How Dare You – An Open Letter to AA Trustees

This is an edited version of the “Open Letter” which was sent to the AA Trustees on August 3, 2020.[1]

By Paul W

Introduction

Alcoholics Anonymous has lost sight of its purpose, of its mission. Yes, its members and backers rightly praise the institution and its good work. Yes, AA does help people to place their alcoholism in remission. Unfortunately, the core purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is gone… or is it?

AA’s Preamble begins, “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.”

Does AA really seek to help all who suffer from alcoholism?

Or, does it want to help only those who are, or will become, theists? If AA is for all, why the heavy theistic approach? Why the plethora of references to God, directly or through euphemisms (Him, He, Power, Higher Power)? If AA is spiritual, not religious, why the clear difficulty in defining, explaining, and laying out examples of “spiritual” without a religious tone? And, why the literal blizzard of God references in Alcoholics Anonymous?

This and more leads to, How Dare You…

  • continue to claim that Alcoholics Anonymous is “Spiritual, not Religious” in the face of significant evidence to the contrary.

  • ignore the numerous United States (State and Federal) court rulings that AA is religious – and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunals which have or were ready to rule likewise.

  • abandon the growing population of alcoholics who might have been “saved” because you, Corporate AA, insist on ignoring the thousands of people who have no religious beliefs.[2]

AA’s Religious Nature

Historical

AA owes much to the Christian Oxford Group. AA also has strong ties to religious personages and organizations and “people of (religious) faith.” AA was born of religious experiences, sudden revelations, bright lights, prayers, and finding God.

Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith leap to mind. Bill’s writings clearly indicate his religiosity. Co-founder, Dr. Bob’s practice of making novitiates pray on their knees and his writing that a newcomer “must surrender himself absolutely to God” and that he “must have devotions every morning … prayer and some reading of the Bible.” All this points directly to religiosity.[3]

In Bill Wilson’s book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, reverence is given to Dr. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Episcopal minister, Father Ed Dowling, S.J.[4], and Sister Ignatia, Sisters of Charity.

Atheists and agnostics have been ignored, disguised, or presented in a manner so as to be easily mistaken for theists. Hank P. and Jim B. are prime examples. Both were part of the original membership and were responsible for the modifying phrase, “as we understood Him” being added to “God” in Steps 3 and 11. On page 17 of Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill wrote, “A newcomer named Jimmy B., who like Henry [aka Hank] was an ex-salesman and former atheist.” This is misleading, as Jim B remained an atheist for his whole life.[5]

The “Big Book”

The premier publication, Alcoholics Anonymous[6] (“Big Book”), is filled with “God” often enough that any claim of AA being “not religious” is specious.[7] The book, Alcoholics Anonymous gives no clear evidence of how “the program”[8] works for those in the increasing secular population. Basically, it is up to the non-theists to “work things out” for themselves. Corporate AA offers no help or encouragement.

“God” and euphemisms for a god are ubiquitous in the Big Book. So much so that a reader who is without a god can only understand the program through a Churchillian effort. No assistance is offered by Corporate AA. Non-theists are on their own.

Need Examples?

Believe it or not, the following are just a few examples of the unassisted work a non-theist is confronted with. (All page references are to Alcoholics Anonymous.)

Chapter 2, “There Is a Solution”. “… the simple kit of spiritual tools” which later turn out to be the (Godly) Twelve Steps (page 25).[9]

Chapter 4, “We Agnostics”[10]. “And it means, of course that we are going to talk about God” (page 45). This sentence turns out to be a proper indication of the rest of the book and the program.[8]

“When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God” (page 47). It is a far stretch of imagination to picture a non-theist going through the program trying to translate “Bill’s words” and all statements of “God” into secular concepts and language. Clearly, AA is not a (non-theistic) “spiritual” program.

“… as we see it, there is an All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence” (page 49).

“Actually, we were fooling ourselves, for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God” (page 55, emphasis added). This is an unabashed claim that a God exists and everyone knows it, even if buried deep in the subconscious. These are the thoughts of a man convinced that everyone will come to accepting God. Obviously AA is a theistic program, based on a God of the Ten Commandments. Bill Wilson, and AA itself, hold tightly to the hope and belief that all will “Come to Believe.”

“God restored us all to our right minds” (page 57). A reader must conclude that to be in ones “right mind” is to be a theist. This passage holds that atheists, agnostics, Free-Thinkers, Humanists, and the like are not in their right minds. How dare you claim that AA is open to all?

Chapter 5, “How It Works”. outlines the “program” of Alcoholics Anonymous, it introduces the Twelve Steps. Part of this chapter, especially the listing of the Twelve Steps, is read aloud at many meetings open to the public, as “How it Works.” It is reasonable to assume this chapter is the official program of AA, a theistic program.

Writing about the scourge of alcoholism Bill Wilson states, “Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now” (page 59). Clearly, AA expects its members to “find God”, not to remain non-theistic.

“We had to have God’s help” (page 62). In AA’s mind, those without a god cannot gain sobriety. On the same page is, “…we could at last abandon ourselves utterly to Him.” This relates directly to AA’s Step 3, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” (italics in the original). AA holds that God is essential for sobriety. AA is theistic, is religious.

On page 63 we find “the Third Step prayer.” Prayer is a religious act, offering oneself to a god is a religious act. Strange for an organization which claims to be “spiritual, not religious.”

