AA Agnostica and the Varieties of AA Experience

Bill and Ernie

“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.

16 Responses

  1. Stew C. says:

    I generally support AA for all it has done for so many people, and for the fact that it is so available to the alcoholic reaching out for help. While the failure of Worldwide Services Org. to address the growing secularism of AA’s and reform some of its basic tenets is disappointing, my attitude in attending traditional meetings is “I will say it, just don’t make me pray it.”

  2. Laura says:

    I also am impressed with the quality of this website. The fact is that when I started a new meeting called “We Agnostics” at an Alano club, very few people were willing to approach me. Thanks to the two men who showed up who are long-timers who both got sober in more Liberal California, the meeting had 7 people last week and more keep asking about it. I have to print more flyers, though, since somebody keeps taking them down! It’s mainly a word of mouth growth (Attraction not promotion!). One member contacted the Tucson Intergroup and we were told we they would list our meeting in their online listing and in the meeting book after 6 months. My question is are we going to have a presence in Atlanta at the next World Convention?

    • Tommy H says:

      SOP for inclusion of new meetings in the guide here in the BlueGrass is six months.

      Nothing unusual here.

      It may be a bit late to have a place at the table in Atlanta.

    • Dorothy H. says:

      Dear Laura;

      That is wonderful news to hear that you have started a new meeting in Tucson, AZ!

      Do you know about this website, Agnostic AA Meetings Worldwide where they list ALL the known WAFT meetings? I personally know a few people in Tucson and AZ who will love to be able to attend your meeting. Also, I would like to invite your group to be a part of the We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention this November 6-8, in Santa Monica, CA.

      I would like to talk to you directly. Please either email me at weagconvention@gmail.com or call our WAFT hotline 818-836-6054.

      I look forward to hearing from you.

      Dorothy H.
      Chairwoman of WAFT IAAC

    • Thomas B. says:

      Great to know, Laura, I used to live in Tucson and my son in recovery still does. When I visit him, I’ll definitely check out your meeting. Here in Portland, OR, the Intergroup put our meeting on the online list of meetings, but it has not as yet appeared in the printed version of Portland meetings.

      I’m going to the next Intergroup Representatives Meeting in a couple of weeks where the Beyond Belief group shall make a contribution approved at our Group Conscience meeting on Sunday.

      BTW, the flyers that I post around the Alano Club also have a tendency to disappear, but attendance via attraction continues to grow — the law of unintended consequences, YEAH !~!~!

  3. Christopher G says:

    Being unafraid that doubt is as good a way to go in AA as unyielding faith in God.

    The need to prioritize the still suffering alcoholic over any creed or other outside issue.

    Aaaaarrrgghh!! This be the stuff that dreams are made of!!

    Thanks Joe and JHG and Roger and all. Looking for approval from AA overall gets my eyes off the grassroots, one to one precept of it all. Being small and marginalized (and proud of it) is right where I need to be, right alongside the alcoholic who still suffers.

  4. david m says:

    In short, will A.A. be able to find ways to embrace more “varieties” – or not?

    On days when time is spent in the congenial company of reasonable, and reasonably sane, people such as populate places like this, then I’m thinking, yeah, we can find ways. Surely we can.

    There will be problems, sure, but we all want to stay sober and we’re members of a fellowship in which we’re seriously committed to lending each other a hand when we’re falling.

    It’s our primary purpose. We all tell each other that very thing in the preamble at the start of almost every meeting.

    With a commitment like that, how can we fail?

    But on days like the one a couple of days ago, however, after a long and difficult phone conversation with a particularly devout and rigid AA member in a literal fury about something I said more than a month ago at a regular face to face AA meeting in response to the topic of “prayer and meditation”, then no, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell.

    On days like that I can’t imagine what kind of bridge could possibly link a world containing an omnipotent and grumpy divinity so easily offended by my declining to “pray” the way I’m instructed to “in the book” with the world I actually live in.

    So who knows?

    Here’s the thing, though. We atheists and agnostics and whatever we are who are less than comfortable with the religious dross in AA…

    Well, we attend the meetings which include the lord’s prayer and the rituals and the rigidity and all the other trappings that this pelican who was chewing me out over the phone thinks are necessary for recovery, and almost always we don’t kick up any kind of fuss at all.

    I can’t imagine that a person like that would ever, could ever, attend a “We Agnostics” AA meeting, with no prayers and little if any ritual, without coming completely unglued and probably “reporting” the travesty to intergroup and the GSO and anyone else who might listen.

    So it’s not the atheists and agnostics that are the source of the problem here, let’s be clear about that.

    Anyway, here’s hoping.

  5. bob k. says:

    Who the heck are William L. Kurtz and Ernest (Call me Ernie) White? This site is going downhill. Where’s the inimitable bob k?

    “WE WANT BOB, WE WANT BOB!!” All together now!

  6. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks so much Ernie and Bill for this article, which effectively validates the authenticity and appropriateness of We Agnostics and Free Thinkers within mainstream AA.

