Never Fear Needed Change


By Joe  C.

As the Christian calendar rolled over to 2012, another AA member asked me why I thought AA was no longer growing. Like me, he remembers the 1970s and 1980s when perpetual population growth in AA was expected. AA’s population, which had always been growing, doubled from the 1970s to the 1990s. The fellowship’s population peaked just after 1991 and in the last 20 years we have never reached beyond 2.2 million members worldwide. AA language was cutting edge for the 1940s. Seven decades later the same old tune doesn’t sound so funky. The world is changing and AA can change too, but resists.

As we seek understanding about the 20-year growth drought, clues might present themselves when we look at the problems at the Intergroup office in Toronto, Canada. A changing of Canadian demographics tells a story of why, in Canada anyway, our fellowship may not be keeping pace with the larger community we say we are committed to, namely everyone with a desire to stop drinking.

The facts about a changing Canada

In 1991, Canada had 26.9 million people and 83% were Christian. In 2001 population grew 10% to 29.6 million while the Christian population dropped to 77%. The Christian population (like the AA population) stayed almost flat over the decade (1.5% increase) while the Canadian population increased by over 2.5 million people.

Over that decade, Protestants are down 8%, Catholics are up 5%. The second largest religious population is no religion at all. The non-religious have increased 44% from 3.4 million to 4.9 million Canadians.

Of the non-Christian religious, Jews remain flat at 1% of our population and predominantly eastern religions have exploded. Collectively, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs have doubled in population in Canada at the end of the 20th Century from 721,130 Canadians to 1,455,605 Canadians. For the record, people who fall into none of these categories are also on the rise. The “other” classification increased 72.5% from 1 million to 1.9 million Canadians.

To accommodate the Islamic faith in AA not only would we allow the replacement of the phrase, “God as we understand Him,” with Allah but the male pronoun, “He” has to go. There is no gender or plural “Higher Power” in the Muslim faith. Muslims who may be finding Allah “doing for them what they could not do for themselves” in AA are but a sliver of the non-Judeo/Christian Canadian population.

Buddhists, some of whom would not define Buddhism as a religion at all, and have no interfering or intervening god, had a 88% growth rate from 1991 to 2001 in Canada from 163,000 to over 300,000. In one decade the total non-theistic population surge in Canada went from 4.5 Million in ’91 to 6.8 Million, a 51% increase.

Twelve per cent of the world population are atheists, absolutely sure there is no interfering god listening to prayer or granting sobriety to AA members. Many are proud AA members, using the Twelve Steps to get sober and considering their own success proof of the non-existence of god. Most nonbelievers have no axe to grind with believers about whether they should or should not believe. They simply want to be treated as equals and be able to communicate without censorship.

According to a 2006 Stats Canada report, the 16% of Canadians who claimed to have no religion in 2001 had quadrupled from a mere 4% in 1971. Is this a short term trend? Not if youth is our future. In Canada fewer than half of 15 to 30-year-olds have religious belief or practices. We know 15 to 30-year-olds drink; some of them get sober. When this Millennial generation reaches the average AA member age of 47 years old, with half the country not believing in God, how many will be finding their sobriety from AA, if we don’t start expressing our principles in a language they understand?

Data shows that in 2011, USA members are up slightly and Canadian membership is down for another flat year (of less than 1% change).

The facts about a stagnating Alcoholics Anonymous

What we know about 2011 is that this was the year that Toronto Intergroup started forcibly reducing the number of groups instead of increasing the number. Specifically, Intergroup is going against the longstanding AA tradition (since 1975) of embracing agnostic AA groups and instead is discriminating against them. Groups that are deemed AA by the General Service Office (GSO) are nevertheless excluded from having a voice on the Greater Toronto Intergroup floor and being listed as a meeting for newcomers or visitors.

While GSO is looking forward to talking about diversity and change as the catalyst of AA growth at the 2012 General Service Assembly, Toronto is voting against diversity or change. AA members in Toronto want the Twelve Steps for people who don’t believe in god. A divided Toronto Intergroup is saying, “Not in our city.”

