The General Service Conference Stumbles
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. 
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.
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?
 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.
Roger C. is the manager of the AA Agnostica website. He has a Masters degree in Religious Studies from McGill University where he taught ordinands (men and women studying for the ministry) for a number of years. At the time, he was considered the resident atheist at McGill and treated with respect. “In AA, not so much,” he reports. His heroes are people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. He enjoys writing and reading, and in the summer he canoes, camps and plays as much golf as the weather – and time – will permit. Roger is the editor/author of The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps.