AA Atheists and Human Rights

Gavel

By Roger C.

On May 31, 2011, two agnostic AA groups were booted out of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Intergroup and off of the area AA meeting lists.

That was disturbing and offensive to many people within the fellowship of AA. Within a few days an article appeared on the front page of the Toronto Star: Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA Groups.

One of the problems is that the expulsion of the two groups may well be a violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code. This Code took effect in 1962, and was the first Human Rights Code of its kind in Canada. It provides that every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods, and facilities without discrimination because of creed (including atheism and agnosticism).

And one of the things that the Ontario Human Rights Commission says is this:

It is the OHRC’s position that every person has the right to be free from discriminatory or harassing behaviour that is based on religion or which arises because the person who is the target of the behaviour does not share the same faith. This principle extends to situations where the person who is the target of such behaviour has no religious beliefs whatsoever, including atheists and agnostics who may, in these circumstances, benefit from the protection set out in the Code.

You see, the groups had been booted out because they changed the Steps. The “suggested” program of AA, the 12 Steps, has the word “God”, “Him” or “Power” in them six times. Obviously that is not going to work for an agnostic or atheist. Interpreting the Steps without God is pretty much inevitable for an atheist and his or her group.

But if AA is “spiritual and not religious” and if the only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking” can agnostic groups really be booted out? Even if they adapt the “suggested” 12 Steps to their own understanding and needs?

A very good question.

One of the founders of one of the groups booted out by the GTA Intergroup decided to challenge the Intergroup decision. He lodged a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. His argument was very simple: If AA is for everyone, if it is not religious, then it was a violation of the Human Rights Code to exclude his agnostic AA group.

To date, there have been two hearings on the subject. In the first hearing – Interim Decision October 2015 – the General Service Board and AA World Services attempted to distance itself from Intergroup – they had, after all, not expelled the two groups – and thus be removed as respondents and defendants at the Human Rights Tribunal. The judge said no: all of the literature upon which the GTA Intergroup had based its behaviour and decisions was owned, copyrighted,  distributed and promoted by the General Service Board and AA World Services. They thus shared legal culpability for the expulsion of the two secular groups.

What follows is the interim decision based upon the second hearing.


Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario

Between the Applicant and the Respondents: AA World Services Inc., General Services Board of Alcoholics Anonymous Inc. and the Greater Toronto Intergroup.

Interim Decision – February 17, 2016

Introduction

[1]          This application alleges discrimination with respect to services because of creed contrary to the Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19, as amended (the “Code”).

[2]          The applicant alleges, among other things, that the respondent, GTA Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous (GTAI), is responsible for maintaining a list of all Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the Greater Toronto Area. The applicant alleges that GTAI removed the applicant’s Alcoholics Anonymous group from its directory, website listing and listing given over the phone because the group members are agnostic. It is further alleged that the members of the applicant’s group have been denied the right to vote and to have their voices heard on matters that are important to all AA members.

[3]          The applicant alleges that the respondents, AA World Services Inc., General Services Board of Alcoholics Anonymous Inc., discriminated against him when it failed to direct the GTAI to include his group as a member of the intergroup.

[4]          In Interim Decision 2015, HRTO 1306, the Tribunal directed the Registrar to schedule a summary hearing teleconference in order to determine the issue of whether the applicant had a reasonable prospect of demonstrating that the respondents discriminated against the applicant in the delivery of its services when it removed his group from the directories, and denied them the rights that come with membership in the intergroup.

[5]          A summary hearing was held on January 13, 2016 during which time I heard submissions from the applicant and each of the respondents.

[6]          In addition to listing and de-listing all the AA groups in the GTA, it appears that the GTAI collects and distributes donations and distributes AA literature that is published by the General Services Board of AA.

[7]          The respondent, GTAI, submits that the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recovery program follows 12 steps and that these steps involve a belief in God. GTAI submits that evidence indicates that its purpose is to practice the 12 steps and practice a belief in God. In order to be part of GTAI, a group must be prepared to practice the 12 steps and thus the members of the group must have a belief in God. GTAI submits that it is not denying the applicant’s group the right to form its own intergroup and follow its own process.

