The Many Paths To Spirituality Pamphlet

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This agnostic alcoholic hoped the new pamphlet would help attract those without a traditional God to the program, but was sorely disappointed

Reviewed by Chris G.

My name is Chris, and I’m an agnostic alcoholic, but to most of my more casual AA friends, the ones I see in meetings every week, I’m really an atheist alcoholic. Why is that?  In my own mind, I just don’t know the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” – that’s agnostic. I also have no interest at all in an anthropomorphic interventionist god. Most of the AAs I know have one of these, and for them it’s a Him they call God. Since they just can’t understand me not having one, preferably theirs, they call me an atheist.

A lot of them have also seen me over several years, and a recent shift in my overt behaviour at meetings has surprised most of them. I came to AA a little over four years ago at the nadir of a pretty low bottom. I was 65, it was my second try at sobriety, and time was definitely running out. Any thoughts or concerns about spirituality were well and truly buried under a sea of booze at that moment. I just wanted to stop, and I was ready to do anything to stop.

So, buried agnostic that I was, I jumped into the program as hard as I could. I got an old-timer sponsor, a real Big Book man, and at my urging, he drove me through the Steps, God and all. It was just what I needed, and I will thank that man for the rest of my life, literally. For three years I did the God thing in my program, along with the rest of the Steps, and life kept getting better.

Then a strange thing happened. As my mind continued to clear, my agnosticism began to surface. I was getting “restless, irritable and discontent” – when I went to meetings! Chapter four, We Agnostics, of the Big Book is based on the premise that an agnostic or atheist, if he sticks around long enough, will eventually see the Light. Well, I was doing it backwards. I went in trying as hard as I could to do the God thing, since I was told by most AAs that God was the key to sobriety, but I was snapping back to my lifelong agnosticism (or atheism, if you have one of those God things in your head).

I struggled very hard for most of my fourth year, and that is a whole story I’ll tell somewhere else. I finally “came out”; I started saying new and startling things in sharing. Surprise! Disbelief! “I wouldn’t give you a penny for his sobriety a month from now!”

The point is, at the end, I discovered that not only does the AA program work just fine without a god in your life, there are countless agnostic and atheistic AA members out there who have discovered the same thing. The program works, period. God is optional for many of us.

We are mainstream AA, we are part of Tradition Three. We are working the program, staying sober, and growing in life, sobriety, happiness, and usefulness to others, without the God of the Big Book.

But you would never know it, if you are an outsider, maybe a newcomer, looking at AA as the public sees it today.  Today’s religious AA is scaring so very many people away.

And that is why an AA pamphlet, that tells how AA works very well for agnostics, atheists, or anyone at all without traditional Western religion, is so important.

Such a pamphlet was first proposed about 40 years ago, but was repeatedly rejected by one Conference after another. Since it was finally approved by the General Service Council in April, we hoped Many Paths to Spirituality would be the welcoming tract we have been waiting for.

While the intent of the Conference in approving this pamphlet is commendable, the pamphlet itself comes across as totally ignorant of our concerns, if not an outright insult.

* * *

The words “atheist” and “agnostic” are used exactly three times each in the pamphlet. “God” is used nine times. “Higher power” appears thirteen times. Variations on “pray” are there nine times.

It is not the frequency of these words that is important, but how they are used that matters.

At the beginning of the pamphlet we find the first “God” reference:

Some members return to their religious roots, others find different spiritual paths. Some may find this “God of their understanding,” yet never become involved with organized religion. Still others make the A.A. group itself their higher power.

But one thing was sure – whatever our backgrounds, our beliefs or our lack of belief – our drinking had gotten out of hand.

This is pure “Chapter 4”, in my view.  It tells me that a God of some sort, a higher power, is expected of us in the program.

The “our lack of belief” is as close as the pamphlet comes anywhere to recognizing atheists and agnostics.

 And it gets worse, as in the next God reference:

As we became more familiar with A.A., we began to realize the deep significance in the phrasing of A.A.’s Twelve Steps, which emphasize “a Power greater than ourselves,” and “God, as we understand him.”

These words and A.A.’s traditional commitment to inclusivity provided comfort to many of us, leaving the door to spirituality open for alcoholics of all faiths, beliefs, and practices, and allowing each of us to determine for himself or herself just what to believe.

“Deep significance”, and “comfort to many”. What am I missing here? There is no comfort for me or other agnostics and atheists in emphasizing “a Power greater than ourselves” or “God, as we understand him.”

Where are the words for those of us who do not believe in mystical gods and powers? Is that supposed to be hidden in “all faiths, beliefs, and practices”? Where is an explicit reference to NON-belief?  The authors can’t seem to comprehend that idea, and thus the pamphlet begins its apparent mission of dodging the issue as if it were not real.

The pamphlet is structured with paragraphs of AA advice, interspersed with quotations that are presumably the words of AA members.  Presumably, the quotes from AAs are meant to give substance to the direction provided by the AA text.  So we find the first “real AA” saying this about God:

“My sponsor encouraged me to choose my own conception of a higher power. It didn’t need a gender, or a name, or any human attributes – it just had to be ‘a power greater than myself’. It was then that I realized that the Fellowship, though comprised of human beings, represented a power greater than anything human. Even more surprisingly, by taking the Steps in my own clumsy way, supported by the unconditional love of my fellow alcoholics, I had discovered a quiet, inner voice – a God within.”

If the pamphlet was truly meant for agnostics and atheists, what are we supposed to make of this God within? This is telling me I can believe as I like, as long as I believe in something that starts with a capital G.

There are some references to prayer that might be humorous if this was not such a serious matter.  Here are three quotes from the presumed “real AAs”:

Many Paths Pamphlet“But I knew that the days I prayed seemed to go better than the days I didn’t, even when I thought I was praying to my bed spread.”

“… that my Higher Power was not the same as yours, that praying and the posture I use to pray does not alter my Jewishness but is necessary for my recovery. Today I can even recite the Lord’s Prayer without feeling guilty since it was pointed out to me in ‘How it Works’ that I have to go to any length to get and stay sober.”

