An Agnostic Reflects on AA Today
By Peter T.
As an Alcoholics Anonymous member of long-standing in Ontario, I am dismayed and shamed by the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) declaration at the January, 2016 Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that AA is a “religious organization”, and that to be part of it, AA groups “must have a belief in God”.
Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, but it seems to me that GTAI was effectively trying to tell me who the god of my understanding is.
When a member of my own Kingston group emailed Eastern Ontario International Area 83 to ask our trusted servants why no mention had been made of this ground-shifting Toronto development at the March, 2016 Area Assembly – a reply came from a senior spokesperson.
Incredibly, at least to me, the source cited Tradition 10, i.e. “we have no opinion on outside issues, hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy”, as the reason for Area 83’s failure to comment on or even to talk about this matter for the past five years. It was further stated that AA’s “upside down triangle” model of governance made it impossible for Area 83 to consider the issue of discrimination, or to offer guidance, since GTAI is not part of the general service structure and is only responsible to the groups they serve.
Apparently we are meant to conclude that only if GTAI bumped their religion-plus-God declaration down the line to the next level, would Area 83 have the right to talk about it.
Be that as it may, this is not an “outside” issue. Belief or non-belief is an internal dispute, at the root of AA’s being. In fact, the organization’s survival could well depend on its successful resolution. To say that the inverted triangle model for AA governance dictates that the membership should have no opinion on this issue is a classic opportunity for the application of the reductio ad absurdum principle, in which it can be demonstrated that a statement is false by showing that a false, untenable or absurd result follows from its acceptance.
And then there is simply this: if all AA authority stems from the individual members, did a substantial majority of the whole Greater Toronto membership actually vote in favour of being defined as a religious organization in which all must believe in God, a God that widespread use of the Lord’s Prayer strongly suggests is Christian? Or were they ever asked?
If, in fact, only those members who happen to attend business meetings were polled, the result may be in accordance with AA tradition – but could hardly be considered the result of a just or fair process. Perhaps, if this is what actually happened, AA should consider special provisions for “business meetings of the whole” on such important issues, preferably using secret ballots.
American AA has long made it clear that in its view, and Bill Wilson’s for that matter, an AA group can be just as sectarian as its group conscience permits. Agnostic AA groups have been a strong feature of American AA for many years. Only in America, you say?
In Canada we accept that the trusted servants of Area 83 love AA and credit it with saving their lives, as do all AA members, believers and non-believers alike. Yet they encourage individual and collective silence as our beloved organization continues to twist and turn in the throes of what may well prove to be fatal indecision.
This is a struggle between those who say AA is a spiritual organization, not a religious one (but who seem to have no trouble with the capitalized God word and the use of Christian prayers), and those who take the spiritual-not-religious dictum literally. Many times I have heard speakers in the rooms suggest that if newcomers don’t understand the difference between religious and spiritual programs they should just keep coming to meetings until it becomes apparent.
The trouble is, it never does. AA literature is contradictory on the subject, probably a result of the early members trying to draft documents that would satisfy both those who came to AA by way of the religious Oxford Group, and the equally vociferous agnostics who wanted to shed all religious overtones. The end result is unresolved confusion between statements like “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking” and Chapter 5’s no-nonsense religious assertion:
Remember that we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One that has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now!
There is history to consider when we are trying to assess what damage could be done by unresolved conflicts of this kind. Many of us may not have heard of the Washingtonian movement. Bill Wilson and Bob Smith had, apparently, and it may have been for that reason they avoided many of the pitfalls the Washingtonians fell into by making it clear that AA would express no opinions on real outside issues.
In 1840, the Washingtonians were founded by and for hard case American alcoholics who wanted to help each other stop drinking. It is believed that they had as many as 600,000 members before a precipitous decline and subsequent collapse later in the decade.
Abstaining totally from alcohol was their primary objective, but they allowed it to be watered down by embracing movements that had interests beyond sobriety, namely social reforms like prohibition, the abolition of slavery, sectarian religion, and political causes. Abraham Lincoln spoke at a Washingtonian meeting not because he wanted to quit drinking, but because he approved of the group trying to help people who did.
One irony of their demise, from the vantage point of 2016 and the current agnostic argument in favour of a sectarian AA, is that many American churches attacked the Washingtonians because they were so non-religious and non-spiritual. The more vigorous attackers accused them of “humanism” and “placing themselves before the power of God”.
At least in Canada it is unlikely, in this age of falling church attendance, that there would be such an outcry against agnosticism today. In any case, the lesson to be derived from the Washingtonians’ failings should be clear to the AA membership everywhere. We should not allow ourselves to be diverted from our primary purpose: i.e., “to stay sober and help others to achieve sobriety”. Controversy and division of the kind being stirred up now could be catastrophic.
