Service, not Governance
One of the co-founders of AA, Bill Wilson, wrote this in the July, 1946, Grapevine:
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!
This quote does one thing and it does it very well. It explains Tradition Nine: “AA as such ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve”. [Emphasis added.] Interestingly, the first version of the Traditions – at the time called “Twelve Points to Assure Our Future” – were written by Bill and published in the Grapevine a few months before the quote shared above, in April 1946.
So the original intent of this Tradition was quite clear: any AA organization has but one purpose: service. Not governance.
But some AA boards and committees don’t understand. You can find them in Northern California, in Colorado, in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada.
Well, you can find them just about anywhere.
In an article published in the Grapevine in October 2016, life-j describes these AA organizations as our new “governing” bodies.
Indianapolis We Agnostics Group
Beyond Belief and We Agnostics in Toronto were not the first agnostic groups to be de-listed by an area Intergroup.
That dubious honour goes to the Indianapolis We Agnostics group. Founded on November 1, 2009, by Joe S, Heather B and Chris W, the group is the first and only agnostic group in Indiana.
And it wasn’t just booted out once, but twice.
In a letter dated November 3, 2010, coincidentally on the group’s first anniversary, signed by both the Indianapolis Intergroup office manager and the chairman, the members of We Agnostics were told that “your group reads a changed version of the Twelve Steps” and “It is the judgement of the Indianapolis Intergroup’s Service Committee that your group has decided it is not an AA group”.
It was quite a surprise to the group that they had made such a decision.
The authors of the letter go on to explain the reason for their delisting. “Early in the Big Book our founders made it clear that we alcoholics suffer from a disease which only a spiritual experience can conquer.”
Several group members met with the Indy Intergroup and We Agnostics was re-listed. They agreed that an adapted version of the 12 Steps would not be read at their meetings. In fact the We Agnostics “group conscience” was that literature that was not “Conference-approved” would not be included in the meeting format.
Nevertheless, the group was officially booted out a second time on May 8, 2011. This time no reason was given. Group members were not contacted. They were not told in advance that the issue was on the Intergroup agenda. They were not told of the allegations against them. They were not provided with an opportunity to offer any kind of defence. They were not even informed of the decision by Intergroup to de-list them but learned of it afterwards from a third party, accidentally.
It was kind of a hit and run incident.
An article in the July issue of the Indianapolis Intergroup, Inc. newsletter, The Paper, boasted that “Indy AA remains undiluted” as a consequence of the expulsion of We Agnostics.
“Nothing in the committee’s decision in any way attempts to exclude or limit ANYONE from AA membership, so long as he/she has the requisite desire to stop drinking” the article goes on to say, suggesting that it’s not acceptable to exclude an individual but it’s okay to boot groups of nonbelievers – such as We Agnostics – out of AA.
One nonbeliever, no. Two or more, yes.
But is that true?
The Indy Intergroup clearly made an effort to present both sides of the debate around the de-listing of this group, or perhaps even any group. In the August issue of The Paper there is a lengthy article entitled, “The Other Side of the Story – Expelling a Local Group”. In that article Donna H takes great exception with the expulsion of We Agnostics: “Simply, the Service Committee has greatly over-reached its boundaries (they are trusted servants, they do not govern) and have completely ignored at least six of our Traditions”.
She goes on to say:
There was neither respect nor careful consideration; neither trust nor love. Personalities were everywhere and sadly not one Service Committee member asked themselves if there “might be another way to deal with this” or “maybe we should consult the traditions” or even “let’s decide not to decide tonight”. Instead there was a pound on the table, the decision made (not voted on mind you) and the meeting was ended.
In some detail she then explains how Intergroup’s actions violated six of the Traditions of AA.
The issue simmered and festered over the summer and into the fall.
And it did a lot of damage within the AA community in Indianapolis.
Virginia R, the AA area delegate for southern Indiana reported: “The committee’s action caused all sorts of collateral damage. Long-time friendships were affected and there was a general sense of simmering hostility from all corners of our local AA community”.
