A History of Agnostic Groups in AA

A History of Agnostic Groups in AA

Review by Chris G.

When the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was being written there was an irritating atheist in the mix: Jim Burwell.

He was responsible for the phrase “God, as we understood Him” in the Steps and for AA’s Third Tradition: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Today, if an AA group dares to take this a step further and call itself “agnostic,” or “atheistic,” or make any changes to the Steps as published, it risks expulsion from the sacred meeting lists of its local Intergoup. What is going on? Are we here to get sober, or to argue about our religious beliefs?

This story is the subject of Roger C.’s book, A History of Agnostic Groups in AA.

From the early beginnings of individual beliefs in opposition to the “god bit,” and particularly the western Christian culture from which it came, to the current situation of Intergroups delisting AA groups who find a non-God path to sobriety, Roger takes us along the story of what has happened — so far.

The History opens with Excommunicated: the bare facts concerning the delisting of several Toronto groups in 2011 by the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup.

To set the stage, there follows a summary of the Jim Burwell’s part in the writing of the Steps, leading to Bill Wilson’s 1961 Grapevine article in which he realizes that “his early Christian evangelicism had been a serious problem.”

A History of Agnostic Groups

You can read the final version of A History of Agnostic Groups in AA by clicking on the above…

Agnostic groups have been a part of AA since the 1970s. Roger covers the development of these groups in sections on New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Austin, Des Moines and elsewhere in fascinating detail. He names key names in the development of these groups: Don Wilson who started the first Quad A (AAAA – Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics) in Chicago in 1975 and Charlie Polachek, who started the first group named “We Agnostics” in 1980 in Hollywood.  This is interesting reading, full of quotes showing the juxtaposition of “the literature” to the real world, and how people selectively interpret it.

In the section Missteps, Roger addresses the conflicts arising when groups, in their group conscience, alter the Steps as published. Has the Big Book become a canon? For some people, you bet it has. The Misdeeds chapter can best be summarized as “it got very twisted.” In this section Roger explains the ins, outs, and twisted logic by which Intergroups and even the General Service Office (GSO) have interacted with agnostic groups. The traditions are examined and ignored at whim… there is humour here, if you are sufficiently detached from the ruckus.

Roger ends with a brilliant plea for a “Vatican II” of AA.  If you are old enough to remember Vatican II, you will remember the furor it caused, and how, in the end, the Catholic Church, that bastion of old, old tradition, remarkably produced the enlightened Declaration of Religious Freedom, from which Roger quotes:

All men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others.

Does that not mirror the spirit of what AA professes, though not always practices?

Lest you leave this book feeling slightly helpless in the face of the opposition, Roger has supplied some very useful material in the appendices: a non-religious meeting format, a widely available non-theist version of the 12 Steps, and information about a wonderful resource for all things agnostic in AA: the AA Agnostica website. All suggestions, of course.

It is often said that history is written by the winners. This is an important work because it is written by a participant who is squarely in the midst of the struggle. We who are in it do see it as a struggle, but perhaps some years from now the essence of the 12 Traditions and Vatican II will prevail, and there will come a solution with no winners or losers — one of true consensus, in the spirit of our Group Conscience. In setting out the facts as they evolve, Roger can only contribute to such an eventual solution.

A History Front CoverThis eBook has now been replaced by A History of Agnostics in AA, available as a paperback and an eBook. More information about the book, published in April 2017, is available here Review: A History of Agnostics in AA.

The book can also be purchased at Amazon, and as an eBook at many online locations.

13 Responses

  1. realneal says:

    As messed up as it was about what happened in Toronto, it sure got a lot of publicity and let people like me find out about the fellow agnostics in AA. Otherwise I would have never known about it. I would be happy if I could just find a non christian meeting down here in jesusland.

    • Pat N. says:

      I surely feel for your isolation in jesusland, since my life is rich in secular meetings. Have you thought about starting one? What worked for me was looking around the circle as I DIDN’T say the Lord’s Prayer, and spotting someone else who remained silent. We talked afterward, and that was enough of a nucleus for a We Agnostics meeting, which has grown and lasted.

