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.
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 AA can be purchased at Amazon US.
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