Unintended Consequences

Unintended Consequences

By bob k

Earlier this month, AA Agnostica published its 500th article, and one HELL of a lot of people read it. The content of the essays posted here, over the years, has been quite diverse, as has been the authorship of those pieces. There have been contributors from England, Ireland, Poland, Australia, and Scandinavia, and from all parts of Canada and the United States. The overall caliber of writing has been remarkable, and the impact of the website is beyond measurement. AA Agnostica began in June, 2011, with the primary purpose of posting the meeting times and locations of two Toronto groups that had been “delisted” by their local central office.

Originally a directory, the website very quickly evolved into the hub of an international movement of secularists in Alcoholics Anonymous.

To be clear, there was more to Toronto Intergroup’s actions at their May, 2011 gathering of group representatives, than merely removing the listings of two agnostic-friendly groups from its directory of AA meetings in the Greater Toronto Area. The unconventional groups were disenfranchised – voting rights regarding all AA affairs in their local region were removed. A year later, when a motion to relist the groups was considered, the two banished groups could neither speak for themselves, nor could they cast votes in favor of their own re-admission.

GTAIThe groups were not “booted out of AA.” Toronto Intergroup lacked the power to do that, although they plainly did not lack the desire. The two non-conforming groups WERE kicked out of Toronto AA. In the pre-internet days, delisting in and of itself, would have delivered a kiss of death. Who is going to come to your meeting if people can’t find it, or even know that the group exists?

The spearheads of the movement to purify Alcoholics Anonymous did not stop at the limits of their own authority, but lobbied vigorously at the General Service level to get Beyond Belief and We Agnostics kicked out of AA entirely. Those particular efforts were unsuccessful, but the main mission was accomplished. Toronto AA had been decontaminated. Perhaps God’s grace had determined that it be so.

Nonetheless, these groups did not wither and die. A third group, formed in Richmond Hill, was also delisted and disenfranchised in spite of showing some willingness to come into conformity. It was too late in the blood-letting to have rationality take a role in the proceedings.

Unintended Consequences

The idea of unintended consequences was popularized in the mid-twentieth century by sociologist, Robert Merton. Unintended consequences are said to come in three specific groups:

  1. Unexpected benefits;
  2. Unexpected drawbacks;
  3. Perverse results – aka “backfires.”

I must confess to taking perverse pleasure from the perverse results that have arisen out of Toronto Intergroup’s perverse prosecution.

It is a matter of absolute speculation as to what MIGHT have happened, had Toronto Intergroup simply let the two unconventional groups go unchallenged. Group autonomy and all that, after all. Would there have been an AA Agnostica? Maybe eventually? But certainly not when it developed – the purpose in June, 2011 being to provide notification of group times and locations.

With no delisting, there’d have been no need.

Thus it’s time for a perverse “thank you” to those who pressed the issue of ostracizing the secular Toronto AA groups. Thanking Toronto Intergroup would be more than inaccurate as that body is in constant flux – reps changing, committees changing, and thankfully, attitudes changing. The delisting drive was spearheaded by a couple of members. Appropriately in an anonymous program, they will go unnamed, as will those from the 2011 and 2012 executive committee. Although one might have expected neutrality from the head table, that isn’t what we got. Passions ran high. It cannot be hidden that a considerable amount of venom accompanied the righteousness as the blood-letting took its course.

The forces of anti-corruption were completely successful, until they weren’t, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

AA AgnosticaAA Agnostica pretty much immediately evolved into something far, far more than a listing resource. With the sting of the spurning of still fresh, the persecuted didn’t wither and fade away. Instead, it rapidly became evident that the godless were not wordless. Weekly blogs appeared on a variety of subjects. As the readership spread to a worldwide audience, and the Toronto events became well-known, articulate heathens sent in essays from farther and farther afield. Some criticized the Toronto crusaders, who in their zeal to bring about the greater good, seem to have employed questionable means to bring about their desired ends.

On the night of the original purging, the agnostic groups were delisted within two hours. That the discussion was inadequate is evidenced by the 20% of groups that abstained from voting. Six months later, the motion to relist needed to be considered VERY carefully, over a period of six months. An “informed” group conscience was now something that was critical. Ultimately, the motion to relist was soundly defeated, and procedural changes were passed that would prevent any revisiting of the issue.

That coffin was nailed shut. Tight. The issue was OVER, until it wasn’t.

A complaint was brought some time later before the Human Rights Commission of Ontario. It was groundless, I was told – sour grapes. The case was spurious, until it wasn’t.

In the end, the two delisted groups have been relisted, and operate as they did in 2011. Across Southern Ontario, they have been joined by additional Toronto groups, and ones in Hamilton, Ajax, Newmarket, Mississauga, and Whitby. AA Agnostica has been visited two and a half million times – a remarkable number for this sort of special-interest website.