“I pray to this inner resource and ask to know what it would have me do and to give me the strength to do it.”

Pray, pray, pray … it is all through the pamphlet.  Whoever wrote this simply does not understand that we are people who, by and large, do not pray at all.  Speaking for myself, prayer means a one-sided plea to a supernatural entity, and this sort of twaddle is just what I hear at meetings that drive me to d…, well, not quite that.

Several of the AA quotes in the pamphlet are complete nonsense if this was really written to attract atheists and agnostics.  They have to do with other religions being acceptable to AA: someone incorporating “basic Buddhist practices” as “an awesome way to improve my conscious contact with the God of my understanding“, a Sioux/Blackfoot woman who was happy to be allowed to continue with the Great Spirit as her higher power, and a “devout, lifelong Catholic” who makes this remarkable statement:

“I’m uncomfortable, though, with anyone citing the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, or any non-A.A. literature as the truth in an A.A. meeting. But I certainly give them the right to refer to or even quote (briefly) from any of these texts if it’s part of their A.A. experience.”

So not only is our Catholic friend in the pamphlet in the first place, he seems to be hinting that A.A. literature is the only truth. Really?  This is very confusing. How is that supposed to attract someone like me to AA?  All the literature published by AA, so far, including this pamphlet, is founded on the God/higher power requirement, in spite of footnotes to the contrary, and it has become virtually canonized in many meetings.

The very last “real AA” quote in the pamphlet is probably the worst, for me:

“Using the inner resource I have discovered in A.A. as a higher power, I have been able to do the Steps just as they are written in the Big Book. I pray to this inner resource and ask to know what it would have me do and to give me the strength to do it. I carry this message to others. It works! I am experiencing a spiritual awakening and I feel all the promises coming true. I feel better inside than I have in years.

 “I am now sponsoring several men and it is a wonderful feeling to see another alcoholic get sober. I am proof that it is possible to be an atheist on matters of the supernatural but still have a spiritual awakening and reap the rewards of the A.A. program of recovery.”

I do not do the steps exactly as they were written in the Big Book! I have taken the supernatural out of them for my own sobriety and sanity. I do not pray. I do not compartmentalize my atheism in one side of my brain so that I can pray to something with the other side. I do not have to do this to stay sober. I have all kinds of spiritual experiences, which I recognize as significant emotional events capable of helping to reprogram my booze-battered brain.  These events almost invariably come from interacting with my AA peers, in and out of meetings, not from praying.

As the end piece in the pamphlet, this last quote should be a summary, a take-away in biz-speak. It shows just how little the authors have understood the ones they are trying to reach.

The pamphlet does not tell how AA works for atheists and agnostics.

First, it shows a deep misunderstanding of who we are.

Second, it confuses the issue with “other religions and beliefs”.

And third, it perpetuates the Chapter 4 myth that we will eventually get God if we stick around.

While I applaud the Conference for, at last, making this attempt, I wish they had found a few sober atheists and agnostics to help with it – that would have shown recognition and respect.

Many Paths to Spirituality fails to speak to the reality of agnostics and atheists in AA who have found sobriety within our fellowship without a belief in God or a Higher Power.

If the Conference thinks that it has satisfied any agnostics and atheists like me, it will find that the pamphlet will add to the problem, rather than being part of the solution.

───────

Here is a direct link to the pamphlet: Many Paths to Spirituality.

A PDF of the ratings of and comments on the pamphlet (as of August 17, 2014) is available here: Many Paths to Spirituality – Ratings and Comments. Please feel free to share it with GSRs, Area delegates and others in AA.


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The Many Paths To Spirituality Pamphlet — 68 Comments

  1. I hope that after reading this post and our collective comments some GSO people will understand that this pamphlet was ill conceived and does not reflect the reality of AA in 2014 and requires an honest review and rewrite.

    Perhaps its time for the GSO and the folks who are/were responsible for this to put Step Ten “Continued to take personal inventory and when wrong, promptly admitted it” into practice.

    The AA fellowship is too valuable to allow the close mindedness demonstrated in the history of the pamphlet and the behaviour of some Intergroups to jeopardize its future.

  2. I see what I look for in this pamphlet. When I was new to AA, I may have responded better to “Many Paths to Sobriety”, and the handshakes and phone numbers written on the back of pamphlets mattered more to me anyways and still do. I responded better to compassion than anything else. Having said that, today I see this pamphlet as progress very similar to my own recovery – slow, gradual, and mostly beyond my immediate control. For me, AA works when we all speak out own truths, honestly. Let’s keep moving forward. Grateful to be sober today.

  3. Spirituality is the sugar tit or rubber pacifier in place of sucking your thumb. Recovery means no more momma, poppa, big sister or brother. It’s time to grow up, shed all those childish fears and go out and live life to the fullest while free of whatever substance you were hung up on and leaning on.

  4. On Spirituality

    Historically, the words religion and spiritual have been used synonymously. This is no longer so. The significant increase of people claiming SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) status and philosophical considerations of spiritual as differentiated from religion has led to a separation of the two terms.

    I personally do not equate a spiritual experience with a religious one. It can be both for those who have a religious inclination. However, a spiritual experience can be simply that, without any religious overtone or association.

    Consider the two following examples, from Carl Sagan, the atheist cosmologist famous for his popular books and the show “Cosmos.”

    Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, than sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

    And, here are some of the examples I used in the story I submitted to the trustees’ Committee of Literature when I thought they were actually interested in stories from atheists and agnostics as well as from theists.

    I wrote about how reflecting on the location of Earth in a lesser part of the Milky Way and that our galaxy being only one of millions helps me put my issues and problems into perspective.

    I commented on the feelings of awe I experience when looking at the stars, realizing that their light is vastly older than I am and that many of those stars no longer exist, their last light has not yet reached us.

    I challenged the readers to reflect on the nature of light and its speed and not be moved (a spiritual experience) by the realization that light travels at over 186,000 miles per second but slows to 77,500 miles per second while passing through a diamond, and then resumes the 186,000 per second when it exits the diamond.

