Tradition Two: A Flaw in AA Service Structure?

One Nation

Tradition Two: For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He many express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants.

by Thomas B.

Another Lord’s Prayer Kerfuffle

My home group in Seaside, Oregon, is the Morning Meditation group which meets 365 days a year in the renown Little Yellow House. Several blocks away is the Big Yellow House, Awakenings by the Sea, an Oregon Drug and Alcohol Rehab program for women alcoholics and addicts.

Several months ago there was considerable contention within the group about having patients from Awakenings attend our open AA meetings. This was discussed over several monthly business meetings with the result being that the “group conscience” determined that in accordance with Tradition Five, we would welcome Awakenings patients at all our meetings.

An issue came up later concerning our group format. Over the past couple of years the group has gone back and forth from ending the meeting 1) only with the Serenity Prayer, or 2) any prayer chosen by the chairperson, including the Lord’s Prayer.

At a recent business meeting, I raised the point that since our meeting was openly accommodating newcomers from Awakenings perhaps we might want to insure that the door to AA in our meeting was always wide open to any person regardless of belief or lack of belief. I suggested it would be inappropriate to end our meeting with the Lord’s Prayer.

Here is the rationale I presented to the group:

  1. Our preamble states that “we are not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution”.
  2. The Lord’s Prayer is THE prayer of the Christian religious tradition, quoted in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.
  3. AA strongly advocates that we are spiritual, not religious, but if we use the signature prayer of the Christian religion aren’t we being just a bit hypocritical?
  4. Under Tradition Two, we as a group certainly have the right to make a decision to use the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the meeting.
  5. However, due to the regular attendance of people new to recovery from Awakenings, I suggest we need to be especially mindful concerning a possible mixed message. The Lord’s Prayer might make some folks new to recovery uncomfortable.
  6. I believe our group seeks to be as widely inclusive as possible, following the letter and the spirit of Tradition Three that the only requirement to be a member of AA is a desire to stop drinking.
  7. Therefore, I suggest we start our meetings with the Serenity Prayer, a non-denominational prayer to a higher power, and end with the Responsibility Declaration, which states the spirit of AA’s primary purpose which is to stay sober and help others — regardless of belief or non-belief — to achieve sobriety.

After a spirited discussion, it was moved and passed almost unanimously that we would start and end the meetings with the Serenity Prayer. Here is the language decided upon to include on the group format: “It is customary for this group to end meetings with the Serenity Prayer.”

A prominent group member indicated she would retype the Chairperson’s format to include this change. However, the following week I noticed that we did not have a new format, so I hand wrote the above statement on the format.

I became aware that one long time member of the group, a former missionary, who had not attended the business meeting, was quite upset about this change, so I gave him a copy of the points above that had been discussed by the members at the business meeting.

Well, at last Saturday’s meeting his wife was the chairperson. When the meeting closed, she announced we would end with the Lord’s Prayer. Since she hadn’t attended meetings recently I gently informed her that the group conscience had determined that we would end the meeting with the Serenity Prayer. She replied that as far as she was concerned, it was the prerogative of the chairperson to end with whatever prayer they choose. She reiterated her choice to end with the Lord’s Prayer.

I sharply retorted, “THY Will Be Done” — not my most tolerantly compassionate choice of behavior.

There were several other regular attendees of our meeting present who had also been part of the group conscience meeting. None of them spoke up. The Lord’s Prayer was chanted, I remained silent, stepping outside of the circle, and the meeting ended.

As I was leaving, the chairperson confronted me with the remark that my atheism might work in Portland or New York City, but it wasn’t going to work in the god-fearing town of Seaside, Oregon. I was aghast. I was also scolded by the prominent group member who neglected to retype the format — she opined that before my wife, Jill, and I came to Seaside there was never a problem in ending meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. She further suggested that we ought to read and practice Bill’s instruction on page 84 of the Big Book, “Love and tolerance of others is our code.”

I’ll miss the next two business meetings of our group, since I’ll be on an extended road trip back east to visit friends and family. When I return, I’m expecting that the group conscience shall most likely be changed to again leave it up to the chairperson as to which prayer is used to end meetings. So be it.

This doctrinaire controversy regarding the Lord’s Prayer is periodically waged in individual groups throughout North America. As well, it is deliberated in larger associations of AA members. The first Oregon Area 58 Assembly I attended last November ended with the Lord’s Prayer, as did the 2010 International AA Conference coordinated by San Antonio AA members.

The “Many Paths to Spirituality” Pamphlet

It took 39 years for the General Service Conference to produce a “conference approved” pamphlet which initially – in 1976 – was intended to reflect the reality through our stories that agnostics and atheists get and stay sober in AA without god or a higher power.

The result this year is the travesty of the pamphlet, “Many Paths to Spirituality”. A more appropriate title would perhaps be “We Agnostics Lite”.

The graphic with all of the errors — oops, I meant to type arrows — pointing heavenwards is certainly a demonstration of “clueless Christian majoritarianism” as one person commented. Assuredly, it does not adequately reflect the views, much less the stories, of agnostics, atheists and free thinkers successfully recovering in AA without “the god-bit”.

