The General Service Conference Stumbles

AA and Agnostics

By Roger C.

At the 1965 General Service Conference held in New York, Bill Wilson had a very clear message for the area delegates, trustees, directors and General Service Office staff in attendance: “Our very first concern should be with those sufferers that we are still unable to reach.”

He spoke of the hundreds of thousands of people who had approached AA over the course of its thirty year history but had not stayed. “We have atheists and agnostics,” he said. “We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion.”

“How much and how often have we failed them?” he asked.

The General Service Conference held its latest annual meeting in the last week of April in New York.

And, sadly, it managed to stumble, if not fail outright, in an important way, yet again.

* * *

Last week’s post by Thomas, First AA Meetings, had to be changed at the very last minute.

The ending, as Thomas had written it, was very positive and hopeful:

A key recommendation of the AA trustees’ Committee on Literature calls for stories from atheists and agnostics who are sober to be included in AA literature about spirituality. Whereas on the local group level there may sometimes be bias against non-believers, wiser hearts and heads prevail at the level of the General Conference Board.

Apparently the hearts and heads at the AA General Service Conference may not be quite as wise as Thomas thought.

The Conference – consisting of 92 delegates from AA areas in the United States and Canada, trustees, AA World Service and Grapevine directors and staff from the General Service Office and the Grapevine in New York – met between April 21 and 27 in New York.

This is of course the body that decides which literature is “Conference-approved.”

Those present considered a pamphlet called “AA – Spiritual not Religious.” It contains several stories by agnostics who have achieved long term recovery in AA without any religious belief whatsoever, without a belief in God.

But you’re not going to be seeing it on literature tables at AA meetings anytime soon.

The pamphlet was rejected.

It wasn’t put quite that bluntly; these resolutions never are. The Conference recommended that the “draft pamphlet, ‘AA – Spiritual not Religious,’ be recommitted to the trustees’ Literature Committee for additional discussion and brought back to the 2014 Conference Committee on Literature.”

* * *

It might have been a relatively minor stumble except for one thing: it wasn’t the first time that the General Service Conference failed in this way. The denial at the Conference level of AA that agnostics and atheists can and do achieve long term sobriety in AA and the refusal to publish stories of agnostics who have done just that has been going on for quite a number of years.

Almost forty years, in fact.

The trustees’ Literature Committee first considered a pamphlet with the stories of recovered non-believers, athiests and agnostics in AA in 1976. It formed a subcommittee which began preparing the document and made several recommendations as to why it was necessary, including the following:

  • The number of non-believers in the program, or who need the AA program but are discouraged by its theism, may be more substantial than is probably realized.
  • The chapter “To the Agnostic” in the Big Book is fine as a start but more material is needed to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.
  • This pamphlet will probably also help the God believer in AA to understand his/her own spiritual values better, as well as to develop tolerance and understanding of many newcomers to AA.
  • This pamphlet would affirm in clear and concise fashion that “the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking” and that our founders and the group conscience of the fellowship does not and has never considered an alcoholic’s spiritual beliefs as necessarily relevant to the achievement of healthy and happy sobriety. [1]

The full trustees’ Literature Committee read the subcommittee’s report and decided not to go forward with the project and thus not to ask the 1977 Conference to consider a pamphlet for and about agnostics and atheists in AA.

But the issue eventually made its way to the Conference.

A little more than a decade later, in April 1989, the General Service Conference (via its own Literature Committee) first considered – and rejected outright – a pamphlet about and for non-believers. It did not believe that there was “a sufficient need” for such a pamphlet “at this time.”

That has since then been the pattern followed by the General Service Conference.

The issue has come up with some regularity and the Conference has consistently and repeatedly found a way to reject the publication of “a pamphlet directed to the concerns of the non-believer (athiest and/or agnostic) alcoholic,” as it was put in 1995 by Paul S., who later became the Chair of the Conference Literature Committee, by either not making any recommendation at all or by recommending that the matter be referred to a future Conference.

