds us, all of us, that “Willingness, honesty and open mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable.

Open mindedness: “A  willingness to respect views and beliefs that differ from one’s own. Open minded people have views but know that their views do not have to be held by everyone.” (Urban Dictionary)

For the record, we agnostics and atheists in AA are not, at least for the most part, bastards. We are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, moms and dads.

We are, come to think of it, exactly like every other member of the AA fellowship – the anyone’s, anywhere who reach out for help.

And who want the hand of AA always to be there.

Our beliefs and non-beliefs hurt not a single person in AA.

As Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, put it: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (Notes on Virginia, 1782)

The Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society has a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate and support the very spirit and purpose of the fellowship of AA.

Or it can boot the two groups, We Agnostics and Sober Agnostics, off of the official regional AA meeting list and out of Intergroup.

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Comments

Booting the bastards out — 64 Comments

  1. Lorene,

    It took me 34 years of sobriety to open up at meetings about my Atheism. Plenty of people didnt like it and were uncomfortable with it. Regardless of those people and their opinions I felt better and better about speaking my truth and found some open minded believers who respected my truth as I respect theirs, the true spirit of AA. Better yet I found some kindred spirits; together we had our own meetings free of dogma and judgement. Today we have 3 well established meetings here and planning a fourth meeting.
    It takes guts to speak ones truth; the freedom that comes from that far outweighs the abuse from the folks who think they have all the answers. Good luck with swinging the door wider to accommodate EVERYONE who seeks sobriety!

  2. Pingback: Step Three: Which I Choose to Not Call God | A 40-Something Fool's Journey

  3. Nonsense. IF your “loving God” guides everything, He/She/It must guide even we freethinkers. But that’s a conundrum, and True Believers can’t handle it.

    • Any group is free to reject or embrace any God/god/G.O.D. they see fit, as long as they recognize their need to treat their defiance with obedience to spiritual principles they are true AA’s doing the deal for real.

      • What “defiance”? If I just don’t believe in a supernatural/personal/intervening God, whom am I defying? And what “spiritual principles”? Where are they codified to everyone’s satisfaction? I accept that some in AA find a different path than mine, but I just listen to everyone’s experience, strength, and hope, and always find something of value as I seek my own path. Works so far.

  4. The important thing about all of this is: the God thing keeps millions of people out of AA.

    As my friend Henry says “The Agnostic meetings remove our last excuse to avoid help.”

    Obviously Catholic priest Fr. Pete Watters statement is wrong “He says belief in a higher power, God, is essential to getting sober in Alcoholics Anonymous.” I went to meetings with atheist Charlie P in LA for 11 years. Charlie died sober with 41 years of sobriety. Many members of our Agnostic meetings had more than 30 years of sobriety. So I guess Fr. Watters is not infallible.

    I tell people if you are 5′ 8″ tall, all you need to find is a person who is 5′ 9″ tall to find a higher power. Its a joke, but like Bill Wilson said “The spirituality of AA is in the laughter.” Charlie said essentially the same thing “I go to AA not to hear the word, but to hear the music.”

    And one last thing for the new comers, it doesn’t necessarily follow that because a person is in AA and is sober, they are sane. You are in the wrong place if you think everyone in AA is sane. If they give you advice, thank them, they mean well, consider the validity of what they said, and take what helps you. All you have to do is keep an open mind.

    • Thanks for the quote from Charlie about the music. I never would have gone to a second meeting if I hadn’t heard so much laughter at the first – I’d had all the grief/misery/sadness I needed. I needed to know there was joy to be had and maybe these folks had found it. I would no more take Fr. Watters’ (whoever HE is) word on God/sobriety than I would his opinions about sexuality. IMHO, healing is beyond words which try to describe it. My paltry words are that there is an energy field created within an AA meeting which can help or hinder recovery. When it helps, it’s called love.

    • Doren — Not to hassle you, but because I would like to use this in a publication and therefore need a source more proximate than this list, can you give me the source for Bill Wilson saying or writing “The spirituality of AA is in the laughter,” please?

      Thanks — I like your post.

      ernie kurtz — kurtzern@umich.edu

    • The law of unintended consequences is alive and well here in Vancouver.
      Last year we formed two agnostic groups, dutifully registered them with Vancouver Intergroup. Two months later the Intergroup chairman without any communication with us arbitrarily delisted both groups; quite insulting and bullying behaviour from a trusted servant.
      Well this past week a third group “Beyond Belief” was formed and there is enough interest to establish a fourth group as a result of all the buzz created when Jim made his infamous decision to boot us out. Stay tuned and thanks Jim for your dubious achievement!

