An Atheist Taking on AA in Bid to Get God out of 12 Steps


Editor’s Note: It should be said that nobody we know is trying to change the 12 Steps as they were originally written and published in 1939. But we do certainly believe that we have a right – a human right, if you will – to interpret and work them in a way that is consistent with our own beliefs or lack of beliefs. And the author of the Steps, and co-founder of AA, Bill W, was clearly supportive of that approach:

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. (Emphasis added. From the rather optimistically titled book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 81

The idea that sobriety depends upon accepting the dogma or creed (the religion) of another person or other people is absurd. Indeed it is abysmal and highly destructive when we reflect upon the mission of Alcoholics Anonymous as it is expressed in Tradition Three and the Responsibility Declaration.

By Ryan Moore
Published on October 24, 2016 in the VICE News, a current affairs channel, producing daily documentary essays through its website.

A Toronto man has taken Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc. and the Greater Toronto Intergroup to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, alleging discrimination against atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.

The GTA Intergroup, which acts as a central organizing hub and directory for AA groups in Toronto, has essentially kicked out all atheist groups who have changed traditional AA language by taking out the word “God” from the Twelve Steps.

There are currently 501 AA meetings held at 252 locations across the GTA. However, atheists looking for AA meetings without a God attached will not find one in any of them because the GTA Intergroup eliminated local atheist and agnostic meetings from their promotions and directories.

Now, secular options in AA are officially considered non-existent in Toronto. Accordingly, questions remain as to whether the current AA program is modern enough for a pluralistic society.

The first atheist and agnostic AA groups in Canada – Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, both of which are located in Toronto – were also the first agnostic and atheist groups to be booted out of an AA Intergroup. Since then, similar patterns have developed in Vancouver and Kingston.

Last year, Lawrence Knight, 58, known simply as “Larry” in the rooms, took AA to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to take a stand against how non-believers have traditionally been treated in AA. Knight found sobriety through AA after his drinking became too much for him to control in the early 1990s. During the early 90s. But he believes, like many others, that the words “God” and “Higher Power,” which are rampant throughout AA literature, are outdated. More specifically, he’s arguing that that alcoholics who have been abused by religious fundamentalists in their childhood, (himself included), can have negative associations with the word “God” – some even find the religion and the ensuing dogma which follows highly triggering.

The God Word

In some areas AA is moving forward rather than behaving dogmatic and authoritarian à la GTA Intergroup. A pamphlet published this year by AA in Great Britain, “The God Word”, contains nine stories written by agnostic and atheist members. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the pamphlet.

AA literature reflects the Protestant culture of the 1930s. But without any alternatives to traditional AA recovery, atheist and agnostic alcoholics are forced to find ways to make the literature work for them, such as considering a “Higher Power” to be the AA program, rather than a “God,” or using the word “God” as an acronym for “Good Orderly Direction.”

Knight was one of a handful of people who started the secular AA meetings in Toronto in 2009, after having watched newcomers afflicted by the abuse of fundamentalists in traditional meetings for years. According to Knight, a newcomer once gave a talk about his atheism at a meeting where he was swiftly accused of “sending people out to die,” which is how fundamentalists interpret atheism in AA recovery. According to the tenets of AA, one must turn over their lives over to the care of God to stay sober, and to say otherwise, is to send the suffering alcoholic back on the street where they will meet their painful death.

A few weeks later, Larry and a few others started the first secular AA meeting known as “Beyond Belief.” That meeting was delisted by the GTA Intergroup in 2011 for taking God out of the steps. After the delisting of secular groups occurred, Knight, among others, made a conscious effort to stop attending AA meetings affiliated with the GTA Intergroup.

This tension is nothing new, however. Several proposals have been considered in the past concerning the development of an official AA pamphlet directed to the atheist alcoholic. Since the early 70s, this concept has been explored at least six separate times. However, motions for official inclusivity of the atheist and agnostic perspective have been ignored, if not flat-out denied and vetoed.

Knight explained how atheists have kept their mouths shut for the sake of recovery, or out of fear of reprisal, or perhaps apathy, hoping the fundamentalism and exclusion in the rooms would eventually stop. “We finally need to step up and address the things which need to be addressed,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the future and we owe it to everybody.”

One of Larry’s comrades, Roger C. (last names are omitted in AA), published Don’t Tell: Stories and essays by Agnostics and Atheists in AA, explaining how there appears to be an unofficial policy in AA, similar to the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the US military regarding the treatment of the LGBTQ community.

The GTA Intergroup has been stalling over the past year, but all parties will finally sit down for mediation toward the end of November in an attempt to avoid going to court.

On November 6 there will be a district meeting in which every general service representative from every AA group in western Ontario will vote on a motion to eliminate the Lord’s Prayer from that specific meeting.


