AA – Spiritual Not Religious


Every time we develop a new recovery pamphlet, I believe we say “welcome” to a whole group of alcoholics who might otherwise feel our message was not intended for them, or worse, that they would not be welcome.
John K, former AA trustee who spent eight years at the GSO)

By Roger C.

It is almost a year ago now since the 2013 General Service Conference of  AA rejected a proposed pamphlet called “AA – Spiritual Not Religious.”

Sadly, very sadly, it was not the first time that a pamphlet for atheists and agnostics had made it all the way to the General Service Conference only to be rejected.

The debate on the topic began in earnest in the 1970s when a trustee and member of the literature committee wrote that such a pamphlet was necessary “to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.”

Pretty straightfoward, you would think. Who wants to feel like a deviant, an outcast? Nevertheless, the  trustee’s recommendations were ignored.

Again, and again, and again over the years.

* * *

The matter came up again in the 1980s. Once more, arguments for creating a pamphlet for atheists and agnostics in the fellowship – sometimes very moving arguments – were presented to the trustees and to the Conference.

One man in long-term sobriety wrote that:

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. The question that bothers me, is that “Can a newly sober agnostic or atheist handle being treated as an oddball?” Many cannot.

“Many cannot.”

How true, and you would think, again, that his argument would provide overwhelming motivation for the Conference to take immediate action.

You know, so that the suffering non-believing alcoholic would be forced to feel neither like a “deviant” or an “oddball” in the rooms of AA.

The response?

The Conference Literature committee “discussed the proposal for some sort of spiritual literature for atheists and agnostics and did not see a sufficient need to take action at the time.”

And that is pretty much what seems to have happened last April when the 2013 Conference once again decided not to act on producing a leaflet called “AA – Spiritual Not Religious.” After all, the issue has only been debated now within AA for some forty years.

Why rush things?

 * * *

In the 1990s, the debate continued. In fact, between 1995 and 2001, the issue of such a pamphlet would be voted on three times at the Trustees Literature Committee level and twice by the General Service Conference.

And it is around this time that the title “AA – Spiritual Not Religious” may have first been coined. Certainly similar titles were suggested in the mid-nineties, such as:

  • AA – Religious or Secular?
  • AA and Religion
  • AA is Not a Religion

The motivation for such a pamphlet was partly to help the newcomer. “A pamphlet directed to the concerns of the non-believer (atheist and/or agnostic) alcoholic” could be directed “to the newcomer to Alcoholics Anonymous who may be misled by some of our common practices, such as the use of the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer at meetings and the fact that many of our meetings are held in houses of worship,” wrote Paul S., the delegate for Area 49 (Southeastern New York).

Most of the requests to the trustees’ and Conference Literature committees came from agnostic groups in New York City. At the time there were five agnostic AA meetings in NYC. (Today there are eleven.)

Naomi D. was one of those New Yorkers. A member of the We Agnostics Group, in 1997 she requested a pamphlet called “AA is Not a Religion.”

I discussed the efforts to get a pamphlet for we agnostics in AA almost twenty years ago with Naomi by telephone. She was a General Service Representative (GSR) for her group at the time, and well connected. She was very engaged and aware of all of the discussions and votes about a pamphlet for agnostics and atheists that took place at the GSO and at the two General Service Conferences around that time. (Naomi is celebrating 30 years of continuous sobriety in a few days, on March 22.)

In spite of Naomi’s connections, enthusiasm and hard work, guess what happened?

Her request was denied.

Now let’s actually quote the Conference Literature Committee in 1997, which was echoing the 1996 Committee, because in refusing these requests over a period of some forty years the Conference doesn’t actually say “No,” but rather says something like this, just so that they cannot be accused of denying such a request: “The subcommittee  feels that… the ‘no recommendations’ stance of the 1996 Conference Committee stand.”

* * *

The next General Service Conference will be held in a little over a month. The conference will last a full week from April 27 to May 3, 2014 and will be held, as usual, in New York City.

If it has time, I am told, it will again consider a pamphlet for agnostics and atheists in AA, possibly called “AA – Spiritual Not Religious.”

What will it do?

After the 2013 Conference stumbled, a fellow by the name of Herb Y. wrote to Terrance Bedient, the current Chair of the General Service Board. Before AA stumbled yet again and failed to produce a pamphlet acknowledging and welcoming agnostics and atheists in the fellowship, he wrote:

Perhaps it is time for a ruthlessly honest appraisal (inventory) of the concept of inclusiveness. Many, many members maintain a spiritual practice and do not associate with any religion. Many, many members are not monotheistic in their belief systems. Many, many members describe themselves as agnostic (the view that the existence or non-existence of any deity is unknown and possibly unknowable). There are those, too, who do not recognize a personified deity. And still others have maintained long term sobriety as atheists. Moreover, very, very few AA’s participate in the organization of AA beyond their meetings of choice. If it is our intention to embrace and include all people who seek recovery from alcoholism, then what is the basis, motivation and justification to (reject such a pamphlet)?

A good question, indeed.

The clock is ticking…

Want to help?

The Conference consists of delegates from 93 areas in North America, the 21 trustees of the General Service Board, and a few other directors and AA staff, for a total of approximately 132 people. It is generally considered the “group conscience” of AA.

You can contact your area delegate and let him or her know how you feel about the importance of an AA pamphlet that is supportive of the atheist and agnostic in AA.

And feel free to copy us at aaagnostica@gmail.com. Who knows? It could end up being part of a future article posted on AA Agnostica.

As John K, the former trustee said: “Every time we develop a new recovery pamphlet, I believe we say ‘welcome’ to a whole group of alcoholics who might otherwise feel our message was not intended for them, or worse, that they would not be welcome.”

Again, the Conference is being held from April 27 to May 3. In New York.

It’s time to get “back to the basics,” as we understand them.

You know.

Care and respect for all suffering alcoholics, regardless of belief, or lack thereof.

120 Responses

  1. David K. says:

    I am a member of AA since Jan ’80 and sober member since June 10,1980. I am a public information chair in a district of a capital city in the Midwest. I am sure that these narrow parameters could be used to define me in other ways or completely, both of which would be untrue. I find it a total waste of time to argue personal philosophy with anyone, anywhere for the purposes of banding together groups of membership based on anything other than what we ALL have in common.
    I used to drink too much, I needed help, I found some because I sought it out directly, and indirectly through anti-social and illegal behavior, that brought me in contact with AA. It is what
    it is now, and has been what it was before. If I let people who thought or acted different than me cause me to dissassociate myself from AA I would have left in about 30 minutes.
    I do everything I do for selfish reasons in AA. I participate in any way I choose to learn, to grow, to stay alive, sane, happy, safe, and many other motives, but the One basis for all of it is I drank too much, too often and out of even and especially my own control. Any other grouping in any way is for some other reason which I am not really interested in joining. Getting overly excited about a particular philosophy or grouping being uncomfortable is ridiculous. I guess some people wear suits and some wear jeans and neither can hide it, that doesn’t mean we need a pamphlet to address both groups or they might die for lack of feeling accepted. Who really gives a shit about my beliefs truly. I am alive and have had a life in as full of a way as possible since I got that AA and all my thoughts, feelings and beliefs have and will continue to change and evolve. I have loved it all and continue to by not getting worked up over small stuff that in perspective shouldn’t even be a topic.

    • Roger says:

      I am truly impressed by your callous disregard for those who don’t feel at home in the rooms of AA because of their non-belief and go back out only to drink for years and sometimes die as drunks. You are indeed obsessed with you. Congratulations on your sobriety, David.

    • crescentdave says:

      You write: “It is what it is now, and has been what it was before.” I’m glad you bring this up because it demonstrates your understanding that AA changes over time. “It is what it is now” includes women’s, LGBT, agnostic/atheist meetings – all clearly newer than older. The AA that “has been what it was before” didn’t include these groups. It didn’t include such fundamental literature as the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Hell, it didn’t even include African Americans. Pretty small minded. But growing. Getting better. And certain elements fought all that change. Thankfully, they lost.

      I agree with your point that “Getting overly excited about a particular philosophy or grouping being uncomfortable is ridiculous.” Speaking from your perspective, it is not worth getting upset over what people have to say about the need for a pamphlet or a special meeting. In your words, it would be “ridiculous” to get overly excited about it. It’s good that you “have loved it all and continue to by not getting worked up over small stuff that in perspective shouldn’t even be a topic.” I’m a little confused though – you’re on this board, commenting on a topic that you think “shouldn’t even be a topic.” So why comment?

