By Roger C.
Many of us are hopeful that this year’s General Service Conference will approve a pamphlet that welcomes agnostics and atheists in AA and, in so doing, acknowledges that a God has nothing at all to do with our sobriety.
One of the names proposed for such a pamphlet is “AA – Spiritual Not Religious.”
Let’s be clear, though. We, personally, don’t need that pamphlet. After all, we already know that we got sober in AA without the assistance of an interventionist deity. Nor do we rely on the Conference to tell us what literature will be helpful to us in either our short or long-term recovery.
Let me explain, starting with the second point.
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The term Conference-approved, according to the General Service Office “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)
Of course, as agnostics and atheists in AA we know that. Let me offer just two examples of non-conference-approved literature that have been found to be helpful in the rooms of AA.
The first is a book that was published two decades ago called A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps. Many women’s groups across North America use readings from this book, written by Stephanie Covington, at their meetings. As Linda R. reports in her review on AA Agnostica:
…this book is focused on exploring different perspectives on the Steps, in order for alcoholics to create their own path of recovery. Using the Steps as guides, the book helps them discover or rediscover what they think, feel and believe and connect this to their actions and their relations with other people in the world around them.
Why is such a book necessary? Well, read the Conference-approved Alcoholics Anonymous. Women were, at best, ignored in the Big Book, their roles understood as secondary to and supportive of the more important humans: men. Nor were the 12 Steps written with any understanding of a woman’s experience or needs.
A much more recent book that is increasingly popular for alcoholics everywhere is Joe C’s Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life. It is a wonderful book of daily reflections. I watched Joe work at writing this book for over four years, and was shocked and delighted when he published it. As Carol M. asks in her review of the book, also on AA Agnostica, “Where else would you find Sam Harris followed by Mother Teresa, Bill Wilson followed with Anais Nin, a doctor’s opinion by Dr. Seuss or a spiritual perspective from Albert Einstein?”
I am aware of Joe’s book already being used at a number of agnostic AA meetings across North America. And why is this book necessary? Simply because of its diversity, the multiplicity and the richness of the viewpoints shared in it. Daily reflection books are important. Alcoholics and addicts buy roughly 800,000 of them every single year. Most of these books are religious, explicitly Christian. This is a secular daily reflections book, and now has a vitally important place in the recovery of alcoholics and addicts.
Now, here’s the thing – neither of these books, and hundreds of others of inestimable value to those in recovery – will ever be “Conference-approved.”
Because the term “Conference-approved literature” is meant only to identify the books “solely owned, copyrighted and published” by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (AAWS). As Barefoot’s World puts it: “The statement Conference Approved in no way constitutes a list of any written documents of which an AA body approves or disapproves… What any AA member or group reads is no business of the GSO or of the Conference.” (What Conference Approved Literature Means)
So, again, back to question.
Why would we care if there is a Conference-approved pamphlet for agnostics and atheists in AA if we have no personal need for such a pamphlet and if it’s nobody’s business what we read except our very own?
Because “Conference-approved” means censorship. “Conference-approved” has come to mean the non-inclusion and expulsion of groups using non-conference approved literature.
This is not new, but it is growing worse. The tendency was the subject of a talk almost thirty years ago by the former General Service manager of the GSO, Bob Pearson. Here is what he had to say at his eighteenth and last General Service Conference in 1986:
If you were to ask me what is the greatest danger facing AA today, I would have to answer: the growing rigidity — the increasing demand for absolute answers to nit-picking questions; pressure for GSO to “enforce” our Traditions; screening alcoholics at closed meetings; prohibiting non-Conference-approved literature, i.e., “banning books;” laying more and more rules on groups and members.
Any of that sound familiar today?
In life-j’s recent article, Yet Another Intergroup Fight, he writes that “a member of the god faction even countered with a motion that in order for a meeting to be listed it… only use AA approved literature. At this point even the moderates got scared that AA would move to something more rigid than what we had started with. It may yet.”
Not it may yet. It already has in some places.
As reported in another article on this website, Booting the bastards out, the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society turfed two agnostic groups for “using non GSO conference approved literature.”
The same thing is happening as we speak in Portland, Oregon. And in perhaps a dozen other cities across the United States and Canada.
Nevertheless, some of us believe that a “Conference-approved” pamphlet that might be called “AA – Spiritual Not Religious” could be a tiny step towards encouraging the more doctrinal and literalist members of our fellowship to be more tolerant towards those members of AA who don’t believe there is a God out there in the cosmos preoccupied with helping them to not get drunk again.
I emphasize the word “tiny.”
But it could indeed help the agnostic or atheist newcomer to AA: “Hey, friend, there’s a pamphlet just for you on the literature table! Welcome!”
And if some Christian member said something remarkably asinine like, “You can’t get sober without God,” then a new option for a response is available: “That is not true. And it says so right in this Conference-approved pamphlet called ‘AA – Spiritual Not Religious.’ Here’s a copy, Christian. Please be quiet and read it.”
Or words to that effect.
And if you can’t do those two things with it, then it is not a pamphlet for agnostics and atheists and it is of no value or interest to us.
We are admittedly only discussing a short term good. What ultimately has to go is the term “Conference-approved.” Why not simply “Conference-published”? Or as Denis in Vancouver suggests, “Conference-developed”?
The term “Conference-approved” will always do far more harm than it does good. Anyone who gives it any thought at all will recognize that it is the perfect formula for censorship.
And that’s exactly what is happening.
And that is not what the fellowship of AA is about.
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Last Sunday’s post, AA – Spiritual Not Religious, attracted some wonderful comments. Towards the end of the discussion, Margaret B. posted this comment:
I just want to say that I am of the view that AA is a religious fellowship that encourages the practice of spiritual principles. All these years many of us have wanted this pamphlet but I’m not so sure it’s a good idea after all. To say that AA is “spiritual not religious” is just simply not true. Why would we want AA to publish a pamphlet encouraging this false statement; this dishonesty? All this would do is reiterate that AA continues to lie about the fact that the program is in fact faith-based! AA is a religious fellowship that tries to promote the practice of spiritual principles. That’s all… no more, no less.
I was struck by her comment and pondered it off and on for several days. And you know, she is absolutely correct. And it’s not just Margaret who is of this opinion. As Linda R. writes in The Courts, AA and Religion: “Inside AA, one hears members frequently repeat the well-known phrase ‘AA is spiritual, not religious.’ AA takes pride in saying it’s not religious. But what do outsiders, such as the court systems, think about AA’s claim?” Of course, the Courts in the United States over the last decades have repeatedly, consistently and unanimously decreed that AA is a religious program.
As long as meetings end with the Lord’s Prayer, AA is a religious program. As long as the 12 Steps include references to God and groups are booted out of regional Intergroups for writing versions of the Steps without the God-bit, AA is a religious program.
If AA truly wants to be spiritual and not religious then some serious work has to be done, and it has to be done soon.
Or as the author of Beyond Belief, Joe C., once said: ““My bold prediction is that if AA doesn’t accommodate change and diversify, our 100th anniversary will be a fellowship of men and women with the same stature and relevance as the Mennonites; charming, harmless and irrelevant.”