In October of this year, the Grapevine published a special issue with six stories by atheist and agnostic members.

Moreover, The Grapevine, AAs own “reader’s digest,” has for the first time released an issue completely dedicated to stories by atheist and agnostic members of AA.

As this is an ongoing matter before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, AAWS was unable to provide comment, according to an AA spokesperson.

AAWS has requested its status as respondent be removed, based on the fact it’s based in New York, not Toronto, where the agnostic delisting took place. The transcript states:

“This Interim Decision addresses the Request by the respondent, A.A. World Services, Inc. (“AAWS”), that the Application be dismissed as against it because the applicant has not alleged that it discriminated against him and because the Application is outside the jurisdiction of the Tribunal.”

However, the tribunal denied this request based on the Knight’s argument that, although AAWS is located in New York, its services transcend all borders. AAWS oversees the General Service Office (GSO), which serves as a world clearinghouse of AA information and publishes AA literature.

The Greater Toronto Intergroup is an official AA umbrella service responsible for listing and delisting groups in their local area.

Nevertheless, Knight still attends traditional meetings, mostly outside of Toronto when friends are having sobriety birthdays. He still values traditional AA, which he says helped save him from his addiction. But this does not mean he agrees with the exclusionary and fundamentalist behavior of some of its members who force their religious beliefs on others.

The Greater Toronto Intergroup did not respond to interview requests in time for publication.

Mediation will begin on November 18.

19 Responses

  1. Lyn N. says:

    Thank you Canada for putting this issue on the table. It would be a sad day if AA’s “god” problem led to its eventual downfall.

    Has AA forgotten the newcomer? What percentage of newcomers don’t return after their first meeting because they kept hearing the “god” thing? How many may have died?

    As one of the distraught newcomers after hearing repeated references to “god” at my first meeting, I ran for the door. I wanted to stop drinking, not be converted. But a woman stopped me to say I could choose anything for a hp. I did right then and there with her. I just got lucky that day.

    I think of these issues every time I hear the “god” at a meeting and think of what can be done.

    Rather than push the atheist/agnostic slant, it might have more weight to present this issue as something Dr. Bob and Bill W. might do if they were writing the steps and traditions today: Isn’t it possible that they might want to be inclusive of everyone in 2016? Might they see that newcomers are leaving (and possible dying)? Isn’t it possible they would applaud the rewording the steps and traditions, etc.?

    “God as we understood him…” Their words. What we are trying to do is CLEARLY, their intention. And, in an earlier post, “There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership.” (Bill W.) How clear can that be?

    It’s not just that “god” is offensive to any one of us. It is in the best interest of AA – and most especially newcomers – to be inclusive and push for these changes in a way we would hope the founders would have approved – and push them to the top levels of AA. I hope we won’t need to abandon AA. I believe this issue can be resolved.

    Lyn N.

  2. Murray says:

    Well done and the very best of luck!

  3. John F. says:

    The agnostic AA movement is too great to stop! Perhaps it will grow into a larger organization than the religious AA organization. I would think that elimination of one of the greatest barriers to acceptance of a sober life would appeal to more and more alcoholics! I am 46 years sober and have seen many changes and improvements occur to the AA program. Time for a significant change!

  4. John F. says:

    Well said! Growing pains I guess!

  5. John F. says:

    Three of us are starting a “Free thinker group” in Ridgway, Colorado! Our first meeting will be Thursday, November 3, 2016 at 7:00 PM.

  6. Phil E. says:

    Why should we free thinkers seek approval from AA as an attention starved child seeks approval from a stern and rigid parent? Why not cut AA loose and start a stand alone alternative alcoholic recovery fellowship instead?

  7. London Irish Brendan says:

    “I am responsible……anyone anywhere….” How in 2016 can we open up our fellowship to all suffering alcoholics around the World, when our literature is so heavily dominated with a Christian thread. I’m 23 years sober thanks to AA, I concluded 6 years ago I was an atheist. I never had a supernatural higher power or god. The Big book can stay as it is for christians but it needs replacing by a secular/ humanist edition. Acceptance of others is vital. I would hope all atheists who need the fellowship raise their voices and help sort this out. AA will not survive another 50 years unless this obvious and vital question is not addressed. Sooner rather than too late.

  8. Brent P. says:

    Doris I think that is his point. Regardless of the non-status of secular meetings at Intergroup, they are, as you point out, thriving and growing. What is silly about this tempest in a teapot is that, over the long haul, GTAI cannot win this. Too many people within AA either agree with secular meetings, whether they themselves attend or not, or at least accept that there are enough good reasons for people to distance themselves from religious groups and religious dogma, that they won’t tolerate this ongoing froo-fra.