Thank you, Toronto Intergroup. Thank you, crusaders.

Thank you, perverse unintended consequences.

Thank you to a new attitude that has brought us three Lord’s Prayer-less Ontario Regional Conferences, an atheist speaker in 2019, and talk of a secular panel in 2020. The wheels are turning slowly, but they are turning.

For a PDF of this article, click here: Unintended Consequences


26 Responses

  1. Larry K says:

    In response to Roger C.

    The requirements for membership of GTAI were created to keep us out. By referendum it was added that a group needed to “adopt” the 12 steps, traditions, concepts, apostles, (excuse my humour), etc.

    So two days were spent mediating over two words to be added. They were the words “acknowledge or”.

    My group acknowledges the 12 steps, but they will not adopt them as they are only a suggestion.

    This little change caused confusion, mostly by how it was presented to the membership of GTAI. That and Intergroup didn’t amend its constitution.

    It took two years, but it is now amended and the words “acknowledge or” are now included.

  2. Tim R. says:

    Great work as always, Bob.
    What I’m wondering, though, the piece makes everything with the Toronto Intergroup sound hunky-dory now that enough time has passed and new people have taken those positions in service. But at the conference in Toronto last year, Larry K. mentioned in his talk that there was still litigation ongoing and the Intergroup had hired yet another lawyer. Did that go away, or did anything ever come of it?

    • Larry K says:

      The end of this chapter ended Tuesday past. GTAI lived up to it’s agreements to the best of my knowledge. It is posting the settlement on it’s website for one year. Has read it into it’s business minutes verbatim and has physically ammended the membership requirements.

      The last point was the entirety of the follow up action and it took over 2 years to complete.

      It is now done.


      • Roger says:

        So, Larry, what are the Greater Totonto Area Intergroup (GTAI) “membership requirements”?? Other than, of course, a desire to stop drinking?

      • Murray J says:

        Larry, thanks for standing firm these past few years. We had your back.Thank goodness this is finally done and dusted.

      • Tim R. says:

        Amazing. Well thanks for fighting the good fight, Larry. I’ve been able to use your actions to rebut arguments from some of the theists out here in California. Somebody’s gotta keep them honest, right?

    • bob k says:

      I attended the March, 2019 intergroup meeting, now 16 days ago. The seemingly endless reports were as boring as I remembered. There were changes to the Procedures without mention of the Human Rights case, and I thought they were slipping something through quietly. About 90 minutes in, and after 25% or so of the reps had left, the vice-chair nervously, but carefully read what she was supposed to read according to the latest agreement.

      I asked in Q & A why this wasn’t all done properly, and cleared up two years ago: “Was that carelessness, or was there an underlying bit of defiance?” She assured me that it was purely a matter of the slow process of intergroup, getting group approvals etc. Unavoidable.

      So apparently, the intergroup people agreed to terms and a schedule that they have not lived up to!!


      Thank you for your service.

      • Tim R. says:

        SMH indeed, Bob. And thanks for keeping us out here in the wider AA world informed on these developments, with characteristic good humor of course.

  3. Cron says:

    Thanks for the history of this site. I share the site with newer (and older) folks that express any hesitancy about the “higher power thing,” often adding that “I wish I had found it earlier on in my sobriety.” I can now change that to “wish it had been around when I got sober.” Fortunately, I was given a copy of one of the books listed on this site, “Bill, The Buddha, and We,” which showed me a path even within a more rigid fellowship. And I apparently had the good fortune to find this site pretty early on, as I recall reading of the struggles with the Toronto intergroup. Anyway, keep it going – we heathens need you.

  4. Glenna R. says:

    Thank you, Bob. Since I do not get around as I did when I was younger, I’m always at my Newmarket Freethinkers Group, but the trips to TO and other places don’t happen. I can remember when I would go to Plays up to even 5 a week. Now, I try to find the energy and skill to go rarely. I appreciate Roger’s work on this web-site as I consider each entry and comments to be a jam-packed AA Meeting which I always attend. So good to hear from you, Bob, and to learn about all the issues from comments from people I have met and respect. Thanks to the comment writers. I’m always eager to read from Joe C., John M., life to hang unto which works better for me than giving up on AA because I share the issue of alcoholism, but not the religion which is true for me in every story in the BB. It has helped me to a longer and happier recovery. AA Agnostica & Beyond Belief add a great deal to my sobriety. Deep congratulations to all the participants with much gratitude. Glenna

  5. Tim M. says:

    I appreciate this succinct telling of the story of Freethinkers vs GTAI. We watched some of it from Rochester NY. And we felt some of the same ostracizing here. Your “win” over those who think belief in God is a requirement for AA membership heartened us. We now run our Monday night Rochester NY Freethinker’s meeting without concern except to be there to help others.

