Conference Question – Literature for We Agnostics?

Alcoholics Anonymous

The Delegate for Southern California Area 05, Thomas B, is interested in your thoughts on the subject of “conference approved” literature for agnostics and atheists in AA. Both the re-publication of “The ‘God’ Word’ pamphlet, originally published by AA in Great Britain, and a request to create a new pamphlet for atheists and agnostics in AA are on the Agenda at this year’s AA General Service Conference, to be held April 22 – 28. Both of these agenda items are shared below.

To quote Thomas: “In AA we make decisions only after much loving discussion and a thorough hearing of minority opinions. Thanks and have fun!”

By Thomas B.


A. Consider a request that AA (U.S./Canada) publish “The God Word” (a pamphlet currently published by the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Great Britain).

The trustees’ Literature Committee has forwarded a request from both an area in Florida and a group in Kansas City, Missouri to publish or adapt “The God Word” (a pamphlet currently published by the General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Great Britain). It should also be noted that Area 83 (Eastern Ontario International) voted for the Conference to adopt/amend “The God Word”.

The (Florida) area’s rationale states:

There is a pamphlet that was approved by the General Service Conference of Great Britain Titled, The “God” Word, which consists of stories by AA members who identify as atheist or agnostic.

We would like to have the General Service Conference in North America Consider publishing this pamphlet to be made available for AA members in the United States and Canada.

The (Kansas City, Missouri) group’s rationale states:

We would like to include [the pamphlet] in our newcomer’s packets, but it is difficult and expensive to order from the U.K. Here is a link to the pamphlet: The “God” Word.

I understand there is a history of the General Service Conference adopting other pamphlets from Great Britain, and we believe this pamphlet will fill a need among the general membership of Alcoholics Anonymous in North America.

B. Consider a request for the development of a pamphlet for atheist and agnostic AA Members.

The trustees’ Literature Committee forwarded a request from Area 93 in California and an individual member for the development of a pamphlet for atheist and agnostic members. The area’s request states, “This would not be a rewrite of the Spirituality Many Paths pamphlet, but a brand new pamphlet.”

One of the New York Areas also voted with substantial unanimity to create an agnostic/atheist pamphlet. (This came from District 404 Brooklyn, brought from Ed of The Ungodly Hour Group).

The full background material contains supportive rationale from Area 93, including:

  • The Spirituality Many Paths pamphlet was a good start but that it had actually detoured from the original intent. The original intention was a pamphlet for the Atheist/Agnostic members and newcomers who had a big problem with “the God Thing”.

  • The delisting and refusal to list Atheist/Agnostic meetings in certain Central Office directories is not what AA is all about – especially since we are “spiritual and not religious”. The Toronto lawsuit is a prime example of Central Offices doing something that really goes against the principles of The Traditions.

  • An AA pamphlet like this would go a long way to making sure that AA would have something to affirm that we are in fact spiritual and not religious.

  • This literature would also go a long way to let those newcomers who come to AA know that their belief or lack of belief is very much OK and they are welcome.

A letter submitted by an AA member is included in the full background material.

Some of the points raised:

  • The pamphlet “Many Paths to Spirituality,” while addressing some of the issues atheists and agnostics experience when first encountering AA, still leaves a lot to be desired. First, no atheist or agnostic would pick up (or click on at the AA website) a pamphlet entitled, “Many Paths to Spirituality,” because to an atheist or an agnostic, “spirituality” and “religion” are the same thing.

  • Creating a pamphlet specifically for atheists and agnostics would go a long way to dispel the misconception that AA is a religious institution, and would increase the chances that an alcoholic atheist or agnostic will be able to find a path to sobriety.

The background material also includes a reference to past Conference Advisory Actions regarding the development of the Conference-approved pamphlet “Many Paths to Spirituality” which opens with Bill W’s wonderfully comprehensive statement of AA’s spirit of tolerance, respect and inclusion:

Newcomers are approaching AA at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion. In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy whatever should be a first consideration for us all. Let us not, therefore, pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive; let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.

