Chapter 6: Changing the 12 Steps

Chapter 6

As time passes our book literature has a tendency to get more and more frozen – a tendency for conversion into something like dogma. This is a trait of human nature which I am afraid we can do little about.
Bill Wilson, Correspondence, 1961

Much of the controversy with regard to secular groups has to do with changing the 12 Steps of AA.

This has been particularly true since two agnostic groups were booted out of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup for posting a secular version of the Steps online.

But it is not just a problem in Toronto.

And it has not only been a problem with Intergroups in various locations across North America, but it has also plagued the General Service Office.

One example. On September 28, 2010, Gayle S R, a GSO staffer, wrote to the administrator of the Agnostic AA NYC website. In the letter Gayle points out that the website refers to “addicts” as well as alcoholics – a no-no in “old school” AA. Worse, a secular version of the 12 Steps was available on the website.

“So we respectfully request that your group stop calling itself an AA group,” Gayle concluded. The modified 12 Steps, and any reference to addicts, were removed from the website.

You can’t change the Steps, some will argue. If you do, you are not AA.

After all, the Steps are copyrighted and the copyright is owned by AA World Services.

Moreover, in 1957 the following bylaw was adopted by AA “the General Service Board asserts the negative right of preventing, so far as it may be within its power so to do, any modification, alteration, or extension of these Twelve Steps, except at the instance of the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous in keeping with the Charter of the General Service Conference”.

In keeping with the Charter, it would apparently require a two-thirds vote to amend the Steps.

So, isn’t it pretty obvious that a person or group who rewrites the Steps should be booted out of AA, as was done to the two groups here in Toronto?

In spite of the quote about the “General Service Board asserts the negative right”, the answer is “absolutely not”.

Nobody is trying to change the AA Steps, as originally published in 1939.

However, groups and individuals have a right to their own version. These adapted versions are not meant to replace the original 12 Steps, but are solely for the use of the group, based upon the conscience of its members, or the individual and her or his conscience and beliefs (or lack thereof).

And the author of the Steps, Bill Wilson, was comfortable with that. He was very, very comfortable with adaptations of the 12 Steps within AA.

When told that some Buddhists wanted to start AA groups in Thailand but wished to change the word “God” in the Steps to “good”, Bill wrote:

To some of us, the idea of substituting “good” for “God” in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of AA’s message. We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written. (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Page 81, 1957)

Let’s further explore three points mentioned in Bill’s remarks.

First, “AA’s Steps are suggestions only”. It says so right on page 59 of the Big Book. The Steps as “suggestions” are copyrighted! Atheists and agnostics like Jim Burwell lobbied hard back in 1939 for this and other changes and Bill appreciated these contributions, crediting them with “widening the gateway” of the fellowship.

So there is a very serious problem when the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) says “a group must be prepared to practice the 12 steps”. (More shall be revealed about the position of the GTAI in the next chapter.)

You don’t boot someone out for not following a suggestion. That is wrong. That is a form of fanaticism, authoritarianism.

Second, “A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us”.

“As they stand” is an idiom that means “as they are now” or “as they exist at present”. So you don’t have to believe in the Steps (“them”) as they are now, as they stand, in order to be a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Little Book

The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps, the first book published by AA Agnostica, contains 20 mostly secular versions of the original 12 Steps. It also has four different secular interpretations of each of the Steps by people like Gabor Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and Stephanie Covington, author of A Woman’s Way through the Twelve Steps. Click on the image above for more information about The Little Book.

And yet agnostic groups in various towns and cities in North America have been excluded from or booted out of the fellowship simply because they do not believe in the Steps “as they stand”.

Amazing. Truly amazing.

How many times in AA literature do we have to be told that “the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking”? How many times do we have to be told that membership does not depend upon “conformity”? How many times do we have to hear that “each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares”?

Third, AA is available to more people – atheists and agnostics, in particular – because the fellowship does not insist upon the Twelve Steps “just as written”.

Think about it a bit.

If God can be “as we understand Him” then surely – surely to god, so to speak – we can interpret the Steps as we wish.

That should be obvious to anyone.

It could even be argued that an individual interpretation of the Steps is not only unavoidable but it is, in the end, essential.

For those who use the Steps as a tool in recovery – and let’s be clear, not everyone in AA does that and it is not a requirement for membership – this quote from two women who wrote their own interpretation of the Steps in 1991 is very relevant: “We can learn the universal, generic pattern of life’s dance from the 12 Steps. But in our individual dance of life, we choose our own music and dance our own dance”.

An atheist or agnostic can’t really be expected to accept Steps in which “God”, “Him” or “Power” (with a capital P) are mentioned six times. To thine own self be true.

“To thine own self be true” is important to many of us in recovery and in AA. So what to do? The agnostic can’t come to your meeting? She can’t start her own group?

Those who insist on the Steps as they were dictated in 1939 often come across as, well, dictators. And that’s certainly how the GTA Intergroup behaved when it put the boots to the two agnostic groups in Toronto.

