Secularization and AA

By Dean W

In my recent essay, Religion and AA, I used William E. Paden’s book Religious Worlds: A Comparative Study of Religion (1988) to show that despite the common claim that AA is spiritual not religious, the AA fellowship is in fact a religious organization.

I also stated that the Big Book paradigm of recovery, that all real alcoholics need God to recover, is simply wrong. The large number of alcoholics who are getting sober and staying sober on a secular basis demonstrate this. The AA fellowship is experiencing increasing secularization, a phenomenon common to religious groups in modern times.

Paden describes four ways religious groups respond to secularization (p. 61ff.):

  • Defending boundaries – the group fights against what it sees as corruption; this response is also known as fundamentalism;

  • Accommodation – the group adapts its values to the secular, combining the religious and the secular into a new system;

  • New groups – the old, traditional system is seen as so outdated that it must simply be replaced, and new groups are formed;

  • Individualism – individuals define their own belief systems and practice their beliefs privately, without group participation.

AA has so far responded to secularization primarily by defending boundaries, or fundamentalism.

AA established this fundamentalism from the writing of the Big Book, if not before. Bill Wilson rejected pleas to write a minimally religious book and instead wrote a text that frequently invokes the Biblical God, arguing that God is the only answer for the real alcoholic. (William H. Schaberg, Writing the Big Book: The Creation of AA, 2019, p. 375-377)

The fellowship apparently codified this fundamentalism when in 1976 the AA General Service Conference voted that the Big Book’s 12 Steps can only be changed by written approval of three-fourths of the groups. (The AA Service Manual, 2016-2018, p. S102) This makes the Steps as written in 1939 virtually unchangeable. (Arthur S, Narrative Timeline of AA History, 2014, p. 92)

I don’t know the rationale behind this Conference action, but making the Steps unchangeable sounds like an ideal way to turn a suggested program of recovery into religious dogma. AA also demonstrated its fundamentalism by refusing for decades to publish any literature specifically addressed to atheist or agnostic members or potential members. The fellowship was clearly defending its religious boundaries, fighting the idea that recovery without God is possible.

I think the fellowship finally moved toward Paden’s second response to secularization, accommodation, with the recent publication of “The God Word” pamphlet and the AA Grapevine book One Big Tent. This is a step in the right direction, but it is a very small step. Some would argue that AA Tradition, by allowing the formation of secular groups, is accommodation. I disagree. Accommodation, as Paden describes it, requires more than just saying, “You have a right to exist.” Accommodation requires the combining of secular ideas and practices with traditional religious ideas and practices into a new system. Secular AA groups are achieving accommodation even as the overall fellowship lags far behind.

Secular groups combine elements of traditional AA such as a 12 step program, fellowship, and sponsorship with a nonreligious worldview. The principles behind the steps – identification, faith and hope, letting go, personal inventory, confession, restitution, etc. are applied in new, secular ways.

Secular AA is also (at least potentially) an example of the third response to secularization, the formation of new groups. Specialized groups are not new to AA, but secular groups are a new breed of specialized groups. AA Groups specifically for women, young people, professionals, LGBTQs, etc. have as far as I know always been built on the traditional AA religious foundation. Secular groups, on the other hand, reject that foundation. And by rejecting the traditional AA religious foundation, secular groups are an existential threat to fundamentalist AA and to traditional AA in general. We secularists threaten to change the very nature of AA. If traditional AA can’t or won’t accommodate secularism, then secular AA could evolve into a completely separate entity. Also, the formation of organizations such as SMART Recovery and LifeRing are probably examples of the new group response to secularization.

Individualism, the fourth response to secularization, is difficult to describe because the people taking this path have left AA, and people leave AA for a variety of reasons. At the first Alcoholic Foundation meeting in 1938, the number of people listed as helped by AA in New York included “10 alcoholics recovered but out of touch”. (Arthur S, Narrative Timeline of AA History, 2014, p. 29)

In the AA group where I got sober over 30 years ago, one of the old timers told me that some alcoholics can leave AA after a while and be okay, and my observations bear this out. Some alcoholics seem to be able to internalize what they need from AA into their belief system and lifestyle and then move on, no longer needing the fellowship. It seems likely that many atheist or agnostic alcoholics have taken this path.

