AA Without the God?

To Thine Own

Is believing in a higher power an essential component of the recovery process?

By David Sack, M.D.
Published on December 10, 2014 in
Where Science Meets the Steps (Psychology Today)

It’s a comment I’ve heard often in my years helping those with addictions: “I tried AA, but I just couldn’t get past the God part.”

The God part, of course, refers to the references to God and spirituality that appear in Alcoholics Anonymous literature – the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions in particular – as well as to the more overt signs of religion that can be part of some AA meetings, such as the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer.

For the agnostic, atheist and humanist, it can feel like a distraction from the work at hand as well as a disturbing admonishment to check their beliefs at the door.

For others, however, tapping into God’s power is the very thing that makes recovery possible. How, then, to ignore it?

The conflicting mindsets have created tension over the years, a tension that AA has sought to address by encouraging a personal definition of God as any higher power the person may choose. It could be, for example, nature, love or the AA group as a whole (in the latter case, as the explanation goes, G.O.D. becomes Group Of Drunks). Even so, when the nonreligious find themselves encouraged to follow steps such as “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out” (italics in the original), the process rings hollow.

Broadening the concept of higher power brings more people under the tent poles, but it doesn’t answer the question whether this belief is essential to the recovery process.

Secular Options Grow

In response, a number of non-12-Step groups have sprung up that offer a secular approach to recovery help – groups such as Secular Organizations for Sobriety and LifeRing. Among the most popular is SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training), which emphasizes the science behind addiction and encourages self-reliance and empowerment.

It has also led to the creation of agnostic groups under the umbrella of AA that adapt the meeting style and the 12-Steps wording as they feel best suits their philosophy. There are now secular AA groups in virtually every major city in the nation, according to AA Agnostica, a website created by a group of secular AA members and designed to be a helping hand for those put off by the religious content of some AA meetings.

A handful of secular AA groups have been around for decades, but the majority were created since the turn of the century, growing in step with a national trend away from religious affiliation. Self-described atheists and agnostics now represent approximately 6 percent of the population, according to PEW Research.

An agnostic AA group can be the best of all worlds for those who want to tap into the fellowship and support that AA has offered for almost 80 years but who aren’t comfortable with “the God part.” A secular group can also be an important option for those who are ordered by the courts to attend AA meetings, still a common occurrence and one that is increasingly being challenged as an infringement on the rights of the nonreligious.

But not all are happy with the proliferation of the secular groups within AA. In 2009, an Indianapolis group organized under the name We Agnostics was twice taken off the directory of area AA meetings by the area Intergroup (a type of AA community office), which determined that the members’ revised version of the 12 Steps meant they no longer qualified as an AA group.

Two Toronto secular groups underwent the same fate in 2011 – delisted by their Intergroup for posting their revised 12 Steps online. Step 6, for example, had been changed from “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character” to “Were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.” An AA member who was on hand for the Intergroup decision told the Toronto Star that the altered 12 Steps of the agnostic group “are not our 12 Steps. They’ve changed them to their own personal needs. They should never have been listed in the first place.” Resentments simmered.

What puzzled the agnostic groups about these decisions is that AA’s founders didn’t design the 12 Steps as gospel. The list was an attempt to outline what had worked in the program for others who wanted to follow in their footsteps. In fact, according to William L. White’s encyclopedic exploration of the history of addiction treatment in the U.S., titled “Slaying the Dragon,” an original draft of the 12 Steps had much of its religious language softened by the AA membership at the time so that it might be more inclusive. An introductory sentence was also added: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a program of recovery.” Suggested.

In addition, AA was created with and prides itself on its bottom-up power structure. It “ought never be organized,” its Traditions state. AA members make their own decisions about their groups and are encouraged to be autonomous. “The only requirement for AA membership,” No. 3 of the 12 Traditions states, “is a desire to stop drinking.”

