Secular groups fight exclusion from AA

Alcoholics Anonymous’ religious undertone is under fire in Canada, where an atheist lodged a human rights complaint and secular groups have been delisted

By Ashifa Kassam in Toronto
Published on November 8, 2016 in The Guardian

The Almighty plays a central part in the hallowed 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Six of them make reference to God, Him or Power. In one step, members vow to hand “our will and our lives” to God while another implores Him to remove their shortcomings.

Now the organisation’s religious undertone – and its utility in fighting alcoholism – has come under fire in Canada, where an atheist has lodged a human rights complaint alleging AA discriminated against him.

For more than two years, Lawrence Knight has watched his complaint snake through the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal. Earlier this year, the tribunal said the complaint raised a number of complex legal issues and recommended it go to a full hearing.

More than 23 years sober, Knight says he always found that the world of AA was an uneasy fit. “I come from a long line of humanists,” said the 59-year-old.

We Agnostics, a Toronto secular AA group created in 2010, seemed the perfect solution, offering all the support and companionship of AA but without the trappings of God. Here the 12 steps were still followed – each carefully rewritten to scrub out any mention of God or prayer.

But the group’s separation of church and sobriety didn’t sit well with some. In 2011, We Agnostics and Toronto’s other secular AA group, Beyond Belief, were delisted from the Toronto AA website and directory, in effect removing them from the city’s network of 500 weekly meetings.

The decision prompted tears and shock among the three dozen or so people who had embraced the secular groups. “It was painful. It’s shunning,” said Knight. “It was unbelievable that an organisation that can’t kick anybody out, and that prides itself on that, had kicked us out.”

Members of the secular groups – worried that their hard-won efforts at staying sober were now in jeopardy – vowed to push forward. What emerged was a parallel system of sorts, one that has today swelled to about 350 members in 12 secular AA groups across Toronto.

As the secular movement grew in numbers, Knight and others continued to push to be brought back into Toronto’s AA fold. They appealed to the city’s coordinating body, urging them to reconsider the decision. “We ran into a brick wall,” said Knight.

Frustration drove him to lodge a human rights complaint two years ago, claiming that AA had discriminated against his group on the basis of creed. While directed at Toronto’s coordinating body, the complaint also names the highest levels of the organisation in North America. “They didn’t make any decisions directly,” said Knight. “But there is something that they did do, in my opinion, and that is the fact that there have been agnostic meetings for 40 years, but they haven’t clarified anything; they didn’t have any human rights protocols in place.”

The result is a scattered approach to secularism around the world. In some places, such as New York City, secular groups are allowed to operate freely and under the umbrella of the local AA hierarchy. Other secular groups – from Des Moines to Vancouver – have been treated similarly to those in Toronto, pushed out and left to their own devices over their rejection of God.

Knight’s complaint will head to mediation in the coming weeks. To date, AA has argued to the tribunal that it is a special interest organisation, a status that affords it the right to restrict its membership.

The dispute hints at a broader question being asked among the group’s two million members worldwide as they seek to incorporate 12 steps first penned in the 1930s into modern times: How important is God and religion in AA’s quest to empower people to fight alcoholism?

Some, like Knight, argue that AA’s curative power lies not in religion, but instead in the fellowship it fosters. A growing body of research, he pointed out, now suggests that the roots of addiction are tangled in isolation and loneliness.

The argument clashes with the Toronto coordinating body, which has argued to the tribunal that a belief in the higher power of God is a bona fide requirement for groups in Toronto.

Officials in Toronto declined to comment, while a spokesperson from AA World Services in New York City said the organisation was unable to comment as the matter was before the Human Rights Tribunal.

Knight is hoping that the human rights complaint will force the organisation to definitively address the long-simmering issue. “Alcoholism kills more people than it saves. It’s killed a lot of my friends, it’s killed a lot of my family, it’s an insidious thing. And the best support system in the world is AA.”

But the strength of that support hinges on AA being accessible to all. “The point is that anybody should be able to go to a meeting and not feel intimidated, not feel forced out or that they have to believe in something that somebody else believes,” he said. “Because that’s just ludicrous in this day and age.”


