Changing the 12 Steps of AA

To Thine Own Self

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.

So relax.

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:

Toronto Sun

59 Responses

  1. bob_mcc says:

    I have noticed that I have an assumption and not sure how it relates to the GTAI debacle. GTAI is claiming that GTAI is a religion and as such they have special protection. I have said and wrote in many places that it is saying AA is a religion. In this light does GTAI not look even more ludicrous or is this just semantics because the entire complaint and response is not quoted in the interim decision?

    • Roger says:

      It is ludicrous, Bob, that the GTAI is apparently looking for an exemption from having to accommodate atheists and agnostics by defining itself as a religious organization.

      Our friend, Bob K, was at the Intergroup meeting last Tuesday. “Asked about their legal representation, the chair (of Intergroup) expressed disappointment.” However the lawyers were doing the only thing possible: A religious exemption is the only way to justify booting those groups out. A final quote from Bob: “An intergroup insider told me months ago that the committee seemed to be unworried about the case. This may have gotten very real for them Wednesday (the day of the second hearing)”.

      • Murray says:

        Take the following comment as tongue in cheek. GTAI’s stance that AA is a religion and that you must believe in God sounds like a “Hail Mary” pass!

      • Willow F says:

        “Asked about their legal representation, the chair (of Intergroup) expressed disappointment.” However the lawyers were doing the only thing possible: A religious exemption is the only way to justify booting those groups out.”

        Hmm – this statement sure make it sound like we (yes, we – as WE are AA) now have lawyers making decisions about what AA is or is not. Oy – help us.

  2. John S says:

    I agree that any AA member and indeed any AA group may interpret the 12 Steps in their own language, they are not bound by the language of the original 12 as written in 1939. In fact, I think the General Service Conference would be wise to approve a secular version of the Twelve Steps. Again as Roger stated, not to replace the original Steps, but simply to provide an alternative for the increasing number of secular people who have difficulty with a supernatural power having anything to do with their recovery.

    There are those who argue that if we want to change the steps, then by all means do so but don’t call yourself AA. I have a serious problem with that. First of all, as was mentioned in the article, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Those groups who have been authorized to alter the 12 Steps such as Over Eaters Anonymous were not within AA, they were outside groups. Their membership did not have a desire to stop drinking.

    Secondly, Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers have been in AA since the beginning and we meet the requirement of membership. We have a right to interpret the steps as we see fit because those steps are just as much a part of our heritage as they are to any other member of AA. When the Steps were being written, secular people were part of the process in which a compromise was reached to qualify God with “as we understood Him”. This compromise was great at the time and may have worked for many years, but it’s not working so well today.

    Secular AA groups have a right to word the Steps however they choose and we don’t need to go away and start our own program, and it’s wrong for anyone in AA to suggest that we do.

  3. kent v says:

    It seems to me that it is not just an issue over “God”. It is an issue, as Bill said, about dogma. It is AA dogma, or AA Big Book dogma -dogma being irrefutable truth – that AA does indeed practice a religion in which humans do not have free will. (God is doing for us that which we can not do for ourselves.) It involves the hundreds of years old theological debate of freewill vs determinism. In reality it involves the modern day idea or question; is addiction a choice or a disease which can only be solved by *spiritual* means according to AA?

    I think it is worth noting that many, many Christians understand total depravity as the inability for a human to save themselves for a shot at heaven and the only way is through their savior… Even their own ability to make this choice for salvation is theirs and theirs alone to make under this differing theology. The rest of their life is a matter of free will.

    This is very, very different from the theology of AA. Even if it does drop the salvation part it hangs on to the total depravity part! Which, indeed makes it a religion but not shared by one single religion! (And is complete nonsense!) I feel AA either needs to acknowledge its own theology as it stands or, amend it.

    I will add that I cut Mr. Wilson total slack on this. All I need to do is realize how my own thinking has kept changing the longer I have been able to think with an alcohol free mind. I too thought I had found just the right solution, just the right answer many times even in sobriety.. Only to find it yet another blind alley. I think if I had a chance to speak with Bill later in life? I sort of bet he would go, “Oh Crap! I just realized what I did!!… Damn!” I think I would just chuckle a bit and tell him, “Ya know Bill? It’ll all work out. May take some time but it will all work out.” I think that is what is going on with this forum and site. Good people putting forth the effort for change and not just whining about it.

    Despite all of Bill’s mistakes what an incredible guy. He as much as admits he was *wrong* too. I respect the hell out of that and of him.

