AA won’t list nonreligious group meetings


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” 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 ĺexist 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.

29 Responses

  1. Marnin says:

    The fundamental issue is that AA as practiced in 1935 and today is a very close cousin to the Oxford Movement’s format… to return to first century Christianity.

    Even with the adjustments to AA, GOD as you understand “him” “HP”… remove the GOD part and you are trampling on AA’s toes.

    I have recordings of some early AA meetings and they started with prayers to Jesus.

    As for as I’m concerned AA is a religious recovery program and will continue to ban heretic meetings as long as they can get away with it.

    Sad to say if I were a newcomer in Florida I think I would have had a much more difficult time trying to latch on to recovery in AA. Fortunately I got sober in NY and found some very liberal meetings.

  2. Tommy H says:

    In my experience the governing Central Office/Intergroup committee members are elected by the groups thru their CO/IG Representatives and these members, depending on how the bylaws are written, may be recalled.

    IOW, the groups, thru their reps, elect the committee members, and the committee supervises the office manager, which is a paid, full time position.

    In the Spirit of Rotation, committee members usually serve two years.

    This is the way the offices I am familiar with work. YMMV.

  3. Mark says:

    Central offices can have paid special employees/managers. Usually “governed” by a local central office operating committee, with each committee member rotating out of service every one or two years and that office is outside the AA service structure. The managers are given authority by the committee to make decisions for the daily operation of that office, including the content and publishing of meeting directories.

  4. Tommy H says:

    Well said, Bob.

    Has the national organization ever put in black and white the definition of an A.A. group?

    It would be to our advantage if a group could tell a reporter like this, “We meet the definition of an A.A. group, we function as an A.A. group, we are registered as an A.A. group with the G.S.O., but our local central office/intergroup won’t list us.”

    That would put our group in a position of strength.

  5. bobk says:

    GSO’s position is that Intergroups are autonomous – they will not interfere. It amuses me that what I would guess to be an Intergroup phone volunteer has elected to (erroneously) cite GSO policy to the press.

    It may also be worth informing the reporter that “There are more than 1.3 million AA groups nationwide” is also incorrect.

  6. kevin b says:

    So am I to understand that the only meetings recognized by the Des Moines Intergroup office are Big Book meetings? That is what the man said. Given that this has happened in Toronto, Indianapolis, and Des Moines isn’t, it about time for the GSO to step in? Do I even WANT the GSO to step in?

  7. John M. says:

    Congratulations, Des Moines Intergroup/Central Office —another worthy candidate for the unofficial AA history Hall of Shame!

  8. Lech says:

    A very good idea.

  9. Lech says:

    That’s the way to go, IMHO.
    One copy of Mr. Wilson’s famous text should do it.

  10. Eric T says:

    You said it Jeb – you are a *healthy* group, continuing to *grow*. Keep it up!

  11. Marnin says:

    I’m not surprised. For all these many years I have been expecting to be thrown out of AA for being a heretic.

    I have come to accept the following about AA ….

    That members consider AA to be a GOD given program.
    That it is perfect and needs no change.

    Prayers are part and parcel of the “cure”.

    I have always thought it strange that our medical disease requires the intervention of a deity. No other medical issue has this component.

    Lets face it, when AA was founded it was built on the ashes of the Washingtonian Movement – where members took an oath to abstain for life.

    As I see it AA is a continuation of the Oxford Movement which was a attempt to recreate first century Christianity.

    I call it Oxford Movement light!

    Maybe someday we will be accepted as full fledged members of AA. Perhaps some of the decision makers of AA will bother to actually read the preamble – “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”!!!

  12. Vic L. says:

    Ah, but it is. Lose the battle and win the war. I believe the Toronto group was de-listed because it insisted on having an alternative set of 12 steps.

  13. Jeff G. says:

    Attending regular AA meetings helped get me started toward a sober life but it wasn’t long before the meetings and the message actually turned me back around. I couldn’t cope with the idea that in order to stay sober I “had to” let a god into my life. That just wasn’t going to happen. I found the Denver area Freethinkers meeting and found peace in my healing process. It’s too bad there aren’t more of these types of meetings around to accommodate diverse schedules and addresses.