One of my early sponsors, who I would describe as a skeptic, apparently went this route. I’ve also considered it. As I became more agnostic and more outspoken about it and suffered more rejection in AA meetings for it, I seriously considered quitting AA. I know how to stay sober, and I have family support and a good psychologist. But eventually I found secular AA online and helped start an agnostic group in my town. Otherwise, I think I would have taken the path of individualism and would not be writing this essay.

I concluded my previous essay with several questions. Here are my answers to two of those:

Can traditional AAs and secular AAs work together to create groups and a fellowship that work for all newcomers, both those who need god and those who don’t?

Traditional AAs and secular AAs have much in common: both suffered the pains of alcoholism, both want to stay sober and help other alcoholics, and both believe in the power of fellowship. Is this enough common ground for us to eventually achieve accommodation, a new AA combining the religious and the secular?

How would we ever get there if we live in largely separate worlds? Am I willing to sit through all the religiosity of traditional meetings so that I can work with the traditional AA members there? Are traditional AA members willing to sit through the secular format and nonreligious discussions of my agnostic home group? I hear reports that traditional and secular AAs work well together in some places. That’s great, but why do we secular AAs need our own websites, meeting lists, conferences, etc.? Why aren’t these activities taking place within “official” AA? I don’t think traditional AAs and secular AAs will ever accomplish much together. Our worldviews are just too different.

Can AA become a god-neutral or god-optional fellowship?

God-neutral AA groups are certainly possible. We have one group in my town that appears god-neutral. The format is nonreligious but not specifically agnostic or secular. It’s a discussion meeting and seems open to practically any topic, including traditional/religious AA topics. All worldviews are respected, and religious members and nonreligious members appear to interact with little or no serious conflict. I imagine there are similar groups here and there, but I suspect these groups are pretty rare.

To change the nature of the overall fellowship there would probably have to be enough of these groups (and secular groups) involved in the AA service structure to supply a significant number of delegates to the General Service Conference. This seems possible, but not likely to happen anytime soon. And the AA fellowship becoming god-neutral would probably also require structural change, at least regarding Tradition Two. As long as AA’s ultimate authority is God, I think AA will always be a religious organization. Changing a Tradition, like changing the Steps, requires approval of three-fourths of the groups, a virtual impossibility. So I don’t think AA can become god-neutral. AA was founded and structured as a religious organization, and its entire history is religious. I don’t see that changing.

As I close this essay, let’s remember that almost all religious groups, if they survive long enough, experience a schism. We have no reason to believe AA is an exception to that rule. If traditional AA cannot or will not accommodate secular AA, then the two factions could eventually split into two separate fellowships – religious and secular. The two factions are based on such different worldviews and have so little interaction that the split may already be starting. And maybe a split would be for the best. Maybe traditional AA should remain true to its fundamentalist religious nature, and maybe secular AA should simply leave the religious fold and establish its independence.

In my first essay I described visiting my previous, traditional AA home group and how unpleasant that experience was. I felt I didn’t belong there anymore. Maybe I don’t, and maybe I never will.

Dean W went to his first AA meeting around 1980, and has been clean and sober since 1988. He got sober in a very conservative AA environment – lots of Big Book and Twelve and Twelve meetings, along with the Joe and Charley Big Book seminar tapes. For about 25 years he was a traditional, God-oriented AA member; a believer, if only a nominal and often skeptical one. Then, over a period of about five years he had another “spiritual awakening” and became an agnostic. In June 2018 Dean helped start the We Agnostics group in Elkhart, Indiana. This is now his home group, though he occasionally still attends traditional AA meetings. He is something of a jack of all trades – he’s worked as a warehouse foreperson, an autoworker, a tool and die maker, and a college adjunct instructor, among other things. Dean presently works as a high school substitute teacher.

For a PDF of the article click here: Secularization and AA.

32 Responses

  1. Mike B says:

    Hi Dean, thanks for taking the time to reply. I know what you say is true, as we’ve all done, I saw a succession of people going out and coming back from relapsing, I also spent time wondering what happened to so and so and then hearing they’d gone out again and drank themselves to death.

