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 definition 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.

6 Responses

  1. Jim C. says:

    I moved to central Illinois from Pensacola, Fl. The meetings are much less religion oriented than in the deep south. However, I counted God being referenced by name over 40 times in my last meeting. I have to drive three hours to attend an agnostic meeting where I feel relaxed and welcomed.

    I honestly fear being ostracized if I express my true beliefs in my local groups.

    I just wish there were more Agnostic and Atheist groups. The Toronto occurrence seems to indicate the reverse is desired by mainstream AA.

  2. Frank P. says:

    I avoided AA for 60 years after my father died of alcoholism and PTSD when I was 7 years of age. I had an image of a group of sober (boring/judgmental) Christians trading their substances for meetings.

    I recently attended AA meetings for a month in San Miguel de Allende, and had a hard time with God references and the Lord’s Prayer. However, there were two meetings a day a five minute walk away and I enjoyed their “comedy club” type of gathering.

    Before returning to Toronto, I looked up the list of meetings on the AA website, and tried to find some that were not held in churches and might welcome atheists. Fortunately, I was guided to a Beyond Belief group and We Agnostics and finally discovered the website. When I read about the controversy, I was shocked that it takes more than the desire to stop drinking to join AA in a big city like Toronto.

  3. Tim T. says:

    It’s about time this occurred. I’m from the U.S. and wish we had groups like this. It’s years since I last went to AA. I joined AA to stop drinking. It did not take long to realize that AA was more interested in saving my soul than in my drinking. I’m agnostic, and while I see the possibility of a “God,” I did not come to AA for religion. There’s a lot of churches in this city. If I want what they offer, I’d go to one of them. Besides that, I feel that religion is a private matter, and not something I wanted to share at AA, regardless of my personal beliefs.

    While I continued to work toward staying sober, I didn’t stay with AA very long. AA said that I should choose a “Power greater than myself,” yet the groups continued to pressure myself and others with “Christianity”, pray their prayers, and speak their language. AA claims in its literature and “Big Book,” that it’s not a religion, yet it is precisely that. Even the U.S., courts have found it to be a religion. If nothing else, the fact that AA is dishonest and deceptive in their claims, was enough to make me leave their program.

    If AA was strictly about alcoholism, I would likely still be a member. But seeing AA had ulterior motives was enough reason for me to leave. I never felt comfortable at the meetings, because there was always this pressure from the religious extremists at the core of the meetings who never seemed satisfied with persons who simply remained alcohol free. They always wanted more, they wanted to shove their religious beliefs on others, and did so in a harsh, often cruel manner. They were not “a friend helping a friend,” they were more like dictators, and their way was the only way. No thanks, I left AA never to return.

    I did get assistance elsewhere and with their help and my own determination, I stopped the alcohol, and did so without the need for religion. AA needs to modernize, it’s no longer 1935, and although the foundation of AA began with the religion of the Oxford group, the AA program is *not* the Oxford group. If people want religion, it should be optional, not forced. AA needs to grow-up, otherwise it will fail!

  4. Bob K. says:

    Toronto Intergroup started this controversy by delisting the 2 agnostics groups and with a MINIMUM of debate.

    The publicity in the Toronto Star later that week was far more harmful to AA than this conversation about alternative spirituality. A Catholic priest, fully named and in uniform, acted as a self-appointed spokesperson for AA in the worst anonymity breach I’ve ever seen. The general public and most AA members like me knew little or nothing of these groups.

    As they have been cast aside by Toronto IG, they will now need publicity to draw new members. What was done was very tasteful at least. The Toronto Star thing was VERY BAD!

  5. Lisa says:

    It was fortuitous that I happened to hear the CBC program tonight regarding the agnostic group(s). I would like to join and, then, if Twelve Step doesn’t work for me either I would like to un-join without harassment. It is a difficult thing, to break free from addictive behavior. Even psychological counseling (which has also become a “religion”) doesn’t work for a lot of things. Human beings just aren’t that great at behavioral engineering or behavioral science, which includes religiosity. But, with the progress in brain research, maybe more concrete knowledge and solutions will evolve sooner than later. I have a feeling those discoveries are going to make us all look stupid, including religious solutions around the world.

  6. Bob K. says:

    Overall I think we have much reason to be pleased with this media exposure. That the agnostic portion was last of three, was a win. I felt for our participants – SO LITTLE TIME and so much to say!

    I think that North American culture has broadened to the point where a reasonable percentage of the population would see spirituality as entirely possible without God. Although church attendance is declining, the remaining faithful (best exemplified by the religious right in America) are circling the wagons and being more militant, out-spoken and self-satisfied than ever before.

    Sadly, I see much the same in AA. Small batches of Big Book fundamentalists are growing in aggressiveness. Newcomers are being told early, and told directly, that they MUST get with God and perform every action in the PRECISE manner advocated by their particular guru, OR GET OUT!

    I worry that newcomers to AA are greeted with less love and tolerance than was the case some years ago.
    The non-religious option becomes more vital as “regular” AA grows more dogmatic.

Translate »

Discover more from AA Agnostica

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading