Alcoholics Anonymous accused of discrimination

Sun Article

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.”

Knight disagreed.

“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.

Toronto SunThe 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.

55 Responses

  1. Jack F. says:

    The goal is to help the alcoholic gain sobriety! The goal is not to bring the alcoholic to god! Let organized religion assume the god business and let AA do the sobriety business! Page XX of the forward to the big book says “Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religion”! Organized religion has had decreasing membership numbers in the years since the thirties! Is AA going to remain open to all alcoholics regardless of their lack of religious convictions? Will AA grow or die?

  2. Brent P. says:

    I don’t believe the parties involved in the OHRC hearing can get there simply based on a “he said, she said” argument. I’m certain the mediators in this case will have copies of all communications from Intergroup, GSO and AAAA. Otherwise what does AAAA have to support its case? Having read the missive from GSO rep Mary Clare L. correcting what she describes, a “misstatement”, and reinforcing the rule of autonomy of individual groups, I believe AAAA in Toronto will be well represented at the hearing. It’s going to be an interesting process to witness. Precedent setting perhaps?

  3. Brent P. says:

    I’m just going to present my own logic here as simply as possible.

    In seeking to excise God from a program where God is so central to its tenets, then there has to be a plan to redesign the entire program. One does not remove the cornerstone from a building and expect it to remain standing. In other words, to those who believe, “it’s the same program, we’ve just taken God out of the equation”, you will discover that can’t be done.

    It’s like somebody remarking on the Golden Gate Bridge, “beautiful span if they could just get rid of those wires the bridge hangs from”.

    Those wires are central to its structural integrity. You can’t remove the wires and expect the bridge to remain intact.

    While there is great excitement for another, independent body to hear AAAA’s case for inclusion, does AAAA have a plan for the future? Does it have a vision that will ensure its structural integrity while remaining accessible to all who might feel displaced by the OHC’s ruling?

    Agnostica’s last post was the most exciting for me because I’ve complained about AA being mired in the past and behaving as if the treatment of alcoholism hadn’t changed since 1935. My support for AAAA was based on the fact that in removing God it would, by necessity, have to replace God with science. But in attending AAAA meetings I’ve never gotten the impression there’s a plan for going forward.

    AA has an existing precedent about 90 years old. I don’t know the age of AAAA but time favours AA. Are there concessions all could make so that all remain relatively happy and well served by their groups?

    What Bill Wilson recognized, at least from an organizational perspective, was the need for a higher authority. What is AAAA’s higher authority. I believe that must be the next step in its evolution or the cleave between AA and AAAA will, in all practical terms, mean they are different places with different goals. There will be no substituting one for the other. Is that the objective?

  4. Sean B. says:

    I’m a little late getting in to the conversation here, as news, even with all the technology we have today, seems to travel slowly to these parts. Either that, or I haven’t been paying attention!!

    It’s interesting to note that the book Alcoholics Anonymous… or the “Big Book”, as we alcoholics know it… was written in 1939, by about 100 men and women who had recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body, and goes on to state that the main purpose of the book was to show other alcoholics “precisely how we have recovered.” This at a time when there were less than 5 known groups.

    From that small, humble beginning, and in the 16 years between the 1st and 2nd Editions, AA grew to nearly 6000 groups with more than 150,000 members. By the time the 4th Edition was released in November 2001, AA had more than 2,000,000 members worldwide, in 100,800 registered groups, in about 150 countries.

    From the foreword to the 4th Edition of the Big Book, it states, “As the message of recovery has reached larger numbers of people, it has also touched the lives of a vastly greater variety of suffering alcoholics”. When the phrase “We are people who normally would not mix” (page 17 of this book) was written in 1939, it referred to a Fellowship composed largely of men (and a few women) with quite similar social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Like so much of AA’s basic text, those words have proved to be far more visionary than the founding members could ever have imagined. The stories added to this edition represent a membership whose characteristics — of age, gender, race, and culture — have widened and have deepened to encompass virtually everyone the first 100 members could have hoped to reach.

    While our literature has preserved the integrity of the AA message, sweeping changes in society as a whole are reflected in new customs and practices within the Fellowship.