It’s often noted that the early language of AA represents the era in which it was created. But it also reflects the beliefs of AA co-founder Bill Wilson, who underwent a dramatic spiritual experience in the depths of his addiction that led him to believe a reliance on a higher power was essential to recovery. He hoped others would come to the same conclusion but wanted to leave the door wide open to all, “regardless of belief or lack of belief.” In a 1946 essay in the Grapevine, the journal of AA, he wrote: “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, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an A.A. Group if they think so!” (Italics in the original.)

Looking Ahead

So can competing mindsets exist with AA? As secular groups proliferate, will their call for inclusion be met with acceptance, or will those who are uncomfortable with traditional practices and 12-Step language feel more and more compelled to turn to secular support organizations outside AA? And if they are welcomed, will this prompt a counter reaction from those who feel references to God and spirituality must be protected as an essential part of AA? And what of those who are OK with the call for spirituality but not to the references to God?

AA will doubtless continue to evolve and as it does, my hope is that all sides will remember the needs of the person in recovery and do everything possible to ensure that the AA tradition of welcome continues. Despite any personal differences, those in AA are kindred spirits at heart, all struggling to subdue alcohol’s hold on their lives. And for that, support is essential. Rather than dispute which path is best, we’re wise to remember the words of AA co-founder Wilson: “The roads to recovery are many.”

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Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a network of 12-step based addiction treatment programs as well as 12-Step alternatives at Lucida Treatment Center in Florida and Clarity Way in Pennsylvania. You can learn more about Dr. Sack’s background at his website Dr David Sack.


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AA Without the God? — 39 Comments

  1. There are references in the Big book that state that a real alkie will not stay sober without god. Faith without works is dead. Nothing short of divine intervention will save the alcoholic. That sort of stuff. I have had fellow AAers tell me, if I didn’t think this was a god given program I was in the wrong place. This type of talk is disturbing to me, and I don’t like controversy, so I don’t say much, if anything.

    • Hi John, I completely understand how you feel about aspects of AA that border on or cross over into religiosity. Back in college I loved to attend religion classes which were taught by a man who I later found out was a student of the Dutch Radical School of biblical criticism. He would sometimes actually use scripture to counter many traditional religious beliefs. Like the saying ascribed to Jesus “the Kingdom of God/Heaven is within you.” So uncomfortable have certain Christians been with this translation from the Greek that they prefer instead such sayings as “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you.” That’s because this statement implies that a man contains within himself all that religion pretends to offer.

      A great place to go in the AA literature to support the idea that there does not need to be a religious interpretation of the 12 Steps is toward the end of book, in the Appendix on Spiritual Experiences. Just this one sentence from the AA bible tells me that I don’t have to “believe in God” (along traditional religious lines) to have a spiritual experience.

      The nuance of this sentence very much reminds me of those words ascribed (attributed to, who knows if an historic personage every uttered them) to Jesus about the “Kingdom” being within.

      “With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource, which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power Greater than themselves.” Big Book, pages 567, 568

      I think a better worded statement expressing this same statement should have amended part of that sentence into saying “which many presently identify with their own conception of a Power Greater than themselves…” That’s because so many automatically equate HP with the word “God”. But to make a long story short, here we have it at the end of the book. The Higher Power (which many in AA call God) turns out to be an… “unsuspected inner resource” … that working the principles of the steps (however we do that) has allowed us to “tap.” So in a sense I think even Bill W. understood “God” in almost a Jungian sense.

      So if we take this last part of the book seriously, every time we see the word “God” in the Big Book, we could substitute the words “unsuspected inner resource.” It kind of demystifies and unDeifies the whole Higher Power/God concept … even though this inner resource might (later) become identified with the “God of our understanding … or our Higher Power” depending on our concept.

      Sometimes it just helps me to know that I don’t have to accept a Theistic view to be in line with both the teachings and principles found in various places of our Big Book.

  2. “Either God is everything or he is nothing.”
    I’ve paraphrased but essentially that’s what Wilson wrote in the BB lo those many years ago. And it’s the boldest statement in the BB.

    In those few words he drops the gauntlet challenging both believers and non to show their true colours, to recognize there’s no middle ground on the issue, rather, a distinct and absolutely straight dividing line between what were two unofficial factions.

    According to him and his statement, there is no soft position for those of faith (in the Judeo/Christian version of God) and those who reject any kind of celestial, interfering, ectoplasmic being pulling the strings on each and every one of us.

    So really it was Bill Wilson who, in the clearest of terms – all or nothing – laid the foundation for division in AA. Whether we know it or not, when we arrived, in our reading, at that maxim in the BB, we were compelled to answer it. But the ones most likely to shy away from openly declaring which side of the line they stood on were the agnostic/atheists. Reading between the lines I also think that Wilson’s showed his contempt for the admitted fence sitters, agnostics.

    I honestly wish Wilson was here to address the various brouhahas he created with his writing in the BB. Despite being told we can believe what we want and that AA is a spiritual program rather than religious (the Supreme Court of the United States cleared that up – it’s religious) he poses the divisive question that begs for a declaration – all or nothing – then he kills the whole notion of “Higher Power” in the final third of the 164 pages that lay out the program of recovery. Try to find a reference to a Higher Power in the latter half to a third of those 164 pages. Besides, Higher Power doesn’t gibe with all or nothing so all you doorknob worshippers out there, you’re going to have to grow up and make your position clear, at least to yourself.

    It’s one thing to present desperate alcoholics a clear, concise “program of recovery”, one that, sadly, requires you to have faith in God, than it is to confront those same needy folks with metaphysical ultimatums. Ultimatums that, if not resolved to a certain acceptable degree, ensures they will drink again. Or so it says.

    While it’s hard to reject a program that purports to free us from the prisons we’ve built around us with alcohol and drugs, it’s just as hard to accept a program that, when distilled, suggests we either get cozy with the adult version of Santa Claus or, face the consequences. Thank God that’s proven to be wildly misconceived.

    • I believe that AA does not have any theological positions. We have spiritual principles which are articulated in our program.The principles are not theological, if anything they are expressed as a program of recovery which are suggested.
      There are a number of extreme religionists who try to make their point, I stay away from them. There a number of extreme atheists who try to make their point, I stay away from them. I connect with all others who are trying to stay sober daily and are carrying the message of recovery.

      • Daniel, you are certainly right in that AA claims to have no theological positions. That’s official. But what do you call it when a meeting ends with the Lord’s Prayer, as all of them do in my city?
        There is no denying that that prayer is at the heart (and soul, if you will) of Christian theology. And I’m supposed to hold hands and recite it, at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

    • The god is or isn’t statement doesn’t bother me, because it’s followed by a question. “What’s your choice to be?” Now I can choose. I also like the words from the wonderful Dr. Silkworth. “except in a few rare cases”. I can live with being a rare case.The fact that he said that gave me all I needed to continue. I know the difference between rare and special. (o;

  3. It’s interesting to me that we hear the saying “AA is spiritual, not religious.” Why do people even have to say this? I think it’s a defensive, apologetic statement about the religiosity of the book, especially the bait-and-switch 3-card-Monte-with-the-truth of the chapter We Agnostics.
    I brought up the possibility of AA coming up with a new book (so we could leave the old one 100% intact as the lovely relic it is) that could serve as an adjunct (for a while) – it would take 25 years to get through committee, write, and get approved, by which time the Big Book would be 100. As stewards of our program’s future, don’t we owe our grandchildren an enlightened shot at recovery?
    Nobody seemed that interested.

    • Like others I don’t think the Big Book is the end to all books, but when I got here it told me what my problem was (selfishness, self centeredness) and more importantly what my solution was, a practice of spiritual principles. Why I think the BB will always be relevant is that alcoholics don’t change. Over the ages people were and are today mystified by our behavior, and this book continues to remind me of what I have to do to stay sober today.

