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.

24 Responses

  1. Mary C. says:

    I’ve only found this site recently but it’s so refreshing to read the posts and comments. I’m not alone! I’ve been sober almost 30 years. I found a home group originally where god was mentioned occasionally but there weren’t any holy rollers and I was ok with the “fake it till you make it” concept. I never really worried too much about the god part. My home group lost it’s home and people scattered so I found a new one. They’re good people, but way more religious than I’m comfortable with. Maybe my tolerance is just wearing thin but sometimes I want to shriek when someone shares that god got them sober. Apparently god only thinks some people deserve sobriety? I don’t have an agnostic group near me, but it helps to come here and know I’m not alone. I’m hoping to make the next convention!

    • Texas Buckeye says:

      “Hang In” Mary. I found my sobriety with a “traditional” group, and stayed with the “God” folks for many years, but never “came to believe.” Finally there came an Agnostic group in my area – I attended first from curiosity, then returned because I felt quite comfortable with the Agnostic group… Continue Mary… You will eventually find yourself in a group that essentially believe as you do.

      • Lisa says:

        AA is becoming torture for me.

        Last night all these smug (“I pray a lot”, “I pray more than you”…) people were bragging about setting aside their rational mind and becoming “willing to believe anything”, if it got them where they wanted to go. And claiming they gave up self-will in the same breath.

        I truly believe it is entirely my self will-reservation-valuation that has kept me sober.

        Then of course immediately comes the part about “contempt prior to investigation”. Hey – I’ve been investigating for many decades and I HAVE reached my conclusion: thus ensues the contempt in my direction. How can I possibly be thorough and finished when I did not arrive at their conclusion? The pitying looks, the threadbare, parroting patronization.

        I get that many of these weak-minded folks need to feel safe in a group; and better than the self-hatred many exhibit. But they are shooting themselves in their own foot by excluding and shaming other people. If that person goes out and drinks, they may be the one he/she head on crashes. Do they get that?

        Can you imagine the courts requiring a diabetic or epileptic (both affect driving) to attend faith healing sessions run by amateurs? It is the exact same thing: a diagnosed medical condition, often genetically derived.

        It is a goddamn “miracle” I am sober after sitting through such ignorant, superstitious hokum presented as the only way, and hearing direct insults. No point in ‘discussing’ ideas with this crowd. I just “pass”. It’s a cross between snake handling, Amway and self-hypnosis: with a huge serving of self-flagellation thrown in for humble-brags. Yech!

        I have got to find another group that is near enough: another 6 months to go.

        I just really appreciate the brilliant articulate minds I find here. THANK YOU SO MUCH for balancing out the dumpster fire of a trad AA meeting.

    • Diane I says:

      Hi Mary:

      I just found out about agnostic AA one year ago after 39 years of sobriety. It was a breath of fresh air. I now attend an agnostic AA meeting and enjoy it very much. I don’t know where you live, but you could think about starting an agnostic AA group in your area – you might be surprised!!

  2. Brent P. says:

    The next big step in the growth of AA might be to stop counting time. I had a friend who struggled mightily to stay sober. Every time he got few days traction, out came the calendar. Each day of sobriety was marked with a red line through it. A bright red line. He basked in the applause for every chip he picked up. And he was encouraged by a sponsor who I could have happily choked because, I knew he was counting down the days to his next relapse. They were getting more dangerous and frightening and I genuinely feared for him. He did finally sober up. Happened right around the time he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Oncologists have a way of delivering sobering news. He lived for almost two years with the cancer. There was no calendar, there were no meetings and there was never once the temptation to drink. He claimed he was finally tempted to live. I was there when he died and I guess you could say he died peacefully. I wouldn’t know. But I do know what it looks like when alcohol, drugs, whatever, are superseded by “real” life.

    Talk about crazy alcoholics though, when he was given a license to drink – who wouldn’t give a person who’s dying a pass if they chose to drink – that’s when it lost its appeal.

    • Joe C. says:

      This a growing faction of members who think that counting time is an affront to the one day at a time program. For the “successful” ones it’s the wrong kind of currency. Hearing people announce their sobriety date like a badge of honor or as credentials for what they’re about to say is of itself its own kind of sickness.

      On the other end, coming back time and time again is such a walk of shame for chronic relapsers and how healing can humiliation be? Sounds more like a deterrent to sobriety than a helper.

      We should borrow from AlAnon the way they’ve borrowed from AA. Imagine if they changed their start date every time they had driver rage or sneeked a peak at someone else’s text history to spy on them? AlAnons measure themselves by the length of total time they have been engaged. Setbacks and dusting one’s self off is par for the course.

      The obvious reason for this is AlAnons don’t set perfection as a standard and they haven’t unlearned their previous recovery because they slid back into old behaviour. AAs need not dismiss what they learned because of setbacks, too.

