More than forty years ago, Ed and Paula, two members of an AA trustees Literature Sub-Committee, wrote that a pamphlet written by and for agnostics and atheists in AA was “needed to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.”
To date, that Conference-approved pamphlet has never been published.
Never. Been. Published.
And this is in spite of at least half a dozen major efforts over the last four decades.
If anything, we agnostics in AA feel like deviants and outcasts in AA more now than ever before, even dating back eighty years when AA was founded in 1935.
But let’s start at the beginning with the origins of these requests for AA literature for non-believers. Much of what follows comes from the following document: History – Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Non-Believer / Agnostic / Atheist Alcoholic1.
A “Conference-approved” pamphlet for agnostics and atheists in AA was first proposed in 1975.
The proposal was the result of a letter from Al L, an AA member in Florida, who asked the Trustees’ Literature Committee to consider publishing such a pamphlet.
(The trustees of AA consist of 14 alcoholics and 7 non-alcoholics. These trustees are the principal planners and administrators of AA’s overall policy and finances, which is about as high-level as it gets in Alcoholics Anonymous.)
This is what Al wrote:
I’m a happy non-belligerent agnostic. I feel that many non-believers miss the AA boat before they find out that they are also welcome. The “God bit” frightens then off before they learn that their spiritual beliefs or non-beliefs need not deprive them of the blessings of AA.
Is it possible for the “powers that be” in AA to publish a pamphlet designed specifically for agnostics? I don’t mean the Big Book’s version – Chapter IV We Agnostics – that doesn’t make sense to me. Never did…
Many agnostics believe at first that AA, with all of its “Let God Do It” and “That one is God, may you find him now” is really a thinly veiled attempt to shove “religion” down their throats. You and I of course know that isn’t the case…
I would not advise that such a pamphlet for agnostics imply or infer that “God” will get you sooner or later or that you will necessarily come to believe in the power of prayer or that you must “turn it over.”
My logic, common sense and dedication to AA keeps me sober – and I don’t think the non-spiritual have been given a fair shake.
There’s much of course in Al’s letter that makes a great deal of sense. Nonbelievers in AA have definitely not been given a “fair shake” over the years.
After all, what does an agnostic do when an interventionist God appears a total of six times in the 12 Steps? What does he or she do when the AA meeting – in a church basement, no less – ends with the Lord’s Prayer?
It is important to note that Al is asking for a pamphlet that lets go of the idea that God is necessary for recovery. The pamphlet would acknowledge straight out that agnostics and atheists can and, quite commonly, do get sober and maintain their sobriety within AA – and do that without God.
To its credit, the Literature Committee was open to the idea, at least initially. The trustees thought Al’s proposal was important and in February 1976 they appointed a two-member subcommittee to study the issue and report back. Specifically, “The Committee recommended that the preparation of a pamphlet for Agnostics be studied by a sub-committee consisting of Ed S and Paula C.”
After four months, in July 1976, these two submitted a preliminary report strongly recommending the publication of this pamphlet. Here is what the report recommended, divided into three parts:
A. Reasons for the pamphlet
This pamphlet is vitally needed to carry the message to both newcomers and old timers.
Alcoholics Anonymous, despite first appearances, is neither sectarian nor religious, and is open to all alcoholics of every persuasion or non-persuasion. The number of nonbelievers in the program, or who need the AA program but are discouraged by its theism, may be more substantial than is probably realized.
The chapter “To the Agnostic” in the Big Book is fine as a start but more material is needed to assure nonbelievers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.
This pamphlet will probably also help the God believer in AA to understand his/her own spiritual values better, as well as to develop tolerance and understanding of many newcomers to AA.
The pamphlet would affirm in clear and concise fashion that “the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking” and that our founders and the group conscience of the fellowship does not and has never considered an alcoholic’s spiritual beliefs as necessarily relevant to the achievement of healthy and happy sobriety.
B. A draft should begin as soon as possible
The sub-committee will collect material from extant literature including the Grapevine.
If it appears that this pamphlet geared to the agnostic and/or atheist will not achieve the aims listed above, then it will be discontinued by the Committee at this time.
C. This type of pamphlet does not fall under the category “special groups of alcoholics” literature
It concerns a more fundamental and worldwide problem that has resulted in much misinterpretation of the AA Fellowship.
This last point is very important.