Ashifa Kassam

With one foot firmly planted in the world of social activism and the other in media, Ashifa Kassam is not your average journalist. The media she produces is vibrantly coloured with her varied life experiences; from a year and a half spent travelling and freelance reporting from Asia and Latin America to more than nine years of human rights and social justice work in Canada and abroad.

The Guardian has been an independent newspaper for over 200 years. With origins in Great Britain, its journalism shines a light on critical, under-reported stories across the globe. The Guardian has become the world’s most read English-language newspaper, visited by an astonishing 130 million unique browsers each month.

35 Responses

  1. Tim M. says:

    The AA members who are trying to “govern” by refusing to list meetings that might read The Twelve Steps with references to God removed are afraid of those who know that they don’t have to consider another’s conception of God and that whatever you think about a Higher Power is not really that important.

  2. Tim says:

    Here in NY State the authorities can no longer “sentence” people to AA. A short search revealed this rational:

    In short, while not deemed an actual religion, AA – with the steps’ numerous references to “God” – is considered to contain enough religious components to make coerced attendance unconstitutional…

    So, what does this mean to this discussion? Only that people in America should be free to abide by their own thinking. When I was still a child in church I knew it was all nonsense. When I got out of rehab I went to visit my priest anyway because I “wanted AA to work” and I would do whatever I could. It took a year to realize that “God” was not doing it. I was doing the things required, changing my behaviors and attitudes and habits that would allow me to live a sober life. Therefore I got sober and had that psychic change. No higher power need be involved. Help yes. From other people who knew what I needed to do.

    If AA was more true to its roots of free expression and no requirements for conformity the state of NY could not have made the determination that they did.

    Just because their is a majority that “believes” does not mean they are right or should I say correct. They do not have the right to trample on my rights nor I to trample on theirs.

    • Kay Dee says:

      Female atheist alcohol addict here in New Jersey.

      AA/NA is still where anyone with an alcohol/drug related offense is remanded or sentenced. It’s frustrating that we’re not given a choice of rehab options by the courts. Ironically, Pennsylvania has SMART recovery IN their correctional facilities yet across the border here only AA works? Either god favors New Jersey substance abusers or Pennsylvania and New York are on the right track.

      Thank you for posting. Having been sentenced 9 years ago to a handful of AA meetings (the leader of which was a believer and a 12-step advocate) I felt ‘extra’ punished. I did not know at the time there was such a thing as secular AA. Not once did anyone mention it if I questioned how to work AA if you don’t believe. If I brought up at the group counseling or at a meeting that I have the extra hurdle to sobriety because I can’t conceive of this god or higher power, I got one of two answers which you’ve probably all encountered.

      A. Your HP can be anything! Okay, the people who weren’t zealots at least offered that my kids or family could be it. That make sense though inherently I found this to be a problem as my loved ones hadn’t been enough of an incentive thus far.

      One lady offered the tree outside the window which I found laughable. I was already struggling with the tenets of AA as far as handing over my will to some unknown… and I’m supposed to trust that pine? Another at a different meeting offered “this chair” could be my HP. I wasn’t going to engage in battle with the woman but, seriously lady.

      B. Being forever accused by total strangers of not wanting to really be sober. How dare you?

      In either case I just shut my mouth and tried to tune out the goddy BS until I’d done my time. They can’t grasp that I don’t grasp a god and don’t respect that I don’t. It was like being thrown into the viper pit if I brought up not being able to ‘get’ the HP concept (my candy coated way of avoiding the gasp A-word).

      Which brings me to present day. I never went back to AA and could find no other option. SMART was too far away or in a men’s jail. The DIY approach was a roller coaster. I was never a daily drinker but rather a binge drinker or social drinker (that wrapped up the public control by picking up the rest for home).

      By the way, I’d not driven with even one drink in me since then.

      I mention this last part which seems tangential but its quite relevant. Of course I’ve had anxiety. Over the last few years I’d lost my sunny personality and most recently this past year began to spiral the drain. I began using booze to assuage a pervasive sadness, borderline panic attacks. Of course I made it worse to the point where I was suicidal. After the ER I agreed to a brief stint at their inpatient where I received nothing but voluntary group and gabapentin (poof, instant Alzheimer’s. Scary). Nothing to address the WHY I’d started daily. SO, I got a prescription last month for Celexa and though I was starting to feel like my old happy self I of course had to test the booze. I forgot to take the Celexa in the morning, took it at 4 pm just before leaving for a pedi 1.5mi up the street. I stopped at the liquor store adjacent, sucked down 2 vodka shots knowing I had an hour before driving.