In 2012 for example, the Conference “requested a draft pamphlet (about non-believers and AA) or progress report be brought back to the 2013 Conference Committee on Literature.”

We know what the 2013 Conference did.

And that brought to eight the number of times the General Service Conference dodged the publication of a Conference-approved pamphlet that would “assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.”

* * *

Mel C. was a delegate at the Conference in April. He represents Area 83 of Alcoholics Anonymous, which includes Canada’s largest metropolitan area, the city of Toronto.

Mel had the great good fortune to attend his first agnostic AA meeting on Thursday, May 30th. He was at the Beyond Belief meeting in downtown Toronto, just above the St. George Subway Station on Bloor Street. Beyond Belief was the first agnostic AA group and meeting in Canada, with its first meeting on September 24, 2009. Joe C., one of the founders of the group and the author of the recently published book Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life,  chaired the meeting and he had asked Mel to be guest speaker.

The meeting room was packed, and Mel expressed his surprise at how many people were in the room (a classroom at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). There were between 30 and 40 people, from diverse backgrounds and cultures, with a wide range of continuous sobriety, from months to decades. In fact, in the sharing after Mel’s talk, it turned out that two people were at their first-ever AA meeting.

Mel gave a great talk! It was enjoyed by all present. Somewhere during his sharing he spoke about the Conference and its decision to reject the publication of a Conference-Approved pamphlet about agnostics and atheists in AA. To be fair to Mel, he did not use the word “reject,” and said that it had been deferred to next year’s General Service Conference. But after seeing this behaviour repeated over a period of several decades, by the same – very same – AA organization, it’s time for rigorous honesty, and to call a rejection a rejection.

Spiritual Not Religious

This is the pamphlet you will NOT be seeing on literature tables at AA meetings anytime soon.

Mel’s role at the Conference is described this way, on the Area 83 website: “As voting members of the Conference, delegates bring to its deliberations the experiences and viewpoints of their own areas. Yet they are not representatives of their areas in the usual political sense; after hearing all points of view and becoming fully informed during Conference discussion, they vote in the best interests of AA as a whole.”

In a conversation following the Beyond Belief meeting, Mel said he had read the proposed pamphlet, “AA – Spiritual not Religious.” He clearly liked it and no doubt supported its publication. He indicated that the stories in the pamphlet about agnostics in AA in long term recovery were convincing and well-written.

“Why did the Conference reject it?” he was asked.

Mel did not offer an official answer. He did acknowledge that some could conclude that the behaviour of the Conference was  a result of the Bible Belt origins of many of its members and/or the attachment of those present to their own conception of God and recovery.

The meeting room emptied slowly, as usual. People talked with each other, friends they had not seen for a few days or a few months. New friendships were struck. The newcomers were warmly welcomed. Laughter filled the air. It had been a very good evening. A lot of people had been inspired by the “experience, strength and hope” of Mel and the other men and women sitting around the table at Beyond Belief.

* * *

The decision of the General Service Conference not to publish “AA – Spiritual not Religious” raises a very disturbing question.

This is particularly true given that the mandate of the General Service Board and Conference – like every other AA organization – is one of “service.” Surely this service is offered to those without a faith in an interventionist God. Surely agnostics and atheists were included in “anyone, anywhere” when those present at the 2013 AA Conference stood up and declared that the hand of AA is always to be there for “anyone, anywhere who reaches out for help.”

It certainly is not evident in the actions of the Conference.

After four decades of being implored to publish a pamphlet that would make agnostics and atheists feel more accepted in AA, and after evidence of how damaging this refusal is not only to the non-believing alcoholic but also very much to AA as a whole, especially in terms of its ongoing relevance to a more diverse and ever growing non-Christian portion of the population, let us paraphrase the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and once again ask the General Service Conference:

How much and how many more times will you fail them?