Faced with an unprecedented backlash, the Intergroup Service Committee met again on Thursday, October 6, and voted to re-list We Agnostics.
At this point, “it got very twisted”, according to Joe S, a founder of We Agnostics, as he described the process of re-listing his group.
The de facto lawyer for the Service Group and the author of the article “Indy AA remains undiluted” in the July issue of the Indianapolis Intergroup newsletter, Stephen U, argued on Saturday, October 8, that the vote to re-list We Agnostics was “null and void”.
Something to do with proper notice of the vote not having been provided.
A day later, on Sunday, October 9, a general membership meeting of the Indianapolis Intergroup was held.
At that meeting representatives of AA groups in Indianapolis expressed their lack of confidence in the Service Committee and voted (“something like 112-72”, according to Donna) against the decision to de-list We Agnostics.
The following Thursday, October 13, 2011, the Service Committee met in a special meeting and voted, for a second time, to re-list We Agnostics.
Proper notice must have been provided this time, because the very next day – more than six months after having been de-listed – We Agnostics was back on the meeting list on Intergroup’s website.
It was a gruelling experience for all involved.
At the time, Joe, who is the first to acknowledge that his own behaviour was not always impeccable, said that he was exhausted as a result of the controversy.
The area delegate, Virginia, reported that, “The whole ordeal was physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. Glad to be done with it.”
And the final outcome?
According to Joe, the Service Committee took the position that “if anyone complains about a meeting, they will be told to go to another meeting.”
Des Moines Broad Highway Group
Let us not ignore the groups that aren’t granted the opportunity to be booted off a regional list of AA meetings because, well, they aren’t listed in the first place.
In Des Moines, Iowa, an agnostic group called The Broad Highway was founded on October 12, 2010.
Although the founders of the group registered it with the GSO, the Des Moines Intergroup refused to include the group in the meeting list.
On a Facebook page, the dilemma of the group was described rather sadly and ironically: “Your application to the Outcasts Club has been denied”.
Don S and Tom H are the two founders of the group. Don – whose sobriety date goes back to June 14, 1991 – had 19 years of sobriety under his belt before he started The Broad Highway. He was a traditional member of AA for ten years before he “completely lost faith.”
“Then, for about two years, I was nervous about my sobriety because of the God indoctrination I had received.”
In most cities in North America, and in virtually all towns and villages, AA meetings end with people standing, holding hands, and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Don ultimately decided he couldn’t – and shouldn’t – do that. He chose to remain seated during the closing prayer in order “to let others know that they are not alone and so that nonbelievers will feel welcome”.
And that approach has been very helpful.
Don met the other founder of The Broad Highway Group at an “old school” AA meeting. He shared his lack of faith and Tom – who at the time had 23 years of sobriety – talked about his own doubt. The two had a long conversation after the meeting. Don reported that “when I started the agnostic meeting, Tom was always there. He often opened up and made the coffee. We would not have met if we were silent about our unbelief.”
And Don met a sponsee in this way. “I sponsored one guy because he saw that I didn’t participate in the prayer. He was returning to AA and was wary because he was now an atheist. He was tremendously relieved that there is a way to do AA without God.”
When Don originally asked for the group’s meetings to be listed on the Des Moines Intergroup meeting list, he was told that there was a six month waiting period. After six months he wrote and was told that the application was being referred to a committee.
Eventually Intergroup sent Jayson J to monitor a meeting of the Broad Highway. Don reports that the following exchange took place. Don told him that the group was registered with the GSO.
Jayson: “Well Intergroup won’t take just anyone. There’s more to it than that.”
Don: “Then how can we meet your criteria?”
Jayson: “I don’t know.”