      Well I’d bought more than 2 and I can’t tell you exactly what happened other than the booze and Celexa joined forces. I got lost going home (I don’t remember leaving the parking lot). I apparently tapped a guy’s car in his development (not my own). I begged him to not call the cops. I don’t remember his asking if there’s someone he could call for me but I learned from him the next day he did so repeatedly but I refused. He was being compassionate and just didn’t want me driving. Me? I can only think I was so afraid my boyfriend of 11 years would find out I’d not only drank again but had driven.

      Drumroll… THE REAL POINT!

      1. If I’d been given a choice of recovery types rather than religious conversion I may not have ended up here.

      2. I’m likely facing incarceration for 6 months. Three of those could be in a 12-step rehab. I’ll have no choice for the group type (secular or not) so honestly, I’d rather sit in minimum security for 6 months than to be locked in with what could possibly be a staunch AA god zombie leading the group.

      3. I’m committing myself to a private holistic facility out of state that fit all my criteria for hope. From my non-secular experiences at AA, I was 100% certain its not the program for me. I mean no offense to any of you. I blame the group leaders and members at the regular meetings for making it so exclusionary and distasteful.

      4. Because 12-step is the default sentencing here it’s 50/50 whether this expensive facility I’VE CHOSEN FOR MY OWN WELL-BEING will even be credited toward my time served.

      At first I was both scared and hopeless until we found this place I’ll be going. Using CBT and other tools to correct my poor decision making pathways and habits is more about changing my life than about ‘recovery’. I lost my ability to deal with much life threw my way. I need to ‘recover’ the data originally on my hard-drive before I doused the CPU in alcohol.

      Because I’m not a stepper I generally don’t use your terms but as far as rock-bottom goes? This single incident wasn’t it frankly. It was however the catalyst to push me to commit myself. I’m looking forward to it and while I don’t desire jail time, I do believe ‘doing time’ with a better brain will be okay. For once in the last X-number of years I’m optimistic and looking forward to coming out the other side, even if 6 months of that side will be behind bars.

      Our court system doesn’t seek to curtail recidivism if they’re not allowing a choice. Just as AA needs to respect you can work the steps without god, the authorities should respect your choice of other options. The problem is also a lack of other options.

      As a side note to this novella I’ll say I completely agree that being around others with the same problems is a huge help. I’m self employed and have no insurance so have been voluntarily going to a county run recovery group so I could get $5 doctor visits. Now I’ve met people like me. Some have to be there to keep their SSDI or to fulfill a sentence but many are there voluntarily and have been for years. When I asked why from some I’d identified as being otherwise stable they all said for the relationships they’d made there. Does the group therapy do much? That varies per hour/day/topic/counselor but generally no. I am however going back Tuesday because I connected so well with someone there last week that I’d like to stay in touch with him. When I first saw him roll into the main group a few weeks ago wearing what could be either a woman’s Baptist church hat or a pimp’s hat (fur, peacock feather) I thought “well, that one’s interesting.” Then he spoke in a group and he is highly intelligent, well spoken, insightful and we have similar views on a variety of topics.

      I’ve not yet told him my desire to live in Japan where dressing up like Hello Kitty or some character anytime, for no reason would be awesome so yeah, I have hat envy too.

      Thanks for listening if you did. Well wishes to you all.

  3. Diane I says:

    In addition I do not understand why secular meetings were delisted from the Toronto Intergroup because they changed the steps to secular steps. Each group is autonomous and the 12 steps are suggested only. Let each alcoholic decide for him or herself what kind of a meeting they want to attend and which one will help them the most.

  4. Diane I says:

    I have been sober for almost 40 years and would not have got sober or stayed sober if it were not for AA. But I have always believed that it was the fellowship (the other suffering alcoholics) that was my higher power. When I went to AA I felt relieved, understood and hopeful. One alcoholic talking to another is powerful! I knew nothing of secular meetings in AA until last March when I found the new secular meeting We Agnostics in Hamilton on line. I was very curious and had to check it out. I have been attending ever since. It is a breath of fresh air!!! I can finally say what I really believe without feeling judged or being critical of other people’s beliefs. I feel very angry about what is going in Toronto!! AA is for all suffering alcoholics. Tradition 3 states – The ONLY requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking!! Nothing else is required!!

