Review by Chris G.
When the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was being written there was an irritating atheist in the mix: Jim Burwell.
He was responsible for the phrase “God, as we understood Him” in the Steps and for AA’s Third Tradition: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Today, if an AA group dares to take this a step further and call itself “agnostic,” or “atheistic,” or make any changes to the Steps as published, it risks expulsion from the sacred meeting lists of its local Intergoup. What is going on? Are we here to get sober, or to argue about our religious beliefs?
This story is the subject of Roger C.’s book, A History of Agnostic Groups in AA.
From the early beginnings of individual beliefs in opposition to the “god bit,” and particularly the western Christian culture from which it came, to the current situation of Intergroups delisting AA groups who find a non-God path to sobriety, Roger takes us along the story of what has happened — so far.
The History opens with Excommunicated: the bare facts concerning the delisting of several Toronto groups in 2011 by the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup.
To set the stage, there follows a summary of the Jim Burwell’s part in the writing of the Steps, leading to Bill Wilson’s 1961 Grapevine article in which he realizes that “his early Christian evangelicism had been a serious problem.”
Agnostic groups have been a part of AA since the 1970s. Roger covers the development of these groups in sections on New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Des Moines and elsewhere in fascinating detail. He names key names in the development of these groups: Don Wilson who started the first Quad A (AAAA – Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics) in Chicago in 1975 and Charlie Polachek, who started the first group named “We Agnostics” in 1980 in Hollywood. This is interesting reading, full of quotes showing the juxtaposition of “the literature” to the real world, and how people selectively interpret it.
In the section Missteps, Roger addresses the conflicts arising when groups, in their group conscience, alter the Steps as published. Has the Big Book become a canon? For some people, you bet it has. The Misdeeds chapter can best be summarized as “it got very twisted.” In this section Roger explains the ins, outs, and twisted logic by which Intergroups and even the General Service Office (GSO) have interacted with agnostic groups. The traditions are examined and ignored at whim… there is humour here, if you are sufficiently detached from the ruckus.
Roger ends with a brilliant plea for a “Vatican II” of AA. If you are old enough to remember Vatican II, you will remember the furor it caused, and how, in the end, the Catholic Church, that bastion of old, old tradition, remarkably produced the enlightened Declaration of Religious Freedom, from which Roger quotes:
All men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others.
Does that not mirror the spirit of what AA professes, though not always practices?
Lest you leave this book feeling slightly helpless in the face of the opposition, Roger has supplied some very useful material in the appendices: a non-religious meeting format, a widely available non-theist version of the 12 Steps, and information about a wonderful resource for all things agnostic in AA: the AA Agnostica website. All suggestions, of course.
It is often said that history is written by the winners. This is an important work because it is written by a participant who is squarely in the midst of the struggle. We who are in it do see it as a struggle, but perhaps some years from now the essence of the 12 Traditions and Vatican II will prevail, and there will come a solution with no winners or losers — one of true consensus, in the spirit of our Group Conscience. In setting out the facts as they evolve, Roger can only contribute to such an eventual solution.