[8]          GTAI submits that it is a special interest group that is protected, by section 18 of the Code, from a finding that it has breached the applicant’s Code rights. Section 18 of the Code states,

Rights … are not infringed where membership or participation in a religious, philanthropic, educational, fraternal or social institution or organization that is primarily engaged in serving the interests of persons identified by a prohibited ground of discrimination is restricted to persons who are similarly identified.

 [9]         GTAI also submits that it is a bona fide requirement that groups that wish to be part of this intergroup must have a belief in the higher power of God.

[10]        The applicant submits that AA is a fellowship of men and women who share the common desire to achieve sobriety. The only requirement for membership in AA is this desire to achieve sobriety and to help others in this achievement. The applicant referenced a number of publications which he alleges support a position that AA was not meant to be presented in any religious terms and that atheists and agnostics have been included as members in other parts of Canada and the United States over the years in order to promote an inclusive approach to AA membership rather than promote any religious perspective. He referenced documents that discussed the many paths to spirituality, including “making the AA group itself the higher power”.

[11]        It is obvious that there is a dispute on the facts and legal issues that are fundamental to a determination on whether the applicant’s rights under the Code have been breached by the respondents’ actions. At this point, I am not prepared to find that the applicant has no reasonable prospect of demonstrating that his rights to be free from discrimination on the basis of his creed have been breached. There are a number of complex legal issues that will need to be addressed in this Application and they cannot be properly determined without the benefit of a full evidentiary record. It would not be appropriate to dismiss this Application at this point.

Order

[12]        The Application will proceed through the Tribunal process.

[13]        The respondents shall file their Responses within 35 days of receiving this Interim Decision.

Dated at Toronto, this 17th day of February, 2016.


Obviously based upon points 7 through 9 above, the Toronto Area Intergroup believes that a belief in God is a necessary part of being a part of its organization. And as expressed in point 8, it seeks to rely on an exception in the Code which allows “religious organizations” to exclude those who are not like-minded from membership or participation, in this case atheists and agnostics.

This is, to put it mildly, an unusual view within Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA World Services and the AA General Services Board has a little over a month to express its opinion and file a formal response.

We await the results of the next steps in this Tribunal’s proceedings.


Human Rights Code


The Toronto Sun also wrote an article about these hearings called Alcoholics Anonymous accused of discrimination. You can read that article by clicking on the image below:

Toronto Sun


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Comments

AA Atheists and Human Rights — 46 Comments

  1. Please do inform the court that in the 1939 edition of the Big Book Step Twelve says “Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps…” And as the AA General Service Board has changed this step into “Having had a spiritual awakening…” in their other books, we also have the right to change the 12 steps to suit the needs of us agnostics.

    Incidentally, the “spiritual experience” has been defined in the words of Carl Jung in the Big Book as an occurrence of “huge emotional displacements and rearrangement”, i.e., a psychological experience and not a religious awakening. AA is a psychological path and not some spiritual or religious path.

    And here is my sharing on how by working the steps I discovered that AA is just a psychological program: 12 Steps in a Day.

    I have over 25 years in AA and NA and have even served as the all-India service representative of NA, but still I find myself rejected by the members because I’m an agnostic.

  2. Richard Feynman — ‘I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.’

  3. I have 31 years of “sobriety” (clean time) in NA and AA. I’ve met many great people who came to accept my views, or at least allowed me to have them. There were many good and helpful people along the way.

    But I too have suffered at the hands of the “God addicts”. I believe that they are actually hurting themselves and the program (that saved their lives) by rejecting “our” views and ideas. I’m truly embarrassed for them.

    They are biting the hand that reaches out for help and that ultimately feeds them.

  4. I think there are two huge things to come out of it. That world services legal argument is: “a group must be prepared to practice the 12 steps and thus the members of the group must have a belief in God.”

    This is news to most of the fellowship, and is directly contradicting Bill’s wishes ( as the primary architect of the literature ).

    And this puts into question AA’s entire organizational structure. The judge ruled that AA is culpable for what groups do, and is not recognizing it’s “reverse hierarchy” organizational model. They are essentially saying that World Services cannot abdicate certain responsibilities and powers, even if it wants to.