“We asked God to mold our ideas and help us to live up to them” (page 69). Another prayer, another religious act.[11]

Chapter 6, “Into Action”. On page 80 we are told of a man who finds that it is better to follow the program “… than to stand before his Creator guilty of …” Judgement after death is a religious belief or truth. It is “religious.”

A miraculous happening is reported on page 84, “… that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” A miracle performed by a god is religious.

Chapter 7, “Working With Others”. On page 93 those doing Twelfth Step work (proselytizing) are instructed, “Stress the spiritual feature freely. If the man be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God. He can choose any conception he likes, provided it makes sense to him. The main thing is that he be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself and that he live by spiritual principles” (italics in original).

AA holds that one must have a God of some sort (“Power” is capitalized). AA has been unable to give examples or definitions of power which are not insulting. As for “spiritual principles,” AA has been woefully poor at explaining them in a non-religious fashion.

There are many more direct references to God and to prayer (a religious activity) in Alcoholics Anonymous. They are easy to find.

A Thought Experiment

Ask yourselves:

  1. What are the qualities, characteristics of religion or religiousness that Alcoholics Anonymous lacks?

  2. What are the indicators which demonstrate AA’s spirituality that are devoid of religious connotations?

  3. Why does the plethora of references to God, Him, Higher Power, etc., not indicate a religious nature of Alcoholics Anonymous? (Don’t religions have a god?)

  4. How is the practice of group prayers at AA meetings and functions not a sign of religiousness?

  5. How is the passing of General Service Conference Advisory Actions “freezing” Bill Wilson’s words in Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions not an act of declaring infallibility?

Conclusion

Trustees, please be honest. At least admit that, while AA is not a specific religion, it is religious, to the extent that it relies on a male God, most likely Christian.

  • There is no doubt that AA supports the writings of its founder, Bill Wilson. Consequently, when he wrote a letter mistakenly stating that the Lord’s Prayer is not just a Christian Prayer[12] AA was accepting the inclusion of this prayer in its meetings.

  • There is no doubt that AA practices religious rituals at its meetings, opening and closing with prayers.

  • That Corporate AA does not even ask that meetings and groups identifying as AA not include religious rituals in its meetings and affairs.

  • That you still allow the delisting of secular meetings or refusals to list in the first place.

  • That you studiously ignore Bill Wilson’s permissive words expressed in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.[13]

  • And, finally that you are reluctant to make any serious corrections to the “program” and related literature, especially the “Big Book,” for financial reasons.[6] This reluctance extends even to ignoring contradictory comments and erroneous statements, especially those made by Bill Wilson.

Forget about correcting the “Big Book.” It is a valuable, historical volume, much like medical books and papers from the 1930s and earlier. Be courageous and embark on writing a new book, one which retains Bill Wilson’s basic thoughts and modern thoughts which include all who suffer from alcoholism. Or, simply state that AA is for theists and others need not apply. I suspect that there is an alcoholic or two or more available to be the Martin Luther for AA.


Notes:

[1] The trustees have responsibility for three incorporated entities; The General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc., Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., and Alcoholics Anonymous Grapevine, Inc. Trustees of AA refers to both Class A and Class B Trustees.

[2] Pew Research has predicted that the “not-religious” population of the United States (Atheists, Agnostics, Free-Thinkers, Humanists, etc., and “Nones”) will equal and even surpass the population identifying as “Christian” in a few years.

[3] Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, page 131. This book is “General Service Conference-approved literature.”

[4] Father Dowling, S.J. pointed out the similarity of the Twelve Steps to the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order. (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, page 253.)

[5] Jim B (Burwell) was responsible for getting AA started in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and San Diego. Jim’s story is in Alcoholics Anonymous, (pages 219-231) titled “The Vicious Cycle.” Unfortunately, editing appears to have obscured his life-long atheism. Jim is also featured in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, as Ed in Tradition Three, where the impression that he came to believe in God is made. Why Bill Wilson changed Jim’s name to Ed is unknown.

[6] I call the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, “premier” because of the reverence it is afforded and its monetary value to AA. It is the largest seller of official AA publications. This alone is a massive obstacle to serious thoughts about changes to or corrections of the “Big Book” text. (AA’s net literature sales represent 55% of its income, whereas member and group contributions are 41% of income, with investment income being 4%. AA’s net profit – reported as “Excess of Income” – for that year was just short of $4-million. This is from a recent Annual Report from Owen J. Flanagan and Company, Certified Public Accountants.) “Follow the money” is true, even in AA.

[7] The fact that “God” is so prevalent throughout AA literature and practices, coupled with Corporate AA’s inability to explain “spiritual” without a deity, are clear indication of AA’s religious nature.

[8] The word “program” refers to the Twelve Steps and well as the Twelve Traditions and the Twelve Concepts. The focus here is on the Twelve Steps outlined in “How It Works” in Alcoholics Anonymous and elaborated on in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Both publications carry the AA imprimatur, “This is A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature” and have been protected from change or revision by General Service Conference Advisory Actions.

[9] Alcoholics Anonymous has been woefully unable to define “spiritual” in a clear and concise manner. After years of denying the need for non-theistic literature on secular spirituality, AA made two attempts. The first was for literature on spiritual experiences which was to include stories from atheists and agnostics. This failed completely. The second attempt resulted in the pamphlet, “Many Paths to Spirituality,” which was a disappointment. Finally, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. obtained permission to print the United Kingdom’s pamphlet, “The God Word.” Its success is questionable.

