Another Agnostic Group Ousted

By Roger C.

In the rooms of AA – A third agnostic AA group has been expelled by Intergroup in Toronto.

On April 24, Widening Our Gateway, which had been a member of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) Intergroup since its first meeting on October 16, 2011, was officially “suspended from any involvement at Toronto Intergroup” by a vote of 27 to 17.

Of course, there were arguments for and against the motion.

Hands down, the agnostics won that argument. How can you lose when you have the Third Tradition on your side? Here’s the long form: “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.”

Still, the group – which considers itself a “Freethinkers” group in AA – read a secular version of the 12 Steps. Bear in mind that the group read the original steps first, as they were published, and then read a secular version of some of the steps, removing from them the “God” word.

Wouldn’t that be grounds for eviction? Surely you can’t change the Steps just because you feel like it: the Steps are in the Big Book!

Not grounds for eviction at all. Bill was at pains to emphasize that they were “suggested” steps only. Open for interpretation. Toss them out entirely, if you want. You will still be a member of AA. And still a group in AA. Here’s more of what the co-founder of AA said:

To some of us, the idea of substituting “good” for “God” in the Twelve Steps may seem like a watering down of AA’s message. 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 AA 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)

But! You can almost hear the flustered anti-agnostic stuttering, looking for a rebuttal.

But nothing.

There is simply no justification in AA for the behaviour of the Toronto Intergroup. The Traditions were written to prevent one group of people from booting another group of people out of AA, including any of its regional service organizations.

So if the members of agnostic AA groups win the arguments, how come they keep losing the votes?

Because the representative voting to boot the agnostic AA group off the island isn’t thinking about logic or the Traditions. He worries that newcomers will come into AA not hearing the same message of recovery that he heard when he first arrived. He worries that if the program is changed it might not work. If “God,” “Him” and “Power” were part of the 12 Steps for him, and they worked, then “God,” “Him” and “Power” must not be removed.

Agnostics in AA understand this concern.

But here’s the thing: “God,” “Him” and “Power” are not essential to recovery. Certainly “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” is essential. (Big Book, Appendix II) But that personality change can result from many different things. The 12 Step program of recovery will always be “the” program of recovery in AA, but the Steps do not need “God,” “Him” and “Power” in them, and they are only one way – and only suggested at that – of bringing about the personality change that is essential for recovery from alcoholism.

Just one example: A few months ago, Charlie P, the founder in 1978 of the first “We Agnostics” group in AA, died. He was 98. He had 41 years of continuous sobriety. He had been a devoted atheist his whole life, and after starting that meeting in Los Angeles, California, he went on to found another “We Agnostics” group more than twenty years later in Austin, Texas. In the week before his death, an AA meeting was held at his bedside. He died sober. He died an atheist.

There are those in AA who will nevertheless say that if he had lived another ten years he would eventually have picked up a drink because he hadn’t found “God.” You just have to ignore those people, and most of us in AA understand that.

On the streets – Let’s look at this issue of “God,” “Him” and “Power” in AA from another direction.

For the last twenty-two years, there has been no growth in AA’s membership. In January of 2012 the number of members worldwide was recorded at 2,133,842, roughly the same as it was in 1990.

In 1963, by virtue of a decision of the Supreme Court in the United States, the Lord’s Prayer was removed from public schools. In 1988, an Ontario appeals court decision, referencing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, made a ruling that resulted in the Lord’s Prayer being removed from schools in Canada.

Members still hold hands and recite the Lord’s Prayer at the end of most meetings of AA.

One of the school boards affected by the Ontario appeals court decision was the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). The TDSB is the largest school Board in Canada and the fourth largest in North America. It has nearly 600 schools and serves more than 250,000 students each year. Last year, the Public Information office of the GSO offered to provide the TDSB with copies of the Big Book for its many libraries and guidance counselling offices. The Board refused, even though in the past it has always been happy to accept copies of the Big Book. Even though asked, no reason for the decision was provided.

It’s also worth noting that the alcoholism treatment industry is burgeoning in Toronto. Need to spend a few weeks in rehabilitation? Well, there’s Renascent and Bellwoods and Homewood, a few miles down the road. Homewood recycles 1200 people through its three or four week addiction recovery program every year, and it’s the smallest of the three centres.

The really big name around town, however, and across Ontario, is the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). It’s actually pronounced as two syllables (CAM-H). These days if you are the average person in Ontario confronting the problem of alcoholism for the first time, you are probably more likely to think of CAMH before you think of AA. A lot of people in this province owe their recovery in part to CAMH, which is noted for not using words in its program like “God,” “Him” and “Power.”

All of the above just to say that AA is apparently no longer the only game in town.

And that brings us back to Widening Our Gateway, booted for not using these words in a secular version of the 12 Steps read at its meetings.

We have discussed the vote to expel the group (27 to 17), and at least some of the reasons for that vote.

There are also the inevitable consequences of such a vote, consequences not only felt in the rooms of AA but which also have an impact on how the fellowship is viewed on the streets.