    These are but a few awesome, moving, spiritual experiences I shared in my unused story, in which I also told of my atheism.

    I hold that anything that moves one, anything that fills one with wonder or awe, anything that inspires one to positive action is spiritual. It does not take a god or a religion to move me to the core.

    • “Death closes all: but something ere the end,
      Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
      Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
      The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
      The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
      ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
      Push off, and sitting well in order smite
      The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
      To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
      Of all the western stars, until I die.

      It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
      It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
      And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
      Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
      We are not now that strength which in old days
      Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
      One equal temper of heroic hearts,
      Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
      To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

      Alfred, Lord Tennyson in “Ulysses”

    • Einstein put it this way:

      The scientist’s religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work… It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages.

      Albert Einstein, Mein Weltbilt, 1934.

      I’ve always liked this, although I question “an intelligence”; not that I totally reject it, I just wonder where in time and space it might “live”.

      • Science may not be incompatible with a loosely defined, and fuzzy “spirituality” as in Einstein’s perceived pantheistic monism, however, it is starkly incompatible with theism proper. Therein lies the rub.

        This basic incompatibility goes to the heart of AA’s problems with informed nonbelievers.

        It is the ancient, historical problem of forms of Supernaturalism vs. Naturalism in all its forms.

        The one is a Bronze Age “religious” answer, the other is in line with all lines of modern human empirical investigation and philosophy.

        The one says the Emperor is fully clothed and standing in the middle of the room, the other says, and can demonstrate, the Emperor, if he exists is starkly naked.

        Never the twain shall meet.

      • Swami Vivekenanda was a major factor in bringing yoga to the west in the late 1800’s. In Pathways To Joy, he talks about vedantism, as well as other religious ideas. In it he discusses other spiritual and religious ideas and experiences, such as Christianity, as part of the greater movement towards wholeness. Our apparent separation from the rest of nature, and even from god, is given a kind of consolation… Our having become lost in “things” and belief in a cold dark universe, is seen as a natural part of progression towards truth and realization of our connectedness and inherent enjoyment of “life”. From this perspective we are life itself, and I don’t have a life but am life. The swami also puts to rest the idea that we are born separate and “in sin”, but rather we are born free, in joy and power, a creature who must come to terms not with our inherent sinful nature, but with our amazing power and perfect nature. The human is the miracle it has always been searching for, and books beliefs and institutions are secondary, limiting things. Therefore, the idea that “the program is perfect worked by imperfect people” is a mistake, an the opposite of the truth. One of the results of the practice of yoga is the consolation of opposites that might seem to “never meet”. The holding of paradox in the mind is freeing and necessary.

    • Thanks for your post. As an agnostic, I view the spiritual experience much like the experience of joy or love. I think it’s undeniable that some people have had the experience. The difference between spirituality and joy is that spirituality is often associated with religion so some people want to dismiss it as delusional because they’ve never had the experience. We don’t do the same with joy even though it may be very difficult for many people to experience.

      I think that many spiritual people don’t really care about the source or about religious institutions or doctrine any more than someone might care about the source of joy or love. It feels good and it can be healing, maybe it’s just the production of endorphins in the brain or maybe it’s some sort of quantum experience or maybe a combination of the two. Who cares?

  5. There are both a long, and a short form for AA’s 12 Traditions, so in the spirit of “Keep It Simple,” I offer a short version of the new pamphlet.

    Atheists, agnostics, pagans, heathens, we exhort you to pretend you aren’t. And PLEASE, when saying the Lord’s Prayer at meetings, try to look both intense and sincere. You can practice at home in front of the bathroom mirror.

    And NO MUMBLING!!!!

    God bless!

    bob k.

    • Is willingness to look both intense and sincere and not to mumble sufficient for full membership?

    • About 12 years ago my home group, which has membership of about 200 members had a motion on the floor at our business meeting to stop saying the Lord’s Prayer, the motion passed. Some members were unhappy , most members stayed to become stronger members, some left and started their own group.
      My suggestion to people who have a problem one way or the other, start your own group; that’s the way AA grows. Cheers Daniel

  6. Is this pamphlet a success? Well we shall see. As a non believer if you are treated with a little more condescension, maybe a little patronizing at the tables in the future the the answer is yes.
    This was not written for us nor the newcomer. It was penned for the “opiated masses”. “Oh, yes Bill. Thank you for sharing. We certainly respect your views” with a slight smirking smile and a knowing glance at their compadres, “after all, didn’t we just publish a pamphlet stating just that?”
    I will cast my vote when this garbage arrives at the groups I attend.

  7. I just reread the pamphlet. This struck me as interesting: “With time, we came to recognize that we could stay sober and enjoy full membership in the
    Fellowship, regardless of our beliefs.”
    Is this idea of full membership new? How does one get ‘full’ membership? By saying the Lord’s Prayer and finding a Higher Power of one’s own understanding (maybe AA itself), praying to It and calling It ‘God’?

  8. I propose a new project.

    Yes, Bill did write that awful Chapter 4. But he also wrote gems like this:

    So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most antisocial, 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! (from “The Individual In Relation to A.A. as a Group”, July 1946, © A.A. Grapevine)

    There are other non-believer-friendly passages and snippets – in Bill’s own words no less – scattered throughout the A.A. canon. What if someone were to compile those into on booklet? We could title it: “The Agnostic Reader: A non-conference-approved compilation of Bill W.’s conference-approved writings”.

    Thoughts? Suggestions? Cross-talk? 🙂

    • What a fantastic idea. I have been writing in favour of a whole new reading of even the big book, which says all kinds of different things, many of which are not god- stuff

      • Thanks for this marvelous suggestion Ed. Life-j, who has made several cogent comments here and who coordinates the AA Agnostica Chat Room, has suggested that we create such a book, which he tentatively titled “As Bill Also Sees it.”

    • This quote thrills me to no end! I had seen it someplace else and was looking for it so thank you! I agree with another poster who commented on the opinions section that it may be virtually impossible to provide an appropriate pamphlet addressing agnostics/atheists and still maintain the integrity of the original 12-steps in AA’s mind – it opens up too large a can of worms. I can be very critical about Bill W. but I honestly think he was quite open minded and would love this idea. I started moderation in late January and I miss my AA and this gives me hope that I can moderate and still hang on to all of the wonderful things AA has taught me. I met another gal about a month ago who feels the same. Maybe there are others like me, and that is another topic. 🙂

    • … this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through regardless of their belief or LACK OF BELIEF. (AA Comes of Age, on origin of the 12 Steps)
      Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything (Step Two, 12+12)
      In such an atmosphere the orthodox, the unorthodox, and the unbeliever mix happily and usefully together… (As Bill Sees It, p158)
      Every AA has the privilege of interpreting the program as he likes. (As Bill Sees It, p16)
      AA must never … enter the field of dogma or theology. (As Bill Sees It, p116)
      Most Steps are open to interpretation, based on the experience and outlook of the individual (As Bill Sees It, p191)
      I have had many experiences with atheists, mostly good. Everybody in AA has a right to his own opinion. It is much better to maintain an open and tolerant society than it is to suppress any small disturbances their opinions might occasion. (As Bill Sees It, p276)
      And so on.

  9. I got the clue when I heard the name of the pamphlet. Many Paths to Spirituality implies in its name that everyone will come around to God eventually. Was there any doubt that it would come to the same conclusion as We Agnostics?

    Still, I read this pamphlet with hope that perhaps they would understand that not every one needs or wants any form of a diety to get or stay sober.

  10. The 60th General Service Conference (2010) passed the following Advisory Action (#17), “It was recommended that the trustees’ Committee on Literature develop literature which focuses on spirituality that includes stories from atheists and agnostics who are successfully sober in Alcoholics Anonymous, and bring a draft or progress report to the 2011 Conference Committee of Literature.” (Emphasis added)

    Under a tight deadline (three months), over 200 stories of 500-800 words were submitted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous for possible inclusion in the called for literature.

    In 2014, four years in the process, the trustees’ Committee on Literature came up with a pamphlet which barely focuses on spirituality and does not contain stories from atheists and agnostics who are successfully sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. In fact it does not contain stories, but only brief comments.

    As a former believer, who joined AA as a serious doubter (agnostic), and became a confirmed, committed atheist while a member of AA, I am sadly disappointed with the work of the trustees’ Committee on Literature and the various General Service Conferences. Something enlightened, noble, and welcoming was called for. They produced a theistic focused nothing. I am disappointed but not surprised.

    Clearly they neither understand nor welcome agnostics and atheists and probably did not include any in their four years of “effort.”

    • Thank you Paul, you have expressed my sentiments exactly.

      Something enlightening, nobel and welcoming was called for. They produced a theistic focused nothing.

      It appears there was little research, thought or planning put into this pamphlet in spite of the number of Agnostic groups that are registered at GSO who would have been available for source material and suggestions to whoever wrote this.

      Perhaps its time for the folks at GSO to take a fresh look at step 10.

      I’m not holding my breath on this one!

      • I agree with a lot of the comments here, but the question is, what can we do about this that can make a difference?

      • The pamphlet that I think is still called for and certainly within reach is what was described above – stories by atheists/agnostics and as an aside, apostates too (I think many AAs buy the whole “so there is a God that has a plan for me; may I find Him now” idea and later let go of the God idea, finding a sobriety without god not lacking in the least).

        Every other “minority” pamphlet from Gays and Lesbians in AA, Women, Young People, Native Americans, etc., are stories in their own words.

        What can be done? Tell your GSR, become a GSR and tell your DCM, invite your Delegate to your agnostic AA and ask her or him if they will support a literature initiative that satisfies this vibrant community within AA. Go to your Regional Forum and talk to GSO staff. Write your story for the Grapevine. Grapevine creates books too (maybe Came to Reason could accompany Came to Believe on the literature table).Maybe the WAFTIAAC committee could collect stories over the next couple and present them to the Literature desk. These are just ideas. Getting involved in service within the AA structure is a good idea, too. There are ways to make a difference.

      • I totally agree with Joe C.’s suggestion to become involved in the messy, sloppy, at times maddening work of doing service within one’s District and Area.

        I represent Portland Oregon’s Beyond Belief Meeting as GSR at District 9 and Oregon Area 58 gatherings. Our meeting has had nothing but positive support from our district and I have become very friendly with our current Area Delegate, whose from the New York City area where I received the gift of sobriety in AA. I registered our group with GSO through the Area’s Registrar, and we are a legitimate AA group with GSO Number 711575.

        When I first approached the Portland Area Intergroup Office about listing our meeting, the manager and I had several “debates” in which it was his considered opinion that we were not and could not be an AA group because we used alternative versions of the 12 Steps — a lot of his discussion resonated with ideas from the infamous “White Paper” that influenced both the Toronto and Vancouver, BC Intergroups to delist our meetings. He suggested instead that we form an organization outside of AA, such as extremely fundamentalist Christians have done with Alcoholics Victorious.

        Nevertheless, he requested that I send him a copy of our meeting format. Apparently the Cosmic Trickster must have been on duty that day, because he couldn’t open the document, so he listed us anyway in the online version of Portland Area AA meetings. Yesterday, I visited the Intergroup Office and provided him with a small check our group decided to disburse to the Intergroup Office. He was delighted and assured me that our group would be listed in the next printing of hard meeting schedules.

        Doing this service work for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers within the framework of AA has been extremely rewarding as well as being the primary focus of my continuing experience of the “daily reprieve,” along with regularly contributing to AA Agnostica during this the 42nd year of my recovery. A day at a time I shall continue to be a source of experience, strength and hope for other like-minded and spirited members of AA, especially newcomers.

