AA Is Becoming More Accessible. Is It More Inclusive?

by David W

This past year AA Area 83, where my home group resides elected to add an accessibility chair to its service structure. In several areas, accessibility has traditionally been lumped in with treatment. Locally it has been decided that a standalone structure is needed to address the diverse barriers that are preventing people from accessing the fellowship and support that AA can offer.

I consulted a GSO Guidelines document to get an idea of how the current scope of accessibility is defined. Here is the document: Accessibility for All Alcoholics.

Briefly, the guideline’s primary focus is to aid groups in accommodating people with physical and mental limitations such as being wheelchair bound, sight and hearing impaired, the home or hospital bound, those with chronic illness, strokes, and brain injury. It is critical for AA to address these barriers to make the fellowship available to these individuals.

What is not discussed in the document are the more subtle, harder to quantify barriers that are based on personal biases and narrow beliefs about what AA should be. A common dilemma voiced in secular meetings is how the individual struggles with the insistence that a belief in god is critical to recovery. The olive branch of “a god of your understanding” simply does not work for many. I submit that there are those who have found AA non-accessible because their core beliefs conflict with the god-based doctrine that is actively promoted in many meetings and the legacy literature.

A belief in god is not the only philosophical barrier that exists in AA, but it seems to be the one that people stumble over the most.  A common manifestation of the issue is the insistence of repeating the Lord’s Prayer at the end of many meetings and other gatherings. At the Area 83 Assembly in Kingston Ontario in the spring of 2019, a motion was put forward to close assembly speaker meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. Fortunately, the motion was defeated with an over three quarters majority voting against.

Despite the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal forcing Toronto Intergroup to reinstate secular groups in its meeting listings, it continues to promote religiosity and a belief in god actively in its monthly newsletter, Better Times. The tone of language used in the publication leaves little room for an alternative view. A few random quotes from various issues over the past year:

“With perseverance and acceptance in all aspects of our lives, good things will happen in God’s time.” (December 2020)

“God had miraculously removed from me the craving for alcohol… As I began to accept God’s companionship, His grace and His will for me…” (September 2020)

“My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad.” (July 2020)

There may be no more glaring insistence that god is the central authority in AA than tradition two that states that “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”  AA’s true authority and guidance has been the collective conscience and participation of the membership. Removing god’s alleged part in AA governance would more accurately reflect this reality.

God shows up as a change agent in no less than five of the original twelve steps. Additionally, in step two, “a Power greater than ourselves” implies god with a capitalized “P “. The granting of a god of our understanding seems to have been intended as a temporary placeholder, meant to appease those misguided souls that are struggling with their faith until they surrender and come to accept the existence of the one true god.

Step eleven in The Twelve and Twelve states: “To certain newcomers and to those one-time agnostics who still cling to the AA group as their higher power…”.  In chapter five of the Big Book, How It Works, the alcoholic is informed “That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.” Hopelessness is quickly replaced by hope by proclaiming “That God could and would (relieve our alcoholism) if He were sought”.

A lack of faith-based neutrality is an inherent problem in AAs service structures. God centric literature is actively promoted and distributed. Two local districts in Toronto recently donated copies of the Big Book to CAMH, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Among the responsibilities for Corrections locally is to ensure copies of the Big Book and the Twelve and Twelve are available in the prison system.

Despite the growth of secular AA, the fellowship is very much still a prisoner of its historic roots in Judeo-Christian culture. The Big Book and Twelve and Twelve continue to occupy a prominent place as literature recommended to the recovering alcoholic. A few months before in person meetings in the greater Toronto area were shut down due to Covid19, I did a quick survey of the meeting listing on the Toronto Intergroup web site. Of the approximate five hundred meetings listed, about twenty percent identified as Big Book meetings. An additional thirteen percent identified as step meetings. Assuming the majority of these were using the Twelve and Twelve (admittedly I was unable to verify this), about a third of all local meetings were using readings from these two books.

In writing this article I have focused primarily on dogmatic religious and god centric barriers. Turning attention to other segments of the AA population indicates inroads are being made to make the fellowship more welcoming and inclusive to different groups. There are meetings for women, for the LGBTQ community, for young people and for those of different ethnic groups and languages. In 2018 AA published the pamphlet “Do You Think You Are Different?”.  It contains thirteen stories from an array of people who make up diverse segments of the general population.