    The only business I have in AA is to share my experience, strength, and hope with others, that I might stay sober myself, and that I may help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety also. Nowhere does it tell me that those that I try to help have to believe what I believe, in order to get sobriety. My sponsor used to tell me “What keeps me sober, might set you drunk”, meaning that what my perception is, is exactly that… my perception. It doesn’t mean that it’s right or wrong; it only means that that is what I believe. And if you believe in something different, then that’s fine as long as it works for you. I have absolutely no right to deny you sobriety based on what you do… or don’t… believe.

    The important thing to remember is that no matter what your belief, recovery starts when one alcoholic talks with another. And that the basic principles of AA trace the same path to recovery for me and for you, as it did for the first 100 men and women.

    “No alcoholic man or woman should be excluded from our Society.” Foreword to the 2nd Edition

  5. Helen L says:

    Thank you.

    That GSO corrected information response should have been included in the newspaper article too. I hope the judges are aware of it. The court’s statement in the article implied to me that they are not aware of the correct GSO position.

  6. kawika says:

    As a long time member in sobriety, I still get uncomfortable when reciting the “Lords Prayer”. The word Lord is another word for “master” and evokes a type of mental subservience and mental slavery to me. Yes, I too would vote to remove all God assertions and the mention of our “creator” as a “Him” if our program to be truly religious free! Thank you!

  7. Michael N. says:

    How are groups in the GTAI responding to the argument that AA is a religious organization?

    Will groups leave the GTAI as a result of this defense?

    Is the tax free status removed if they fail to comply to list agnostic groups?

    When is the ruling expected?

    I feel this a great experience for we alcoholics in this century. We will be better and more effective in Widening the Gateway in the long run. Could be the end GTAI and something better and more inclusive will come out of it.

    Thank you Larry for your endeavor.

  8. Roger says:

    I reported on the GSO involvement with the delisting as follows:

    The AA General Service Office (GSO) in New York played a role in the delisting of Beyond Belief and We Agnostics.

    Asked if a group can adapt the Steps, a GSO staffer, Mary Clare L wrote: “If we are aware that an A.A. Group listed here at G.S.O. has in any way modified the A.A. Steps we do not list them.” This is from an email on April 4, 2011, and is reported in the July issue of the GTA Intergroup’s newsletter, Better Times.

    But Mary Clare realized that she had made a mistake, and, to her credit, in a letter to the GSO area delegate, Robb W, on June 14, she wrote: “I need to correct a misstatement on the text that I sent you because my understanding of what happens here at G.S.O. was wrong.” She continued: “As embodied in the Fourth Tradition, the formation and operation of an A.A. Group resides within the group conscience of its members… Groups listed in the directory are listed at their own request… It is not any A.A. member or A.A. group’s right to stand in judgment of another.”

    Mary Clare offered to “make amends” by sending her correction to groups in the area.

    As you note, Bob, it was too late, the groups had been delisted. That story is told in A History of Agnostic Groups in AA.

  9. bob k says:

    I believe GSO did respond to Intergroup, a response Intergroup published in their Better Times newsletter and supportive of the delisting. The GSO rep later recanted re: the pro-delisting response, but it was too late.

    It was the complainant who alleges that he got no response from GSO.

  10. Brent P. says:

    In the United States, in hearing a case against AA brought by a man forced by the courts to attend a certain number of AA meetings, the state Supreme Court declared AA a religious organization and the man free to ignore the court order for the simple fact he might have other beliefs or no religious beliefs at all. The truth is, if you really look at the steps with an open mind, you must conclude they are about a Christian religious conversion. By the end it is assumed we have accepted God as our Higher Power, had a spiritual experience and recognize God as our supreme authority. This is what is so confounding. AA purports to being inclusive to all who simply want to deal with a drinking problem (they don’t even have to be alcoholic since it does say we self diagnose) but, save for the first step which acknowledges a powerlessness over alcohol as being the primary reason for a person to attend AA, it in no way speaks to how one stops drinking. To this day nobody knows how to do that.

  11. Helen L says:

    I am most concerned about the GSO’s role in exacerbating the Toronto Intergroup controversy.

    Surely this delisting issue is not new to AA.

    How is it that the GSO in New York did not even respond at all to requests for guidance? Where was the measured loving response of “it has been our experience that…”? Where was the GSO support for the autonomy of an agnostic group? Where was the GSO concern for the group’s well-meaning but possibly improper misrepresentation of its copyrighted written materials?