  5. You know, AA is simply AA. The steps in AA are a part of AA’s message of how we recover the AA way. If you look at NA steps they are basically identical. They all work the same. They are just worded differently. We don’t look at AA and NA and say if its the same disease doesn’t having AA and NA separate defeat the purpose of tradition one. It kind of does. But I have friends in both programs. We respect each other. If I go to AA I am an alcoholic if I am in NA I am an addict. In my mind they are the same. But other people like to retain their identity as either one. Maybe the agnostic groups could branch out and begin their own 12 step fellowship. Create their own literature. Have their own workshops and subcomittees and use their collective experience abroad to help refine their message. Times change and we need to adapt. We cannot change what other people do. We can change what we do. And… nothing is saying you cannot enter any meeting anywhere at the same time. You could however use this as an opportunity to pioneer something new. Something other people might find useful. Not to say what I am saying is right. But it’s food for thought. This kind of subject can be very touchy. It can create sides. So maybe its better to just roll with the punches and open the door to something bigger than trying to fight with a bunch of alcoholics to tell them why its wrong they do what they do.

    • That’s a reasonable point. However, a number of secular fellowships have begun (SOS, Rational Recovery, LifeRing), but none of them have grown as large and universal as AA meetings. I like waft (we agnostics / freethinkers) meetings in part because they would make some newcomers comfortable with AA in general, and they’d have far more opportunities to hang out with sober people. The alkies who saved my bacon through their love and example were mostly believers. I was able to take what I liked and skip the rest, since that was the only choice where I lived, but religion didn’t irritate me like it does now. Some people need a gentler introduction to the fellowship in order to meet sober folk. I’d like to see more waft meetings and more acceptance of them within AA.

      • Yes, we may have to work within AA – with patient resolve and a little help from our friends – to effect a needed reformation.

        We had our District inventory earlier in the week – one of the Toronto Districts – and I spoke about how all the groups must do better to make atheists and agnostics feel comfortable and at ease with our “unbelief.” I was pleasantly surprised that I received no hostility from any of my fellow GSRs. (I don’t know if some were silently annoyed, however.)

        Perhaps, because I prefaced my remarks by reading what the Immediate Past Chair of the GSO Board, The Very Reverend Ward Ewing, said in Joe C.’s interview with him (Retiring GSO Board Chair, Ward Ewing reflects on his time at the helm of Alcoholics Anonymous), there was a more open and tolerant (and surprised?) atmosphere.

        (The interview with Joe occurred before the 2013 General Service Conference decided to defer the “agnostic/atheist sensitive” pamphlet to 2014.) Here is Ward Ewing:

        A new pamphlet is coming out about the spiritual journey including stories of atheists and agnostics. Some people are very upset about that but I am very excited. What some of us miss, who have theistic faith, is the spiritual qualities of those with no such faith. They have a story to tell and spirituality is communicated through stories. That’s why this pamphlet isn’t about what to believe or not believe. It will be people sharing their stories.

      • Be grateful you don’t live in a small town in the Bible belt of Texas. I love my home. I’m a 6th generation Texan. But around here, if you haven’t found their brand of GOD, then you just aren’t doing it right!

        I’ve been around AA for 25 years and sober this time almost 9 years & ONE TIME about a year ago during one of many “God” meetings, I heard a guy from California talk freely about being an agnostic who was 30 years sober. I stood up as soon as the meeting was over & practically shouted, “I LOVE THAT GUY!”

        I’ve pretty much always known I can’t be the only person sitting in these meetings thinking I’m not getting “IT.” How ridiculous! I’m sober & content & active in the program. I’m a productive member of my family and my community.

        I was lucky to have a sponsor (now deceased) who had been exposed to many cultures & was very open-minded about what determined one’s “Higher Power.” That is certainly not the norm here.

        I don’t speak freely in meetings about not being a believer out of fear. What am I afraid of? I’m just beginning to see how my silence is a disservice to those alcoholics who leave & never come back, possibly dying drunk.

        I am reading a lot on the subject & I’m inspired by the sharing on this website. If I remember my own reaction to Wally’s honesty that day, the path I need to walk is clear.

    • Shawn: very well said AND delicately put! However, do you really feel it’s fighting alcoholics as much as it is fighting religious types? When a certain group of a religion start dictating policy, do they not then become known as Zealots??

  6. These people who are deciding what meetings can be listed or not are denying me the right to go to meetings. Suppose I’m on vacation in Vancouver and am looking for a meeting and there is one two blocks from my hotel but it is not listed because they offend the powers that be? I don’t go to a meeting and might wind up in a bar.

    • Tom: Per your comment, here is the actual email string I encountered. Sent Oct 13, Reply Oct 16…..