[1] The history portion of this post is largely derived from a document found online, “History – Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Non-believer / Agnostic / Atheist Alcoholic.” Contacted by AA Agnostica, the General Service Office chose to neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of the contents of this history.


42 Responses

  1. Svukic says:

    Without coming up with a whole new AA that is not based around a supernatural power one pamphlet will not make much difference anyway.

    Agnostic and atheist newcomers that are attracted by the pamphlet will probably become as disillusioned with mainstream AA as have the overwhelming majority of the members on this site. It’s the sort of disillusion that follows the realisation of how hypocritical basic AA tenets (such as the assertion of being “spiritual not religious”) are in practice after attending a sufficient number of meetings.

    Those that find their way by happy chance to an AA Agnostic meeting would be the exception ofcourse, but there are not enough agnostic AA meetings as yet to make a real difference.

  2. Peter Y says:

    Hi Roger,

    Thanks for the article. I was greatly looking forward to reading this pamphlet. This past fall, I asked the delegate in my area about why it was rejected in its current form.

    The 20+ page pamphlet contained many stories – but only one was from an atheist. All the others tended to be of people who had difficulty with the catholic faith upon entering the program. In other words, the pamphlet failed to address the issue it was made it address.

    Its frustrating that they were unable to create a well thought out pamphlet. But I’m glad it wasn’t approved in that state.

  3. MrZrule says:

    So,… We’ve recently held elections and the Panel 64 General Service Conference is preparing to convene. There are 46 new delegates, staffers and board members have changed so the principal participants need to know this issue remains important. New General Service Representatives (GSR’s) need to keep this issue on front burners at Area Pre-Conference assemblies.

    By the way, it is my opinion that focusing on the General Service Conference for change in A.A. is misplaced. The Home Group is the key in the inverted General Service structure. If an area delegate hears repeatedly from GSR’s that Home Groups want the new pamphlets approved a change may occur.

    I attended a Regional Forum following the 2010 International AA Convention and asked a nonalcoholic trustee why the Lord’s Prayer was recited. He said it came as a surprise – the prayer was not on the program and in general he felt the Board hopes AA does all it can to include all suffering alcoholics regardless of spiritual orientation.

    I attend meetings almost every day. When the Serenity Prayer is recited I use the ‘We’ version. When the Lord’s Prayer is recited I stand silently.

    Sometimes it’s hard when it’s a meeting full of people I deeply care about. I do it out of allegiance to the long form of the 10th Tradition which states:

    No A.A. group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate A.A., express any opinion on outside controversial issues–particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one. Concerning such matters they can express no views whatever.

    Frankly, I believe I got sober thanks to ‘that Power which pulls alcoholics back from the gates of death’ that Silkworth wrote about in the Doctor’s Opinion. I haven’t a clue what anyone else believes and it’s none of my business. I don’t bash those who pray the Lord’s Prayer. I just wish they didn’t because A.A. was the path out of my alcoholic cave and it was luck I didn’t hit the very religious brand of meetings early on.

  4. Denis K. says:


    I agree that the best way forward is to write letters directly to GSO in NYC to remind them of the following.

    The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.

    ― Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Yes, and I would further suggest that one’s Area Delegate be copied in any correspondence to GSO.

  5. John L. says:

    Thank you, Roger. This was news to me, and it’s damned discouraging. I’ve been lucky, inasmuch as – living in New York City, Provincetown and Boston – I’ve always been able to find groups with little to no religiosity. Others are not so lucky. And besides, a nonbeliever pamphlet is needed, not just for us, but especially for the newcomer.

    What is to be done? Continue fighting for a nonbeliever pamphlet. Form and support nonbeliever AA groups. If possible, form and support an SOS meeting. If possible, use Group Consciences to get rid of harmful and gratutitious religiosity (“How It Works” and readings from the 12 & 12 are IMHO the very worst). Speak out! On occasions when I’ve inadvertently found myself in a meeting with a high religiosity quotient, I’ve explained why this is offensive to me personally, in violation of AA principles, and potentially fatal to the newcomer, whose life depends on getting sober, not attaining salvation or “spirituality”. With few exceptions people listened to me respectfully, even though most of them didn’t agree with me.