  11. Thanks for the article.
    I disagree, mainly.
    I see the pamphlet as an improvement , an attempt at inclusion. Part of AA’s roots are Christian, and intensely so, when you consider the Oxford group. AA also disregarded Bill W’s pamphlet on niacin and other experiences he had with dr Hoffer in the 1950’s and 60’s. Niacin is today considered highly effective for recovering alcoholics, and some of the typical ways they suffer.
    And what do you mean by agnostic? Agnosticism generally means you cannot use reason to prove the existence of god. In that sense, it is a version of skepticism, a long western tradition for sharpening truth and how we get at the truth. My problem is that by aligning so strongly with an “I don’t believe” position, you are
    really forming another belief…. This time against the position that god exists. Are you willing to accept in true agnostic, skeptical, fashion, that your reason in that position is also limited? In the end we will have a church of people so convinced of their reasonable non belief that they are no longer agnostic. They are believers.
    Also, this rather stark position may prevent non believers from experiencing what might better be called a “transcendental psychology”. I refer here to Ken Wilber and am including Taoists as well. These people relate an experience (NOT another belief) that exists beyond the personality of the individual, which could be labelled unified consciousness, or “oneing”. At wht point do we allow something like that to be possible? If it’s based in science? Science itself is leading us to simply miraculous conclusions about the brain, for example, and how it does what it does. The staunch position you employ is not the best agnosticism, but it claims it. It also does not allow for unitive consciousness to begin to emerge, and we can talk about that phenomenon all day without recourse to terms like “spirituality” “religion” and “god”.

    Bob c

    • Well said. It’s a difficult topic, I agree with many if not most concerns that atheists have with AA culture but when it crosses the line to asserting their non-belief as a superior point of view, nothing much will be accomplished. It reflects the larger debate in society which is nothing but more divisiveness.

      I think it’s interesting that a Muslim, a Jew, a Sikh, a pagan, or myself, a gay agnostic Buddhist, may feel as much a threat from Christian fundamentalism as an atheist might feel. This is the same with AA, any sign that a meeting or AA as an institution is becoming Christian is a threat to many people, some of these people might be very religious. People believing in god or their particular religion doesn’t bother me, I don’t see my non-theistic Buddhism as superior, but hearing the Our Father at meetings has always made me cringe.

    • The point at which I join this community is in support of freedom of thought. I see the inherent and often explicit anti-intellectualism in AA culture as extremely dangerous. Too often I have heard the same litany, from different people, in different meetings. “Yes, AA is brainwashing. When I got here, my brain needed washing.” “Your best thinking got you here.” “I knew I needed to quit the debating society.” There was even a letter posted in a recent Grapevine where a woman expressed her gratitude to old timers who “corrected” her thinking in early recovery.

      To label myself, if I must, I’d say I am an evolving secular humanist with Buddhist tendencies. But I want AA to be there for atheists, Christians, and everybody else. I also want people to be able to be free and true to themselves. I was in a meeting last year where a member spoke up about his atheism, and how uncomfortable he was with the lords prayer. Guess how the meeting ended, with a prayer of another member’s “choice”. This shouldn’t be happening.

    • Thanks Bob. I completely agree with your sentiments. This group is a bit too heavy handed and rigid for me and I am glad to learn now so as not to waste my time and money at the convention.

      I am an atheist who prays and I absolutely know that self-will run riot almost ran me to an early grave.

      Best to all

      • Dear Jo,

        There is always the paradox involved with any group or society that promotes tolerance for a variety of views: the more variety (which is what we want), the more chances that something is said that will seem to offend the very spirit of tolerance on which the promotion of diversity is based.

        We are a very autonomous bunch of individuals here at AA Agnostica it seems!

        There is an old Jewish joke and its wording only changes depending on the size of the population of Israel at the time the joke is spoken: “There are 8 million Jews in Israel, and 8 million political parties.”

        There is probably not a single contributor to AA Agnostica who hasn’t, at one time, wanted to lash out, trash, or “correct” another fellow contributor who has offered a comment or opinion he/she finds suspect, nuts, or simply wrong. A diversity of reactions to what is said or written is, of course, the price we pay for a commitment to democratic principles.

        With that being said. I think you and Bob C. are in good company with another fellow atheist who saw that we often make another belief out of our “unbelief.” I’ve quoted the following on this website before in another context but I offer it here again. It’s Nietzsche from Joyful Wisdom:

        But you don’t understand it? As a matter of fact, an effort will be necessary in order to understand us. We seek for words; we seek perhaps also for ears. Who are we after all? If we wanted simply to call ourselves in older phraseology, atheists, unbelievers, or even immoralists, we should still be far from thinking ourselves designated thereby: we are all three in too late a phase for people generally to conceive, for you, my inquisitive friends to be able to conceive what is our state of mind under the circumstances. No! We have no longer the bitterness and passion of him who has broken loose, who has to make for himself a belief, a goal, and even martyrdom out of his unbelief!

        Perhaps some us are still stuck on words (the AA traditionalists certainly are) and still stuck within a bitterness toward a traditional AA that has abused us, or not welcomed us fully by not living up to its central tenets that the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking, and that our gateway must be wide enough so that all who suffer may pass through, regardless of belief or unbelief (as, of course, Bill Wilson phrased it).

        You have “broken loose” and no longer (if you ever did) have this bitterness, perhaps. Be patient with those of us who still need to get “stuff” of our chests, or who are trying in good faith, sometimes by trial and error, to come up with the best strategies to fight the “good fight” so that one day, yes, all who suffer may pass through regardless of belief or unbelief.

        I offer one last quotation from religionless French writer, poet and playwright, Jean-Christophe Bailly. I believe you, Jo, are coming from the same recognition that something more still has to come from we atheists, we agnostics, and free spirits: “Atheism has not managed to irrigate its own desert.”

        Personally Jo, I hope you surprise us and we find you in Santa Monica in November. —John

  12. We will not be ignored. The WAFT convention will bring about something new. I am excited. Sober 30 years and the last five in Freethinkers meetings. They KEPT me from leaving AA. I didn’t even know meetings like that existed, until five years ago. We WILL change this ancient way of thinking… ONE unbelieving drunk at a time. The god bullies must be placed in their Westbureau Baptist Place by major action.

    • Very similar story Pam,

      I don’t know if I would still be going to AA if I hadn’t found a community of Freethinkers. Beyond Belief, the Toronto meeting is 5 years old next month.

