Toronto Intergroup Yields to Agnostics in AA

Yield Featured

By Roger C.

It’s over.

After a scorching battle that lasted almost six years, agnostic groups will once again be listed on the Greater Toronto Area AA meeting list and be recognized as  full, participating members of the GTA Intergroup. And we can interpret and share our own non-godly versions of the Steps, if and as we wish.

As it was put by an Intergroup representative (Mark C from the Welcome Group) at its meeting on Tuesday, January 31: “There is no policing in AA”.

(Ironic, because four self-appointed AA cops showed up at a Widening Our Gateway meeting on a Sunday in late November 2011 and, sure enough, they concluded that there was evidence of “tampered steps”. The group was subsequently booted out of the GTA Intergroup.)

Intergroup had no choice but to yield, really.

As announced in its Quarterly Report (October 2016), the AA General Service Office was planning to cut off its ties with the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI):

A motion was made that A.A.W.S, Inc. remove all database directory listings of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup based on their response to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal that they are a religious organization. The motion was adopted unanimously by the A.A.W.S. board.

Let me explain.

Human Rights Code

Click on the image to read about the Human Rights Code “which continues to make Ontario a more just, equitable and inclusive society”.

Larry K, a member of the We Agnostics group, one of the two agnostic groups booted out by the GTAI way back in May 2011, launched a complaint against Intergroup with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal on September 18, 2014. He claimed that he and the groups, which had their own secular versions of the 12 Steps, were being discriminated against based on religious creed.

The Tribunal indeed views that as a form of discrimination, as stated in its Code:

Every person has the right to be free from discriminatory or harassing behaviour that is based on religion or which arises because the person who is the target of the behaviour does not share the same faith. This principle extends to situations where the person who is the target of such behaviour has no religious beliefs whatsoever, including atheists and agnostics who may, in these circumstances, benefit from the protection set out in the Code.

Two hearings were held (October 22, 2015 and January 13, 2016) and the position of the GTAI was as follows, as reported by the the Tribunal:

The respondent, GTAI, submits that the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) recovery program follows 12 steps and that these steps involve a belief in God. GTAI submits that evidence indicates that its purpose is to practice the 12 steps and practice a belief in God. In order to be part of GTAI, a group must be prepared to practice the 12 steps and thus the members of the group must have a belief in God…  GTAI also submits that it is a bona fide requirement that groups that wish to be part of this intergroup must have a belief in the higher power of God.

You see, the only time you can legitimately ban non-believers, according to the Human Rights Code is if, well, you are a religious organization. That is permitted by Section 18 of the Code where an organization identifies itself as a “special interest organization”. In this case, a religious organization.

Well, you can imagine where this is going.

The GSO’s decision to “de-list” the Greater Intergroup came just before two mediation sessions between Larry and the GTAI, held on November 18, 2016 and January 18, 2017. The Tribunal asks every person who files a human rights application (the Applicant) and every person or organization responding to a human rights application (the Respondent(s)) to participate in mediation in order to attempt to reach a settlement, that is, to resolve the issues raised in the application without going to a formal hearing.

And that’s where the GTAI yielded to the GSO. And yielded to agnostics in AA. In the settlement document, the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup does a complete about-face and acknowledges that a group can be recognized as a participating group in the GTA Intergroup “regardless of the specific beliefs or practices of the group members or the group as a whole”.

The GTAI released a report at its monthly meeting on January 31, 2017, a meeting I attended.

While the GTAI maintains that an AA group needs to “acknowledge” or “adopt” the 12 Steps, 12 Traditions and 12 Concepts of AA, acknowledgement is not a problem. It is simply history. The reading of the secular 12 Steps at Beyond Belief has always been preceded with the statement, “This version is adapted from the original 12 Steps which were first published in 1939 in Chapter 5 of Alcoholic Anonymous.”

Nothing has changed or will. That’s just history.

In a full concession to we agnostics in AA, and our rights within the fellowship, the report goes on to state:

GTA Intergroup acknowledges that the manner in which individual AA members or groups of AA members interpret and apply the Steps and Traditions in their own lives is a matter for those individuals alone.