However, after six years, on November 13, 2016, the group was finally included in the Intergroup list. Don credited this, in part, to an article published in the Des Moines Register on February 5, 2015. The article was called “AA won’t list nonreligious group meetings” and was critical of the local Intergroup. The author, Rekha Basu, correctly observed “This is an issue (AA) will need to grapple with to stay relevant. If the founders’ goal was indeed not to promote any denomination, but to help people stay sober by sharing, surely there’s room enough under the umbrella for all kinds – even godless people – to have a group”.
Denver Freethinkers in AA Group
The first secular meeting of Freethinkers in AA in Denver, Colorado was held on October 2, 2013, with eight people in attendance. Two weeks later, there were 12 members, several of whom had stopped attending the religious meetings years ago.
After several months of the meetings attracting 15 to 20 members, it became clear that the group needed to expand to weekly meetings and to consider adding a second meeting. So, in July 2014, the Freethinkers in AA Group became a weekly Monday 6:30 PM meeting and a Saturday 9:30 AM meeting.
The group – its listing never yet having been approved – again contacted the Denver Central Office Manager to request a print and online listing of these group meetings, which were duly registered with the General Service Office in New York. The manager flatly refused the listing, saying “We wouldn’t want a newcomer to attend your meeting and think it is representative of what AA really is”. She later sent out people to spy on the group and report back. The group apparently didn’t meet her standards.
To add insult to injury, when she was sent the name of the group’s Intergroup Representative, the Denver Central Office Manager responded that the Freethinkers in AA Group “cannot have representation on the Central Office Committee” since it is “not a recognized group”.
One of the main founders of the group, Jeb B, expressed his frustration this way:
I find it incredibly unfortunate that 12-Step programs and treatment programs recommending them cannot let go of the religious origins and practices like prayer to an imaginary being. No one seeking recovery should be required to participate in religious practices, prayers, of any kind. Such programs are missing the boat by failing to utilize the proven cognitive-behavioral process constituting the true 12-Step program. Spiritual make believe has no place in government programs of our constitutional secular society.
Freethinkers in AA continues to thrive, and has 140 men and women on its confidential group list. The group makes quarterly contributions to AA World Services and District 9 and Area 10 of AA. Its next outreach effort will be to contact all area treatment facilities with information about the group and its meetings.
Laytonville Freethinkers Group
It took three years after a meeting had been started for it to be listed. That happened in Laytonville, California, and it’s a bit of complicated story.
In April 2013 life-j approached the Mendocino Inland Intergroup to get a meeting he and a few others were planning, the Laytonville Freethinkers Group, listed in the local meeting directory. A couple of people objected and they rallied their forces against the group. The fight kept on until February 2014 when life-j finally gave up trying to have it included in the meeting list.
The group went ahead and held the first Laytonville Freethinkers meeting on August 22, 2013. It was one of five AA meetings in Laytonville, which has a population of less than 1,500.
And it wouldn’t be listed until October 2016.
It was in that month in 2016 that the AA Grapevine published an issue devoted to “Atheist and Agnostic Members” of AA. There were half a dozen articles in that issue written by atheists and one of the best was called Open-Minded.1 It was written by life-j and in it he discussed his problem getting his meeting listed in “liberal Northern California”.
Well, that article got read at meetings in Laytonville and at other meetings in the area and the next time the Mendocino Inland Intergroup met it was decided to include the Laytonville Freethinkers meeting in the meeting directory.
It took three years for a modicum of acceptance to finally be realized and acted upon.
Vancouver We Agnostics and Sober Agnostics Groups
It is not just in Toronto where things got ugly in AA and groups got booted out.
It happened in Vancouver too.
One of the key players in starting agnostic meetings in Vancouver was a fellow by the name of Denis Kilborn. His sobriety date was April 28, 1975 and he died from cancer complications on April 1, 2016. As Dan V put it, “In his 41 years in AA he helped countless numbers of people, as a sponsor and as a friend. AA was his life… Denis was not only my sponsor for 32 years but also my trusted friend.”
Oddly enough, after some 25 years sober in AA Denis realized he had a problem and checked himself into treatment centre.
How many people do you know who do that? And what was the problem? Dan reports:
It had everything to do with his belief system. He had faked it for so long in AA and could no longer handle the internal struggles as a result. “What do I believe? What don’t I believe?” were the questions on the table in that period of treatment. And that’s where he started verbalizing his lack of belief in God.
Now he had this new-found idea that you actually can get sober and maintain sobriety at a level that is conducive to a good life without a God. Well, this is going against everything that he had heard over the last twenty-five years! His big question then was, “Who do I share that with?” It was then that a decision was made to help widen the path of AA for all who suffer.
Denis started the first agnostic AA meeting in the city of Vancouver.
Denis chose to do that, as he put, rather than “silently suffer the dogma and the rituals that had taken over many of the local meetings. Things like ending the meetings by holding hands and then the chair calls out ‘Who’s the boss?’ and everyone recites the Lord’s Prayer.”
It was a men’s meeting called “We Agnostics” and was held on Monday nights. The meeting was duly registered with both the New York GSO and the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society in the summer of 2012.
A year later Denis helped start another meeting, this one called “Sober Agnostics”. Its founding meeting was held on May 7, 2013 and the meeting is still going strong today. Indeed, an updated “How It Works”, put together by one of its members Hilary J and adopted by the group, can be found in Appendix I: Secular Versions of “How It Works”.
This meeting too was registered with the General Service Office in New York and with the Vancouver Intergroup.
However, problems were on their way. As Hilary reports:
Our meeting soon attracted the attention of the Vancouver Intergroup operating committee. The committee chair, Jim J., attended incognito to “see what we were up to”, announcing himself at the end of the meeting. When the next edition of the directory was published, Sober Agnostics had been deleted.
This precipitated lengthy, sometimes hostile debates at the monthly Intergroup meetings.
Since we had changed the Steps, and did not use the official AA literature, were we really an AA group? Did the operating committee have the authority to decide whether we should be listed? A package was issued to all Intergroup reps to take back to their home groups for group conscience. After months of agonizing debate and delays, the final vote was on whether Intergroup should continue to discuss the matter. The verdict was “No”, and that was the end of that.
That verdict took place on Tuesday, January 21, 2014.
A woman, almost in tears, said she could not understand how the vote ended the way it did in view of Tradition Three and AA’s commitment to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
But it was over and the issue decided. Members of the banned agnostic groups had never been given the opportunity to defend their rights within AA and the matter was closed.
“Every group has the right to be wrong,” Bill Wilson once wrote. (12 and 12, p. 47)
And the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society (GVIS) exercised that right.
The problem wouldn’t be resolved for almost four years. The last time the agnostic groups had been listed in the GVIS meeting directory was in June of 2013.
In 2017 it was finally decided to reopen the issue and to have an actual vote on whether or not these groups should be listed and not leave that decision solely to the Intergroup operating committee. The vote took place on March 21, 2017. There were some 50 people present and there was a long and difficult discussion. A two-thirds majority – 31 votes – was required in order to list the secular groups and re-admit them as voting members of the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society.
Thirty-three people voted to “list all groups that wish to be listed”.
One Alcoholic Judging Another
The way our “worthy” alcoholics have sometimes tried to judge the “less worthy” is, as we look back on it, rather comical. Imagine, if you can, one alcoholic judging another!
It is important to note that these are not the only agnostic groups that have been brutalized or intimidated within traditional AA.
It happens all the time and everywhere, around the world.
For example, I went to my AA Central Office a few days ago to put flyers on the shelves, announcing the first anniversary of our “We Agnostics” group in Hamilton. There are many flyers there, announcing new groups, birthdays, the cancellation of meetings, and the like.
The volunteer working in the office looked at the flyers and said, “You can’t put those up”. We argued about it and she ended up phoning the manager, Jimmy, who said it was all right to share them. The problem for her, of course, was the name of the group: We Agnostics.
Can we imagine “one alcoholic judging another”? Sure we can.
Just ask the alcoholic that doesn’t buy the “God bit” whether or not she has been judged in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.
A History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.
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