Quite the contrary, it faithfully reflects the views of the majority of Christian members in AA, certainly those who serve at the level of delegate positions to the General Service Conference. At least the pamphlet reiterates the quote from co-founder Bill W. which acknowledges that we have as much right to be members of AA as the most ardent Big-Book-and-Bible-thumping fundamentalist Christian.

So what’s going on here?

Here’s what I suggest. Our Second Tradition states there is only one authority in AA: “a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.”

As Hamlet famously remarked, “Aye, there’s the rub!”

The GSO and American Culture and Politics

The truth is that North American AA exists in a culture that is steeped in a predominantly Christian tradition.

Increasingly in the past three-and-a-half decades, especially since the Reagan Revolution, North American politics has tilted to the right. Frank Schaeffer along with his parents, Francis and Edith, were instrumental during the 70s and 80s in forming the evangelical Christian rightwing movement within the Republican Party. They were motivated by strident opposition to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision authorizing abortion. Frank has subsequently rejected his evangelical fundamentalist Christian upbringing in a number of books, including the hilarious Crazy for God.

One result of the Reagan Revolution was to diminish progressive, reasonable policy for research about and treatment of addiction which had been advocated by Democratic Senator Harold Hughes in 1969. Instead, emphasis was placed on massively escalating Nixon’s international War on Drugs. As pointed out in the notable film, The Anonymous People, instead of providing funds for research, prevention and treatment services, billions of dollars have been spent incarcerating “criminals”, especially people of color, for alcohol and drug related offenses.

Currently, the Tea Party dynamic continues the rightward tilt in US politics. A recent New York Times article, examining trends of Internet searches, compares richer, more prosperous areas with those areas where economic conditions are not so prosperous. In the poorer sections of the US included within the top ten items searched for on the Internet are these four subjects in ascending order: the rapture (10), the antichrist (7), about hell (6) and antichrist (2)! Dan Silver, a cultural sociologist from the University of Toronto, remarks, “They are not just about religion, they are about apocalyptic religion.”

In a newly published book, The Violence of Organized Forgetting, Henry Giroux, prominent scholar at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, cites sources that indicate some 46 per cent of the American population, influenced by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Christian talk radio/TV programs, adhere to a creationist view of evolution. Such folks also tend to dismiss scientific evidence, research, and rationality for evolution as being “academic” or irreligious.

To many devout evangelical Christians, we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers are “the other,” alien objects to be shunned or obliterated if we don’t convert to their true Christian religion. In a recent Pew Research poll – How Americans Feel About Religious Groups — atheists are a mere one point higher than Muslims, the most negatively rated religious group in the US.

The composition of the 133 delegates to the yearly General Service Conference mirrors this tilt to the right that has occurred within American society. During the past 30 or so years much of AA has fallen under the influence of folks devoted to return AA “Back to Basics” prevalent in the Oxford Group in Akron during the 30s.

The White Paper, based on Christian orthodoxy influenced both Toronto and Vancouver, B.C. Intergroup Offices to delist agnostic, atheist and freethinker AA groups. In this anonymous screed the author prominently refers to Tradition Two, and exhorts those of like minds “to insist that the theme of the International Conference in Atlanta, GA in 2015 be the following: “ONE ULTIMATE AUTHORITY —a loving God…” (underlined and bold face in the original.)

Fortunately, wiser sensibilities prevailed and the theme of the 2015 International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous is “80 Years — Happy, Joyous and Free”.


So, do I ever expect the General Service Conference to more effectively respond to our views? In a word, no. I think what we got with “Many Paths to Spirituality” is about as much as can rationally be expected of the Christian theists who comprise a significant majority of delegates to the General Service Conference.

These delegates are duty-bound to follow the precepts of their “loving God,” regarding what they understand He expects of them. This dynamic, I propose, has resulted in the travesty of the pamphlet, “Many Paths to Spirituality”. The GSC shall continue to block any acknowledgment by AA that officially suggests that recovery and long-time sobriety is possible without “the god-bit.”

So, what are we agnostics, atheists, and free thinkers to do? Essentially, we have two options:

First, a number of members of AA choose to vote with their feet, leaving AA to join the growing number of alternative recovery programs for alcoholics, such as Life-Ring or SMART Recovery. This is a viable course of action, one I cannot fault anyone from pursuing. It is a reasonable, rational response to the arrogant intolerance and shunning behavior on the part of many ardent Christians within AA.

Second, we who are emotionally attached to AA can strive to respectfully make our voice be heard within the rooms of AA. We can relate our “experience, strength and hope” as sober and productive members of AA, who do not rely upon a god or higher power, other than the power that manifests though our shared Fellowship.

This is the path I choose to follow, even though a part of me believes that AA is perhaps substantially flawed due to a doctrinaire interpretation of the Second Tradition. Nevertheless, I remain gratefully loyal to AA, which has provided me with a lifetime of bounteous gifts as a direct result of being a longtime sober member.

I also strongly support Joe C.’s call for us to become involved in AA’s Service structure.