    • Bob K. says:

      I’d say there’s a very good chance that Toronto’s intergroup will be legislated into tolerance. Many thanks to Larry K. for his courage, his determination, and his smarts.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Roger, thanks so much for posting this news article that once more brings to light the regressive nature of those in AA who want to freeze our living, vibrant fellowship into a hardened relic from the 1930s. AA’s history and traditions demonstrate that this is certainly not what our cofounders, Bill and Bob, wanted or intended for AA.

    I think it is most timely that articles like this throughout the world press are demonstrating the archaic, cult-like nature into which some of AA has devolved during the past 30 or so years. It is especially propitious on the eve of the biennial WAAFT IAAC in Austin, TX, where those of us who are able to attend our secular AA convention are gathering to discuss and deliberate how we can best continue to evolve the human power of one alcoholic/addict sharing their experience, strength and hope so that both may recover from the malady of addiction.

    I am most humbly grateful to join with you and others to be part of the growing and evolving secular AA Fellowship.

  6. Mike B. says:

    Mel: My name is Mike, alcoholic atheist; sober in AA for 26+ years.

    Your stated understanding why secular AA groups have been delisted and disenfranchised from Toronto area intergroup and other locations, I believe, is wrong and illogical.

    Secular AA groups have every right to change the 12 steps removing the word god from the posted 12 steps in their meeting rooms as group autonomy is guaranteed in tradition four. What you refer to, I suspect, is printing copyrights which prevent other publishers from printing AA material for financial gain, etc. Printing copyrights have nothing to do with group autonomy.
    Secularists do not believe in a mythical, magical, masculine, superstitious, interventionist, unscientific, non-evidenced based, pie-in-the sky god or any other god and have every right to believe and practice the steps without a god. Secular AA groups have existed in AA for 40+ years and have not harmed other groups or AA as a whole. The only members seeming to have a problem with secular AA are right wing, religious, christian fundamentalists and big book thumping literalists. I suspect most if not all their problems and unlawful actions toward secular AA are fear based; perhaps a direct result of the god of their understanding.

    I have read most AA publications and have never read or heard anything about AA bylaws; I don’t believe they exist. There are steps, traditions and concepts but no mention of bylaws. Our leaders are but trusted servants … they do not govern. They have no authority to punish or ban any group or member from AA. We must always widen the gateway of AA in order to be attractive to all suffering alcoholics. AA’s code of love end tolerance must always be foremost in our fellowship. I must always respect other’s beliefs without having to deny my own. The actions of some intergroups against the human rights laws in Canada will be resolved soon. Legal proceedings against AA exist due to the narrow minded, bigoted, intolerant fear based actions of a few theist fundamentalist AA leaders and the herd mentality of the majority who have failed to take corrective action over the past 5-6 years.

    In closing, I would like to send my best wishes to all my secular AA friends who are attending the WAAFT IAAC in Austin, Texas November 11-13, 2016. Unfortunately I am unable to be there as I’m still recovering from recent surgery. My thoughts are with all of you at this time.

    Mike B.
    Oliver, BC, Canada.

    • Diane I says:

      Thanks Mike! I liked what you said a lot and totally agree!!

    • Mel D. says:

      Mike, just regarding your reference to the by-laws:

      This is an excerpt from “The AA Service Manual combined with Twelve Concepts for World Service – Appendix E –
      BYLAWS of the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc. 2016-2018 Edition”

      The General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous (hereinafter referred to as either the “General Service Board” or the “Board”) claims no proprietary right in the recovery program, for these Twelve Steps, as all spiritual truths, may now be regarded as available to all mankind. However, because these Twelve Steps have proven to constitute an effective spiritual basis for life which, if followed, arrests the disease of alcoholism, 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 of Alcoholics Anonymous as the same may from time to time be amended.

      So Mike, maybe it’s from here that AA assumes the authority to interfere with our use of a secular form of the Steps.

      • Roger says:

        Hi Mel,

        I think you got it right in terms of why some in AA object to “our use of a secular form of the Steps”. However, I am going to quote now from an article I posted on AA Agnostica some time ago:

        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”.
        Second, “A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us”.
        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.