    • Me too — for the last couple of months I’ve been toying around with the idea of doing a 21st Century/3rd Millennium translation of the Big Book, taking what I need and leaving the rest.

      As to whether or not it would ever pass muster with the General Service Conference, I seriously doubt that shall ever come to pass for the reasons I argue in Tradition Two: A Flaw in AA Service Structure?.

      This belief was fostered today when I got in the mail the latest copy of Box 459 from GS0, since I’m the GSR for the Portland, Oregon Belief Group. In one of the articles concerning literature, there was this quote from A.A. Comes of Age(p. 155) by Bill W., “… a Society like ours ought to control its own literature.” The article went on to say:

      And so it is today that every piece of literature written and produced by A.A. is owned and controlled by the Fellowship itself. Only in this way can we preserve the integrity of our message and ensure that it is passed on ungarbled to future generations of suffering alcoholics. A profound spiritual task, indeed.

      Guess what folks – to the vast majority of AA members, certainly those who serve at the General Conference level we’re garblers, diluting the one and only true way to get sober, the way it’s alleged everyone, some 75% of those who tried, did in Akron in the 1930s – NOT !~!~!

  4. I have never done the 12 Steps and as far as I am concerned they are a load of rubbish. However many disagree with me. However one thing all should do is make sure that when presented in AA that it is done honestly and that the Steps should be stated as The Suggested Steps.

    That way everyone could be happy and AA could possibly become an Honest Programme.

    • One of the twist I have heard on “suggested steps” to look up the suggestion in the dictionary, and you will see that it means “a subtle command”. Shocking to discover that this is untrue! Sad that there are members of AA that speak about spirituality and honesty while they are making up lies to sell god as the only path to sobriety.

      • Words fail me in my desire to express how much I LOVE suggestion = “subtle command.” Here are some examples of how well this translation works in other parts of the book.

        “When the man is presented with this volume it is best that no one tell him he must abide by its ‘subtle commands’. The man must decide for himself.”

        “He may bring new hope and new courage to many a priest, minister, or rabbi, who gives his all to minister to our troubled world. We intend the foregoing as a helpful ‘subtle command’ only. So far as we are concerned, there is nothing obligatory about it.”

        “There are many helpful books also. ‘Subtle commands’ about these may be obtained from one’s priest. minister, or rabbi.”

        ”This phenomenon, as we have ‘subtly commanded’ earlier, may be the manifestation of an allergy.”

        BAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

      • I’m sure Duncan has read the Big Book and knows that the “suggested” word is found on page 59. It is, rather, those who insist that the Steps must be done that are ignorant of – or choose to be ignorant of – the fact the Steps are recommended and not required.

  5. Yes, it is an excellent article, which gives a balanced report on the theistic/non-theistic split, which has always been an integral part of AA’s history since our earliest beginnings, which the article effectively points out. This split continues just as acerbic at times in our 80th year as a Fellowship as it ever was.

    What I find most hopeful and encouraging is that through the use of digital reality here on AA Agnostica, in the blogosphere, on FaceBook even, we WAAFTs in AA find new ways of deepening our connections. Just like neurons, which science tells us grow and evolve the more they connect and light up, so too are we non-theistic doubters and non-believers learning new ways to connect with each other. We are therefore able to be true to ourselves AND to be able to stay in AA through our human power of sharing experience, strength and hope, so we can remain sober and live purposeful lives in the AA Fellowship of recovery.

    • One of our members who has struggled on and off for years was accustomed to being shamed by his sponsor about surrender and getting on his knees, etc. It was always my take that he really didn’t care about religion but liked the idea of staying in the AA group so he could remain sober. Unfortunately in our smallish rural environment we have not yet formed an ‘Atheists, Agnostics and Free Thinkers’ group, but articles like this are very motivating and encouraging.