There is no rule against a group posting, reading or distributing agnostic steps in AA. But Toronto group conscience employs the narrowest possible view towards preserving AA integrity. A suburban Intergroup rep expresses a shared sentiment when he says, “It’s OK for members to be agnostic but they shouldn’t be allowed to have their own groups.”

Is that fair? Is that true? Is that legal? It has been pointed out to the Intergroup Chair that some of the AA members in the agnostic community of Toronto have felt harassed since the Intergroup action and that according to the Ontario Human Rights Commission website, Intergroup is violating the law by not accommodating minority rights in AA. As far as I know, this information, this letter to the Chair, was not shared with other Intergroup reps.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, agnostics in AA have the right to accommodation when using a non-theistic version of the Twelve Steps for their own purposes. Neither harassment of minorities based on theistic belief nor systemic discrimination is legal in Canada:

It is the OHRC’s position that every person has the right to be free from discriminatory or harassing behaviour that is based on religion or which arises because the person who is the target of the behaviour does not share the same faith. This principle extends to situations where the person who is the target of such behaviour has no religious beliefs whatsoever, including atheists and agnostics, who may, in these circumstances, benefit from the protection set out in the Code.

In either situation, creed must be involved – either because the person who is the subject of the discrimination is seeking to practice his or her own religion, or because the person who is harassing or discriminating is trying to impose their creed on someone else. In both cases, creed must be involved.

Discriminatory practices that fail to meet any statutory justification test are illegal and will be struck down.

The fact that Toronto AA doesn’t have a human rights policy, a procedure for managing complaints or accommodating creed, race, gender or sexual orientation needs just speaks to how AA is not in step with the society it claims to serve in Ontario, Canada.

Since 1991, the Greater Toronto Area has more than doubled in population to over 5.5 Million people. Visible minorities collectively have eclipsed residents of European descent in a city that answers 911 calls in 150 languages.

Outside the rooms of AA, Canada’s population is very different than it was in the 1970s. Inside AA’s rooms we look and behave pretty much the same now as we did then – predominantly Caucasian 40+ males of Judeo/Christian descent. Stagnant demographics are a tell-tale sign that systemic discrimination is present in an organization like ours.

Canada is growing. So is alcoholism. But AA is staying the same. Assuming that the laws of nature abhor a vacuum, are we more likely to grow or decline if we refuse to accommodate the needs of today’s alcoholics?

In 1965 Bill W wrote in the AA Grapevine:

Let us never fear needed change. Certainly we have to discriminate between changes for worse and changes for better. But once a need becomes clearly apparent in an individual, in a group, or in A.A. as a whole, it has long since been found out that we cannot stand still and look the other way.

The essence of all growth is a willingness to change for the better and then an unremitting willingness to shoulder whatever responsibility this entails.

Change is risky – what if it doesn’t work out for the better? AA is self-correcting. When we try something and it doesn’t work, it goes away all by itself – be it god’s will or natural selection. AA has never needed to enforce rules or govern meetings or members. Many feel we would no longer be AA if we did draft and enforce rules for members or groups.

Once there was a man. He had a message. The message started a movement. The movement created a monument. If the fluid, flexible message becomes a reified, cast in stone monument, growth is impossible. The movement starts to decay. The next stop is the mausoleum, where our children will learn about AA in the museum.

It’s not the fault of the founders that we canonized their memory and reified their words as the alpha and the omega of AA lore. It seems to me the founders told us to keep changing. Is it too late to change? It all depends on us. It all depends on our attitude towards AA stewardship. Are we to enshrine our past and run this jalopy into the ground, or will we prepare our fellowship for the needs of the still suffering alcoholic to come?


6 Responses

  1. bob k. says:

    We live in a changing world – a world which is becoming increasingly secular. In some countries in Europe, belief in a Supreme Being is down to 50%. The next generation, half being raised by these non-believers, will report numbers even lower. In North America, the extremely vocal ‘religious right’ represents only a minority of our population.