    Even though US case law does not follow Canadian case law as precedent, there is a certain cultural precedent being set and it will weigh on the US legal system. If AA loses, it will also embolden others to follow suite.

    That is HUGE for the program. I don’t know how a US court would rule, or where this is going, but it sure is fascinating as is.

    • To be clear, the argument that “a group must be prepared to practice the 12 steps and thus the members of the group must have a belief in God” is coming from Toronto Intergroup, not AA World Services.

      This is in reaction, one expects, to the specific Province of Ontario Human Rights Code that would allow an exemption for a “religious” group. Toronto Intergroup, not AA World Services, is the one reaching for that particular escape hatch.

  5. My sincere thanks to Larry for his persistence and bravery for bringing this issue before the Human Rights Tribunal. Larry’s approach although unpopular with some is sane and objective.

  6. Well, it looks like conventional AA’s “spiritual” chickens are coming home to roost on their perches of religious intolerance.

  7. Indeed, I welcome most enthusiastically this litigation and salute Larry K. for his fortitude and courage to pursue this course of acton, which has ruffled many feathers in the Toronto world of AA. I predict that it shall ruffle many more feathers throughout the rest of AA, which can no longer rest upon the laurel of it’s rhetoric that AA is “spiritual, not religious”.

    Since it’s 77 year-old primary text and other core literature consistently refer to God-He, and since many meetings throughout North America end with the decidedly religious Lords Prayer, as well as meetings throughout the south of the US prominently displaying the Bible along with the Big Book at the podium, it’s reasonable to conclude that AA is religious at its very core.

    This conclusion has been made by a number of US federal circuit courts and two state supreme courts, one who summarized it thusly:

    A fair reading of the fundamental A.A. doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious.

    If this current Ontario Tribunal comes to the same conclusion, then perhaps AA General Service Office will be motivated to urge AA groups to insure that they are inclusive of all beliefs or lack thereof, instead of being exclusive only to those who Judeo-Christian beliefs, as GTAI is proclaiming AA to be.

    Further, perhaps, in time, the General Service Conference will be moved to recommend publishing secular and other versions of the 12 Steps that reflect the large variety of different wisdom beliefs found throughout the human species, just as it has published numerous translations of our core books in many different languages.

    Perhaps, in this way AA shall reverse its downward trend of membership and relevancy, becoming more attractive to more people across the world throughout the rest of the third millennium.

    I find it deliciously ironic that AA GSO is being given the opportunity to inventory itself in accordance with John 8:32: “Then you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” !~!~!

  8. This really is fascinating. I look forward to see how it moves forward.

    To me anyway I have often wondered if Bill W. even understood at the time that he was taking a stand in a theological battlefield. That being freewill vs determinism and the whole idea that humans are incapable of good without the aid of God or a supernatural being. The reality is that the BB takes a very firm stance on this issue as in, “God was doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”

    It does not bother me one bit that AA should/would take this stance. However, what it should do in my opinion is claim it. Get honest and admit that indeed it is a religion with a very loosely defined, supernatural deity at the head.

    It has one very hot-potato on it’s hands it seems to me. It wants to take a religious exemption but claims not to be a religion. But yet, it is a religion, but not really a religion, just a kinda sorta a religion… Iyiyi…

    • Absolutely, Kent, Bill evolved — he changed his mind and his concepts from what he believed when he was early-on sober, writing the Big Book, and what he believed as he matured throughout his recovery.

      One can discern a broadened perspective between the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve; as well, it is apparent in numerous of his later articles for the Grapevine as well as his correspondence.

      I have it the good authority of Nell Wing, Bill’s secretary and AA’s first Archivist, that in the latter years of Bill’s life she was helping him write a “secular version” of the Big Book in the vein of Aldous Huxely’s The Perennial Philosophy.

      So far, I’ve been unsuccessful in finding any evidence of this work, either in the archives AA or Stepping Stones. A couple of prominent old-timers have agreed with my suspicion that if any documentary evidence of such a project once existed that it has subsequently been deeply sequestered.