      From: Kevin M
      Sent: October-13-13 10:57 AM
      To: staff@vancouveraa.ca
      Subject: secular group

      Hi, I just moved to Surrey. Are there any Agnostic/Atheist groups anywhere around here. I would really like to get to a meeting, but I really have a problem with the “god” stuff! Thanks, Kevin

      From: Staff
      Sent: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 8:57 AM
      To: ‘Kevin Maverick’
      Subject: RE: secular group
      Hello,

      Thank you for your interest in Alcoholics Anonymous.

      Personally, I have found the solution to my drinking problem here. We have wonderful phone volunteers that would be happy to assist you. They answer our phones from 8:30 am to 2 am every day except on weekends when they start at 9:30 am. We have an answering service to take calls between 2 and 8 am and can connect you to a member of AA that can help you.
      Please give us a call at 604-434-3933 anytime so we are better able to assist you.
      The phone volunteers can also give you information:
      Shelina Kent
      Interim Assistant Manager
      Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society
      3457 Kingsway, Vancouver, B.C. V5R 5L5
      o (604) 434-3933
      f (604) 434-2553
      e staff@vancouveraa.ca
      w http://www.vancouveraa.ca

      • I also called the Vancouver Intergroup, spoke to the same person, and was told they were “considering” whether to list secular meetings. I was pleasant and assertive (for me), but she was quite defensive, and implied that one of the problems was the 2nd Tradition. I’m afraid I asked if they got a memo from God.

      • Regarding the 2nd tradition, even though it doesn’t mention, “as we understand Him” it certainly goes without saying. For secular meetings, God as we understand Him is the Group. I do not believe it is productive to make fun of others beliefs.

  7. Roger: Thanks for such a well-written essay. I found your writing easy to read and I guess this speaks well about the clarity with which you express your thoughts. Also, I was impressed with the succinct way you got your ideas across. They are not always easy ideas, either. I felt you covered all salient points in your presentation. I remember speaking with a former sponsor about Appendix II and she nodded in agreement that it is people with a religious bias who talk about a God Consciouness. I was feeling my way out of a good relationship that was on the brink of ending as I found it harder and harder to discuss my issues with people whose religion I knew and could name the Church they attended. I just found it really impossible to get close to these people so it began to shatter my ideals of AA. It was very obvious that they remained cosiderably closer to the members who shared their religion. I do hope people who use the word fundamentalist are not just equating it with Protestants as American Politics and AA show me that there is a cosy relationship between the Protestant Fundamentalists and Roman Catholic Fundamentalists. This is all too much as I did enjoy your work. I’m having a hard time thinking of arguments on the other side. I guess the Tradition that speaks of a loving God is one. The other is Dr. Bob’s story where he suggests that if you haven’t found God he simply feels sad for you, the assumption being that you will not get sober. The confusion between Early AA and the Oxford Movement keeps rearing its ugly head.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Glenna. Just wanted to say that our history buff, Bob K., has written a wonderful article on Frank Buchman and the Oxford movement that will soon be posted on AA Agnostica. Stay tuned!

  8. I find it interesting that there is no mention of the statement in the service manual that the trustees are to exert their negative power to assure that the Steps are not altered. One might think this means outside the Fellowship, but the fact that they have given permission to over 500 other Fellowships, would indicate they mean inside AA. Notice that none of the 500 others that have altered the Steps are demanding that they be called AA. I’m also guessing that you have not actually read William James. Taking sentences out of context is poor journalism, at best.

    • Anselette, with the regard to the idea that “the trustees are to exert negative power to assure that the Steps are not altered…”

      The other organizations that have requested and been granted the authority to change the Steps actually want a different version for their own and entirely separate organizations, depending upon the nature of the addiction dealt with. We are alcoholics within the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and aren’t going anywhere. I repeat:

      We do not want to change the official and original AA Steps. No vote need be held by the General Service Conference. The various versions that are sometimes shared at agnostic groups are not meant to change the original 12 Steps but are solely for the use of the group, based upon the conscience of its members.

      By the way, it’s not the trustees who have this negative power or right, but rather the General Service Board, according to a bylaw adopted in 1957. The Steps as written should be kept as is, as far as I am concerned (and I am the author of The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps), nor should the Big Book itself be rewritten. However, it is important to acknowledge that it was a product of its time, and not condemn those who interpret the Big Book and Steps in a more contemporary context.

  9. I can’t imagine how a better case could be made for fully including us freethinkers in the AA Fellowship. However, until we are fully accepted, we should not neglect regular AA meetings.