  9. Brent P. says:

    When you read this account it all sounds so childish. One man wants to start a meeting that suits his and a number of others needs better than the meetings currently listed. GTAI says no. Considering that at one time in the not too distant past AA’s 12 step model was lent to everybody from gamblers and overeaters to sex addicts and smokers, allowing alcoholics who don’t believe in God to have access to the name would appear a no brainer. The simple fact was there were well over 100 groups that had nothing to do with alcohol using AA’s steps and “Anonymous” in their names. And nobody in AA seemed to bat an eye. Yet when the first group of alcoholics, most of whose members had been sober some time in AA, “came out”, if you will, to admit to their disbelief or uncertainty about a divine Higher Power, GTAI, appalled at the effrontery of such a request, simply would & will not list their meetings. In the meantime in cities small and large, all across North America, Atheist/Agnostic meetings are popping up like mushrooms. Still GTAI, whose opinion has nothing to do with the formation of an autonomous group of alcoholics who meet every week, seems to think it is judge, jury and executioner. And to the extent they print the meeting lists, they do decide which groups are listed. In simply putting its foot down GTAI is meddling in the affairs of an AA group which it has no rights or autonomy over. For what appears an issue ridiculously easy to resolve, GTAI is going to insist this is ruled on in court. AA has lost some critical court cases over the years. One stung more than all the others and that was when a State Supreme Court ruled AA a religious organization.

  10. Laurie says:

    ‘Every AA has the privilege of interpreting the program as he likes’ (As Bill Sees It, p16). I’m glad all parties have agreed to go to mediation to try to avoid a court case. In the 1970s Conference debated the growing use of the circle and triangle symbol by outside bodies, including treatment centers, and decided to abandon AA’s copyright claim to the symbol precisely because the fellowship was getting entangled in litigation to try to defend it.

  11. Dan L says:

    I’d add to the editor’s note that we also have a right to outright reject the 12 steps as written in the Big Book, and to rewrite them in ways which better work for us – no need to try and interpret them as they are.

  12. Doris A says:

    “Now, secular options in AA are officially considered non-existent in Toronto….”

    Did the author not understand that there are about a dozen secular AA meetings in GTA, they are just not recognized by intergroup.

  13. David B says:

    “Our book is meant to be suggestive only.” ~ Big Book page 164

  14. Roger says:

    Look forward to seeing you in Austin!

  15. Mark C. says:

    Thumbs up on the Comments engagement Bob, and Joe. Good stuff indeed.

    I read the article yesterday, but did not have time to read the Comments.

    Yeah, there is a bit of “bigot baiting” and misinformation in the article, however, “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” 🙂

    The Comments section is a good reflection of why that is… in my opinion. One mind at a time is slow, painstaking work.

  16. life-j says:

    On a positive note our freethinkers meeting in the little town of Laytonville, CA was finally put on the schedule for Mendocino Inland Intergroup last month after a two-year standoff.

    People had rotated out and been replaced by more openminded people, and I had come back as representative for our regular fellowship. The likelihood of another long conflict loomed large, and I just sat there quietly, on one occasion distributed my pamphlet “As Bill ALSO Sees It” other stuff at other times, but otherwise just sat there. When it was put on the schedule it was not even at my request, but that of the chair, who both supported it personally, and didn’t want to see a well functioning Intergroup go down one more time.

    Unity at its finest.

    And I AM coming to Austin.

  17. Murray J. says:

    Another clear article stating the case regarding the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal issue currently heading to mediation. I’ve stated this several times on this forum but I was an Intergroup rep for my traditional AA group when the purge of the agnostic groups occurred. It for me in my 20 years was AA’s darkest time in the GTA. Based on that experience, joining the Beyond Belief Suburban West Group, reading the October ussue of the Grapevine and my discomfort of my traditional group’s use of the Lord’s Prayer, I challenged its use. We will have a special meeting on November 20th to debate this issue. Alternatives could include closing the meeting with the Responsibility Declaration or a moment of silence. I have no illusions that my motion will be successful but change has to start somewhere. The Fellowship of AA is in trouble financially both in the GTA and New York. Financial health is a bellwether of the state of AA. I want the hand of AA to always be there. The door needs to be widened.

  18. John F. says:

    I would like to start an agnostic meeting in Ridgway, Colorado! I know that the Denver AA central office refuses to list the agnostic AA meeting in Denver! I would like to make an agnostic meeting available here to any alcoholic who has religious doubts.

  19. Bob K. says:

    The comments below the article on the Vice News page convey how poorly understood this issue is among AA members. Repeated offered, of course, is the “Why don’t you pack up and leave?” suggestion. Form your own program. Did we mention “love and tolerance is our code?”

    My hopes are that this “case” ultimately shakes AA at the core a bit, and that EVERYONE will benefit from the result. Thanks Larry, you’re a courageous crusader.

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