I’m greatly encouraged by the blossoming of new meetings springing up across North America during the last several years. This validates Robert Merton’s law of unintended consequences, resulting from the delisting of meetings for agnostics and atheists in Toronto in 2011, which was the impetus for the AA Agnostica website. The movement to include us fully within AA shall wonderfully continue in November with the first We Agnostics and Free Thinkers International AA Convention (WAFT IAAC) in Santa Monica — I can hardly wait to attend and take part in this momentous event in the history of AA with other like-minded AA members from around the world.

Essentially, I accept that I cannot remain sober — which results in me being reasonably “happy, joyous and free” — without AA. I continue to adhere to the generic ethical, moral and humanist principles inherent within the AA program which includes our Twelve Steps, Twelve Traditions and Twelve Concepts of Service. I’ll continue to do what I was gifted to learn in New York City through the AA Fellowship in 1972 — I won’t pick up today, I’ll go to a meeting tomorrow and, whenever and however I can, I’ll help other alcoholics.

41 Responses

  1. MarkInTexas says:

    The entire business of nonbelievers making motions in groups to suspend the practice of the groups ending meetings with the “Lord’s Prayer,” is problematic at best.

    Given the fact we heathens are a minority opinion, the act of making formal motions in our business meetings to discontinue the Protestant Christian prayer ritual serve as fodder for the bigoted religious.

    In a purely democratic voting arrangement, the majority simply can, and normally will, circle the righteous wagons in defense against those of nonbelief, or even against those with religious objections to the practice.

    I took a different action on the issue. Rather than creating a situation that sets the Kingdom of Light against the Kingdom of Darkness, I simply refused to participate in the religious ritual.

    When I started sitting out this Christian chanting, the eyes rolled, snarky remarks were directed toward me, people said things like, “he thinks he’s different,” and people would make an issue out of my ‘nonparticipation.’

    I responded then, as I do now (it hardly ever comes up now) that “Protestant Christian prayer rituals do not have a role in my getting sober, or staying sober, and they violate our Preamble.”

    Over time an interesting thing has occurred. A great many people have slowly got that idea, and now sit out the prayer. Now, they too participate in ACTIVE nonparticipation of this Christian religious ritual.

    Most meetings now, approximately half of the people in attendance sit it out, or get up and walk out, but either way, the power of the Christian religious majority along with the de facto Christian supremacy is eaten away at the foundations.

    No motions. No floor fights. No politicking. No bullshit. Just people refusing to kow tow (on PRINCIPLE) to a violation of our Preamble, and our individual liberty of conscience.

    For what its worth. Peace

    • Marnin M. says:

      “Sitting out the prayers” ….

      Reminds me of my futile attempt to welcome members with other addictions to our meetings in Tequesta.

      I had the chutzpa (nerve) to suggest at our business meeting that we stop reading the statement “While we are sympathtic to our brothers and sisters in other recovery programs” …etc… If we were truly sympathetic this statement would not be read at the start our meetings.

      I think the truth is that members with other addictions scare many and they do not want to hear any reference to other drugs.

      My suggestion was immediately turned down.

      Next time I may tackle the Lords Prayer and the chanting that accompanies the reading of How It Works.

    • John M. says:

      Hi MarkinTexas,

      A few months ago our DCM (District Committee Member) told me that two things perplexed him about this whole non-believers versus traditionalist AA delisting and/or hostility thing.

      First, he is perplexed how we non-believers can get sober without God since he is a committed Christian. (However, please note, he also said to me that it doesn’t matter what perplexes him since the last time he checked the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking, and that if we WAFTs say we are AA members and groups then we are AA members and groups.)

      He then said that the 2nd thing that perplexed him was that in all his time in AA he feels that about 70% of all the people he has met in AA are agnostics or atheists so he can’t understand such an overwhelming hostility to those of us who merely openly confess our un-belief.

      Perhaps, MarkinTexas, your method of “stepping out” is tapping into the large percentage (if our DCM is correct) of folks in AA who really don’t have much of a belief in, or are fundamentally indifferent to, the idea of God in the 21st Century.

      As some GSO “leaders” have privately told some of us, keep doing what we are doing by remaining true to ourselves and over time we‘ll see how this all plays itself out at the international conference level. But it is imperative that we keep doing the kinds of things we are doing as you are reminding us in your post.

      Thanks for this.

      • Roger says:

        Just watched “The Unbelievers” on Netflix last night. As some point, it is mentioned that only one congressman out of 535 in the US Senate and House of Representatives openly admits to being an atheist. How many who sit in those chambers are actually atheists? Probably a majority, as in AA. But the repercussions for “coming out” are too severe to bother doing it, for most.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Thanks MarkInTexas . . .

      I, too, whenever the LP is chanted simply step out of the circle, bow my head and respectfully remain silent.

      Yes, Marin, John and Roger, I too believe we nonbelievers have an obligation to keep speaking our truth and being positive powers of example for other nonbelievers who need to see that one can recover without belief.

  2. life-j says:

    Thomas, thank you. Always well thought out. I think there is a little hope in that some folks in World Services are beginning to support us.
    – From my hospital bed at UCSF medical center.

    • Roger says:

      Good to see you’re still up and kicking, life.