    Last Sunday morning i attended a different meeting in Boston for the first time. People were friendly, but I was disconcerted when the meeting started off by reading “How It Works” and went on to have a reading from the 12&12, which was saturated with god stuff. In discussion I said I was sorry that HIW was read, because that is how AA does NOT work. How AA really works is well expressed in the AA Preamble: we help each other get sober, stay sober, and rebuild our lives. The heart of AA is the 24-Hour Plan: a day at a time we stay away from the First Drink. I said that many of us nonbelievers have re-written the Steps. My own version of the First Step is: “We admitted that we were alcoholics — that we suffer from an addiction which is invariably fatal unless arrested.” To my surprise, I got a good round of applause, and people were smiling.

    My point is that rank-and-file AA members may be a lot less religious than we sometimes imagine, and we shouldn’t rule them out.

  10. If ‘watering down AA’ includes trying to minimize the pious God-consciouness crap I hear at meetings, then I am certainly guilty.

    However, I think that bearding the lion on this issue is a bad idea. Fighting the fundies on this one is a lost cause, and it gives the fundies recognition that they don’t deserve.

    I have been to two men’s groups in Calgary where there is very little, if any, God-talk. These do not describe themselves as non-believer groups, but one gets the strong feeling that God is not a major factor in the lives of these guys.

    The group pays lip service to AA dogma by opening with a reading of How It Works. It’s difficult to hear what is being read because of the cross-talk during the rendering. We just ignore the reader, and carry on as before the meeting opened.

    This appears to me to be the best way to handle the matter – just ignore the doctrine and do what you like.

  11. An excellent article Roger. It speaks to all of the so called reasons for Toronto Intergroup taking the action they did. My fear is, IT DOESN’T MATTER.
    Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the AA literature and the requirements to be a part of AA has to see how the fundamentalists just don’t care about their blatant ignoring of what is in black and white in all of the so called approved literature. I am including the Big Book and more importantly Wilson’s own words. The terms “only requirement” and “suggested only” seem to just get filtered out by these folks.
    I believe we are in the very very early stages of something that is going to take a long time to resolve. Our job at this point is to keep to the message and to be powers of example. I have been sober for over 9 years now, the last 3 of it with Beyond Belief being my home group. I try not to bash the regular AA meetings but I cannot attend them anymore. If something is based on dishonesty, bigotry, and closed mindedness, why would I go? Those are a lot of the things that made me drink in the first place.I don’t like to be a pessimist but this is a long long road we are on and our job is to stay on it.

  12. Or how about this reading for an agnostic meeting:
    Rather than the very conciliatory tone, all the good words about AA, that we choose to now use together with the reading of the “wrong” steps, if we don’t resolve this in an amicable manner, I imagine we can hold the freethinklers meeting with the “right” steps and the following preamble:

    There are people in this program who stubbornly hold that it is more important to defend god and this program against agnostics than it is to help alcoholics in need. When we started this meeting we had no idea how much hostility and overbearingness we would be met by. However after a 6 month battle in Intergroup we had to give in. Here are the Steps we have been forced to read in order to be listed in the Intergroup schedule along with everyone else. Since this program produces not only sober, spiritual people, but also stubborn fundamentalists, please take these steps with a grain of salt. They may not work as well in their present form, as they are purported to. If you would like help with putting together 12 Steps that work better for you than these, we will try to help you.

    Followed by a reading of the REAL 12 steps.
    That would make us a REAL AA meeting, that should be listed, right?
    (“Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so!”)

  13. I get drunk… we get sober… whether there is a God or not. I still keep an open mind to all possibilities in my spiritual journey.

    • Thanks Gus, you pretty much summed up my experience over the last decade: “I get drunk… we get sober…”. So long as I am participating in some sort of recovery activity every day and stay connected to my home group weekly, the compulsion to drink generally evaporates away for me.

  14. This email was received from an Intergroup manager in the United States:

    Now then, Just exactly how is this decision being made, and by whom? Hopefully, they will be considering Tradition Three, and more importantly, Tradition One, as well as one of AA’s famous slogans – Live and Let Live.

    Keep the faith, Freethinkers. Bill W. said that an AA group’s right to be wrong is inviolate. I suppose that applies to erring Intergroups as well.

    Your time is coming, and like all good things, it may be worth the wait. Good luck…

    We are also receiving the disturbing news from members in the area that the new chair of the GVIS, Wayne F., has decided on his own that the agnostic groups are not to be included in Intergroup and further that he has arbitrarily “scrapped the idea of…asking for a group conscience on agnostics groups.”