      • life-j says:

        Here’s something we really ought to start a good discussion about.

        • Texas Buckeye says:

          Briefly, For the many times I’ve heard “AA saved my life”. I sometimes reply “AA did not save my live – it postponed my death.” And I am grateful that I gained sobriety with the traditional “God folks,” but absolutely am more comfortable with the agnostic group.

          And a recommended book, available at some CSO’s: Wit and Wisdom of Anonymous Alcoholics, contains 3380 comments that were heard in AA meetings over 25 years “This is a collection of stories, insights, and quips”, Alpine Lake Publishing.

      • Bob K. says:

        I’ll play Devil’s Advocate, because that’s what I do. AA believes in total abstinence. AA’s book describes the great fantasy of the alcoholic mind as the desire to somehow manage drinking – to drink successfully. At the end of my drinking, and in early sobriety, what I really wanted was to be able to drink, and get away with it.

        The idea that I can take a New Year’s Eve, or May 2-4 weekend holiday from sobriety, and then hop back on the sobriety bandwagon is something most of us have attempted without success.

        My dream of getting the best of both worlds is unattainable. Should AA completely abandon sober time in favor of an Alanon-esque total time of membership, then the recipient of last night’s 40 year medallion could have arrived drunk.

        In such circumstances, our message of total abstinence for alcoholics of our type would be blurred beyond recognition. The current AA message is that lite beer or weekends only, etc. may be worthy, attainable goals for non-alcoholics, but not for us.

        The totally abstinent show us that that is doable. One of the other golf pros showed insider knowledge of our condition some years back when he observed the struggles of John Daly to manage his drinking after giving up on abstinence. “Total abstinence is infinitely easier than perfect moderation.”

        Those not keen on total abstinence have options other than AA.

        • Roger says:

          Speaking of 40 years, last night we shared this carrot cake with Diane at our We Agnostics meeting in Hamilton. She was celebrating 40 amazing and wonderful years of “total abstinence”.


        • Mary C. says:

          I’ve never agreed with the comment that “whoever woke up earliest has the most sobriety”. I didn’t “intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle me” when I was 90 days sober – along with a lot of other things I didn’t know. After a certain amount of time it doesn’t much matter if you have 10 years or 40, but someone who keeps picking up never benefits from the progression of sobriety; at the best they aren’t destroying their life during the times they’re sober. I’m not dismissing that, but they’ll benefit a lot more with continuous sobriety then just periods of sobriety.

      • life-j says:

        When I suggest a good discussion here (of course people can discuss what they want) the topics I think need to be discussed are:

        1. How it makes it difficult for people who have gone back out to come back in because they have lost their time, and feel embarrassed judged, etc. too much so to come back, so they nearly kill themselves with another three year run.
        2. The people who after 15 years sober have a night out after otherwise good sobriety, and get right back into it. They too have lost their time, and have to go about treating themselves like a newcomer, I think it kind of stupid.
        3. The way length of time is celebrated. At this year’s 29th birthday I have mostly remained quiet about it. The couple of times I did blurt out about it I felt kind of embarrassed, not about being 29 years sober, but about participating in the show-off.
        4. How length of time supposedly equals wisdom. Some stuffy old-timers who can rattle off Big Book quotes, but hardly think an independent thought.

      • Mike B says:

        Birthdays or Anniversaries?

        This month I am celebrating 27 years of continuous sobriety; 9862 days one day at a time. I am celebrating with 2 other home group members; my sponsor taking a 41 year medallion and a third member, 5 years. Friends that is a total of 73 years (26,658 days) ODAAT! The object is to give the newcomer HOPE that the 24 hour program works for us and can for them as well.

        Our group doesn’t celebrate birthdays we celebrate anniversaries.

        Birthdays are a personal celebration. You know; my ego tells me that this is the day I arrived and enlightened the world.. My recovery and quality of life is much dependant on ego deflation in depth. The last thing I need is to be placed on a pedestal and be told by the masses how wonderful I am and what a great personal achievement I have attained. We don’t do sobriety chips (1, 30, 60, 90 Days, etc.) as that seems a bit of overkill.

        Anniversaries give credit to and share with others the accomplishments in life the we could not have done alone, such as marriage and sobriety.

        The onus of the meeting discussions will be twofold. First; we can do together what I couldn’t do alone. Second we achieve long term contented sobriety in 24 hour segments one day at a time. Sometimes we have to resort to hours, minutes and seconds for the obsession to pass.

        We will stress that the quality of sobriety is more important than quantity. Regardless of sobriety length we all wake up each morning trying to stay sober one more day.

        I wish all of you another 24 hours and with your help I’ll try taking one for myself. Thanks

        Mike B.
        Oliver, BC.