  6. Wally K. says:

    The folks who cannot bring themselves to approve the pamphlet we desire appear to me to be in denial about today’s large number of non-believers. In the general population, we outnumber many other minorities. I am sure this is the case within AA. We must outnumber the Native Americans and the homosexuals, for example. And yet these groups have been recognized for decades within the AA literature. Perhaps our group is facing the same discrimination within AA that exists within the general public. Non-believers are the most despised of today’s minorities whether grouping by philosophy, race, or politics. While discouraged by this situation, my strategy is to be patient, project a positive attitude, and be an activist for our recognition and rightful place within AA. We, too, will overcome. And in the interim, we can attract the still suffering alcoholic and provide our Twelfth Step support that is the heart of AA. Our day will come.

  7. Wayne M says:

    I am almost at a loss to form any sane or rational response to something that has been dragged out for four decades. To those who say “It takes time and we want to make sure we do it right” I say how many more decades, not years or months, but decades!!!!! will it take.
    As long as the old guard is calling the shots this is not going to change. There is nothing more focused than a religious zealot. They get involved and find ways to save us in spite of ourselves. Until we find a way to match their methods of control and influence, I fear this debate going on for another 40 years.
    I am at the point where I believe that perhaps we should just let nature take its course and wait for the inevitable failure of AA as attendance and participation continues its downward slide. As long as there are agnostic and free thinker meetings available, I think I will get through whatever time I have left before I shuffle off this mortal coil without picking up a drink or a drug.

  8. Laurie A says:

    When Bill wrote “AA does not demand that you believe anything,” by definition that must mean that we don’t have to believe anything he wrote or any negative comments about atheists/agnostics in other AA literature. “Willingness, honesty and openmindedness are the essentials of recovery … we can only be defeated by an attitude of belligerent denial and contempt prior to investigation.” And I just can’t believe that would apply to anyone who logs on to this site!

  9. Jay T. says:

    In Santa Monica, California, we have nightly meetings for AAs with over 10 years of sobriety. The actual median length of time is 25 years. Many agnostics and some atheists attend and share their spirituality openly. AA is not regarded as a religious program with us. Several of us are Buddhists and our power is within and without which, of course, correlates with the AA quote “Its an inside Job.”

  10. Pam L says:

    The price will be paid in attendance at meetings. Too bad too, because this thing could really save some people if AA came out of the dark ages. Good news from So. California, however. Saturday we had our first “real” committee meeting for the WAFT convention (We Agnostics and Freethinkers). We found and voted on the place and time and after a four hour meeting, we came up with all of the officers. We will be having our convention in Santa Monica in November of 2014. More information to follow. [See AA Agnostica next Sunday.] I am also pushing hard for a place for us at the So. Cal Convention in Palm Desert. No answer as of yet for a meeting space, BUT we will be meeting someplace there, come HELL or highwater! Come join us and give our cause in AA a voice and help those newcomers that would otherwise die if they didn’t hear our message. You can stay sober without the dogma.
    Pam L. Sobriety date 2-22-84

  11. Marty N. says:

    Insanity means repeating the same action expecting different results. You’ve tried for decades to get the GSO to recognize a secular path, always with the same result: NO! So wise up. There are other fellowships out there where your beliefs are respected and welcome.
    — Marty N.
    20+ years clean and sober in LifeRing (LifeRing SECULAR Recovery)

    • John O says:

      Lots of agnostic face-to-face A.A. meetings out there, so some of the insanity must be working (I get soooooo tired of that quote — gay rights was/is many decades in the making as was civil rights for many non-white people and women. My quitting smoking and drinking took many many many attempts).