      See, I think you are a little excited. A little upset. Which is fine – you’ve been a member for 30 plus years and that’s amazing. You’re being of service which means you’re expressing your gratitude in action. You have a right to your opinion on this issue. But check your motives here … you’re expending significant energy on a subject you don’t even think should exist. And then saying “hey, I’m not worked up – this is small stuff.” So your words contradict your actions. Which again, is fine. Who’s completely consistent? I know I’m not. But I like to think, in retrospect, after I check my motives, that I can see what’s really happening.

      AA will continue to evolve. I mentioned the women’s meetings, the LGBT meetings, the agnostic/atheist meetings for a reason. They’re not new. They seem to grow in numbers. “It is what it is now.” And that will continue to change and continue to grow. It’s done this for over 80 years and it will continue to do so. Peace.

    • Alyssa (soda) says:

      The E word is my favourite word. Empathy. Some people don’t seem to be practiced in this area. And I’m happily finding there are people who care about what I think. Thank you to my beautiful friends at my agnostic home group tonite. I’m fortunate to be able to share with you 😉
      Lol @ Roger, Roger.

    • Duncan says:

      Hi David K, Congratulations on your sobriety but what you don’t say in your post is whether or not you are non- theist. If you were, say, an atheist, then perhaps it might not have been so easy for you. This is what this site is all about. We don’t want to change anyone but just make it easier for people who might come to AA and then leave because of their beliefs.

  2. Dan says:

    Interesting to find this group—I just got the URL from someone at our pre-conference area assembly. I too have been waiting on the outcome regarding the pamphlet.

    After reading through the posts, I find myself agreeing in principle: my wife and I are sober a good bit and find ourselves—and friends with long-term sobriety—at an interesting stage in regard to the “God” issue.

    When the subject comes up, and if I’m called upon (or when speaking), I make it a point to say I do not believe in a conventional god. I’m not impressed with the sales pitch in the We Agnostics chapter, and I’m dismayed by the old-school capitalized masculine pronouns. I do, however, point to some terms in the book that I find acceptable and practical: “something at work in the human heart,” and “an unsuspected inner resource.” I am comfortable using the terms “prayer” and “God” in making an appeal to this “inner resource,” but that gets sticky in conversation.

    I think the mind works on a deeper level when it employs symbols and metaphors. The problem arises when these are taken literally. Karen Armstrong is a good resource on the concepts of mythos and logos, and the conflation of the two that leads to misunderstanding and fundamentalism.

    AA has done tremendous things for me. I buy the basic concepts , though I have to do some semantic gymnastics here and there with the terms. I am convinced that dishonesty and self-centeredness have served me poorly and that the frustration that they generate for me when left unchecked will put me in a drinking mood.

    Mainly, I think it is important that we each speak our truth about these matters. I don’t say the lord’s prayer, and I deplore the handshaking chant (reminds me of “Now you’re one of us” in Todd Browning’s movie Freaks). The question is, can I speak that truth with some measure of generosity of spirit? Can I make the idea of sobriety without a belief in an external deity attractive? Can I do it without deriding others’ beliefs (“Santa Clause and the tooth fairy”)?

    I have been called an atheist by the true believers, and I’m quite sure a Dawkins/Harris hardliner would call me a victim of the God delusion. I guess I speak for the moderates: as usual for me, I believe there’s a middle ground that can be reached by most.

    It’s my sense that the pamphlet will move forward.

    My best to all . . .


  3. Tommy H says:

    I still don’t see a working definition of “spirituality.” How can we talk about something if we can’t nail it down?

    I hear that our problems are emotional, physical, and spiritual.

    What are the differences between emotional and spiritual? I maintain that they are one and the same and originate at the same place – between our ears. This seems to annoy the theists. They are the ones who seem to believe there is a difference, so it is up to them to assert what the differences are.

    Any thoughts?

    • Duncan says:

      Tommy , I think it was the Salvation Army who said why should the Devil have all the good tunes. Indeed why not to anything that can alter your being. Of course all leaders of all religions make good use of that and that is why they control the masses. It has been like that since the first religion was created.

      Christians talk of Body, Mind and Soul(Spirit) and whilst atheists don’t accept a soul it is clear that we accept a spirit. All humans have it and what is more all three parts of humanity can be controlled by the other two parts.

      This is a part of the trick Christian and other religious leaders use. However so do psychiatrists and many others. For example it is difficult and in fact impossible to feel sad unless you look downwards and is why a psychiatrist will ask you to look up. Try and say angry things with a smile or your face and yet again its impossible. Try it with any combination of the three, body, mind and spirit and you will find they all eventually work as one.

      I don’t want to go on and on about it. Nothing magical about it and yes Tommy ask a Christian to explain the same. Duncan

  4. Gerry says:

    Is the pamphlet you’re talking about “Do You Think You’re Different?,” which includes separate sections on atheists and agnostics as well as on Native Americans, gays, lesbians, African Americans, etc, etc? As to each and all the attitude in the pamphlet is “Welcome, we want you and need you in A.A.”

    • Roger says:

      The evidence is pretty conclusive that this pamphlet – Do You Think You’re Different? – is a pretty lame effort in terms of making agnostics and atheists welcome – or feel welcomed – in the rooms of AA.

    • Duncan says:

      AA is for everyone. HQ are getting more and more in a mess. WASP is really the only way to describe it. They must get up to date or else AA will just be for Christians.

  5. life-j says:

    One thing I have come to experience lately from being part of our new chat room here at aaagnostica is how much more backwards some parts of the country are than I had even imagined. And yet I can’t even claim to be lucky to live in Northern California – even here we have our struggles. It is my hope that our chat room will help all those lone atheists and agnostics across our continent find each other, first to not feel so alone anymore, and then to get the courage to start meetings of their own. My only “experiences” with the south are Easy Rider, Deliverance, and Mississippi Burning, all of which has scared me sufficiently to not want to go investigate further, and I can understand that it can be scary, it’s even a bit scary to have started a freethinkers meeting here, but there is a good feeling that grows from being true to mine own self.

    • Alyssa (soda) says:

      Thanks for blazing the trail.

    • Tommy H says:

      I can say that A.A. here in the BlueGrass of Kentucky is a whole lot more religious than it was in the Baton Rouge area.

      When their bible is quoted, I am known to ask what that has to do with A.A. recovery.

    • Michael says:

      If police brutality against racial minorities and violence against LGBT people is any measure, California has nothing to brag about. Yes, Christian fundamentalism is a big issue in the South but it’s also a big issue in Orange County and most of Southern California. An AA meeting in Atlanta, New Orleans or Asheville might have the same tone as in the Bay Area. A meeting in Central Valley California might have the same tone as in rural Georgia. California is more progressive no doubt but judging an entire region and its people by a few movies and internet chat isn’t very enlightened. I spent ten years in SF and moved back to the South, I’ve found that many people in CA know very little about mid-America beyond what they see on the internet.

  6. Alyssa (soda) says:

    Hey Roger,
    Thank you for writing “Want to help?” and explaining how I can do my part. On behalf of my new friends in we agnostics/free thinkers, I am excited to get to work as a newcomer and do my part. I cannot change the whole world but I can certainly change my little corner in it 😉
    There is an old bumper sticker that says “another friend of Bill” I’m visualizing it saying “another friend of WAFT” 🙂

    • realneal says:

      I was thinking of a bumper sticker that said a “Another friend of Jim B.” I have even investigated having them made.

    • Mark C (MarkInTexas) says:

      “Another Friend of Jim B.” Ha! That is an excellent idea. I might even have to change my rule of No Stickers on my vehicle except “Proud Parent of a U.S. Marine.” 🙂

      I’ve been enjoying getting to know some of you on the chat site.

      Thanks for all you do!

  7. crescentdave says:

    We have all sorts of special interest pamphlets. It is no accident that there is not one for atheists, agnostics and deists. The wording in our literature constantly reinforces the concept of a personal god and the need for a personal relationship with that god. We are always exhorted to “turn over to,” to “talk to,” to await inspiration “from Him.” It’s not just the word “God.”

    The culture of AA fails being rigorously honest when it claims it is not religious and then uses religious prayers and imagery. It is not honest when it rejects the definition that the outside world, including several state supreme courts and two Federal District Courts and all the major dictionaries have judged AA as being religious. AA can say it is not religious – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t. It just means AA insists on using a definition the outside world rejects.

    The membership is not honest when they aver that “god” is just a word and encourages non-theists to “get over” our discomfort at hearing it. We are lectured that our problem is “we think too much,” that our best thinking got us here (as if that were a bad thing!). Many groups begin the explicitly Christian “Lord’s Prayer” by saying “Whose Father?”

    The Big Book mistakenly describes the thoughts, feelings, values and understanding of what it means to be a non-theist. The description is insulting and inaccurate – unless, like so many other quasi-spiritual definitions, we go along with AA’s “singularly unique” definitions. They aren’t the dictionary definitions. They aren’t the majority culture’s definitions. They are erroneous.