    I greatly appreciate your suggestion that the continued growth of AA as a viable MAO in an always changing world may very well be dependent upon how much we are included and recognized as legitimate members of AA by the majority of members in AA, who share the predominant Christian culture within North America. As you point out, not only will this affect AA within the U.S. and Canada, but throughout the rest of the world as well.

    AA in Portland, Oregon — a city whose progressive and secular culture is quite similar to that of Toronto and Vancouver where WAFT meetings have been delisted — is also predominantly god-centered and focused on “conference approved” literature only, with special focus emphasized on the first 164 pages of the Big Book.

    The personal opinion of manager of the Portland Intergroup Office is that our “Beyond Belief” meeting for WAFTs is not an AA meeting, since we use alternative versions of the 12 Steps and read from literature that is not “conference approved.” He suggested that we form our own organization outside of AA, such as Alcoholics Victorious has.

    Nevertheless, he did include our meeting on the Portland Intergroup website list of meetings, although it does not appear in the printed Spring/Summer 2014 Meeting List. Our meeting, however, has lots of support both within Portland District 9 and within Oregon Area 58.

    So, the “strains” between those who believe and the minority of us who do not, which you discuss in your post as having always been an integral part of the history of AA, are also alive and well in “weird Portland”.

  7. JHG says:

    There is no doubt AA Agnostica is on the right side of history. What remains to be seen, as the article points out, is what that yet-to-be-lived history will actually look like. It is somewhat ironic that we, as a supposed fringe element, are more in tune with AA’s Traditions (especially the third and fifth traditions) than is AA’s mainstream. Perhaps, that is because we have had to be, given our need to find a basis for sobriety in the face of the obstacles that the AA community places in our way. But perhaps, it is that the need to prioritize the still suffering alcoholic over any creed or other outside issue is what becomes most clear once the religious trappings are not allowed to get in the way.

    • John O says:

      Yup. A.A. is not religious (or so it claims). Our agnostic groups are not religious. Therefore, we consider the agnostic groups to be the true A.A. (in addition to better adhering to the Traditions as you point out). Unlike most mainstream groups that proselytize about a prayer-answering favor-dispensing deity suggestively (hint hint) called “God”.

      Or worse, those that say the Lord’s Prayer, a Christian prayer with Christian themes straight out of the Christian holy book (Matthew 6 and Luke 11) which bends or break about 5 traditions — non-affiliation, non-endorsement, outside issues, unity, and primary purpose.

  8. Charlie M. says:

    Nice article. Especially like the reference to political impact on AA. In my opinion all things are relevant to politics and economics and with the reactionary political climate fear is heightened and change is difficult. To get sober with fear as the motivator is a rough way to survive. To get sober and grow we need, as Joe C. so eloquently described, we need to accept that which allows us freedom from fear and do things that increase our self worth. Accepting tenants that create confusion and fear in us is not conducive to being a responsible human being in a changing world. Tip of the hat to AA Agnostica for 3 years of activity.

  9. Tommy H says:

    Well said, Roger and Joe.

  10. Joe C says:

    “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

    Addressing the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Nov. 9, 1984, César Chávez made this prolific statement. If I feel informed (educated), proud to be who I am and unafraid of the hostility, disappointment or disapproval of others, I am a free man. Today, I would rather have, instead of not have, the approval of others. What’s different about me today, compared to the young man who came to AA, is today, I am not willing to do absolutely anything to win your (or anyone’s) approval. When I depended on the approval of others, it was easy to be – or at least feel – oppressed and afraid or to be manipulated or intimidated. I don’t behave well when I am driven by fear or if I feel subordinate.

    I guess I sound reflective. Thursday, Toronto’s Beyond Belief Agnostic and Freethinkers Group talked about our fifth anniversary coming up next month. Then Friday I read this post which was first published as “The White Papers” on Bill White’s blog-post and last week I finished I am Lillian and I’m and Alcoholic (and Atheist) which chronicles three years of one member’s recovery from 2006 to 2008 through posts on a online (email) AA group. Today, we can’t help but look back and reflect, too. Happy anniversary to AA-agnositca community. I have been smiling about this for a few days now.

    While AA has always had a place for a secular minority and there have been members collecting as agnostic AA members longer than I’ve been sober, the “Coming of Age” for nonbelievers (if I can borrow this AA book title) would have to be one of the many unexpected benefits of the internet. That’s the time I started to feel, educated proud and unafraid – it took the community of like-minded 12-Step community members to become better educated, feel a sense of pride about not been a half-measure member and being unafraid that doubt is as good a way to go in AA as unyielding faith in God. Over the last three years my education pride and fearlessness has been expanded from not only the posts here each week but the conversation that they spark. What would AA Agnostica be without the internet? It’s hard to imagine. But the internet allows international communities like this to do and be what was unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago. And now, I expect that I know what I’ll be doing every Sunday for the next three years. I’ll be logging on here to see what this very relevant subculture has to say.

    The shortcoming of the internet is we can’t pass any cake around.

    • life-j says:

      Joe, having just had one year off of cake on July 2nd (and AA meetings being the prime offender) I have to disagree with your last line, but the rest is well said.

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