The most recent comprehensive membership survey I could find on the Alcoholics Anonymous website is from 2014. It states the average age of an AA member to be 50 years old. The same year the average age of a US and Canadian citizen were 37.7 and 40.5 years, respectively. Of all occupations of members, retired people make up the largest category. AA is overwhelmingly white at 89% of the total membership population.

A look at Area 83 statistics for 2020 shows most members at, close to, or over retirement age. Men make up 56% of the local area membership, women 33%, and 11% are identified as others. White members make up 86% of the overall local fellowship.

A curious omission from the surveys is the lack of data on member’s religious affiliations and faith-based beliefs or disbeliefs. This is hardly surprising given AA’s insistence that an acceptance of the existence of a god comparable to that found in Christian culture is essential and promoted in the Big Book and Twelve and Twelve. It is assumed that when one acquires an acceptance of such a being, contrary beliefs will simply disappear. Better to let the sleeping dog lie than to collect data that might draw attention to the to the narrowness of the foundational books.

AA is making efforts to accommodate people of diverse backgrounds and needs. The statistics indicate only partial success. Despite the reality that we are confronted with an affliction that knows no gender, racial, socioeconomic, or sexual preference barriers, we are still very much an old white male hetero Christian based fellowship. We are learning to welcome and respect diversity and change but the battle to create a fellowship that is inclusive for all is made more arduous by our insistence in clinging to archaic outdated dogmatic literature.

David is an agnostic alcoholic whose drinking career began late in life after growing up with an alcoholic father. After twelve years of daily drinking, he came to believe that a substance greater than himself trapped him in the same addictive cycle that had trapped various members of his family on both sides. Desperate for outside help, he found secular AA on-line in 2018 and was able to avoid the conflict with religion and a mandatory belief in god that traditional AA insists on imposing on members. His home group is Beyond Belief Toronto and he celebrated two years sobriety in December 2020.

This is David’s fourth article on AA Agnostica: Here are the previous three:


18 Responses

  1. Paula H. says:

    Thank you David for all the research that you have done to produce this excellent and timely essay. It is right on point. Here are the facts, for once, and not just a personal opinion. This is a “must read” for leaders in the secular recovery movement.

  2. Bob K says:

    AA doesn’t offer a medical solution to alcoholism—it offers a religious one. The majority of members are in denial about that and enjoy pretending that spirituality and religion are poles apart.

    I’m not sure why the essay repeatedly uses the term “god.” AA’s God is of the big “G” variety. Things would be slightly better if the term “god” was used. A huge improvement would come if “higher power” (small p) was used throughout. Of course, the objectors would be disappointed that the steps remained, even secularized. Further: “WE DON’T WANT NO STEENKING higher power OR STEPS OR BADGES.”

    AA and Toronto AA are both more liberal and inclusive than they were 5 years ago. Of course, to know that, it helps to have been around then.

    Lastly, it’s a bit of an overstatement to represent that the Ontario Human Rights Commission “forced” the local Intergroup to relist the agnostic groups. There was no ruling.

    Ironically, based on my lengthy conversations with the complainant and a member of the executive committee, there was great pressure applied by the GSO’s representatives to relist the groups. That inclusiveness argues a bit against the general thrust of the essay.

    • Bullwinkle says:

      Bob K writes>>> AA doesn’t offer a medical solution to alcoholism—it offers a religious one. The majority of members are in denial about that and enjoy pretending that spirituality and religion are poles apart.<<<

      The text Alcoholics Anonymous 12 Step program is suggested, it doesn’t enable. Among other AA literature, it suggests outside help including medical. Alcoholics Anonymous Text Appendix III, The Medical view on page 569… Dr. Harry M. Tiebout, psychiatrist: "As a psychiatrist, I have thought a great deal about the relationship of my specialty to A.A. and I have come to the conclusion that our particular function can very often lie in preparing the way for the patient to accept any sort of treatment or outside help. I now conceive the psychiatrist's job to be the task of breaking down the patient's inner resistance so that which is inside him will flower, as under the activity of the A.A. program."