    The Big Book claims we need to “contact Him.” It requires us to find that “God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him.” I do not seek what is not there. I do not seek what I do not experience. It then backtracks and states we can use our “own conception of God.” However, it immediately contradicts itself again, saying the lack of faith in the invisible and being “handicapped by obstinacy, sensitiveness, and unreasoning prejudice” combined with being overly “touchy” have resulted in a state which the Big Book exhorts: “This sort of thinking (non-theist) had to be abandoned.” Had to be abandoned.

    Over and over, erroneous definitions are proffered, spurious descriptions concerning non-theists are presented and our very thinking is ridiculed, discounted and dismissed. Here is an illustration: “Instead of regarding ourselves as intelligent agents, spearheads of God’s ever advancing Creation, we agnostics and atheists chose to believe that our human intelligence was the last word, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all. Rather vain of us, wasn’t it?”

    No Bill, that would be you AA fundamentalists, not us. Not vain of us. Vain of you. Prideful of you. Close-minded and ignorant of you. I don’t know any atheists or agnostics who think they are the “alpha and omega.” As a matter of fact, we tend to think the opposite; we tend to believe we 7 billion people live on a small planet in a minor solar system in a non-descript galaxy, far from the center of the cosmos. That what we know, unlike fundamentalists who treat the Big Book like a Bible (with all the unchanging answers), is constantly open to revision. We are not afraid of new facts. We do not pass laws that make it impossible to amend our literature or incorporate new knowledge. We don’t hide our inability to write a history of post 1955 AA and then vote to seal it so even archivists cannot view it.

    Given the amount of misinformation that has been generated about atheists, agnostics and deists, given the main sources of information (the Big Book and the 12 & 12) will NEVER be changed, it is long overdue for a specific pamphlet to address this toxic, unwelcoming, judgmental and intolerant stance that fundamentalist and mainstream AA expresses in so many groups, in so many ways.

    • Margaret B. says:

      Hi CrescentDave,

      Thank you very much for taking the time to write out such a very well thought out and written response. I agree with every single word that you wrote 100%!!! Wish I could say I wrote it!

      Last year after being around AA for 9 years I decided to really look at the book and the program. For the preceding years I knew that doing so would make it hard for me in AA so I always “glossed” over it the best I could. I thought maybe this time would be different. But, alas, all that happened was a great disappointment for me. How could all theses good people follow such an insane narcissist I thought? Why would they continue to use this crazy insulting book as “a map for life”? How can they, now in their supposed “right minds”, tell me “the program is not religious it’s spiritual”? Why on earth would they want to follow one word Bill Wilson said? Brainwashing?

      AA did help bring me out of some very bad times because of the SUPPORT OF THE PEOPLE (nothing else). Allowing some time to pass and studying the book with my sponsor and the group I learned too much about AA and its history. I also learned that it was time for me to be true to myself again, as it says on every coin handed out at these badge-honoring time-anniversaries, “to thine own self be true”. I finally walked away from AA.

      I haven’t been to a meeting since January 6th of this year and believe it or not, I haven’t gone to jail, been institutionalized, or “gone out, relapsed, and died”! Imagine that?! I got honest with myself and wish the clan culture of AA would do the same. But, as the bb bible will never be changed I’m not sure if the clan will either, at least not in my lifetime.

      Again, thank you very much for your post and I hope to see you around.

      Margaret B.

      • Tommy H says:

        Margaret, I have known several people who left A.A. when they had 5-10y and went on to live useful, happy life. I also know people who were active in A.A. with more than 20 years, had a slip, and died.

        For me, there is a difference between living without A.A. and going back to drinking.

        I have been reading a lot of Alan Watts lately. He, apparently, was one of us and it shows in much of his writing. However, he has provided a lot of insight for me.

        Once we attain the mountain top, what got us there is no longer needed.

        • Roger says:

          To be safe, I would just add to your last line, Tommy, “for some of us” what got us there is no longer needed.

        • Linda says:

          Is it really just about getting what we need? Or might there be an element of gratitude in the form of passing it on?

        • Roger says:

          Which Alan Watts books would you recommend, Tommy?

      • Duncan says:

        Hi Tommy, Yes but that goes both ways and those who were Big Book Disciples go back drinking too. I don’t think that makes any difference to the debate here.

        What I do say is that what is within AA is as vital to atheists as it is to believers. When Bill W wrote or co-wrote the Big Book they did not have the sobriety within to know what the future would be. However if someone wants to drink they will whether in or out of AA.

        I took little notice of the Big Book in my early days and thought of it as no more than an advert for early AA. There was no way that an atheist could have written the chapter We Agnostics and to be fair most people within AA at that time seemed to agree with me.

        One of the promises AA gave me was a return to normal living. I know now that unless I want to drink then now I know I never will. But it was not so simple as that in the beginning. What is more I like AA to meet old friends and of course to pass on my experience.

        However these days the Big Book is seen as being like a Bible and frankly I feel it scares more away than it holds. Duncan

      • realneal says:

        Margaret, I agree with most of what you said except maybe “Why on earth would they want to follow one word Bill Wilson said?” I think that Bill Wilson wrote a lot of good stuff in his later years. The Big Book not so much. I also don’t say that he wrote the BB. It was much more a group effort than most people realize. Unfortunately there were only 8 people in New York where is was put together that were dry for more than 6 months when the book was finished and it was 1939 and it shows. Most people where I live now think that god sat on his shoulders while “he” wrote it. They are not interested in anything that he later wrote for the most part. god bless Jim B 🙂

      • Tommy H says:

        Roger asked, “Which Alan Watts books would you recommend, Tommy?”

        I would start with Tao the Watercourse Way then The Wisdom of Insecurity. I would also suggest Ernie Kurtz’s The Spirituality of Imperfection.

        I’m reading Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship right now.

    • Frank M. says:

      crescentdave, this is so clear and cogent. May I have your permission to reprint this communication in an online group? I would attribute it any way you like or leave it entirely anonymous. Whatever you prefer.

      • crescentdave says:

        Thanks for your kind words Frank. Just let me know what online group you’re referring to and I’ll give you an answer. I’m sure it won’t be a problem. Thanks again. Dave

    • Frank M. says:


      Thank you. The group is called AA Atheists and Agnostics (AAAA) and it’s on Google.

  8. Dave W. says:

    I personally believe that AA IS a Religion… just a very tolerant and inclusive one.

  9. Joe C says:

    John K, quoted at the start of this blog-post gave an address November 2003 at GSO called, “Our Vision for A.A.’s Future.”

    John K cautions against running to the conference to solve local quarrels or enforce traditions. The group (each of our groups) is at the top of the AA Service Structure (inverted triangle). The General Service Conference is at the bottom. Our group(s) can produce, read or distribute whatever literature or readings we desire. No decree from the General Service Conference would have any authority over any AA group or member.

    Any idea about rules of conduct about how AAs treat each other shows a subtle misunderstanding of our unusual structure as a society. Yes it’s true that agnostic and atheists are the only minority in AA that doesn’t have a pamphlet devoted to us. I, too would like to see one. Yes, it’s healthy to engage with each other and AA as a whole. Getting active in our district and area is as important as showing up at our home group on time and/or going to our business meeting. Sharing our experience (more so than opinions) with Grapevine will give the editor a wider selection of stories to choose from each month; they can’t print what we don’t have. Reading our literature, our history and Service Manual is good citizenry.

    I think having our own AA Conference for freethinkers and agnostics is a grand idea. I can’t wait to go. It’s great that we can start a meeting and decide the format or start a conference and we need no one’s permission. We are simply asked to consider our Twelve Traditions and in so doing, respect our fellow AAs. Writing to GSO and our DCMs and Delegates is a good way for them to know how we feel. At the end of the day, a face-to-face or online AA group is the highest authority in the AA-land. The support we need the most is staring us right in the face, at our own AA group.

    • Jaye says:

      Wow, you really embodied the message of “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Joe. Or, as they say in Al-Anon, “Let it begin with me.” Thanks for this, Joe.

  10. Duncan says:

    I think it is fair to say that there are more open atheists and agnostics in the UK per head of population than there are in North America. Figures vary but they seem to average around 40% of our population. There is little stigma about being an atheist or agnostic in the UK. Attendances at churches bear this out and but for Polish immigration which has led to more practicing Catholics than before I would say this trend still points to less religion than in previous years.

    Why then do we have the same problem as you do in North America? OK perhaps not to the same extent but the fact is AA is not changing with time. Since 1978 I have traveled widely in the UK attending meetings no matter where I was. Some of these meetings were godly, others overtly christian but most were ok. However few of them matched the population as a whole.

