AA Agnostica and the Varieties of AA Experience
“AA Agnostica’s efforts to forge a secularized framework of recovery within AA thus has historic import.”
By Ernie Kurtz and William White
On June 15, 2014, AA Agnostica marked its third anniversary. As historians dedicated to documenting the growing varieties of addiction recovery experience, it is fitting that we take a moment to acknowledge this milestone within the history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the larger history of recovery.
A.A. and other Twelve Step organizations exist today within a growing variety of spiritual, religious, and secular addiction recovery mutual aid organizations (MAOs). Secular MAOs include Women for Sobriety, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, SMART Recovery, and LifeRing Secular Recovery. Religious MAOs include Alcoholics Victorious, Celebrate Recovery, J.A.C.S., and Millati Islami.
Strains related to questions of religious belief, or the lack of such belief, are deeply rooted in the history of A.A., and those strains have recently heightened. While “spiritual but not religious” is a common self-descriptor of A.A., the degree of overt religiosity found within A.A. meetings varies considerably by country, region, city, and from group to group. There have been efforts by some within A.A. to Christianize A.A. history and practice, and there have been simultaneous efforts to forge more tolerant space for agnostics and atheists within AA. Each trend has been sometimes castigated by alarmists as a sign of the corruption and impending downfall of AA.
From the perspective of its history, we view such diversification within AA as an inevitable process of adaptation to the increasingly diverse religious and cultural contexts inherent in the fellowship’s worldwide growth. It also reflects adjustment to the realities of religious diversification and secularization in the United States. The future growth and vibrancy of A.A. may well hinge on these adaptive capacities. It remains to be seen whether such developments will nurture and celebrate the growing diversity within AA, or whether AA boundaries will be reactively tightened, likely triggering group schisms, member attrition, and flight to existing or new secular and religious alternatives. AA Agnostica’s efforts to forge a secularized framework of recovery within AA thus has historic import.
At issue for many is AA’s “canonical” literature, the books authored by co-founder William Griffith Wilson, which remain unedited since their composition. As is true of all literature, these reflect the era of their writing — the late 1930s for Alcoholics Anonymous, the early 1950s for Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. For diverse reasons – the economic crisis of the Great Depression, the triumphal outcome of World War II muted by awareness of the awesome power of the atomic bomb and fears of “godless atheistic communism” – the era was marked in the United States by large public expressions of religious belief and practice. Unsurprisingly, then, that vocabulary permeates the AA “Big Book” and the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
But the context within which A.A. exists has changed and is changing, both in the U.S. and the world as a whole. A 2010 Pew Research Center report of more than 200 countries estimates that only 31.5% of world citizens are even nominally Christian in their religious orientation. The 2010 U.S. census reports a 23% growth in the U.S. population between 1990 and 2008, but a 42% increase in the number of U.S. adults reporting no religious affiliation. The Pew Research report notes that one-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated.
Aware of these realities, we take occasion on this third birthday of AA Agnostica to encourage all – AA enthusiasts, AA critics, addiction professionals, and persons exploring alternative recovery support options – to investigate this relatively new grouping of A.A. members.
AA Agnostica has helpfully produced its own literature. Among those resources is an informative History of Agnostic Groups in AA. Also helpful, AA Agnostica has recently published Don’t Tell: Stories and Essays by Agnostic and Atheists in AA, an informative window into the experience of atheists, agnostics, secular humanists, and freethinkers using AA as a program of recovery from alcoholism. Also, the AA Agnostica website contains more than 160 posted blogs as well as a sampling of Alternative Twelve Steps adapted for use by those seeking a non-theistic framework of addiction recovery. A more complete exploration may be found in The Little Book, also obtainable from the website.
Because of AA’s bottom-up organization, there is unlikely to be “an institutional response” to AA Agnostica. For such responses, it is equally useless to wait on “AA – G.S.O.” or “AA – the groups.” New York, from experience, says little if anything. And A.A. groups, as such, have no platform. But there are intermediate bodies such as Central Service Offices, and it has been at this level that A.A.’s agnostic, atheistic, and freethinking members find themselves let down, at least in some places. Yet these offices supposedly represent and reflect the opinions of the groups they serve. If AA Agnostica’s adherents are to become comfortable as “just plain AA members,” it is at this level that they must be welcomed as equal, full members.
Whether and how this happens will shape the future of AA and other recovery-focused MAOs. The open acceptance of non-theists within the umbrella of A.A. and tolerance of adaptations of AA program practices to accommodate such members will likely also assist the wider international as well as national growth of AA.
It is true that any perception that AA is being secularized could provoke schisms that might push the more radical Christian wing within AA into alternative groups such as Alcoholics Victorious, Celebrate Recovery, or into their own reform efforts similar to the recent Back to Basics movement within AA. It is equally true that the failure to make such adaptations might drive others away from all expressions of spirituality.
The ongoing evolution of AA’s story – its history – suggests that the fellowship will meet this challenge by finding ways to adapt to both religious renewal movements and cultural trends toward secularization without losing its essential character.
But “suggest” is all that history can do. The fundamental question for the future of Alcoholics Anonymous – which necessarily includes the present – is whether its Tradition that having “a desire to stop drinking” remains “the only requirement for A.A. membership” OR if membership becomes reserved exclusively for those who adhere to a verbatim interpretation of the Twelve Steps as they were written in 1939.
In short, will AA be able to find ways to embrace more “varieties” – or not?
Other related resources of interest include:
A sheet descriptive of Chicago-area “Quad-A” groups (Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics), which date from 1975, may be found at Quad A.
A Directory of – AgnosticAANYC – of AA Agnostic Meetings.
Information on the We Agnostics and Freethinkers 2014 International AA Convention.
This article was originally posted at the William White website. The writers of this article are renowned authors in the field of recovery. William White wrote the classic encyclopedic book (a second edition was recently published): Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America. Ernie Kurtz has also written several books, including the highly regarded and authoritative Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Most recently, he co-authored Experiencing Spirituality.