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.