  9. Fascinating stuff. It clearly has some pull in our society’s imagination, I believe, due to the the fact that the democratic process has been deliberately separated from religious things for a few hundred years.

    I also find it fascinating that good old order-based AA (ie I was bad and now I’m good; I was defiant and now I’m well behaved) has now had its orderly self questioned in a fundamental way. This process has also forced order based AA in the form of intergroup to crystalize its position on these matters, instead of just being able to dismiss them outright.

  10. If some folks gathered together for sobriety and formed an AA group, then had that group delisted and disenfranchised for subbing “Allah,” or “G-d,” or “Great Spirit” for “God,” the discrimination would be more obvious.

    BUT, there is also freedom from religion. I’m pleased to see this complaint moving forward.

  11. First, Larry, thank you for showing the bravery necessary to take this issue all the way to the human rights tribunal. This process may encourage AA to examine itself more fully, beyond its discriminatory policies and religiosity.

    1) AA (and other 12 step programs) is the only widely recognized and approved recovery program that is totally and completely based on theories, common wisdom, and writings of the 1930’s, and one that refuses to study and/or adopt new scientific research insights into the disease that it is addressing. It is also the only recovery program that blames non-recovery solely on the patient (or ill person) without ever examining and tweaking the program itself.

    As such AA behaves like a religion, claiming to be the truth, rejecting science, forbidding any modifications to the original program, and encompassing in-depth study of it’s writings as a integral aspect of the program.

    2) The writings of AA claim that alcoholism is a physical, mental and spiritual disease. What is a spiritual disease? Is the label “spiritual disease” a recognized medical or psychiatric label? Does it appear in any other (non-12 step) recovery program?

    Not so long ago schizophrenia was seen as a disease whereby the ill person was possessed by the demon and various programs were developed based on this assessment. Would any of us approve of a recovery program stemming from these theories and methods? Autism, well into the 1970’s was seen as a disorder of “the cold mother”. Can any of us, especially those who might have a child with autism, imagine a recovery program today, for autism where mothers would follow a step program, with the goal of making them warm mothers, and furthermore, if the child was not improving, the mother would be blamed for not “working the program” properly.

    3) AA is a necessary fellowship for many recovering alcoholics, regardless of which medical or psychological or spiritual program helped them to achieve sobriety. Alcoholism is one of those neurological disorders that is difficult, for the affected person, to accept as a life long disorder, currently without a cure, where (again currently) only recovery is possible. This is the most valuable aspect of the fellowship of AA – to assist and support the ill person through the difficult period of attaining sobriety (including the numerous relapses), regardless of the method they choose to achieve sobriety, as well as supporting the sober person in maintaining their sobriety and not giving into the temptation of just one drink.

    4) Membership in AA is dwindling, and in the past few years, dwindling quickly. If AA were to disappear many active and sober alcoholics would lose an essential support, the AA fellowship, which is such a strong support for the recovering alcoholic.

    We have a responsibility to ensure AA’s viability. We have a responsibility to address the issue of AA being hijacked by religious zealots who want to continue mothballing AA in the 1930s, promoting it as a religion, and thus leading it towards a slow demise.

    AA is too important to many of us. Thank you Larry again, for starting a process that may revive AA and thus ensure that AA will continue to provide the support that many of us require.

    • If we/I truly have a “disease” as the AMA has labeled my disorder, then I don’t understand what a Higher Power has to do with any of it! My “disease” needs and should be treated as such by a medical professional, not amateurs. Imagine a diabetic, an anemic, a person with heart disease, etc going to their doctor and the doc tells them that their successful treatment depends on their ability to find God or a “Higher Power”!!!!!!!!

  12. I believe an AA Intergroup should have the right to list, or not to list, whatever groups in their meeting directory as decided by the group conscience.

    • Indeed, Bob, if the group conscience decides that the GTA Intergroup is a “religious organization”, it will certainly have the right to exclude whatever groups it wants, and certainly atheists and agnostics groups, if that is its wish. That’s the current position of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup, as it was presented to the Tribunal.

      • No levels of AA are immune from the requirement to obey the laws of the land. Surely, if Toronto Intergroup has acted illegally, we would ALL want to fix that, as best we can.