      Not that I’m a fan of A.A. generally, I’m not. But, well, Agnostic A.A. is way different in my experience. And face-to-face meetings are very important, because, well, on online meetings and forums one can lie with impunity. But if one attends face-to-face meetings, it’s a lot harder to be drinking and not eventually be seen (or worry about being seen) by someone else in the group – I hear stories at meetings or afterwards about how somebody saw (unnamed) leaving a liquor store with a 12-pack or at some restaurant with a bottle of wine or whatever.

      Yes, Lifering has an impressive meeting list as does SOS and Smart Recovery to name a couple more. A.A. and Agnostic AA is yet one more resource that shouldn’t be overlooked.

    • Boyd P. says:

      AA is more fit for service in the degree to which it makes progress toward the the goal of inclusiveness. The only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking.”

  12. steve b says:

    US courts have declared that AA is a religion. Religious believers consider nonbelievers to be the enemy. So, why welcome the enemy into your charmed circle? I’ve always preferred attending SOS meetings, but unfortunately SOS has never caught on in the Chicago area, where I live, so if I want to be a member of a sobriety support group I have nowhere else to go but AA. It’s an imperfect world, and I’m glad some of us fight to change it for the better, but it’s going to be a long and hard fight to improve AA.

    • John O says:

      Yup, it will be a long hard fight, apparently. But A.A. did change over the years, eventually accomodating agnostics, women, blacks, high bottom drunks, youth, dual-addicted, and gays, to name a few that were at one time not welcome in a lot of groups.

      Yes, I know, real agnostics / atheists are second class members in a lot of groups (and in A.A. generally) unless they suck up and endure hearing that their shares are “not spiritual enough” or “that’s not what the 3rd Step says” when an agnostic discusses how he or she works the 3rd Step (or 11th to pick another problematical one) at a Step meeting.

      But fortunately, the U.S. (and Canada) is becoming more diverse in religious beliefs (many more Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists for example), and in growing number of non-believers as well, so The Trend Is Our Friend.

  13. Melina says:

    Perhaps a petition is in order? Thoughts??

    • Roger says:

      I don’t think petitions have the impact they once had.
      What is no doubt powerful though is a personal letter to the General Service Office:

      Literature Committee
      A.A. World Services, Inc.,
      P.O. Box 459,
      Grand Central Station
      New York, NY 10163

      I also think contact with the the area General Service delegate could be a mighty fine idea. Here’s a link: List of General Service Area Websites.
      I’m just saying…

    • Larry K says:

      I think what is in order is to write our own pamphlet. There are no requirements to use conference approved literature only…

      The lord’s prayer isn’t approved.

  14. Rick A. says:

    The General Service Conference did not “reject” this pamphlet but rather did not approve it in its current form. What they did was to send it back to the committee to improve this pamphlet.

    This is by-the-book procedure, and is not uncommon. There is no stumbling here. The process at the General Service Conference is designed to slow the process and avoid knee jerk decisions as was the case at Toronto Intergroup with the much overpublished removal of some groups from a small list.

    This also has been characterized as being kicked out of AA, but it might interest you to know that none of the groups in questions have been kicked out of AA, if they registered with AA. 99.9 perent of the groups in the world do not appear in Toronto’s little list and they are still AA member groups.

    For a time reference… A small group was overrun with young people and had no literature aimed at them… after taking it to the district, which then took it to the area which then took it to the General Service Conference… almost a decade later the pamphlet, “A Message to Teenagers,” was finally approved and printed.

    So it would seem that what is missed is that a pamphlet on spititually is in the works, and your imput is not only welcome but asked for.

    Intergroup is not and never will be part of this process. It is a small local committee designed to make it easier for AA groups to interact and ensure the message is carried.

    The way to take part is either through your District, Area, Delegate, Trustee or by writing ideas to the General Service Office.

    The author should applaud the slow considered approach taken by the General Service Conference. Had that method been taken at Intergroup, on a motion that started with the word “apparently” ( which meant this motion had no factual basis), perhaps all of this unhappy era might not have occurred at all.