    I’m absolutely not saying you or anyone should follow my example if you’re not sure, just pointing out that it’s a possible path to go down. I was very scared, to be honest, but it’s worked for me, and I know others who’ve done the same. My rule of thumb would be, if in doubt stick with AA, but if AA is making you restless, irritable and discontent when the rest of your life is working for you then the time may have come to look for different ways of doing things.

    I’ve become good friends with another former member, and our conversations have revealed that carrying a message of strength and hope to other alcoholics remains fundamental to our own continuing recovery.

    Stay strong, Dean my friend, and most of all stay safe and sober.

  2. Dean W says:

    I’m so glad you made it after transitioning out of meetings, Mike. While your experience is much more common than most AA members realize, it’s also true that a lot of people leave AA and get drunk. The thought of leaving meetings completely frightens me, but I still think about it occasionally. I can hardly stand traditional meetings anymore, and to be brutally honest some secular meetings don’t do much for me either. I’m very grateful for this website and that you still connect here. Thanks for reading!

  3. Mike B says:

    Great article, thanks.

    I’m one of the individualists you refer to who has internalised the messages and rewritten my script to no longer need AA. I refer to it as growing up, passing my exams and leaving school.

    It wasn’t my intention to do so, but well into my seventh year I was effectively driven out by the religion, having to make the choice between living a life of scrupulous honesty and faking it to make it. Unable to reconcile the two, I chose the former.

    I thought long and hard before walking away, having been indoctrinated with the horror stories of the 100% failure rate of those leaving the fellowship, but soon found others who had moved on while staying sober, exposing this nonsense as the fraudulent fairy story it is. I looked for secular meetings, there were none within sixty miles, I thought about starting one but by then my life was already full of the good things AA promised and something needed to give anyway.

    So why am I here and reading this?

    I owe my health, family life and possibly my continuing survival to AA when I could go no further down, also my happiness and the richness of my life in sobriety. Learning to grow and change means remembering how I used to be and not only acknowledging my debt to AA, but living according to the best of its principles. This site is my meeting and keeps me in touch through its sober articles, and the history is fascinating. If the true AA story was talked about in meetings I would probably still go. I find I still need to reach out to help other alcoholics to maintain my sobriety, even if the ones I meet these days tend to be people who remember me from meetings and who have tended to drift away themselves. They invariably are still sober, but worrying they can’t sustain it due to the fictions indoctrinated into then in meetings.

    It is possible to step away, it’s also possible to go back if you need to, as we all know, and if I found myself craving drink or other stimulants I wouldn’t hesitate to run straight back for a refill.

  4. Andrew says:

    Good read! Coming from a Fundamentalist/Christian Nationalist background (my mother loved Rushdooney and my folks were considered odd ball in part due to their End Times doctrine as a-millenial) and then stumbling into a few cults along the way to sobriety (and flirting with two others as I still clung to the ol’ “…there must be something”) I really don’t see a lot of “accommodation” possible. From my experience changing a pattern that involves a human inclination toward patterns and what feels good, dropping the “God” and religious issue in AA may not happen. It is already difficult enough to get sober, but dropping the notion of a benevolent deity “that is all about me” is asking a lot of our narcissistic species. AA is also very anti-science preferring anecdotal stories (full of lions and tigers and bears, oh my!) to what the hard data indicates.

    That is a problem.

    The “must be’s” and the “I don’t think so’s” do not have a middle ground, not just for sobriety but for daily living while sober.

    It is not easy to get sober and then maintain that sobriety as a human being in any century. Yet, “yes we can!” as uttered a few years ago seems to me to be the pathway for any human endeavor, let alone sobriety.

    One final note, when Atheists/Freethinker/Agnostic alcoholics meet it is easy to vent on the God issue initially. I was that way but have since modified any nod to the catastrophe of god-shouting and rarely bring it up at all anymore. It feels good to be around like minded alcoholics with the freedom of expression to dump the junk and talk about “life on life’s terms” without having to invoke a deity to live free and clear of ol’ John Barelycorn.

    Thanks again!

