Introduction: Time to Rally

A History

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”?

Big questions.

“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?

Click on the image to view the Table of Contents

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 AAA History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.

It is also available at Amazon Canada and at Amazon United Kingdom.

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).

YouTube Audio

22 Responses

  1. Jeb B. says:

    Thank you so much, Roger, for this contribution to the increasing library of experience, strength and hope for the still suffering alcoholic! It is a story that had to be told and you are a hero in carrying the truth of the variety of recovery experience in a fellowship of men and women with that indispensable desire to stop drinking and stay stopped. As committed as I am to following the process Bill or someone coaching him outlined in the Big Book, albeit without the magical thinking he also reported of many at that time, I know it is not the only way to get honest with oneself and find the inner strength, wisdom and continuing guidance to abandon fixes and enjoy life. The collective wisdom of my brothers and sisters in recovery, along with my own experience continues to instruct and amaze. Bottom line, WE GET TO BE HAPPY!

  2. John S says:

    What a great article! My copy should arrive in the mail today and I look forward to reading it. There are unfortunately many people like Emma who think we don’t belong. I’m not afraid to say that she and those who hold her viewpoint are just plain wrong.

    I’m for the most part fairly passive and I like to go by the motto live and let live, but there are times when I choose to fight for what I believe and a more inclusive and modern AA is one of those values that I feel is worth working toward and yes, fighting for.

    We secularists, we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA have been an important part of this fellowship from the very beginnig. At the risk of sounding too egotistical, I believe the rest of AA needs us.

    Yes, let’s rally together and work and fight for a more open and inclusive and more modern AA.

  3. Tony L says:

    Always good to See new stuff on Agnostica though I think you semi retired Roger I will buy a copy soon as I work out best option in the UK. Thanks.

  4. RonB says:

    It’s great to see such a book being available, and I enjoyed the story written. A major consideration in the success of AA is that it was formed in an era of 95% Judeo /Christianity in USA. The world has changed significantly, since then.

    I have been reading about ‘Ietsism’, It is a Dutch term for a range of beliefs held by people who, on the one hand, inwardly suspect – or indeed believe – that “there must be something undefined beyond the material and that which can be known” than can be proven, but on the other hand do not necessarily accept or subscribe to the established belief system, dogma or view of the nature of a Deity offered by any particular religion (Wiki). The name derives from the Dutch equivalent of the question: “Do you believe in the conventional ‘Christian’ God?”, a typical ‘ietsist’ answer being “No, but there must be something”, “something” being “iets” in Dutch.

    Religion in countries such as the Netherlands, was predominantly Christianity until late into the 20th century, but there has been a decline of religious adherence. In 2006, 34 percent of the Dutch population was a church member. In 2015 almost 25 percent of the population adheres to one of the Christian churches (11.7% Roman Catholic, 8.6% PKN, 4.2% other small Protestant denominations), 5 percent is Muslim and 2 percent adheres to Hinduism or Buddhism, based on independent in-depth interviewing by Radboud University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Approximately 67.8% of the population in 2015 has no religious affiliation, up from 61% in 2006, 53% in 1996, 43% 1979 and 33% in 1966.

    Although, the Netherlands is one of the least religious countries in Europe, and may contrast with the USA for example, there does seem to be a significant trend of increase in the non-religious populations. The question for AA seems to be “How do we tackle alcoholism using our founding religious doctrine?”. The two answers must be, by promoting religion, which is regressive, or removing the religious aspects from AA. The latter seems obvious, as otherwise AA will decline alongside the increase in non-religion. Keep up the good work, the doors will be opened to help many more sufferers.

  5. Jason says:

    All that is necessary for recovery is confession of shortcomings and amends need to be made. And continuing to do a self appraisal daily.
    And the most important is working with others. Period !!
    No super natural dictator needed.

  6. Arlene J. says:

    Thanks for all the information.

    I was fortunate enough to have Jimmy B in my first home group. When he heard what I was saying about the god word one night he suggested I look the word up in a dictionary. Mine had 3 ideas and the one I chose was any person or thing which you chose to make the chief object one’s love, interest, or aspiration. I changed it to the chief object of my affection. That was and still is AA as I understand it. May 9, 1969 is my sobriety date.

    It was not until later I heard that Jim B was the one that insisted on god as we understand him, I changed him to it.

    Sorry I missed the last conference where will it be next?

  7. life-j says:

    Roger, thank you. I have just read the book over the last couple of days. And while I do find a bit of repetitiveness, I also find it well supported with arguments and facts.