      • realneal says:

        Yes, that is what I do. If there are people in the meeting that I don’t know, I don’t even stand during the prayer. This is what Jim B. did. This all started for me just a couple of weeks ago, when I was looking at a newsletter and found out that the new pamphlet, “AA – Spiritual Not Religious” was rejected. That just isn’t right.

  2. denisk says:

    Just bought and reviewed the book. Roger, this is a treasure. Thank you for putting this significant information together. I will recommend this to everyone I know.

  3. Larry says:

    I`ve been in and out of the 12 step program for 25 years without ever having gotten beyond step 3. A friend who has a lot of sobriety and time in the program offered to do the “Back To Basics” program with me. I’ve been extremely anxious about the upcoming “2nd session” meeting which is about taking the 2nd, 3rd and 4th steps. At a different meeting, I approached the chairperson of the Back to Basics meeting with my concerns, not only for myself but because I didn`t want to be a distraction to the others, but I also don`t want to pretend I`m something I’m not. How should I proceed? I was shot down, being told that it’s my toxic thinking that’s keeping me from surrendering to a higher power. This person said they couldn`t believe that I`d experienced the issues in meetings that I described, this also being a fabrication of my “stinkin thinkin.” “If you can`t turn your will over then maybe you’d be better off going to counseling or a church,” he said. Shoot! All I want is what other people in 12 step want without having the god stuff forced down my throat! I`m soooo tired of all the hypocrisy. I guess I made a mistake having a mind.

  4. Stephen R. says:

    Have not read what I assume will be a welcome contribution to this evolvement in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. Congratulations to the writer Roger C.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Most excellent, Roger !~!~!

    On my way shortly to drive to the west coast Portland to attend a noon meeting, introduce myself to Portland Area Intergroup in the afternoon, and go to the District 9 Meeting of GSRs to announce and distribute flyers to our new “Beyond Belief” meeting – we had our initial meeting this past Sunday, December 1st – this evening. I’ll definitely check it out and download it on my iPad Mini hopefully later tonight or tomorrow.

    Onward we go with “Love and tolerance of others as our code.”

    • Pat N. says:

      Congrats on your group’s first meeting! I’ll get down there from Olympia someday, and need to know day/time/venue. Any problems getting listed on the local meeting list? Is this the one I understood might be starting at the Ptld. Alano Club? When I spoke with the manager, he sounded supportive.

      • Thomas B. says:

        Yes, Pat, it’s one and the same — Brent has been most supportive and helpful indeed. The meeting follows initially the “Beyond Belief” format that Roger has here on AA Agnostica until we get a core group of folks to form a group conscience consensus.

        We had our first meeting on Sunday past, December 1st, at 10:30 am in the Annex Room on the second floor of the Portland Alano Club. Of course, you’d be welcome anytime!

        The current District 9 DCM, David S., has also been most supportive. I stopped by the District Meeting last night and left some flyers with him.

        I also left flyers at the Portland Intergroup Office, where I was warmly received. So far, so good . . .

        • Roger says:

          I have a friend, Chuck, in Florida, who just started an agnostic AA meeting and is receiving tremendous support from the local Intergroup. So it is possible – and most encouraging, when that happens. It reaffirms my commitment to the fellowship.

          • Pat N. says:

            I know what you mean. We secular types aren’t pariahs within AA except to a small corps of fanatics. Most of the people who saved my bacon were probably traditionally religious, but I’m not sure because they didn’t push it. My first group secretary was a nun, and her cousin-priest also belonged. They have a right to the God of their understanding. I think the bigger need is to change formats, so that God & prayer aren’t thrust at the newcomer. I love We Ag-type groups, but we only exist because an alternative format is needed, IMHO.

        • Larry says:

          I know that this thread was about Roger`s book & my earlier comments might have been more appropriate in a different location. I guess it was a call for help. I thank my doorknob/lucky stars/rabbit`s foot that I`ve found AA Agnostica.

    • John L. says:

      Admire your energy and commitment. Perhaps the day will come for groups to be called “Above Belief”. Isn’t knowledge, based on the reasoned use of evidence, better than “belief” or “faith”?