  5. Dean W says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Bob. I appreciate hearing from people who have been part of secular AA much longer than me and know the territory better. I get the lack of unity in secular AA. That’s part of the reason I don’t advocate breaking away. I think a split may eventually be inevitable and may already be starting, but I think the best case scenario is for secular AA to become more integrated into the overall fellowship.

    On the other hand, I think we need to write our own literature. The Conference can’t tell us what to write or read, and I think the time is ripe for a new recovery text. If the Conference won’t correct and update that jalopy that rolled off the line in 1939, we should build a newer model ourselves.

  6. Tim says:

    The trend is obvious, at least where I live. I wonder if there’s been growth in NA that accounts for part of it.

    I have one close AA friend, a relative newcomer at 5 years, who introduced me to the NA basic text as a partial solution to some of the most objectionable aspects of our big book. It’s far from perfect but it is an improvement, in my opinion.

  7. Marty N. says:

    We have started 3 meeting here in N.E. Conn. and So. Central Mass. After some growing pains we, thru group business meetings, realized that we were being rough on the “god stuff” much like the believers are on us. We realized if we wanted inclusion, we must be more inclusive. We now have open-minded believers who attend our meeting. We will get more flies with honey than with vinegar. Easy does it!

  8. Marty N. says:

    Since 1990 the population has grown 30%. The population of AA since 1990 has grown nada!

  9. Dean W says:

    The Big Book is an 80 year old text written by an alcoholic who was 3 years sober and still half crazy. It claims God is the only hope for real alcoholics, and atheists and agnostics are inferior to theists. If that works for you, keep right on using the old Basic Text. It doesn’t work for me, and it doesn’t work for a lot of newcomers.

  10. Tim S says:

    I don’t get it, and I’m disappointed. I’m a life-long atheist, now 74 and 35 years sober in AA. One of my sponsees is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, another is a recovering Jehovah’s Witness with many of the deepest faith tenets from then still part of his life. (The third is an extremely smart philosophy major.) We all work together just fine. My dad was an Episcopal bishop. We managed very well thank you.

    It seems to me my responsibility is to be transparent about my beliefs and (to be available) to be help newcomers who are struggling, as many of us did early on, and to share our journey through the steps and to recovery and long term sobriety. I think this is what AA’s tortuous evolution to recognize that there are many like us and to “sanction” (not that we need it) us as full participating members. We don’t need no stink in’ badges, Er, sorry, rewritten big book. What’s next, a BB for Muslims? Jews? Wiccans?

  11. Dean W says:

    Steven, I still hold out hope that theists and nontheists in AA can work together. I’ve said I don’t think it will happen, and I don’t, but I hope I’m wrong. As for secular AA literature, I completely agree with you. We have a lot of helpful stuff to read, some of it professionally written and some of it blogged, but we have no systematic approach to literature and no single text to rally around. I think we need to write our own literature. Collectively we have WAY more experience, skill and knowledge than Bill W had in 1939 – there’s no reason we couldn’t write a modern, secular AA text.

  12. Chris S. says:

    SOS is defunct for all purposes; and, as someone who was close to the headquarters and the founder for a number of years, I can say that it was always very badly mismanaged. The going concerns nowadays are the ones mentioned in the article, LifeRing (which broke away from SOS for the reasons I witnessed) and SMART.

  13. Steven W says:

    The proposition that G. exists and the proposition that G. does not exist are, fundamentally, mutually exclusive. There is NO intersection of the two populations. This breaks my heart, as I (once believed) in G. and several years later became an atheist as I became a Buddhist (Buddhists don’t believe in a creator god). Also, the “secular” AA’ers don’t have the wide spread literature that AA has – the big book and the 12 & 12. For secular AA to rise up to the challenge of this century, I feel that substantial atheist AA literature must be developed. Until then we are hanging onto the coat tails of the fundamentalist AA larger population.

  14. Dean W says:

    Thanks Pat, especially for your last point. We can only hope!

  15. Mike B. says:

    The concept of believers and non believers working together to find a recovey paradigm that works for all is nothing short of an oxymoron.

    Just one man’s opinion.

  16. Pat N. says:

    Thanks, Dean – good essay, pointing out historical and psychological reasons for our secular-traditional dilemma.

    I got sober because the all-traditional AA of the day where I was emphasized practical answers to “how do I quit drinking?”. They talked a LOT about the slogans and aphorisms – ODAAT, Easy Does It, 1st Things 1st, etc. Even the priest and the nun in my first home group didn’t dwell on religion. They were busy staying sober & helping others.

    In my opinion, we sometimes forget some AA basics:

    –No one, no group, no committee has the right or authority to tell a group what to hang on the wall or include in its ritual;

    –No one, no group, no level of service can mandate sponsorship, the steps, or anything else, for any individual;

    –The only really authoritative definition of who and why we are is contained in the statement “AA is a fellowship of men and women, etc.”;

    –The ONLY thing every AA gathering has/had in common, from Bill & Bob’s initial encounter in Akron to the latest General Service conference, is that they are all GATHERINGS – our very essence is getting together, not what we do, say, or read together;

    –Levels of service are not levels of authority;

    –AA literature, whether Conference-approved or not, is neither dogma nor required of any group or individual, other literature is permissible for any individual, and for groups with group approval;

    –The present crisis and the revolutions in communication may change AA forever.

  17. Dean says:

    Thank you all for reading and commenting on my article! The experience and insight you share is enlightening and heartwarming.

  18. steve b says:

    I think it’s a shame that SOS hasn’t caught on very well. It’s pretty much the same as agnostic AA without the baggage of worrying about what its proper relationship to traditional AA should be. I helped start two SOS meetings in the Chicago suburbs, and both failed years ago. Now as far as I know there isn’t a single SOS meeting in Illinois.

  19. Jack says:

    Hatred, no matter how well wrapped by religionists, is repulsive wherever it is. In my informed opinion even more so when combined with a promise of recovery from the fatal condition of addiction. Nothing, repeat, NOTHING! is quite as immoral as telling a desperate newcomer that if he/she gets some kind of a belief in some kind of god that such a belief will guarantee recovery from addiction. I am a recovered alcoholic who is also Gay. Religious fundies find it so very easy to hate me. Hate lives where hell is. The religionists are welcome to it.

  20. Frank B. says:

    I find AA Agnostica so refreshing and essays like this are the main reason why I find it so. I have been sober 38 years and have always adapted to the religiosity of mainstream AA and thought of it as the cost of gaining entrance to a LGBTQ recovering community. I do find most LGBTQ meetings to be more open to agnostic and atheist members than straight AA meetings – probably due to the understanding of what we live through as marginalized LGBTQ populations. In my early sobriety, I went to many LGBTQ roundups and conferences and have enjoyed the community enormously – and I do not want to give up that precious resource. Now that the world has changed and some social progress has occurred regarding LGBTQ civil rights, etc. it is easier to be an LGBTQ recovering person. I am always ready to find more fellowship with other LGBTQ atheists/agnostics/freethinkers on a more regular basis. I think the answer will come from attending online meetings and I will pursue those more now that everything has moved to Zoom.

    I think many, many LGBTQ early recovering folks have left AA because of the religiosity and the damage done to them by institutionalized religion. Many others adapt and are able to work through those issues, especially if they were religious in the first place.

    Anyway, many thanks to Dean W. and this very well-written, interesting and most useful essay. I am especially grateful to him for the conceptual framework he provided to help me analyze and understand my own experience in AA better. I have accepted the minority within a minority status that many LGBTQ recovering atheists find themselves in – and I deeply appreciate AA Agnostica members both LGBTQ, straight, and others who continue to support secular recovery.

  21. Dan H. says:

    I think this problem is emblematic of the larger picture in our country: the schism between religionists in general and the modern, scientific worldview (and, with some exceptions, the attendant political correspondence). In both cases, the liberal position seems dominant on the coasts and some bigger metropolitan areas.

    Here in San Diego, for example, I attend several groups that I would characterise as God-neutral. Having written one of the stories in the Big Tent compilation, and being fairly outspoken in my views, I feel accepted and respected – even by those who may have more traditional beliefs. It is my hope that this is the future of AA. Meanwhile, groups at either end of the spectrum will tend to attract members with whom their interpretation resonates.

    The other problem, of course, is the literature. When we get to the second step, I point newcomers to a piece I wrote for AA Beyond Belief called “No God,” which sets the stage for an ongoing translation project – a sort of linguistic gymnastics with the religious terms in the book. As I’ve said here before, the only reason people insist on saying “We’re spiritual, not religious” is that the Big Book’s tone requires a defensive response from the modern mind, hence the lame apologetics. Either we’re forced to live with this cognitive dissonance, invent our own reconciliation, or move on to committed secularism.

  22. John B. says:

    Can traditional AAs and secular AAs work together to create a god neutral fellowship? The answer to that is no because traditional AA is not god neutral and it cannot be changed to accommodate god neutral principles.

    Remember, when we speak of traditional AA we are not referring to newcomers. We are talking about thousands upon thousands of sober alcoholics who bestow the credit for their recovery on an omnipotent God. This is significantly more than just a firmly held belief with these folks. This is a powerful, emotional, non-debatable part of their personal identity.

    For me to go to the local AA meeting here in Lumpkin County Georgia, where I have lived for the last 10 years, or in neighboring Dawson County, and challenge the validity of the Big Book or the wisdom of Bill Wilson, would be the equivalent of going to a local Baptist church and challenge the validity of the Bible – this is not an exaggeration – the old-timers are true believers. AA was and still is a reflection of society.

    Very few newcomers now show up at an AA meeting of their own volition. They are sent by counseling agencies, human resource officers, and here in North Georgia mostly by judges and probation departments. So, most groups are dominated by true believers, and there is a good chance that many of the avenues leading to AA are controlled by true believers. There are not many Jeffrey Munn’s in the counseling business around here and nobody runs for a judgeship based on his agnosticism; just the opposite is true, church membership is always emphasized.

    The probability that we secular thinkers can change this process is wistful. What can be done to create more support for secular, agnostic, humanistic recovery options? The answer to that is beyond me, maybe the internet will supply the needed impetus. After over 39 years of AA activity, much of it highly intense, and going on 36 years of continuous sobriety, I’ve pretty much weaned myself off of traditional AA. I’m grateful for this site, and am impressed by all you pioneers who have set up successful non-god meetings. Keep the cause alive.

  23. Larry G. says:

    This is well reasoned and I appreciate it very much. I would like to add a consideration that has heavily influenced AA’s struggle to move beyond religious fundamentalism and that is the phenomena of paternalism. This simply means that the values and beliefs that provide the foundation for decision making and cultural or group norms are anchored to the male perspective (I would also suggest that this can also be said of the Caucasian perspective).

    I was looking at stats for AA’s growth this past year. Basically AA’s population stopped expanding in and around 1994. Not sure what accounts for this. I would suggest that that until AA is able to be a truly inclusive organization it will not be growing larger. Indeed I would predict that our census will begin to show a net decline in the decades to come. The younger generations where growth or decline will come from just won’t on balance embrace an organization that refuses to evolve its inclusiveness and remains stuck in traditional views, values and mores. We shall see. What ever happens it will be interesting!!!

  24. Ralph B says:

    My hope is for gradually change to the common ground of serving the newcomer. The new meeting guide app by AA includes the filter for secular meetings, I think this is a sign of accommodation. The book One Big Tent demonstrates the belief that there is room for secular members. I hope secular meetings move toward inclusivity of all belief or non belief and away from atheist dogma.

  25. Mark C. says:

    Agreed. Simply, another TEXT-based Theistic religion. That is “IF” one equates “AA” with the Big Book Text.

    And like other text-based religions, the TEXT itself becomes problematic, and the ensuing “interpretive schemes” tend to form “schools of thought.”

    There are a lot of parallels here…. with the Fundamentalists vs. Modernists in late 19th and early 20th Century American Protestantism at large, and within so-called Evangelical subcultures.

  26. Tim S says:

    Thankfully, with a certain amount of trial and error, and consultation, I’ve managed to find my way to what the author calls god-neutral groups. The secular meetings I attended 3 times a week for a 6 month trial tended to be not only god-averse but inherently a little too AA-averse for my taste. Maybe they’re not all this way but with 35 years of sobriety I have the luxury of being able to hold out until I find what I need.