    It seems to me that many in the UK who are members just go along with the flow and are not honest or it could it be that they feel intimidated. It could be that AA is seen in UK as godly and only the worst of non-christian alcoholics stay within its bounderies and get out of it once sober. One thing is certain in that to be an atheist within AA you are seen as an oddball and that has to stop.

    I don’t think this problems will be resolved by a pamphlet but more with bringing the Big Book etc up to date. – Duncan

  11. Margaret B. says:

    First, I just want to say that I am of the view that AA is a religious fellowship that encourages the practice of spiritual principles. All these years many of us have wanted this pamphlet but I’m not so sure it’s a good idea after all. To say that AA is “spiritual not religious” is just simply not true. Why would we want AA to publish a pamphlet encouraging this false statement; this dishonesty? All this would do is reiterate that AA continues to lie about the fact that the program is in fact faith-based! AA is a religious fellowship that tries to promote the practice of spiritual principles. That’s all… no more, no less.
    (For what it’s worth: I am an individual that does not believe in any supernatural entities, deities, or a universal creator. As such, I do not consider myself a “member” of AA; I am a sober guest.)

    • life-j says:

      Actually we “have not wanted this for many years”, and this spiritual not religious pamphlet actually was a deviation from the original pamphlet we tried to get, which was simply a pamphlet that acknowledged that agnostics and atheists can stay sober in AA too, but that did not sit well with the god people, because bill wilson clearly says that you need god to stay sober or else, if you don’t it must be because you’re not a “real” alcoholic, because real alcoholics do.
      So they watered down the original this-time-around initiative to the spirituality pamphlet which is supposed to also contain agnostic and atheist stories.
      But no, we want something just to recognize US, and we aren’t getting it, so instead we’re getting it here.

    • George S says:

      Thanks for your comment Margaret. I’m extremely grateful to this site for giving me the opportunity to communicate with others who stay sober with the help of AA, but do not believe that a god keeps them sober. It appears we have much common ground, but differ in that I do consider myself a member of AA. Since “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking” I qualify! Though I use much of what Bill Wilson’s early writings suggest, I do not buy all the religion I see in AA and thus far the “AA Police” have not revoked my membership, in spite of the fact that I speak openly about being an atheist. I hope you will consider being a member of AA. It seems there are many of us who take what we need and leave the rest.

      • Duncan says:

        Hi George, Lets forget about the God bit for a moment and consider what it says in the Big Book. I think it says something like “We are all average Americans.”

        I am not and nor is about half the membership of AA. I’m Scottish.

        The Big Book needs re-writing – Duncan

        • Roger says:

          Or we need to remember that the Big Book was written in 1939 by a fellow living in New York. It is what it was. I don’t feel any particular need to rewrite anything: it is a kind of journal of what Bill and a few other men thought way back when. So be it. The Big Book as written neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg, to quote Thomas Jefferson somewhat out of context.

      • Duncan says:

        Yes Roger that is agreed. However when we see the Big Book and the 12 Steps being taken as “The Word” from God etc etc. then you have to think differently. Of course keep the words etc as an historical document.

        However the message must change with time or we promote the idea that Bill W is a saint. What will happen in another 20 or 50 years. – Duncan

      • George S says:

        Duncan, I think Roger noting that the Big Book was written in 1939 is a key factor. Much has changed in AA and elsewhere since 1939. I feel the same about the 12 & 12. I think Bill and Bob and the many others who pulled AA together in those early years would be most pleased to see how the fellowship has grown and spread around the world.

      • Tommy H says:

        I believe A.A. has considered the U.S. and Canada as one from the start.

      • Tommy H says:

        “Yes Roger that is agreed. However when we see the Big Book and the 12 Steps being taken as “The Word” from God etc etc. then you have to think differently. Of course keep the words etc as an historical document.

        “However the message must change with time or we promote the idea that Bill W is a saint. What will happen in another 20 or 50 years.” – Duncan

        Is it not proper to ask where they get the idea that the Big Book is “The Word”? The literature does not make that claim.

  12. boyd says:

    The prospect of a “higher power” being unknown is fundamental to my humility. The more I learn the more I learn how little I know. The journey is what’s important. And when brutal honesty strikes, I hope I am ready.

    • Frank M. says:

      To posit the existence of something for which I have no clear supporting evidence which cannot be explained better in naturalistic terms, and then to act as if what I imagined were hard fact and encourage others to do the same–that for me personally is not humility, but its exact opposite.

      I often hear theists say that God is incomprehensible, undefinable, ineffable–that whatever idea they might use to try and describe God would in some way be wrong. It occurred to me they were just saying that when they spoke of God they literally did not know what they were talking about. I decided to take them at their word and weigh their opinions appropriately.

      If the God metaphor informs your understanding of the universe and your place in it and lights a path for you where life flows well, I am happy for you. That’s what metaphors are for. But let’s not pretend there’s anything specially virtuous about having vague ideas and then use that to cover up the logical flaws in our theologically oriented theories of recovery.

      That God created alcoholism by making some of us bodily different from our fellows, and that He then waited through eons of human suffering to offer a partial reprieve for just the mental aspect of the disease (and only if we took strenuous action ourselves as well)–this is patently absurd. No amount of hand waiving about the mysterious nature of God improves that theory.

  13. Jim says:

    I was going through The Doctor’s Opinion with a sponsee when he stated that the reason he asked me to sponsor him was because he likes my spirituality and because I am an atheist. He stated that he doesn’t want someone who is just going to reiterate what he already believes. He wants to consider other options for a higher power. AAs in my area are generally not put off by my atheism because I tend to emphasize the need for a higher power, any higher power. Time and again I’ve heard people refer to prayer as talking to “god” and meditation as listening. Every time I talk to another alcoholic, it’s my prayer. Every time I listen, it’s meditation. I meditate more than pray.
    But, frankly, I do get burned out on “everything god” meetings. Everyone has their own journey, but when someone tells me my journey will result in hell, I pounce. And pouncing is not spiritual. My sponsor tells me that AA is all inclusive. But it really isn’t when other AAs tell me we have to find the god that the Big Book pushes people towards. And that’s enough reason to have a pamphlet address this issue.

    • Duncan says:

      Hi Jim, Glad to hear that your way works for you but I tend to think that it is just playing into the hands of those we oppose.

      You say you are an atheist but you cannot pray by just talking to another alcoholic. It is these plays on words that make the Big Book nonsense. To pray to a HP means that you expect an answer or sign from a supernatural god of some description. This is to guide you on life. Atheists don’t have Gods.

      Same with meditation. I can meditate but it takes a lot of practice to do well at it. It is certainly not listening and in fact it can be the opposite with practices such as self hypnosis or yoga.

      Come out of the closet Jim. – Duncan

      • Michael says:

        I disagree, it’s ‘this play on words’ that can make AA work for just about anyone. An atheist has every right to use the word ‘prayer’ however they choose, just as an atheist has every right to reject the term and still be a contributing member of AA. We’re all entitled to our own interpretation of the steps, telling others what they should believe or how they should interpret these words is a fundamentalist point of view.

        • CrescentDave says:

          We’re all entitled to our own interpretation of the steps, telling others what they should believe or how they should interpret these words is a fundamentalist point of view.

          What we’re not all entitled to is giving our own definition of words from the language we’re using. According to the American Oxford dictionary, prayer is defined as

          A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.

          Now, I can make up my own definition, but I need to acknowledge I’ve “made it up.” It’s not the real definition. AA has a particularly difficult time-either by inaccuracy or dishonesty-in acknowledging it “makes up” the definitions of certain words it uses- among which are “god” and “religion.”

  14. Marilyn says:

    This morning, once again I had to listen to a speaker share the prayers she says every day…how she wants to show everyone god’s love…blah, blah, blah. Very self serving. Where’s the message in the Responsibility Statement? I never hear that.

  15. Mark C says:


    Thank you for another good conversation.

    There is a dire need for the organization as a whole to weigh in on the issue, and say point blank that Atheists and Agnostic in particular are not second-class members of AA. Wilson eventually came around to that point of view, but it took a long damned time.

    We’ve got a rack for pamphlets in our group. It appears they are hardly, if ever, read with much interest, or in a search for direction. That probably happens, but my guess is that is very, very seldom as a practical matter.

    I’d love to see a pamphlet that clears the matter up. I’ll not hold my breath. Why? As a practical matter most all decisions I’ve seen in AA are made upon the basis of a simple majority. In that context, we of the small, but quickly growing minority will be left in the lurch time, after time, after time. That seems to be the history of the efforts to address this issue. I have no good reason, as yet, to expect a different result in the short term. Perhaps I’ll be happily surprised.