    • John M. says:

      Thanks for your input, Rick, and you say some very wise things and call for patience. Still, Roger puts this into the context of nearly 40 years. We’re not simply talking about a “decade.”

      Bill W.’s question which begins this blog is sadly all too true and AA fiddles while non-believing alcoholics turn away and stay away.

    • John O says:

      I see John M. mentioned the nearly 40 years.

      I would add that as far as people finding meetings, the local Intergroup IS A.A. for all practical purposes. does not list meetings on their website. So having an intergroup not list some of their local meetings is a big deal.

  15. Bob H says:

    Thanks for a very insightful article.
    I am conflicted and in two minds. On the one hand I feel like King Canute trying to hold the tide back and failing miserably; wanting to give up on AA and going my own way. On the other hand, why should I give in to all the Christian bigots in AA. I got sober in AA using the awareness of a power within me and it is my program as much as anyone else’s.
    At the moment I am still going to AA meetings and sharing my story.

    P.S. I used the word Christian rather than religious deliberately, I believe they are the problem.

  16. Lon Mc. says:

    I think Roger’s piece is a sane appraisal of what happened to the pamphlet for agnostics and atheists at the 2013 General Service Conference. It is clear that this reflects the sentiments of the majority of the delegates since 1976. It looks like many of the proselytizers are trying to be nice about their de facto rejection of non-believers; but they cannot let go of their belief in a predominately fundamentalist Christian interventionist god, i.e. “God”. Unfortunately their beliefs in God are so prevailing that many of them may focus on an atheists’ non-belief more than his desire to find joyful sober living based in reality. They will never let AA give truly equal footing to atheists, and therefore have low tolerance for those who want to make it clear that alcoholic atheists are their co-equals, contingent only on a desire to become sober. (Only about 5% of newcomers to AA remain members for the long term. Shouldn’t we try to be more attractive or accommodating to the other 95%, many of whom are frankly turned off by religion-based dogma with which they cannot agree?)

  17. Jim says:

    Like the person above I have stopped going to meetings. I very much appreciate the efforts of Roger and others, to help me feel connected to some degree.
    I have concluded AA is a club that doesn’t really want me as member. Based on my experience in life I listen to what people say but also watch what they do.

  18. Tom S. says:

    Thanks Roger.
    Is this pamphlet available for review at a meeting level? If so would love to share it and see what has the trustees so evasive of honestly being closed minded with their willing mouth.

    • Roger says:

      I’m told Tom that delegates “had to turn the drafts back in” after reviewing them at the Conference. But I too would love to have a copy in hand.

  19. John O says:

    Literature Committee’s subcommittee: “The chapter ‘To the Agnostic’ in the Big Book is fine as a start but more material is needed to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.”

    What a crock. NO, THE “WE AGNOSTICS” CHAPTER IS NOT A FINE START. This is what it says about agnostics:

    “Cynically Dissecting Spiritual Beliefs” (p. 48),
    “Handicapped By Obstinancy” (p. 48),
    “prejudiced” and “unreasoning prejudice” (p. 48),
    “Rather Vain” (p. 49),
    “No Reasonable Conception Whatever” (p. 49),
    “Biased And Unreasonable” (p. 51),
    “Prey To Misery And Depression” (p. 52),
    “Couldn’t Make A Living” (p. 52),
    “Full of Fear” (p. 52),
    “Our Ideas Did Not Work” (p. 52),
    “We Couldn’t Quite Step Ashore” (p. 53),
    “Leaning Too Heavily On Reason” (p. 53),
    “Abjectly Faithful To The God Of Reason” (p. 54),
    “Whirling On To A Destiny Of Nothingness” (p. 54),
    “Fooling Ourselves” (p. 55),

    and on and on and on.

    The 12 X 12 is not much better, BTW (for those of you who think AA is maturing) – read Step Two in the 12 X 12.

    Hurling insults at non-believers is “not religious?”