  13. One point that many are not taking into account is that this complaint is mainly against GTAI; GSO/AAWS are included for their lack of leadership or guidance in the manner. As such, GSO/AAWS will separate themselves from GTAI and their transgressions. They will say that they cannot speak for AA and etc. if GTAI is found to have refused services based on creed.

    My understanding is that, one, many believe no one can use altered versions of the steps and call themselves AA, and two, that using alternative steps is the same as changing the 12 steps is at the core of this concern. Joe C has a great article on these issues at Rebellion Dogs. His explanation of negative rights and positive rights simplify the issue, at least for myself.

    Misinformation is amok throughout AA’s membership body with a plethora of misconceptions when concepts, guaranties, traditions, and “the program” are thrust upon others.

    God bless Jim B.

    • Bob, I Just had a run-in with someone at GSR meeting, who says we’re not AA because we dont use the Big Book, or the 12×12 at the Laytonville Freethinkers meeting. She apparently doesn’t use it either, otherwise she would know the long form of tradition 3:

      Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon
      money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other
      affiliation.

    • Bob, the GSO cannot shirk their responsibility if we point out to the court that the Long Form of Tradition Four in the Big Book says:

      With respect to its own affairs, each AA Group should be responsible to no other authority than its own conscience. But when its plans concern the welfare of neighboring groups also, those groups ought to be consulted. And no group, regional committee or individual should ever take any action that might greatly affect AA as a whole without conferring with the Trustees of the General Service Board. On such issues our common welfare is paramount.

      The General Service Board (GSO) is responsible and accountable for everything that happens in AA.

      • Rajiv, I don’t think the language of the traditions helps your argument. It says “consults.” More importantly, it doesn’t matter when understanding the jurisprudence. What is ultimately in question on a legal level, is given AA’s entire organizational structure, can AA legally abdicate all responsibility to the groups. The judges ruling clearly states they can’t prime facia. This is what forced AA’s hand to say a belief in god by a group, is a requirement and categorized themselves as a religious group or fraternity. That is the only legal defense they have left.

  14. I suspect AA World Services and the AA General Services Board will take the same position they have taken in other legal situations – they will cite the 10th Tradition – no opinion on outside issues. However, in this particular case it seem blatantly hypocritical when the 2nd Tradition posits the existence of “a loving god” – clearly an opinion about an issue outside of AA.

  15. The groups in question here changed the wording of the 12 Steps in their literature. It seems to me that is why they have been excluded from being listed as AA groups in the local directories. They can start their own 12 step program if they like, but I don’t think they can be considered an AA group if they change the wording of our literature. I don’t think AA can be forced to list groups as AA groups just because they say they are an AA group. They could be trying to teach their members how to drink like a non-alcoholic for all we know, or to “just say no”, or any number of methods that do not embody AA principles.

    • You have stated well the basic AA position. However, the The Province of Ontario does not hold AA as a higher authority. Laws have been passed to protect the human rights of Ontario citizens. Those laws are not secondary to AA’s positions and policies.

      No need for the obfuscation re: social drinking. This is a clear case of civil rights. The complainant is pressing a case of religious discrimination.

    • Its interesting this argument about not changing literature. What but a religious organization prevents folks from altering written things about which an organization is formed? Consider scientific communities, which rely heavily on people altering existing literature. Academic, political and many other institutions evolve via the changes made to written words.

      Also, did AA literature come first, or did AA come first? I do not believe they are the same thing. AA decided, after it had already been organized, to create a literature body for itself. The alteration of that subsequent creation (the literature) would be in line with all other subsequent alterations, such as the 12 and 12 and many other additions and subtractions to the body of AA literature.

      The irony is that it is not “either or” thinking that is required here (the evidence of only basic personal spiritual growth). Rather it requires “both / and” thinking.

      • Lois L. That is not a very consistent logical argument.

        We can just point out to any Christian about how many times the Bible has been re-written over the years, with many translations and interpretations. The current version is by no means that of the original. If that is plainly acceptable to their masses, why shouldn’t the AA 12 steps be reworded, accordingly?