    In the meantime, it is incumbent for those of us who find ourselves in a traditional AA meeting to speak openly, and honestly, as Atheists and or Agnostics.

    What I have found over time is those little, but sometimes costly, small ACTS of honesty tends to widen the gates for others who either do not believe, or are skeptical, or doubtful they will be able to get the religious gig of AA.

    Know what I mean?

  16. Brent P. says:

    The error we repeatedly make is having to decide whether AA works if we don’t believe in god. There’s a certain audacity to that question because, whether in an AA meeting, or any where else my beliefs are mine. Like, they’re none of your effin’ business. This is the problem that will grow greater and greater as time goes on. There’s a presumption that we all have faith in a higher power that smacks pretty heavily of the god of the bible. Well that is a contradiction of the statement that we can choose a higher power that suits our beliefs (if we have any). If our beliefs resemble anything sectarian, well we know where those folks meet and we can go there to satisfy that need at any given point in our recovery. I’ve know people who found a god like deity after having been in AA awhile and I’ve known others who discarded what they described as a childish faith in Santa Claus for adults. I don’t think this question is easily resolved whether devoted adherent or capricious dilettante. So why, why, why the insistence that on one hand we arrive at our own conclusion, and the other, we accept the most pedantic Judeo/Christian construct? AA is talking out of two sides of its mouth.
    I get it. When this whole thing started back in the thirties, America was a primarily Christian country despite the constitutional right to believe in what ever the hell it is we want to believe in.
    The assumption that I believe in god and depend on god to stay sober is bull shit. In fact I believe god has sweet dick to do with whether I stay sober. But that is not meant as an assault on your beliefs. If god is keeping you sober I say congratulations. And I would urge you to continue to practice whatever it is you practice because it is keeping you sober. But until I ask you what’s working for you I would ask to be shown the same respect. In my appreciating that the AA program has done so much to help me stay sober, don’t push it and insist that I accept that god is the variable that can’t be argued for or against.

  17. Jeff B says:

    “The word is not the thing” … God is nothing more or less than a word … to reduce myself to a label “believer”, “non-believer”, “atheist” “agnostic” or whatever is nothing short of psychological violence that creates division and conflict. If the “self” the “me” the “I” is nothing more or less than words and images put together by the “power” of thought, then it stands to reason that “God”, “Love” “Truth” or whatever you want to call it, is a “power” beyond the scope of words beyond human measurement…. what I found as a result of the 12 step process was a way to put thinking in it’s place, to “uncover, discover and discard” all of the conclusions, beliefs and prejudices that blocked me from moving beyond the power of thought/self and in that “silence” when the mind was quiet I sensed that “power” that is beyond the scope of words to describe … “labels” are violence and violence is conflict, as this post aptly represent…. it is collective consciousness folks to label myself something separate renders me useless and incapable of seeing or learning anything new …

    • steve b says:

      I don’t completely understand what you are trying to say.

      • Roger says:

        I agree. I was thinking Jeff might be, say, male, but I fear that might be nothing more than a “collective consciousness” label, rendering us all “useless and incapable of seeing or learning anything new…” Got to avoid that.

      • realneal says:

        Roger, one of these days I am going to scold you for beings so “clever” but not just yet. Be nice 🙂

      • Mark C says:

        Ha! And I was about to ask if a conversation about the mystification of the English language was in order. Roger beat me to it. 🙂

    • Eric T says:

      I’m with Jeff on this one. Labels suck.

    • Tommy H says:

      I’m reading Alan Watts now and he says “Words are smoke.” Perhaps that is what Jeff is working at.

      Then there are the folks who mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. Thumpers and bleeding deacons would be included here.

      • Stephanie says:

        Indeed. Those folks look at “How It Works” and make the mistake of believing they know “Why It Works.” Mind, this is also an argument for greater specificity in language, not less.

    • Frank M. says:

      “God” is a word and words are metaphors. Do not underestimate the immense power of a metaphor. To say that “God” is no more or less than a word is probably intended to say that “God” can mean most anything of a vaguely ethical or spiritual or metaphysical nature.

      It can’t and it doesn’t.

      The meaning of a word is its use in the language. Look at how the word “God” is used in everyday speech, what it is meant to convey, and you’ll see something a LOT more specific than “love,” “truth,” or “power.”

      The problem with the use of the word “God” in AA is that it implies a clear theology where we have no business doing so. The problem isn’t that it’s non-specific, the problem is that it’s too damn specific. Even the term “God as you understand Him” goes way too far. And in context it clearly means something like– “There is a God and you can approach Him with your best understanding.”

      We’re looking for nothing more than accessible sources of strength, inspiration, and good direction in AA, on the theory that following them leads to a life well lived. And that a life well lived is a life one doesn’t need to run away from into a bottle. Saying anything more than that is not being inclusive enough. Heck, maybe even that is too much.

    • Nela U says:

      So be careful with words. I like to think, yeah, the same words that hurt can heal. It’s a matter of how you pick them.
      – George Carlin

  18. steve b says:

    I doubt whether a pamphlet will lead to much greater acceptance of nonbelievers in AA. To me, the most important part of AA is the fact that members share their experience, strength and hope, and I strongly suspect that the 12 steps are just so much window-dressing. I much preferred attending SOS meetings, but SOS died out in my area, and I don’t think there’s a single one in Illinois. So I attend AA meetings with mixed feelings. There’s some good, but most of the meetings are so shot through with religious nonsense, that I often wonder if I should just quit going altogether.

    • Linda J. says:

      My sponsor suggested to me, and I suggest to those I sponsor, “If you don’t hear what you want to hear in an AA meeting, share what you want to hear.”

      I have started sharing that I am a freethinker, atheist, nonbeliever or whatever works now and then in my sharing and, although there is some blow back from some, there is also relief from others that everyone is welcome and can stay sober for a long time.

      It took me a long time to “come out of the closet” because I didn’t like the blow back, the looks, and the “advice”… but a lesbian friend of mine told me I didn’t have the right to keep it to myself… too many people’s lives depend on honesty, willingness and open mindedness.

      • Jennie K says:

        Linda, I am starting to feel the same about sharing your own truth, like you’ve mentioned. I’ve debated whether to stay with AA the past 11.5 months I’ve gotten sober. I’m starting to think it’s imperative that agnostics and atheists go into meetings and stand true to their viewpoints/beliefs. I want the benefit of the 12 Step process, so why should I run?

      • Mark C (MarkInTexas) says:

        I’m with you guys. My short experience of 4 years, 3 months, and 16 days, (whose counting? ha) is my open and honest admission that I am an atheist, and that I find many very useful things in AA, has allowed several others to say something like, “Hey, if a freaking atheist can find help here, maybe I can too!” I know of several who are still hanging in there because the gates are being slowly widened.

        In my case, my open honest admission was met with hostility, and many other negative things, BUT OVER TIME, a tolerance has grown. I’m glad I didn’t just give up and throw in the towel .


    • Shannon W. says:

      Please, what is an SOS meeting. I have been wracking my brain trying to come up with something. But, well, you know how our thinking can be sometimes. lol Thanks

  19. Dave says:

    If asked and I occasionally am, what I’m silently saying during the Lord’s Prayer, I tell the truth. I’m either trying to get through the seven dwarf’s names, states that start with M or checking to see if your shoes are cooler than mine. I’ve done forty years without a drink or a plastic Jesus on my dash but if someone needs that.. Fine. Want to see a sober look on a bible banger’s face? Suggest a closed ballot vote on reciting the Lord’s Prayer at his group. Not a show of hands. He will change the subject faster than Henry got rid of Anne. Anyway glad this site is here….keep up the good work…common sense always prevails…eventually.

  20. Todd S. says:

    Chapter 4 “We Agnostics” is so condescending and off-putting for an atheist such as I. I shared at length about it on my one year anniversary this past January. I even balk at the word “spiritual” b/c I just don’t believe in ghosts. I do believe that a thing is “supernatural” until we have a decent understanding of it and then it simply becomes “natural.” My higher power consists of the principles embodied in the 12 steps – which I feel are timeless and can be found in other traditions – and which are operational whether I believe in them or not (like gravity or other physical laws). I say the Lord’s prayer after meetings b/c I have deep need to belong and generally don’t mind holding hands in a circle and chanting. I feel that daily prayer orients me in the right direction and reminds me to let go of things I cannot control and focus on living sober a day at time. I also find that it does not matter who or what I pray to – as long as I’m sincere (i.e. not mocking- which is a challenge for me).

    • Linda J. says:

      I agree wholeheartedly that the chapter to the Agnostics is a conversion chapter…certainly meant (IMO) to assure us all that we will “come around” some day. Ick.

