This is the concluding chapter in the book, Don’t Tell: Stories and Essays by Agnostics and Atheists in AA
By Roger C.
There are no doubt some who, having read Don’t Tell, will wonder if it is the goal of agnostics and atheists to “change” Alcoholics Anonymous.
The fundamental answer to that question is “no.”
It might even be: “No, not at all. Our goal is to help AA realize its unquestioned primary purpose, which is to lend a helping hand to the suffering alcoholic, all suffering alcoholics.”
So let’s take a few moments to deal with the quasi-criminal accusation leveled at us by some that agnostics and atheists want to change AA. We will do so by looking at three things: the individual agnostic in the rooms, agnostic groups and alternative versions of the 12 Steps.
The individual agnostic and atheist
A person does not have to believe a thing to be a member of AA. That goes from the day he or she enters the rooms of AA until forever. This declaration of individual freedom is contained in the Third Tradition: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
That tradition is often attributed to Jim Burwell, a “self-proclaimed atheist, completely against all religion.” He was one of the very first members of the fellowship and got sober in the late 1930s with Bill Wilson in New York. He was well respected within AA and started AA groups in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Diego. He died an AA member – and a sober atheist – on September 8, 1974.
What about groups, though? Can you have agnostic groups in AA? Of course you can. Here’s the long form of Tradition Three:
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.
That’s pretty clear, right?
Well, amazingly enough, sometimes it is not.
And sometimes it will be suggested that agnostics and atheists have “affiliations” to a website, or a Facebook Page, or a philosophy, or maybe even to science. So absurd. Those who make those accusations should be careful, especially if they hold their meetings in church basements and end them with the Lord’s Prayer.
And then there are those in AA who will either ignore the Tradition or, for their own purposes, attempt to interpret it with conditions.
The author of the Traditions, Bill Wilson, recognized this and so in an effort to fully explain Tradition Three he expanded on it in an article in the Grapevine:
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, these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so! (Anarchy Melts, AA Grapevine, July 1946)
Nobody can misunderstand that.
But it can be – and sometimes is – ignored, and there are those whose interests and beliefs are best served by pretending they are unaware of the meaning of this Tradition.
Rigidity is setting in in some parts of Alcoholics Anonymous. Moreover there is a canonization of the early AA literature, as though Bill and the handful of alcoholics who put the Big Book together were the equivalent of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments.
Which leads us rather naturally to our next topic.
Alternative versions of the 12 Steps
The “true crime” for many is that agnostics and atheists – and particularly their groups – sometimes use an alternative version of the 12 Steps.
This has repeatedly been the excuse for barring or expulsing groups from AA regional meeting lists and Intergroups.
Two or three thoughts come to mind.
First, thanks to our friend Jim Burwell and a lively discussion at the time Alcoholics Anonymous was written, the Steps are “suggestions” only.
It says so right in the Big Book.
And again the author of the Steps was clear about what that means:
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)
Moreover – and this is where it starts to get bizarre – from the very first day we enter the rooms of AA we are told that we can interpret the Steps as we wish. “God as you understand Him,” don’t you know. Some then decide their higher power is going be Good Orderly Direction and others will say it’s their home group of AA. So what’s wrong with entrusting “our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us” as is suggested in a secular version of the third Step?
Nothing. Nothing at all, according to the long-standing practice within AA.
Except for some people who don’t understand, or who are confused, or who are just downright belligerent and insist upon equating Bill Wilson with Moses and the Twelve Steps with the Ten Commandments.
Or who are just a tad lacking in love and tolerance towards nonbelievers in AA.
Then there are those who will insist that the alcoholic will be confused if he or she comes into the fellowship and there are different versions of the Steps.
This fear of multiple versions of the Steps is highly exaggerated and over-dramatized.
For one thing, the newcomer, instead of feeling confusion, might very well feel a sense of freedom and liberation.
Besides – and some need to write this down somewhere – agnostics and atheists are not trying to change the original 12 Steps. Secular alternatives are not meant to replace the 12 Steps originally published in the Big Book, but are solely for the use of individuals and groups who may find them helpful.
Again, all in accordance with long-standing practice within AA.
Now, as we approach the end of this book, here’s a thought that might be worthy of consideration within all of AA.
And the thought is this: maybe agnostic groups are exactly what is needed in AA.
Maybe it’s not just a matter of tolerating our stubborn refusal to find a prescribed Higher Power, and of reluctantly acknowledging that we are alcoholics with a desire to stop drinking and so perhaps AA ought to find some way to accommodate us, even if only reluctantly and in the back rooms, so to speak.
Instead, maybe agnostic groups should be welcomed and encouraged by our fellowship.
Increasingly these days AA is viewed as a religious organization. It’s hard – if not impossible – to avoid coming to that conclusion.
Meetings are held in church basements. There is usually a huge plaque beside the podium covered with the Twelve Steps, and the word “God” (or “Power” or “Him”) appears six times in those Steps. Moreover AA meetings have become increasingly scripted, and thus meetings now often include someone reading “How it Works” which claims that God – “if He were sought” – can and will solve a person’s problem with alcohol. Enough religion yet? There is more to come. Many North American AA meetings end with the Gospel of Matthew from the New Testament, Chapter 6, Verses 9 to 13, universally known as “The Lord’s Prayer.”
As a result of this, everyone of sound mind agrees that AA is religious.
Indeed, the Courts in the United States over the last decades have repeatedly, consistently and unanimously decreed that AA is a religious program.
And as long as agnostic groups are booted out of regional Intergroups for sharing versions of the Steps without the God bit, that opinion is reinforced. It is proven to be true, in fact.
But now what would happen if the opposite were true and agnostic and atheist groups were welcomed and encouraged in AA?
Well, that’s a new ball game. That would “widen the gateway,” as Bill Wilson put it, and perhaps significantly alter the way AA is understood, both publicly and within the fellowship.
It might even be the true beginning of AA as a “spiritual not religious” program.
Ironically, agnostic groups may prove to be the very salvation of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Nor should we be surprised by that. The only goal of any and all agnostic groups is to help AA realize its unquestioned primary purpose and to lend a helping hand to the suffering alcoholic, all suffering alcoholics.
In order to access the value inherent in agnostic groups in AA and for the fellowship to move forward as a contemporary force, however, we have to once and for all drop the “Don’t Tell” policy in AA. We need to discuss the place of agnostics and atheists, and our groups, in AA in an open, honest and intelligent way.
And that’s what Don’t Tell has, proudly, been all about.