An AA Pamphlet for Agnostics – The 1980s

By Roger C.

In October, 1981, Ed S. wrote to the AA trustees’ Literature Committee and asked that the idea of preparing and publishing a “Conference-approved” pamphlet for agnostics and atheists in the fellowship be reconsidered.

You see, he had tried to get such a pamphlet once before, and the idea had been rejected.

In the 1970s Ed had been a trustee – one of AA’s 21 policy and financial administrators  – and a member of a sub-committee of the Literature Committee.

He and Paula C. – the other member of the subcommittee – had recommended that AA compile and write “a pamphlet for the Agnostic and/or Atheist.” In a report presented to the full Literature committee in July, 1976, they wrote that such a pamphlet “is needed to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.”

At first, the Literature Committee was gung ho to proceed. In August it asked for more detail in a revised report that it would present to the General Service Conference, which would make the final decision.

(The Conference meets for a week once a year, every spring. It consists of delegates from 93 Conference areas in North America, the trustees of the General Service Board, and other directors and AA staff. It functions as the group conscience of the fellowship. All official AA literature must be “Conference-approved.”)

Astonishingly, however, the Committee did a dramatic about face and in October of 1976 trashed the idea and “decided not to ask the 1977 Conference Literature Committee to consider a pamphlet for agnostics/atheists.”

The reason for that reversal has never been made public.

Apparently Ed was not the kind of person who gives up simply because of adversity. His letter in October of 1981 read, in part:

Even though it would not be a best seller, could we have a pamphlet written by an agnostic or atheist for those who have trouble believing? Possible title: “Came Not to Believe.”

In January 1982 “the committee declined to recommend the publication of a pamphlet intended for agnostics or atheists who have trouble believing.”

Again, no reason was offered.

* * *

The idea of a pamphlet for those “who have trouble believing” finally made it to the General Service Conference in the spring of 1989.

At least some of the interest in such a pamphlet was generated by an article in the AA Grapevine in October of 1987 called: Is There Room Enough in AA? In the article, J. L. from Oakland, California writes about how, as an atheist with many years of sobriety, he feels muzzled in the rooms of AA:

I hear so little from atheists in AA because those of us who do not believe in God keep quiet about it. I have done so partly out of timidity and partly to avoid the comment that the admission of atheism frequently brings: that I will someday believe or I will get drunk.

Don't Tell

The “Don’t Tell” Policy in AA

Does that sound familiar to anyone? For more on this you can read The “Don’t Tell” Policy in AA.

At any rate, the article prompted a letter from Jack M. to the General Service Office dated February 1, 1989.

At the time Jack had some thirteen years of sobriety in AA, and one of his comments picks up on the theme of the Grapevine article:

I can’t understand why (believers) hardly ever tire of trying to convince or persuade non-believers to change, particularly in AA which is a program of attraction, because the thought of trying to persuade a believer to change never even enters my mind.

He goes on to say:

There just doesn’t seem to be any AA General Service Conference-approved literature written specifically for the non-believer. Is such a project under way? …A collection of encouraging words would not have to be adversarial, antagonistic, cogent, defensive, patronizing or persuasive. A foreword could even be included which would explain the apparent conflict, at least to some newcomers, between the statement in our preamble regarding AA not being allied with any sect, denomination, organization or institution and the fact that we all rise… and recite the prayer beginning Our Father at the close of each meeting. The foreword could also contain a clear statement that belief in a higher power is not at any time a requirement for membership or for getting and staying sober.

Another letter had also been written to the General Service Office in 1989 and that one was by Tom M. of Florida.

He writes of the many atheists who have gotten and stayed sober within the rooms of AA. “We believe,” he says, “that we have accumulated experiences that can give hope, strength, and comfort to newly sober people in AA who are of the agnostic or atheistic persuasion.”

He goes on to say:

To declare your agnosticism or atheism at many meetings (at least in this part of the country) brings upon oneself knowing stares and sometimes repudiation from someone in the group. Now, I personally don’t have this problem anymore. My longevity in sobriety is given respect, but I am still thought of as a paradox or oddball. I can handle that just fine, now. The question that bothers me, is that ‘Can a newly sober agnostic or atheist handle being treated as an oddball?’ Many cannot.”

These letters, and others, were duly considered by the trustees’ Literature Committee which made a recommendation “for some sort of spiritual  literature in response to requests from atheists and agnostics.”

Not a chance.

The spring 1989 General Service Conference considered the request. And it blew the idea right out of the water.

It “did not see a sufficient need to take action.”

