By Michele Mandel
First posted on Friday, February 19, 2016 in the Toronto Sun
My name is Michele and I am not an alcoholic. But if I were, why does it matter whether or not I believe in God?
Talk about a lack of fellowship – non-believers battling the bottle have been booted from Alcoholics Anonymous in Toronto. Now Larry Knight is taking AA World Services and its GTA Intergroup (GTAI) to Ontario’s human rights tribunal, alleging discrimination on the basis of creed. Because members of his AA group are agnostic, he says they’ve been expelled from the local Toronto AA directory and have been denied the right to vote “on matters that are important to all AA members.”
In 2011, Toronto’s two secular AA groups – Beyond Belief and We Agnostics – were expelled and “delisted” from the roster of local meetings because they’d written God out of AA’s famous 12 steps to recovery found in The Big Book, its proverbial bible. Five of the steps specifically mention the Almighty, including “(We) sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
That may have worked for the majority when they were first penned in 1939, but many seeking recovery today were uncomfortable with the religious, church-like aspect of the program – so they formed new support groups that eliminated the God talk. On their website, AA Toronto Agnostics explain their philosophy: “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.”
They adapted the steps to be more secular: Step 11 became “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.”
It all sounds pretty tame in these modern times. But the Toronto central office would have none of it – how dare they mess with the text in The Big Book? The rebels were summarily expelled for their sacrilege. There are now 11 weekly secular AA meetings in the GTA; none can be found on the GTAI listings.
Knight wrote to AA’s headquarters in New York asking for its intervention in GTAI’s decision not to list his agnostic group. He told the human rights tribunal that he “received no calls and no response from AA.”
So he filed his complaint.
“The reason we went this way is because after three years of discussion, nothing happened,” Knight told the Sun. “The clock ran out and we’re still not allowed to vote. It’s important to feel that we are equal partners with an opportunity to speak.”
GTAI argued that its members must be prepared to practise the 12-step program and have a belief in God. Knight’s agnostic group, they told the tribunal, is free to “follow its own process” – but not as part of AA’s Toronto umbrella office: “It is a bona fide requirement that groups that wish to be part of this intergroup must have a belief in the higher power of God.”
“The only requirement for membership in AA is this desire to achieve sobriety and to help others in this achievement,” he told a summary hearing last month. “AA was not meant to be presented on any religious terms and … atheists and agnostics have been included as members in other parts of Canada and the United States over the years in order to promote an inclusive approach to AA membership rather than promote any religious perspective.”
After a teleconference with both sides, the tribunal ruled this week that Knight’s claim of discrimination should go to a full hearing.
“The fundamental question,” the tribunal noted in legalese, “is whether the Code requires a religion-based charitable organization to accommodate other beliefs by altering the services they provide on the basis of a differing creed by an applicant seeking to use those services.”
Should traditional Alcoholics Anonymous accept everyone, even those who choose not to look heavenward for salvation? The answer seems obvious: For God’s sake, yes.
The article was initially posted on Friday, February 19, on the Toronto Sun’s website. The following day it was published in the popular Saturday paper edition, with the above question posted at the very top of the front page. It’s a question which, today, could be an issue in many parts of North America.