Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups


When two agnostic groups were booted out of Intergroup in the Toronto Area, Roger C. emailed the Toronto Star and later that day spoke to a reporter/writer. He refused to let this story be buried in a church basement. The article below appeared on the top of the front page of the newspaper a few days later.

By Leslie Scrivener Feature Writer
Published on Friday June 3, 2011 in the Toronto Star

The dispute started when Beyond Belief posted an adapted version of AA’s hallowed “Twelve Steps” on the Toronto website. They removed the word “God” from the steps.

It uses “fellowship” to help chronic drinkers quit the bottle. But there is little fellowship in a schism that splintered the Alcoholics Anonymous umbrella group in the GTA this week.

At issue is this question: Do alcoholics need God?

On Tuesday, Toronto’s two secular AA groups, known as Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, were removed or “delisted” from the roster of local meetings. They’ve disappeared from the Toronto AA website and will not be in the next printed edition of the Toronto directory.

The dispute started when Beyond Belief posted an adapted version of AA’s hallowed “Twelve Steps” on the Toronto website. They removed the word “God” from the steps, which are used as a kind of road map to help drinkers achieve sobriety.

“They took issue with a public display of secular AA,” says Joe C., who founded Beyond Belief, Toronto’s first agnostic AA group, 18 months ago. (In keeping with AA’s tradition of anonymity, members are identified by first names only.)

It proved popular enough that a second group started up last fall; it took its name from a chapter in the AA bible entitled Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly known as the Big Book. The group, We Agnostics, had only recently completed the paperwork to be part of AA before being booted out.

“What is unusual is that this didn’t happen in some backwater, but that it happened in a liberal, democratic, pluralistic place like Toronto,” says Joe.

The name of God appears four times in the Twelve Steps and echoes the period in which they were written — the 1930s. It invites those seeking sobriety to turn themselves over to God, who will remove their “defects of character.” They go on to speak of God’s will for the recovering alcoholic.

“They (the altered Twelve Steps) are not our Twelve Steps,” says an AA member who was at Tuesday’s meeting of the coordinating body known as the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup. “They’ve changed them to their own personal needs. They should never have been listed in the first place.”

He says that in the early days of AA, meetings ended with the Lord’s Prayer. “That has obviously stopped in all but hard-core groups. We welcome people with open arms. In our group we still say the Lord’s Prayer. One guy was uncomfortable with that. I told him to just step back when we pray. He does. He’s doing what he needs to do for him.”

The issue of AA’s use of God has come up frequently over the past 50 years. For the most part, the organization — which claims 113,000 groups around the world — permits other agencies to imitate its program, but not to call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous.

Other secular organizations, including Save our Selves (or Secular Organizations for Sobriety), offer addiction help similar to AA. But with some 100,000 members in 2005, SOS is far less popular than AA, which reports a membership of about two million. In Toronto alone, there are 500 AA meetings a week.

“This is not the first we’ve gone up against bigotry,” says Larry of We Agnostics. “This has been an ongoing struggle in North America.”

One man wept in dismay over the delisting at Beyond Belief’s Thursday night meeting at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education on Bloor Street West. Thirty-two people, mostly men, sat at desks in a classroom.

“I do believe in God,” he said after the meeting. “But you don’t need to believe in God to recover and I don’t think it’s appropriate at AA.”

The meeting opened with a statement that said, in keeping with AA tradition, the group did not endorse or oppose either religious belief or atheism. “Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.”

“I’ve tried AA meetings and I couldn’t get past the influence of right-wing Christianity,” said a big, Liam Neeson look-alike.

“Last night I went to a meeting and it was like a sermon again,” he told the group. “I felt I should quit.

“But someone told me, ‘hey, go downtown, there’s an atheist/agnostic meeting.’ So I thought I thought I’d give AA one last chance and I came here.”

There’s a moment’s pause.

“Welcome,” the group said.

One of the members, Roger, took issue with AA’s concept of the “God of your understanding.”

“First, there is a gender problem (several of the steps refer to Him). But more importantly, a creator God with a personal interest in me doesn’t fit well with my understanding of how the cosmos works.”

