Does AA Need Religion: Agnostics on CBC Radio‏


By bob k

In May of 2011, with the ‘delisting’ of two Toronto AA groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, Toronto Intergroup hoped to quickly and quietly put an end to their problem of two groups which were offering a ‘dereligionized’ version of the famous Twelve Step recovery programme. To their dismay, the issue became quite public, and made the front page of the Toronto Star.

In what could only be seen as a public relations nightmare, a long-time sober Roman Catholic priest stepped forward as the spokesperson for AA. Considering his occupation, his opinion that calling upon a Higher Power – which he only understands as a “God” – was vital to recovery from alcoholism was not exactly “Man Bites Dog” breaking news. Additionally many Toronto Star readers were left to wonder why an elephant felt so compelled to stomp on a mouse.

In defining the AA notion of a “power greater than ourselves” as God, the priest exposed the crux of the problem between agnostics and the traditionalists in AA: this is far too limiting, narrow and dogmatic a definiton of the higher power, at least as far as agnostics are concerned.

The debate continues to rage unabated and on Sunday, January 29th, three members of Beyond Belief were interviewed on the award-winning CBC Radio programme, Tapestry. Presenting opposing views were Rabbi Shais Taub, author of “God of our Understanding; Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction,” and “Adele,” an Ottawa lawyer, sober in AA for over thirty years. The three agnostic AA members, respecting AA tradition of public anonymity, were simply Joe, Joanne, and Roger. These members have thirty-five years, twenty-five years, and eighteen months of sobriety respectively.

“Adele,” speaking much of “miracles,” presents herself very much as a “classic” AA conversion story, overcoming an initial resistance to God through “hitting bottom.” Her position is that the words “God as we understood Him” are very satisfactory in opening the door to all, even those whose God of their understanding is not God. As if to prove, however, that in AA there is something to displease everyone, “Adele” remains unhappy with the very “male dominant” orientation of the steps (Him!) and of the AA book, basically unrevised since the thirties.

Rabbi Taub is both charming and articulate, and demonstrates an impressive knowledge of the recovery process. He very accurately recognizes the human need to be “a part of” rather than “apart from.” Booze and spirituality provide similar releases from self, or what he cleverly calls “existential angst.” His position is that the very core of the twelve step process is spirituality, and that the removal of God from the Steps necessarily removes spirituality. Once more, it is no “Man Bites Dog” earth-shaker that a rabbi sees God as being at the core of spirituality.

Once their turn arrives, the agnostics sound NOT so very different from the rabbi, or from more conventional AA members.

In an all too brief seventeen minutes, after qualifying as alcoholics by telling a very condensed version of their stories and their experiences with AA, the non-religious group’s members then tell something of their own implementation of the twelve steps. They definitively answer in the affirmative the question as to whether spirituality can be practiced without calling upon the help of the supernatural.

CBC Radio

Joanne talks of her feelings of isolation as a drinker countered by the “hope and emotional connection” gained by joining AA. Her description of the principles underlying all of the steps could be heard at ANY meeting. Honesty, forgiveness, acceptance and the like provide her with a new way of living. She expresses gratitude to “regular” AA for starting her on a path which has led to her being “sober, happy and content and a productive member of society.”

Her personal commitment to the quest to be a better person is ongoing. Participation in agnostic AA brings elevated feelings of being “integral.”

Joe came to AA as a teenager and had his last drink at the age of sixteen. Through the years he has explored many spiritual paths and been open to a variety of efforts to maintain sobriety and seek spiritual growth. He points out that there have been agnostic groups since the seventies, and agnostic and atheist members since the very start. One of the difficulties of the nonbeliever is in participating in a programme which puts a great emphasis on honesty while navigating through AA language founded on a different creed. Regarding the twelve steps, Joe utters a classic AA truism, “It works if you work it,” adding that for agnostics it’s the “same hard work, but with less delegating.”

Roger gets quite specific about higher powers other than God. The secular Third Step, for example, makes the AA program itself a higher power. There is little disagreement with Rabbi Taub’s emphasis on the need for self-transcendance, and Roger has found effective ways of breaking away from this classic alcoholic / addict problem of excessive self-centeredness. “Resources other than self – energy, driving force, motivation, visions… How about commitment to others?” New-found respect for other people, life itself, service to others – all of these are available as self-transcending higher powers.

Joanne speaks of “personal responsibility,” and when Joe talks of not feeling “the interference of an outside force” and mentions the use of meditation to contact an “inner power” what he says sounds very much like the AA Big Book: “Our members find that they have tapped an unexpected inner resource…” The modified Step Eleven refers to seeking one’s “rightful path in life.” I found a strong common thread among these three non-conformists – integrity and courage. By stepping bravely into this area and professing their “lack of belief” in a personal deity, they are not seeking change for themselves so much as to help the many others who are to come in AA. At present, only a small percentage of “free thinkers” can do the gyrations necessary to maintain their personal belief systems and survive in a very godly AA.

Roger relates his experience of stepping out of the “Lord’s Prayer” circle and losing friends at AA meetings as a result. Although the good Rabbi sees submission to God as the core of Twelve Step recovery, the AA book sees the fellowship itself as an essential part of recovery: “I soon found that when all other measures failed, work with another alcoholic would save the day,” Bill W observed. These three AA members seem genuinely motivated to help non-religious suffering alcoholics who are not being very well served by “old school” AA in its various manifestations.

The show was initially broadcast on January 29, 2012. You can listen the entire program (54 minute) here: The God of Your Understanding: Religion in AA. The agnostic portion of the Tapestry episode (17 minutes) is available here: CBC Tapestry: Agnostics and the 12 Steps of AA.