  4. Pam W. says:

    Always a pleasure to read your articles, Roger. Thanks for putting solid research and reasoning all together to make the solid point without acrimony.

  5. Ian C says:

    Nice recent piece here from Radio 3 (UK BBC) on how secularism intertwines with religion, ultimately helping them both to evolve:

    Freethinking – Religions Without Belief

    • Laurie says:

      Liberal Christians reject adamantine, take it or leave it, dogma. As I wrote in Don’t throw the baby out, I belong to the Non-theist Friends Network, a recognised special interest group of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and was for many years also a member of the Sea of Faith Network, an interdenominational grouping that embraces agnosticism and free thinking within mainstream structures.

      “Beyond a Higher Power, as each of us may vision Him (sic), AA must never, as a society, enter the field of dogma or theology. We can never become a religion in that sense, lest we kill our usefulness by getting bogged down in theological contention.” (1954 letter quoted in As Bill Sees It, p. 116)

  6. Joe C. says:

    AA is not a popularity contest. Groups don’t need approval to conduct their affairs as they see fit. There is no list of banned reading material or exceptions to radical inclusion.

    Respectfully, “Why don’t you start your own fellowship” is the politest of bigotry. The obvious answer is that AA was designed to have room for everyone.

    But speaking of new fellowships, GTA is a new AA with a new Intergroup that demands that groups ensure that their members believe in God and obey the Steps. This should be an interesting experiment. Governance and rules – good luck with that.

    • Tommy H says:

      You hit the nail on the head (as usual), Joe.

      It encapsulates the issue perfectly.

      And I thought everything that needed to be said had been said.

      Thanks for your insight.

    • boyd p. says:

      “GTA is a new AA with a new Intergroup that demands”…

      What is GTA? Sounds like the recurring problem of Intergroups acting inappropriately. Guidance for Intergroups from GSO is vague, probably in an attempt to avoid top down direction. How can this problem be addressed? Might we write our own manual of suggestions? There are numerous examples of guidelines and bylaws from Intergroups across the country plus GSO. Could we form a working group?

  7. Melissa R. says:

    Why don’t you just start another fellowship?

    Bill W was very generous in allowing other 12-step programs to adapt the Twelve Steps to fit their particular malady or purpose. However, I don’t see the relevance in the examples you cited to support your claim that Bill was willing to have groups within the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous change the Twelve Steps.

    Since it seems that it’s imperative to change the Twelve Steps to fit your purpose, perhaps a new and separate fellowship is the simplest answer to all of the hoopla.

    • Steven says:

      Melissa, I would ask you the same. Bill had a very specific vision for the fellowship. He wanted the tent to be as large as possible. He wanted to reach out to as many suffering alcoholics as possible. He went out of his way to state “there must be full individual liberty to believe in any creed, in any principle, in any treatment. Surely these are liberties to be remembered by us. Therefore, never let us pressure people with our individual or even our collective views. Instead, let us accord to each other, that respect and love which is truly the due of every human being as he tries to make his way towards the light.”

      If you want a different program than what Bill called for, why not go start your own fellowship that reflects a more rigid, less tolerant, more dogmatic approach to recovery. You are free to leave any time you want. Clearly you are not happy with the philosophy of the architect of the program you claim to be advocating for.

      • boyd p. says:

        I am pleased that Steve and Melissa are both currently members of AA, each with their own vision of the fellowship. Perhaps, IF the conversation continues, we could add another element to what constitutes AA “unity”.

    • Jim says:

      I think that is the realistic approach. While I would like to see AA change willingly from within, I know from personal experience of trying to effect change from within that such efforts are always met with great resistance.

      • boyd p. says:

        The greater the resistance the greater the opportunity. A rather pat response, but it may have some utility. I guess my optimism is irrepressible, thanks to the prospect of one more sober day of existence.

      • Sarah d says:

        I was just about to post what Boyd said. The greater the struggle the greater the reward.

    • Roger says:

      This membership was meant to be for all alcoholics, Melissa. Each and every one of us “with a desire to stop drinking”. Remember? That’s the starting point of any understanding of AA.