Those words are the very essence of what the GTAI had to do to achieve a Human Rights Tribunal settlement.

Still, the GTAI fails to understand its own failings and the damage it has done to alcoholics and to the fellowship. One of the paragraphs in its report is particularly bizarre: “It has been, and remains, the GTAI’s position that there has been no discrimination against the complainant, or indeed anyone else, let alone on the prohibited ground of creed”.

Get real.

The GTAI booted groups out – Beyond Belief and We Agnostics on May 31, 2011 and Widening Our Gateway on April 24, 2012 – simply because the groups don’t buy the idea that God is the source of their sobriety. That’s not discrimination against the complainant? Or anyone else? That’s not discrimination based upon the prohibited ground of creed?

What is it then?

The GTAI does however concede that when Larry first went to them to express his concerns, “the response to those concerns was not as constructive as it could have been”.

No, really? I mean, it only took five years. And legal action. And a threat from the GSO.

It makes one wonder whether the GTAI is aware of and/or respects Tradition Three (“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking”).

Ultimately, Intergroup had little choice but to yield to we agnostics in AA.

It had to put aside its religious dogmatism and recognize, if only reluctantly and certainly not wholeheartedly, that the way “individual AA members or groups of AA members interpret and apply the Steps and Traditions in their own lives is a matter for those individuals alone”.

That is AA. Or AA as it was meant to be, before and after the behaviour that the GTAI displayed because a few had the gall to ignore its dogmatic my way or the highway approach to recovery in AA. “All people must necessarily rally to the call of their own particular convictions and we of AA are no exception.” Bill Wilson said that. He was right.

Let us end this article with something that needs to be said, and I am very happy to say it, and share it.

Thank you Larry!

We can only imagine what you have gone through over the past five years. But you rather heroically did the right thing. Your work is without a doubt important for we agnostics in AA. And it is without a doubt crucial for AA, if it is to move forward.

YouTube Audio

134 Responses

  1. Bill D says:

    Larry. Did I miss something? Please bring me up to date if so. My understanding was that the general service board moved unanimously to delete GTAI data from it’s data base because GTAI declared ITSELF religious as a defense to your actions. Other than stating this action to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal and it’s rationale for doing so what may have been the violation? Appears that only GTAI acted inappropriately. I certainly hope AA remains a vital force behind the walls.

    My personal opinion is that the General Service Board is punting and kicking the can down the road hoping it will all “go away”. Already five jurisdictions here in the States have declared AA religious and cannot coerce anyone to attend AA meetings as a condition of probation if it violates their beliefs and must make alternative modes of treatment available. The chickens are coming home to roost.

  2. Bill D says:

    ” GSO staff has confirmed. AA groups are not granted permission to change AA steps for reason that this has the potential to dilute the AA message and confuse those new to AA.” Please direct me to anywhere within AA this statement is published. This is absolutely not true. GSO has never interfered with group autonomy (Trad 4), regarding the steps or any other matter.

    “…affiliated with and violate AA Traditions.” Other than AA members using AA Agnostica as a forum to freely express their thoughts please point to instances of affiliation.

    “Mike G… he got sober in AA and wants this program to remain together as it has always been.”

    I got sober in AA also and remain a member because I say I am (Trad 3) and refuse to be censured because my beliefs (or lack thereof) conflict with anyone else’s.

    Pitiful to contemplate anyone coming out from behind the walls that may be denied a full chance at recovery because of the narrow-mindedness expressed at the cited meeting.

  3. larry k says:

    Unfortunate. I hope their battle doesn’t lead to AA being disqualified from the jail system in Canada because of the tradition 10 (long form) violation of AA expressing an opinion on sectarian matters. It has been a concern of mine throughout the publicly funded treatment/recovery process in Ontario and the rest of Canada.

  4. Peter G. says:

    The battle is still far from over. I did not attend this meeting as I had to work.