    Where was the balanced sober response of helping all those on the one side to understand and accommodate those on the other side of the controversy?

    The GSO, in not responding, blew it!

    This court case could have and should have been avoided.

  12. bob k says:

    The issue now has gone beyond AA’s authority. We will now find out if the actions of Toronto Intergroup have violated the applicant’s civil rights as a resident of the Province of Ontario.

    If the discriminatory actions taken by Toronto AA’s Intergroup are found to have been illegal, AA’s traditions, procedures, regulations, and processes will not overrule the laws of the land.

  13. Skeezix says:

    Thank you Dave J. When the BB was written, these people had at most 4 years sobriety… To treat the BB as sacred text, as many do, is absurd… Can any AA member claim that they view things exactly the same way at, say 10, 15, or 30 years of sobriety, as they did at 3 years?

    I have a friend in the program who when asked what he thought about some controversial goings-on in our area meetings, said… “I don’t really know… To get the answer to that, you’d better ask someone with 5 years sobriety… Those guys know everything.” Of course, he was rather tongue in cheek, but many times, that’s how it is.

  14. Peggy H. says:

    “The only requirement in AA is a desire to stop drinking.” I have used this for 20 years now and to the best of my ability have tweaked all the god stuff in the steps and traditions. But this is getting harder and harder for me to continue doing. I am not in meetings to turn my will over to god or have a loving god get me sober. I am not in church, I am at an AA meeting. I am an agnostic/atheist and have stayed sober without god. Here in Arizona (an ultra conservative state) we close meetings with the lord’s prayer. I stay in the circle holding hands without reciting it but I am tired of it.

    I am so glad that this discrimination complaint is moving forward. Kudos to the Toronto people for not tolerating this outrageous act of discrimination (which it truly is).

    And just some food for thought: If I should get down on my knees and humbly and gratefully thank god for getting me sober, why did he make me a drunk in the first place?

  15. bob k says:

    If some folks gathered together for sobriety and formed an AA group, then had that group delisted and disenfranchised for subbing “Allah,” or “G-d,” or “Great Spirit” for “God,” the discrimination would be more obvious.

    BUT, there is also freedom from religion. I’m pleased to see this complaint moving forward.

  16. Andrew from NYC says:

    In Toronto, first they delisted the Atheist/Agnostics groups, because they weren’t really AA. But I didn’t speak up, because I’m not an Atheist/Agnostic.
    After the wind died down a bit, they delisted the Living Sober/Beginner meetings, because THAT wasn’t the AA message either. And I didn’t speak up, because I’m not a beginner.
    Then they delisted the Twelve and Twelve Step meetings, because it wasn’t really AA.
    Then they delisted the As Bill Sees it meetings, because it wasn’t AA (and what about Bob, dammit!) And I didn’t speak up, because I don’t go to As Bill Sees it meetings.
    Finally I wanted to go to a meeting, and there was only one, which told me I couldn’t attend unless I was vetted as a god fearing, highlighter carrying, big book thumping, real alcoholic.

    It might sound improbable but I could see it happening.

    I’ve seen a few comments on how this whole controversy of bringing suit violates Tradition 4: “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.”

    I’d like to add another more disturbing (to me) way that this tradition is being violated.

    GTAI seems to want to be the arbiter on what the correct AA message is. They’ve delisted the Atheist/Agnostics groups because they don’t believe in god. I can see next, them delisting Open Discussion groups, then Twelve and Twelve Step/Tradition meetings (not the official AA message). Next Living Sober meetings, then As Bill Sees it meetings, then Daily Reflections meetings. I’ve seen many groups that carry Hazelden literature (some of which conflicts with AA’s Big Book.) Even the Big Book conflicts with itself in places!

    I’m an agnostic and got sober in NYC in the mid 1980s and went through the steps with a sponsor who had a lot of knowledge of the Big Book. Not once did he he ask me what my concept of a higher power was, or tell me I needed to find one. He never took me by the hand to kneel and say the Third Step prayer from the Big Book. I hate the “recovered/in recovery” arguments, but I do understand what they are talking about, and I suppose I have “recovered”. I don’t talk that way, because it just sounds divisive to me.