    • Jaye says:

      Hurrah, Life! You realized that the bright, white light was merely the glow from your computer screen. Glad to hear from you.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Wonderful to have a life sighting !~!~! Thanks.

      Sending you lots of healing energy from the deep south in Mississippi in route to New Orleans . . .

  3. MarkInTexas says:

    Thomas B., thank you for sharing this story with us. And thanks to the rest of you for your thoughtful responses. It is always a pleasure to read the postings, and responses on AA Agnostica.

    Thomas, Thank you for posting your seven point rationale presented at your group business meeting. My guess is the majority of we heathens here would agree with the reasons for discontinuing the use of the “Lord’s Prayer” at our home groups, and in AA’s other service structure meetings.

    May I make a suggestion that I think only STRENGTHENS your/our rationale, but cannot be construed as some agenda-driven atheist conspiracy?

    We know many god-types, Big Book literalist types who see anything we SAY, or propose to be just that; the alleged demonic conspiracy and attack upon Christianity itself. This can almost be considered a core belief among the majority of Right Wing, politically active Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. and Canada. You know, those same types who are in AA and whose life goal is to “stand for GOD,” to protect God, and Christianity from the evil assaults of atheistic secularism. And frankly, there are no morals or ethic which guides their attempts to complete their calling from God. It is holy war for those types, and no prisoners are taken. No tactic is off limits, and no accommodation is possible. There will be no negotiating with the enemy. the enemy must be utterly destroyed. That is the mindset we are dealing with, as we seek to widen the gates for all who reach out to AA for help.

    Can those types of mindsets change? Absolutely yes! Joe C. shows some example of such changes. We know this happens often, after all were not many of us once theistic believers of one stripe or another. We changed. Others can too. Many won’t, but some do…

    Back to Strengthening point two of the rationale. Point two states:

    2. The Lord’s Prayer is THE prayer of the Christian religious tradition, quoted in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

    Not much doubt about that, however, the “Lord’s Prayer” is a Protestant Christian religious ritual, and not a Catholic one. For a great many Catholics, participation in this VERY Protestant religious ritual creates moral and religious conflict if they are sincerely attempting to follow their chosen religious path.

    Some of you may think this is perhaps meaningless hairsplitting, yet, the history of the Reformation in England and the Continent is full of spilt blood over such tedious differences.

    Still today this conflict is alive and well in the minds of many Catholics who come to AA for help. Those folks are subjected to, and expected to violate their own religious beliefs and practices in order to CONFORM to a thoroughly Protestant religious ritual at the end of their meetings. A meeting our Preamble states is not allied with “any sect or religion.”

    I can illustrate this with several stories, but I’ll just tell one. While on business in the Chicago area I attended a Quad A meeting. Of course, I found several nonbelievers there, atheist and agnostic, but I was quite surprised to find a few Roman Catholic guys.

    Being the ever-curious fella I am, I HAD to ask them why they attended an AA meeting specifically set up for atheists, and agnostics, heathens and heretics, yet open to all, and not a traditional AA meeting. We had a good laugh at my phrasing, but there was NO hesitation in their consensual reply. It was the VERY Protestant “Lord’s Prayer.” They had gotten very tired of the overt and constant Protestant emphasis and religious ritual. They wanted their problem with alcohol and their recovery to be separate from Protestant religious beliefs promoted in traditional AA meetings they had attended. Thus, they found a happy home with a bunch of godless bastards, assorted other heathens, agnostics, and heretics, who also keep that business separate. It was only in that AAAA meeting where they did not feel and see that very real internal religious conflict.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Thanks so much MarkinTexas . . .

      You make a very good point about the historical enmity between Protestants and Catholics. I should have remembered because I converted to Catholicism from Southern Baptism when I was 12. My first girlfriend, a devout Baptist, broke off with me because I had gone over to the demonic dark side. Mississippi was considered foreign mission territory for Ireland — many of the priests and nuns I had during high school were from Ireland . . .

  4. John L. says:

    The 2nd Tradition is one that needs to be re-worded. The “loving God” and “conscience” bits are unnecessary and muddy the waters. I’d word it like this:

    Groups make decisions democratically — by voting. Leaders are only trusted servants; they are not dictators, and they abide by group decisions.

    By wilfully flouting a group decision, the chairwoman of Thomas B.’s group seriously violated AA principle, and should be held accountable. She should publicly admit to the group that she was wrong (Step 10) and should make amends (Step 9) by resigning.

    We should not be surprised if religionists are dishonest and treacherous. They believe, and force others to believe, things that are not true (changing water into wine, bringing a decomposing corpse back to life, the virgin birth, walking on water, etc.).

    Are there minutes of the meeting where the decision was reached, to end meetings with the Serenity Prayer? Why didn’t the “prominent group member” retype the Chairperson’s format, as she had promised to do?

    Whenever possible, we should fight, not only for our own rights, but for the valid principles of AA.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Thanks John — surprisingly at the business meeting last Sunday the question of the LP did not come up, so it remains the custom of the group to end with the Serenity Prayer. I’m most grateful my dark predictions were not fulfilled.