    “6. Issue within the program “Bridging the Gap’ that, as the contact for District 36 Corrections the experience and understanding of “SECULAR” mtgs within our meeting list employ “Alternative steps” in lieu of AA-approved 12 Steps. As the contact, I will NOT be exposing these meetings, given that SECULAR “alternative facts” are genuinely recognized as falsehoods to “real facts.” GSO staff has confirmed. AA groups are not granted permission to change AA steps for reason that this has the potential to dilute the AA message and confuse those new to AA.

    DISCUSSION: Tony G. states that in “How it Works” the program specifically identifies that “thoroughly follow our path” prevents failure. The Book “ Alcoholics Anonymous “and the 12 Steps of AA are a way of life. The “SECULAR” groups should not be in the District and that this is the reason that he has moved on to another District. He agrees with the fact that it would be correct in supporting this. Do not take a new comer to these meeting. They are affiliated with and violate AA Traditions. Mike G. agreed with points made. Secular should remain by themselves as he got sober in AA and wants this program to remain together as it has always been. No further discussion on this issue and the vote was taken that the position for the Chairman of District 36 Corrections Committee who is the contact for “Bridging the Gap” to NOT take the inmate to a SECULAR meeting as a method of introducing them to AA on the outside.

    All were in favor and this issue is RESOLVED.”

    Anyone wishing to have the complete minutes of the Correction meetings can email me.

    Peter G. (

  5. Dave J says:


  6. Roger says:

    A Google translation: Secularism widens the gateway to AA. That of not clinging to any sect, religion, organization or any institution. That of not supporting or opposing any cause, brings us together with a solid strength.

  7. Roke K. says:

    El Laicismo amplia la puerta de acceso a AA. Eso de no aferrarse a ninguna secta, religión, organización o institución alguna. Aquello de no respaldar ni oponerse a ninguna causa, nos junta con una solidez llena de fortaleza. F24H. RK.

  8. Dave J says:

    Thanks for the link. What a grudging, half-assed acknowledgement of the legal realities of the situation. In the article, GTAI states “the matter of the complaint and the settlement is best left to the collective conscience of the AA members in the Greater Toronto Area.”

    No, GTAI. You usurped the collective conscience and made executive decisions on this matter. A moot point given “the matter of the complaint” was settled by the actions of Larry, Toronto’s Human Rights Legal Support Centre and indirectly, GSO.

    GTAI finishes it’s “half-measures” response, warning members to follow step 10, avoid talking to the media and avoid all controversy.

    A controversy IT created and sustained.

  9. Richard J. says:

    The Toronto Star has an article about this which can be viewed on line. I wouldn’t say that the GTAI is jumping up and down with joy. I don’t think the tenth step is going to come into play. The humility to know when one is wrong is required for that.

    Agnostic alcoholics welcomed back into AA fold.

  10. Bill D says:

    G’day mate from the states….nicely put. ‘Specially that last bit “many office holders in AA love the status they confer upon themselves and cling to these bodies in order to maintain their positions of power.” We’ll never get higher than sober in this Fellowship and that part of the 2nd Tradition regarding trusted servants says so.

  11. George says:

    Well said, Stephanie. A societal illness for sure!

  12. Stephanie S. says:

    They don’t think they did anything wrong. They think the law is wrong. They think this is unfair *to them*. There are plenty of current examples of classes of people who wield too much power and believe themselves oppressed when they have to yield some of it. It’s a societal illness. It’s structural. Alcoholism doesn’t cause it and recovery doesn’t cure it.

  13. Stephanie S. says:

    Yes. Based on what I’ve read here I expect that reactionaries in the GTI will come snooping around again and try to delist groups that employ any variation on the steps. I suspect that there’s a place to push through between the concepts of adoption and interpretation (all the adaptations of the steps are forms of interpretation, yes?) but it’s all distasteful to contemplate.

    One way or the other, the reactionaries will organize and hit back. Fundamentalists always do.

  14. Paul S. says:

    That’s a great article. I live in Australia and use a website “Hello Sunday Morning” as my primary recovery tool now due to this sort of dogmatic and rigid approach that seems to be growing in AA.

    After ten years, thousands of meetings, and hundreds of relapses I’ve finally had to get to my own strength in recovery to challenge the dogma when I do go to meetings now, and state and own my own beliefs.