      • Ah yes, Herb friend, but there’s you, and Jack B., atheist Buddhist in his 58th year of recovery, and the other Thomas and me when I visit, who delights in loudly proclaiming “Goddess grant me the serenity, etc., etc. etc.” and attesting that I am sober this day of the “daily reprieve” by the grace of the AA Fellowship, the human power we derive by sharing experience, strength and hope with each other , not some unknowable deity in a galaxy far, far away . . . 😉

    • Neurons? Growing and connecting. I like it. Maybe it’s not the Internet that makes online communicating possible, rather the interconnect!

  6. Hi Roger,

    Thanks for posting this. Good to see it come from a popular magazine like Psychology Today. Reminds me, though, that a popular on-line magazine-style site like The Fix whose mandate is to focus on addiction and recovery has basically “dropped the ball” on covering the WAAFT “movement” in AA.

    Yes, they ran an article in 2011 about the delisting of the Toronto groups which at least gave its readership a chance to discover agnostic, atheist, and free thinker options within AA. But The Fix has not followed up with this since then.

    As a daily reader of The Fix, I find this disheartening if not negligent.

  7. Yeah, this story hit the blogosphere yesterday.

    Here’s an interesting question that Toronto Intergroup ought to be asking themselves. Did Intergroup fail to look at AA’s history and been the slaves of ignorance by repeating history? GSO stated their position which was shared at the April 2011 Intergroup meeting, “What other AA groups do is none of your business.”

    Unsatisfied, they went the the Area 83 Delegate who told them that “there is only one requirement for membership and it’s not a belief in God.”

    In a “Minority Report (2002)” act of arrogant future gazing, Toronto Intergroup decided that somehow, in the future, agnostic groups would cast “A.A. as a whole” into shame and ill repute. In case agnostic AA meetings might sometimes harm AA in the future, they cast them out of Toronto Intergroup to save the future confused newcomer from a dangerous freedom of choice.

    So it’s the future. How did it turn out? Ironically, it’s Intergroup’s act of discrimination that has shamed AA. While AA as a whole celebrated “many paths to recovery” with atheist/agnostic members in Santa Monica at WAFT IAAC, Toronto’s act of unkindness makes the news again and darkens AA as a whole. The world is celebrating diversification. Toronto still fears it. GSO spoke and said, “Groups can read whatever Steps or other literature they like.” In Toronto, it’s “our way or the highway. Read what we tell you, sing our song-swan or we revoke your rights as an AA group.”

    Who was right and who was wrong now that three years have passed? Intergroup was right that this issue of unity or uniformity, inclusion or exclusion would effect AA’s reputation in the future. It seems today that the public sees Intergroup – not the atheist/agnostic groups as bad for AA. As always New York sees inclusion and accommodation as good for AA, and exclusion and discrimination against our fellow alcoholics bad for AA. According to yet another article, the public sees it the same way: Secular groups in AA good – Toronto Intergroup bad.

    Indy reps saw that Intergroup was wrong to de-list the We Agnostics group and they corrected it. Will Toronto take it’s own Step 10 or continue to shame AA? Let’s not forget that Vancouver followed Toronto’s lead – not GSO’s lead. This cast a dark shadow upon Vancouver AA in a newspaper story that was re-posted around the world.

    Bill wrote about this in P-17 A.A. Tradition: How it Developed.

    … conservative program-abiding members get scared. These appalling conditions must be controlled, they think, else A.A. will surely go to rack and ruin. They view with alarm for the good of the movement!

    At this point the group enters the rule and regulation phase. Charters, bylaws and membership rules are excitedly passed and authority is granted committees to filter out undesirables and discipline the evildoers. Then the elders, now clothed with authority, commence to get busy. Recalcitrants are cast into utter darkness; respectable busy-bodies throw stones at the sinners. As for the so-called sinners, they either insist on staying around, or else they form a new group of their own…The elders soon discover that the rules and regulations aren’t working very well. Most attempts at enforcement generate such waves of dissension and intolerance in the group that this condition is presently recognized to be worse for the group life than the very worst that the worst ever did.