  27. Mark P. says:

    I have been sober 22 years never been a ‘bigbookite’. I often wonder and occasionally despair, that female newcomers have to overcome the book’s almost universal male pronouns as we atheists have to overcome the god stuff in that book. I think AA will continue to thrive (in the UK) as it is – even though the book is increasingly irrelevant to modern society. I have noticed that there does seem to be a spiritual need in recovering alcoholics and most adhere happily (eventually) to the idea of some kind of higher power. I think people are willing to extend grace to the quaintness of it. I am happy to have discovered AA Agnostica and will incorporate it into my recovery, but I will maintain my traditional home group as time has told me it keeps me sober. I will be promoting Agnostica from now on. Hopefully eventually I can set up a meeting here in Birmingham in the UK, it may be there is more of a demand for this than I currently believe. Time will tell.

  28. Robin R says:

    First, thanks to the writer for this thoughtful and well articulated article.
    I too got sober in traditional AA almost 20 years ago and I will be forever grateful for the fellowship that assisted me. However, I have become ever more uncomfortable at traditional AA meetings, to the point that I rarely attend.

    Initially, I thought it important that I attend to help new comers realize that sobriety was achievable without a religious higher power. The responses to my “no higher power” sharing have become more god centered and I fear that my input may be more harmful than constructive.

    Had I not found secular AA meetings, I probably would have followed the Individual path described by the writer. I am becoming more pessimistic that big book AA’s will ever concede full acceptance of secular AA and that we are destined to set off on our own.

  29. Mary says:

    “Can traditional AAs and secular AAs work together to create groups and a fellowship that work for all newcomers, both those who need god and those who don’t?”

    An ideal solution but in my lifetime I’d like to see more of this. The resistance to closing with the LP is breaking down a little, especially when I explain of “other religions” at business meetings and the LP is voted on, successfully.

    In my experience “Atheist” is still a pariah word. “Free thinker” is offensive. “Humanitarian” argumentative. “Secularist” for some reason the safest word to use in the AA rooms.

    We have a long way to go.

  30. Bob K says:

    For years, I bought into the truism that people who stopped coming to AA got drunk. That’s surely what happens in many cases, but the exceptions are not so rare. If one visits the various secular AA meetings in Southern Ontario, many older folks are to be found. Several of these are men and women who stopped attending traditional meetings, stayed sober, and were prompted to come back to AA upon hearing of the start of an agnostic meeting. A great many others have left for a variety of reasons and stayed liquor-free.

    At one point, I thought the secular groups might get booted out of AA. I see that as less likely than it was five or ten years ago.

    There are some real problems with secular groups severing themselves from the whole. I think we lack the unity to do that. How many would go? How many would stay? Are agnostics non-believing enough for the harder core atheists? Will we have secularized steps? No steps? Horrible coffee? Angel-food cake?

    The atheist-leaning newcomer, if he has access to secular meetings at all, may have only one within a reasonable commute. Is a single meeting weekly enough for the new person? It wouldn’t have been for me.

    Traditional AA isn’t going to substantially change any time soon. Secular AA probably won’t, any time soon, be large enough to be a free-standing entity. The problem is magnified by the very real possibility that an independent “Secular Recovery” is likely to see further fragmentation. Our world conventions have clearly demonstrated our own lack of unity.

  31. Doc says:

    First, some background: I’ve been sober for 51 years, regularly attend AA meetings, and in my professional life taught courses in comparative religion and wrote books on the subject. In terms of the criteria which I have used for defining religions in my academic work, AA is a religion. One of the features that helps define it as a religion is the vehement opposition to changing the Big Book.

    Within AA groups, I have found some groups which are openly hostile toward my presence – the idea that I have stayed sober for more than half a century without using a god or a higher power is threatening to their foundational ideas – while there are other groups which are more open to religious and non-religious diversity. The lack of the Lord’s Prayer and the relative absence of “god” topics is usually a feature of the more accepting groups.

  32. Ed S. says:

    Right on!

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