[10] Except for most personal stories, the majority of the “Big Book” was written by Bill Wilson. (He even wrote “To Wives” even though Lois volunteered to do so.) Bill wrote the chapter, “We Agnostics” alone. There is no evidence that this chapter was prepared in collaboration with other agnostics, atheists, or non-theists. Bill actually dares to speak for all non-theists. His lack of understanding is clear in the “Conference-approved” book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, where, on page 28, Bill Wilson states, “Religion says the existence of God can be proved; the agnostic says it can’t be proved; and the atheist claims proof of the nonexistence of God.” This last statement is absolutely false. The word “atheist” indicates those who live a-theistically; without a god. This one sentence has resulted in many AA theistic members having unwarranted negative opinions of atheists.

[11] Additionally, four of AA’s Twelve Steps involve prayers or religious acts.

Step 5, “Admitted to God to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Step 6, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” (Uncovered and listed in Step Four.)

Step 7, “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

Step 11, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

[12] Ignoring the fact that Jesus originated that prayer. See the New Testament; Matthew 6: 9-13 and Luke 11: 2-4.

[13] Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (AACoA) is “General Service Conference-approved literature.” It was published in 18 years after Alcoholics Anonymous. In AACoA, Bill Wilson, quotes the long form of Tradition Three and then states, “This means that these two or three alcoholics could try for sobriety in any way they liked. They could disagree with any or all of A.A.’s principles and still call themselves an A.A. group.” Recall that at the time of AACoA, “principles” referred to the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions. Put simply, Bill Wilson gave cart blanch to groups of alcoholics to write their own, secular Steps (“any way they liked”). In a word, all that God stuff is unnecessary.


Paul has been a member of AA since 1989. He is comfortable as a nontheist and identifies as an atheist. Among the AA many service positions Paul has held are General Service Representative and District Committee Member. He has spoken at AA Area functions about the lack of literature for nonbelievers and has been a supporter of recognizing nontheists as full members of AA. Before retirement, he was a consultant with an international professional services firm where he specialized in education and organizational behavior. Paul and his wife live in New Jersey, she a Christian (of her own definition) and he an atheist. They have six children (50% atheists), six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.


58 Responses

  1. John BF says:

    I’m a born-again agnostic having been raised a Lutheran, then became agnostic at age 12, then 20 years later, a Muslim for 20 years, then a Buddhist and back to agnosticism via AA for 10+ years now. I got sober in a country full of atheists, i.e. Buddhists, with a government and religious organization determined to keep AA away from good Thai Buddhists because they thought AA was proselytizing Christianity. Fortunately, determined members of AA tried for many years to get the Big Book in Thai language re-translated primarily because the old translation used ‘formal Thai’ wording rather than ‘street Thai’.

    The result, with a translation that AA GSO insisted they take the lead on, is that a new Thai Big Book has been approved, authorized and distributed for the last couple of years WITH THE WORD GOD REMOVED and the Buddhist Thai equivalent of ‘All Things Spiritual’ used instead!! Yes, you read this correctly, so AA IS CHANGING to accommodate at least Thailand where the need was very evident, e.g. 40 years in the town I lived and got sober in with at least 4 meetings a day, 7 days a week without a single Thai language meeting.

    So, my SUGGESTION is translate what has ALREADY been approved and start from there to try and get AA to accept an ‘amended’ translation for non-religious people. If you put in the work, you can at least hopefully produce an ‘unofficial’ Big Book that some of us can use at ‘Free Thinkers’ meetings until an ‘official’ revision can be done by AA. THIS IS POSSIBLE, it will just take time.

    Bill Wilson was a high powered sales person bent on making AA a reality in a ‘In God we Trust’ country. According to the last living Washingtonian member who knew Bill W when he attended Oxford Group meetings, he considered Bill to be an agnostic throughout his entire recovered life regardless of what he wrote in order to get the Big Book accepted by the majority with some minor opinion options.

    At 85 years, we are still in our infancy and more work needs to be done to be more inclusive and IT WILL TAKE COURAGE, WORK AND DEDICATION.

    • Linda W. says:

      WOW, John BF!! Thank you for taking the time to inform us about this important helpful information. Others may already be aware but I was not.
      Linda W, Belfast, ME

      • JOHN bf says:

        You are welcome. please spread the word, the Thai edition is available from AA literature for anyone who would like to try to start the reverse translation. It does cost money.

    • Dan C. says:

      John, I wonder if you need AA’s permission. This would be a fun project. Put in Freethinkers stories in the back. It isn’t that big of a deal to do because it is essentially 200 pages, new stories and a preface…

      • John BF says:

        We didn’t ask permission when we started the new tie language translation so I don’t think a reverse translation needs approval, however, that being said it will not be an official AA recognized literature and groups would have to decide individually whether to use it even as reference material.

        Personally, I use a red cover pocket size unofficial edition of The big book that has page references in a glossary at the end of the book for almost every word used within the book. It is very useful but not official.

  2. Jackie K says:

    I am wondering if this letter by Paul was responded to by AA. It is hard to believe that in the 21st Century AA refuses to re-word the book to exclude “God”, in light of the ONLY REQUIREMENT is a desire to stop drinking. The 12 steps for non-theists and the 12-steps for Buddhists only re-worded half of the 12 steps, and the content is still basically the same – we need help, can’t do it alone, need the fellowship, have to get honest, etc. It is clearly a religious program and the Trustees should be thinking about how many more lives AA could save if they would be willing to edit the Big Book to be more inclusive.

    • Paul W says:

      Jackie K.

      As of this hour, it has been nothing but crickets. I had expected nothing less. AA’s policy as laid out in the Preamble is that AA “does not wish to engage in any controversy.” Knowing this is why I identified the article as “An Open Letter.” Thus indicating that it would not be limited to the Trustees. I had hoped that one Trustee might contact me and comment. He had been the DCM when I chaired the District’s “Cooperating with the Professional Community” Committee and served as the District Treasurer. Later he was my sponsor for a brief time. I followed him to become the DCM. But, no reply from him either. Historically, AA will go to extreme lengths to avoid public involvement in controversial matters, including what many might call “blackmail” as when they blocked the Toronto Area Intergroup from their database to force a settlement over delisting two non-theist meetings from their directory.

      So, “Corporate AA” will not respond but AA Agnostica members and readers now know and at least the word will spread a bit.

      Thanks for the comment. And please stay well. We need people like you.

      Paul

  3. Andrea H. says:

    Common thread here is that sobriety MATTERS – it’s life or death for us. Thus, the angst/anger over those who aren’t served by “traditional” AA.

    At 39 years sober, I have been both a believer and a non-believer in AA. I started out as a “goalong to getalong” believer as what mattered to me was getting sober and I wasn’t about to make waves at that point. The best I could do at that point was to think of all religions as metaphors in the search for a meaningful life. Over many years and with a clearer mind, I evolved to my own particular sloppy blend of agnosticism and Buddhism.

    I attend “traditional” AA meetings (pre-pandemic) for the community it offers but make a point of noting my agnosticism. I see this as a service to ensure that the like-minded don’t just quit the program and are lost and so that, when asked, I can suggest more compatible on-line sobriety sites. Be yourself and, yes, do take what you like and leave the nonsensical rest.

  4. Marty N. says:

    It seems, to me, that AA has become a religion unto itself.

  5. Richard K. says:

    I just researched, LifeRing. Sounds like a great program.

  6. Larry g says:

    Wouldn’t it be neat if as many of us as possible started an email campaign at least once every few months to the BOT requesting an alternative to the BB of AA be written? I have been doing that very thing. I ask it to be free of theistic jargon, gender neutral, that it be culturally inclusive, that the doctors opinion be updated by a contemporary MD in addictions, that sections for spouses and family either be eliminated or written by a group of Al-Anons etc. I suggest that this book be an alternative and not a replacement to the BB for those of us that find the BB offensive or not helpful. If enough of us do this often enough we might get somewhere.

  7. Dan L says:

    I really enjoyed that essay. Where I went for treatment some years back we were made familiar with the “Big Book”, the slender 164 pages anyway. We were told that we should know what was in it and more specifically what was not. We were specifically warned that people would tell us things were “in the book” which weren’t. I am so glad they did that! I learned that the word “surrender” – so dear to some of our fellows – is not to be found in the 164. Neither is a whole bunch of other bullshit people tried to sell me. For a recovery text we used the NA “Blue Book”. NA considers ethanol a drug like any other – oh I can hear the screaming! – and it is a REAL text book. It makes the point that recovery is very hard but willingness and persistence will bring clarity. It does not ignore the human factor nor try to paste god over top of it like the Big Book does. Abominations like “We Agnostics” and “To Wives” are absent. After returning to AA in the wild I once made the mistake of bringing in a copy of the NA book to the wrong AA meeting. You can imagine the rest. On a side note the Alanon literature puts our scribblings to shame. It is mature and up to date and they are not terrified of new discoveries in the study of addiction. The only approved literature I actually like is “Living Sober” which according to some traditionalists caused a virtual holocaust among AA newcomers slaying them in their hundreds of thousands. This I was told explained the decline of AA “in every way” since it’s introduction. Finally would someone please take the word “allergy” out of “The Doctor’s Opinion”?

  8. Richard K. says:

    Loved the comments!!! Paul started his article quoting the preamble. I think the rest of it should be quoted also. Like the part that says,”We don’t wish to engage any controversy.”

    • Rich H says:

      That’s another time-worn statement from our literature. I think we generally do try to avoid controversy over outside issues in our meetings but otherwise, not so much.

  9. Rich H says:

    I hate hearing the Lord’s Prayer at meetings, It grinds away at my atheist mind. But, I would not like the Trustees or the General Service Conference to ban the Lord’s Prayer from meetings because I would also not like them to tell us how to run secular meetings. Better to ask for a group conscience to ban it.

  10. John M. says:

    This open letter by Paul is a magnificent “J’accuse!” in what over time has become a common genre critiquing the powers that be in whatever form they take. But I marvel at not only Paul’s efforts here but, from a larger context, at the sheer volume and quality of critique that has been produced at AA Agnostica in just 9 short years. Still, as our comments from week to week show, we do not always unanimously agree with the agendas or tactics and strategies of our fellow secular AAers.

    AA’s fundamental religiosity may never change or AA may in the end just collapse under the weight of its own anachronistic origins. Or, perhaps as a result of what we seculars are agitating for, AA may reform itself to finally and simply welcome, without prejudice, all who have a desire to stop drinking.

    Change in AA can hardly come about without our collaborate efforts, the “J’accuse!” of us all, to work to make this happen by whatever method or in whatever forum it takes, even ones where we disagree among ourselves. As a current example of just one forum for change within Alcoholics Anonymous— AA Agnostica — 9 years of fighting the good fight is hardly much time invested when compared to the history of other cultural movements that sought to reform themselves. The litany of Paul’s protestations against a religiously entrenched AA bears witness to the enormity of the task at hand which in turn suggests that a “reasonably” secular AA is years away, if at all.