At least three reasons have been listed as to why individuals and groups should not be excluded from the fellowship of AA for putting together their own versions of the 12 Steps.

But it’s worth repeating: Nobody is trying to change the original AA Steps, as published in 1939. Adapted versions are not meant to replace the original 12 Steps, but are solely for the use of the group, based upon the conscience of its members, or the individual and her or his conscience and beliefs (or lack thereof).

It all has to do with the very nature of AA.

There are no requirements in AA. There are no “musts”. As Bill once put it, talking about Tradition Three, “That means that these two or three alcoholics could try for sobriety in any way they liked. They could disagree with any or all of AA’s principles and still call themselves an AA group”.

That can be hard for some people to accept.

But all of this means – the very nature of our fellowship requires – that we quit putting the boots to women and men who have created their own personal interpretations of the 12 Steps based upon an honest individual or group conscience.

The Greater Toronto Area Intergroup got it wrong. And it’s up to the rest of us, including AA World Services, to put things back together and invite “anyone anywhere” with a desire to stop drinking to join together with all of us underneath the AA umbrella.

We need their support. They need our support. This is AA.

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).

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18 Responses

  1. Tim M. says:

    I enjoyed reading and nodding my head in agreement with the sentiments expressed in this article.

    We of the Rochester NY Freethinkers were very happy that AAWS essentially was ready to do to the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup what they had been doing to the AAAA Toronto meetings.
    We had been told we had to comply by not reading any amended version of the steps in our meeting or we would not appear on the local list of meetings. We complied at the time.

    But now that AAWS has suggested that people vote with their feet and not attend meetings they don’t like, we can now resume.

    Shortly after the ruling we revisited the steps for our meeting. Here is the result.

    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol —that our lives had become unmanageable.

    2. Came to believe that the wisdom of other abstinent members could help to restore us to sanity.

    3. Made a decision to follow the steps as a path of recovery.

    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

    5. Admitted to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

    6. Were entirely ready to address our defects of character.

    7. Humbly overcame our shortcomings.

    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted.

    11. Sought through meditation and self reflection to improve our integrity in all areas of our lives.

    12. Having had an awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

    • Mike B says:

      I like your steps Tim. For my purposes I would insert one word in the third step.

      3. Made a decision to follow the “principles” of the steps as a path of recovery.

      Thanks for your article.

      Mike B.
      Oliver, BC.

      • Mike B says:

        Perhaps use the word “practice” in lieu of “follow”. I suppose many believe both words essentially mean the same thing.



  2. Karl says:

    I’m enjoying my weekly chapter read.

    A couple of thoughts, how do we get central office here in Hamilton to have our literature available?

    Also that wee book with the steps etc. that I gave to you, I’d like to get together and figure out a way to print an agnostic version. The other one has been sanctioned as official AA literature.

    Looking forward to Thurs.

    All the best


  3. Dale K says:

    More kudos to the author! Rewording the steps so that they are understandable is just common sense. We’re not, really, changing them. It’s no more than finding the essence of them so they can be used in our individual lives.

    I hear Bill Wilson quoted by secular AA members often. I rarely hear him quoted by religious members. His thoughts don’t often fit into a dogmatic narrative.

  4. life-j says:

    Thanks Roger. AAWS has made a significant turnabout over the last few years. When approached about the Toronto groups they first came out on the side of fundamentalism, but eventually changed their tune to the point of even taking a stand against it, if not as hard a one as we could have wished for. And eventually most intergroups have followed. If Denver is the only one holding out it seems that we should make a joint effort to make them change, such as sending them letters. Anyone who would care to get us going with that? (Adresses etc.) A couple of hundred letters should make a difference, no?

    God surely works in mysterious ways. Here the whole fellowship was just about to harden into dogma, and He brought forth His host of atheists to change it, just barely in time before the cement set up.

    • Tim M. says:

      Obviously I don’t think that God works in mysterious ways. However, when people shine light on what is happening, things can change.

      • life-j says:

        Obviously I don’t either, but it’s funny how it’s part of both christian outlook in general, and christian AA in particular that when something ‘good’ happens, it is god’s doing, and when something ‘bad’ happens, it’s the person’s own fault, or god trying to teach them something.

        I think we should counter all that BS by pointing out to them that maybe god is trying to tell the christians something.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Roger for all you do to continue spreading the word about Secular AA, not only to us the members of Secular AA, but to the rest of AA as well.

    Though we may constitute a minority of the AA membership, our history, traditions and concepts of service legitimize us as viable and legitimate members of AA as much as the most ardent of our religious members, because we say we are members of AA.

    It’s not rocket science . . . 😉

  6. Al says:

    Condensed 12 steps:

    1. Don’t have a drink
    2. repeat

  7. Mike W says:

    Thank you SO Much!!! Roger I recently moved to a sober house in Fort Erie Canada, and was required to attend 12-Step meeting 5 times a week, the “old school guard” of old timers here resented my not accepting “GOD” in my recovery; I am not anti-religion by any means, but I choose not to include that aspect in my recovery… a personal choice of mine. I was constantly told by these pious old timers that “I needed to work the program in a way that works for me” but what I came to understand was that they meant I needed to work “My program” as they saw it and in a way that conforms to their idealisms. For a program that supposedly encourages, promotes, and boasts about being understanding & accommodating to the “open mindedness” of individuals, I found that this town does not follow, nor practice, their own advice or preachings.