        This is a condensed version of the article. If you want to read all of it you can do so by clicking right here: Changing the 12 Steps of AA.

      • Mike B says:

        Thanks for the clarification Mel. I guess I never got as far as reading the appendix in the service manual. You learn something every day.

        I conclude that the bylaws as written in the service manual pertain only to the functioning of the GSB and do not govern any other higher level of service (i.e. general service conference, areas, districts, intergroups or members).

        Any assumption that these bylaws give the GSB or any other service level the right to dictate, punish or ban any member or group from our fellowship is misguided at best and wrong and illegal at worst(IMHO). AA is not a top/down society and our fellowship must never regard itself above the law!

        Thank you Roger for your input on this issue. I couldn’t agree more. Do hope everyone had a great time in Austin; wish I could have been there and look forward to reading all reports on the event. Did we decide when and where the next convention is?

  7. Mel D. says:

    As I understand,the single reason for the exclusion of the two “agnostic” groups from the Toronto AA listings had nothing to do with belief or non-belief, but with the right of those groups to post a version of the 12 Steps that alter the copyrighted 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA central organizations have interpreted the use of these alternate steps, which exclude the word and concept of God, as a violation of AAs by-laws which ban altering this copyrighted “pillar” of the AA structure.
    There also exists in AA the Tradition that “each AA group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.” It was brought to my attention by an AA a few years ago that the by-laws referring to altering the Steps, and copyrights, etc. refer NOT to the individual AA group, which is autonomous, but to the AA central organization itself, and not the Steps that individuals choose to use, not use, or alter for their personal benefit and sobriety, but specifically and only those that are published and disseminated by the governing bodies of AA. Alcoholics Anonymous, as represented by our central organizations cannot alter the original 12 steps, but WE, the individual and our groups CAN if we want to.

    I included this excerpt from the words of Bill Wilson which we read at “This Ungodly Hour” – our late night Brooklyn, New York non-prayer AA meeting.

    So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most antisocial, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our recovery program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an AA group if they think so! (page 33, The Language of the Heart)

    And if Bill Wilson felt that such groups, as considered in the previous paragraph, wouldn’t affect “AA a whole” in anything but a positive way, then certainly a bunch of non-believers trying to stay sober won’t either.

    • life-j says:

      It seems like the argument would turn into something like “yes they can each be anti-everything all they want, so long as they as a group damn well read the steps exactly as they are anyway”. While that could be a “logical” reading in its own way from the scriptures we have, it certainly makes no sense that Bill would have intended it that way.

  8. Michael N. says:

    Our group made a decision to read secular version of the steps,previously we as a group just opened with the standard welcoming inclusive statement heard at our secular meeting.

    We are not to be intimidated.

    I asked to read the altered version, and this I think was the first time in our group.

    I believe it was out of fear that the group might be delisted if we read altered versions of the 12 steps.

    Will the district delist us?



  9. Wade R. says:

    After attending the first WAAFT convention two years ago, I returned to Honolulu with the idea to begin a secular meeting here. The response was not great, many/most folks do AA as a religion. It wasn’t only the god concept that I differed with though, it was also the ‘learned helplessness’ which accompanies the god stuff and the cultish ‘no exit strategy’ of lifelong sponsorship as routinely practiced in the rooms. I’ll be graduating soon with my BA in Psychology, which I was drawn to in order to gain a better understanding of the scientific discoveries relating to addiction, our brains and behaviors that have occurred in the last 80 years.

    After two years of not attending a listed AA meeting, at last month’s regularly scheduled pot-luck meeting (not listed) at my wise sponsor’s home I took a huge step. I announced to my gathered friends that I had no criticisms of AA, nor defense for my decision but that in order to be true to myself, I was graduating from his sponsorship and would not be attending our monthly get togethers in the future. Some of my friends were concerned that without regular meeting attendance I might drink again (a valid, though fear based concern) most were highly supportive.

    • Bob K. says:

      You might drink if you stop going. You might drink if you keep going. People who shouldn’t nonetheless return to drinking for a variety of reasons, and under a variety of circumstances.

      The history of alcoholism “treatment” shows that gathering together with like-minded others can be beneficial in maintaining sobriety. Of course, if I’m at war, or philosophically unaligned, with the support group, there’s not a lot of good that comes from that.