      I tried for 10 years to “find god” basically for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want Dr. Bob feeling sorry for me and 2. Bill said the idea of god was deep inside every alcoholic. I wanted to stay sober more than anything and I had to do everything I possibly could to do so….even seek god.

      I finally gave up and realized that god is not where I can find him, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, or any other way. I never spent that much time trying to find the real Easter Bunny or Santa Claus, but I think I would come to the same conclusion. If he’s there, he isn’t where I can find him…and I’m fine with that.

  21. Linda J. says:

    This is the first time I have weighed in on this conversation (or any conversations on this site).

    I am an atheist. I have apparently had a spiritual experience sufficient to keep me sober for 34 years. I have served in General Service for 32 years and was a Panel 60 conference delegate.

    I, too, would like to see the doors of AA open wider to the non-monotheistic alcoholic and support efforts to do so.

    I am, however, concerned that an attitude of outrage, hostility, and insult will not make inroads into this critical issue.

    I am also concerned that misinformation about how the general service conference functions, and other minor and some major factual mistakes lead folks who may be part of the solution to believe that there is some sort of conspiracy against opening our doors to a wider constituency.

    Just a few observations:

    1. The pamphlet under consideration (and it is still under consideration) was not meant to be, nor is it, a pamphlet for “atheists and agnostics.” The original proposal was for the Trustees’ Literature Committee to “develop literature which focuses on spirituality that includes stories from atheists and agnostics who are sober in Alcoholics Anonymous.” In 2011 the introduction to the pamphlet was reviewed by the conference members and unanimously supported. The pamphlet has been reviewed by the conference literature committee and approved in its entirety in 2013 with the exception of the title. The only reason it was sent back to the Trustees’ Literature Committee was the title. The pamphlet, presumably with a different title, will be under consideration by the Conference Literature Committee this year and, I expect, will come to the conference floor for confirmation.

    I am not saying that this has not taken too long, and, yes, it has been considered and remained unattended to for far too long. It is difficult (not impossible) to find stories of successfully sober alcoholics who are atheists and agnostics in our AA literature, but it takes concentrated effort and a lot of post-it notes to mark the pages in a variety of books and pamphlets.

    The General Service Conference, just for rigorous accuracy, will be held in Rye, New York this year, not NYC.

    It was a profound and extreme privilege to be able to serve as a conference member for two years. The conference, which is an advisory body to the trustees, is comprised (in my opinion) of an amazingly accurate cross-section of what I believe our AA population is across the U.S. and Canada. Every delegate I know, past and present, has had the health and effectiveness of AA at the heart of their votes and arguments. I certainly don’t agree with everyone’s approach to what will ultimately be best for AA’s future and strength, but I believe that there is no body of people who care more about it than this one, year after year.

    There seemed to be an inference that because a long-timer GSR made a proposal and it was not acted upon at the conference, that there was some sort of resistance, perhaps even inappropriate resistance to a reasonable request. It is my opinion and observation that the trustees take almost all proposals very seriously and discuss at great length which things they will put on the agenda for the conference to consider and advise them upon. I was privileged to be a conference committee chair and therefore was able to attend and observe the January AAWS board meeting and some of the trustees’ committee meetings in 2011. The alcoholic and non-alcoholic trustees of A.A. (who have the legal authority and responsibility for the well being of the corporation) are also people from various parts of the country and various minds concerning what is best for AA.

    My husband was a Panel 42 (1992) conference delegate, later a non-trustee director and later still, a regional trustee. I have been privileged to know many, many trustees and delegates over the years and, if there is some sort of conspiracy, I have never seen even a hint of it.

    And finally, at least for today, about using different Steps in AA meetings: I very much like some (many) of the non-god versions of the steps that have been suggested and are being used in some freethinker and other non-god meetings. They work well for me and I know they work well for many others.

    The attitude that somehow we are being punished because GSO (and/or the conference) is not willing to recognize the use of these versions of the steps in A.A. groups is, I think, misguided and misinformed.

    I don’t understand why we would expect to be exceptions to the long-standing policy that groups that want to use other versions of the steps do not qualify as A.A. groups. It seems obvious to me that if that were to be changed and A.A. started recognizing anyone’s version of the steps they wished to use in A.A. meetings that we would soon be unrecognizable as A.A. at all. How would a newcomer know whether the Monday night group who uses Jesus in place of God in the steps, or the Tuesday night meeting who uses Higher Power instead of God, or the Wednesday night meeting who uses Goddess instead of God or the Thursday night meeting that uses Spirit of the Universe instead of God…how will he or she not be confused?

    Yes, we who do not believe in God (or god) have a challenge ahead of us. I want to find a way to open those doors wide and welcome.

    I do not want newcomers, no matter what their beliefs or non-beliefs, to be confronted with hateful, angry, insulting conflicts about who is out to get whom. I want all alcoholics to have the opportunity to get and stay sober. AA is one way that seems to work for some of us…whether we believe in god or not.

    I would like to see us model constructive, loving, and intelligent discussion…let’s not become Rational Recovery, which seemed, at least for a long time, to survive on hate, anger, and condemnation…just what we can’t abide if we are to stay sober.

    Well, I jumped in… bet you have something to say.


    • JHG says:

      I appreciate the richly informative content in your comment, but I fail to see how lecturing people about “outrage, hostility, and insult” will contribute to the kind of solution you say you are for. It is through empathy rather than condemnation and condescension that we will find common ground and healing of the deep pain that grows out of real experiences of conflict and persecution — not infrequently involving life-and-death stakes.

      • Linda J. says:

        Thanks for the comment, JHG. I am sorry that I came across as lecturing…I can see that and it wasn’t my intention at all. I am concerned that sometimes we are modeling exactly what we are trying to address…I think how we do things is much more important than what we do…just my opinion.

      • Eric T says:

        I too am concerned with – and dislike – attitudes of outrage, hostility, and insult. My hope is that I can move away from those behaviours I was so good at in my drinking days. Practicing persistent kindness during a growth process isn’t something I’m good at yet, but I do aspire towards it, one day at a time.

      • Duncan says:

        Hi Linda , I quote you:

        I don’t understand why we would expect to be exceptions to the long-standing policy that groups that want to use other versions of the steps do not qualify as A.A. groups. It seems obvious to me that if that were to be changed and A.A. started recognizing anyone’s version of the steps they wished to use in A.A. meetings that we would soon be unrecognizable as A.A. at all.

        The only problem to that Linda is that they are SUGGESTED steps. Seems to me you can use any Step that a Group wants to use. Duncan

    • Roger says:

      Linda, first thank you for your remarks.

      I certainly don’t have a problem with multiple interpretations of the Steps. If we can talk about God “as we understood Him,” then that to me makes the door wide open. And I think it was meant to do just that. Having one set of Steps – featuring an interventionist and monotheistic deity – to me is actually harmful. It leads to people saying stuff like “If you don’t find God, you will die a drunk.” I’ve heard that in the rooms, and it is downright harmful.

      I would enjoy different versions of the Steps in the rooms of AA. That would, for one thing, acknowledge that there are many paths to recovery and these are often of necessity personalized. Indeed, having only one version makes me think of going into a restaurant where there is only one meal, say potatoes and pork chops. Better to have a variety of dishes to suit a variety of needs, of hungers, of tastes. This fear of multiple versions of the Steps is highly exaggerated and rather over-dramatized, in my mind.

      One final thing, Linda. Nobody is trying to change the original Steps. Consistent with the principles articulated by Bill W., agnostic and atheist individuals and groups in Alcoholics Anonymous often create their own alternative 12 Steps, replacing religious words like “God,” “Him” and “Power” (all capitalized in the original Steps) with secular alternatives. God as we understood him, you know. These alternatives are not meant to replace the 12 Steps but are solely for the use of individuals and groups who may find them helpful.

      That’s very liberating. And you know what: an important part of recovery for me is that awesome sense of liberation. Now wouldn’t that feeling be a wonderful part of being in the rooms of AA, rather than, far too often, feeling the exact opposite, like I am being bound and shackled by someone else’s vision of what my recovery should look like?

      • Linda J. says:

        Thanks for your remarks, Roger.

        Maybe it’s time to start the conversation to actually consider changing the steps to a more generic set. Yes, I know what it takes to change the steps, but just because it’s cumbersome, doesn’t mean it can’t be considered.

        Personally, I still like the idea of having the same basic foundation (in the form of the steps) for everyone to start with. Just my opinion (for today)….could easily change tomorrow.


    • realneal says:

      Linda, thank you so much for clearing this up for me. I had not really been able to find out anything about why the pamphlet was rejected other than the person from our area was one of the ones who voted to reject it.