    This close-minded way of thinking has, unfortunately, discouraged and scared away many individuals within this town from joining and/or participating in a program of recovery (of his or her own choosing) that could very well work for them, and save their lives. Meeting after meeting I tried to discuss this issue amongst the “so-called” Elders of this community, and was met with disdain, disapproval, no encouragement, and I was essentially shunned by the community as a whole & deemed an Anti-Christ.

    While I was a resident at ARID House in Fort Erie, I saw countless lost souls in the form of Addicts and Alcoholics – who came here for help and understanding within their darkest hours – and were met with nothing more than a shrug and a bid adieu due to the fact that they did not conform or fit into the tight-knit fabric of this community. Some of these individuals are no longer with us, as they were one of the unfortunate ones that met the demise of their disease. I fear that the people of this town do not realize how dangerous their influences can be individually and as a whole entity, as they very often selfishly keep the gift of recovery to themselves and their ideals without ever offering to truly listen, keep an open mind, and continue to give the gift of recovery, understanding and compassion to their fellow man.

    I want to THANK YOU for upholding the TRUE WORDS of RECOVERY AND OPEN-MINDEDNESS… and allowing myself and others – who truly wish to recover & not pay lip service to the politically driven & small-town influenced groups (such as those found within and around Fort Erie), and I truly Thank You for my recovery. -Mike W

  8. Mike B says:

    Thanks Mike. I can identify with your experience in small town AA. There are few secular members and freethinkers in my area. The big book thumpers, religious evangelists and herd mentality are overwhelming, but they are everywhere. I don’t think our situation is unique unless one is fortunate to live close to a secular meeting(s).

    Fundamentalists chase more people out of the fellowship than they attract. Ever wonder why there has been zero growth in AA membership over the past 30 years?

    Tim. I really enjoyed your personal version of 12 secular steps to recovery. It is an exercise that I haven’t done until now. My interpretation and practice of my 12 steps reflect my secular beliefs and worldview today.

    You motivated me to write my own so here they are:

    My Secular 12 Steps:

    1. I admitted I am powerless over alcohol —that my life is unmanageable.

    2. I believe the good orderly direction, love and care of a group of sober drunks can restore me to sanity.

    3. Make a daily decision to practice the principles of the steps as a path to recovery.

    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.

    5. Admitted to myself and another human being the exact nature of my wrongs.

    6. Am entirely ready to remove all of my defects of character.

    7. Humbly attempt to overcome my shortcomings.

    8. Made a list of all persons I had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

    10. Continue to take personal inventory and when wrong promptly admit it.

    11. Sought through meditation and self -reflection to improve my consciousness and integrity in all areas of my life.

    12. Having experienced a conscience awakening as a result of sobriety and these steps; I try to carry my message of recovery to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all my affairs.

    Thanks for the part you play in my sobriety,

    Mike B.
    Oliver, BC.

  9. Tim M. says:


    Let me make it clear the Rochester Ny Freethinkers spent a meeting creating the version of the steps that I posted.

    We tried to secularize them yet keep them familiar.

    Glad to know I am alcoholic

    • Mike B says:

      Thanks Tim. I wish I had a secular group here that we could post secular steps on the meeting room walls. Since interpretation and practice of these steps is primarily a personal one I now take a copy of my steps to every meeting I attend. Last night, for the first time, when asked to share on the 7th step I read my version and explained how it works for me.

      It was an interesting idea that raised a few eyes but another way that non-believers can explain how they achieved long term contented sobriety through the practice of steps outside the box of god.

  10. Tim M. says:

    Mike B.

    Rochester Freethinkers meets in the Mack Bldg. that is operated by the East Side Area Annex which handles building and supply issues and makes the meeting space available to groups or meetings.

    The normal AA “stuff” is on the walls and neither individuals or groups can just post their versions of anything on the walls. We have bulletin boards for each meeting and a couple of general use boards.

    We simply read our steps at the beginning of the meeting and make them available to any who ask.

    I think it is important to recall that our primary purpose is to stay sober and help others recover. Though some may think it necessary to believe in something the essential “teachings” of AA are found in the steps to recovery.

    I have worked with devout believers, other atheists and in between. It simply does not matter what we believe if we don’t do the steps. It also doesn’t matter what we don’t believe.

    To me the most important word in the “How It Works” reading done at many meetings is Probably. For in my case it was the sober men and women of who showed me how to put down the drink and the drug and learn to live a better life i.e. human power.

    I will be grateful to them as long as I live.

    Still glad to know I am alcoholic.

  11. Jackie K says:

    Thank you, Roger. I live in suburban Los Angeles and one would think here we would be more open minded about rewording the steps and having more meetings for AAFT folks. But things are still pretty orthodox. It is nice to have a source of literature here at this site.

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