This post is based entirely on the document History – Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Non-Believer / Agnostic / Atheist Alcoholic.

The featured image (at the top of the post) is called Not One of Us and is from the website deviantART.

34 Responses

  1. denisk says:


    Thanks for tbe link to the white paper.

    After reviewing this I am more determined to work to assist in starting more Agnostic meetings here in Vancouver and create a safe haven for the suffering who are yet to join us, many who would be driven back out the door without an agnostic choice.
    I found this paper completely disgusting and without merit.

    • Lech L. says:

      I am in Vancouver BC fairly often. If you get a meeting going there, post the details in this forum, and I will drop in next time I am in town.

  2. Laurie A says:

    Further to my posting re Grapevine: Its Statement of Purpose notes, ‘The awareness that every AA member has an individual way of working the program permeates the pages of the Grapevine, and throughout its history the magazine has been a forum for the varied and often divergent opinions of AA’s around the world…’ Quoting Bill W, it adds, ‘Within the bounds of frindliness and good taste, the Grapevine will enjoy perfect freedom of speech on all matters pertaining to Alcoholics Anonymous …’ There is no censorship. Grapevine’s digital archive archives contributions by atheists/agnostics.

  3. PHIL E. says:

    “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”. Not drinking isn’t a requirement for membership , nor is belief in a supernatural being. Many transfer the old ideas into AA. Carry on, carry the message. I’m a grateful and sober atheist, with thirty years now. Could care less what the evangelicals think about that. Pity them. Our numbers are growing.

    • Anne J. says:

      I rarely go to AA because I found it too religious early in my 20 years of recovery. The constant Christian prayers were too much for me and the idea that I should “find Him now” insulted me when it was supposed to be open minded. While NA does now have more stories from atheists in the Basic Text there seems to be as much prejudice against atheists as well. The worst part is feeling the need to not say I am in recovery when my atheists groups put down AA for being spiritual AND religious. Though my definition of spiritual differs AA and often NA do feel religious too often for me. Like Phil E. I at least now have enough time to speak as I please.

  4. Tim C. says:

    A pamphlet for agnostics will never overcome the constant repetitions of parts B and C of the the passage “How It Works” read by many, many AA groups at the beginning of every meeting. This catechizing is AA’s primary method of spreading doctrines like other religions.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    So sad, Roger, to read this history again. And yet, we must persevere and not become too discouraged — referring mostly to myself here . . . 😉

    We mostly need — certainly here among ourselves, but also at our AA meetings — to simply keep speaking our truth, our “spiritual” beliefs — perhaps, more appropriately, our religious non-beliefs. However, we must do so with dignity, good humor, and humility, expressing gratitude to the fellowship for helping us maintain a “daily reprieve contingent upon our spiritual progress.” Our “spiritual progress” is based upon generic ethical, humanitarian, free-thinking principles, not the Christian brand of sanctified spiritual progress exuberantly explicated by Bill Wilson in the Big Book. Nevertheless, over the course of his life Bill Wilson significantly broadened his beliefs, becoming more ecumenical and free-thinking, which is somewhat indicated in the 12 X 12, but most apparent in his later writing, especially his articles in the Grapevine and in private correspondence.

    I also deeply believe that we need to let go of any expectations that the General Service Conference, which administers AA in North America, will adopt an enlightened (pun intended) point of view regarding the proposed pamphlet, “AA — Spiritual, Not Religious,” dropping their prejudices against us non-believers. What’s that old definition about insanity, doing the same behaviors over and over again, expecting different results, eh?

    The reality is that here in the US, which heavily influences the rest of Canadian North America, we live in “one nation under God,” steeped in values and principles of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Even the most cursory reading of the Judeo-Christian bible demonstrates that their god, as specifically explicated in Exodus 20:5, but evident throughout, “is a jealous God.” The alleged coming of “his only begotten son” throughout over 2000 years of history since certainly has done little to dissuade us of this overarching conclusion.

    Even though Bill Wilson wrote on page 84 of the Big Book after the promises, “Love and tolerance of others is our code,” we should nevertheless not expect our more religious members to practice such love and tolerance towards us. The repeated history of the systematic rejection of a pamphlet for us non-believers since 1976 certainly bears this out. As well, the continued efforts not to accommodate listing our meetings on various AA Intergroup associations in some of our most progressive, cosmopolitan areas, the latest being what happened recently up in Vancouver, add credence to the concept that religious members believe their sanctified duty must be to excoriate us non-believers from their hallowed ranks in accordance with what the Bible repeatedly tutors them to do.