    • bob_mc says:

      Linda I find that the BB is prejudiced against agnostics/atheists. It is set to convert doubters to the God of the bible. Agnostics and atheists that find an awakening without reliance on this god fall through the cracks. Main stream AA would rather ignore us than accept us. However our lives depend on AA, and, we are not going away. The surface waves of prejudice in AA is the “you must find god or you will get drunk” crowd. But, the main body of the swell carries the wave. This swell consists of tacit approval of interpretations and actions, allowing the behaviour; quite often blaming the victim when provoked. I do not know you, so I ask – as an atheist are you prejudiced against atheists?

      • Linda J. says:

        To Bob Mc: Good question. One I have never thought to ask of myself. Am I prejudiced against atheists? I am a Caucasian woman, 76 years old… I wonder if I am prejudiced against old white women. I have never thought to ask. I will certainly give it some thought. My immediate response is that I don’t think I am and can’t quite understand the relevance of the question.

        I, too, am concerned about the tone of the BB and also believe that I understand that after Bill W.’s (belladonna induced??) white light experience and considerable input from Father Dowling and Sam Shoemaker that it appears that he thought the best way to utilize the experiences (his and Ebby’s, particularly) was to couch it in a semi-religious approach. He was also, I think, influenced by his early reading of James’ Varieties of Religious Experience and thought it was a scholarly (plus plausible) explanation for his own experience. Dr. Bob and Anne, with their Christian slant, plus the effectiveness (albeit somewhat authoritarian approach) of the Oxford Group, I think the BB is pretty tame on the religious front, for the time and perspective of its author.

        It has been discussed frequently at the conference and in many other rooms that the BB should be “updated”. The dilemma has always been, where do you begin and to whom do you entrust the task. I can assure you that the way I would like to see the BB rewritten would be absolutely unacceptable to many… and the way some others would like to see it changed would be absolutely unacceptable to me and perhaps to you. Where to begin, that is the question in my mind.

        Thank you for the question of whether I am prejudiced against atheists. I will certainly give it some thought.

        • JHG says:

          While we can wish for a revision of the BB that would not only be less condescending toward atheists and agnostics but also would generally feel more in tune with contemporary multicultural realities, I think we all know that is going nowhere. The first 164 pages of the BB is held to be sacred by a very vociferous and aggressive group within AA. Let’s let them keep their historical document. It is not without value even in its present form. But we also need additional literature that models a mainstream willingness to carry the message to alcoholics who are currently falling through the cracks. That literature needs to unite (Tradition 1), include (Tradition 3), empower (Traditions 2 & 4), connect (Tradition 5), and attract (Tradition 11).

    • Peter Y says:

      Hi Linda,

      I thoroughly enjoyed reading all your comments, very insightful. I have one question for you. The past delegate in my area told me that the pamphlet was not approved at the time because it only contained two or so atheist stories. He said the rest were stories of people who, before coming to AA, thought god was the mean and jealous god of the bible… And then they came to believe… We’ve all heard that one.

      So why is there any confusion on why the pamphlet was not accepted?

      • Linda Jones says:

        Hi, Peter. When I was at the Conference and the pamphlet (or “piece of literature” as it was referred to then) was being considered, we were able to read only the introduction. What panel delegate are you talking to? Did he (she?) have a chance to read the stories in the proposed pamphlet? Usually only the Conference Literature Committee is able to actually read the stories and then make a recommendation to the conference; the other conference members are not given the opportunity to read and evaluate the stories…but that may have been different in this case.

        My understanding from our Panel 62 delegate was that the conference was in favor of voting favorably for the pamphlet itself in 2013 but sent it back for re-titling after extended discussion about the proposed title.

        As I wasn’t there and my delegate was not on the Literature Committee, I don’t know how it all went at the 2013 conference.

        In my observation over the years, it is true that “it is no accident” that we don’t have more (or any) specific literature geared to atheists/freethinkers/agnostics/etc. There are certainly many, many members of AA who believe that their higher power in one form or another is responsible for keeping them sober and that is certainly the perspective of the Big Book and much of our literature.

        I want, as I have said often in and out of meetings, that I want the “hand of AA” to be available to every alcoholic who wants to take it and that the doors should be so wide open that anyone with any or no belief in a power other than themselves should be able to walk through and feel welcome and as comfortable as a newcomer can feel (which, I believe, is seldom very comfortable no matter how loving and open and welcoming we may be!).

        Throwing sticks and stones at the BB for being written the way it is, at the beliefs of others who use the AA literature to bolster their positions, at an (imaginary?) widespread movement who are determined to keep out the non-believer is, in my opinion, unhelpful at best and perhaps regressive at worst.

        Sorry, Peter…got off track a bit.

    • Peter y says:

      RE: Linda,

      I spoke with Percy, a panel 63 delegate, in the Fall of 2013. He had read the proposed “piece of literature”. I recall he said it was 22 pages long. Two stories were of atheists or agnostics. He seemed very interested in their stories, one author spoke of an “inner power” instead of a higher power.

      Percy was direct with me. He said that the pamphlet was not approved because it failed to meet the criteria for which it was created. The stories were not diverse enough. Atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, etc. were not given a wide enough representation. He mentioned nothing about a title.

      I left that conversation full of hope – imagine, a pamphlet full of atheist stories, and in my lifetime!

      Does my account of this situation sound plausible to you? What do you think atheists in AA should be doing at this point before the conference? Emailing every delegate?

    • Michael says:

      Thanks for your post. With your experience and clarity you should consider writing an article for AA Agnostica. I believe that hostility and finding ways to be victims of some imagined conspiracy will not help in working towards more inclusiveness of atheists and agnostics. It can have the opposite effect.

    • Michael says:


      On the issue of allowing edited versions of the steps in a group recognized by AA, consider the fact that fundamentalist Christians have their own interpretation of the steps with references to Jesus and their Bible. I am very glad that AA does not recognize these groups, with the growth of fundamentalism in the US, this inclusiveness could easily send AA on a destructive course. Urging people to interpret the steps however they choose and presenting someone’s interpretation as the AA twelve steps at a meeting are two very different things. I support atheist/agnostic meetings within the AA organization but I do not support a group re-writing the literature however they choose if they want to be recognized by AA.

      I also believe that atheists and agnostics should consider establishing their own organization outside of the rules of AA like so many groups have done before. Al-anon, OA, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.

      • CrescentDave says:

        We began a meeting entitled “Mindfulness,” some 11 months ago. We have a clarity statement:

        Clarity Statement:
        We believe AA is a spiritual, not a religious program. In terms of this particular meeting:
        “Spirituality is about the relationship we have with ourselves, the world around us, and finding meaning and purpose in our lives. Religion addresses these concepts, but also includes beliefs and practices involving a god or gods and supernatural or miraculous events.”

        We do not post the 12 steps or the 12 traditions as do the 7 other meetings within our group. We pass around a binder which contains copies of alternative versions of the steps (8 to be specific) and we encourage people to check them out. We open and close our meetings with a moment of quiet meditation.

        We strive to remain inclusive, while at the same time focusing on the principles underlying the formation of this meeting. It’s not easy, but so far, it’s possible. We’ve withstood two challenges at the business group level, a concerted flooding of our meeting by “concerned” Christians and the occasional, more personal challenge of having someone share a meeting on a clearly “religious” topic. So humor and forbearance helps … but even more so does the Clarity Statement.

        I think there’s room for us in AA.

  22. Mike S. says:

    At 22.5 years of sobriety I find myself without a homegroup and totally uninspired with the meetings I’ve been attending. Being a white male myself, I’m tired of the white christian male vibe of these meetings. I’m so tired of the hackneyed cliched god talk spouted by the men AND women. I crave diversity. Sadly, I’m not seeing it anywhere. As far as I can tell, from keeping up on the articles on this site, things do not look too good. I am the only AA agnostic/atheist that I know of in my area. It’s really hard for me to see any change around here, where it seems there are two churches on every block. So if those of you who live in more cosmopolitan regions are struggling, what does that say for the rest of us in more conservative places? Guess I need to face reality and will have to drive one hour and fifteen minutes to the nearest agnostic meeting. Just not getting what I need close to home.

    • JP says:

      Hi Mike, maybe you could start a meeting in your area?

      • Mike S. says:

        I’d love to!! Unfortunately, like I said, I’m a lone voice. I’ve submitted my name and contact info on this site a while back, hoping for some others in my area, but nothing as of yet. I’m keeping my eyes open for those who don’t recite the lord’s prayer as well. Hopefully, someday it will come together.

    • Irv says:

      I feel your pain, as I live in Memphis, Tn. Most meetings are fraught with God cliches and Bible references. Went to meeting on vacation in Pa., and did not experience the same, much more emphasis on higher power. This is also a dilemma for me staying an active member of AA, it is a challenge. The good outweighs the bad, lots of friends in the program and I have stayed sober. Your swimming up stream to change AA in the Bible, it is what it is. We can only be honest when asked and in sharing (although that seems to scare many of the members, they walk away in horror).