    I have moved away from NYC and live in an area where there it is very fundamentalist and literal interpretation of the Big Book. When someone finds out that I’m an agnostic, I’ve gotten all sorts of comments, the most common of which is “maybe you’re not a real alcoholic” (another divisive term as far as I’m concerned.) I’ve read the book and understand exactly what they mean, and yes, I am a real alcoholic in every sense of the word. And it’s not about how long I am sober, but I mostly hear these comments from AA members who weren’t even born when I got sober over 31 years ago, and really would have no way of knowing (well if they were able to get past my agnosticism and listen to the “what we were like” part of my story.

  17. kawika says:

    Well said. I also feel (as many others) that the “Lords Prayer” should be excluded from AA because of its “explicit” ties to religion!

    Its known as the “AA LIE.”

  18. kawika says:

    Well said my friend. It should be modified (in my opinion to include) that Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues and religions; hence the AA name never be brought into public controversy! I am agnostic leaning towards atheist. Religious people are in denial of reality!

  19. kawika says:

    Well said my friend…

  20. kawika says:

    My thoughts exactly. I have shared your sentiments in AA meetings here in Hawai’i.

    I’ve always maintained and shared a couple of times the fact that religion has done nothing but divide humanity globally, and that if it is allowed it will divide us AA’s too.

    Its no secret that the Big Book has many god assertions and references throughout most of the book.

    Religious assertions have no place in AA in my opinion. Sad to hear of this tragedy…

  21. Brent P. says:

    I am shocked to learn of GTAI’s statement, “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.”

    Higher Power was the concession that was made to an atheist who was among the first hundred members. He wouldn’t stand for language that excluded those who either didn’t believe or believed differently. The language Intergroup uses, “the higher power of God” is not to be found in any AA text I’ve seen. AA language refers to “God or your Higher Power”. Higher Power was always capitalized and it always was an “or” to God. Over years AA groups and members have pretty much tossed the “or” Higher Power and made it synonymous with God.

    Bill Wilson, regardless of his own beliefs, wanted AA to be inclusionary and the longer he lived the more concerned he appeared to be with some of the interpretations of his cornerstone tenets. I believe if Bill Wilson were alive today he would be at odds with anything that appeared to exist as a barrier to alcoholics who want to gather, as a group with a distinguishing conscience. “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” The longer he lived he seemed to recognize that as an AA essential. To make judgements of any sort on others’ ways of life could not be tolerated.

    What is demonstrated here, by Intergroup, is a horrible perversion of the most simple of kindnesses. It is building walls and is exclusionary. AA is now divisive, misguided and principles are being reigned over by personalities, something I think AAAA needs be conscious of not allowing. I sit in meetings and see cultish, glassy eyed conformity. And I wonder what ever happened to the AA that was driven solely by it’s vital service to the alcoholic who’d reached the last house on the block.

    AA’s position in the treatment chain has changed. That is what Intergroup ought to be examining. It ought to be discussing how it can be of most service in this world so vastly different from life in 1935 and humbly figuring out how to adapt.

  22. Sally F. says:

    This unfortunate controversy is just another example of how religion, all of which is imaginary and unverifiable, harms and divides us.

    I am desperate to find secular meetings. In the meantime, I take what I can use and leave the rest.

  23. Stephanie says:

    Also, some agnostic groups don’t rewrite anything at all, but they still get bounced from cranky fundie intergroups. And since when is the basis of AA that damn book? The basis of AA is one alcoholic helping another. Without that at its heart, there wouldn’t even have been a text to argue about.

  24. Stephanie says:

    The law takes precedence over AA’s traditions, as it should. And to be frank, it sets off a few alarm bells to see someone invoke an organization’s norms to dissuade or prevent anyone from seeking legal redress for harms they’ve suffered within it.

  25. Stephanie says:

    That link is coming up dead for me…

    Just off the top of my head, I think that it’s not just about the nature of the organization, but also about the nature of the activity it’s engaged in. The Catholic church wouldn’t have to alter its forms of worship to accommodate people of another faith, but if it’s operating a free meal service it can’t do so in a way that prevents people of other faiths from eating there. Based on that statement from the Tribunal, that’s the needle that I think they will be looking to thread here.

  26. Ed W. says:

    Insha’Allah, as Arabs say…

  27. life-j says:

    Dan, yes, on p 29 it says about the personal stories – not – how they got sober – but – “how he established his relationship with god”. So yes, that may indeed be what AA is all about.