    I see a lot of talk about Bill’s writing of the big book. Let’s recognize the reality of the situation: Bill was 3 years sober, and thought he knew everything. That’s a common thing. A lot of us thought we knew everything at 3 years sober. The main difference is that Bill Wilson decided to write a book about it, and that he was a great salesman. A much better salesman than a book writer. The big book is a horrible mess, and the 12×12 is not much better.
    I wonder how I would have handled it if I had written a mess like that at 3 years sober, and 10 years down the road gotten second thoughts about its validity, but meanwhile gotten a big following. Told them all I had been wrong? Sorry folks, you have been duped!
    Anyway, congratulations Roger for having finished this long project. You done good.

  8. John M. says:

    Hi Roger,

    Great use of the quotes from Bill in the early part of your essay. For those God-entrenched A.A. members who like to ignore Bill’s essays as being the opinion of only one A.A. member, albeit the guy along with Bob who got the whole shebang started, I think the reference that gal made to conference approved literature is important. Yet, she must not know all the conference approved literature out there, and especially one publication which, I think, is one of the best things that A.A. World Service produced: A Newsletter For Professionals, Winter 2009 – We Tread Innumerable Paths: Spirituality in A.A. Here is a significant passage from the first page of the newsletter:

    “We think it no concern of ours what religious bodies our members associate themselves with as individuals. This should be an entirely personal affair which each one decides for himself in the light of past associations or his present choice.”

    “To highlight the variety of spiritual searches and experiences of its members, the A.A. booklet Came to Believe was published in 1973, a collection of the various spiritual experiences of a wide range of members who found lasting sobriety in A.A., from adherents of traditional religion to atheists and agnostics, with all stops in between.” (emphasis is mine)

    This is not one individual’s opinion but a conference approved publication, quite contemporary, which commits A.A. as a whole to the idea that even atheists and agnostics have indeed “found lasting sobriety in A.A.”

    Great piece as usual, Roger.

  9. Thomas B. says:

    So glad, Roger, you updated our history in AA. It is, indeed, a time to rally.

  10. Diana says:

    Great article. Thank-you for writing this book Roger. I am looking forward to reading it.

  11. William C. says:

    That letter you received sums up the potential alienation.

    I’d love to get “A History” as an ebook.

  12. Steve V. says:

    Good article Roger!

    One of the biggest problems with AA (as I see it) is that the co-founder Bill Wilson had a very specific view of alcoholism and recovery when he wrote the Big Book while roughly 4 years sober. As time went on his views and opinions changed and we can see some differences between what he said in the Big Book versus some 11 years later when he wrote the 12 & 12 and then some more differences 5 or so years later when he wrote AA Comes of Age. Some AA people see the Big Book as the only legitimate source of information on how to work a program of recovery to the exclusion of other literature and I suspect that will not change anytime soon.

    • William C. says:

      So true. And so many believe that god wrote the BB using the hands of Bill.

      • Bob K. says:

        God DID write the BB using Bill as a mere instrument. Then we edited the shit out of the divinely inspired script 😉

        That can’t be good!!

    • cron says:

      I agree that Bill’s views broadened over the years, but even in the article, “The Dilemma of No Faith,” his own western-Judeo-Christian beliefs leak through, not in as patronizing a fashion as some earlier writings but still present. I read portions of that article at a meeting a while back, and have to admit that I omitted those lines I felt were less understanding and tolerant. As you note, many believe the original writing of the big book to have been “divinely inspired,” as if to say Bill’s later writings were without such “guidance.” Quoting to them the “We know only a little; more will be revealed” passage rarely tempers their fervor. At that point, I invariably have my own vision of a sort, the animated scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” where the marching and chanting monks end each refrain by whacking themselves in the head with the big book.

    • Scott A. says:

      Steve V., well said. I have very long been amused by the Bill W.’s emphatic writings at 4 years sober, and then (13?) years later (having, apparently endured sobriety years 5-10 with crippling depression (why can’t the 12 steps whisk away the “ego-mania up-side-down” depression?) having a SO much more “progress, not perfection, eh folks?” mindset. Indeed, I have declared this amusement while visiting a severely thumping meeting, only to have the guru-in-residence dismiss the 12n12 as mere essays, NOT the work of the holier than though, knighted first 100.

      While I appreciate the intent of declaring the “fake it till you make it” days as being “over,” sadly, I doubt saying so will “correct” the deluded “well intentioned” self righteous prescriptions of the “Emmas” (per Roger’s article) of the aa world. As Roger’s synopsis highlights, for many it will be a “stalemate,” but happily one with us ON the aa sobriety board (not kicked off by the god-botherers).

      It wasn’t until I started “hanging out with my peeps” online (you all, sober atheists in aa) a few years ago, that it dawned on my how lucky I was to survive my atheistic journey into and through aa, sober (with aa’s help). I continue to mourn for all the dead atheists at aa’s doorstep, kicked their by the followers of imaginary gods. THREE CHEERS for the good works of all the good sober atheist souls in and around aa!

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