      Plus, my wife was elected Treasurer for the group and one of her sponsees was elected Secretary, so a more progressive element is the predominant energy in the group now.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, William P. I too am saddened by what AA has become in many ways during the past 42 years, and yet I am immensely encouraged by the growth of WAFT meetings spurred by AA Agnostica and others. I truly believe, fervently even, that Santa Monica will be a boon to the growth of secular AA that will help not only ourselves, but AA as a whole more effectively to live up to our code of “love and tolerance” that Bill noted on p. 84.

    Congratulations on your website under the pseudonym of Henry McClay. For me, the writing I do on AA Agnostica may help others, but it primarily helps me to stay sober, just as the dynamic when Bill first spoke to Bob — he was there primarily not to get Bob sober, but to stay sober himself !~!~!

  6. Thomas B. says:

    Mary, regardless of what the occasion, it’s my impression that during the past 30 or so years organizers and the politicians who back any movement for social change are duty-bound to follow the prescribed cultural bias of ours being “One Nation Under God,” whose blessings and good favor must be solicited.

    I too am forever grateful to Roger C. and the growing numbers of us who contribute to this site for helping me maintain my sanity as well as my serenity as a determined long-time member of AA.

  7. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you one and all for your most cogent comments and observations concerning the 2nd Tradition. I camped last night in a state park near my hometown in Jackson, Mississippi and didn’t have Internet connection.

    I’ll now go back and make some individual comments to your remarks, since I am convinced the more we can dialogue amongst ourselves, the better able we shall be able to successfully counter the proselytizing tendencies of the “Back to Basics” crowd.

  8. Dan H. says:

    Very thoughtful piece, thanks.
    I was on the steering committee of our local speaker meeting (200+ people) when the Lord’s Prayer came up – one brave soul decided to tilt at this very sturdy windmill. As a former GSR and now one of 7 on the committee, I championed the motion going to the group. It took months, as I recall, of wrangling and opposition just to get it to the group for a vote. The steering committee wanted to kill it on the spot. An open mic session before the meeting on the night of the vote featured a parade of LP champions, most of whom were upset at the idea of change (“We’ve done fine the way we are for thirty years”). We got the predictable result. Some months later, out of the blue, someone said to me, “So I hear you’re an atheist.” Really? Because I supported a group vote?
    All that said, most of the people I know and hang out with (a self-selected group, to be sure) are pretty clear in their non-adherence to the biblical god idea. Of course, I’m in southern California, where the liberals might just edge out the old-time religionists.
    I do notice on this board that there seem to be some vocal atheists that seem to find support here for not taking any action to effect change.
    My best to all…

    • Thomas B. says:

      Thanks Dan . . .

      In the two-and-a-half years since I’ve been hanging out digitally with others who believe differently from the mainstream AA “god-bit” message, I have grown in confidence and overcome my reticence to share my non-belief. I have become increasingly enabled to life up to my namesake of being a doubting Thomas . . . 😉

      I too feel very fortunate, perhaps even blessed by unseen and unknown higher forces in the Kosmos, to live near Portland, one of the more progressive and free-thinking regions in our “One Nation Under God” . . .

  9. MARNIN says:

    The title of the book “DON’T TELL” says it all.

    Non believers are tolerated as a unique & rare phenomenon. If there are many or just a few working a secular program they “DON’T TELL”. Peer pressure to conform is hard at work.

    I do not think AA will ever change since it is built on the Oxford Movement precepts. As a sin based program AA disregards the fact that it is a medical disease / a physical ailment.

    I’ll be sober 44 years this October. AA will go on and members will continually attribute their sobriety to the hand of GOD – a miracle!

    Next Sunday I’ll be telling my story at the Tequesta Sunday morning meeting. October 27th will mark 44 years of my sobriety in AA.

    If anyone lives in this area of Florida please join me.

    Marnin M

    • Thomas B. says:

      Congratulations Marnin on your 44th Anniversary – I’m sure you, like me, are most grateful you were introduced to AA before the proselytizing of the “Back to Basics” folk was so prevalent throughout much of AA.

      Do I think AA will substantially change from its god-fearing bias? In a word, no. Nevertheless, I believe, fervently even, that we who do not belief can mute and soften the stridency of the god-fearing message by respectfully sharing our non-believing truth and being powers of example for others who chafe at the “god-bit.”

      Whenever I travel through the south, I always visit the Abbey at Gethsemani where Thomas Merton, one of my humanist mentors, lived most of his life. On my first visit in 2002 I was able to visit the hermitage where he lived in solitude. Since closed to the general public, it was filled with notes written by visitors who implored on him, dead some 34 years at the time, to intercede with god to save them despite they being such terrible, miserable sinners. I was struck by how self-hateful I as a Christian had also been. It helped me deepen my agnostic leanings, which subsequently have become more and more atheistic.

  10. William P. says:

    This is a fine article and it saddens me. Although I attend AA meetings occasionally if I cannot find an Agnostics meeting, I avoid them and choose, as an alternative, to contact and, hopefully help, other alcoholics on websites such as Sober Recovery and my home page under the pseudonym Henry McClay.

  11. Chris G says:

    Since there are alternate steps, why not an alternate Tradition 2? Like this one:

    For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – the thoughtful consensus of our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

    • Skip D. says:

      Excellent rephrasing of Tradition 2. I think that the wording of the 2nd Tradition makes it a blatant violation of the 10th Tradition(no opinion on outside issues). It actually posits the existence of a loving god with a political will!

    • Thomas B. says:

      Excellent Chris — yes, just as we WAFTs have rephrased the steps to more adequately reflect our beliefs, so too is it appropriate to reword the 2nd Tradition.

      Excellent point, Skip, about it’s wording being against the spirit of the 10th Tradition — this was my argument in One’s Religion Is An Outside Issue.

  12. John M. says:

    After his presidency, John Quincy Adams predicted — 30 years before the Civil War — that the slavery issue had reached such an impasse that it would take an executive order by a war president to abolish the institution of slavery. As far as I know, we have nothing like an “executive order” anywhere in the 12 Concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous so I despair over the outside issue of religion in AA ever getting resolved given that our democratic structure parallels the same American democratic structure that kept slavery alive and well until the war.

    Thank you, Thomas, for contributing this and outlining the conditions that may keep the status quo in place. Still, like you, I ain’t leaving despite my despondency over the continuing, deeply embedded religious nature of AA.

    At least we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers have found one another and are proactively working towards carving out a space for ourselves — and newcomers — in the various ways we are currently engaged in. For now, this may well just have to be enough for those of us who wish to give back to a fellowship that, when it adheres to its guiding principles, has served many of us so well.

    And perhaps, if we keep doing what we are doing, I might even find — within my lifetime — that the final result is beyond even this particular recovering alcoholic’s despairing belief!

    It was wonderful to have you in Toronto with us, Thomas, and I look forward to seeing you in November.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Indeed, John, it was most pleasurable and inspiring to share a wonderful meal with you, Dianne and Roger on my visit to Toronto.

      Thank you for your comments regarding slavery and John Quincy Adams view. The southern point of view has certainly risen again as I travel through the southern homeland of my Mississippi upbringing. Though outwardly there is integration, in many ways the beliefs of prejudice and hatred of “the other” had deepened considerably. The power of the Republican party, which continues to tilt to the radical rightwing Neoconservatism of the Tea Party, is alive and well throughout my travels of the US southland. Even friends who formerly were more liberal demonstrate their beliefs influenced by Fox News and Christian media. It’s scary, and I feel as never before a man without a homeland, so grateful I live near Portland, Oregon, like Toronto, a most progressive and diverse environment.

      Thomas Wolfe was right, one cannot go home again . . . 😉

  13. JHG says:

    The main problem with AA’s theocratic governance process is the same problem with the increasingly theocentric political culture of the US — an underappreciation of and impatience with the crucial role that minority voices play in any meaningful collective decision-making process. History clearly shows that the majority is often dead wrong, but the cure is not to become less democratic but instead to be more deeply democratic by means of the messy, time-consuming and often painfully frustrating process of really listening to what groupthink suppresses. There are a number of factors that prevent people from openly challenging groupthink — fear, indifference, timidity, doubting oneself, not wanting to rock the boat, not wanting to offend anyone, not wanting to put any strain on personal relationships, not wanting to embarrass oneself, not wanting to be “uncool.” I suspect that we have more support among the AA rank-and-file than is being expressed. It is surprising how often the silent desires of a majority of individuals are (unknown to each other) in opposition to the prevailing status quo. When no one speaks up and challenges the status quo, everyone assumes that it has the support of the majority, and since most people fear going against the crowd, virtually no one tests the assumption. It’s a vicious circle.

    • boyd p. says:

      In Oregon we seem to have taken a step toward encouraging minority opinions. Being a new GSR who knows, but when a majority wins on an issue standard practice directs the process to the minority opinion to be heard once again with no majority speakers allowed to the mike. Then there is a second vote to decide on reconsideration. No dramatic reversals yet.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Yes, JHG, I share your impression that there is more silent support of our non-belief than manifests itself within the historical governance of AA, especially within the last 30 or so years. This reality motivates me to speak up more and more at meetings I attend, to overcome my fear and to simply and respectfully speak my truth of successful recovery without belief.

      I’m back in my homeland of the deep south in Mississippi, and I have been especially cognizant of the exponential growth of big box churches with huge crosses towering over their congregations. It’s most chillingly Neo-Nazi. Change may come more slowly our “red-state” areas, but it will never come if voices such as yours and mine choose to remain silent.

  14. boyd p. says:

    Sorry to miss you at the Oregon AA Assembly in Seaside last weekend. A 6am marathon meeting was of particular significance, lead by a young logger with just a year of sobriety who expressed hesitations about his spiritual journey. I chimed in with as many affirmations about unanswerable questions as possible. We enjoyed brief conversations throughout the rest of the weekend. He was the fire builder for the evening meeting on the beach.
    As to the brick wall you encountered, these moments are inevitable, even for the most humble among us. After recovering from the emotional trauma of a similar experience I learned the argument matters little, at least most of the time. “I don’t have to be wrong in order for you to be right”. Heard in a recent meeting, it has become one of my valued mantras.
    Thanks for the depth you bring to this conversation.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Thanks, boyd. I’m so pleased that you are a GSR. I look forward to sharing the Roseburg Assembly with you in November, which if I recall correctly does not interfere with the WAFT IAAC in Santa Monica.

  15. wisewebwoman says:

    I am so grateful for this timely post.

    Once again in my home group the issue of the LP has been brought up by me. It was never resolved a couple of years ago and the angriest pro-LP has died since.

    I was recently attacked for my gall in bringing this matter up once more. And told to have a good long look at my “”resentment” against the RC church. Thus, inadvertently, proving my point about AA being a religious programme.

    I had given advance notice that I wouldn’t be able to attend last week’s meeting and turned the keys over to a a fellow member.

    I then discovered that one of the more vehement members had planned a group conscience in my planned absence and had gone to another group to enlist members to come to this GC meeting and temporarily become members so they could vote against my resolution to omit the LP and use the responsibility pledge in closing.

    I am appalled that AA has come to this. I would attend meetings in my nearest city but it is 100K away and truly difficult to combat the darkness, moose running freely, potholes and blizzards in the winter time.

    If anyone knows of Freethinkers meetings in Newfoundland please let me know as this armed camp environment does not enhance my sobriety in any way. And truth be told I don’t feel safe with this level of animosity.

    Thanks to all of you for this wonderful space where I can vent….. 🙂

    • Thomas B. says:

      Yes, wisewebwoman, I am forever grateful that I found this place of refuge when my wife and I first moved to a very fundamentalist Christian, small town on the coast of Oregon. Not only was my sobriety maintained due to AA Agnostica, but to a large degree my sanity and serenity.

      We were able to move to another seacoast town within fairly easy driving distance to the Portland metropolitan area which has a much more diverse and tolerant crowd. We’ve been able with support from others to be able to be powers of example for recovery within AA that is radically different from the god-fearing folk.

      I salute you for speaking your truth and acting on it. I hope you continue to attend AA to speak the truth of your godless recovery. What I have chosen to do when the LP is prayed at the end of meetings is to respectfully step outside the circle and not participate as a signal to others Christian belief is not a requirement for membership.

  16. Bob C says:

    Thanks for the article it was enjoyable to read.

    The potential benefit of saying the lord’ s prayer is not enough to outweigh the cost to new members, many of whom are bewildered spiritually. Are AA members involved in evangelism? In my opinion, evangelism is one of the things that drives people nuts about contemporary Christian subculture.

    I also have said that the big book, being claimed by god-fearing AA’s is not accurate. That book has all kinds of references to science and humanism as potential solutions as well. But it is inconsistent in that regard. Did I say that? Lots of new AAs are convinced that that book is inerrant, ( and of course the god-parts are almost fanatically quoted to back that, forgetting the stories, forgetting all the other things it says). Inerrancy is a theological concept that struggles enough to make the bible perfect, let alone a text written by a bunch of drunks sober 5 years max at the time, many of whom had serious agendas.

    Also, contemorary Christian subculture is an utter departure from some the most transforming aspects of that religion. For example, ask a typical Christian how they interpret the exhortation to “be perfect” and you will hear them spin off into some bull about abstract morality, and how we are never going to be but sinning little creatures, alone and afraid without divine intervention. That’s my problem with the AA godies, is that when u start to unpack what they are trying to feed you, it begins smelling more and more like dog food rather than delicious home cooked spirituality.

    I really enjoyed that, including the connection with right wing zealousness in American politics as part of the “recipe” being touted by overly godly AAs.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Yes, Bob, it is as ludicrous to apply the doctrine of inerrancy to the Big Book as it is to the Bible, and yet true believers are compelled to fervently try to do so no matter how ludicrous or ridiculous it may appear.

      What strikes me some 42 years into recovery, when considering the advances in secular knowledge about addiction that have since occurred, is how much Bill and the early collaborators in Akron and New York City got right despite their primary reliance on the evangelistic pietism of the Oxford movement.

      I’ve been toying around with the idea of doing a secular translation of the first 164 pages of the Big book, but then authors such as Marya Horbacher, Joe C. and Adam N., whose book was reviewed here last week, have already done admirable jobs portraying our way of recovery.

      • Bob C says:

        Hey Thomas,

        I feel that such a project would be new and fruitful. It saddens me that fundamentalist AA has crystallized much of their arguments around the big book. It would be a stark reminder to such people that the big book says many very progressive things, as you well point out, that are inconsistent with a fundamentalist view. It would also allow people on this site, and other free thinking AAs to see that that book is valuable, and can just as easily be used to support a humanistic or scientific basis or recovery.

        As a person who was “booked” several times, I enjoy almost nothing more than sitting at a table populated by fundamentalists, and sharing on the various, and divergent, messages within that book. It is, admittedly, a guilty pleasure. If you do think about working on such a project, I would love to help out.


  17. Dan L says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful essay. I am a newcomer to AA and it is one of the cornerstones of my sobriety program. Fortunately for me in my last shot at sobriety I went to a treatment centre where I was taught the “take what you need and leave the rest” approach much like the one presented in the approved publication “Living Sober”. The solution offered to me for my god problem was “fake it ’til you make it” which I interpreted as being open minded and initially behaving as if big daddy was watching. After that it was simply my response to the question from my counselor which was… “are you going to stay drunk just because you don’t believe in god?” The AA I went into upon release was well populated by extremely vocal “fundies” and “back to basics bigots” but there were enough open minded people that I got my start and a friend led me to this site which seemed to make things okay.

    I don’t think I could have sobered up without the help of AA but I no longer need it to be sober. I certainly use it as the biggest part of my program and I attend many meetings each week but I have simply rejected the useless spiritual christian BS for what it is. I can see many ways that a god could help me if there was one and I believe such a thing exists for those who feel compelled to believe but I seem to be doing just fine with the all important help of my fellow travelers. In short AA helps me stay sober but on my own terms spiritually. It seems to work just fine if I leave god right out of the equation. I can accept that he isn’t there watching and planning for me. Frankly the idea of living like that makes me feel like drinking.

    For a guy whose lifetime higher power was a six pack of his favourite brand I certainly was not on such a lofty spiritual perch that I had to jump all the way to god for another one.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Dan, that was my experience when I first attended AA in Manhattan in 1972 — the emphasis was not on the “Back to Basics” orthodoxy, but one alcoholic helping another by sharing experience, strength and hope.

      The intervention by your counselor was brilliant — many have stayed drunk in spite of their fervent belief in “big daddy watching them.” On the other hand, there is no need for you to stay drunk because you don’t believe!

      And yes, my Colt .45 by the case lot was certainly a convincing higher power. I salute you for staying in AA and being a power of example for other non-believers that one can successfully recover without the “god-bit.”

  18. Joe C says:

    Thomas, it was so great to have you at Beyond Belief: Toronto as part of your current “tour.” It is a nice warm up to the We Agnostics & Freethinkers International Conference of AA where I look forward to seeing online friends I’ve made over the years, in person. I have a love for studying history. It will be nice, for once, to be part of history in the making.

    Amelia said that what touched her about Beyond Belief’s 5 year anniversary meeting this Saturday was how joyous of a room that our meeting was. Thomas, you mentioned the law of unintended consequences; fiction writers don’t have the imagination that a little dose of reality can portray. Chris from Tokyo was in Toronto to celebrate our fifth anniversary with us. We get a lot of visitors who want to go to Ground Zero which Toronto AA has come to symbolize – the most vibrant of ethnically and politically diverse world-cities having an outburst of the most intolerant of Tradition Two decisions. Truth is weirder than fiction. A one-time member of that fateful Intergorup executive is now Beyond Belief’s assistant Treasurer and loyal member. He shared his story about how our “negative publicity” widened his gateway of what AA can be. Another of the executive who quit that night was our speaker at Beyond Belief’s second anniversary. Also at Beyond Belief’s anniversary party was the program director for this year’s LGBTQ Toronto Gratitude Conference sharing that agnostic groups will be part of this year’s program. Richmond Hill members of North Toronto’s agnostic group shared how they would have never have imagined the group they now belong to, had Toronto not de-listed two other groups for atheist and agnostics.

    As a writer myself, I confess that my imagination can’t keep up with the world of possibilities that the fickle finger of fate presents.

    In the same way that it defies logic to swelter in the heat on the ledge of the Grand Canyon and imagine the glacier that created it, it’s hard to look at the snap shot of a single decision any of us as individuals or groups make and see the role of these acts in context – years, centuries, millennia. This isn’t to diminish small actions or standing up for what we believe in right now and right here. A line is not a line, if not for it’s infinite points. Together, the infinitely small creates the infinitely long; again it is almost more poetic than scientific, yet it is so.

    A flaw in AA’s service structure, or the structure that bind us flawed individuals and individual groups together? If batting .300 can land a baseball player that fails 70% of the time in the hall of fame, then there is surely a chance for A.A. as a whole and our flailing group-consciousness.

    Thanks for sharing your story Thomas; see you in Santa Monica.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Indeed, Joe, it is a privilege to meet persons we’ve experienced online face to face. It substantially enhances the deep connections we experience through our online connections.

      I remarked to Roger after attending the CAMH detox meeting Saturday morning that not only have you folks in Toronto made it possible for yourselves as suffering alcoholics and addicts to recover within AA, you have integrated yourselves within the network of AA and recovery in Toronto most effectively, despite the resistance of the “Back to Basics” folk. You serve as a model for what together within the spirit of our traditions and concepts of service can be done. It is my hope that as our movement grows and deepens, so too shall AA at large.

      And, yes, Santa Monica, California here we come !~!~!

  19. Mary R says:

    Thank you for a welcome share.

    Atheists etc in my local community are being berated for questioning why a Violence Against Women Vigil couldn’t be just that, and not a Prayer Vigil. I needed this today.

    I agree that leaving the fellowship/sisterhood of AA will not work for me. But having this website has been a tremendous help.

    Very sad that I cannot be in Santa Monica. The committee is doing a great job. Just left the website after trying to figure some way I could make it, but quite honestly, traveling to LAX and then to Santa Monica alone is just too daunting. Perhaps some more individuals in the Ocala/Gainesville, FL area will respond about starting a meeting, and there will be people to travel with to the SECOND convention.

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