    All the way the Big Book pushes a micro-managing deity and demeans any alternative Higher Power like the Group or other humans in general.

    • Laurie A says:

      The problem of the Steps has been to broaden and deepen them, both for newcomers and oldtimers. But the angles were many, it’s hard to shoot them rightly. We have to deal with atheists, agnostics, believers, depressives, paranoids, clergymen, psychiatrists, and all and sundry. How to widen the opening so it seems right and reasonable to enter there and at the same time avoid distractions, distortions, and the certain prejudices of all who may read, seems fairly much an assignment.

      Bill W., explaining in a letter how he came to write the essays on the Steps in the 12+12 (quoted in “Pass It On”, AA’s biography of our co-founder). Maybe he didn’t get it perfectly right but he tried. E.g. re Step 2, he wrote, “AA does not demand that you believe anything. All of its 12 Steps are but suggestions … all you really need is an open mind …” Reasonable enough I’d have thought. And Conference has not set its face against the proposed pamphlet, just referred it to next year’s conference for further discussion. It’s up to anyone concerned to feed into that debate. Conference is our fellowship’s group conscience and doesn’t always do as I command!

      • Roger says:

        Nor will it always manage to do what’s right, presumably.

      • John O says:

        Here is some more from Step 2 in the 12 X 12. The “man who won’t believe” is “the belligerent one” and “in a state of mind that can only be described as savage” (p. 25). On p. 28 those who once had faith but lost it: are “prejudiced”, and “downright defiant” and “the bewildered one”. And on p. 29 the intellectually self-sufficient man or woman is “far too smart for our own good” and “prideful balloons”.

        As for “AA does not demand that you believe anything. All of its 12 Steps are but suggestions” (p.26), only 4 pages later, on p. 30 it says “We saw that we had to reconsider [belief in God] or die”. Too many of us hear the same thing at meetings — if we don’t get the Higher Power thing, our fate is jails, institutions, or death.

    • John L. says:

      I completely agree with John O. Almost all of the Big Book that was written by Bill W. is toxic, and IMHO the 12 & 12 is even more so. I’ve been lucky to have gotten and stayed sober in New York City, Provincetown and Boston, where I found groups with little to no religiosity. Recovering drunks in other communities may not have such options.

      I do think that anger is an appropriate reaction to Bill W’s BB blatherings and also to the four-decade long rejection of a pamphlet for us nonbelievers. If we find ourselves in a meeting that is heavy with religiosity, we should not be afraid to speak up — to explain why the religiosity is offensive to ourselves and potentially fatal fo newcomers.

      • Gary G says:

        I have learned a lot over the last few days on this forum. Bravo. I intend to more boldly stick up for my agnostic brethren.

        My earlier impression was that AAs committed to paranoia about ‘destroying AA’ were being melodramatic, and that agnostics were not unwelcome. Then again, I was not one who was “coming out” in the open about my own lite-agnosticism.

        While I stick with traditional AA and found it no big problem for me to accept The Lord’s Prayer, esp after I read up on it from a deeper and more rational perspective, as a “tool” for changing oneself, I have long had thoughts fermenting in my own mind that the Steps (even the ‘religious’ ones) *could* be explained and clarified in a secular manner, and that some keen insights open up from considering AA from a secular scientific perspective.

        (A.A. Comes of Age contains a lot of secular medical views. I read that 25 years ago to augment my own program.)

        I have stated to friends that AA amounts to Ego Reduction Therapy or Self Reduction Therapy. Ironically, the end result is a stronger and healthier Self, in my experience, beginning with freedom from the Bondage of Self.

        I have repeatedly emphasized to my fellow AAs that the process just described is FAR more important than *what* one believes or how strongly one attempts to “have faith”.

        I don’t seem to get too much of a positive reaction, nor negative. Maybe I’m getting quietly rejected and don’t know it. Most people are friendly towards me. I probably get some negative feedback that is cloaked. Is “you’re over-complicating things” a nuanced way of saying “just pray and shut up?”. “Keep it Simple?” “Too much intellectualizing?”