    So let’s keep doing what we are doing — even arguing among ourselves. Our silence, acquiescence, or indifference only guarantees the success of the status quo.

  11. Brendan F says:

    The truth can hurt but it shouldn’t be denied.

    I listened recently to a very honest and genuine member of the fellowship share how after seeing “the serenity prayer” at her first meeting she felt safe and had found hope. (Now 3+ years sober) I was delighted for her personally but so very much aware that the opposite is just as likely in our increasingly secular World. These likely sufferers rarely return, some do but far less than can be justified by relying on literature written with such an obvious Religious leaning and over 80 years ago.

    With just over 27 years continuous sobriety, my general hope is for far greater inclusion for non theists but the hand cuffing of required change is so detrimental. (The majority required to support Radical literature change via conference.) It’s perceived democracy Is so diluted as the fellowship within is less and less reflective of the real world.

    The continued use and failing reliance on words and god concepts far outside what is reasonable for so many brought up with no religious affiliation whatsoever is almost impossible to understand. It’s shameful to think the efforts of those that went before us (with and without god) can be so easily dismissed.

    I hope more articles like this ramp up the need for Sensible change within AA. The BB has great historical value but will be a mere relic as it fails to attract suffering alcoholics who are and will remain atheist or, worse, are still unsure.

    The accusation of “rant” against the article is a clear indication of outright refusal to accept and consider the real facts. “Facts“ that were understandable in their time but in no way apply to our millions of suffering alcoholics of alternative faiths or of no faith whatsoever.

    I will comfortably “rant” from now on in the clear understanding that some members of “faith” (the absence of proof) are so ready to deny what can be so easily proven.

    What would Bill W have to say; we don’t have to guess! His later writings indicated in many places the need to stay relevant. Lets ask the question until the obvious answer is put to “paper” in what is so genuinely needed.

  12. Steve b says:

    And so what else is new? Traditional AA is religious and unlikely to change. So what do you do? Once covid 19 appeared, I attended a few AA meetings online, both traditional and atheist/agnostic, as well as LifeRing meetings, then I tired of them all, and my only connection to AA is aaagnostica and the other nonreligious AA site. Nowadays I essentially stay sober on my own, which doesn’t seem any harder for me to do than when I went to AA.

    • Lisa M. says:

      Hello Steve B. Thank you for this comment. I feel the same. Many say to me “Wait. If you don’t go what about the newcomer?” and I say, “There will be someone there”. No one needs to sign up for life if it doesn’t suit them. It’s like “there will always be sports fans”. We know its true.

  13. Andrew says:

    Good article. From my perspective the religiosity bin AA is abhorrent. Fortunately I am educated enough to hold my own in Traditional meetings but have been happy with the Zoom meetings to find Secular AA et al. I don’t plan on going back to Traditional meetings whenever the pandemic is over. Aside from the religious aspect the lackadaisical attitude around predators is incredibly disconcerting. Finally, treating the BB as if it were hand delivered from Mt. Sinai is what every cult does.

  14. bob k says:

    Re: “… and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunals which have or were ready to rule likewise.”

    The situation of the agnostic groups delisted by Toronto Intergroup was even more interesting. When Larry K. brought his complaint before the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the executive committee was remarkably unperturbed. Their lawyers had perused the legislation, and presumably, the AA literature. They then assured their client that they could make the case go away.

    The legislation has an exemption for religious groups. Atheists can’t demand a freethinker version of Catholicism. The attorneys thought that Larry K. couldn’t expect toleration for an agnostic version of AA. Toronto Intergroup sought the religious exemption that would have gotten them off the hook. A belief in God was “required” in AA.

    GSO flipped out and essentially sided with the complainant. Intergroup agreed to a mediation. The agnostic groups were readmitted and do what they were doing previously. The complainant received a settlement.

    You decide who won.

  15. Thomas B. says:

    Hello all,

    I’m a recovering alcoholic a day at a time, who attended my first AA meeting in Manhattan, NY in October of 1972 — ah yup, this means I’m coming up upon my 48th sobriety anniversary in AA. I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where Southern Baptists were predominant during my grade school. At puberty, along with my Mother, I converted to Catholicism, so I could drink and smoke, but don’t even think about anything carnally or else one would go to hell forever, and forever and endlessly forever. After graduating from St. Joseph High School, I attended Xavier University in Cincinnati where the Jesuits taught me to question everything !~!~!

    I’ve studied Buddhism throughout my recovery, and currently choose, Kuan Yin, the goddess of Compassion, popular in Vietnam where I served in ’67-68, “who sees and hears the suffering of the world,” as my Higher Power. I also define my Higher Power as G-O-D, Groups of Drunks/Druggies, wherein I hear how other people stay sober, and clean, a day at a time.

    Living currently in Tucson, AZ, I find the meetings here excessively god-centered — people not only quote the Big Book, but they read large portions of it as part of their shares. Perhaps this is due to Tucson being the hometown of Wally P., another Vietnam Veteran, who does “Back to Basics” workshops nationwide based upon how Dr. Bob and the Akron, Ohio AA folk supposedly got sober in 1946. This is exceedingly different from AA Meetings in New York City where I was gifted with recovery. (Since I first lived here in Tucson in the early oughts, three secular meetings have been started and closed due to lack of support !~!~!)

