Changing the 12 Steps of AA
Simply because we have convictions that work very well for us, it becomes quite easy to assume that we have all of the truth. Whenever this brand of arrogance develops we are sure to become aggressive. We demand agreement with us. We play God. This isn’t good dogma. This is very bad dogma. It could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of thing.
Bill Wilson, General Service Conference, 1965
By Roger C.
There has been a great deal of controversy about changing the 12 Steps of AA. This has been particularly true since two agnostic groups were booted out of the GTA Intergroup for doing just that and a complaint about the expulsion of the groups was brought to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
You can’t change the Steps, some will argue. If you do, you are not AA.
After all, the Steps are copyrighted and the copyright is owned by AA World Services.
Moreover, in 1957 the following bylaw was adopted by AA “the General Service Board asserts the negative right of preventing, so far as it may be within its power so to do, any modification, alteration, or extension of these Twelve Steps, except at the instance of the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous in keeping with the Charter of the General Service Conference”.
In keeping with the Charter, it would apparently require a two-thirds vote to amend the Steps.
So, isn’t it pretty obvious that a person or group who rewrites the Steps should be booted out of AA, as was done to the two groups here in Toronto?
In spite of the quote about the “General Service Board asserts the negative right”, I would say absolutely not.
You know why?
Because nobody is trying to change the AA Steps, as published in 1939. Keep them, “as is.”
However, groups and individuals have a right to their own version. These adapted versions are not meant to replace the original 12 Steps, but are solely for the use of the group, based upon the conscience of its members, or the individual and her or his conscience and beliefs (or lack thereof).
And the author of the Steps, Bill Wilson, was comfortable with that. He was very, very comfortable with adaptations of the 12 Steps within AA.
When told that some Buddhists wanted to start AA groups in Thailand but wished to change the word “God” in the Steps to “good”, Bill wrote:
To some of us, the idea of substituting “good” for “God” in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of AA’s message. 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 never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Page 81, 1957
Let’s further explore three points mentioned in Bill’s remarks.
First, “AA’s Steps are suggestions only”. It says so right on page 59 of the Big Book. The Steps as “suggestions” is copyrighted! Atheists and agnostics like Jim Burwell lobbied hard back in 1939 for this and other changes and Bill appreciated these contributions, crediting them with “widening the gateway” of the fellowship.
So there is a very serious problem when the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup says – as reported by the adjudicator at the Ontario Human Rights hearing on January 13 – “a group must be prepared to practice the 12 steps”.
Maybe you boot someone out – especially if you are an organization like, say, the army, which has lots of “musts” for its members – if she doesn’t follow an order. But you don’t boot someone out for not following a suggestion. That is wrong. That is a form of fanaticism.
Second, “A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us”.
I checked “as they stand” on Google and apparently it is an idiom that means “as they are now” or “as they exist at present”. So you don’t have to believe in the Steps (“them”) as they are now, as they stand, in order to be a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
And yet agnostic groups in various towns and cities in North America have been excluded from or booted out of the fellowship simply because they do not believe in the Steps “as they stand”.
Amazing. Truly amazing.
How many times in AA literature do we have to be told that “the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking”? How many times do we have to be told that membership does not depend upon “conformity”? How many times do we have to hear that “each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares”?
Third, AA is available to more people – atheists and agnostics, in particular – because the fellowship does not insist upon the Twelve Steps “just as written”.
Think about it a bit.
If God can be “as we understand Him” then surely – surely to god, so to speak – we can interpret the Steps as we wish.
That should be obvious to anyone.
I would even argue that an individual interpretation of the Steps is not only unavoidable but it is, in the end, essential.
For those who use the Steps as a tool in recovery – and let me be clear, not everyone in AA does that and it is not a requirement for membership – this quote from two women who wrote their own interpretation of the Steps in 1991 is very relevant: “We can learn the universal, generic pattern of life’s dance from the 12 Steps. But in our individual dance of life, we choose our own music and dance our own dance”.
As a dear friend of mine once put it, you cannot NOT interpret the Steps.
You can’t really expect an atheist or agnostic to accept Steps in which “God”, “Him” or “Power” (with a capital P) are mentioned six times. To thine own self be true is important to many of us in recovery and in AA. So what to do? The agnostic can’t come to your meeting? She can’t start her own group?
Those who insist on the Steps as they were dictated in 1939 often come across as, well, dictators. And that’s certainly how the GTA Integroup behaved when it put the boots to the two agnostic groups in Toronto.
We have listed at least three reasons why individuals and groups should not be excluded from the fellowship of AA for putting together their own versions of the 12 Steps.
But let me repeat: Nobody I know is trying to change the original AA Steps, as published in 1939. Adapted versions are not meant to replace the original 12 Steps, but are solely for the use of the group, based upon the conscience of its members, or the individual and her or his conscience and beliefs (or lack thereof).
It all has to do with the very nature of AA, really.
There are no requirements in AA. There are no “musts”. As Bill once put it, talking about Tradition Three, “That means that these two or three alcoholics could try for sobriety in any way they liked. They could disagree with any or all of AA’s principles and still call themselves an AA group”.
I understand that that can be hard for some people to accept.
But all of this means – the very nature of our fellowship requires – that we quit putting the boots to women and men who have created their own personal interpretations of the 12 Steps based upon an honest individual or group conscience.
The Greater Toronto Area Intergroup got it wrong. And it’s up to the rest of us, including AA World Services, to put things back together and invite “anyone anywhere” with a desire to stop drinking – including the excommunicated groups in Toronto and elsewhere – to join with all of us together underneath the AA umbrella.
We need their support. They need our support. This is AA.
To learn more about this controversy, you can read the article, AA Atheists and Human Rights. Or you can read a Toronto Sun article by clicking on the image below: