“AA started in riots.”
Mitchell K., quoting his sponsor, Clarence Snyder.
How it Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio
By Roger C.
What would become AA was born and bred within the Oxford Group, an explicitly Christian religious movement.
The early (pre-AA) get-togethers were of “alcoholic squads” within and a part of the Oxford Group. This was true both in New York City (where at least the squad met at Bill Wilson’s home) and in Akron, Ohio, where the alcoholics “did not meet separately from the Oxford Group.” (Wikipedia) The gatherings were explicitly religious ones, and included Bible readings and prayers, with the participants often on their knees, in supplication to our Lord Jesus Christ for a reprieve from alcoholism.
Bill and the New Yorkers broke with the Oxford Group in 1937 or, as his wife Lois put it, “they were kicked out” for focussing too much on alcoholism and not enough on Christ. In Akron, however, the gatherings of the alcoholic squad remained within the Oxford Group and focussed on the principle: “Trust God, clean house and help others.”
Until “AA started in riots.”
* * *
The first AA meeting – the first meeting called “Alcoholics Anonymous” – was held in Cleveland on May 11, 1939, one month after the Big Book had been published.
To put it mildly, “the first AA meeting in the world was not uneventful.” (How It Worked, p. 142)
The previous night, the Clevelanders, who up until then met as part of the alcoholic squad every week in Akron, announced at the Akron gathering that they had decided to start their own meeting in Cleveland and make a complete break with the Oxford Group.
“You can’t do this,” Dr. Bob shouted.
“The meeting almost turned into a riot as the Cleveland Group got up as a whole and walked out.” (How It Worked, p. 140)
The next evening was much more disturbing.
According to Clarence, the entire group from Akron showed up the next night and tried to “discourage” the Cleveland meeting from happening. Discourage was a very mild term, according to Clarence; and he used it sarcastically. He said:
“The whole group descended upon us and tried to break up our meeting. One guy was gonna whip me. I want you to know that this was all done in pure Christian love… AA started in riots. It rose in riots.”
Clarence was often quoted as saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you’re liable to fall for anything.” (How It Worked, p. 142)
Thus began the very first “AA” meeting. It was completely free of the Oxford Group. “It was a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. It was a meeting held by, and for alcoholics and their families only.” (How It Worked, Mitchell K., p. 141)
And it began in riots.
* * *
A few months ago, AA Agnostica provided a form on the home page of the website for those who want to be part of organizing an agnostic AA meeting in their own communities.
The response has been remarkable with hundreds and hundreds having completed the forms. In spite of the fact that there are hundreds and hundreds of cities and towns in hundreds and hundreds of states, provinces, counties and territories throughout the world, a number of agnostic AA meetings have already been started with more coming down the pike in the next weeks and months.
Here is a sampling of some of the quotes from people who have completed the form:
“I have only been sober for 70 days, but I have been stuck on Step Two for about 50 days. I am confident that I am healthier and happier sober, but I simply do not believe in God or a Higher Power.” (Vandra)
“I have over 25 years of sobriety – having for the first 15 had a strong faith and belief in a ‘power greater than myself’ that I called god. For the past 10 years, it doesn’t make sense to me anymore and the god talk I hear at meetings keeps me away.” (Susan)
“I do not want to pray at meetings.” (Julia)
“I find it offensive to say the Lord’s Prayer. I would say that I am agnostic with a heavy leaning to atheism. The fact of the matter is that a traditional AA meeting is thoroughly Christian religious based and there is never going to be a way around that.” (Greg)
“I can’t stay sober without AA, but the god thing is a pain in the ass. It’s getting really hard to keep my mouth shut in meetings, but I don’t want to knock how someone else stays sober. I feel AA has really helped me stay sober, but god has nothing to do with it.” (Dave)
“I have been sober in AA for 17 years and have been agnostic for the last 15 of those years… For the most part I have been able to get by and keep my mouth shut on the ‘God topic.’ However for the fear of conformity I have twisted my non-theist views to appear to be theist in a lot of circumstances… But more and more I started feeling very untrue both to myself and others. I see more and more newcomers come in and get shoved out by the God talk.” (Jake)
“I have gone to AA meetings off and on for many years but the G O D thing was a large deterrent to continued attendance… I am an atheist and I cannot see that as ever changing although I have firmly believed in the need for spirituality in my life. I have been afraid to bring up my beliefs in the meetings for fear of being ostracized.” (Greg)
“There is a small group of sober AA members who are atheist or non-religious who wish to help other atheist/agnostic people benefit from the steps and fellowship. We have seen the ‘God talk’ drive a lot of newcomers straight out of the rooms.” (Lynn)
Back in the day, Clarence Snyder didn’t lead the break with the Oxford Group and the Akron gatherings because of a large number of non-believers in Cleveland. It was more because of Catholic alcoholics who were threatened with excommunication because of their participation in a Protestant organization, the Oxford Group.
Today, the differences in AA are centred around non-belief. An exponentially increasing number of people can’t abide meetings that end with the Lord’s Prayer.
Nor is that entirely new in our fellowship. While in Akron the guiding principle of the alcoholic squad was “Trust God, clean house and help others” that didn’t work in New York. There, the principle was a much simpler “Don’t drink and go to meetings.”
Even today “our more religious members” argue that the New York approach is not really AA.
The riots merely continue within Alcoholics Anonymous.
* * *
The first ever meeting in AA explicitly for nonbelievers was held on January 7, 1975, in the city of Chicago. And thus was born Quad A: Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics (AAAA).
And similar meetings sprung up in other parts of the United States… In California… In New York City…
However, in A History of Agnostic Groups in AA we learn that two-thirds of all agnostic AA group listed with the General Service Office have held their very first meetings after the millennium.
In the twenty-first century, a faith in God, personal salvation and a life after death is sinking faster than a metaphoric Titanic.
AA was always meant to be an umbrella organization for all with a desire for a reprieve from the affliction of alcoholism.
And so when the Clevelanders started the first-ever meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and broke away from the alcoholic squad anchored in the Oxford Group in order to make room for Catholics that was the right thing to do.
And so when we start new meetings and break away from the religiosity of the Christian Church in order to make room for atheists and agnostics that is the right thing to do.
You do what you have to do. As Clarence Snyder so correctly put it: “If you don’t stand for something, you’re liable to fall for anything.”
We are merely part of Alcoholics Anonymous moving from alcoholic squads of the Oxford Group in the 1930s to the new millennium.
Ever onwards and upwards.
Will some object?
Guaranteed. the White Paper, written in 2010, describes meetings for agnostics and atheists as “dangerous deviations” and call for “a course of action for eliminating them and returning our Fellowship to the pure spiritual oasis that has nourished suffering alcoholics for 75 years.”
Groups will be tossed from Intergroups and others will not be listed.
No surprise. Change doesn’t come easy for any of us. And, while we would by far prefer unity and harmony, that is not our call. We’re not the ones threatening others with “elimination,” which was the stated goal of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup when it booted two agnostic groups out of AA two and half years ago. Didn’t work.
As Clarence reminds us from his experience over seventy years ago with the first AA meeting: “One guy was gonna whip me. I want you to know that this was all done in pure Christian love… AA started in riots. It rose in riots.”
AA started in riots. If need be it will continue to rise in riots. But, if it is to fulfill the visionary mission of its founders, it must now move forward and find a way to be relevant to all suffering alcoholics in the twenty-first century.