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?
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 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.