      As for the Steps, well, they are “suggestions” only, as it says in the Big Book. That’s another starting point, this time in understanding the place of the Steps in the fellowship of AA. You don’t have to interpret them “as they stand” or “just as written”. You are free to write your own version, as the Buddhists did, as members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

      To also repeat a few things that have been said in the comments. AA is about “unity” not “uniformity”. There is a difference between the two. And as someone else put it, we are “Alcoholics Anonymous” not “Alcoholics Unanimous”. I know that is troublesome to some, Melissa, but that is AA. It was meant to be a big tent for “anyone anywhere who reaches out for help”.

      By the way, I didn’t make that last quote up. It’s from the Responsibility Declaration which was adopted by AA at its 30th Anniversary International Convention in 1965 in Toronto. At the time more than 10,000 delegates, trustees and AA representatives from 21 countries rose to their feet, joined hands and, led by Bill, with one voice recited the new AA declaration.

      The Responsibility Declaration is our moral code. Let’s at least try to live by it and not tell people, “Oh, go somewhere else”. That ain’t AA.

  8. boyd p. says:

    The AA fellowship works for some of us. Failure is all too common, and the reasons for it are many. Keeping the door open as wide as possible is sustaining service work, day by day. I am accountable to those in the fellowship, especially when their behaviors are challenging. These interactions are essential to keeping me sober. Thank you for trudging this happy road with me.

  9. Phil E. says:

    Thanks, Roger. I am grateful to you for taking the time to share with us.

    It has occurred to me, that the dogmatists may be the ones trying to rewrite and cherry pick the program. We had a few in our group also.

    The program was presented to me as flexible; To use what one needs, and leave the rest. I am grateful to those who were open minded; that helped me ease into the program as it was meant to be. Those old timers are long gone now, but in my thoughts every day.

    I am so grateful to be a free thinker, and to have found this part of our fellowship.

    Again, thanks.

  10. Maureen F. says:

    The meetings I go to are attended by people from all walks of life and all beliefs. When I first came in, I thought everyone believed in God. I have since learned that very few do! Many talk of a power greater than themselves, or universal law, or reality, or non-theism, or of simply “not knowing”. I still find the frequent use of the “God” word annoying at times, but I am learning from others who have grown beyond this that I am happier if I stop fighting. The Big Book is also sexist but I don’t see people trying to rewrite that. I say leave it as is and be with the people, one alcoholic talking to another is how we can best help each other.

  11. Jack V says:

    I came to AA back in 1984. I went to my HR person at work and told them I had a problem with alcohol. I told them I had found a rehab program that I wanted to attend. Renascent House in Toronto, not knowing it was a BB and 12&12 program. I learned a lot while I was there. What I did not learn was to accept GOD as my Higher Power. Frustration, anger and disbelief followed me through 2 more Rehabs over the next 4 years. I was desperate, yet not desperate enough to stay in AA. I spent 19 years in a dry drunk. And it was as bad as they tell you in AA. Totally isolated, I may as well have been drinking, except that would have made my life totally unmanageable. As it was I suffered from isolation and depression outside of the AA community. Had I known there were Waaft meetings around I might not have had to spend 19 years in the dry drunk hell. That is why it is so important for me to have our groups listed in all AA locations.

  12. Mikey J. says:

    Roger, I am SO glad you posted this article.

    I was in a video chat meeting on and the topic was, as it often is there, God. People went on and on about how Bill and Bob *said* Greater Power but really what they were talking about was God. They went on and on about how you *had* to believe in God, because that was the ONLY way blah blah blah… To be fair, some people were assuring the newcomers that they didn’t have to believe in God right away. The only thing about that was that they were implying that *eventually* you would have to come to believe, because that’s what the Big Book says and that’s what Bill says.

    It was WONDERFUL Roger, *W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L* to be able to flip to this article and read Bills thoughts from AA Comes of Age, ANOTHER conference approved piece of literature, when told that the Buddhists wanted to change God to Good.

    A few people left the share box when I said that and I think I know why. People often say “You can choose anything to be your Higher Power, even a door knob” (why it’s always a tree or a door knob I’ll never know), but a door knob (tree, cup of coffee, etc.) is obviously no real power at all. They use that to point out that whatever it is that YOU call your Higher Power, it obviously won’t work until you believe in THEIR Higher Power.

    But replacing door knob with “Good” kills that argument. Relying on what we intrinsically know as “Good” does everything their supernatural, albeit completely imperceptible God does. You can turn your will and your life over to Good. You can tap into the Power of Good. You can do Good’s will (or at least what you know Good to be). It was and will be a permanent addition to my arsenal of challenging the persistent tradition of the “Sit down and shut up” views of some of our members.