What the subcommittee is saying with this last point is that what AA needs to do with this pamphlet is affirm that sobriety is indeed possible in AA without an interventionist God. Ultimately, that is the only way that it is possible for agnostics and atheists to participate in AA as “full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification”. It is the recognition of the fact that “our founders and the group conscience of the fellowship does not and has never considered an alcoholic’s spiritual beliefs as necessarily relevant to the achievement of healthy and happy sobriety”.
Of course, try telling that to some of “our more religious members”.
In August 1976, the trustees’ Literature Committee reviewed the two-page report. It suggested that the subcommittee now write a new version of their recommendations in greater detail and present it to the 1977 Conference Committee on Literature before further action is taken on its preparation.
And here, unfortunately, is where light turns to darkness.
The Committee reviewed the revised report in October of 1976.
And turfed it.
Moreover, the trustees Literature Committee did a complete reversal and “decided not to ask the 1977 Conference Literature Committee to consider a pamphlet for agnostics/atheists”.
(The Conference meets for a week once a year every spring. It consists of roughly 130 members: delegates from 93 Conference areas in North America, trustees of the General Service Board, and various directors and AA staff. It functions as the active voice and group conscience of the fellowship. All official AA literature must be “Conference-approved”.)
To this day, even after “an exhaustive search,” a copy of the subcommittee’s final report has never been found.
What we do know, however, is that the effort to get a pamphlet for, about and by agnostics in AA continued on and on and on, into the 80s, 90s and, indeed, into the new millennium.
Let’s look at what happened in the eighties.
Apparently Ed – the Ed mentioned above, now a former AA trustee – was not the kind of person who gives up simply because of adversity. He wrote a letter in October of 1981 which read, in part:
Even though it would not be a best seller, could we have a pamphlet written by an agnostic or atheist for those who have trouble believing? Possible title: “Came Not to Believe”.
In January 1982 “the committee declined to recommend the publication of a pamphlet intended for agnostics or atheists who have trouble believing”.
No reason was offered.
Later that decade, in the spring of 1989, the idea of a pamphlet for those “who have trouble believing” finally made it to the General Service Conference.
At least some of the interest in such a pamphlet was generated by an article in the AA Grapevine in October of 1987 called: “Is There Room Enough in AA?” In the article, J L from Oakland, California writes about how, as an atheist with many years of sobriety, he feels muzzled in the rooms of AA:
I hear so little from atheists in AA because those of us who do not believe in God keep quiet about it. I have done so partly out of timidity and partly to avoid the comment that the admission of atheism frequently brings: that I will someday believe or I will get drunk.
Does that sound familiar to anyone?
At any rate, the article prompted a letter from Jack M. to the General Service Office dated February 1, 1989.
At the time Jack had some thirteen years of sobriety in AA, and one of his comments picks up on the theme of the Grapevine article:
I can’t understand why (believers) hardly ever tire of trying to convince or persuade nonbelievers to change, particularly in AA which is a program of attraction, because the thought of trying to persuade a believer to change never even enters my mind.
He goes on to say:
There just doesn’t seem to be any AA General Service Conference-approved literature written specifically for the non-believer. Is such a project under way? …A collection of encouraging words would not have to be adversarial, antagonistic, cogent, defensive, patronizing or persuasive. A foreword could even be included which would explain the apparent conflict, at least to some newcomers, between the statement in our preamble regarding AA not being allied with any sect, denomination, organization or institution and the fact that we all rise… and recite the prayer beginning Our Father at the close of each meeting. The foreword could also contain a clear statement that belief in a higher power is not at any time a requirement for membership or for getting and staying sober.
Another letter had also been written to the General Service Office in 1989 and that one was by Tom M of Florida.
He writes of the many atheists who have gotten and stayed sober within the rooms of AA. “We believe,” he says, “that we have accumulated experiences that can give hope, strength, and comfort to newly sober people in AA who are of the agnostic or atheistic persuasion”.
He goes on to say:
To declare your agnosticism or atheism at many meetings (at least in this part of the country) brings upon oneself knowing stares and sometimes repudiation from someone in the group. Now, I personally don’t have this problem anymore. My longevity in sobriety is given respect, but I am still thought of as a paradox or oddball. I can handle that just fine, now. The question that bothers me, is that “Can a newly sober agnostic or atheist handle being treated as an oddball?” Many cannot.