        Maybe these pushy people are trying to thwart my secular suggestions without confronting me.

        I know they are not fond of “F__k”, even when it was a direct quote I overheard in context of a relevant story. No, I’m NOT ashamed to say that word to my mother. Yes, I HAVE tossed it around while speaking to God. It’s part of my normal vocabulary.

        Anyhow, just chatting here, I’m not making a real argument.

        While I don’t *quite* subscribe to atheism, or not strongly enough to take a stand, I do translate the “God stuff” to my own kind of minimalist conception. I feel very respectful towards the intellectual rigor and the sincerity of many atheists, and I’m certainly opposed to the kind of mind-control and behavior-control in AA that would forbid anyone or myself from asking God “what the Fuck do you want me to do” … and waiting for a silent (but insightful) answer from within.

        That can’t be defined as atheism, but it’s certainly bound to irritate some Christian evangelist types. So I do empathize.

        As far as Bill W., he discovered what he discovered in his own experience, and therefore he created and developed what he could. How could Bill — as a newly-sober drunk — have been expected to invent a program that would be opposite of what he believed and experienced? He gave what he had to give.

  20. fredt says:

    And now we have SMART Recovery.

  21. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, Roger, for detailing this sad and sordid history of the General Service Board and Conference willfully choosing to “reject” literature, which is contrary to the “party line of Christianity.” I am disheartened to learn about the full scope of this long history of refusal to build on the scant structure of full inclusiveness barely begun in the “We Agnostics” chapter of the Big Book.

    Nevertheless, I am more affirmed in how I choose to react and respond to it. Although I am powerless to change AA, the General Service Board and Conference, and the many fundamentalist Christian bigots I encounter in my home group and elsewhere in AA, I am not powerless in how I choose to relate and react to being powerless over AA, the General Service Board and Conference and the fundamentalist Christian bigots I encounter.

    I can choose to live in the spirit of “love and tolerance.” I can choose to “live and let live.” I can choose to speak my non-Christian truth openly with dignity and “grace” at meetings. I can choose to offer support to newcomers, especially reaching out my hand to those who are addicted to drugs other than the liquid, legal drug alcohol. I can choose to focus the “maintenance of our spiritual condition,” seeking progress not perfection, with other atheists and agnostics.

  22. David H. says:

    After reading thru the “History – Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Non-believer / Agnostic / Atheist Alcoholic” I am led to ask, is a letter writing campaign a good idea?

  23. Steve B says:

    AA does have a conference approved pamphlet titled “Do You Think You’re Different?” that does have an entry by an agnostic. I hope this isn’t used as an excuse by the central office that a pamphlet for nonbelievers is not needed. I think it’s appropriate to have an entire pamphlet welcoming atheists/agnostics.

    • Ed S. says:

      It is not the central office who decides the contents of the pamphlets or which pamphlets are published. The central office prints them, collects the money and sends them out. The process is much more complicated and they is why it is hard to get anything done. The General Service Conference, made up of 92 Delegates from the different Areas is the decider. The pamphlet is put together by the GSC Literature Committee. The Area’s Literature Committees are also involved through Mini Conferences.

  24. Jerry F. says:

    Wonderful, albeit sad article. If the leadership committees keep us at bay, the only future for our current form of AA is, unfortunately, death. I see so many newbies walk away in disgust. I stayed, as “they” said “Fake it ’til you make it.” After 3+ years of continuous sobriety, I find this advice absolutely disingenuous. I no longer attend meetings as I’m left them with more resentments than ever before, but eagerly read AA Agnostica. Keep up the good work!

  25. David H. says:

    Thanks, Roger, for this thoughtful, informative article. Keep up the good work for the health of AA.

  26. John M. says:

    Thanks for this Roger.
    I needed to hear about this history of “the pamphlet” and others should learn about it. I think this is a very useful and educational piece for AA Agnostica.

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