    Through the steps I’ve discovered my own beliefs and truths and owning those fearlessly is part of my recovery – attempted compliance with rigid preachers of sponsorship and the steps simply set me up for eventual rebellion and drinking while making my own interpretation of the steps as valid as anyone else’s has seen the promises manifest in my life.

    This self-righteous attitude exhibited by GTIA is an example of the sort of narrow mindedness that has seen me drift away from AA – without taking on the fear based dogma of “if you don’t go to meetings you’ll drink” either. I believe these sort of attitudes make it harder for anyone with a drinking problem to get help,

    Surely the concept of an alcoholic being supported and loved by others is a concept that should see meetings be places where any new attendee can simply see kind, gentle, relaxed, recovered alcoholics behaving with acceptance and tolerance. “Acceptance and tolerance of others is our code” is a concept that invites people to return.

    Rigid preaching about sponsorship, the steps, getting a home group, etc simply scares people off. Regardless of what people believe themselves, I’ve found when they allow me to find my own way then I’m interested in exploring my alcohol free path and finding through the steps a new freedom, however when I’m swamped with dogma, advice, or as is common nowadays, criticism and ostracism then I simply have to respect myself enough to look for other recovery options – a sad state of affairs for many seeking help with drinking who haven’t my depth of AA experience to give them perspective in how to embrace recovery and at the same time create personal safety and personal meaning within AA.

    That word, “safety”, is one here that seems to me to be of paramount importance. Making the world of AA safe for any and all who seek recovery surely must be more important than rigidly and fearfully clinging to narrow definitions of the steps and a God – based on a book written by men with lengths of recovery now scoffed at by many AA members.

    Many in AA have done not much other than stop drinking for an extended period and then due to lengthy periods without a drink, many seem to assume that they have a certain superiority over others.

    Glad to see the GTIA have been dragged into line – I’d suggest a good clean out of their members might help even more but again sadly, many office holders in AA love the status they confer upon themselves and cling to these bodies in order to maintain their positions of power.

  15. Thomas B. says:

    This is excellent, Roger, and Larry — THANK YOU again !~!~!

    But as others have indicated, there is still much work to continue to do to insure that our vibrant and legitimate minority voice within AA is not drowned out by the majoritarianism tyranny of thinking that was demonstrated in “The White Paper” and the Mt. Rainier, MD diatribe.

  16. Murray J. says:

    And my Beyond Belief Suburban West Group is listed as well! It is time to rejoice!

  17. Larry K says:

    Widening Our Gateway did suspend its meetings in December. But its sister meeting, Newmarket Freethinkers, is celebrating two years on February 15th. Best wishes and thoughts to John M. who is in ICU today. He was the voice of reason at Intergroup and started Widening Our Gateway, which was delisted shortly thereafter.

  18. Roger says:

    The agnostic and atheist groups booted out are now back on the GTA Intergroup Meeting List (the third group, Widening Our Gateway, held its last meeting on Dec. 13, 2016):

    GTAI List

  19. Stephanie S. says:

    Ah, the “too clever by half” approach to policymaking. When you get that stuff in front of adjudicators it never holds up, but until they lose the people who make it are usually unduly proud of themselves. Are they still pretending that an enabling policy existed back when they delisted the groups? I shouldn’t have been surprised that they lied through their teeth at the time, but I was.

    Anyhow. Greater Vancouver Intergroup, you’re next. I just wish Denis were alive to see this.

  20. Murray J. says:

    When the motion to delist agnostic/atheist groups was presented it ultimately required the groups in the GTAI to vote on it. Presumably a similar action will be required to reverse it? So, am I naive to propose that an Intergroup rep present a motion on the floor of GTAI to have that item removed?

  21. Dave J says:

    A very special thanks to Larry and everyone involved in helping to force this outcome. GSO did what it had to do. It ONLY took the actions it did because Larry’s legal challenge essentially boxed it in.

    Organizationally, AA loves to claim it is a spiritual, not religious organization. It’s literature is theistic in both terminology and usage; it repeatedly talks about the “necessary” nature of a personal relationship with a higher power.