To those AA’s who think that the unbelievers are only a tiny, tiresome segment of an overwhelmingly God-embracing majority, I would inject a note of caution. I am an agnostic and, I have concluded, so are an increasing number of professed believers in and out of AA. I have struggled with the God question throughout 46 wonderful years of continuous sobriety. For the most part, I did not inflict my lack of belief on my fellow AA’s. But lately I have been alarmed by AA’s increasingly bad press, as in the respected Atlantic magazine last year, The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous, and by the number of young people being turned off (and thereby turned away) by AA’s “religious” overtones.
When Greater Toronto Area Intergroup insists that AA is a religious organization and that believing in God is a requirement for membership, they’re asserting that, contrary to page 60 of the big book, the principles the founders set down are not just “guides to progress” but dogma, a non-negotiable path to recovery, and that access to AA can only be granted to people who believe in God as GTAI does. Agnostics accept that the steps are, in fact, “suggested” as a program of recovery, not Holy Writ.
I have had three AA sponsors of long-standing. One died after more than 15 good years in AA. The others died after 50 years of sobriety. I never discussed God with any of them, and I have long suspected this was probably because none of us believed that the God question was central. What was vital was realizing and embracing our own insignificance.
One doesn’t have to believe in God to achieve a state of humility, but it’s one way to do it, and it may well have been a major reason for AA’s endorsing “a power greater than ourselves” in the first place. I have no difficulty accepting the necessity of such a power in my own AA program. But for me, the higher power is rooted in the combined love, wisdom, experience, strength and hope of each and every AA member, living or dead.
The GOD acronym used so often in the rooms, “Good Orderly Direction”, helped to ease my burden for many years. However, I found room-circulated nuggets like “fake it until you make it” to be less helpful, since the implication seemed to be that believing in God is necessary, and that hypocrisy in pursuit of sobriety is quite OK. I found little comfort in the “We Agnostics” chapter in the big book, because it is clumsily condescending to unbelievers, and insensitive to boot.
My dam finally burst in 2015 when I realized that my Kingston home group, without any survey of its membership as a whole, had voted in favour of a District 36 (Kingston & The Islands) motion to de-list and eject a new group in Odessa, Ontario, called the Broader Path. That group’s mortal sin was to label itself “secular spiritual”. Broader Path had asked District 36 for no special treatment, or for other AA groups to make any changes.
De-listing would have removed the Broader Path meeting from the District 36 website, telephone answering service and meeting lists. The motion would also have deprived this GSO-registered AA group of all rights to participate in the Alcoholics Anonymous general service structure. Despite the motion’s narrow failure to achieve a two-thirds majority vote to expel, I felt compelled to resign from my Kingston home group and join the Broader Path to demonstrate the depth of my feelings.
The agnostic AA’s I know don’t want to force their personal views on God-embracing AA groups. Many of us find ourselves a little envious of the comfort that belief apparently bestows on struggling AA members. We would probably have continued in our old ways as before, if, for whatever reason, the pro-religious forces in Canadian AA hadn’t begun to raise their voices against us.
This is not a fight of the agnostics’ making. Most of us have been low-keyed dissenters throughout our sobriety. We are not asking any AA member to change his or her beliefs, or even to listen to ours as we have listened to theirs over the years. To begin the healing process, perhaps Area 83 could be constructively proactive in developing a policy on Human Rights and a procedure for dealing with member’s real complaints and concerns about discrimination. There are multiple Districts, Intergroups, and Areas in Ontario – and more than one may be looking for guidance.
It would be a very “inside issue” discussion for Area 83 to consider a Human Rights Policy and the best wording for it and who might want to print or post it to meet our duty under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Throughout this escalating controversy, I have never lost sight of the fact that the love and understanding I found in AA was the most important discovery of my life. It is still the reason that my Al-Anon lady and I are happily married today and will, if we are still breathing, celebrate 60 years together before the year is out. It is the reason my three children, their spouses, and eleven grandchildren, still speak to us and appear to enjoy our company. It is the reason that, a few days ago, I found myself cradling a beautiful baby girl, our first great grandchild.
I have gained a whole new family in AA, a family that, in many ways, knows me better than my own mother and father ever did. I hope that our trusted servants throughout the AA fellowship never forget that we are not an exclusive body. Our Unity depends on embracing diversity, not on dictating conformity.
If we want the hand of AA always to be there, we must continue to welcome all those who come to us for help, no matter how downtrodden, no matter how often they have tried to quit and failed, no matter what beliefs they profess. We hope that our treatment of newcomers will continue to be kind, tolerant, loving and hopeful. There is, after all, no such thing as a hopeless case, as AA members have been demonstrating ever since Bill Wilson drew his first sober breath more than 80 years ago.
Yours in the worldwide fellowship of the spirit,
Broader Path, Odessa, ON
Peter T. attended his first AA meeting, heard the speaker he had to hear, and felt at home, among friends, immediately. At 81, he reads, writes a little, walks a lot, practices Tai Chi and meditates. He also attends AA meetings in Odessa and Kingston.