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.
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 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 easily 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. You can find your area website by clicking here, List of AA Area Websites, or by clicking on the image on the right. Find your area, click on the link, find your the email address for your area delegate, and send him or her an email. Simple as that.
And feel free to copy us at email@example.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.
Care and respect for all suffering alcoholics, regardless of belief, or lack thereof.