      It was 1976 when I got here and gave up the drink (and drugs). Many of my peers are no longer here. Sure, many are dead (I got here young) but many have carried on in a sobriety that doesn’t include more than a few AA meetings a year, if that. A friend of over 25 years (who is as much a believer as I am an atheist) hasn’t been to his home group for over a year. Not a single call; that was an eye-opener for him. He got tired of the zombies repeating platitudes and cliches without thought or effort. Maybe he’ll come back; maybe one day he’ll miss it.

      He is open-minded to going back but he longs for a time, when in his AA hood, people discussed sobriety and alcoholism without cliche and 75 year old authorities that are referred to as conversation stoppers.

      But I found a community of seekers and freethinkers; we don’t agree on everything. We don’t have consensus on much, if anything. But we do appreciate the community of AA and (clean and) sober living. See you in Santa Monica.

  13. I have mixed reactions to the pamphlet, but I am EXTREMELY disappointed that the “powers that be” decided to do some pimping for the Lord’s Prayer within this particular brochure.

    • Bob,

      Yep. The little business on the “Lord’s Prayer” is simply further documentary evidence that AA is “religious” rather than some fuzzy “spiritual” program.

      The pamphlet is an abortion without a fetus.

  14. The condesention and lack of understanding found in this pamphlet are the sort of things that convinced me that I was never going to be able to maintain my sobriety long-term within the framework of AA. The fundamental differences were just too great to be overcome. That’s why I started a LifeRing meeting in my area of east central Florida. It has solved my dilemma without the trouble of fighting an established mindset. We meet, talk sobriety, and support each other – all without any mention of God, spirituality, or “Higher Powers”. I don’t feel the need to set foot in an AA room again.

  15. “This circle isn’t a very good square!”

    Chris, I love your candid and articulate writing style. I related to your story. I relate to your suggestion that your story isn’t told in this new pamphlet. If “the understanding” was that this pamphlet was for agnostics and atheists and by agnostics and atheists, this circle isn’t a very good square. That’s because this is a pamphlet about spirituality, shooting right up the middle of AA. It is not a pamphlet about those of us whose happy, joyous and free sobriety does not include praying or believing in god(s).

    I don’t relate to praying atheists but I am happy they have found what they are looking for in AA. I don’t relate to belief in an interfering, sobriety and serenity granting, prayer answering higher power but I am happy that people who do, find what they are looking for in AA.

    In social media rap sessions about this pamphlets I hear a lot of polarizing “us vs. them” talk. Do we want to be included in the AA structure or do we want it changed to suit our worldview? Do we want to be surrounded by bobble-headed agreement or included in a tapestry of diverse worldviews? Hey, I fantasize about hearing, “You were right, Joe and I was wrong.” Who wouldn’t want vindication and/or victory? But why do I need other people’s approval or agreement?

    I would welcome a pamphlet that tells our stories – not unlike Chris’s story which is shared here. Every other minority has a pamphlet that tells their story in their words. As a wild guess I would say there are more atheists in AA than teenagers and teens have their own pamphlet. Any home group that can’t wait for that day, can write their own pamphlet. GSO doesn’t disapprove of any literature that group’s find helpful. Every group, as Tradition Five reminds us, shares ITS message, not THE message. AA doesn’t define addiction or recovery and in this pamphlet it doesn’t try to define spirituality. I wouldn’t know how comfortable I would be seeing the atheist story told under the banner of spirituality. The word itself, whatever it means, doesn’t resonate with everyone.

    I have been following the progress of this pamphlet for some time. If I helped promulgate the idea that this was going to be an Atheist/Agnostic pamphlet, I am sorry. In social media I see that literalists are hostile towards this pamphlet for it’s irresponsible suggestion atheism is legitimate AA. Reformers don’t like it because they think it’s time for GSO to apologize for getting it wrong, scrap everything and start over.

    It will be curious to see how many groups make room for “Many Paths to Spirituality” on their literature table. Not every believer treats this literature as a triumph. Not every nonbeliever treats it as an insult. They say that if you haven’t found anyone you disagree with or dislike in AA, you haven’t been to enough meetings. It’s also true that if you can’t find someone you relate to in AA, try another dozen meetings. Hey start your own. We don’t need permission or “conference approval” to start meetings, agree on a format or even write a pamphlet. So, sure I would like a square but I am not going to get mad at a circle for not meeting my needs.

  16. Good review — fair, comprehensive, and not a bit too severe. I object to the very title: “Many Paths to Spirituality” (MPS). For nonbelievers like me, the word “spirituality” is not positive. We take a dim view of “faith”, “belief”, “spirituality and other quasi-religious words. The words “spiritual” or “spirituality” are used no fewer than 32 times in MPS. The word “reason” is not used even once.

    On the whole, MPS is little better than Bill W.’s loathsome Chapter 4 (“To the Agnostic”). The impression is given that we non-believers are merely following a “different spiritual path”, that our atheism or agnosticism can co-exist with “spirituality”. No. When we reject religion, we reject muddled, fuzzy, mystical thinking in favor of a clear-headed orientation to the real world.

    Although nonbelievers have been treated as second-class members of A.A., the intellectual and moral high ground belongs to us. Nearly a century of sociological studies have shown that nonbelievers are better educated, more intelligent, and more law-abiding than religionists.

    MPS ends by printing Bill W.’s 12 Steps, exactly as he wrote them. This religious claptrap gets the final word in a work originally intended for those of us who are above religion. Yes, I mean that — above religion.

    • Nonbelievers are better educated, more intelligent, and more law-abiding, maybe we should add and more humble. Cheers Daniel.

  17. I join the consensus in saying this pamphlet is a waste of time for freethinkers, a feeble attempt by GSO.

    I think it’s time to write a pamphlet ourselves, for the nontheist drunks following after us. They deserve a chance to get sober, a chance that GSO seems indifferent to.

    Roger, you need one more thing on your “to do” list, don’t you? AAagnostica would be the perfect vehicle to solicit stories from WAFTs. Perhaps it could be posted on your site, and be downloaded/printed around the world as needed. I know the whole AAAgnostica site serves as a treasury of our thoughts, but we do need a concise hard copy pamphlet.