    Started out as one alcoholic talking with another. But the BB says so many things, it’s as contradictory as any Bible.

    Hopefully what this controversy will establish: when push comes to shove does AA at present consider itself a religion or not?

  28. Annette R. Smith says:

    Good post. It clarifies something for me. I originally thought the issue was altering the book, (which might be a violation of copywrite law.) But AA is not the one suing for redress. On the contrary, AA represented by this particular Intergroup, dished out its own punishment by delisting, which indeed seems like it is NOT in keeping with what AA is supposed to be about. The big question is what the court’s options would be over a private entity. But as others have said, it could be a really important case and at least should serve to bring this issue to light!

  29. life-j says:

    I think the question here is that if AA IS a religious organization, then it is allowed to discriminate all it wants, just like the Catholic church cannot be required to make special concessions to Muslims in their service structure, that would be absurd.

    IF AA is simply a civic organization and NOT a religious organization – which it officially claims – all the while showing all signs of being religious – then it is not, and should not be allowed to discriminate on the basis of belief or lack thereof.

    I have the impression that this legal challenge is as much about forcing AA to get off the fence and tell what it IS, as it’s about getting specific concrete results with respect to intergroup.

  30. John L. says:

    “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.”

    Is AA a “religion-based charitable organization”? I don’t think so, and AA officially denies being a religious organization. And what about providing services? What services, and provided by Whom? — by world or national AA? By Toronto Intergroup? By individual groups?

    I don’t know the legal answers, but think that Toronto Intergroup should be shamed, again and again, until they do the right thing.

  31. Steven JA says:

    If you say the book is concrete and must be followed, then you can not ignore that it states “These are suggestions”.

  32. Steven JA says:

    The book says that these are “suggestions” and it also in some places says it does not care of what conception of god is used. Members are to be free to use their own conception of god. Even if this conception is an exact lack of a sort of deity. It says you need a power greater then yourself… and as the book is a suggested text… this power can therefore be inspiration. Inspiration to want to be a better human being. Atheist, Agnostic, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist. There are alcoholics everywhere. AA’s third tradtion clearly states that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. It also says in AA text that AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, institutions or organizations. Does not wish to engage in any controversy. Neither endroses nor opposes any causes. “Our primary purpose is to stay sober, and to help other alcoholics to acheive sobriety.”

    I am an Atheist. I am a member of AA. We are all recovering drunks.

  33. Dan H. says:

    As a self-designated and vocal (at meetings) agnostic, I’m just playing Devil’s advocate here. There is a viewpoint that freedom from alcohol is an incidental byproduct of “finding God.” The book doesn’t says it’s about quitting drinking, it says it’s (“exactly”) about finding this “Power.” If the fellowship is based on the intent of the book, and the book is about finding something, then removing that “something” renders the whole thing meaningless to those who were brought up in and are stuck in this paradigm.

  34. Thomas B. says:

    Like the inimitable Bob K., my introduction to New York City AA in 1972 was characterized by this primary and essential dictum:

    “Don’t drink, Go to meetings, Help Others”

    It’s been my consistently successful and essential “go to” for recovery in AA ever since. Yes, I’ve practiced other suggestions inherent in the 12 Steps, though not necessarily as they are expressed in the language of the Big Book. I’ve used other equally as valid interpretations of the 12 Steps, which draw upon the various other wisdom traditions the diversity of our species have manifested.

    The end result is that I have “trudged the road to a happy destiny” despite at times excruciatingly dark times of despair, grief, pain and confusion.

    All in all, I have not had to pick up a drink again, whether my ass fell off or whether it turned to gold — hopefully I never shall, a day at a time . . .

    Thank you, Larry K., for the courageous stand you’ve taken and the service you’ve done for all of AA !~!~!

  35. Thomas B. says:

    With all due respect, George, the Big Book itself, collaboratively fashioned by Bill and early AA members between 1937 and 1939, even suggests deviations from its specific wording is permitted:

    “The wording was, of course, quite optional so long as we expressed the idea, voicing it without reservation.”
    Alcoholics Anonymous, Page 63, 1939

    It’s always been my opinion that Unity is different from uniformity…

  36. Gary O. says:

    I got sober in Toronto in 1972. It was occasionally said to someone overzealously preaching, “Leave your religion outside the door. You can pick it up on the way out.” It saddens me to see what has happened in Toronto, particularly since the men’s group in Calgary of which I am a member could not care less whether a member is religious, atheist, agnostic or a pastafarian! Apparently we take seriously the notion that “the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking”.