    This coming Labor Day weekend the NY State young people’s convention is going to feature a Freethinker Panel Discussion. A first for them.

    I am pleased to have been asked to lead that panel.

    Thanks again for your efforts on our behalf.

    Glad to know that I am alcoholic.

  6. Beyond Belief was one of the groups that abstained from voting. We raised a point of order that Intergroup had no authority, and if following Traditions and Concepts would have no willingness to table such a motion that places any governance or authority over any group. The point of order was rejected in “the spirit” of unlimited servitude to the will of the groups to which it served.

    Our group spoke against the motion but abstained from voting because we didn’t recognize the motion as being rightful or in the AA spirit.

    Late last night, four of us got back from the Area Assembly – the workshop portion, 8:45 AM to 4:30 PM Saturday, in Kingston, three hours from Toronto. We couldn’t stay for the voting / business meeting, which started a few hours ago as is still going on as my thumbs type. To other assembly attendees, I would introduce our group as, “May I introduce, ‘Chapter Four’; we four agnostics (atheists) in AA service.” We were two from Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers Group + a two from a new group this month, Queen Street Secular AA Noon which meets at the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health in Toronto’s west-end.

    The 2011 Toronto Intergroup doesn’t exist anymore. It’s dead. “The spirit of rotation” has removed the actors, several times over and today’s generation of Intergroup is prepared to make things right and do better. A meaningful percentage of Intergroup reps have no idea there ever was a controversy or why there would be; they’ve been sober less than eight years and they have never known an AA without atheists & agnostics groups. Those who did vote against us who are at the Assembly treat us as equals today. Others have taken a moment to say as AAs they were outraged by the shenanigans of the angry and fearful few.

    One unintended consequence is that the Toronto delisting made a lot of us—me included—read our AA Service Manual again or for the first time. Toronto Intergroup made many of us question what unity means in AA; has AA anything to fear by nonconformity? Des Moines and Indianapolis were also going through central office bigotry in 2011 and Vancouver’s new secular meeting would soon face the blood-lust of narrow-minded Intergroup stewardship. Toronto brought all of us together, all around the world. Toronto became more than unbelievers vs. more religious AAs; it became those who felt every group has a right vs. those who want to govern. Many true-believers were right by our side.

    We learned more about our history, too. Eddy, a Toronto Archivist found a fledgling We Agnostics Group in Toronto’s east end that only lasted one meeting book cycle in the 1990s. AAagnostica was contacted by an Atlantic Canadian who’d been to Quad-A in Chicago and did his darnedest to grow an AA for atheist and agnostics meeting in his town. He moved and the meeting died out. We learned about these early efforts because of the Toronto thing. And because of the Toronto thing the two Toronto groups stayed strong and now there are about thirty secular AA meeting nights across Canada—from Vancouver Island to the Nova Scotia coast. One must wonder if Toronto Intergroup had done nothing what would the consequence be; would there still be just two groups, would we have faded as others did before, would there be 100 across Canada instead of 30? We don’t know. But I’m inclined to believe that unintended consequences of the fearful/angry few backfired in a spectacular way. We’ll never know of course, but it feels that way.

    Thanks Bob; thanks Roger and thanks to everyone. AA makes mistakes; we all do. AA self-corrects… but not without the perseverance and integrity of many.

  7. Edward C. says:

    All of this makes me a happy recovered alcoholic. I will soon be 80 yrs old with only 27 years sober. At 52 I had been in AA for 11 yrs and was drunk again. Finally I faced prison or death and I expected one or the other was on the way – – an atheist / agnostic / buddhist for years I was finally ready to “go to any ANY length” the luck of finding an agnostic sponsor and others who supported my non-belief allowed me to stay sober – one day at a time & the fellowship saved me.

  8. Teresa says:

    Many thanks to all involved, including the “perverse” players. I was able to muster up the courage to speak on behalf of a newly formed group (2016) who decided to use a secular version of the 12 Steps and were being told they, the group “Live and Let Live” would be delisted if reading of any variation of the steps continued. The tradition of autonomy failed to convince those on the steering committee of the local Intergroup that we are an A.A. group if we say we are, however we format our meeting.

    Reading of Toronto’s challenges and so many others, helped me to say politely and concisely what I understood to be true (after studying Service Manual thoroughly) in regards to autonomy of the groups and the fact that Intergroups are not governing entities.

    The decision was to delist if continued reading of secular steps continued.

    Rather than fight, we read no steps. The meeting continues to grow and our format works just fine. We have remained listed.