    Toronto Intergroup rules and regulations are worse for AA that the worst the the worst ever did: Pharisees and Recalcitrants.

    Will Toronto Intergroup correct itself or continue to disgrace AA as a whole by making local AA in Toronto a Third-World country for locals and a black mark on AA’s reputation worldwide?

    • Joe, Do you think it would have turned out differently with Intergroup, if the agnostic, atheist group had not put up their website on the Intergroup`s website with the alternative steps on it? Cheers Daniel

      • The website issue is a red-herring.

        First of all, Intergroup steering committee approved our posting of the agnostic AA steps on Intergroup’s web-site and we were living peacefully within the larger AA community until the anti-secular fundamentalists put this charade of a vote together.

        A new hand-picked Intergroup Chair was parachuted in and de-listing us was her first order of business. She knew it was coming and didn’t even blink when such a bizarre motion was brought forward. With out skipping a beat, she pointed to a plant and asked, “Do we have a seconder?”

        The line would have been moved as far as necessary. This is plain, ugly bigotry – the fear and intolerance that Bill W was writing about when he was formulating Traditions that could keep AA from this kind of judging others. Ward Ewing alluded it to this sort of thing in a more global sense in Santa Monica. “This isn’t about faith; it’s about fear; ‘We know the one truth and if you don’t agree, you can go to Hell.'”

        Groups should never have been asked to discuss another group’s business at their business meeting. AA groups have no business doing such a thing. Even if the Twelve Steps were sacred, and they are not, even if there was a rule against posting, reading, and distributing our own literature, our own variation of the Steps or anything we, as a group, thought would be helpful to other alcoholics, and there isn’t, according to our own AA Service Manual, the decisions made by the group (Tradition Two) are not subject to a popularity contest.

        GSO does not govern/Intergroup does not govern. The final thought in the Service Manual (Concept XII, Warranty Six) states, “We set such a high value on our great liberties, and cannot conceive a time when they will need to be limited, we here specialty enjoin our General Service Conference to abstain completely from any and all acts of authoritative government … no action ought to be taken in anger, haste, or recklessness; that care will be observed to respect and protect all minorities…”

        Intergroup sold this matter to the neophyte reps as urgent, routine and with the blessing of all mighty god. Never did they discuss, or ask or raise their concern with our group. They hung the accused and disposed of the bodies. We don’t even have a voice on the floor of intergroup any more.

        If the Intergroup reps were set straight on even the most fundamental of AA service procedure and history, they would have known that even if our group was “in the wrong,” we have a right to be wrong and AA will self-correct, without the interference of other groups or AA as a whole.

      • The thought occurred to me recently…
        If the organization cared about someone’s recovery, as opposed to merely trying to proselytise, every alternative would be mentioned and/or linked to on the AA websites.

      • As the Intergroup Rep of a “traditional” group at the time Joe is speaking of, we all thought that the vote meant that Beyond Belief and We Agnostics would only be de-listed from the Toronto meeting list. After the fairly-small majority vote to de-list occurred, we then learned the following month that the two groups were also to lose their speaking and voting rights on the floor of Intergroup.

        This was not what we were voting for but the “stacked-deck” Intergroup executive, accompanied by very vocal “veteran” members on the floor moved on with “business as usual” and this injustice and breach of the original motion to de-list was not raised again.

        Until… after the 6 month moratorium on re-visiting an issue was over, a motion to re-list the two groups was presented in December of 2012. Then over a 4 month period of debate each month, the nastiness, passions and schemings of the “de-listers” became all too apparent — nothing would satisfy them; they wanted nothing to do with these kinds of groups in Toronto.

    • Excellent thread here, Joe. As another person gifted by I know not what — though I’m pretty sure it is not any whom — with longterm recovery, what has surprised me being of service at the District and Assembly area for the first time in Oregon Area 58, is how untutored trusted servants at the District and Assembly levels are about the history of AA to include the long process of developing the Traditions and Concepts of Service. Average length of sobriety ranges from 5 to 25 years. Very few trusted servants have been around as long as you and I who knew AA when it was much less dogmatic and ritualistic.