    Without some openness to reform, Alcoholics Anonymous may well become as ‘hard a sell’ as church. How many more would come, and stay, were we to present a more spiritually neutral environment? Sadly, we may never know.

  2. Ronald B. says:

    I found this to be a good read. Personally, I have often wondered about the apparent stagnancy with AA’s growth in the last 20 years or so.

    Something to reflect on: One good way to help bring more feelings of being welcoming to all people is to get rid of prayers in AA. If prayer keeps one person away then that is one too many. I know people who were given a hard time when not participating in rituals. Some people would reply with, “If you want what we have, suck it up buttercup.” That is a good way to sweep it under the carpet.

    I love meetings which open with a moment of silence to do as you wish with that moment, and close with the responsibility pledge. Christian prayers in AA have been a thorn in my side for as long as I can remember. It does not stop me from going to those meetings but it pains me when I see people not participating in the rituals and being made to feel different. Removing prayers, through group conscience of course, seems right to me. Forcing our prayers upon those who don’t share that faith or, even worse, who have had extremely painful experiences with religious sects and the people in them, is shameful on our part and a huge break in traditions.

    The responsibility pledge is so very perfect in stating our reason for being alive and staying focused. It is amazing how we love our rituals, and how change is resisted.

  3. Joe C says:

    I never tire from the thoughtful discussion here; nary a cliche. In fact, I might be about the only who keeps saying, “Bill W says…” I will have to look at that, but I will do it tomorrow.

    The reason is I had cause to read AA’s “The Twelve Traditions – How they developed” and he has some great essays there. Those who are familiar with the bone-headed Intergroup move to mandate each group to adherence to the Twelve Steps, Traditions and Concepts will understand that some have confused Unity and Uniformity in a very big way. Anyway, here’s what Uncle Bill says…

    At this point the group enters the rule and regulation phase. Charters, bylaws and membership rules are excitedly passed and authority is granted committees to filter out undesirables and discipline the evildoers. Then the elders, now clothed with authority, commence to get busy. Recalcitrants are cast into utter darkness; respectable busy-bodies throw stones at the sinners. As for the so-called sinners, they either insist on staying around, or else they form a new (Inter)group of their own…The elders soon discover that the rules and regulations aren’t working very well. Most attempts at enforcement generate such waves of dissension and intolerance in the group that this condition is presently recognized to be worse for the group life than the very worst that the worst ever did.

  4. John M. says:

    Your article, Joe, deftly captures the inability of many in AA to appreciate that AA is either “dead in the water” or, in fact, is slowly sinking. If it is slowly sinking it may remind us of the proverbial frog that is placed in water and the temperature is raised so slowly that the frog will not perceive the danger, and it will be cooked to death.

    Of course, real frogs behave quite differently and are smart (or instinctual) enough to jump out before they are boiled to death, but this story often serves as quite a good metaphor where humans are involved.

    So, presumably either the frog is smarter than the average member of AA or the temperature hasn’t yet reached the level to signal a danger.

    Thanks to you, Joe, for turning up the heat!

  5. Bob H. says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful article. I believe part of the problem is the way some people view “The Big Book” as being the one and only truth regarding alcoholism. This is similar to the way the bible is viewed in respect to god. Anything that is written that is not in accordance with these books is heresy. The christian religion has already fractured because of different interpretations of the bible and the same thing will happen to AA if the Big Book continues to be regarded as the sole authority on alcoholism.

  6. Eric T. says:

    Change is an ongoing process. My own fearful resistance to change caused a lot of harm – to myself and others – despite plenty of evidence that alcohol wasn’t working anymore. Denial of evidence is a prominent feature of my disease, and learning to adapt soberly is necessary for growth. I’d say the facts are clear and sobering; it’s the denial (or repression) of them I’m concerned about. Ethical stewardship embraces change, and requires courage to accept new realities. I hope we get there soon. Then again, recovery doesn’t happen on my preferred schedule, so along the way I take comfort in the knowledge that we are indeed making progress together, however clumsy it is.

    I say let’s continue forward – honestly, openly and willingly embracing change to best serve our primary purpose. Better times ahead, folks!

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