  15. He (the ‘neophyte’) is asked to believe in a power greater than himself, or at least keep an open mind on that subject while he goes on with the rest of the program. Any concept of a higher power is acceptable. A skeptic or agnostic may choose to think of his Inner Self, the miracle of growth, a tree, man’s wonderment at the physical universe, the structure pf the atom, or mere mathematical infinity …

    From the Jack Alexander article on AA in the Saturday Evening Post, 1941, published as a pamphlet by AAWS.

  16. Roger, Thanks.
    Struggling with the same issues here in Mendocino Inland Intergroup, Northern California. I started a freethinker’s meeting in Laytonville about 2-1/2 months ago, but we practically have not accomplished anything other than argue back and forth about listing it since April.
    Since it is starting to look like the god people who were already on voting members of Intergroup have been managed to get voted in their cronies as representatives from groups that hitherto did not bother to send a representative, it looks like a motion to list the meeting may not pass, even though our schedules do specify that intergroup does not endorse, etc.
    So I’m going to try with this motion at the next meeting, since that’s really the issue, (and of course vote against it):

    Up to this point Intergroup has been a service organization with no actual authority, and has listed Groups on its schedule at their own request based on AA’s philosophy that our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern, and that of group autonomy. We propose that Intergroup must take it upon itself from simply being trusted servants to become a governing body which evaluates the worthiness of individual groups, and decide which groups should be listed in the schedule, and which ones can’t be. If this motion fails we will keep doing things have always been done at Intergroup: list meetings at their own request.

    This being an important policy issue, it should pass with substantial unanimity, that is a 2/3 majority.
    Will keep you posted…

  17. Thanks Roger, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. I truly hope that articles like this, and sites like AA Agnostica, will help AA as a whole (I’m in Scotland). To paraphrase a saying I once read somewhere: ‘Anything that puts itself above question is inherently dishonest’. Thanks to AA for the support it gave me to get sober and in sobriety, the ability I now have to think for myself. I shall continue to appreciate the ability that I have to think for myself and exercise it; and to question!

  18. Bravo Roger !~!~! A most thorough and persuasive article indeed.

    Nevertheless, no matter how reasonable and true to the historical development of AA it may be, I fear it will fall on the deafest of fundamentalist Christian ears, who are as vicious as the Muslim Taliban in their deeply held belief that they must wage perennial war on heathens, certainly to include us atheists and agnostics, who in their view are the denizens of Satan. It is their “onward-christian-soldiers” duty to battle us to the death, so that their Lord shall enrapture them to heaven.

    The Christian Taliban in AA are like the Tea Party in the US, mostly Congressmen&women from the Bible-belt sections of the US, who are determined to bring Biblical law to the US, even if it means destroying the nation, just like in the Old Testament Samson did, killing himself when he pulled down the temple to destroy his pagan enemies.

    We can practice all the “love and tolerance of others is our code” (BB, p. 84), but it is unlikely, as D’s and Wayne F’s remarks amply illustrate, that “love and tolerance” of us shall be reciprocated.

    Nevertheless, we must — at least I must strive daily and sometime breath by breath some days — to continue seeking progress, not perfection in having compassion for, as well as forgiving, the Christian bigots we encounter.

    Certainly, as well, it’s been our communal experience since 1976 that the General Service Conference has seen fit, I suppose under the sway of more fundamentalist Christian ideologists — despite the skillful efforts of Rev. Ward Ewing the past two years — to delay the publication of a Conference Approved pamphlet, “Spiritual — Not Religious.”

    Also — thanks so much for the quote below from AA in Cleveland in 1946. It reaffirms for me the truth of what AA has always been and hopefully always shall be.

  19. At our Columbus, Ohio meeting We Agnostics meeting we don’t read the steps and thus we don’t “tamper” with them. There is no need to and therefore we are in the Directory.

    • Similarly I started a Keep It Simple group with no readings or prayers whatever, just sharing ESH. How did all these rituals start?

    • Likewise, at “As We Understood” in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there are no prayers or steps. Living Sober, rather than the Big Book, is displayed on the table. In my opinion, Ritual diminishes Fellowship, and we are better off without it (without Ritual, that is).

  20. Anger is a secondary emotion. What we need to do is to look for what emotion actually causes our anger!
    I think in “D”s case it is fear. When faced with reason and logic, religion really starts to vaporize. This causes fear in those who are intelligent enough to realize it yet ignorant enough to not be able to understand it. Education and an open mind are so important.
    Roger has spent a great deal of thought and effort to deliver a very level response to a Zealot’s irrationality! Thanks so much!!