    Thank you all for my sobriety.

  18. JESUS, she said, sarcastically!
    OMG this is NOT written by us, (I hope) I’m sure, and don’t the cute little arrows point UPWARD.
    OMG, this makes me so angry.
    This is not for us, this is about us and in my mind it’s NOT acceptable.
    I can’t see any non-believer or agnostic or atheist writing this. This is a continuation of the con job to ‘believe in a higher power and we want you to believe its god”, or else.
    I too am an ‘elderly poor soul’ (HA) but I only made it 3 months and celebrated the 3rd with a drink and, as any exbecausee will do, I don’t want to hear anything about powers and gods and praying. I do not believe in god period, or organized religion and I really think I say I’m ‘spiritual’ because its cute. Just because I like the aboriginal lore stories about bears and wolves etc. doesn’t make me an Indian.
    I have ‘happy moments of joy’ but it’s not because some ‘hand of god’ is doing anything to me.
    This gibberish just galls me.
    Don’t placate me.
    Write something we understand.
    This isn’t some club we are joining.
    I will come back to meetings soon but I think perhaps the days of the ‘regular meetings’ are definitely over.
    And NO it’s not because god is not helping me or that I am not praying enough, it’s because I’m drinking alcohol, period.
    Lordy, any wonder with all this antagonizing crap out there.

  19. I think the pamphlet is nothing more than a scrap thrown a hungry dog.

    The proverbial they still expects us to come around.

    A.A.’s roots are pietistic evangelical Xty and nothings gonna change.

  20. Thanks for the review, the pamphlet seems to have a lot of good perspectives that may help people but I agree that it falls far short of helping with inclusiveness of atheists and agnostics.

    I disagree with the interpretation of the quote from the Catholic AA member. I’m very bothered by it but for different reasons. I don’t interpret his quote as saying that AA literature is the only truth, it’s a concern about bringing religious doctrine into meetings. What bothers me is that the brochure seems to say that AA approves of this practice. I would walk out of a meeting and never come back if quoting the Bible or Koran was a regular practice. Fortunately, I’ve not seen this happen at the meetings I’ve attended.

    I’m also bothered by the reference to the Lord’s prayer, it’s a Christian prayer and has no place in AA, it’s not in the Big Book and I’m confused that it’s mentioned in this brochure as an insinuation that it’s a tool for getting sober. Since I first started going to meetings over 20 years ago I’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the use of this prayer to close meetings. None of the meetings I attend today use it. This is an excellent trend and this new brochure is out of touch.

    • Michael,
      in looking at whether this pamphlet has many, some or even any good perspectives, I think one needs to look at its origin.
      If GSO had decided on its own initiative to publish a pamphlet like this, I would agree.
      However this is not what went down at all.
      An entirely earnest literature committee set out 3-4 years ago to actually give us non-believers the pamphlet we have been waiting for for 40 years. And little by little the project was taken over by god people and watered down. So this pamphlet stands as a deliberate “hostile takeover” project, nothing less.

      • I’m sure you’re right and I am interested in the history but I’m trying to see it from a broad perspective, not just from the perspective of atheists and agnostics. It could help to clear up some issues for some people so I cannot condemn it completely. It does offer a very broad interpretation of a ‘higher power’ and of prayer and this is a positive thing. Unfortunately, given the 40 year history you mention, it may be the only step taken in our lifetimes and it falls far short from addressing the concerns of atheists and agnostics.

  21. Chris~
    Thank You!… How many people walk away due to the “God” factor of AA?…. Me, lots of times, if I wanted church I would go to the building next door to the AA meeting.
    Who does not share at meetings due to feeling uncomfortable about the “God” factor?…Me, I continue to “share” this psychological,on-going column in my life, with my counselor, and enjoy it. Feels great! Just like exercise!
    I Do go to AA meetings, but seem to tune out approx. 70% of the meeting, and happily take 30% to let my mind sift through for the day or week. Thank you for you post!

  22. Chris, thank you for this heartfelt and insightful review. I feel just like you about this pamphlet.
    As for its origin, I would like to make a correctional note, though I don’t quite have all the facts.
    This go-round (meaning from what, 3-4 years ago) was initiated here from Northern California. I had nothing to do with it myself, but did get to talk briefly with the GSR who did it, and he was on and found the WS literature committee receptive. and I know it was, I communicated myself with its chairman at the time, though I forget his name. The literature committee was in earnest about this. They wanted to make a book for atheists and agnostics, just like what we were looking for.
    Some of you will remember the call for stories. They did ask for them to be, I think less than 800 words, which was not really fair, because the average story in the big book is over twice that, and it is difficult to express something very different than agreement with something in half the words in a sensible manner. But that was the only problem with it. Other than that, they were in earnest. I sent in my piece, explaining why it was longer, and I presume so did many others.
    What went down after that we can only guess without some investigation, but presumably the original literature committee members were replaced by way of rotation, and the conservative crowd must have made a point of edging its way in so we wouldn’t edge god out.

  23. If the literature committee were tasked with producing a pamphlet on the subject ‘Many Paths to Spirituality’ they have ticked some of the boxes. If, however, their remit was to produce a text specifically for atheists and agnostics then this document is not fit for purpose. Indeed, it is no improvement on the existing pamphlet Do You Think You Are Different? which includes stories by an agnostic and an atheist (pages 15 and 31), as well as contributions from e.g. a black woman, gay man, a lesbian, a Jew and a Native American. Is the objection that if publicity were produced just for atheists and agnostics that there would be calls for similar pamphlets for e.g. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Roman Catholic clergy, poor people, rich people, dually addicted people etc etc?

  24. I also was disappointed with the pamphlet. Sometimes I think we should stop beating our heads against the wall wanting AA to change. I started a SMART Recovery meeting in Irvine California. Sundays, 5:30pm. It’s on their website. If enough people start alternative meetings we will have more of a choice instead of trying to change the only game in town.