    One practice I’m committed to do more and more when the Serenity Prayer closes a meeting is to loudly proclaim in the circle, “Goddess grant me . . . “

    • William P. says:

      Sad, indeed, Thomas, and thanks for your graceful comments. Although I am not a card carrying Agnostic, I admire the Agnostic ability to welcome all faiths, all beliefs, even though those of other faiths who may not reciprocate. Also I deplore the infighting which occasionally takes place between the AA folk and adherents of Rational Recovery, since, at least in my view, the essentials of each are not necessarily contradictory. In any event, there are many paths to recovery. To think otherwise may be a “character defect,” a term well known to AA enthusiasts.

  6. bob k says:

    The sad reality is that we are probably FURTHER today from having such a pamphlet than we were in the 70’s, or the 80’s. The pro-God folks are circling the wagons in what they see, or represent to be, attempts to remove God from the AA program. Of course, what’s actually been proposed is a very far cry from that.

    The extremists are working hard with their fear-mongering to convince those of the ‘mushy middle’ that disaster is imminent. Anyone who read the famous “White Paper” response to the threatened incursion of agnosticism has an idea of 1) how rabid some of the fundamentalists are; and 2) what ridiculously bad writing can come from a moron with a gripe. YIKES – no Leo Tolstoy Award for you, pal.

    On a positive note, Friday night I attended a very preliminary meeting about getting a non-religious AA meeting happening in the Ajax-Whitby-Oshawa area, east of Toronto. We hope to have something running early in the new year. Anyone interested in this, please e-mail me at:
    Early responders will have a chance to have input re: format & meeting night, etc.


    • Thomas B. says:

      I totally agree Bob — currently I’m working on an essay that will seek to correlate the growing Christification of AA to the decided swing to the radical right (Tea Party anyone?) in American politics since 1976 — not a pretty picture, eh?

      • Laurie A says:

        There seems to be a pretty severe backlash to the Tea Party tendency, e,g. Obama’s comfortable election win last year and recent events in which conservative Republicans failed to sabotage his healthcare reforms. America is becoming more diverse and liberal. I can’t read the minds of the literature committee but maybe one consideration was that a pamphlet approved for non-believers would lead to a demand from Dick B et al for one to represent the views of born again Christians. Where would it all end?

    • denisk says:

      Hello Bob,

      Always appreciate your posts.

      How would I obtain a copy of the white paper?
      Denis K

      • Roger says:

        Anyone who wants a copy can get one right here: White Paper.

        • David H. says:

          Can you give the background on this again Roger? Who wrote it? When?
          Sorry, I must have missed school that day.

          • Roger says:

            The content of the draft of the pamphlet “AA – Spiritual Not Religious” is the responsibility of the trustees’ Literature Committee. (There is one staff person at the GSO working with the Literature Committee, Mary Dargan – – and she fulfills the will of the committee. This was the decision of the 2013 Conference:

            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.

            Presumably the trustees’ Literature Committee will do more than share the results of their discussion but will present a revised draft to the 2014 General Service Conference. All of this is done in a strictly confidential manner with the doors closed.

      • Kjerstin G says:

        Thank you, Roger. Wow, that response is infuriating!

    • jo-anne k says:

      Good luck with getting the meeting started Bob!

  7. Andy Mc says:

    Thanks again Roger, for keeping my AA sanity by keeping this website/blog up and going!
    Guess that we just have to face the fact that we live in a society still riddled with the need for mysticism.
    AA society is full of desperadoes (like me) willing to do anything to stay sober, and AA literature perpetuates the paranormal as the only way to sobriety.
    How can we possibly expect our trusted servants to condone pamplets that AA literature says amounts to heresy.
    Realists are generally a threat to those that bow to the gods just as the reverse is true, this has always been true.
    AA does work as long as that much touted adage “to thine own self be true” is put into action.

    Thanks all,
    Andy Mc

  8. Joy R. says:

    I sent an article to the AA Grapevine along these same lines & you can bet that won’t be published either. I am grateful for an intelligent, open-minded and loving sponsor who allowed me to find a power greater than myself that had nothing to do with the conventional Christian God touted in the AA groups down here in the Bible Belt. AA is open to free thinkers too. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I earned my chair just like the next guy.

  9. Kjerstin G says:

    I read the 80’s and 70’s summary of previous effort. I wonder if an atheist/agnostic has drafted this proposed pamphlet (if I missed that, I would love to have that link). Proposing such a pamphlet, with an actual draft, would have two benefits. The one being the advice in the professional world that if you have a concern, it is far better heard if you also present a solution. The pamphlet draft would be that solution. Two, if such an unofficial pamphlet could be shared at sites such as these, it would help the agnostic/atheist new to recovery (like me) who is struggling to interpret and revise the steps in a way that is meaningful. I would far prefer to have a resource that has proven successful to other agnostics/atheists in recovery.