Agnostic groups have a great deal in common with every other group in AA. We all share the belief expressed in the responsibility pledge that it is our job to make sure that the hand of AA is always there for the suffering alcoholic who reaches out for help.

Let this be a gentle suggestion that, in Toronto and in this day and age, booting groups like Widening Our Gateway off of the official meeting list and out of regional meetings may not be the very best way to achieve that goal.

13 Responses

  1. John M. says:

    Just to be ever so clear about Widening Our Gateway, let me reiterate that our members consider ourselves to be, and prefer to be called, a free thinkers group of Alcoholics Anonymous.

    With an oddly ironic twist, Intergroup itself “turned us into” an agnostic group—in label only! Otherwise, they weren’t quite sure what to do with us.

    Our five founding members are made up of two believers (one is a practicing Catholic), two feel comfortable calling themselves agnostics, and one prefers to identify as an atheist.

    We all get along just fine!

    As many a reader will know, our name comes from a passage that Bill W. wrote in AA Comes of Age and also quoted in the GSO 2009 Newsletter for Professionals: “Every voice was playing its appointed part. Our atheists and agnostics widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”

    At first we wanted a group that would be an option to those suffering from alcoholism and who did not feel comfortable with the God language in the Steps. We had attended Beyond Belief and We Agnostics and were very impressed with the quality of recovery and sharing at their groups. We were north of the city, though, and they were downtown in Toronto.

    There was some talk among us of calling ourselves We Agnostics North.

    When we started our group on Oct 16, 2011, our first two meetings involved reading the 12 Steps and replacing 5 of the Steps that refer to God with our secular interpretation. But this didn’t feel quite right given our namesake–Widening Our Gateway.

    Since our founding members were from an amalgam of perspectives, we decided that the widest possible gateway for “all who suffer” would be, in fact, to ensure believers, agnostics, atheists and free thinkers a comfortable and compassionate environment. So at our third meeting, and for all meetings afterward, we decided to read the original 12 Steps exactly as written and offer a choice of interpretation in 5 of the 12 Steps where a Deity is referenced.

    Our group conscience decided to leave Step 2 as it is written in the Big Book and 12 & 12. We do not believe that a power greater than ourselves needs to have a metaphysical connotation: a walk through nature, or being among a gathering of people, or, for the alcoholic, a drink of alcohol, easily demonstrates powers greater than the capacities of the lone individual.

    But it was our choice to do so and none of our friends from Beyond Belief and We Agnostics who visited us had a problem with our decision. “Keep an open mind,” “Live and let live,” “Easy does it.” Or: “Bear free and patient thoughts” (William Shakespeare). Hmmm… sounds like a program of recovery.

  2. Glenna R. says:

    I wish to finish what I started: I’m not close-minded and am quite open to religious teachings, readings, groups, so I’m doubly concerned that my Group i.e. Widening Our Gateway should be cut from GTA Intergroup. The meetings have given me a sense of the fellowship that I found lacking in groups that tried against the Traditions to pressure to beliefs and conformity. Body language like rolling one’s eyes seemed to be suggesting that what I say is not important and when am I going to get the program?

    Contrary to the rumours and half-truths that I heard about our groups by people who never attended, I felt surprised about the vote and wondered what did we do wrong? We are all alcoholics doing an AA Recovery Program that works for us. We read the Traditions as they are written which some have said we changed. Not true. We read the Steps as they are written; however we add a choice for people who are not comfortable with the religious wordings in some Steps. In summary it is a more inclusive idea for those of us who cannot work a religious program – otherwise we are excluded from the essence of a program that asks us to be honest, open-minded and willing and when we are honest chastises us as not having the program.

    We are strong supporters of AA and many have done much service work in AA. Does my recent phone call from Intergroup about updating my data mean that my service is not acceptable?

    I’m sorry that there are people who may be too insecure and fearful to tolerate differences and cannot help but ask, how long should we allow the program or the world for that matter be run by fear and insecurity? I thought getting over our fears was part of the program in steps 4, 5, 6, 7?

    As far as our public relations go people I know who are both religious and not have been shocked that our Society would go these lengths to enforce conformity. Some religious organizations are more tolerant than AA!

    A friendly believer sent me a forward saying, God is never wrong. Is it possible that Intergroup could be?

    Yours on love and service, Glenna.

  3. John D. says:

    I am a longtime member with over 30 years of sobriety. Over time I’m sure of two things about the differences in AA. 1) Although I’m no agnostic, I believe people are free to believe as they see fit. 2) Differences in belief will never destroy us because relapse is the price we all know we will pay for that. What will destroy us is non-acceptance of the varied opinions and the people who hold those opinions. We don’t have to like and agree with each other but we damn well better treat each other with respect and love.

  4. Karen B. says:

    I think it’s just a matter of time. I wish that there had been agnostic groups when I was getting sober. Thanks for keeping me informed.

  5. Tom O. says:

    “First, Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything.” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 26)

  6. Glenna R. says:

    It appears to me that the Christians in AA are driving some of us to Buddhism.