  25. If the pamphlet was truly meant for agnostics and atheists, what are we supposed to make of this God within?

    I’m wondering, Chris, do we know that this was truly meant for us? The title is Many Paths to Spirituality, not Non-Believers in AA. I agree with Ed W. that it’s a beginning, helpful for some, but it is weak if it was supposed to capture a non-theist’s experience of recovery in AA.

    • I asked the same question, Jaye, as I was writing the review…in fact, I asked it several times. Roger finally convinced me that yes, this was supposed to be “our” pamphlet. In fact he is writing about that very thing for the next Sunday post, so I’ll not steal his thunder.

      • If it is supposed to be primarily for atheists and agnostics, then it isn’t particularly helpful, for reasons given in the review! How about..just for example.. something on how atheists can do steps 6 and 7 without praying?

  26. I don’t find the pamphlet all that disappointing. It does include: ” “My sponsor was well versed in A.A.’s Twelve Steps, Traditions and Concepts. He had a substantial service history and talked to me about the 36 principles upon which A.A. was founded. It is these principles that I would ultimately turn my life and my will over to. “This God — ‘good orderly direction’ — as represented by the two million or so alcoholics who are members of this global Fellowship, is what I have accepted. Living inside of the Steps, the ongoing efforts to promote the unity spoken of in the Traditions, and the discipline we find in applying the Concepts in the way we do business, both internally and with the world at large — these are the things that have provided me with a power greater than myself. A.A., I believe, is truly universal, and this conscience that has changed the lives of so many, and continues saving the lives of so many more is worthy of my devotion. I have never seen or felt anything more spiritual than what I witness when I see the transformation that takes place as people begin to live this way of life.”” I think the “Deep significance”, and “comfort to many” of the words “a Power greater than ourselves” and “God, as we understand him” is that in AA-speak these expressions can be used for entirely non-divine and non-supernatural things, such as good orderly direction. This is not a way of speaking that I myself employ or like. But still, the pamphlet implies that one can do the steps and be ‘spiritual’ without ever coming to believe in any deity or supernatural power. ‘We Agnostics’ certainly doesn’t do that. ‘We Agnostics’ has a footnote sending the reader to Appendix II which recognizes that some AAs have spiritual experiences relating them to higher power that they do not call ‘God’. But that is a rare admission in the foundational literature. Of course many of do the steps omitting the prayers, and it would have been nice if there some explicit recognition of that.

  27. I almost stopped reading this, but decided I could not give a qualified response if I didn’t. IT IS HORRIBLE! It’s just another slap in the face to those who do not believe in a supernatural deity. Just another, ‘you’ll come around sooner or later’ piece of God-centered AA propaganda. Wow. What a total and utter disappointment. I wrote 10 notes in the columns where I found serious flaws. I give this less than 1 star.

  28. Thanks for your review, Chris.

    I think this pamphlet falls short of fully addressing non-belief in recovery and other secular/rational aspects of this ‘spiritual program.’ The fact that there is no mention at all that ‘no-prayer’ groups and meetings like ours even exist is also a big minus.

    Still, it’s a step in the right direction of the godless-closet. Plus we can hand this out at meetings w/o getting in trouble.

    I hope this is only the beginning.

    • Ed, unfortunately this IS the begining – of a backlash. Please read my comment above.
      It is not a step in the direction of godlessness, it is a deliberate step on the part of the god people to truncate us.

  29. Thanks for the review Chris, and regrettably, I’m not surprised. Like you, and I’m sure, many others, when I finally hit bottom, and got my butt back into the rooms, I was willing to do anything, believe anything, and even get down on my knees and pray, in church, no less (I was 64). And like you, after a few years, my agnosticism began tapping me on the shoulder, and reminded me that I was being totally dishonest in what is supposed to be an honest program.

    I quit praying the lord’s prayer after the meetings; I did hold hands, but refused to utter the words that I didn’t believe in. Then I began exposing my agnosticism when asked to share on “higher power, or god”. And received the typical reaction, “we’ll pray for you” or “keep coming back, you’ll get it some day”. I reached a point where I wanted to vomit every time someone uttered those responses.

    Then I discovered AA Agnostica. What a breath of fresh air! They put me in touch with some others from the Charleston area, and with a few friends of mine from our rooms, began our own “Freethinkers of the Lowcountry” group. Our first meetings were held in my wife’s beauty salon (none to her liking), and last week we held our first meeting in a permanent location – would you believe in A CHURCH? But it is the Unity Church, which welcomes all believers and nonbelievers. We had our first meeting there on the August 11, with nine people (one Moslem, one Buddhist, two Jews – one of whom is gay – one confirmed atheist, two agnostics and two visitors). It was an incredible meeting, not one mention of god, or higher power, or prayer. Just good AA, as it is supposed to be – one drunk helping another.

    We have our own version of the preamble and the 12 steps (all borrowed from AA Agnostica), and we are in the process of of selecting a secretary, a GSR, etc. Our TCIO has us listed in the schedule, and members from that group dropped in on one of our meetings. The left without criticism or questions.

    I believe that all of us in our little group feel we are at last, a part of Alcoholics Anonymous, the way it was intended and for us, and the way it should be.

    I want to thank all contributors to this site for your information, advice, and cautions. Our little Charleston, SC group, would not exist without you.

    DonB

  30. Ok I see one problem one rating the pamphlet. It is not right to put it at the end of an article denouncing it as the same old rubbish like chapter four. This will only weaken the message you carry to the 2015 General Service Convention.

    • I understand your concern, Bob. But the rating system comes after the pamphlet and not the review. I respect that most people will make their own decision. As well, there is a direct link to the pamphlet on the homepage: most people over time will use that to access and rate the pamphlet, skipping the review entirely. But a review – and a good and thorough one as written by Chris – was essential.

    • I have to agree with Bob regarding the survey. A long time ago, I studied statistics and experimental design – conducting research ad analyzing the results.

      The survey is totally compromised by the review. “Experimenter bias.” Anyone offering the results of this survey will be rightfully ridiculed. Sorry, but it’s true.

      • This will be about as scientific, I would expect, as recovery rates in AA. Works for me!