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.
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 AA can be purchased at Amazon US.
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