    GSO has always sought to maintain it’s theistic roots and yet, somehow, not be held accountable for how it prescribes, shapes and reinforces this specific form of belief. Unfortunately, only the “choir” believes that simply stating AA is spiritual, not religious, is sufficient. State courts in the U.S. have not supported this belief. At least 3 District Courts in the U.S. have disagreed.

    For GSO to decide BEFORE the two scheduled mediation sessions between Larry and the GTAI that they would “delist” the intergroup is telling. Doing so made it a moot point that the literature or the “steps” would enter into record and judged “explicitly religious.” GSO does NOT want that.

    There is already some discussion that, indeed, GTAI might continue to pursue its war against secularists. TODAY, their web site STILL carries the following message: “An AA group needs to adopt or acknowledge only the 12 Steps, 12 Traditions and 12 Concepts of AA, as adopted by the AA General Service Board, in order to be recognized as an AA group by GTA Intergroup.”

    GTAI lists 519 meetings. For contrast, Area 72, Western Washington AA, lists 3,839 meetings. We have no loyalty oath. We also have a specific category when registering groups or searching for groups: “atheist/agnostic.”

    It is in the wording on the GTAI site where the next battle will be fought. Sooner or later, GSO will have to fundamentally and specifically acknowledge that it’s steps, traditions and concepts are religious. Until then, it will seek to avoid and to obfuscate. It is one thing to “allow” atheists/agnostics to be members, it is another thing to examine the underpinnings of its literature, organizational practices and culture which unfairly and erroneously characterizes, discounts and marginalizes our experience.

  22. Gabe S says:

    Thank you Larry. Very well done. And well done AAWS (GSO, GSB…)

  23. Larry K says:

    You are correct… the system didn’t take my information when I posted it. That said, I am sure it will be posted. Or not… that’s a different issue.

  24. Dave J says:

    We were also able to get the atheist/agnostic category added to our new Area 72 Meeting List for Western Washington state.

  25. Chuck F says:

    As a Humanist/Atheist sober AA member for over 39 continuous years and as a “founding member” of Canberra Australia’s first Atheist/Agnostic AA meeting (Friday nights at the public library) I applaud the precedent that Larry (and others) have achieved in Toronto for AA worldwide!

    You can tell him the kerfuffle in Toronto inspired us to create our group many months ago!

  26. Larry K says:

    Thank you for holding our hand the whole way Deirdre!

  27. Alyssa S. says:

    Ahahaha…? ok

  28. Gabe S says:

    Brilliant! Thanks Larry and very well done. And well done AAWS Board (GSO, GSB or whoever made that happen).

  29. Deirdre says:

    This was an important victory! Thank you to Larry and all the fellowship of the non prayer meetings in Toronto who had to go through this long and painful process.

  30. Neal M. says:

    Thanks Larry and Roger. This whole fiasco led to the spread of atheist and agnostic AA by leaps and bounds. I had not been involved with AA for many years when I first read about this in the mainstream press here in Southwestern Virginia of all places. I first came around AA in the mid 80’s and never even knew that there was such a thing as an agnostic meeting. I know now!

  31. Tom D. says:

    Hi Mike
    I share many of your thoughts regarding the BB. I look at it today as a well worn, historical description (not prescription) of the early days of the fellowship.
    One point however needs to be clarified; the notion of the mythical 5% recovery rate. This perception has attained almost ubiquitous acceptance in AA and it is false. It stemmed from an inability to correctly interpret some statistical data of our triennial surveys. I won’t go into a lengthy explanation here. I would urge you and interested others to google “AA recovery rates myths and misinterpretation” for an easily understandable, scholarly explanation.
    Tom D.
    Flushing, MI

  32. Kit G says:

    Bravo! Your struggles in Toronto provided just the resentment I needed along with a coffeepot to start our own secular meeting here. The law of unintended consequences rides again!

  33. Chris C. says:

    This last part is false. It is not helpful to post fake news about this. The Toronto We Agnostics meeting has not yet been re-listed. The GTAI website is

  34. Mike B says:

    Thanks to Bill, Victoria and John for your additional clarification on the 1st 164 pages.


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