The Responsibility Declaration
I am responsible. When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that I am responsible.
By Roger C.
I had a hard time in my early days of sobriety.
Most of us do, I know.
It was hard for me partly because I didn’t feel at home in the rooms of AA. You see, Alcoholics Anonymous in the city where I got clean was pretty “old school.” There was a lot of “my higher power” talk. And every meeting ended with people holding hands and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
It was difficult sometimes to muster the enthusiasm to attend another meeting.
I decided to be “rigorously honest.” I didn’t rant or rave or anything like that – I was pretty quiet in those rooms – but I refused to hold hands and say the “Our Father.” I would just stand back of the circle of hand holders and stare at the floor while the others prayed.
I have to tell you the truth: I wasn’t really appreciated. I got a lot of funny looks. One time I was “kettled:” they wouldn’t let me outside of the circle of hand holding because, as one woman put it: “We want to pray for you.”
I felt spiritually abused.
It became more and more clear to me that I wasn’t welcome in those rooms.
And then, during a visit to Toronto, I found Beyond Belief, the oldest secular AA group in Canada.
I was saved!
It was such a relief to know that I could go to a meeting and be honest and not feel disrespected. Or threatened. Because, you know, it was always implied at those other meetings that if I didn’t find God I would never be able to maintain my sobriety.
I go to a lot of meetings still, of all kinds. But my home, my anchor in sobriety, is Beyond Belief.
And if you want to talk hard core, I believe Beyond Belief fulfills the sole mission of AA. Because AA is first and foremost about helping the suffering alcoholic.
Beyond Belief expresses its primary purpose very well: “Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their own.”
It’s like a burden has been lifted, and I can work on my recovery. I feel grateful.
Beyond Belief chooses to end its meetings not with a prayer but with a commitment, a declaration: the responsibility declaration.
I’ve always thought the following was one of the finest expressions of a notion of a power greater than oneself. Note that “Providence” is used by the author but it is a word so nebulous that it does not necessarily imply the idea of a Godhead any more than words like “Destiny” or “Fate”:
Many religious people have a hard time seeing how what is sustaining to them could be exclusive to others. Despite the 1963 ban on group-led prayer in the public schools, most AA members I know think it is perfectly ok to pray as a group “for those who wish to join us”. If, after that kind of polite invitation, nonbelievers are not content to just sit out for a few moments, then they are just bad sports and need to get over themselves. The AA members I know reject the parallel with prayer in the public schools, or they think prayer never should have been banned in the first place.
Like so much in religious faith, this position does not hold up. If AA is to be as welcoming as possible, we should not pray as a group. Even religious people should see this, since any religious group could form a meeting and use their own prayers. When we want equality, religion is not our friend. Save it for church. I know many religious people who are secularists regarding government, but none of them are in AA. In AA, we are conditioned from our very first meeting to accept group prayer as normal. Unless, of course, you are lucky enough to attend an agnostic meeting the first time you go to AA.
According to the 3rd Tradition (Long Form): “Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought A.A. membership ever depend upon money or conformity…”
At this point, AAs have told me that AA doesn’t exclude nonbelievers. They are members, but they aren’t ‘working the program’ if they don’t pray or believe in God. This is a dodge. It just means that everyone is welcome to AA, but there is an inner circle of real AAs. They have only moved the fence indoors.
Simon Blackburn’s excellent essay covers this topic better than anything else I have read: Religion and Respect.
Here is something more from Bill W.
“The Soul of Sponsorship” chronicles the letters and relationship between Father Ed Dowling and Bill Wilson. In this book Bill Wilson is quoted as saying sobriety, not spirituality is AA’s purpose. Bill, “It must never be forgotten that the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made on anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.”
Reminded by We Agnostics of Indianapolis http://www.indyweagnostics.com: “It would be unrealistic to assume that all A.A. members are spiritually inspired. Many, too, are not committed to a formal body of religious doctrine. But innumerable A.A. members—including those of no orthodoxy—say they have experiences the transforming power of sharing, caring, trust and love.”
And, “…the A.A. program of recovery is based on certain spiritual values. Individual members are free to interpret these values as they think best, or not to think about them at all.” From “Members of the Clergy Ask About Alcoholics Anonymous” First printed 1961, updated 1996.
And I hate to nit-pick, but for the record, it’s the Responsibility Declaration, not “Pledge.” Drunks aren’t so good with pledges.