These letters, and others, were duly considered by the trustees’ Literature Committee which made a recommendation “for some sort of spiritual literature in response to requests from atheists and agnostics”.
Not a chance.
As noted above, the spring 1989 General Service Conference considered the request. And it blew the idea right out of the water.
It “did not see a sufficient need to take action”.
And so it goes. To put it mildly, the request for what is sometimes described as life-saving literature for the non-believing alcoholic was treated cavalierly.
And there were further requests. A least half a dozen requests were made between 1976 and 2006 and each and every one was rejected.
* * *
Still there was some hope. And more requests would come after 2006. But perhaps the hope for a pamphlet for and by agnostics and atheists ended in 2011 when the Mount Rainier Group, from Maryland, presented its Minority Opinion Appeal to AA Fellowship2 to that year’s General Service Conference.
It was a 57 page appeal devoted to trashing the idea of literature for non-believers. Here is a typical quote from the Opinion Appeal:
Any literature which attempts to describe current atheists or agnostics as being “successfully sober” in AA would be deceptive, misleading, and harmful to real alcoholics attempting to find the power necessary to solve their problem… (A)ttempts to provide information approved by AAWS about how individuals or groups of people have stayed “successfully sober in Alcoholics Anonymous” without relying upon a Power greater than themselves, or God as we understood him, is in direct opposition to the AA message as it is laid out in the first 164 pages of the big book, and, therefore, threatens the integrity of our “common solution” (Big Book, p. 17).
Of course, underlying all of this is Big Book fundamentalism. It treats Alcoholics Anonymous, published in 1939, as the Bible for alcoholics.
And of course (a) everything in the book is one hundred and ten percent accurate and (b) we have learned nothing since its publication.
This appeal by the Mount Rainier group was rejected by the General Service Conference. Nevertheless enough delegates at the Conference supported it that it became obvious that a pamphlet by and for non-believers, as it was described way back in 1976, was not going to happen.
And it didn’t.
* * *
The GSO and the General Service Conference need to take a large degree of responsibility for what is happening in AA today.
And that has a great deal to do with “Conference-approved” literature.
The term “Conference-approved” is a disaster. Whether it is the purpose of the term or not it trashes or at the very least trivializes all other recovery related literature. It narrows the gateway. It results in the imposition of an extraordinarily small collection of literature on those in AA.
Moreover, it is the celebration of one form of recovery – which is all about God and the 12 Step program as written in 1939 – and thus the denial of other paths to recovery from alcoholism. It is one of the elements that have inevitably led to the religiosity, conformity and authoritarianism so common and so prevalent today in conventional AA.
Bob Pearson, a retired Manager of the General Service Office from 1974 to 1984, talked about the “growing rigidity” of AA. In particular he talked about “prohibiting non-Conference-approved literature, i.e., ‘banning books;’ (and) laying more and more rules on groups and members”. (General Service Conference, April 26, 1986)
Prohibiting. Banning. What he is talking about is censorship.
Most AA meetings have literature tables. Invariably the only literature – books and pamphlets – found on these tables is “Conference-approved”. Why? Because this literature is acquired from Intergroups and Central Offices which only have “Conference-approved” literature, which they have purchased from AA World Services, which in turn only sells books and pamphlets which it has published and which have been designated “Conference-approved”. Indeed, the GSO will tell you that “Conference approval assures us that a piece of literature represents solid AA experience”.
Try to put something else on those tables and it will invariably be refused.
Pearson’s “prohibition of non-Conference-approved literature”. It’s very common in AA. It’s invoked by the term itself. We even saw it, of all places, in the planning of the Santa Monica convention for we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA.
And it is about religiosity and conformity.
With few exceptions – the book Living Sober, published in 1975, is one – those traits will be found in much of the “Conference-approved” literature.
Let’s take a look at a pamphlet published by AA World Services in 2014, “Many Paths to Spirituality”, a “Conference-approved” pamphlet that was supposed to at least be cordial towards atheists and agnostics in AA.
In his review of the pamphlet, Chris G writes: “The words ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ are used exactly three times each in the pamphlet. ‘God’ is used nine times. ‘Higher power’ appears thirteen times. Variations on ‘pray’ are there nine times. (The Many Paths to Spirituality Pamphlet3) The pamphlet is in essence a variation of Chapter Four of Alcoholics Anonymous.