    First, because they have proven their lack of compassion for anyone who does not believe as they do; second, because we could embrace a religion that doesn’t force us into a theistic concept of a divinity; third, we can actually use meditation as a way of contacting a higher power according to the many examples by Deepok Chopra et al (I’ve studied at at least a dozen of them as I traveled the lonely road to sobriety which is the experience some of us have); fourth, Buddhism seems to hinge on spiritual principles rather than beliefs which grow out of many of our childhood religions which posit things like catechisms, theologies etc.

    Yet I am not a Buddhist as far as I can tell because I don’t seem to have the gene for religion. At the base of my system is the phrase, “The truth shall be revealed.” I don’t possess it yet nor have I met anyone else who does either in or out of AA, in or out of religion.

    I try to live and let live and be open to those people in the majority (?) who have religious beliefs yet are forever calling them spiritual. (Like another writer I’ve never had it explained to me what the people who say this actually are talkng about.)

  7. Boyd P. says:

    Unity is the goal. Righteous indignation lacks humility and distracts from reaching unity.

    Lord’s Prayer? I too resist, quietly.

    Holding hands in the circle I say Amen, keep coming back, etc. Saturday, in a circle of five, my lack of voicing the prayer was particularly obvious. Half way through the prayer another joined me in silence, and he held my hand more firmly.

    Victory comes in many forms, some we don’t even recognize because we aren’t ready for the lesson. Logic is useful though often flawed or even useless when applied to mysteries. Or, the more I learn, the less I know.

  8. Robert O. says:

    If god got you sober then god got you drunk.

  9. Tony says:

    Having attended the meeting where the motion was carried, the Chair was asked how many AA groups are there in Toronto? In reply, the Chair told the assembled there are 275 separate groups. It was also announced by the Board that only 51 groups were at that meeting.

    Any logical interpretation of the numbers tells that just 27, yes 27 groups hold sway among the 275. Could it be that not that many groups actually belong to Toronto Intergroup? If they belong in any numbers, could it be that non-attendance of 224 groups indicates there are more serious questions and answers to be revealed. The whole legitimacy of Intergroup’s claim to ‘represent AA in Toronto’ is in question. As there were 3 vacant positions on the Board at the start of that meeting, perhaps others are questioning ‘Intergroup’s’ handling of this highly sensitive issue. When asked if any would stand from those 51 groups, the room was eerily silent.

    Does Toronto Intergroup have the confidence and mandate to oversee 275 groups in the region? The turnout for such an important vote might indicate otherwise.

    Now Intergroup is putting forward a ‘Referendum’ that will decide once and for all if the matter of Freethinking and Agnostic or Atheist groups will ever be represented. Once voted upon, the self-serving bias of the Intergroup Board sponsored ‘change to process’ will forever silence anyone who has the kind of doubts ‘about God’ which The Book tells us repeatedly is merely a suggestion.

    Does AA Toronto Intergroup have the best interests of the city’s alcoholics at heart? We all have the liberty to form our own view. It certainly seems that 224 groups may have already spoken with their feet.

  10. Ronald B. says:

    Hopefully something good will come from all this pain. It is easy to see that fear is in the anti agnostics’ hearts. I feel sorry for them and hope that they may be able to become more gentle and loving. Whatever happened to Live and let Live? I imagine these people are blinded by this fear.

    I can just hear Bill W. saying, “I knew it would come to this.” This too will pass and will make AA stronger and better, but it will take time and loving patience. Dr Bob would say “Keep this simple; let’s not louse this up”. We have to try and understand their fears and then we have to just do what we feel is right. Go to the meetings we choose to go to and be there for the still suffering alcoholic.

  11. Andy Mc says:

    I just don’t get the closed mindedness of the religious right, and that is what the AA program is fast becoming full of. These people are in complete denial of the fact forever throwing around the empty phrase “it’s a spiritual program… not a religious one.” Whatever the heck does that mean? I have been sober now for almost 30 yrs, sobered up in the “bible belt” of central Alberta and not one of the groups ever said that divisive peace of work… the lawds pwayer! People knew it had no place in AA meetings.

  12. Mike S. says:

    Unfortunately there is far more to these continual and growing acts against AA Agnostics than will ever be published! What a shame that AA’s credibility and reputation has been severely damaged as a result of these continued hypocritical acts. On a personal note: I have become so convinced that things were getting worse as I tried to address this dilemma that I threw in the towel. Hard for me to understand how these anti agnostics can find evidence supporting their wrongful interpretations.

  13. Pat N. says:

    I’ve been sober 32 years, primarily through the We Agnostic group in Olympia, Washington, USA. Three other “godless” AA groups have been formed in the area. We are registered w/GSO, contribute to GSO, area, and district, and are members of the intergroup. I’ve heard MANY newcomers say they wouldn’t come to AA at all if we didn’t exist, and some regular attendees have 20 years m/l. Some AA members were threatened by our existence when we started, but got over it. It’s too bad the Toronto (and Boston, by the way) intergroups are so ignorant, rigid, and untraditional that they would practice this despicable discrimination, and are callously indifferent to the fates of alcoholics who want to get sober and who can’t stomach the God stuff.

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