        This is not like the Christian church hasn’t been ripped by a million schisms and adapted accordingly. Protestants vs. Catholics, anyone? Baptists vs. Methodists? The list goes on and on. However, all the parts claim to be Christians in their own way. We must not forget that these inter Christian group fractions have caused terrible wars over the years.

        I’m not sure we want to go that route.

        The A.A. agnostic 12 step program remains just that. A proper AA 12 step program. The gist of the 12 steps have been maintained in all of the interpretations that I have seen. Only the wordings have been altered to enable the inclusivity of non-theists to the program and to assist them to achieve sobriety. We are talking of a Human Rights code violation here, not a petty semantic religious schism!

        I am proud to be a member of several of the Toronto agnostic AA groups and they all have been critical to my sobriety and I thank Larry in making this stand. By the way, not ALL of the agnostic AA groups in Toronto have been delisted by GTAI, so even they haven’t shown any consistency in this matter.

      • Lois it is thinking of this sort that I find so frustrating. You have used a bait and switch. They used alternative wording in their literature later became they changed AA’s literature. This is a bait and switch. AA’s literature is the same. And a group by OUR traditions, concepts, and guaranties is allowed to follow their conscience as well as have the “right to be wrong.” It is many such arguments within the majority of AA that non-theists are pushing back on.

  16. I started a secular AA group near Kingston last July. There was considerable controversy in our District but in the end we were allowed to remain in the District and on the meeting lists.

    In discussing the October interim decision via e-mail with a member in Toronto he stated that he thought the “constituents of AA and AA intergroup would not stand” for AA declaring itself a religious organization. Although I agree with this observation, my concern is that many AA members (in Kingston) are completely unaware of the Human tribunal case and its potential impact to divide AA.

    Call to Pens

    Given that the groups are the top of the inverted triangle in AA, I think we should encourage all AA groups (including the 250 + atheist/agnostic groups) to write to GSO/WSO and the Trustees and inform them that we hope/expect AA WSO and GSO to reject that they are a religious organization and thus reject the religious exemption from the Ontario human rights law.

    In the past the GSO and WSO have rejected letters from individuals since the AA group is the top of the AA pyramid. Thus I believe for our voices (and the AA principles) to be heard by GSO and WSO we should write as groups.

    As we now have 250+ secular/agnostic AA groups as well as countless other traditional groups that support us, I believe we may be able to influence AA WSO and GSO to uphold our Traditions of inclusion by a letter writing campaign.

    Thanks, Don.

    • While not wishing to detract from Don M’s thoughtful suggestion to use the groups to write to GSO/WSO, I went astray reading his phrase, “Given that the groups are the top of the inverted triangle in AA…” My own indoctrination into the AA service structure taught me that the highest one may reach is one step above the group, i.e. the individual sober alcoholic. For me, adopting this view makes clear that my responsibility to the group is exceeded only by my responsibility to myself. After decades of listening, reading, honing my own deepest self-honesty, and willingness to follow a basic secular moral code uncontaminated by sometimes damaging religious dogma, I have discarded the concept of “higher power,” and replaced it with “highest power,” myself.

  17. For me this issue comes down to Traditions 1 and 5. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity. Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

    Also, remember page 81 which states that the steps are merely suggestions.

    If we AA’s are not unified we are divided and people die. If one person doesn’t make it to their first meeting because they can’t stomach the god thing, isn’t that too high a price to pay?

  18. The attempts by some religious members to deny us full membership calls to mind Bill’s writings about Step Six in the Twelve and Twelve:

    Self-righteous anger can also be very enjoyable. In a perverse way we can actually take satisfaction from the fact that many people annoy us, for it brings a comfortable feeling of superiority. Gossip barbed with our anger, a polite form of murder by character assassination, has its satisfactions for us, too. Here we are not trying to help those we criticize; we are trying to proclaim our own righteousness.

    Atheists and agnostics have been a part of AA since the pre-Big Book days. We need our fellow alcoholics too. It took me 7 years to get 90 days because I did not hear anything in an AA meeting that alerted me, an agnostic, to why this would work to me. Shortly after my first We Agnostics meeting in Hollywood, I stopped, for 28 years so far.