    Again, thanks again for a great read. YOU ROCK!

    • bob_mcc says:

      Door knob because of it’s symbol. You open the door with the door knob by turning it, step into the dark and trust that He will provide solid ground… “for when it gets dark and the road bends. Let Him take you high…” MLK. Only then can you see the next door or shore or whatever. The process has begun. Agnosticism be gone.

  13. Bill P. says:

    I like this article and agree with it. I do not consider myself a card carrying agnostic nor atheist.

    I do feel that, as I grow older (nearly 89, with nearly 28 years of sobriety) that I have an increasing sense of what I can only describe as spirituality, of God “as I understand him”, an understanding, because it is human, that is bound to be faulty. Increasingly I think about death and what will happen to “me”. Will I be punished for the drinking that I did long ago? Will there be any “I” at all? When I first encountered AA and some members who seemed so dogmatic, so “must”, so “my sponsor makes me turn my brain off” (“stinkin’ thinking’!”) I felt uncomfortable.

    The mention of “boots” and “booting” in this article brought back memories of WW2. I as a small boy I looked at the newsreels and often was terrified. AA raised in me conflicting emotions, at times an alien, even terrifying environment, yet often enough welcoming, helpful, friendly. I am grateful for what it has given me. But I fear for those who are frightened away by a dogmatism which has persisted to this day and who may be more inclined to drink, to continue down the long road to suffering and ultimately to death. And now I try to help them, a “Twelfth Step” “as I understand it.”

    In conclusion let me say how much I would have enjoyed the privilege of knowing Bill Wilson, particularly in his later years. I would have thanked him for all he has done for me and for humanity. He has given us a hand which we can hold in the journey through the darkness out into the light.

  14. steve b says:

    I personally don’t even pay much attention to the steps; in fact, when they’re read aloud at the meetings I attend, I usually read articles on my cellphone. I have only a modest interest in rewording them, but I think if anyone wants to do so, they should be free to do so without having to face fundamentalist fury.

  15. Jerry F. says:

    Well done, Roger!

    You’ve made some cogent points that needed to be made in one article instead of scattered throughout the literature concerning the Twelve Steps.

    Allow me to make one more point about changes to the sacred 164 pages. In a comparison between the tenth printing of the first edition of the BB and the fifteenth printing of the second edition, there are 401 changes. Some, even many, of these changes might be considered small and insignificant. But there are at least twenty that are substantive changes to the text and even the tone of the message in the BB.

    It might be helpful to our cause if, in our dealings with AAWS and GSO, we used phrases such as “make further changes” and “continue to make advisable changes to the text.” It won’t carry the day by itself but it’s a point that Back to Basic fundamentalists won’t like and can’t deny.

  16. bob k says:

    Sir Roger,

    This essay is MASTERFULLY wrought!! I want to be just like you, when I grow up.

    bob k

    PS Toronto IG perhaps is masterfully rot.

    • Roger says:

      For the record, I believe you are the better writer, mon ami !

    • Norm R. says:

      Like the Certs commercial, “Stop! Stop! You’re both right!”. I owe you both gobs of gratitude for helping me, a non-theist, stay in AA. Yet.
      Wrought, Bob … Masterfully wrought. This wasn’t rot. 😉

  17. Sarah D says:

    I look forward to the day when all meetings are “for” anyone, be they an atheist, agnostic, God-ist, etc. I could walk into ANY AA meeting and know that my beliefs, in whatever capacity, are accepted. I consider and call myself “god-neutral” and don’t care what others believe or practice. I just want good old AA Basic and the fellowship of other recovering alcoholics……..

  18. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, Roger, another excellent explication of the current situation drawing upon AA’s plus-now-80-year history, our Traditions, and the later writings of cofounder Bill Wilson.

    Even the other co-founder, Dr. Bob, a most ardent, Bible-reading Christian, who though he felt sorry for us agnostics and atheists, acknowledged that anyone with any belief — which logically includes no belief — could get sober in AA when he edited in a 1940 Akron Pamphlet which stated:

    The spiritual life is by no means a Christian Monopoly… The Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified by these eight points, could be literally adopted by AA as a substitute for or in addition to the Twelve Steps.

    I trust that despite the apparent controversy the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal process is manifesting that ultimately the best shall evolve for all AA members, both believers and non-believers. It will insure that AA shall continue to be what historically what it has always been — all inclusively available for anyone anywhere who desires to stay sober in accordance with our Third Tradition.