    Does that mean that there are no groups here that lean toward the religious? No. Some close their meetings with the Lord’s prayer. I tend to visit them only once. But I was so pleased that Calgary intergroup immediately published the details of our first agnostic meeting when it began and even more chagrinned that Toronto had and continues to behave so badly.

    While there may be a schism in AA due to this religious nonsense and, perhaps, an eventual separation, my money is on those who hold to the responsibility pledge.

  37. Jon S. says:

    Thanks for posting. This is history in the making. Finally AA will be brought into the 21st century. Good luck Larry Knight.

  38. Steven says:

    There are two parts to this. “Should” AA de-list, and should AA be legally “forbidden” to delist.

    First, let me dispense with the easy work. AA should NOT delist agnostic and atheist meetings. Period.

    Secondly, should AA be legally forbidden to. This is a more complicated question. The author summarizes the issue by posing this question: ““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.” To answer that question, I would say simply and flat out NO. They should be able to function as they want.

    However, that does not end the discussion and I believe the author fails to ask the more relevant and applicable question. That being: Does the organizations charter and bylaws and purpose require strict adherence to specific religious principles and practices , and is an agnostic/atheist meeting clearly in violation of the organization’s rules.

    I would argue the legal question can only be answered by AAs own organizing documentation. I would argue, refusing to list agnostic and atheist organizations IS INDEED IN VIOLATION of AAs own organizing documents, and refusing to list agnostic and atheists groups is based on a capricious and arbitrary interpretation of AAs organizing documentation, and therefore constitutes discrimination based on creed.

    I think Joe C does a wonderful job outlining the legal argument here:

  39. Dan L says:

    Thanks for the update on this ongoing strife Michelle. I have always felt since everyone is an individual that no two people can interpret the Steps and Traditions in exactly the same way… so WTF is this idea of enforcing conformity in the name of unity? Reading Bill’s writings plainly indicates that he did not want this and this attempt at trying to force conformity after the fact would have been anathema to him. So certain people are attempting to force their personal (and dead wrong) interpretation of AA on the masses. This is a classic example of government overreach by an entity which has Traditions stating it is not even a government. Since when do “trusted servants” enforce their will on their employers? I also ask my self what kind of paranoid egomaniac feels entitled to persecute the people he is supposed to be serving? This is a disgusting perversion of what I view to be AA’s fundamental values. I am glad to see these myopic pharisees taken to court and exposed for the deranged perverts they are. That is just my opinion, thanks. I watch as AA strangles itself before my eyes.

  40. Dave J says:

    The Big Book might have actually been good, if written after Bill had some real sober time. One thing for sure, it’d been a hell of a lot shorter.

  41. Ed W. says:

    So many of these service-level organizations in AA suffer from such bureaucratic co-dependence that very few of these “outside” issues get addressed properly.

    Yes, representatives of the the General Service Office are happy to speak at the WAAFT convention and see the importance of our type of meetings in AA. For example, we don’t violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution if someone is court-ordered to attend. We provide a valuable service to those who would otherwise run out (or be ran out) becausw of all the god thumping at meetings.

    However, G.S.O. sees intervening with Greater Toronto Area Intergroup, or any Central, as a violation of the Fourth Tradtion. Even though G.T.A.I. violated the Third Tradition! Bill W. said that an AA group is “an AA group if they think so!”

    Every group should have the right to be listed on as many or as few lists as they wish. A policy of discrimination and censorship is not going to help the still sick & suffering newcomer get what he or she needs.

    It seems AA’ers treat our traditions like roadblocks rather than road signs to progress.

    So, I am happy to hear that the Province of Ontario is stepping in to address this, since we can’t get our own house in order…


  42. Roger says:

    Well, you may have won a battle, Vic, but certainly not the war.

    It’s the folks in Toronto who will win the war. More shall be revealed. Stay tuned.

  43. Lisa says:

    For recovering people who were raised in a violent religion, just reading about the authoritarian tactics of the governing groups makes us twitch and flinch.