In January, Rev. Pete Watters, 82, and a Catholic priest, celebrated 50 years of sobriety with AA. Several thousand came to an Oakville union hall to celebrate his anniversary.

He knew the roots of the movement well and travelled for seven years with the late Bill Wilson, the charismatic co-founder of AA and author of the Twelve Steps.

In 1961, Wilson, whose early thinking on AA was influenced by the British evangelical Oxford Group, addressed the problems faced by non-believers. He opened the tent to all, but wrote that doubters could eventually take the first “easy” step into “the realm of faith.”

“People and agencies can help,” Watters says, “but the only one who can restore that person to permanent sobriety is God. But that’s the God of your understanding — that can be anything you want.”

In AA God can be interpreted as an acronym for “good, orderly, direction,” or as something that can be found in nature, a set of ethical principles, or even in the courage of fellow AA members.

But it’s essential to turn yourself over to something or someone other, says Watters. “If you don’t believe in any power greater than yourself, you are on your own.”

A woman member of a group that adheres to the traditional Twelve Steps puts it this way: “You need to believe in something higher than yourself. Our self got us drunk.”

Different steps

Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that cite God:

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, prayer only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.


Beyond Belief’s adapted Twelve Steps:

2. Came to accept and to understand that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the AA program.
5. Admitted to ourselves without reservation, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.
7. Humbly sought to have our shortcomings removed.
11. Sought through mindful inquiry and meditation to improve our spiritual awareness, seeking only for knowledge of our rightful path in life and the power to carry that out.

17 Responses

  1. JoAnna M. says:

    Thank you for AA Agnostica! I say it’s about time we started following our hearts in recovery. I’ve been in recovery for almost 33 years and love A.A. but after a powerful shift of consciousness in 1985, I had to start a Women’s Group that honors our connection with Nature in recovery because Patriarchal religion and its concepts just didn’t work and it’s still going strong. We also started the Serenity Seekers Group here in Carson City, Nevada about 5 years ago because the intolerance of our religious members was over the top. We honor all spiritual paths along with free-thinking and secular views. We took GOD out of our steps and replaced it with higher powers… and it works well. We hold A.A. — Al Anon — CoDA — and O.A. and we are happy with it. I hope we continue doing this over the country because there is a real need for it. I often wonder how many more we could help if we took patriarchal religion out of A.A…. I think it would double in size…. thanks again… J

  2. Scot F. says:

    Really grateful for agnostic — not knowing — AA instead of blindly programmed belief. That said, at a point of about 25 years sobriety, I had spiritual experiences of grace, peace passing understanding, & practical mysticism as a result of being open Doobie Bros. style to “Jesus is just alright with me.” Nothing to do with the Bible or the Big Book specifically but an organic connection transcending ordinary human self-soothing — & healing of some old codependencies still lurking beneath long-term sobriety. AA does not need to be religious, really shouldn’t be by long form tradition, because many of us hurt by hypocrisy & worse in organized religion would have bolted AA at the beginning had we heard preaching. Because I have a solid “beyond belief” cosmic Christological serenity now with no desire to drink — as hymns say, “Love lifted me,” without dogma but with powerto feel, to be awed by life, to grieve losses, to put value on myself & value those who earn my trust — & because non-religious AA saved my life over 2 decades ago but now is confused organizationally about primary purpose, I embrace not formal church but a Celebrate Recovery focus & let go of today’s AA. You will find what realLy works if you continue to seek. And then you will be happily amazed. Enjoy the ride!

  3. Andy Mc says:

    All I can say is thank you Joe and all for being there… and having the guts to speak up and out! Through your open critique on the religiosity now found in many AA meetings I too have been given a reason to continue attendance in AA.
    Thank you guys, and keep up the great work, Andy Mc.

  4. Bob K. says:

    The single most EGREGIOUS breach of anonymity I’ve ever seen in two plus decades in AA. Father Peter on the front page of Canada’s largest newspaper, and assuming the role of spokesperson, surely looked to many to be the AA president, not just an AA client.

    One wonders how many potential members were deterred from ever approaching AA as the result of this egotism.

    Toronto Intergroup, or at least, several of its members, were virtually foaming at the mouth during the great witch hunt to PURIFY AA. Ultimately, their efforts had exactly the opposite effect.

    I think that’s Newton’s First Law of Irony, or something.

  5. Manoel C. says:

    g+o+d = a word, a sign, something that points to another something. It is that, and only that. Should not need Saussure to know it. But built the simple-sign a Capital G and surround it with thousands of years of erratic walls and you arrive at somber abstract bricks of intolerance.

  6. life-j says:

    Hmm, so that was you, Roger that set that whole thing in motion! Should have known.

    Well, glad you did.

    And maybe we should have the links to all the other problem places that you posted stories from, while we’re at it. Laytonville is still struggling, but we’re holding on.

  7. Thomas B. says:

    So good to tread down this sad by way of memory lane. However, on the other hand, I am so jubilantly happy for the bounteous growth of secular AA in North America that has resulted from the narrow-mindedness of their bigotry. The growth of secular AA since the delisting of We Agnostics and Beyond Belief is a prime example of the validity of the law of unintended consequences.

    Thank you Rev. Pete Waters for your bleeding deaconship, the consequences of which has insured that I can stay sober in AA a day at a time without having to believe in or accept your or anyone else’s god !~!~!

  8. Jon S says:

    Thank you so much for this. Particularly the comments. JS

  9. Pat N. says:

    “As long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unusual, the most antisocial, 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 individualists are still an AA group if they think so.”
    – Bill W., in the Grapevine, 1948

    “We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who would never have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.”
    – Bill W., AA Comes of Age, 1957

  10. Joe C. says:

    It’s great to remember that not even for a minute, did AA as a whole, Area 83 or our own district table, take this action as AA speaking. It was business as usual at the District table and agnostics were AA groups from district to area to AAWS if they (we) said they were.

    It was Intergroup that was on a quest to change AA; not the agnostic groups. The Steps have always been cherished but never sacred, suggested and never obligatory. AA as a whole never lost sight of this; just a few worried and intolerant types who want to impose their closely held view of what AA is as something that can and ought to be imposed on others.

    To govern AA groups is to change AA – imagine if you will, one alcoholic judging another.

  11. L.S. S. says:

    Please send me information, if any exists, on OA and/or Al Anon for Atheists and Agnostics either online or in Chicago.

    Thanks, and I’m glad to know you exist.


    • Bob K. says:

      You won’t have much luck with that. The traditional versions of those groups are miniscule compared to AA. There’s no room for subsets.

    • kward says:

      Maybe I’m missing something but I believe it would be very simple to start any agnostic/atheist 12 step group.
      As long as there is interest there shouldn’t be a problem, correct?
      K. Ward, Chicagoland area.

  12. Joe V. says:

    I support the Agnostic groups in AA as I no longer go to meetings after almost 30 years in the program. I was once a member of the Oakville Group where Father Peter was also a member. Actually he was my sponsor’s sponsor. It became apparent to me that religion was not a path to salvation or sobriety and perhaps the God concept was not either. Action versus prayer, honest conversation versus preaching, and facts versus faith have been the basis of my continued sobriety. I find the regular meetings of AA awkward as the feeling of being at an religious event more than dealing with an addiction is apparent. Thirty years ago we put a loonie into the collection plate (7th Tradition) and today you may see a toonie once in a while. Eventually this organization “will too pass” unless it modernizes both it’s message (steps) and traditions (especially the 7th)

    Joe V.

    • Joe C. says:

      I remember the Oakville Group of the 1980s. It was standing-room only in those days. It’s a shadow of its former self. still effective, but the membership is smaller and the average age has increased.

      • wisewebwoman says:

        I remember speaking there in the late 80s and feeling incredibly intimidated by all those old men in the front row with their arms crossed, just glaring at me. I think there were two other women in the room besides myself.

        I remember being very upset they had taped me without permission.

        Fr. Pete held firmly to the belief he was “recovered” as he kept shouting it any time I heard him speak. Never “recovering” as that was for wimps.

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