  14. Rob K says:

    I’m really getting tired of the “Him” part of it. Right speech is something that I have learned to take very seriously and this is not right speech for me. So I parrot what is read or mouth it, like I am in some kind of silent movie.

    Central offices, districts or whatever that higher authority is called has a group consciousness just like the group. Unfortunately, they create their consciousness based upon majority vote. So, here at least, we are right back to having the 1937 mentality being the one and only voice.

  15. Skip D. says:

    What is the name of your group’s website?

  16. Jeb B. says:

    Freethinkers in AA, Denver, is a registered group with AA World Services GSO, and we have an elected GSR to represent us in District 13. However, Denver Area Central Office refuses to recognize our elected Delegate to that committee. Yet, we are a healthy group, continuing to grow in spite of their judging us as unfit.

  17. Sharon M says:

    I feel like this is one of the best examples of Judeo-Christian arrogance in trying to impose their own will on others. It always puzzles me how some of the most open minds can slam shut when it comes to the ‘god’ thing. The ultimate focus SHOULD be on trying to get as many drunks sober as possible, not on pressuring people to do it their way.

  18. edward calhoun says:

    At times I feel very much like resigning, quitting AA – I am a recovered person – 23 yrs clean – sober – nicotine free. Even if I leave AA I shall always be grateful for the support it lent me in early recovery. I am a devout Agnostic – I dont believe in god – didnt before I got sober – I dont need AA today and will not need AA tommorow – – probably the only thing that keeps me is AA @ VA (VA hospital) to help my fellow veterans. To the mainstream bleeding and bleating deacons I say – Buzz off you fools.

  19. Wade R. says:

    Aloha All,

    Until you folks cans get your groups listed through your respective Central Offices… An effective way to let those still suffering alcoholics know about you is to do a kind of “round robin” agreement where by your members visit other meetings and announce your more secular meeting locations and times during their share periods. We WAAFTies are the future of an inclusive more effective AA!

  20. Roger says:

    Here’s what the GSO says about literature from other publishers:

    (The term Conference Approved) does not imply Conference disapproval of other material about AA. A great deal of literature helpful to alcoholics is published by others, and AA does not try to tell any individual member what he or she may or may not read. (Service Material from the General Service Office)

  21. John S says:

    Vic, why do you only use AA approved literature? That shouldn’t be a requirement to be listed or for anything else for that matter?

  22. Jen says:

    I do not understand how any Central Office manager can REFUSE to list a meeting. What about:
    “Our leaders are but trusted servants .THEY DO NOT GOVERN.”
    And what are the criteria for being a “Manager”, of any kind? Does A.A. actually have “managers”?
    Maybe there’s something I don’t understand?

  23. Jason says:

    I recently returned to AA following a 14 year absence. It has been terribly disappointing to learn that the polarization which has engulfed this country has also permeated AA culture. I am very grateful for the Denver Freethinkers meeting. I would be lost without it.

  24. Adam N says:

    Again, Joe C said it perfectly:
    “My bold prediction is that if AA doesn’t accommodate change and diversify, our 100th anniversary will be a fellowship of men and women with the same stature and relevance as the Mennonites; charming, harmless and irrelevant.”

  25. Eric T says:

    Totally agree! That’s what our group did – got the meeting going, maintained momentum, registered the usual way, and once we got the GSO group number, proceeded from there. I’m sober into multiple years finally, thanks to doing service at my not-so-new beloved WAFT homegroup!

  26. Vic L. says:

    NYC Agnostic AA uses only AA-approved literature and is listed by NY Intergroup.

  27. Jeb B. says:

    In Denver we have a weekly meeting going strong, our own website and over 40 members with a secular, non-religious and honest expression of the 12 Step process. Yet, the Denver Central Office manager refuses to list us online or in the printed schedule. Nonetheless, alkies continue to find us through internet searches and the local grapevine. With the motto of “cease fighting anyone or anything,” we are simply letting it go for now. However, we are firmly committed to maintaining the DECLARATION OF RESPONSIBILITY as our personal and group pledge. Men and women driven away from religious AA meetings are finding a safe place now to share their experience, strength and hope that others may recover from alcoholism without pretending!

  28. Tommy H says:

    I think it’s important for the groups to be registered with GSO. That way it looks strange for the local central office/intergroup to not list them.

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