  19. Murray J. says:

    Wow! Thanks Mark for your experience, strength and now hope. It has been my experience that the only person who can wreck my serenity and threaten my sobriety is me. Despite all the stuff that is happening here, the still suffering alcoholic must be at the forefront of our efforts.

    I straddle two recovery worlds currently. My conventional AA group and an agnostics group. My conventional group has mostly good accepting people. That’s why I stay there. My agnostic group has good people in it too. I’m taking and hopefully giving back in equal amounts the best of both worlds.

    Your friend in recovery,

    Murray J.

  20. fredt says:

    So what is the real issue? You are seeking approval from a higher authority. Just do it. Take responsibility for it and just do it. Keep it to the group level, and the higher authority will be blind to what is going on until they stumble upon it.

    We atheists do not need any higher authority. We have been trained to seek approval by our past experiences. Part of growing old, maturing out of the problem, is doing things without approval of any high authority, and taking responsibility for our own actions. For this I am responsible.

    • Sarah D says:

      The issue is the meetings don’t get listed and therefore others have difficulty in finding them.

  21. Jeb B. says:

    If I had ever thought when I entered AA more than three decades ago that I had to adhere to anyone else’s set of rules and opinions (beliefs) and continue pretending I believed or did the same things as others as I had for acceptance in churches, I WOULD NEVER HAVE MADE IT.

    What Bill Wilson referred to as “the basic text” (not textbook) is but a chronicle or history of what the founders claimed they had done. It is but his interpretation of what had worked for them. However, he also makes it clear time and time again in AA history that what he wrote is but suggestion only.

    In reading the dozens of personal experiences published in the 4 editions of the book, I find none that support the idea that any “thoroughly followed [their] path,” what he tried to summarize in pages 60 through 88. He also wrote about many living in “spiritual makebelieve” and holding onto “old ideas.”

    Fortunately for this ex-drunk, the meetings I attended in Montana and Washington state always stressed that wordings are but optional, everything is but a suggestion, and they ended with “Take what you like and leave the rest” or more recently, “Take what you can use and leave the rest.”

    Personally, I have held onto the promise on page 55 of finding the power I need deep within, that “unsuspected inner resource” he tried to clarify in the 1941 second printing. My own concept of a higher power is precisely what the program (personalized, demystified steps process) have helped me to find and follow, a true psychic change I could never have otherwise found.

    Keeping the door to recovery open to all, religious, nonreligious and even anti-religious, I think should be everyone’s goal, “…and for that, I am responsible.”

  22. Tommy H says:

    You have a way with words, Roger.

    Thanks for another excellent article.

  23. Clarabelle12 says:

    But isn’t the real issue if they can be listed as an AA group Intergroup? AA has different definitions for both groups and meetings..

    • Lisa says:

      What is a “listing” for, except to advertise the group to the alcoholic who desires to not drink? There are so many other ways to reach out and be there for those who need and want it.

      Search engines can remove the power shortsighted people are desperate to retain.

      Non-religious recovery club

  24. Micaela S. says:

    I will never forget how a very newly sober young woman came into the rooms of a meeting I attended. She shared and cried and stated firmly and loudly that “No one, but NO ONE was ever going to make her believe in God. She would not do it. She refused.” I looked at her and thought “I get it. I understand your feelings and your experience. I feel that way too after ten years of active sobriety. You don’t have to believe in any God to stay sober.” I never said a word to her though. She left and never returned. To this day I feel guilty not having talked to her after the meeting as a fellow atheist. After that experience I vowed never to stay silent again. I will not let fear prevent me from helping other atheist alcoholics. Atheists deserve to be included, too. (Note: I arrived in AA as a worshipping church go-er. After five years of active sobriety I discovered that I was an atheist. My program didn’t change. I just substituted a few words for God.)

    • Willow F says:

      Thank you for this note – this is exactly why I feel this issue is so important. I think there are many that seek recovery that leave AA and don’t return or don’t even consider us an option because it is not freely talked about and publicized that recovery is possible with complete non-belief.

  25. Aitchc says:

    D asks the question “Why do you want to be part of AA anyway if it does not adhere to your belief?” Takes me back many years when the same thing was asked at a meeting my friend and I were at. My friend came in and responded “When I left home tonight I thought that I was coming to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and here I find I’m possibly at a meeting of Alcoholics Unanimous.” The point was well made.