  21. Bravo, Roger!
    Jefferson’s words should be easily understood and taken to heart. But wait! Jefferson is not conference approved!
    It’s telling that “our more religious members” often equate to “our most ego-freaking, intolerant members”. Shades of “inerrant” revelation! And as far as “…addressing the irrational hostility towards agnostics…”, right on!
    Thanks for keeping to the good fight. Please keep us updated. Maybe you, or Melina, or another of the involved members can give us a timeline and personal perspective.

    • Intolerance is a ubiquitous problem not isolated to religious folk. So clean up one’s own side of the street, daily, and when we are unable to change for the better, do our best to avoid imposing our personal shortcomings upon others.

  22. Some info re: last Vancouver intergroup meeting. The new chair is Wayne F. E-mail is intrgrp@vancouveraa.ca.

    This is from last meeting I attended as a “guest” since we are no longer allowed to have representation in meetings OR ask questions (a recent change). We are allowed to observe only:
    It is apparent the new chair does not believe agnostics have a place in AA. He claims we are an “outside issue.” When I quoted Tradition 3, “The only requirement for aa membership is a desire to stop drinking,” he angrily retorted with the long version of Tradition 2: “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.”
    He stressed the word ‘GOD.’ I wish I had the list in front of me, as the long version of Tradition 10 is in direct conflict with his intentions for AA in greater Vancouver: “No A.A. group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate A.A., express any opinion on outside controversial issues — particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one. Concerning such matters they can express no views whatever.”

    • Well, Melina, Wayne seems rather determined to impose his views and have the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society (GVIS) oppose the two groups. In a subtle – even secretive – fashion, of course. I mean, why involve the GVIS membership itself in the decision? After all, he has it all figured out.

    • Hi Melina,

      In my post below I gave the link to The Very Reverend Ward Ewing’s interview with Joe C. Perhaps you could hand your new Chair a copy of it with these two paragraphs highlighted:

      Spirituality is something everyone has. We wake up with it in the morning. It is love and hate, anger and joy; we are spiritual beings because we are affected if people love us or hate us or ignore us. In a spiritual program we have no creed or specific theology or rituals. Now there are some rituals in AA and I think we have to be careful about these. In the South they almost always end meetings with the Lord’s Prayer but when they did that at the world conference in San Antonio in 2010, I was surprised and frankly I was a little shocked. Again, I consider myself reasonably religious and I want you to be religious but don’t try to make A.A. religious. The line between religion and spirituality has to be maintained strongly in this fellowship.

      Religion is taught at the head level, “Here’s the book and here’s what it means and this is what we do here.” Spirituality is shared, not intellectually but at the level of the heart. What changes people’s lives is one suffering alcoholic hearing their story coming from another alcoholic’s lips and a story of despair becomes a story of hope. Too much talk of God in the group can be a barrier. We are all spiritual beings on a spiritual journey but we all in different places. Our job is to help each other see where we are in their spiritual journey and to help see where our strengths are on this journey and how we each can grow. It is not our job to tell another that our way is the better way. God doesn’t need my protection and I am not here to tell you or anyone how to manage your spiritual journey — I have a hard enough time managing my own.”

    • Intergroups need not endorse or agree with the AA groups in order to list them. In fact AA World Service doesn’t claim to approve or endorse any of the Intergroup offices it lists. This is from the North American list of Central Office’s and Intergroups:

      The offices listed in this service directory are listed at their own request. A directory listing does not constitute or imply approval or endorsement of any office policies or approach to or practice of the traditional A.A. program.

      Vancouver Intergroup need not endorse meetings to list them. Many Intergroup meeting lists include this disclosure at the front, such as the Los Angeles directory:

      Groups listed in this meeting directory are registered at their own request, proving they have no other group affiliation, receive no outside support and intend to follow the suggested A.A. program for group operation. A group listing does not constitute or imply approval or endorsement of any group’s approach to, or practice of the traditional A.A. program.

      LA, for instance, has several agnostic AA groups and has had for 35 years.

      The question is why would an Intergroup want to endorse or approve groups as Vancouver seems to want to do by validating them? Intergroup serves groups – it doesn’t govern them. A look through the illustrated Twelve Concepts shows several illustrations with the Group as the highest authority in AA with all the service structure doing it’s bidding. Other groups have no say on the choices our groups make. Not in AA anyway.

  23. Thank You Roger for another excellent article. I am always amazed at how so many who purport to represent “pure” AA have no problem specifically ignoring certain parts of the official literature that does not please them. I am a member based on the Third Tradition alone. Any thing else is just further development of a theme. I would be so bold as to suggest that this hypocritical theism has literally caused the deaths of thousands of alcoholics these “fundamentalists” had pledged to help. They nearly sent me packing when I first came in. Alcoholism is a human condition and as such involves humans and blind prejudice and bigotry is also just another sickness.
    It is always a problem when the sickest find themselves in possession of money, power and prestige. Why does having an open mind mean being forced to adopt the religious views of someone else?
    My physician told me that AA was full of sick people and as a result there would always be some who did not want to get well. It is part of the game. The Third Tradition tells us we have to live with them. Thank you Roger.