      In the 70s, AA meetings in New York City opened with the Preamble, the introduction of a speaker, who qualified and introduced a topic for discussion, period. That was it. No readings. No ritual chanting. Not even hand holding, goddess forbid. Most of the meeting except for maybe 10 minutes at most for the Preamble, announcements and 7th Tradition were spent doing the human power of sharing experience, strength and hope.

      We are a long way past from those halcyon days . . .

      • Thanks for this, Thomas. I’m going to introduce this as a format for out Thursday nite meeting. Just to mix it up.

  8. “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, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an A.A. Group if they think so!” (Italics in the original.) Does anyone know a link to the Grapevine that contains this quote?

  9. Well balanced article. I think it’s important to acknowledge the position that AA is in if we want to have good debate, instead of having a knee jerk reaction to the rejection of atheist/agnostic groups. Seeing this as a sign of persecution of atheists. I think the motivation of AA is to keep the literature intact if a group wants to be listed under the AA brand and I don’t disagree with that motivation. It’s not farfetched to believe that any group can present an alternate 12 steps, fundamentalist Christians for example, and they do have their own 12 steps. It’s been argued that agnostic steps present a different scenario since AA specifically states that it supports no religion but that’s a very weak argument. If changing the literature was acceptable and easy to do, AA could quickly become diluted and fragmented. Multiple versions of the steps would show up, presented at the whim of a group. Scientology could easily come up with a secular version of the steps.

    I absolutely disagree with the decision in Toronto since the alternative steps were listed online and not presented at a meeting I’m assuming, this seems like a good solution to this problem, but I don’t agree with others that the motivation of AA as a whole was about rejection of atheist/agnostic groups. Of course people have been confronted with individual attitudes that might suggest otherwise but as an institution, I think AA does accept the listing of agnostic meetings if the literature is not altered, I’ve been to some.

    One solution is for agnostic meetings to accept this limitation, they are not required to read the steps and anyone can discuss alternatives during a meeting. The situation in Toronto is worth fighting but I don’t think the divisive rhetoric is helpful and accepting this limitation might be a good compromise as the fight continues. The main goal should be providing a comfortable place for atheists and agnostics to participate in the program. Another solution and the best solution in my view is for a new secular, 12 step organization to form. We’ve seen this over and over again with ACA, Al-anon, NA, etc. The literature has already been written.

    • You missed the point, Michael. We agnostics are staying in AA, and were doing it without God (and that includes the “God” in the “suggested” Steps).

      • ..I don’t see forming a new organization as an either/or scenario. I think we can work towards more inclusiveness within AA and build a secular program. It’s just logical to me. A strong case has been made on this website that society is moving in a more secular direction. AA is not secular and I don’t see it changing in our lifetime. We’ve also seen multiple 12 step programs grow in recent decades.

  10. Excellent summary of the various aspects involved. Thank you for this fine contribution to the discourse. I particularly appreciated your emphasis upon the original intended flexibility of the twelve steps. For example, right there in the Big Book, fourth edition, p. 263, another early member refers to the six fundamental principles of recovery:
    1. Complete deflation.
    2. Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power.
    3. Moral Inventory.
    4. Confession.
    5. Restitution.
    6. Continued work with other alcoholics.

    Relatedly, A question that always comes to mind for me is why so many alcoholics, theistic and otherwise, so naturally conflate Higher Power and God. My point? That one can believe in a higher power, that is, a power greater than oneself, which is entirely atheistic. I just think its important to be open to the possibility that a theistic God concept and a ‘higher power’ need not be one and the same.

  11. Thank you for a clean and concise article.
    I have a favorite saying “beware of the man with one book”. Alternative programs and a selection of AA Agnostica 12 steps come as a welcome relief that there is in fact, more than one book.