    In meetings I get to practice not only our code of “love and tolerance” but also to practice (sometimes between clinched teeth) a dictum I also learned early in recovery “take what you need and leave the rest…”

    • Dan C. says:

      I got sober in NY as well. The Big Book was a meeting! Boy did I see things differently as I have traveled. I brought an atheist to his first meeting in Lexington Kentucky, and I shared something simple and was then the recipient of some pretty religious backlash! The word “Jeeesus” was uttered frequently!

  16. Marita says:

    Why not start with a pamphlet and write the piece of literature you need. Submit it to the Trustee’s literature committee. Many pieces of literature start at the local level. Then send another and another. Everything passed by the General Service Conference go thru the Trustee’s literature committee. Then ask for a question on the triannual membership survey to define the current population within AA. Then have evetyone do a service call on the delegate….

    • This is sound thinking. AA ought to be additive – not subtractive. I don’t have a strong feeling about the big book or groups praying because I don’t read it, the groups I generally attend don’t read it, the few groups I go to as a guest, I am respectful of their rituals. I don’t know that trustees made the Big Book a best seller – it wasn’t popular when/where I got sober. AA members and AA groups made it popular. So, while these views should be expressed, are we barking up the wrong tree talking to trustees? Just a question – not a criticism. Trustees have never told my group what to do and I don’t think they ought to tell others what to do/read, etc.

      There is just as much enthusiasm to remove Living Sober and The “God” Word. They resist those pleas, too.

      While I would vote “yes” for a modernization of the Big Book, it won’t come as a Literature Committee (trustees or conference) recommendation. I think a more compelling contemporary book would be a better idea than taking away something there is a demand from so many groups.

      So, yes to voicing opinions and preferences. I think GSO wants to hear from us. But as far as workable agents of change within our organization, effort for additive literature would likely be more effective than altering the worldview of existing literature to our worldview.

      Also, groups can have their own readings, pamphlets, videos, booklets – AA Agnostica is a good source, but if we don’t find what we want/need we can create our own. GSO doesn’t discourage us from doing AA our own way.

      Thanks for the essay and comments.

      • Lena R. says:

        Hi Joe. Thanks so much for your super thought-provoking comment, you, as always, have given me a lot to think about. I did notice that the end of Paul’s letter (before the notes) says “Be courageous and embark on writing a new book, one which retains Bill Wilson’s basic thoughts and modern thoughts which include all who suffer from alcoholism.” A concern that comes to mind for me with a collection of individuals writing a new book for AA on their own is that it would be a tremendous undertaking with zero guarantee the book would be approved in the end. I mean, when Bill & Bob wrote the Big Book, he had AA money to fund his time off work so he had the time he needed to write the book, right? (You’re the historian here – this is just my interpretation of what I read in the service manual.) That’s just to say that it is a big ask of an individual (although you pulled it off like a BOSS!!!) Plus, I wonder if it’s almost missing the crux of the issue, which I might describe as “death by a million cuts”. If GSO uses the Big Book as reference for so much of their decision-making process, that will continue if the Big Book itself remains basically unchallenged. It does get me thinking about what the most effective way to fix this is, and hell if I know. If we keep adding stuff but insisting Bill W’s words are “true” AA at the core, then it will forever be an uphill battle, I think. Revisions of the Big Book have come out and will continue to come out, so I don’t think it is unrealistic to imagine some of the language within it being changed to something more inclusive. I would argue that that is additive, too, not subtractive. Anyway, blah blah, spitballing ideas… thanks again for sharing your thoughts 🙂

        • bob k says:

          Bill didn’t need time off work to write the book — he was unemployed. Dr. Bob was virtually uninvolved in the writing. The Alcoholic Foundation thought Bill and Hank should accept an offer from Harper & Brothers, a legitimate publisher. Bill and Hank didn’t like that idea and decided (probably very early on) to self-publish.

          The formed a company and sold shares. They never completed the proper paper work. Charles Towns lent Bill money — about $4,000. to finance Bill and his secretary.

          AA didn’t own the book originally. The share purchasers, Bill, and Hank each held approximately one-third of the shares.

          Sadly, AA will be open to changing the book about 10 years after it’s too late.

          • Lena R. says:

            Thanks for your encyclopedic knowledge, Bob!! Yeah… I suppose the depth and complexity of this issue and its history is very hard for me to wrap my head around. If only we could have a time traveller from the future explain to us exactly where to best put our efforts to help the atheist/agnostic newcomer of the future!!

    • Dan C. says:

      Marita,

      Excellent idea. Roger would be able to answer better, but, I believe that real agnostic literature has been shunned. They like the “we’ll wait” for your conversion agnosticism…

  17. John F. says:

    Thanks, Paul, for your article. The way to achieve balance is by putting weight on both sides of the scale. My friend LeClair Bissell was a lifelong atheist with 55 years in AA when she died. She simply ignored the religious trappings of AA and concentrated on the fellowship she shared, mainly with other free thinkers. There was a time when she didn’t go to meetings, yet maintained the close human bonds. At that time she also became a member of a Unitarian Church, and told me that they allowed her, even more that AA did, to hold her own beliefs and be her self. She always maintained her positive regard for AA and later returned to it full force. It is people like her that make AA the living being that Ernie Kurtz (who first recommended AA Agnostica to me) wrote about under the banner “The AA that you and I love so much.”

