No God? No Problem: Atheism in AA as a Human Right
By Jesse Beach
Originally published in The Fix (February 21, 2017)
As Bill W. wrote in 1946, “Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our recovery program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so!”
Belief is not a requirement of membership.
Is AA’s “God as we understand Him” as inclusive today as it was intended in 1939? A debate over the sacredness of AA language and rituals started in Toronto Intergroup and landed at the doorstep of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
“I couldn’t grasp what seemed to be the integral concept: the concept of God. I began to consider God as an acronym for Great Others Divine,” Sharon, a Toronto AA member tells The Fix. “However, in my cognitive struggle, there was the literature so chock full of Him with the capital ‘H.’ I was unable to reconcile what I saw to be a rift too incongruent. I could not shake the ever-present notion that I was failing to grasp something key and, by extension, that I was a failure.”
Sharon first came to Toronto AA in 1975, and a 38-year in-and-out struggle began. Sharon’s first agnostic meeting was in 2014. “When I was walking out of that first We Are Not Saints secular meeting, ‘This could work for me’ — as incredulous as it seemed—filled my mind. Seeds of connection were planted.” Sharon has remained sober and active in her agnostic group and as a regular in hospital and other AA meetings.
Lawrence was a member of We Agnostics in Toronto. His group was de-listed by Intergroup in 2011. Sincere efforts were made by Toronto AA’s broader-path members to restore unity. A vote to re-list the two agnostic groups in 2012 failed and Toronto’s third secular group was de-listed, too. In 2014, while Sharon was finding lasting sobriety in agnostic AA, Lawrence filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Both the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) and AA World Services (AAWS) were named in the discrimination complaint. AA came under the microscope of the Human Rights law which states:
The Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code) states that it is public policy in Ontario to recognize the dignity and worth of every person and to provide equal rights and opportunities without discrimination. The aim is to create a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person, so that each person feels a part of and able to contribute to the community.
In AA, member rights, or AA’s Code, is found in the six warranties contained in Concept XII in the AA Service Manual.
The AA Traditions accord the individual member and the AA group extraordinary liberties … Because we set such a high value on our great liberties and cannot conceive that they will need to be limited, we here specially enjoin our General Service Conference to abstain completely from any and all acts of authoritative government which could in any way curtail AA’s freedom …
So there seems to be no conflict between AA’s individual and group rights vs. the Human Rights Code. Anyone with a desire to stop drinking can declare themselves a member. There is no vetting. Bill W. expressed AA’s radical inclusion policy in AA Grapevine in 1946:
AA membership [does not] depend on money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA Group. This clearly implies that an alcoholic is a member if he says so; that we can’t deny him his membership; that we can’t demand from him a cent; that we can’t force our beliefs or practices upon him; that he may flout everything we stand for and still be a member … So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, 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!
Let’s compare how 1940’s early AA America looked? Judeo/Christian adherents were 95% of Americans, 5% had no religion and 0% were other religions. Statistically, this means that less than half of 1% of 1940 Americans practiced a faith that wasn’t monotheistic.
Statistically, “God as we understand Him” resonated with 95% of early AA members. In more fluid AA language, our narrative would use more contemporary language that would include a growing population of members who have more progressive spiritual or secular views. Here’s some data from Pew Research:
The religiously unaffiliated population is expected to nearly double in size, growing from 59 million in 2010 to 111 million in 2050. The number of Muslims is expected to nearly triple, from more than 3 million as of 2010 to more than 10 million in 2050, making Muslims the third largest religious group in the region by mid-century.
The first group(s) — like Larry’s We Agnostics — that took God out of the 12 Steps were Buddhists. In 1955 on page 81 of AA Comes of Age, Bill found himself defending non-theists’ AA Steps to AA traditionalists:
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. But here 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.
Celebrating 30 years of atheism in AA, original-six member Jim B., in a 1968 AA Grapevine, coaches other AA non-believers. Jim’s article shared that “The AA Fellowship became my Higher Power for the first two years,” and, “Gradually, I came to believe that God and Good were synonymous and were found in all of us.”
The first North American AA for atheists and agnostics group (Quad-A) started in 1975 in Chicago. In 2017, around the world, secular AA gatherings happen about 400 times a week. The first international gathering for Secular AA was in Santa Monica in 2014, then Austin in 2016, and Toronto welcomes the world of AA non-believers in 2018.
How does Toronto Intergroup defend doing their own thing? Conceived by an unelected Ad Hoc Sub-Committee Re: Human Rights Complaint in Toronto Intergroup, the following legal defense was made as public record which included:
In order to be part of GTAI [Intergroup], 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. (Ontario Human Rights File Number: 2014-18832-1, Adjudicator Laurie Letheren, Interim Decision February 17, 2016)
Imposing requirements for a belief-in-God for AAs violates the Ontario Human Rights Code. People are free to believe in God in Ontario, but they can’t impose views on others.
The right to be free from discrimination based on creed reflects core Canadian constitutional values and commitments to a secular, multicultural and democratic society. People who follow a creed, and people who do not, have the right to live in a society that respects pluralism and human rights and the right to follow different creeds.
What was AAWS’s role in all of this? In the 2016 interim decision, it was still to be determined if AA’s General Service Office was guilty of willful blindness. Delegates and concerned AAs, including Lawrence, made GSO aware that an unlawful practice was probably going on in Toronto, and an intervention was sought to encourage Intergroup inclusivity and tolerance—and follow the rule of law. Here’s where GSO may have been off-side, per the Code:
Organizations must ensure that they are not unconsciously engaging in systemic discrimination. This takes vigilance and a willingness to monitor and review numerical data, policies, practices and decision-making processes and organizational culture. It is not acceptable from a human rights perspective for an organization to choose to remain unaware of systemic discrimination or to fail to act when a problem comes to its attention.
Around AA, from coffee shops to secret Facebook groups, GTA Intergroup’s mandatory obedience to God requirement was a hot topic. Even the most adamant anti-agnostic deacons couldn’t get behind Toronto Intergroup’s religious requirements for inclusion in AA.
The showdown’s next step was mediation.
Kate Sellar, a lawyer with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre explained the process to The Fix regarding how the Tribunal can order remedial action if a respondent is found to violate the Code.
First, the Tribunal wants to put the applicant back in the position that he or she would have been in if the discrimination hadn’t happened.
Secondly, the Tribunal can do what they call “remedies for future compliance.” The Tribunal can order a respondent to put a human rights policy in place where policies and procedures were not in place before, or to participate in human rights training.
In the eleventh hour, mediation succeeded and a hearing was averted. AAWS appeared to side with Lawrence’s wish to have his group included without Intergroup governance. AAWS did not side with Intergroup’s view that the 12 Steps are sacred and a belief in God is mandatory. AAWS was released by the complainant.
GTA Intergroup agreed to return agnostic groups as rights-bearing equals. In a report to Intergroup, 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.”
Is there a place for secular AA? Sharon, who recently celebrated three years of sobriety, deserves the final word: “Now there are no thoughts that I am failing in any way. Now I have a firm foothold in the fellowship and I reap the same rewards as recognized by and accessible to others for decades. I credit agnostic Alcoholics Anonymous with saving my life and then giving me a life very much worth living.”
Jesse Beach is a researcher and columnist for Rebellion Dogs Publishing. In 2013, Rebellion Dogs published the first secular daily reflection book for addicts / alcoholics, Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, by Joe C., foreword by Ernest Kurtz.