By Roger C.
After requests that span some forty years, there is still no pamphlet for agnostics and atheists in AA.
Not one. Nothing even close.
The recently published pamphlet, Many Paths to Spirituality, was meant to dodge the issue, rather than deal with it.
All the pamphlet had to say was something like this:
We understand and respect that you don’t believe in God. So if you rely on, for example, “the collective wisdom” of those who came before you and struggled with alcoholism as your understanding of the third step, that is fine. AA is not about conformity. If the Lord’s Prayer at the end of meetings bothers you, then you are welcome to start a new meeting and group, without any prayers at all. Please know that our primary purpose is to support you.
The pamphlet might even have included some stories by atheists and agnostics in long-term recovery in AA.
That should have been easy enough to do.
Unless, of course, you insist that a God – especially a male, anthropomorphic and interventionist God (a Christian God) – is essential to recovery from alcoholism.
Lots of problems
The “Many Paths to Spirituality” pamphlet was initially proposed in 2009.
And the very first thing to note is that while the pamphlet was meant for atheists and agnostics in AA it was decided that our reality within the fellowship should be dealt with under a more general framework. Many in AA, and this includes a large number of Conference delegates, deem “specialty” literature for agnostics and atheists to be “divisive” and “potentially harmful to AA as a whole.”
As a result, the “Many Paths to Spirituality” pamphlet ends up being a weird conglomerate of belief systems that are all, remarkably enough, embraced under the framework of spirituality. What could be more general than that? Agnostics and atheists are prominent in the pamphlet, consistent with its original purpose, but it comes across as though we were casually – callously? – tossed into the mix and that gets, well, downright offensive.
This is especially true since the supposed agnostics and atheists quoted in the pamphlet in no way resemble or sound like real agnostics or atheists.
AA is equally for those with a belief or a lack of belief. And after forty years of requests for such a pamphlet, all of which were ignored or denied, it is hard to imagine today doing anything other than publishing a pamphlet for those with a “lack of belief”.
A quick glance shows that specialty pamphlets have been created for women, natives, gays and lesbians, younger people, older alcoholics and blacks and African Americans.
So why not one for atheists and agnostics?
After all, we may very well be the most poorly treated alcoholics in the rooms of AA.
The reason, of course, turns out to have everything to do with the “God bit” in AA.
In a talk given in Honolulu in the spring of 2011, prior to and in preparation for the upcoming General Service Conference, a delegate for the Pacific Region Alcoholics Anonymous Service Assembly (PRAASA) described several reasons for the opposition – both inside and outside of the Conference – to literature exclusively for agnostics and atheists in AA.
First, “Any literature that attempts to describe current atheists and agnostics as being ‘successfully sober’ in A.A. would be ‘deceptive, misleading, and harmful to real alcoholics attempting to find the power necessary to solve the problem’.”
Of course the “power necessary to solve the problem” is God. Most of us have heard this before. If we are sober in AA without God it’s because, well, we are not real alcoholics.
The delegate then talked about the primary reason for the refusal to consider literature specifically for we agnostics in AA: “Such literature will doom AA to failure because it fundamentally opposes the authentic program of recovery as detailed in the Big Book. Atheism cannot fit within the philosophy of AA.”
We have heard this before too. He could have been quoting from the White Paper, published in 2010 and widely circulated within our fellowship. The author of that Paper writes “Nowhere does our literature suggest that AA or its members could assist newcomers to find a way to get sober without God”.
A lot of people agree with the author of the White Paper. AA is spiritual but not religious? Who are you trying to kid? And clearly, a few of these people over the years have attended and voted at General Service Conferences.
A final reason is offered by the PRAASA delegate – remember, this is in 2011 during the discussion of the “Many Paths to Spirituality” pamphlet which had been proposed in 2009 – for not making this pamphlet solely about AA nonbelievers: “The need for such literature is negated by the fact that atheists and agnostics are sober in the programme and became sober when there was no literature, so there is no need.”
And there you have it. The lack of respect, consideration and support for suffering alcoholics reaches a new low within the fellowship with that sentence.
These three factors then – literature especially for agnostics and atheists being (a) “divisive”, (b) harmful to the authentic AA program, and (c) unnecessary anyway – explain why the pamphlet approved by the 2014 General Service Conference turns out to be only peripherally and oddly about supposed agnostics and atheists in Alcoholics Anonymous.
If the 3,042 words that comprise the “Many Paths to Spirituality” pamphlet are about anything they are about staying the course.
The pamphlet is about a newfound conformity – in which agnostics and atheists are inappropriately included – under the umbrella of, generally, “spirituality”, and of, specifically, a set of beliefs that increasingly finds itself locked in the past, unable, and unwilling to take the few bold but necessary steps forward that would ensure its survival and permit it to remain a viable haven for the suffering alcoholics of the contemporary world.
And let’s be clear: agnostics and atheists are not in the rooms of AA for spirituality, however that might be defined. Our primary goal is sobriety and recovery. A pamphlet titled “Many Paths to Recovery” would have been much more liberating and helpful, not only to we agnostics but no doubt to all alcoholics in the rooms of AA.
Reviews and ratings
One hundred people have taken the time to rate the pamphlet and so far there are 58 comments. (The rating system – having fulfilled its purpose, has now been closed) The ratings stand at 1.7 stars out of 5. To understand what this means, an overall two star rating would have recommended that the pamphlet “be rewritten.” One star means that the readers felt that “Many Paths to Spirituality” is “seriously flawed” and rather hopelessly “shows little or no understanding of agnostics and atheists in AA.”