    Teresa J

  9. Thomas B. says:

    Forever grateful for AA Agnostica which I “found” shortly after moving to the Southern seacoast of Oregon and felt like I had been dropped into an extremist Christian cult of AA — it saved my sanity and perhaps my sobriety. I’m also most grateful to have had several articles published on this most excellent website.

    Thanks Bob for keeping this history relevant to today’s non-theists . . .

  10. life-j says:

    Bob thank you for this article, and thank you also for being so dedicated a historian. It has given our movement a firm spot to argue from. I am just now reading Peabody’s Common Sense of Drinking, a real interesting read, and comparison with Bill’s Book. I would probably never have gotten that far into AA history if it weren’t for you.
    And thank you to Roger. I remember well the time, though not exactly when, but it must have been late 2012 when I stumbled upon aaagnostica, and that chill down my spine of OMG I’m not alone anymore!
    It all took my AA life down a much more radical path than it had ever been. There are days I miss the fairly peaceful sleepy co-existence in AA before this happened, but little by little we finding a new and better peace. One where we no longer have to hide or walk on eggshells. One where we’re bringing a new vitality to AA, and one sorely needed.

    • bob k says:

      Your kind words are appreciated.

      Bill Wilson drew an incredible amount from “The Common Sense of Drinking,” particularly in regard to the nature of the disorder. That he did not give credit to Peabody stems from the lay therapist’s secularism, I assume.

  11. Bryan T. says:

    Thanks for this Bob. And a HUGE shout out to Roger!! My last drink was September 2012. I had known it would come to this for years. I needed help, but I could just not deal with the God concept. There are a few groups that are ‘agnostic’ but my first Smart Recovery meeting the guy running it ‘assumed’ we would all be OK with a few nods to THE GOD. I was SO proud of myself for quitting but then felt the help groups had conditions I had to meet – it was like a modern day Manifest Destiny. I am still sober, thanks in part to Roger and this site. BTW, I’m doing well and should be fine if I stay away from the edge of the world and don’t fall off!! 😉 Seriously, Thank you!

  12. Joel D says:

    Thanks to everyone who has given me (and others of the non-theist ilk) the hope and will to blaze the trail for Secular AA here in Northeast Connecticut. We have been successful at the district level and are making inroads at the Area level. We have 2 well attended meetings currently. I have been asked to share the Secular viewpoint to the District officers and at several groups. It’s extremely gratifying to see the people who once thought themselves apart from realize that they are truly a part of AA.

  13. John M. says:

    Thank you for this Bob. Throughout those impassioned, emotionally charged months in Toronto, the idea that I hung onto to give me hope that the delistings in fact signalled the unfortunate but necessary birth pangs of secular AA ’s emergence here was the “law of unintended consequences” that you describe, or what the philosopher of historical processes, Hegel, called the “cunning of reason.”

    You capture all of this so well in your portrayal of these events in Toronto. I have fond memories, Bob, of sitting beside you and Dianne P. (future Chair of the Austin secular WAAFT conference) at those monthly Intergroup meetings as the debates raged on. And thanks as well to Larry K. for staying the course and helping to provoke the final, just result that we can all now enjoy in Toronto.

    Needless to say too that Roger C.’s dedication to keep aaagnostica up and running week after week gave inspiration to us all and a practical forum for expressing our views. I remember also Joe C., with his typical coolness, use to say “we live in interesting times,” and I suspect that this was Joe’s inherent confidence in the process that, if we continued to fight the good fight, the unintended consequences of the initial Toronto delistings would work out in our favour and, ultimately, to the benefit of AA as a whole.

  14. Chris C says:

    Schadenfreude … not necessarily the finest aspect of my emotional universe, but certainly one of the most satisfying. There is something about watching self-inflicted justice unfold–I can’t help myself–it makes me smile.

    Thanks for the essay.

  15. Murray J. says:

    Thanks Bob. I “survived” the Intergroup purge back in 2011 as an Intergroup Rep. I cannot express how profoundly that experience affected me. I was so upset that before the final vote I had asked my home traditional AA group to put forth a motion on the floor to list the agnostic groups but with the disclaimer they did not use the steps and traditions as originally written. I think it garnered 29% in favour. Regardless, it was one of Toronto AA’s darkest hour. But as you point out, unintended consequences have given rise to our new recovery path!

  16. Archer Voxx says:

    Thank you the great article Bob. AA Agnostica is a world-class resource for the agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers in AA. The efforts of Roger, you, and others in the Toronto AA community have had a significant impact on opening the doors to AA, internationally, for those individuals with alternative beliefs.

  17. Larry K says:

    Nice recap Bob, thanks!

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