Chapter 2: Rejection

A History III

Two agnostic groups – We Agnostics and Beyond Belief – were booted off of the official list of AA group meetings in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) on May 31, 2011.

This was done by the GTA Intergroup.

Beyond Belief had been around for more than a year and a half. Twelve people attended its first meeting on September 24, 2009. It was, officially, the first agnostic AA group in Canada. We Agnostics had its first meeting almost a year later, on September 7, 2010. And both meetings were growing. To give more people an opportunity to participate, Beyond Belief had recently added a second weekly meeting on Saturdays.

The GTA Intergroup passed a motion that the two groups “be removed from the meeting books directory, the GTA AA website, and the list of meetings given over the phone by Intergroup to newcomers.” The motion passed 24 to 15 with 9 abstentions.

The groups were also excluded from participating in, and voting at, the regular monthly Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) meetings.

The next day, on Wednesday, I emailed the Toronto Star newspaper and later that day talked to a reporter, Leslie Scrivener. Later that weekend an article appeared on the front page of the Toronto Star. On the very top of the front page. The title was perfect, Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups. It came with a picture of a Catholic Priest in a church, Reverend Peter Watters, 50 years sober, who claimed that “belief in a higher power, God, is essential to getting sober in Alcoholics Anonymous”.

Individual vs. group conscience

Many might consider contacting the Toronto Star a taboo. It has been argued that it was a violation of Traditions One and Ten. And it has also been argued that it was solely up to the group conscience – of either or both of the evicted groups – to decide how to deal with their expulsion.

Tradition One states: “Our common welfare should come first, personal recovery depends upon AA unity”. Tradition One was indeed violated, and that was done by the GTA Intergroup.

Our common welfare should without a doubt come first, and it includes the welfare of agnostics, atheists and freethinkers. It is appalling – the word “sinful” jumps to mind – that Intergroup didn’t understand this basic AA principle. But clearly it didn’t.

Tradition Ten states: “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy”.

To begin with, the expulsion of these groups was not an outside issue. Clearly, it was an inside issue.

And it was not an issue that could be allowed to be buried in the basement of a church.

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There are standards that AA has to meet, and not just standards within our fellowship. The Ontario Human Rights Code, adopted in 1962, prohibits discrimination based upon an individual’s beliefs, or lack thereof, and goes on to say that this principle “extends to situations where the person who is the target of such behaviour has no religious beliefs whatsoever, including atheists and agnostics”.

Was Intergroup violating basic human values, fundamental human rights?

A good question. An important question.

Finally, the question is raised as to whether or not dealing with this expulsion should have been left to the conscience of the two groups.

But I, too, have a conscience. Every human has a conscience. And perhaps the most important part of a person is his or her conscience: how she or he feels about the world and what is right or wrong in it. And that too needs to be acknowledged. And respected. To do otherwise is wrong and invariably a part of authoritarianism.

When my home group was booted out of the AA Intergroup, my conscience screamed at me to act. To act immediately. As noted earlier, I was determined that this would not be an issue buried in a church basement. Any delay in a response was going to be a problem that would further hurt those already victimized. And so I acted.

And I have no doubt that it was the right thing to do.


On Thursday, I went to the evening meeting of my home group Beyond Belief, one of the two groups booted out of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI).

There were, as usual, some thirty people present. They were, to put it mildly, broken hearted. There was a fear in the room that the group and the meeting were as good as dead. If it did not die immediately it would wither away over time. After all, we were not now on any lists.

“Where will I go?” “But I love this meeting!” “They hate us.” “What am I going to do now?” That was the mood as I entered the room.

Some were crying. One of them was a wonderfully talented Canadian actress. I had sat beside her and chatted with her at her first Beyond Belief meeting, some six months earlier. After that first meeting she had given me a big hug and told me, “Roger I have a new home!”

Now her head was on the table and she sobbed uncontrollably.

Joe C, the author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life and one of the co-founders of the group Beyond Belief, described the expulsion of his group this way:

I was crushed by Toronto Intergroup’s decision. I grew up in AA. I have been sober since I was a teenager. I have always been outrageous. I have always pushed the envelope. I have always been tolerated and loved. When I was told that I was no longer welcome here it was an innocence lost that I cannot properly express. It was like having my family tell me to leave and never come back. For weeks, I was flabbergasted. I was angry and I was hurt.