At one point in the pamphlet, a Jew says: “Today I can even recite the Lord’s Prayer without feeling guilty since it was pointed out to me in ‘How it Works’ that I have to go to any length to get and stay sober.” It is shocking that the 130 or so voting men and women at the 2014 General Service Conference thought that this was, in any way, an acceptable thing to share within the fellowship of AA. It is disrespectful towards Jews. It tells the reader that the Lord’s Prayer belongs in AA and is an integral part of achieving and maintaining sobriety. It is so wrong and unacceptable.
So how does the pamphlet end? In the second last paragraph an atheist supposedly says: “I have been able to do the Steps just as they are written in the Big Book.” This is clearly an admonishment to others not to change the Steps as written in 1939. It is a message that if you want to get sober you have to crawl back into the world of middle class white men in the 1930s and get sober the way they did or at least the way a few of them did, with the Steps “just as they are written in the Big Book”.
That’s the whole point of the pamphlet. There aren’t “Many Paths”. No Sir: there is “One Way”.
While the “Many Paths to Spirituality” pamphlet mentions atheists and agnostics, it actually demonstrates the religiosity and conformity expected within the fellowship.
It in no way at all legitimizes the presence in AA of those of us who are and remain sober as a result of resources that do not in any way include a “God”. Nor has it – in the least – made traditional meetings more accepting of, and open to, non-believers. And nobody has ever yet heard a non-believer newcomer say that because she has read the “Many Paths” pamphlet, she now feels welcomed with open arms in AA.
A Conference-approved pamphlet for and by atheists and agnostics has never been published.
Never. Been. Published.
The reason is rather straightforward: the members of the General Service Conference are simply not prepared to concede that some women and men in AA do get and stay sober without a Higher Power, whom many choose to call God.
* * *
Bill Wilson at the General Service Conference in New York in 1965 said: “Research has already come up with significant and helpful findings. And research will do far more.”
So why is there so little interest in AA in what science and research has told us over the years about alcoholism and recovery from alcoholism and addiction?
AA has published one “Conference-approved” pamphlet on medications and it is called “The AA Member – Medications and Other Drugs”. It was updated in 2011 and originally published in 1984. But it is not even about alcoholism or addiction but rather about mental illnesses and a few other chronic physiological illnesses.
Why does the fellowship of AA not care about “significant and helpful findings” that science has and will and may yet come up with on the subject of alcoholism and addiction?
To its credit, the AA Grapevine, AA’s monthly “meeting in print”, has a section called “Alcoholism at Large” which offers this information and a caveat:
The purpose of these pages is to offer information that may further readers’ understanding of the medical, legal and social aspects of alcoholism; the severity and international scope of the illness; and the worldwide efforts being made to combat it. Publication here does not imply endorsement or affiliation. AA does not conduct or participate in research, nor does it hold any opinion on research by others.
That’s all wonderful, even the caveat.
But AA has all kinds of committees.
Why doesn’t the GSO launch a Science Committee?
It could simply keep those of us who are interested up to date with contemporary and scientific research into understanding and dealing with alcoholism. No endorsements or opinions necessary. Isn’t that something that should rather obviously and automatically be done by an organization, a fellowship, committed and devoted to helping those who reach out for help in dealing with alcoholism?
But no, none of it. Because all you need to know about recovery from alcoholism is in the Big Book and in “Conference-approved” literature. Because the sacred program of recovery is the 12 Steps – with “God”, “Him” or “Power” in six of the twelve – as written in 1939.
Bob Pearson called it “rigidity”. He continued, “In this trend toward rigidity, we are drifting farther and farther away from our co- founders”.
With its increasing rigidity (“very bad dogma” as Bill described it), Alcoholics Anonymous is clearly drifting farther and farther away from the very soul of the fellowship as it was understood by its co-founders, and that is the ability of Alcoholics Anonymous to genuinely and capably realize its primary purpose and its Responsibility Declaration.
Pearson concluded, “Bill, in particular, must be spinning in his grave”.
1 History – Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Non-Believer / Agnostic / Atheist Alcoholic: https://aaagnostica.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/History-Proposals-to-Create-A-Pamphlet.pdf
2 Minority Appeal to AA Fellowship: https://aaagnostica.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Minority-Opinion-Appeal-to-AA-Fellowship.pdf
3 The Many Paths to Spirituality Pamphlet: https://aaagnostica.org/2014/08/13/the-many-paths-to-spirituality-pamphlet/
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