      The secularized AA groups provide support without such a level of discord, and that’s a beautiful thing.

  10. Tim M. says:

    My name is Tim and I am glad to know that I am alcoholic. I am also atheist. For me, the men and women in AA, believers and non-believers have showed and taught me how to live a sober life for just shy of thirty years. This after a younger brother died of this disease after not being able to deal with the religiosity of most AA meetings.

    I have ignored others notions about a God in AA just as I do in the rest of the world. I walk out of the room if the meeting uses the Lord’s Prayer because it violates the AA stricture against being affiliated with any sect or denomination. Using that prayer is the big lie in AA that we can have our own understanding but “sober” alcoholics hold hands and pray together. I don’t pray alone nor in a group.

    Early this year I started an AA Freethinkers Meeting in Rochester NY and a common comment is how nice it is to be able to speak honestly and not feel forced to believe in something so ridiculous as an intervening God. We were forced to either not read the steps as written in the book or be delisted from the area meetings. We had started with reading the amended ( God deleted version) of the steps. We chose to stay listed and not read them at all.

    There is much more that I could say. My heart and hopes are with those who are fighting to be in AA without “believing”.

    • Bob K. says:

      At the Whitby Freethinkers meeting, east of Toronto, near Oshawa, we decided on a similar path. We are listed, and our outreach is working. We recently upgraded to a larger room. We read NO steps, conventional or altered.

      Other than as a point of principle, reading modified steps contributes little to a meeting. Once the floor is open, we can say pretty much anything about anything. “I don’t do Step 3 that way; it makes no sense to me.” “I skip that step but focusing on this helps me,” etc.

      We reaching a section of the market previously under-served, and that was our goal.

    • Peter M. says:

      Hello Tim, nice read, thanks for your input.

      An important principal of AA is live and let live. Stating “so ridiculous as an intervening God” sends a message to those who believe. You probably did not mean it this way. Our group also eliminated the Lord’s Prayer and replaced it with the responsibility statement.

      We alcoholics are very sensitive people. Thanks again Tim.

      • Tim M. says:

        The Toronto AA group’s problems with their area Alcoholics Anonymous is a result of majority rule as opposed to substantial unanimity. In this part of the world it is easy to get the majority to do what they think is “right” and to therefore trample on the rights of others to think, act and not believe as they choose.

        To me it is ridiculous to believe in an intervening God. But to spare the feelings of the majority of other AA’s I am supposed to be silent or say things that don’t upset their applecart. For too long I remained silent as fellow members would say that prayer is essential, getting on you knees in the morning and at night is a must, asking for help from the Universe or any other number of inane statements are made in meetings filled with newcomers with no thought other than their own biased view.

        When I began saying that being atheist does not bar me from using the principals of the steps and that I ignored the phrases Higher Power, God or the need to get help from some unseen force others were grateful. A minority to be sure. But people who wanted, needed to get sober.

  11. Pat N. says:

    The ONLY definition of AA, in my book, is that we’re a FELLOWSHIP that SHARES in order to GET SOBER together. (Preamble) Anything else is optional for the individual – Big Book, prayer, sponsors, coins, coffee, etc. The group needs to be neutral and just stick with the Preamble.

    Toronto Intergroup needs to consider how well formal creeds have done in uniting Christians.

  12. Robin R says:

    Excellent article and comments. I too, am grateful that AA was there for me 16 years ago. AA members saved my life!!

    However, a fictional GOD had nothing to do with my attaining sobriety.

    My fear is that even if Intergroup is forced to include us in their directories, the atmosphere will still be poisonous and confrontational. The religious fanatics are not going to accept this outcome graciously.

  13. Fresh says:

    In my Western US city, the courts have mandated attendance at AA for years, even though alcoholism has a medical diagnosis number. They get around the fact that they are requiring religious BS by calling them “Sober Support ” meetings. There are 3 secular meetings: all on the same night in a city of 4 million.

    As a survivor of growing up in a violently abusive religious cult, I can tell you AA is another one. Look up ʻ”signs of a cult” and they are all there. Last week the faithful were reading from the sacred text: “everything you know and think is wrong”. They claim that to leave the group is to die (through relapse). Medical inaccuracies in the old subjective book are brushed off. When I speak up to say “I’m sober, never had a relapse, and I am not superstitious”, I get ugly condescending looks and no one talks to me. If they do, it’s with the patronizing attitude of I don’t get it – yet. Banning outside literature, they take pride in their uneducation! Nothing sheep like better than a big bad wolf to herd ’em closer together.