  26. Annette R. Smith says:

    Thanks for all this, Roger. As you know, I’m a non-alcoholic who has studied AA and been a part of it’s extended social world for many years. It has always seemed to me that people have interpreted the program and steps in many ways. The “god thing” was always the most subject to those interpretations. I have heard people refer to my power, the force, the good, the group conscience, etc., and to use all pronouns in making reference to him, her, they and it! I never saw or believed there to be any pressure toward conformity in that regard, except that the actual published AA literature could not be altered due to copywright laws. Maybe this legal action will spur a serious evaluation by AA to provide more appropriate, or at least alternative literature, so that it can truly be more inclusive and serve all people with a “desire to stop drinking!”

  27. D says:

    Get over yourselves! GOD is but a word.

    The understanding comes from each individual – it’s about finding a Power that is not you – to change the steps is stupid and shows how well you agnostics can’t live and let live by saying Our Way is the only true way. Why do you want to be part of AA anyway if it does not adhere to your belief? You don’t want a God of your own understanding – Great! Just don’t preach that AA needs to change for you. Accept your differences and create a different fellowship – Easy and Simple!

    • Kit G says:

      “Why do you want to be part of AA anyway if it does not adhere to your belief?”

      Because I have a desire to stay sober and because belief is not a requirement. Simple and easy!

    • Bill P. says:

      D: You may wish to consider the possibility that you may have flipped over the burden of proof, as they say in the law. You say “Just don’t preach that AA needs to change for you.” It seems fairly clear that AA has changed from Bill W.’s friendly, welcoming and humane focus that “The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking”, that the Steps are “suggestions”, that nothing is compulsory. Could it be that in medical terms, AA has developed hardening of the arteries?

    • Mikey J. says:

      Why do you want to be part of AA anyway if it does not adhere to your belief?
      *Because AA works REGARDLESS of our beliefs, or yours for that matter.*

      You don’t want a God of your own understanding – Great!
      *Well that’s not very helpful. I definitely need a power greater than myself, but does that power have to be supernatural?*

      Just don’t preach that AA needs to change for you.
      *I actually agree with you on this one. I think the Steps are a great way to stay sober just as they are. But Roger is correct when he says I can’t NOT interpret them. I have to make them work for me. Is it okay if you come up with a conception of a power that works for you and I’ll come up with one that works for me?*

      Accept your differences and create a different fellowship
      *Okay, you lost me here. Isn’t the lesson behind “live and let live” about allowing us to have our differences yet still be loving and tolerant to each other? You really want to kick me out of AA because I don’t adhere to your beliefs? I guess I don’t understand how that’s helpful or in line with practicing the principles in all our affairs. But what do I know, I’ve only been sober a decade or so. Maybe someone with more time can explain it to me.*

      • Murray J. says:

        There’s nothing like a controversial issue to stir up emotions and debate is there!? Indulge me with a story please. When I first came into AA our group secretary was an ex-military tough as nails son of a gun. You either loved him or stayed the hell away from him. I loved him. He took me under his wing. He was tough but fair. He passed away after 40 years of sobriety. Only when I read his obituary did I know he was an elder in his church, a devout Catholic and politically active. I loved him even more. Not once did he ever wear his beliefs on his sleeves in meetings, one-on-ones… not ever. He left his beliefs at the door as I leave my non belief at the door. We shared a simple desire to stop drinking.

        • Pam W. says:

          Ahhh… refreshing. This I how I feel. My beliefs or faith are an outside issue… not up for discussion, even before I walked into the rooms. Thanks Murray, for sharing.

    • Stephanie says:

      God is a word. The word represents a concept or set of concepts, because words have meanings. That’s kind of the point of words. “God” isn’t just an empty signifier.

      I am well aware of a power that is not me. Awareness of that power is one of the reasons that I am still alive. That power, however, does not fit within any generally accepted idea of “God,” nor, in my particular spiritual/humanist beliefs, is it “higher” than anything. It does not have a will that I can substitute for my own. I cannot pray to it and expect a response. It is not a being.

      No atheist or agnostic in AA is asking you, D, nor anyone else not to believe in an anthropomorphised god, one that has a will and hears and answers prayers. Your path is your path. What folks are asking is that you acknowledge that we can walk our paths alongside one another in cooperation. You believe in your god, other people believe in their gods, others of us believe in no gods — but all of us believe that none of us can go it alone.