    Our fellow alcoholics need us as well. I certainly needed you. Loving believers tell me that a loving God took me to a We Agnostics meeting. It is a shame that those in the Toronto Intergroup do not know the same loving, accepting God that Bill Wilson knew.

  19. Thank you for writing this article Roger and for all the work you do for the fellowship. This situation in Toronto will in my opinion turn out good for AA in the long run.

    We will be forced to make it very clear that we are not a religion, and one does not need to confess a belief in anything to be a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Anyone is a member who so declares they are.

    I think this will also make it more difficult for Intergroups to refuse to list secular AA groups for any reason.

    With regard to rewriting the steps, that is only natural for us to do that. We believe in the steps, but we don’t believe in God, we believe in the principles of the steps not the supernatural claims. Of course we are going to rewrite the steps.

    At our group, each individual member decides for themselves how to interpret the steps and incorporate them in their recovery, and in the process they write the steps out in their own language. Some people feel so good about it, that they share them with the rest of the group. We save these in a binder.

    So, if individual members can do this, why can’t a group? I think they can and one day that it will just be standard practice, unless of course we as a fellowship agree upon a secular version of the steps.

    This case in Ontario will be interesting to watch as it proceeds. I truly believe it will represent a paradigm shift in Alcoholics Anonymous that will benefit those in AA today and those who may need it in the future.

    Thank you Larry K and all the good people in Toronto and it’s environs for the great work you are doing for AA.

  20. Remind me: What is that first tradition again? I just can’t see any wisdom in appealing to an outside agency to force compliance.

    • Frank,
      I may be corrected, but I think that the real motive behind this is to put AA in the uncomfortable position to decide whether it is a religion or not, and this may do it.

    • “Our common welfare should come first. Personal recovery depends on AA unity.”

      Unity, NOT conformity. (see the 3rd tradition)

      When any AA tries to force conformity in the name of unity (i.e. you must believe in god or you can’t change the steps) that’s discrimination. That’s breaking the law which belongs to an “outside agency”.

      GTA intergroup brought the outside agency into the fracas first by breaking the law.

  21. It seems to me that there is a huge difference between 1) arguing the moral/ethical aspects of the Intergroup’s position and 2) getting to the heart of the issue: Does the Intergroup have a right to their discriminatory position or not? At present, it seems that the Ontario Human Rights Code is the authority on this issue, so both sides should be prepared to accept the judge’s decision when it is rendered.

    Since the New York GSO has absolutely no authority over the Toronto Intergroup, I see no reason to involve them in this action at all. Based upon my experience with GSO, I’m sure that they feel the same way. You know, autonomy and all that.

    I am also more than a little unclear how an AA group, or any other group, can credibly profess to a (collective) “belief in God”, or unbelief, for that matter. Also, as a long time AA member, I would be reluctant for my home group (or any other group I attend) to become a member of any AA entity that did not welcome us in good faith. It may be time to move forward.

  22. As an agnostic seeking sobriety I joined AA. I had major reservations regarding the use of the word God even when the additional statement was made that it was a God of my understanding. I met multiple people who were very inclusive and appreciated the chapter related to agnostics though it often seemed to me that this was an interim state after which thru reflection the individual was expected to see the light and become a believer in a supernatural being.

    Several members were clearly of the belief that one could not possibly maintain sobriety without the spiritual conversion that would result in a new found belief in the supernatural being known as God but I was willing to accept that these individuals were so aided in their recovery thru their conversion that they simply wanted the same for others and had lost sight of the idea that an agnostic could achieve sobriety. I also never had any problem with the need to understand that there are greater powers in this world than one individual.

    This story is upsetting in that it underscores my original concerns that the true AA people simply tolerated but felt apart from agnostics and that they secretly thought that an agnostic could not achieve long term sobriety no matter the phrase of a god of our understanding.

    I hope this is reversed. The fact that the organization chose to distance itself instead of doing what they should have done which was to rally to the side of including agnostics is unfortunately evidence that agnostics are second class citizens within AA.