      • Mike S says:

        Thanks. I totally relate to not being sure about not wanting to stay in the fellowship anymore. My commitment to the prime importance of sobriety in my life keeps me maintaining contact with AA. I’ve gone through times like this before. In the 90s, there was a Rational Recovery meeting close by and I quit going to AA for awhile. Fortunately, I met the right people and found some decent meetings and got back into the program. Today, I have one really good friend in the fellowship, a handful of acquaintances and a couple of dull meetings. I believe it’s time to find something else, whatever that may be…as long as sobriety comes before anything.

  23. Ed S. says:

    Last weekend I discussed the 2013 pamphlet draft with a Delegate who was at the 2013 Conference. She said the pamphlet presented contained stories from various religions. That is not what we are looking for. I am not optimistic that an appropriate non religious pamphlet will ever be published. Considering that half of the American public still accepts creationism it is a very difficult road.

    • Tommy H says:

      Good point.

      Exactly what would this pamphlet have?

      Titles don’t guarantee content. The chapter We Agnostics is a case in point. It should have been titled You Agnostics.

      • realneal says:

        Ed, according to the bulletin I looked at just an hour or so ago, the rejected pamphlet had at least 2 stories from atheist/agnostic people. The rest were from people of various different beliefs.

        • Linda J. says:

          The pamphlet was not “rejected”. The conference sent it back to the Trustees’ committee for a new/different title.

          Where have you seen a copy of the pamphlet? I would love to see a copy.

      • Bob C. says:

        Actually, the chapter should have been titled “You Atheists.” “Agnostic” is used incorrectly throughout the chapter to refer to one who believes “God” does not exist. The modern online dictionary as well as my mom’s 1938 Funk and Wagnall’s define it as one who believes existence of a God can neither be proved nor disproved.
        Out of all the religious, legal and medical people they ran the manuscript by for proofreading, you’d think one of them would have pointed out that elementary fact. Maybe they did….?

  24. Shannon W. says:

    I am not agnostic or atheist. I do believe in a Power Greater than myself. However, I also do not consider myself religious. I believe that the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. And, that the discussion or pressuring of someone to conform to a set of beliefs goes against the traditions as I interpret them. I also think it harms the newcomer, by expressing religious terms in meetings. What I hear from ‘old timers’, is “just go to a different meeting, if you don’t like it. Cease fighting everything and everyone.” I live out in the sticks.There are very few meetings, unless I drive 2 hours back and forth. So, for now, I pray for those who are choosing to run the meetings the way they do. I just do not attend those meetings. I have no resentment any longer against religion, but hearing, “I was washed by the blood of the lamb”, in a meeting will not keep me sober. I had been washed by the blood of the lamb, that got me drunk. It is the 12 steps that gives me the tools that I need in order to stay sober. Thanks, for your site. Shannon

  25. Tommy H says:

    I don’t think it’s so much of a problem with getting nonbelievers to the Fellowship but a problem with keeping them. It took twenty years in the Rooms for me to hear the phrase “Washed with the blood of Jesus” in the rooms, but I hear it regularly but infrequently here in the BlueGrass. My response is to fight fire with fire, and being in my eighth decade of life and third decade of sobriety, I can get away with it.

    Herb Y’s thoughts resonate with me.

    The most important thing for me, the bottom line, is for me to stay sober. I’m a New England Yankee with a Vermont mother who moved to N. Louisiana in the 1940s, and was raised there, so I am accustomed to being in the minority. Aggravating the righteous is a supreme pleasure.

  26. Ernie Kurtz says:

    Question: Because so many more-or-less “red state” members hear bad things in the terms “atheist” and “agnostic,” I incline to suggest a publication aimed at “unconventional believers.” “Belief” is a positive word for most, and who are more unconventional than us alkies? I do believe (?!) that everyone believes something. Do you think this might fly?
    ernie k.

    • Frank M. says:

      As a more effective framing, the suggestion of “unconventional believers” surely has merit, Mr. Kurtz.

      We’re still left with the very high hurdle, though, of AA’s inherent theism. While James Burwell may have felt the term “God as I understand Him” could be synonymous with human goodness, and that “my own better self” was therefore still somewhat orthodox as a higher power, the big book thumpers today would hardly agree.

      AA has always tolerated non-believers, but it has been under the tradition that we accept members who don’t conform to our Program. In other words, we tolerate in AA those who are not “doing AA.”

      That’s the attitude that has to change. Anyone who is trying to find release from active alcoholism by ANY method is “doing AA” even if it’s not traditional AA. If this argument can fairly be made and if AA is willing to define itself as inclusive of all beliefs, not just all species of theistic belief, then perhaps a schism isn’t inevitable.

      Are we, as a Fellowship, willing to embrace the unconventional believers who are also non-theistic in those beliefs, and to say that though they adapt or even reject the AA Program they are fully AA? Are we willing to do that and not simply tolerate them? I must confess I have my doubts.

  27. George W says:

    Been in Central Florida AA for 23 years, and one as an outcast for a total of 24. I have been treated very badly by ODAT for a year. Became Agnostic/Athiest some year or 2 back. I am still sober; however, there are always geers when I try one more time to take in a f2f meeting at ODAT. ODAT does not seem to understand the impact of Tradition 3, or Jim Burwells story. New York needs to do more than publish a pamphlet! ODAT has a core that will ‘run off’ anyone who does not hold the BB as the ONLY source needed, and who is not in lock step with the Christian God. Some of the militancy can be attributed by the large numbers of Salvation Army visitors. They are Pure Christian recovery, and will get very angry if I say I have 24 years and do not believe there is a little man in the sky. Tell NY that if an alternative to AA pops up in Central Florida, I will take my 24 years and leave!

  28. realneal says:

    I have been sober a long time, but I have only gone to meetings off and on through it all. I was ready to drop out again and while I was looking at a bulletin board at one of the meeting places I go to, I noticed in the fine print about this pamphlet getting rejected and I was like WTF? I started doing some research and found this site and a bunch of others, so now I am here again at least for the time being. But Roger, you have kind of thrown me. You say that this pamphlet is “for atheists and agnostics.” I was under the impression that it was more geared to all non religious people and that it just had a viewpoint or 2 from agnostics, but I have never seen it so I don’t know. Either way, it needs to be available.

    • realneal says:

      Oh yeah, I just wanted to say that there were 5 people at my meeting this morning that did NOT say the LP, up from one (me) a couple of months ago. It was very noticeable and raised a few eyebrows. Progress not perfection 🙂

    • Roger says:

      A pamphlet for all non-religious folks would fit the bill, Neal. Mostly the talk over the last four decades has centered around agnostics and atheists but certainly the more inclusivity the better (as long as it isn’t a means of diluting the message, if you catch my drift).

  29. Thomas B. says:

    Ah yes, it seems so simple, Roger, so right, so appropriate, so apparent that it would be self-evident to produce a pamphlet geared towards the “many, many members” in the rooms of AA spread throughout the world, who hold other than mainstream Judeo-Christian religious views in our North American culture .

    Any yet, it hasn’t come to pass for some four decades.

    My friend Herb Y. illuminates a perhaps fatal flaw in the organizational structure of AA, the so-called inverted triangle of AA service. In over four decades of recovery, it’s my impression that only a small minority of AA member take part in the service structure of AA. Many groups don’t have a GSR or regular business meetings except to provide for local needs. Those groups who do have a GSR and hold regular business meeting are attended by a very small minority of the group membership. So does AA truly reflect the “group conscience” of its membership, or only those who self-select to become involved in service?

    The “benign anarchy” of AA as envisioned by Bill Wilson before he passed in 1971 may have been co-opted during the last 40 years by those who reflect only a narrow Judeo-Christian religious orientation, similar to the language of the Big Book, which is rooted in the evangelical and pietistic view of the Oxford Group from which AA originated in Akron in the 1930s, instead of a more inclusive and eclectic spiritual perspective that reflects the variety of spiritual experiences from the varied worldwide wisdom traditions.

    If the current trends continue than AA may very well devolve into two sects, one oriented toward a singularly Judeo-Christian point of view, and one of we WAFTS. I hope not, but it seems that there is a widespread movement to cull out, to cut off and deny, further to ostracize those of us in AA who eschew the mainstream Judeo-Christian perspective.

    Time as always shall tell as “more is revealed” . . .

  30. JHG says:

    Such a pamphlet would accomplish two things. First and most importantly, it would send a message to newcomers that they are welcome in AA and that there is a solution available to them. And second, it would represent AA as a whole going on record as actually supporting its own traditions in word and deed.

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