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Thomas B’s sobriety date is March 17, 2000. Nineteen years ago, he was a hopeless alcoholic living a wasted, desperate shattered life.  Alcoholics Anonymous saved his life. And when Thomas realized the enormity of the gift that he had been given, his AA sponsor, an atheist, made it clear to Thomas that “Into Action” means we accept responsibility to pass AA’s message of hope and recovery onward, and to perform and strengthen the services required to help make available to others what we ourselves have freely received. By application of the steps, Thomas has had his once shattered health, personal and family relationships and livelihood restored. Thomas is today a legal professional, residing in West Los Angeles with his wife. Devoted to 12th step work in all its forms, he serves as the Chairperson of AA’s 68th Conference Committee on Cooperation with the Professional Community, and is grateful for the opportunity to represent the collective voice of the 1,500 groups and 47,000 members of Southern California Area 05 as their elected Delegate to the General Service Conference.

Area 05 SC

17 Responses

  1. P says:

    The percentage of young people who are atheists or simply no religion is growing. We need to keep in mind, as others have mentioned, that our disease is deadly and we may be losing life saving opportunities with some members being stubborn about insisting that newcomers “find a higher power now, or else”, always using prayers in meetings, etc. There are some great ideas about new pamphlets and prayer-less meetings. Keep up the good work!

  2. Mark C. says:

    An agnostic friend of mine who attends our home group, attended our Area meeting and sat in on the Literature gig.

    He said several items were on the agenda. Most had to do with diversity issues, concerning how to make others more comfortable in the rooms. And each of those other issues garnered unanimous support.

    The two propositions listed in this article were left for last, and the chairperson (a dude in a cowboy hat) said they were the same thing, therefore, only the “God Word” would be considered.

    The vote split 12 for and 10 against.

    Oh, and the chairperson stated people saying something either “for or against” were limited to two sentences, thus allowing no real conversation about the matter.

  3. Marty N. says:

    We have been at two million members for the last 15 – 20 years. It’s time we opened up to rest of suffering alcoholics.

    • Deborah R. says:

      Yes it is! We need to evolve or we will become extinct. Basic law of nature……

  4. David C says:

    Tradition three states the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. I feel uncomfortable with the parts of the literature that insist on belief in a higher power or often an interventionist deity (Christian) that is necessary for recovery. It’s the fellowship that helps me stay sober today. Literature along the lines of AA without god (higher power) will boost the acceptability of AA to many. As a Public Information Liaison Officer for my local intergroup I am frequently challenged by ‘AA is religious isn’t it’ argument. So hard to deny when using much of the current literature. In the UK we have the God Word leaflet, but it really doesn’t address the need for broader based literature. This would be completely in line with tradition ten regarding opinions on outside matters.

  5. Greg M. says:

    This is a troubling one for me. As an agnostic myself when I arrived, I’m very grateful that my sponsor had no religious ties, or any dogma in his approach. I, too want to insure the doors remain as wide as possible for any and all struggling with this disease – and I know many equate “spirituality” with “religion” which is off-putting. In many meetings here, it can get a bit “preachy” still, and I get why a newcomer unhappy with the God concept would stay away.

    Having said that, I also acknowledge that the ability to be open-minded about some kind of Power greater than my own, twisted mind was essential to my own recovery, and I don’t want to see the message of A.A. so watered down in it’s zeal to reach everyone that we become even less effective.

    Though I am not opposed to further literature on this topic, I would have the same problem with the pamphlet, “The God Word” that many seem to with “Many Paths to Spirituality” – the title itself is likely to detract it’s target audience from ever reading it.

    I believe the answer lies in good sponsorship – we who have been around a while have a responsibility to educate newcomers on how this really works, and what folks mean when they refer to a “Higher Power” – namely, the importance of gaining some humility as a part of recovery and realizing I don’t have all the answers, or all the strength to recover alone.

    • life-j says:

      Greg, so the importance of gaining some humility (yes) realizing I don’t have all the answers (yes), and that I don’t have all the strength to recover alone (yes), I agree with those three points, but I don’t seem able to associate that with any sort of higher power. I have heard a lot of talk about a need for a higher power, and obviously to religious people the need for a higher power is at the center of their whole way of thinking. But when I hear a (presumably) agnostic person speak of a need for a higher power, or even just that there is one I get puzzled. Part of my inquiry here is, of course a bit snide, unholier than thou, I confess, but there is also a part that genuinely would like to understand how one can see the need for a higher power at all, when not a religious person, what’s the logical steps by which one arrives there, as I don’t see the three points mentioned as sufficient, but the belief is still there, and honest, I presume, so I am really curious.

  6. Megan R says:

    I like UK’s “The ‘God’ Word” because it addresses head on (in its title!!) the biggest issue for atheists/free thinkers. The sooner this becomes available in the US, the better. In the SF Bay Area, more and more regular (not just atheist/agnostic) meetings have replaced How it Works with the beginning of More About Alcoholism. For closing meetings, many have replaced the Lords Prayer (yikes — talk about a slap in the face to our Preamble and Tradition 3) or the Serenity Prayer with the Responsibility Statement.

  7. life-j says:

    Good initiative. And as it appears that we now have two actively writing Thomas B’s it would be helpful if between them they can find a way to distinguish themselves, even though, I guess, the most important thing is that good things are said, not so much who says it.

  8. Roger says:

    AA has been losing traction for a long time. It doesn’t update itself.

  9. Chris G says:

    “Conference approved” simply means officially published by AA, but for many it also means “the one true Word” of AA. So we had better get our stuff published by AA or it will never have equal weight with what is already out there, in the minds of the many.

    Part of the problem with AA published material is that they have published so little – the list is really remarkably small. They have completely ignored, in recent decades, the progress made in the scientific understanding of addiction and recovery. While not strictly part of the atheist and agnostic problem, this feeds into it by encouraging the canonization of a small amount of earlier literature.

  10. Bob F. says:

    I think it is extremely important, here, to remember what Tradition 3 says: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Not a need to believe in god.

  11. Piya says:

    I’m an atheist. I’m from Area 87. Montreal, Québec. I am a grateful and servant member since my abstinence 8 years ago. There is a lot of morbidity with the desire for conversion towards atheist people and I consider that a booklet called AA without God should be written.

  12. Boyd P. says:

    “Conference approved” could equal “one of many paths”. Thanks for posing the question; the process (fellowship) keeps me sober.

    You are missed on the west coast Thomas, luv ya.


  13. Deborah R. says:

    The world has changed a lot from 1930’s Akron, Ohio. AA needs to evolve as well if we truly want to live what we say. If we want to be there for ALL who are suffering from alcoholism and decisive to stop drinking, then we need to BE inclusive. We need to replace religious prayers in meetings with more appropriate quotes or pledges. The Big Book needs to be rewritten in plain language. The steps and traditions should be secularized as well. None of this will reduce the power of the program. The pamphlet is a good place to start.

  14. Keith B. says:

    I live between George, South Africa and Ottawa, Canada. I have been an AA member since 1994 and through the grace of my personal Higher Power have not had a drink since that year.

    I am also a personal coach.

    I believe AA should be welcoming to anyone with a desire and any belief in anything is secondary to a desire.

    According I think atheists accommodating literature would be welcomed as would a modernization of the Big Book. I can state that in South Africa, older English materials are hard for many who speak English, but not as their first language, to understand.

    The simpler we have material the better as long as the message is not lost. Love.

    • Deborah R. says:

      Well said. We need to and can do a much better job of reaching everyone who has the desire to stop drinking.

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