    I’ve got to do a couple more years of these meetings and I hate it more and more each time I have to go. Thank Dog I have a professional CBT therapist that doesn’t peddle that crap.

    • Pat N. says:

      I’m so sorry your AA experience has been so painful. We’re all different in our ability to tolerate the godtalk. I can just avoid it, since I have secular groups to attend. AA wasn’t so godridden when I came in – neither the priest nor the nun in my original home group ever talked about religion. They just helped me learn not to drink. AA can provide emotional/social support if you can find the right people within it. Congrats on your sobriety.

      • life-j says:

        I think a lot of it is caused by the daily reflections published in 1992. No matter how the daily reading starts it winds up being something about god in the last paragraph. Must have taken some major majority tyranny to get that one published.

  14. Chris G says:

    It will be very interesting to see what happens in the US, where in most areas the Agnostic groups have been accepted pretty well, following the Trump victory. There is a lot of chatter about “the bigots being emboldened” since the election. Will this show up in US AA becoming less accepting of non-Christian, non-white alcoholics?

    I still find it amazing that this lack of tolerance should have first appeared in Toronto, which in most ways is one of the most diverse and accepting cities in the world!

  15. John F. says:

    The only requirement for membership is a desire to get sober?

  16. Bob K. says:

    The Toronto AA groups, “We Agnostics” and “Beyond Belief” were not just removed from a meeting list (not a hugely punitive action in the internet era). In addition, membership in the local association of AA groups was taken away. The unconventional groups have no vote in any local AA affairs under the purview of Toronto Intergroup.

    Under Intergroup’s procedures at the time, a motion to reverse this decision could be considered in 6 months time. Such a motion was brought, and after an amount of stalling, was defeated.

    During the delay, the anti-agnostic forces did something quite remarkable. They brought and sold a motion that ensured that the 2011 decision would not be subject to reconsideration in the future in the way that ALL OTHER determinations are.

    The terms of the 2012 procedural changes guarantee that not only are the godless banned, but also those seeking help from the “wrong” God. Thus if a group of native Canadians referred to their chosen higher power as “Great Spirit,” they would be denied membership in Toronto’s association of AA groups. “Allah,” “Spirit of the Universe,” etc., etc., also unacceptable.

    There have been recent complaints before the Commission from waitresses compelled by their employers to dress in certain ways. In Toronto AA, a group would be deemed unworthy if it referred to AA’s “Him” God as “Her.”

    No, I’m not joking.

    Toronto Intergroup’s ill-considered discriminatory policies have them in a whole heap of trouble that stretches way beyond the current complaint.

    • Lance B. says:

      “They brought and sold a motion that ensured that the 2011 decision would not be subject to reconsideration in the future in the way that ALL OTHER determinations are.”

      Really? So their idea is that ‘we won’t talk with them and we’ll just act like they don’t exist and have no legitimacy within our organization. Nor will we allow anyone to move that such groups ever be recognized as part of AA in Toronto?”

      Well, that is better than just neglecting me. At least it leaves me the option of declaring my membership and encourages all of us from around North America to continue to stand up and say we do belong and insist upon recognition as members.

      “Toronto Intergroup’s ill-considered discriminatory policies have them in a whole heap of trouble that stretches way beyond the current complaint.”

      Sure looks that way!

  17. Micaela S. says:

    Excellent article. Either AA is religious or it is not religious. If it mandates a belief in God then it is religious and should be treated as such.

    It always irked me when they announce that they are not a religious organization and then tell everyone that they need to believe in a Higher Power (God) and close with the very Christian Lord’s Prayer.

    I love AA. They have saved my life. I am also an atheist. The atheist meetings should be included under the vast umbrella of AA. It is not different than listing a gay meeting or a women’s only meeting or a Spanish meeting. I don’t see any conflict.

  18. Wisewebwoman says:

    Excellent article. The horns of a dilemma for god-infested Lord’s Prayer AA and seriously I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say: “AA? That cult?”

    They need to wake up. It is.

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