Larry K, one of founders of We Agnostics, the other group booted out, put it this way:

The decision prompted tears and shock among the three dozen or so people who had embraced the secular groups. “It was painful. It’s shunning,” said Knight. “It was unbelievable that an organisation that can’t kick anybody out, and that prides itself on that, had kicked us out.”

The action taken by the GTA Intergroup was extreme. But let us be clear: there has always been tension between agnostics and the Christian members of Alcoholics Anonymous. What happened at the Intergroup meeting in that church basement in Toronto merely exposed a long-festering wound within AA.

So, what’s it all about, dear friends? Why did they do it? Why did Intergroup boot the two agnostic groups out?

We shall return to this topic in due course but first, well, we need some history.

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

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6 Responses

  1. Brian H. says:

    As the risk of being a bit of a Pollyanna, something I’m not often accused of, I found some advantage in the religious roots of AA and references to a god I knew was a construct of human consciousness and not actual.

    When the fog cleared a little in my early years and I noticed all the god words in the very Gothic and religious looking 12 Steps and 12 Tradition posters, I felt an outraged betrayal and a terrible fear that AA was not for me. I loved the people and the AA message but hated the medium. It was a head-heart struggle.

    I had to find a way to belong in and to AA but this must be authentic to me. Thanks to great huge dollops of counter-dependency and a pretty radical world view, I was used to holding minority views and feeling different, in a positive way, to others. In order to do this and also recover from the madness of my alcoholism, I had to reject and then deconstruct the 12 Steps and penetrate deep to the ancient human wisdom underpinning them. This took me a long time and this process continues today. All along this journey, nobody ever told me I was wrong and could not be a member of AA as a result of this thinking. The worst that ever happened was a knowing and tolerant smile from an older member. I was conscious all the time that this might be an aspect or reflection of the darkness of my addiction and might lead to relapse so I stuck real close to the meetings and sober members and did a lot of service. I learned about my shadow side and how not to fear it and also to go to those scary lonely places.

    As a result of this, I believe that there was a slow, gradual turning about in the deepest seat of my consciousness and that this allowed me to be free from the reality of active addiction and its terrible consequences. One day at a time, natch!

    An unexpected benefit of the ‘law’ of unintended consequences was that my journey to authentic membership of AA was my transition from rabid atheist to compassionate humanist, from hatred to love, from rejection to acceptance, from exclusion to inclusion, from defining myself by what I was against instead of what I supported and believed in. And so on.

    Anyway, I’m still here and 35 years later, I still haven’t picked up a drink or a drug and could be considered by many to be an ordinary decent human being. I’m sure some might think I’m hell-bound because of my belief but, sure, what the hell, I’ll pray for them.

  2. life-j says:

    Roger, Thanks. Most of us know this story by now, but I think it is good that you called the newspaper. It becomes necessary to seek outside help when a majority flagrantly tramples the right of a minority, such that there is no viable internal mechanism for redress. When an Intergroup operates in a power vacuum where there is no way to hold it to its obligations in accordance with our traditions, neither by an authority above (by which I mean a strata somewhere below heaven) nor by pressure from “below” by the fellowship members, then outside help needs to be found. I think there’s more of it coming.

    AA can only remain anonymous so long as, or during times when, minorities do not get trampled.

  3. Duane M. says:

    I am glad this group exists, but how about starting SOS meetings or LifeRing groups. I have a very difficult time looking them up much less being able to attend one.

    • life-j says:

      Duane, there aren’t many of either. I know LifeRing started in the SF bay area, so there are a number of them there. However, there is an online chat room you may want to visit.

      Mid-evening pacific time is when I have found the most people in it, though I haven’t been there for maybe a year, but it is small at any rate. Still, nice people in there, so check them out.

  4. Rich T says:

    I’m not sure if I would call it rejection… maybe shunned is what I was feeling when I stopped going to meetings. After about a year and half of AA meetings I could not just sit there and listen to “god is the only way” to successfully beat alcoholism. I tried to explain that I can’t believe in something just because I’m told to and that I don’t believe in god or a made up higher power that actually does anything. Maybe I could have been more tactful but I know I was just spinning my wheels! I am only two plus years but so far so good. I feel great!

    • Scott H says:

      Rich I’ve heard it said that it is not a “God of your understanding” it is, in fact, a God of AA’s understanding. This narrow-minded and God-centric attitude kept me away from all 12-step programs for 20 years. 20 years of misery and despair simply because my views on so called “spirituality” were and are radically different from the mainstream bible-thumping zealots that make up the majority of any AA meeting.

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