    • Roger says:

      Kjerstin, at the 2013 General Service Conference a pamphlet for agnostics called “AA – Spiritual Not Religious” was rejected, as written. You won’t see a draft of that pamphlet. Delegates had to return their copies, after voting against its publication.

      Here is what the pamphlet might have looked like:

      The proposed pamphlet

      • rich n says:

        I think she was looking for the contents not the artwork; any way we could see that? Surely someone made an illicit copy!

      • Kjerstin G says:

        Yes, curious about the contents. Of course that’s good that a draft was provided with the request. But I know I could benefit from that verbiage right about now. Anyone working on an updated draft?? 🙂

        • Roger says:

          After the last draft was rejected as written in 2013, the trustees’ Literature Committee is presumably now working on a new version to present to the 2014 General Service Conference. You will not see that draft, unless, God willing, it is approved and published.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Just waving Kjerstin — email on the way . . .

  10. Paul S. says:

    I do believe in a higher power that I call god. I also believe that the spiritual journey that is talked about in the Big Book is a personal one that each individual takes for themselves. If you feel that you are an atheist or agnostic who am I to say how your journey should look. I think we are doing members a disservice by not having literature available sharing the experience, strength, and hope of those identifying themselves as atheist or agnostic that have found sobriety in A.A..

  11. Dan L. says:

    Sometimes I feel there is the usual alcoholic paradox
    being reflected by the stridency of the people who
    insist that others have a god. It is reflective of their own insecurities in their faith – or lack thereof.
    When I feel this is happening I actually feel badly for them and do not wish to challenge the repugnant stance they take. There shouldn’t be an “us and them” attitude within AA and although I feel oppressed sometimes I do not feel right trying to force them to accept my beliefs… which makes them so
    cranky and petulant. It is the newcomer who walks
    away from what he might view rightly as a religious cult who concerns me.
    Thanks for the article.

  12. John M. says:

    Thanks Roger for continuing to keep this issue fresh and updated.

    Anyone having an upcoming Group or District inventory scheduled in the near future can certainly use your post as background information to bring this issue up under the heading often used in these kinds of inventories: Considering the number of alcoholics in our district, are we reaching enough people?

  13. William P. says:

    How sad that this “tilt” of AA towards conventional Christianity has made so called non believers uncomfortable and unwelcome in an organization which otherwise claims that “the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.” Many of them are dismayed at the equivocal and patronizing discussion of agnosticism in the Big Book.Agnosticism is not a “character defect” but that seems to be the implication and the inference that only conversion to a belief in God can ensure long term sobriety.

  14. life-j. says:

    Maybe it is time we make our own, just like Joe C made the daily reading Beyond Belief?
    That book has made a great difference in my life. Every morning me and gf sit down and read from it. Every night we read from any number of the half dozen or so other daily reading books from the various other programs and/or hazelden. The books in the evening – well, I scan them and if there is any god stuff in one, I put it down and check the next one, usually there will be one or two I can handle. But Beyond belief is always safe.
    So it seems it would be good to put together a book of the best from this site, both articles about belief issues and personal stories. The thing that’s going to give us momentum is to just bypass the conference altogether. If they haven’t done anything about it in 40 years, it is unlikely they will do it now, considering that the spiritual climate seems to get more rather than less conservative these years.

  15. Vince H. says:

    I wholeheartedly agree about letting members know I’m an atheist, not in a trumpeting way because that is unattractive, but mentioning it with sufficient authority to let an unbelieving newcomer know that it is perfectly possible to work the program as an atheist or agnostic. Also to let them know I’m prepared to share my experience with them of my 15 years in AA without a drink. I honestly keep quite quiet at meetings about my book An Atheists Unofficial Guide to AA, unless I feel it can really help someone when I pass them a business card. The more of us that make it plain we’re atheist / agnostic and that we’ve found a way to work the program the better. I feel sure that a leaflet will get conference approval one day – a bit like women’s suffrage. Then people will wonder what all the fuss was about. But it’s important that more and more of us keep asking for it. If each one of us wrote a letter to every annual conference from now on perhaps the penny would drop? Vince H

  16. David H. says:

    I think in my case this prejudice was partly responsible for the gap of 13 years between my initial exposure to AA and my present 22 years of sobriety.

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