  18. Dan C. says:

    Lena, How many business meetings or “Group Conscience” meetings have you attended? We are talking about changing dogmatic thinkers that believe they have an obligation to “PROTECT” the way! It’s been going on since the beginning of recorded history, you think a letter is going to work? By the way, I attended the first “Agnostic” AA convention in California. It was frustrating as all sides attempted to bring their narrative, attempting to argue a name for the convention… People are A) full of themselves and B) stubborn… The more you push, the more they push back, human nature…

    For me, I’ll stick to making a difference one by one…

  19. Linda W. says:

    I am a relative newcomer to recovery (nearly 8 months). I have attended AA meetings, both live and online. I have a sponsor whom I trust and can speak very honestly with. My frustration with AA is that it purports to be a spiritual, not religious, program, and yet I feel I am treated as naive because I am agnostic; that I’m being patted on the head and will come around to a belief in “God” eventually if I’m open-minded. I feel AA disingenuously says that AA is open to “all”, but if the program isn’t working for me, there are many other roads to recovery out there. In other words, if it isn’t working for me, I apparently don’t qualify as belonging to the “all”, rather than that perhaps AA is effectively pushing me out.

    In the state where I live, I attempted to locate a secular AA group by calling the central office. The person I spoke with assumed I was looking for “sexual” AA, and when I clarified gave me to someone else who told me there are no active secular groups currently, but gave me a phone number to call which was a dead end. I have, luckily, found many secular Zoom meetings across the Country, and internationally. I’m grateful for these and for the AA Agnostica web site, and the postings I receive weekly. Thanks for the opportunity to post about this issue.

    • Dan C. says:

      Linda,

      You are exactly the person I listen for in meetings. There are tons of us out there. The others that think you will convert, have what they need. Do your best to not take it too personal. My sponsor passed away sober 52 years and was agnostic. I learned so much from him, he became my sponsor when I was sober 18 years. I think this epidemic has opened life up with Zoom, keep looking for like minded people. By the way that is not always agnostic or secular meetings. Thanks for sharing!

  20. Herb Y. says:

    The problem is lives lost. Those who walk into AA with hope in their hearts that they find a way to stop drinking and/or using at least for the time being, only to find a (religious cult) prayer meeting; turn on their heel and walk out, often never to return. Sometimes to their mortal peril or death.

    Right now I only attend Zoom meetings but when I had options, I attended mostly secular AA with occasional traditional meetings. I like and respected some of the folks I have – through the years – befriended in traditional meetings. I am happy for those who have found a solution to their death sentence in traditional AA and don’t begrudge anyone their religious beliefs. I also cringe when some spew their view that sounds to me like victim-hood whence only an external force can fix their woes.

    I am clean and sober. I don’t practice religion. I am non-theist. I’m an AA member.

    Instead of attacking the Trustees or AA, I would prefer the focus of the dialogue to be how to extend a helping hand to those who might otherwise turn on their heel never to return. The Judaeo/Christian moral approach is shame based. Most of us secular folks prefer addressing our collective dis-ease.

    I have no illusion about being able to change the entire fellowship of AA from the inside out. I have since moved, but the traditional meetings I attended became much more tolerant of me and other secular folks and were more inclusive. In particular many meetings began with the Serenity Prayer and ended with the Responsibility Declaration. That’s halfway there. Perhaps if we pursue inclusion incrementally at the individual meeting or group level, we will make progress.

    When I work with others I suggest “Staying Sober Without God” and “Beyond Belief” as basic texts and reading materials. I agree that the “Big Book” is an anachronism. Time to let go and move on.

    • Lena R. says:

      Hi Herb. I agree with so much of what you have said, particularly in the first half of your comment. But I offer for your consideration that an article like this DOES focus the dialogue on how to extend a helping hand to those who might otherwise leave AA. I don’t think it is fair to describe this as an “attack” on the trustees. This letter takes them to task, sure, and calls a spade a spade, but holding someone accountable is different than attacking them. Change at the group level is so, so important, I agree. But you can’t separate the system from its component parts. No matter how strong an individual group, newcomers still interact with the program through calling AA service lines, reading AA materials, and wandering off the street into their first AA meeting. If those experiences are negative due to decisions made in New York, those people may never find their way to the group that eventually saves their life.

    • Dan C. says:

      Thanks Herb. Agreed. I like Living Sober. I also share secular steps with people, there are tons of them out there. Just because people buy into “crackpot” functionalism doesn’t make it so, correlation is not to be confused with causation! But, if that’s what they believe, well let them!

  21. Lena R. says:

    This is such a fantastic letter. I would love to help get as many eyes on it as possible. If there is a way I can support you in that, please let me know. I will definitely share it with my circle of AA friends.

  22. Roger says:

    A Mailchimp letter for today’s article:

    Hi All

    • Lise L. says:

      I`m with Paul W. on this topic. I think that the marriage to AA has failed for innumerable people. So the time has come to divorce it and move on for our growth and that of kindred spirits. My recovery started in 1992. I also became an addiction counsellor. I was an active member of N/A where the same problem exists. I was also sending clients to both NA and AA. For the most part because of the stubborn insistence on religious practices which also caused a lack of multicultural support, my clients could not stay. Leaning on an imaginary higher power versus finding their inner strength and relying on the wisdom of enlightened professionals and addicts, didn’t work. Many relapsed. My husband and I both left.

      Were it not for therapy which only gave us the monthly support of one person and eroded our pay checks, we would not have made it out of the dark side of addiction. After being left to ourselves for 23 years, we heard about “We agnostics” in 2018. In short, we struggled for years without group support and failed to support and sponsor a lot of addicts and alcoholics that could have done with some help. Why is religion causing more harm than help after advertising itself as a movement of love for humanity? Look at the division it`s creating in the US right now. What happened to the THINK, THINK, THINK slogan? Are you really practicing the steps that ask us to help another addict? If not, ask yourself why.