A number of people wanted to give it a “zero star” or less rating. “Rated at a -1. I am extremely disappointed with this pamphlet”, Robin R. wrote. “One star. Do I really have to give it a whole star? This is nothing but a kinder, gentler ‘Chapter 4’, which… is nothing but an insult to non-believers”, life-j wrote. “Poorly done”, Ric S. comments. “The pamphlet shows zero understanding of the needs of atheists/agnostics coming through the doors of AA. One Star. If there was a zero star rating that would be my choice.” And Daniel C. commented: “This piece of rubbish deserves no stars.”
And others too would have preferred a zero rating.
So “Many Paths to Spirituality” did not win the love of atheists and agnostics in AA, to put it mildly.
There are several reasons for this, and we shall touch upon them only briefly.
First, many felt that there was no real understanding of we agnostics demonstrated in this document. This is odd, to say the least, because at the request of the General Service Office at least 180 stories by atheists and agnostics were submitted to the Literature Committee for consideration in this very pamphlet.
Alfred W., in a comment on the pamphlet, wrote that he submitted his story some three years ago. “It was specifically mentioned for me to write ‘from a non-believer’s perspective’”, he recalls. “I never heard anything back… nor did I read anything in the final draft that mentioned anything I said.”
In fact, no stories appear in the pamphlet and the brief comments from so-called “agnostics and atheists” all sound false and fabricated.
Second, there is so very much about prayer in this pamphlet!
In his excellent review of the pamphlet, Chris G. notes that prayer comes up a total of nine times in the pamphlet. In crescentdave’s comment he expresses his anger towards the editors of the pamphlet who quote a Jewish person as saying:
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.
Crescentdave calls this a terrible example to be sharing in a pamphlet supposedly about “inclusiveness”. And his opinion is shared by many, many other readers.
Third, this is truly Chapter Four of the Big Book all over again. A number of people have commented on that. And while the pamphlet refers to “Many Paths” it really says that there is only “One Way”.
And thus the featured image for this article.
Only one example is necessary. In the second last paragraph of the pamphlet, another fake atheist supposedly says: “I have been able to do the Steps just as they are written in the Big Book”.
That’s the whole point of the pamphlet.
There is only One Way.
There are even some who quite reasonably wondered if it was meant for atheists and agnostics in AA. John L., for example, asked “Was this really intended for nonbelievers in AA?”
It treats agnostics and atheists in AA with such disrespect that it can certainly make one wonder.
The answer is yes. Yes, indeed. Its sole purpose was to put an end to some forty years of requests for such a pamphlet for AA nonbelievers. A strategy was finally developed over the last years of this never-ending debate, and morphed into the proposal for a “Many Paths to Spirituality” pamphlet in 2009, which deliberately mutes, blurs, twists and distorts agnostics and atheists in AA through the prism of “spirituality” as it was understood in the 1939 Big Book.
Otherwise it wouldn’t have been approved by the Conference. It is as uncomplicated as that.
In one of his comments, my friend Joe C. says “If I helped promulgate the idea that this was going to be an Atheist/Agnostic pamphlet, I am sorry.” No need for you to apologize, Joe, but this is indeed IT, as far as the General Service Office / Conference are concerned. If you are holding your breath thinking there is another pamphlet for atheists and agnostics somehow in the works, you are going to die of asphyxiation, my friend. Because THIS IS IT. And, yes, it is called “Many Paths to Spirituality”.
But the ploy, as it turned out, didn’t work. And it didn’t work precisely because there are now far too many of us who are committed to AA ultimately reclaiming its roots and becoming a more contemporary place where “nonbelievers – both newcomers and current members – feel more welcome and comfortable in the rooms of AA”.
One decade after another
It was in July, 1976 that Ed S. and Paula C. – two trustees and members of a Literature subcommittee that favoured an AA pamphlet especially for agnostics and atheists in AA – wrote that such a pamphlet “is needed to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification”.
That was almost four decades ago.
Even though many, many efforts have been made over the years, we still don’t have that pamphlet.
It is a shame that all of the General Services Conferences over the past four decades – including the one that produced this parody called “Many Paths to Spirituality” – have failed to directly address the rather obvious concerns and needs of atheists and agnostics in Alcoholics Anonymous.
There is no excuse. Unless someone wants to blame God.
Where is this all leading?
As my friend, Joe C., the author of Beyond Belief, 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.”
That anniversary is about two and half decades away.
Maybe AA can come up with a pamphlet especially for agnostics and atheists before then.
A major problem in understanding the motivation and behaviour of the General Service Conference (GSC) is that everything that occurs at the Conference is totally confidential. Secret. No observers allowed. In 2011, the GSC rejected a formal request by the Mt. Rainier Group to exclude the mention of atheists and agnostics in all Conference-approved literature, including the “Many Paths to Spirituality” pamphlet. Their argument was that we are not “real alcoholics”. You can read their 57 page presentation here: Minority Opinion Appeal to AA Fellowship. Many of the points in the “Appeal” are shared in the PRAASA delegates talk in Honolulu, Reconsider Spirituality Pamphlet, which largely formed the basis for this article. While the 2011 Conference officially rejected the Mt. Rainier appeal, it is quite clear that the views expressed in that presentation were shared by many Conference delegates and were very much a part of shaping the travesty approved in 2014 known as “Many Paths to Spirituality”.
Here is a direct link to the pamphlet: Many Paths to Spirituality.
You can read a full review here: The Many Paths to Spirituality Pamphlet.
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.