      I actually think that that is the wisdom at the heart of the idea of a power greater than ourselves — recovery involves challenging the false belief in our own aloneness and separateness. Lots of people perceive that feeling that they’re no longer alone as the presence of god. I perceive it just as deeply, but conceptualize it differently.

      It’s so strange and disappointing that the only god-believers in my life who won’t bridge the conceptual differences in how we understand those profound shared experiences are people in recovery.

  28. Mike in Busan says:

    Thanks, Roger, another excellent article. I couldn’t agree more. AA needs to be allowed to evolve, just as individual AAs need to be allowed to evolve.

  29. Murray J. says:

    As a long term member of traditional AA I have followed this issue for years.

    With my group’s support I presented a motion on the floor of Intergroup in the midst of the agnostic purge. It was a modest motion seeking to list the agnostic groups for the phone greeters, and meeting lists. It was to include a disclaimer that the agnostic groups did not use the steps and traditions as originally written. I recall it garnered 29% support and hence it was not adopted. What ensued during this time was stark examples of intolerance, fear and hatred (an Operating Committee member invited an agnostic spokesperson to the parking lot to duke it out). This was not the AA that I thought I knew. When I heard about the Beyond Belief Group starting up at South Common Mall in Mississauga in February 2015 I started to attend those meetings. I have become a regular member. I continue to participate in my home traditional AA group as well. I represent my agnostic group at District 6 as a GSR.

    I was reticent initially in my support for the ongoing Human Rights Tribunal case now heading to a full hearing. But not any more. After reading and rereading the Interim comments it appears that AA is a religious organization and a belief in God is a requirement for membership. Frankly, that’s nonsense and exclusionary on the face of it. In my humble opinion Tradition 3 trumps it all.

    It has been my experience that my agnostic group accepts all people. We state that at the meetings. I would have it no other way. If you believe in God or a higher power, you are welcome. If you’re not sure you are welcome. If you are an atheist, agnostic or free thinker you are welcome. If you have a desire to stop drinking, you are welcome. Our door must be kept as widely open to all as possible.

    • Mark C "Mark In Texas" says:

      Hi Murray,

      You wrote, “What ensued during this time was stark examples of intolerance, fear and hatred (an Operating Committee member invited an agnostic spokesperson to the parking lot to duke it out). This was not the AA that I thought I knew.”

      What you describe above has been my experience from about my second AA meeting when I asked the simple, honest question, “How does an atheist work the Steps?” I’ll post here what I recently posted on a Facebook “12 Step” recovery group.

      “You better get God, or you are gonna die, mother fucker,” is verbatim what was screamed at me on my 2nd or 3rd meeting after I asked “How does an atheist do the Steps?”

      The rage that accompanied this screamed demand was remarkable. It became very clear that existing with godly bigots might be a larger challenge than staying stopped finally. I finally knew I was absolutely done.

      That simple, honest question started a holy war against the “fucking atheist” (their description of me) that lasted a full two and a half years.

      I live in a small city in the West Texas Bible Belt. At that time there were only two AA meetings in existence, and there was nowhere else to go for “help.”

      My first year sober I watched roughly 6 or 7 atheist, agnostic types simply run out of the room by over the top Theistic religious bigotry.

      I now have 6 years, 2 months, and 12 days recovered from a “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body,” and things in my group have changed quite a bit.

      No longer must an honest, open atheist, or other type of nontheist have to endure daily verbal assaults simply for “not” believing as Theists do. No longer is it necessary for those types to experience three physical assaults, many verbal threats to physical violence, or even a verbal death threat.

      Today, in our conventional AA home group there are a small cluster of atheists, agnostics, and other types of freethinker who can be Honest about themselves, and their stories, while those of other positions share their stories.

      Honesty and Tolerance has grown slowly, sometimes haltingly… but the gates are slowly being widened.


      • Lisa says:

        Hi Mark
        What you describe (the screamers) sounds a lot like severe brain damage or other mental health issues; self-induced or not.

        Because AA is an anonymous, unprofessional, unvetted group, it is inevitable that there will be people in there with serious problems co-occurring with alcohol issues. Absolutism is a refuge for the severely brain-damaged or ‘challenged’.

        One would hope that the “Group Conscience” would have shown itself by protecting you. Did they? You stayed…

        As a female, we are warned to be very careful in AA meetings, precisely because there is no authority or recourse.

        I tried it many years back and my first ‘sponsor’ propositioned me: no consequences for her either.

        I so appreciate the online forum going here. I feel safe here.

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