    If we are truly helped by being there for those “who still suffer”, then why drive away the unbelievers? It’s ugly.

    Remember, courts are still requiring people to go to AA meetings.

    I respect the fact that people CAN think for themselves. When did that become an impediment to the governing body of AA? Disgusting.

  44. Vic L. says:

    “… how dare they mess with the text in The Big Book?” As a non-believer I try to ignore the “god stuff.” However, I believe the Big Book, 12 Steps & 12 Traditions are copyrighted by AA. I am not a lawyer and do not wish to argue copyright law but AA might have the law on their side. I hope not.

    NYC Agnostic AA purged all non-conferenced approved literature from it’s website & meetings in order to stay listed. We felt it more important to enable people to find us online than not. Others may disagree. We feel we have lost the battle but won the war.

  45. Willow F says:

    Boy – big news! In my own ponderings I have been thinking about Tradition 2 (and just grabbed my 12×12 to re-read it). “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority, a loving god as he may express himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern”.

    It occurred to me that if, in a group conscience, “god” does not express himself at all, that is just as valid a representation as any other.

    These decisions, if challenged, should be presented to the greater group to decide. If the area or general service members are not facilitating that, then it could certainly be interpreted that they are blocking it.

    The text and tenets of AA were intended to evolve as the “group” gained experience and wisdom. That evolution has been stalled for a very long time. Growth is crucial for us at this juncture.

  46. Roger says:

    Ernie just rolled over in his grave.

    He loved The Little Book which contains twenty mostly secular alternative versions of the original 12 Steps. He asked that a quote from him be put on the back cover of the book and that was very happily done:

    Ernie and The Little Book

  47. life-j says:

    Our leaders are but trusted servants, they should not try to govern.

    As for whether it’s ok to change the steps, or to not use them in any official reading during the meeting, that’s just like with the bible – it depends what scripture we lean on. There is plenty to support both, so in the end all we may be left with to guide us is common sense. But it looks like this could force AA to decide whether it is indeed a religion or not.

  48. Annette R. Smith says:

    Well-stated, George.

  49. jack says:

    In the Forward page XX it states: “Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization”. THE BIG BOOK!

  50. Marnin M. says:

    I’ve answered the phones at my local Florida intergroup office since 2003.

    When I was sober 42 years they asked me to write my story for their quarterly newspaper. It was refused because the editor did not think anyone could stay sober the way I wrote. Again 3 years later at 45 years sobriety they asked again & promised to publish my agnostic story this time. They have not. So what else is new?

    I often wonder if the AA ” protectors of the faith” have read the preamble of AA.

  51. Roger says:

    Unfortunately, it’s not the author of this article that says than an AA group must profess to a belief in God, but the GTA Intergroup. This shall be quite clear in the article published tomorrow, which will contain the adjudicator’s report.

  52. Clint R. says:


    Ordinarily I am sympathetic to your cause, however I feel that in this case you are fighting the wrong enemy. Your beef, such as it is, should be with the Toronto Intergroup, not AA (which is not identical with any group or service entity).

    Allowing non-alcoholics to publish preposterous claims (like saying that an AA group must profess to a belief in God, which is patently untrue), only serves to fan the fire and strengthen the resolve of your opposition. Your constituency would be better served if you would just stick to the relevant facts in evidence.

  53. George says:

    Sorry, you can’t change the very basis of AA and still call yourself AA. This has nothing to do with religion and secularism and everything to do AA’s clearly stated fourth tradition: “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.” Rewriting the basic text while calling oneself AA has an effect on on other groups and AA as a whole. So, sorry. Hold your meetings, but don’t call yourself AA. BTW, dragging this into the tribunal is also a violation of the fourth tradition as well as the first (Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity), tenth (Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy), and – presuming people are publicly identifying themselves in public documents available to the press – the eleventh (Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films). For what it’s worth, I’m an atheist in AA – and my opinions are my own.

  54. Lola says:

    May the truth prevail! Good luck!!

  55. Bob K. says:

    The first AA meeting I went to I was told “Don’t drink, go to meetings and see what the hell happens”. Thirty-two years later it still is working. There are meetings that drive people away because of their rigid beliefs. They forget that the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking. I am not a fan of the Big Book. Keep it simple.

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