  24. Thanks so much for your article. It goes a long way to describe what AA really is about. I pray that love and acceptance prevail.

  25. Roger, you seem to always forget about the third group (Widening Our Gateway – WOG) that was delisted from Toronto Intergroup, despite how much time and energy our Rep spent at the Intergroup meetings defending and supporting the two delisted groups. You say that Intergroup’s argument was that the two groups had changed the steps. True, but that argument doesn’t fully hold for WOG because we do read the 12 steps (even though someone from the Trial and Error group lied at the Intergroup meeting and said that we don’t). We do offer, “for those who choose,” an alternative to five of the steps. This was our group conscience so that believers would hear the steps they are used to and non-believers would hear steps that are palatable to their ears.

    On Sunday we had a Catholic, three Jews, one Muslim, atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, and others unknown at our meeting. As I said, we were able to offer 12-step readings that included everyone. We are true to our name, Widening Our Gateway, which, of course, is Bill Wilson’s phrase from AA Comes of Age acknowledging the contributions of atheists and agnostics in the fellowship and his commitment that all who suffer, regardless of belief or lack of belief, may pass through.

    I also want to make it clear (to everyone) that the three groups were not “booted” out of AA; Intergroup is not AA. It is an independent corporation, a charitable organization, that (as far as lacking documentation supports) is not registered with the General Service Office (GSO) in New York. The three delisted agnostic/free-thinkers groups are registered as AA groups in good standing with GSO and our Districts (which our GSRs attend every month).

    So ultimately, WOG was delisted because many still believed we did not read the original steps; others were offended by our use of supplementary steps; and finally, others wanted us out because they claimed we had an “outside affiliation” with agnostic and atheist groups.

    Of course, your very detailed piece shows how all three of the above reasons for de-listing groups are entirely unwarranted. Thanks so much for your blog.

    DJ

    • Roger,
      Thank you for a well written, cogent argument for tolerance. I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of these types of position papers on this issue, and yours is the most comprehensive I’ve seen thus far. Hat’s off to you.

      I’ve yet to see elaborated what I think is a highly relevant historical event that lends great weight to our overall argument.

      In Wilson’s “AA Comes of Age,” (p. 81 if I recall correctly – I don’t have access to the book at this moment) he records his position regarding “changing” the Steps for Buddhists in Thailand. Apparently, Wilson gave written permission regarding the omission of theism for the godless/nontheistic Buddhists. Wilson did not use that terminology when discussing this aspect of AA’s spread to South Asia, but THAT is what precisely happened. Atheistic Buddhists were allowed to ‘modify’ the Steps in order to accommodate that particular metaphysical orientation. I have not seen a copy of those modified Steps. Has anyone sought out AA’s in Thailand to see if we can come up with some of THAT history? I suspect the findings would only further buttress our argument.

      I read Ernie’s “Not God” when I was about eight month’s sober, but I cannot recall what he discovered about that aspect of AA history. Sorry Ernie. I loved your book! It kept me in AA. Period.

      Thanks to all who continue to struggle for equality in AA. May our tribe increase!

  26. Brilliant piece of writing. Thank you not only for your thoughts, but for supplying the documented evidence to back them up.
    I came in to A.A. as an atheist and have moved on to call myself an “agnostic searcher” … even that is not enough for some people. I still put up with a lot of prejudice. But, I have moved on to discover a spiritual life that I never dreamed possible.
    I was able to lay aside my prejudice, and I hope that some of the “more religious members” may someday be able to do the same.

  27. Thanks very much for this post. I couldn’t agree more with “AA is about unity, not uniformity.”

    I am so very grateful that one of my sponsors (Ross N, a devoted Christian who passed away some time ago) never once excluded me or tried to “convert” me to his particular faith. He did demand that I be honest with him; nothing less would do. If something wasn’t working he patiently reached for another idea from his library of recovery books and read to me from that. He kindly reminded me of the power of forgiveness. He showed me that my reaction to life is indeed within my control – in sobriety that is – and this way I have the option of choosing love, acceptance and gratitude today.

    I must admit I’m still a work in progress, and aspire not to harshly reject others who don’t conform to my own world views. What’s the old saying? Hate the sin but not the sinner?

  28. Well done Roger.

    I have been pondering a thought all week as a cute retort to a friend and newcomer who is beginning to use parroted sponsor speak.