  23. Glenn G says:

    Paul,
    This whole “tirade” of an article is nothing more than whining to me. My secular experience in AA has been with a few exceptions a positive one. When do “we” stop all this complaining and become part of the solution?
    Glenn G
    Atlantic Beach FL

    • Lena R. says:

      Complaining? Did you read Paul’s bio? GSR, DCM, speaker and supporter, writing an open letter in an attempt to change harmful dogma within AA? How exactly do you propose one is part of the “solution,” if not by doing what Paul is doing?

      • Dan C says:

        Lena did you read the piece? Simply because you do service work does not change the facts. AA is not going to change its approach like that, the way for change is in what we do as members. People with open minds need to be there for those that need us. This site is a great tool for awareness to those that have religious issues. Articles like this that get responses help the site get some attraction but don’t be fooled, AA works, it’s not for everyone and these types of articles will not change AA…

        • Lena R. says:

          I absolutely agree that people with open minds need to be there for those that need us. I am so glad that there are people that are doing that, and I am sure that the writer of the article is doing that too. I think it is ALSO important that we work on changing the more systemic problems that plague AA in the first place. So you think it won’t work – I mean, sure, I can’t see the future. But I personally absolutely believe there is hope in these pursuits. I certainly don’t think we should be knocking our fellows for trying to make AA more inclusive.

  24. Dan C. says:

    Paul, thanks for the piece. One thing to recognize is AA is not for everyone, Bill states this often. “AA has no monopoly on reviving alcoholics.”

    “The roads to recovery are many… any story or theory of recovery from one who has trod the highway is bound to contain much truth.”

    “Upon therapy for the alcoholic himself, we surely have no monopoly.”

    “In no circumstances should members feel that Alcoholics Anonymous is the know-all and do-all of alcoholism.”

    I recognize the issue as the members that are theists share their opinions ad nauseum. But, AA doesn’t demand that a member must be a theist. Yes I get it, I hear your points, but, they will not be heard by “the converted.” I live AA and it saved my life. I continue to attend for people like me that need a “free-thinker” to keep them around long enough to discern the bullshit. My sponsor was agnostic, his approach was the same. He always stood silent during the “we have a nice way of closing.” Life is goooood, don’t let the BS hold you back.

    • Lena R. says:

      I don’t understand why you would discourage the writer from trying to influence AA towards being more inclusive. This is clearly an open letter written by someone who has a thorough understanding of the program and wants to make sure that as many people can find help in the fellowship as possible. That is an important part of 12th step work, in my opinion.

      It is true that people can get access to other methods of help besides AA, but AA is the most widely known and the most likely place someone seeking help will go to first. I’d rather the first place they wind up not be a deterrent to getting sober. I mean, recovery is hard enough. Why should we passively accept obstacles that are left in the way for the atheist or agnostic newcomer? Secular “translators” and an abundance of patience should not be required to help an atheist or agnostic newcomer understand AA.

      AA was a great help in my recovery, so I am fully with you on the gratitude and recognition of its good points. But there is no reason we should stop there and continue to let others fall through the cracks. Lives are on the line, and the stakes are high. I believe we can do better, and if we can, we should!

    • Dale K. says:

      Dan, twice, now, you have stated that AA is not for everyone. I agree with that completely. However, I think that’s rather sad. Would you like AA to stay as it is? If so, please tell me why. If not, tell me your better idea for facilitating that.

      I’ve been sober for 39 years. I almost went back out during my fifth year because of all the pressure from others to believe in God. I was very fortunate that a secular meeting was started in my hometown in the mid eighties. It, without question, saved my sobriety.

      Paul is an agent of change. He believes in that change passionately. His methods may or may not be effective. Nonetheless, if change is wanted, I don’t believe any form of “sit down and shut up” is the way to go about it. Paul’s passion for changes within AA should never be squashed or diminished. I believe it has much value to the secular AA community. The more AA refuses to hear us, the louder we will get.

      • Dan C. says:

        Dale,

        I probably said it more than twice, but who’s counting. I once saw a guy (sober 5 years) pick a chair up and go after another member (sober 15 years) in a business meeting arguing over the “Acceptance Pamphlet” whether it should be on the literature table! So you tell me if an open letter to meatheads will work? My point is, I do what I can, I get to beginners meetings to listen for the “thinker” and I share when a meathead spews their dogmatic rhetoric! So yeah I get it, but he’s preaching to the choir.

        • Dale K. says:

          Thanks, Dan. Certain individuals in AA are a hoot, for sure. Doing what we can at the group level is vital. When sharing, I will always be true about myself. Others have come to me asking about secularism. Others, still, wish me gone. Nonetheless, I will keep my seat. Helping the occasional secular newcomer is worth whatever crap I may take.

          I do think we should be true to ourselves and actively advocate for change at every level from group to international. We should push for change and honest acceptance everywhere. All these actions become intersectional as we move forward. You can be active in your group, Paul can write his letter, I can write a book, Roger can run a website, etc. All of it is important work.

        • Dale K. says:

          And, yes, Paul is (somewhat) “preaching to the choir.” You might be pleasantly surprised who’s in that choir. AA Agnostica has influence. I’m certain that more than just a few people that visit this site are theists.

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