        • Texas Buckeye says:

          Good comment… one of my stronger motivations during my early meetings was the presence of individuals with long term sobriety. I figured “if they did it, I can do it.” And with long term sobriety now, I continue with meetings with the hope that I too can share my experiences, successes and failures, that could be a inspiration to others…

      • Brent P. says:

        It’s encouraging to know that it’s on the radar. I like the idea of recognizing engagement. I firmly believe the first action anybody takes seeking relief from the pain of addiction, even if it’s unwilling, will, in retrospect, be recognized as the start of the recovery process. While an all out commitment may be missing at that first meeting or assessment, some part of the person is forced to recognize that help is required to defeat this demon. I once had a doctor tell me I was in a state of “pre contemplation” about quitting alcohol. He assured me I was on the right track and that action would be the next step. I thought for a moment, trying to get my head around “pre contemplation”, then replied, “It appears I’m also pre contemplating an assassination or two, should we talk about that?” Let the discussions begin!

  3. Bob K says:

    Hi Roger

    Sometimes we humans make mistakes, no one in or out of this program is beyond that. We did not arrive at the doors of AA well people. I love A.A. for helping me find a new life and a life full of principals and that we can live a happier more fulfilling life if we practice them in all our affairs. I have found in recent months that forgiveness has helped this Alcoholic move forward into a enhanced sobriety. I hope that this past experience with our AA community, (family) becomes a lesson with positive ramifications for all.

    All the best to all that choose to find a new life from the disease of Alcoholism no matter their means.

    Yours In Love & Service

    Bob K

  4. Texas Buckeye says:

    Hmmm. Finally found my way to an agnostic group, and am very comfortable there… yes, but gained my 34 years of sobriety with “traditional” meetings… and tired of them.

  5. Joe A. says:

    I have been an atheist for the last 60 years, since I was thirteen. I have belonged to AA for over nine years and never comfortable with the religious aspect of the meetings in this area of Northeastern Michigan. More like a prayer meeting than AA. I am pleased there are others who feel the same. Thank You.

  6. Bob K. says:

    Thank you Jesse Beach. The fishiness of the religion defense has been exposed. The tide of the righteous has been stemmed. We secularists have been deposited on the shore of a new tolerance (albeit forced).

    Our accusers have clammed up, and our pirated freedoms have been returned. GTAI has even shelled out to Lawrence K.

    New waves of freethinking are breaking over the sand.

  7. Pat N. says:

    Thanks for the summary, Roger. We need to keep this whole event in mind, just as we Yanks remember Concord/Lexington.

    In my 3rd or 4th year of sobriety, I still felt like a failure because I wasn’t “working the Steps”- I didn’t even like them. Plus I had no sponsor. I didn’t feel I was “really” sober. I finally woke up to the fact that I didn’t drink, intended to stay sober, was doing 12th step stuff, etc. I was sober.

    Today, if an officious AA person or group were to tell me I’m not sober, not a REAL alcoholic, etc., I’m afraid I’d display one of my fingers.

    It was the acceptance, love, examples, and practical ideas of AA PEOPLE that helped me stop drinking, and that’s what I came for. If I felt a need for a god or a religion, I’d find them elsewhere.

    • Joe C says:

      Well shared, Pat.

      All sobriety, “shining example sobriety”, “shaky sobriety” is sobriety. It’s the proposition AA makes, “If you want to drink and can, that’s your business. If you want to quit but can’t, that’s our business – try AA.”

      If there is better sobriety and worse sobriety then AA would be run by the better sober people. But everyone gets one vote at an AA business meeting. We are tied for first place and equal. In the story, Sharron mentioned that she felt like a failure for not getting the god thing – even though she was sober. I’ve had the experience of not saying what I feel because it would be unpopular.

      I may or may not flip the finger but I might say, “Live and Let Live.” But even that is personal medicine, not for administering to others. Reaction comes easy for me. I guess there is a time to restrain and a time to speak out.

    • Lisa says:

      I think the day I realized I don’t drink (vs. “can’t” drink) was real sobriety. Being forced to not drink; like in legal, medical or isolation scenarios is different and feels differently too – temporary!

      I’m a happily sober person today and I have a variety of activities I pursue to support that, so I don’t forget what happens when I drink. The 12 steps are not part of it. Indeed, I had to take back my own power, much less “turn it over”…

      Now, can we bury the “dry drunk” BS once and for all? That just means someone we don’t like.

      • Bob K. says:

        That’s EXACTLY what “dry drunk” means and always has. Fred was mean to me – Damn dry drunk!

  8. Thomas B. says:

    An appropriate full rounding of this tortuous circle, which took five-plus years to resolve itself.

    Thanks, Roger, for posting it . . .

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