    Preaching about spirituality is like pissing on someone to teach them how to urinate differently.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  29. Excellent article. I wish all of my God-loving AA friends would read this. But something tells me that even if I pass it on to them, some if not most of them will not read it to the end. If so, that’s their loss. You really nailed it. We are not the enemy!

  30. Once again, thanks for a great summary. It shows the wisdom and compassion that AA should always strive for.

    I’m lucky enough to visit Vancouver 1-2 times a year, and hope its Intergroups practices the 3rd Tradition about this. I’d appreciate learning when/where the two freethinking groups meet.

    I was just in the UK, and attended many meetings, none of which were “agnostic” formally. Being a more traditional society in general, they usually included How It Works, 3rd Step Prayer, other Big Book readings, etc. (no Lord’s Prayer, fortunately). AND THEN, half the members who spoke would mention their agnosticism!

    • Hi Pat, Sober Agnostics is an open meeting of alcoholics anonymous that meets Tuesday evenings in the activity room (main floor, way in the back) of the anglican church on the corner of 12th and Hemlock. It’s lovely and strange, I’m looking forward to returning myself in mid-November (learning jazz — on my accordion–until then). The other meeting is a men’s group in Horseshoe Bay, I don’t remember the day or time, though, sorry. hope to see you sometime, though, at “heathens on hemlock”. best wishes,
      Erin

      • Hi Pat,

        Beyond Belief (Agnostic Mens Discussion Group) meets every Monday evening at 7.30 at St. Monicas Church at Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver BC. We are listed on the Worldwide Agnostic AA Meetings which can be accessed at the top of the home page of AA Agnostica.

        World Wide Agnostic AA Meetings

  31. Excellent Roger! You comprehensively and methodically identify all the salient points so remarkably well.

    At the 2013 Ontario Regional Conference in Toronto, I attended the session on the “Future of AA” where The Very Reverend Ward Ewing, outgoing Chair of the General Service Board, remarked that he had, of course, heard about the problems between Intergroup and the Agnostic and Atheists groups in Toronto since he had read about them in the media. For example: Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups.

    The Reverend Ewing prefaced his remarks by reminding everyone that as Chair he is not in a position to dictate policy to the Board of Trustees nor to AA as a whole but his responsibility as Chair is to try to reconcile opposing opinions when disputes arise.

    Before commenting on the “Toronto issue,” he made the point of saying that in his personal opinion, and as an Episcopalian theologian in the “God business” (his phrase), he did not believe that the Lord’s Prayer belonged in AA – but he does not have the power nor the authority to dictate this. He also remarked that he was often saddened to hear how rudely some AA groups treat the drug addict who happens to wander into AA closed meetings. Since he was speaking about the future of AA, I believe he was sending a message to the membership that these are continuing issues that need to be addressed over time.

    Regarding the “Toronto issue,” he simply said that he wished both sides would “just lighten up” and get on with what we all do best – service!

    Frankly, I was pleased to hear his opinions on the first two issues and I was somewhat encouraged by his diplomatic way of sending a message (indirectly) to those of us in Toronto to resolve this issue.

    Still, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics (and later, Widening Our Gateway) in Toronto were “light” to begin with in the sense that we were merely and uncontroversially opening our doors to all who suffer, regardless of belief or non-belief. A few groups in Toronto heavy-handedly created “an issue” by presenting a motion (twice) to de-list our groups. Our subsequent defence of our right to remain as members in good standing at Intergroup ONLY THEN makes it appear that we have to “lighten up” as much as those at Intergroup who oppose us.

    I hope Vancouver Intergroup does not create the same “issue” by de-listing the two agnostic groups there. If these groups are not de-listed, Vancouver will have saved the next Chair of the Board (and others at GSO) the necessity of wishing that both sides would “just lighten up.”

    For more on GSO Board Chair, Ward Ewing, and his thoughts on AA and his role as Chair, see Joe C.’s interview with him here: Retiring GSO Board Chair, Ward Ewing reflects on his time at the helm of Alcoholics Anonymous.

  32. I do hope that GVIS is guided by the Responsability Pledge, a clear understanding of AA’s Traditions and all the wisdom outlined in this article. If so, GVIS will make a decision to be inclusive.

    Thanks for this well written article that clarifies the pro-inclusivity position.

  33. Roger: Well-put and well designed. Bill W. is not “God” either; but his experience, strength and hope — gathered and coalesced over the very difficult years of earliest A.A. — have proven over time to be the surest, safest guide to preserving the fellowship and program that have saved and enriched so many lives. You well marshall his words, words derived from painful as well as glorious experience. Thank you for this gift.
    ernie k.

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