Separation of Church and AA

By Don S.
Des Moines We Agnostics

I stopped praying in meetings years ago, but held hands while others did. I recently stopped doing that, too. I now remain seated during the prayer. This adjustment brings up several issues which Americans have already dealt with in the courts.

When reading the Bible and leading prayer in US schools was outlawed in 1963, it was due to action brought by a Unitarian minister on behalf of his son. (The famous atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, had a similar case pending and the two cases were combined on appeal to the Supreme Court.) The district court ruled in his favor, saying:

The reading of the verses, even without comment, possesses a devotional and religious character and constitutes in effect a religious observance.

If a vote had been taken, prayer and Bible reading would certainly have been retained in the schools. Many Americans were outraged that a tiny minority, sometimes a single child, could keep them from expressing their faith. Billy Graham said:

[I]n my opinion … the Supreme Court … is wrong. … Eighty percent of the American people want Bible reading and prayer in the schools. Why should a majority be so severely penalized …?

The US Congress drafted over 150 resolutions to overturn it, but it remains law. Today, many believers still feel like a persecuted majority. Some choose private schools for this reason. But the court reasoned that public schools must be kept neutral regarding religion since kids were required to attend.

But AA isn’t like America; there’s no Bill of Rights. Meetings are run by simple majority, referred to in Tradition Two as the ‘group conscience’ which is said to be the expression of a loving god. Each meeting is autonomous and can do whatever the majority wants. If you don’t like a meeting, you can go to another one. This is the same approach businesses and churches take. Shopowners can display Hindu shrines or crucifixes. If you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere. If you don’t like the Lord’s Prayer in a church service, you can go elsewhere.

So AA is more like a church or a business than the public schools. There is no minority protection and no expectation of religious neutrality. If you don’t like a meeting, you can go elsewhere.

Do we want to say this to our fellow alcoholics? Is mixing religion and AA in line with our primary purpose? Or is it simply more comfortable for the majority?

My view is that separation of church and AA is best for the newcomer. It is the most inclusive stance we can take. This goes against 75 years of AA tradition, so we have to consider how important tradition is. Tradition is usually thought to embody distilled wisdom and provides a source of familiarity and comfort. When we think about prayer in AA meetings, we have a choice: we can show that mixing religion and AA is best for AA members, or give up some comfort in favor of being more inclusive.

Imagine travelling to Detroit and looking up a meeting in the local AA schedule. When you get there, it’s plain that most members are Arab, apparently Muslim. (There is a large Muslim population in Detroit.) When they read How It Works, they say “Allah” in place of “God.” When they end the meeting, they hold hands and say a Muslim prayer in Arabic. Are you comfortable? Do you return?

Here in Des Moines, there is one religiously-neutral meeting. It uses a script from an agnostic group in New York that is a paraphrase of How It Works omitting the supernaturalism. We share our experience that fellowship, personal inventory, restitution and social restoration have been central to our continued recovery. The vibe is this: whether gods exist or not, we have gotten and stayed sober without them. Believers are welcome, but might miss the prayers and the familiar cadence of How It Works. Our hope is that giving up some comfort and tradition will allow more people to get in the lifeboat. We have no way of knowing how many people have come to AA one time. Limiting religious talk is one area we can improve our inclusiveness. And it only takes a few months for new traditions to develop. In a short time, a new meeting format fits comfortably. There is more than one way to create the fellowship we crave.

There is good reason to think AA is not as welcoming as we would like. We are 95% white, 67% male and our membership is flat at 2.1 million members since 1993 (while the population has risen about 20%). We have no data on why some people never show up, or why some attend only once, never to return. Nonbelievers are more numerous than blacks and Jews combined (who are also underrepresented in AA). Do we continue as we are, hoping that the lash of alcoholism will drive these people into our groups? Do we take our cue from The United States Supreme Court and keep religion and AA separate? Or do we simply start new groups that cater to our diversity?

With these thoughts in my mind, I attended my usual Saturday morning meeting today. It’s New Year’s Day, so there were several out of town visitors. I greeted one, Judy from Seward, Nebraska and sat down next to her. The chairman walked up and asked me to read How It Works. I said, No, thank you. He pressed me, and I told him I think the language is not very inclusive. Judy heard this exchange. At the end of the meeting, I remained seated while everyone else rose, held hands and said the Serenity Prayer. Judy told me that she attends 5 or 6 meetings each week in Seward. It’s possible she’ll tell her friends in that town of 6,000 about the guy in Des Moines who wouldn’t read How It Works or join in prayer.

This is how change occurs. A few people show it is worthwhile, possible and not that big of a deal.

I don’t know what AA will look like in 10 years, but I am working so that nonbelievers will feel welcome, or at least have a choice. Further, since separate is not equal, I have come out of the atheist closet in AA, to let others know they are not alone.