By Rekha Basu
Originally published in The Des Moines Register on February 6, 2015
The Alcoholics Anonymous schedule of meetings in Des Moines lists a diverse roster of gatherings for a Saturday. There’s Big Book Babes, Women of Resilience and GLBT & Friends, Grupo Un Dia A La Vez and Miracle on 63rd Street. There are groups specifically for men, for people trying to get sober and for people trying to stay that way.
But conspicuously absent from the Saturday meeting list posted by the AA central office in Des Moines is a group called The Broad Highway. That’s for alcoholics who want to find sobriety without necessarily having religion be part of it. The AA organization won’t list its meetings.
No board member responded to my request for an interview. But a man answering the phone at the Des Moines central office (In accordance with AA policy, he asked that his name not be used) said it’s the position of the general service organization not to list meetings as AA meetings if they don’t take things directly out of the Big Book.
The Big Book, published in 1939, was written by Alcoholics Anonymous founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. It sets out the 12-step self-help principle of AA, and contains references to “God as we understood Him.” It urges members to turn themselves over to a higher power to “restore us to sanity;” to admit one’s wrongs to God and another human being and to ask God to “remove our shortcomings.” It calls for prayer and meditation “to improve our conscious contact with God, “as we understand Him.”
But as members of The Broad Highway point out, other passages from founder Wilson say any two people can make up an AA group, with no requirement to embrace religion. The book’s preamble says the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking. And a passage from Wilson published in a 1946 issue of the AA’s Grapevine says, “So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an A.A. Group if they think so!”
Despite the obvious intent to be inclusive, Dave Witke of Des Moines, a 28-year AA member, says most AA meetings emphasize not just dependence on a personal God but “a heavy emphasis on Christianity.” Many meetings open and close with the Lord’s Prayer and include Christian readings, he said. Witke and several other members of the chapter considers it a form of religious discrimination that drives away prospective members.
A man who was instrumental in forming The Broad Highway chapter more than four years ago believes AA should “secularize” itself altogether, but says atheists’ general invisibility makes that unlikely to happen. But other members would be happy just to have a recognized chapter free of required religion. One woman in her 60s began with AA 20 years ago, and credits the first meeting with saving her life. She tried various different meetings before finding this one, often feeling alienated as an agnostic who kept being told to pray and that she would find her higher power. “I basically just shut up and didn’t say anything,” she said. But privately, other members shared her uncertainty.
Now, she says, “It’s liberating to be able to say, ‘I don’t believe in God.” She values the fellowship with people who understand her issues from a non-religious standpoint. But it’s hard to get the word out about meetings since AA won’t list them. So only about eight people attend The Broad Highway. The size and universal availability of AA meetings day or night make AA both universally recognized and accessible. There are more than 1.3 million AA groups nationwide. It would be hard to build a new organization and get that kind of visibility.
The issue has been causing divisions in other cities as well. In Indianapolis and Toronto and Vancouver, Canada, agnostic/atheist groups were de-listed after adopting rewritten versions of the Twelve Steps without references to God. But in New York, San Francisco and Kansas City, such chapters are listed. The Huffington Post says there are more than 90 unofficial “agnostic AA” groups meeting in the U.S.
I have no direct experience with AA, but its strength seems to lie in the open, non-hierarchical nature of its meetings. Chapters are self-supporting, with members contributing the biggest chunk of the budget, supplemented by book sales. Over the years, though, I’ve seen friends who were trying to get sober turn away from AA because of discomfort with the references to a higher power.
This is an issue the organization will need to grapple with to stay relevant. If the founders’ goal was indeed not to promote any denomination, but to help people stay sober by sharing, surely there’s room enough under the umbrella for all kinds — even godless people — to have a group.
In response to several errors in the article, Russ H. (author of several articles on AA Agnostica) sent the following message to its author, Rekha:
You might be interested in four relevant points below… Although AA is dedicated to anonymity it is gratifying to see reporting like yours addressing one of the broad underlying issues that is currently stretching some of the rigid and exclusionary attitudes that sometimes surface within our organization.
First, the title “AA won’t list non-religious group meeting” is generally incorrect. Most non-religious AA meetings worldwide are listed. See the article Agnostic AA Meetings Gaining Momentum | AA Agnostica for a complete summary of the situation as of Nov 30, 2014.
Second, the specific meeting mentioned in your article is listed as by the local Des Moines AA General Service committee Area 24 Iowa – District 7: Des Moines and surrounding area (which indicates 9 AM Saturday at 3500 Kingman Blvd).
Third, the article indicates that the Des Moines “AA Central Office” (see District 7 of Area 24 Meeting Schedule) declines to list the meeting. This is true.
Fourth, and most important in my mind, is that local AA Central Offices and Intergroup committees do not speak for AA as a whole. The General Service Office in New York and its local and district committee offices around the country represent the organization Alcoholics Anonymous in this country and similar organizational bodies also exist internationally. So, AA does typically list non-religious meetings. However, there are a dozen or so isolated local Central Offices, Intergroups and Service Centers, mainly in the U.S. and Canada, that have so far declined to do so. This issue is being actively (sometimes heatedly) addressed within the local AA committees and groups where non-religious AA meetings are meeting resistance. Over more than 75 years now, AA has confronted the problems of prejudice and intolerance among our group members time and time again. The traditions of AA itself are clearly and adamantly opposed to exclusionary practices based on any criteria (ethnicity, gender, sexual preferences, socio-economic status, religious beliefs…). This is not my opinion. AA has a rich literature which stretches forward from the original founders to today’s membership. I can provide chapter and verse it you are interested.
Russ makes some important corrections in the article. And he is quite correct in noting that the value of this piece in The Des Moines Register is in addressing very directly the bias that continues to exists – at least in some areas – against atheists and agnostics in AA.