A few days ago I got an email from a woman, Emma. It was not at all an unusual email and followed a rather common motif. Emma had spent a bit of time reading various articles on the AA Agnostica website and wanted to know why we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers didn’t start our own movement, our own organization.
She even suggested that we might not be real alcoholics.
After all, she insisted, “a common problem requires a common solution”. And the solution to alcoholism was very clear: it was AA, as she understood it: the first 164 pages of Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12 Steps, God and “Conference-approved” literature. If we agnostics didn’t accept that, if that didn’t work for us, then perhaps we were not real alcoholics and we were certainly not legitimate members of AA.
I replied with a brief email:
My answer is simple, Emma. Tradition Three is very clear: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
And AA is meant to be a helping hand for any alcoholic who reaches out for help, and for that each AA member is responsible, according to our Responsibility Declaration.
As for the solution, well, as Bill put it: “It must never be forgotten that the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made on anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.” (Letter to Father Marcus O’Brien, written in 1943, and quoted in The Soul of Sponsorship by Robert Fitzgerald)
If you don’t understand or accept this, I really have nothing to add. If you want to impose a specific solution on people, well, AA is the wrong place for that.
The conversation was over. She had shared her understanding of AA. I had shared my understanding of AA. We were not going to come to an agreement; that was certain.
It got me thinking though. About AA and the 12 Steps and God. And about another quote from the co-founder of AA, Bill Wilson:
In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking… God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of nonbelievers. (Grapevine Article, “The Dilemma of No Faith”, 1961)
And that led me to question whether AA had become more inclusive over the past eight decades. Specifically, had Alcoholics Anonymous become more accepting towards non-believers since Bill W wrote about his aggression and the perhaps fatal consequences that might have been its result?
What could our Fellowship do to be more accommodating of we alcoholics who attribute our sobriety to an inner resource (Appendix II of the Big Book) rather than to a Higher Power, whom many in AA choose to call “God”?
“God”, I thought (pun intended), “It would take a book to answer those questions!”
And so here’s the book.
A History of Agnostics in AA has actually been in the works for the past six years. A much shorter version was published in 2011. At the time, my home group had been booted out of Intergroup in Toronto and I thought it would be helpful to find out how agnostics had been treated over the years in AA. The research could be done online and it would take – what – a weekend or two?
It would take three full months. Very little information about we agnostics in AA had been written, recorded or preserved anywhere. With the support of some wonderful people – specifically William White, the author of Slaying the Dragon: A History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, Ernie Kurtz, the author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous and Michelle Mirza, the Chief Archivist at the AA General Service Office in New York – a 27 page essay called “A History of Agnostic Groups in AA” was put together and published online in September 2011.
This book contains most everything that was in that essay. And much more, including information shared over the years in articles posted on AA Agnostica.
And this book is divided into three main parts.
The first part is called Our History. It begins with a bit of an overview, “An Agnostic in AA”, and then recounts our early history beginning with Jim Burwell, one of the very first agnostics in AA, and moves on to the launching of the first agnostic meetings in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.
It also deals with the not uncommon and relatively recent “rejection” of agnostic groups and meetings, by Intergroups in Canada and the United States. It has a chapter on “Changing the 12 Steps”, as they were written and published in 1939, as that issue has often generated controversy. Finally, Part One deals in some detail with the expulsion of agnostic groups by the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup and how this matter was brought before a human rights tribunal and ultimately resolved.
The next part is about Problems in AA. There are a few of these for we agnostics, atheists and free thinkers. First, we look at “special composition groups” such as women, black and young people and the LGBTQ community for two important reasons: so that we secularists in AA understand that we are not alone in sometimes being treated as outcasts and in order to understand how the problems faced by these groups were dealt with by AA, both at the local level and by the General Service Office. Also discussed is the emergence of religious movements within the Fellowship as well as some characteristics of conventional AA, such as its religiosity and tendencies towards conformity. Finally we write about the lack of “Conference-approved” literature by, about and for non-believers in AA, in spite of efforts to produce such literature that go back to the 1970s.
As it should and must be, the third and final part of the book is called Moving Forward. We begin by looking at the explosion of “Non-Conference-approved” literature for non-believers in AA. We then have chapters about our first two conventions, in Santa Monica, California and Austin, Texas and, in a chapter between these two, “Progress not perfection”, we admit to having had our own imperfections in the planning and organization of these two remarkable and historical conventions. The final chapters deal with the growth of our secular movement in AA and “Who We Are”.
The appendices contain secular versions of “How It Works” as well as the histories of the launch and growth of ten secular groups in Canada. In 2009 there was one agnostic group in Canada while today there are twenty-five in five different provinces. The stories of these groups engage and inform in an encouraging sort of way. A third appendix shares a few articles originally posted on AA Agnostica.
The whole book is all about two things. First is the identification of the problems faced by we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. And these can be broken down into one simple fact: we don’t attribute our sobriety to a supernatural Higher Power. Nor need we in AA. Read Tradition Three. And as Bill W put it, “All people must necessarily rally to the call of their own particular convictions and we of AA are no exception. All people should have the right to voice their convictions.” (General Service Conference, 1965)
And second, the book is about how these problems could and should be dealt with as our secular movement gains momentum within AA. There is no longer a “fake it until you make it” approach to being a non-believer in AA. That’s over. That’s history. Let us all acknowledge that “To thine own self be true” is a healthy and essential approach to long term sobriety.
It’s time to rally.
And we shall rally to the call of our own particular convictions and we shall do that within our AA Fellowship.
A History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.
You can also get a Kindle or ePub version at the BookBaby BookShop. After you pay via credit card or PayPal you can get an ePub or Mobi and download it immediately.
It is also available as an iBook (for a Mac or iPad).