  23. There are two very real problems here:

    1) Our scripture goes back and forth on whether AA is a religion or not. It claims not to be, and while there is plenty to support that position in official AA writings, there are also many places where god is being pushed with a vengeance, and several places where it specifically indicates that our object as alcoholics in recovery is to find god. It seems to me that the primary purpose and possible benefit of this legal process will be to get AA off the fence and decide whether it is one or the other.

    2) AA was set up as an anarchistic organization, and those who did it could not imagine that we’d ever find ourselves in the current situation: That one day Intergroups would grab power and start governing. Our leaders are supposed to be trusted servants and not govern. And now that they do govern, there is nothing in place to check their power. AA World Services is also not a governing body, and so, cannot issue a decree that Intergroups must not govern. On the other hand they are being rather wimpy on reminding them about our second tradition. World Services / GSO has always served as a gentle guiding force in matters of controversy. Intergroup could write to them and ask: “Is it proper that we decide which groups are worthy of being included in our schedule”, and World Services could answer “No”. That’s the way AA used to be run.

    This whole controversy does indeed have the potential to hurt AA as a whole, though I think it might turn out to be a healthy shakeup instead – but who’s doing the hurting?

    I think it’s the Intergroups, not those unbeliever groups that are changing the steps.
    Here, let me remind of one Bill Wilson Quote:

    …that he may flout everything we stand for and still be a member. In fact, our Tradition carries the principle of independence for the individual to such an apparently fantastic length that, 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 AA Group if they think so!

    Given the Intergroup decision, I guess Bill should have negated himself and added: “SO LONG AS they read the steps as written no matter what”.

    There is a Bill Wilson quote for that too:

    But here we must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made A.A. available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p 81)

    I admit, some confusion reigns. In the Service Manual, p 111, the issue is addressed: “However, because these Twelve Steps have proven to constitute an effective spiritual basis for life which, if followed, arrests the disease of alcoholism, the General Service Board asserts the negative right of preventing, so far as it may be within its power to do, any modification, alteration, or extension of these twelve steps…”

    As embodied in the Fourth Tradition, the formation and operation of an AA Group resides within the group conscience of its members.

    Now what about taking this controversy out into the public if we can’t resolve it among ourselves? In the end, this public discussion of our dilemma may be the best way for it to work itself out: No-one inside AA steps up to the plate with more governance, we let an outside entity sort it out, and give us their opinion. And while such public opinion of us may not be binding, we may do well to consider it. And just maybe the Intergroups will see the error of their governance?

    In closing I would like to ask: What is the essence of AA? Is it god, the steps, or one alcoholic helping another? Whichever is most important, should prevail, of course.

  24. Arose early in anticipation of your report, Roger. And well worth it.
    My first surprise was the wisdom of your Ontario Human Rights code. In 1962 they must have been forward thinking even for such a progressive province as Ontario.

    Then the fact that GSO and AAWS were not able to successfully avoid the issue. Yet.

    One of the principles of AA which was drilled into me by our then delegate of area 40 (Montana) in the early 90’s was that intergroups are not part of the service structure. This came up regularly in arguments as to whether they should be allowed to vote or present at our area assemblies. As a result I am somewhat prejudiced against the idea that they are more than a service adjunct to the AA organization.

    And I suppose that would be my first guess as to AAWS/GSO’s defense. And perhaps a legitimate one.

    My comment is primarily to give a cheer for your report and get the conversation started. Thanks.

    • And, a wow for points 7 and 9. I’m sure Larry was better prepared than whomever responded for intergroup. That is a pretty amazing interpretation the human rights commission apparently got.

      The longer I am involved with AA Agnostica et al the clearer I can see how I have been brainwashed; not intentionally by well meaning AA advocates, but through the regular repetition of “truths” which “everyone knows are true” because, for example, (a), (b) and (c) from “How It Works” in the Big Book have been read to me like a creed for thousands of meetings.

      (a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
      (b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
      (c) That God could and would if He were sought.

      Not until reading Frank M’s observation (in Don’t Tell: Stories and Essays by Agnostics and Atheists in AA) that (b) at least is just plain false was I able to see the falsehood for myself.

      Acquiring and developing the words to express our position comes very slowly to me.