      Bill Wilson was an agnostic, he suffered from depression his whole life. Dr. Harry M. Tiebout was Bill Wilson’s psychiatrist.

  3. Bullwinkle says:

    David W writes >>>I consulted a GSO Guidelines document to get an idea of how the current scope of accessibility is defined. Here is the document: Accessibility for All Alcoholics.<<<

    The AA Fellowship/Meetings are autonomous, there’s no hierarchy. GSO, NYC, dogma has never had authority over any AA Fellowship/ Meeting that doesn’t endorse them. Myself and others have started AA Fellowship/Meetings in Greater Los Angeles where we didn’t endorse GSO. Greater Los Angeles AA Fellowship/Meetings, specifically the beach meetings are very diverse. I got sober in Malibu and attended meeting from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Some of these meetings don’t recognize GSO, the ones that do, if diverse, I’ve attended. The bottom line is very simple, if AA Fellowships/Meetings are uncomfortable, I don’t attend.

    I like this site. Some contributions are well written from those with critical thing skills. However, some contributors via their ignorance use hyperbole and cherry pick the AA Fellowship/Meetings and the AA text, which proves their tribalism case of victimhood. One of the more important lessons I’ve leaned in my long life of sobriety, is that I don’t need to be a victim of ignorance.

  4. Thomas B. says:

    I am 35yrs. sober in AA. Could sense from the beginning being oddly uncomfortable with god. Being newly sober, not drinking was difficult, period. After having a number of years sober, confidence began to improve. At around 10 yrs sober an AA member suggested I may want to write a 4th step of sorts about god. Holy crap. Found out I had not believed any of this early on. Had polio as a baby, 11mths old. I was around 8 years old when I would pray to god/jesus to heal this polio. Then in the morning I would carefully look under the covers to find again a skinny leg, still 3″ shorter than the other and only able to wiggle the big toe. This kid fairly quickly could see god/jesus didn’t have the wherewithal to heal a little kid, well, they didn’t exist in this world I lived in. Oh by the way alcohol did heal the polio limp. Until I sobered up again.

    So for a majority of this sober life I slowly began a my own secret program of letting go of god. Over the years I became more comfortable with this view and began to speak up in AA meetings. Of course, most people appeared quite disagreeable. For a while I used sarcasm to defend my honor. When I was asked to lead us out with a closing prayer I would begin, “Hail Mary, full of grace”. Did not take too long for people not to ask anymore.

    One day a different AA member suggested I was the only one who could be the authority on my life. This struck me as having some truth. Slowly from then until present day the alcoholic has lived best I can to this idea, in AA. And out of AA.

    Now does any of this fit in to what has been posted? Ah yes! This battle with AA/god/literature/judeo-christian AA vs secular.

    I will end with a notion which has been useful for me thru out my sobriety. “It takes 2 to fight and only 1 to end it”. Thanks to everyone who took time to read this. Thomas

  5. Teresa says:

    Thank you David and Joe and all who commented. I remember hearing when I arrived in the rooms of A.A., “take what works and leave the rest”… thank goodness & that “time takes time”. In my living sober journey… I have witnessed the “bit by bit”, personally, and in A.A. as a whole, at large, however one may word it. I think our continued individual honesty and collective honesty will continue to make a difference in the inclusivity of A.A. The changes are addressed through the collective voices with or without a god(s). We need GSRs (general service reps) in our secular meetings so our voices are heard at the Conference each year & involvement with the Grapevine/La Vina publications.

    Personally in 30+ years, I’ve only given a “Big Book” to a couple of folks.

    Living Sober is the book I’ve shared the most… thin, easy reading, practical… and it’s a little dated also! ODAT! ~ Teresa J (Monterey)

  6. “A lack of faith-based neutrality is an inherent problem in AAs service structures.” I am glad we are talking about this. This sentence struck me.

    I find the same people who join Big Book meetings are, talk or act in a more secular way in service work than in their home group. I find it mind-numbingly dull in some of their meetings but working with them in service does bring out the more practical and less, “Let’s just turn it over and go home” approach to things. It is great to work together, ostensibly for the benefit of people with addiction who haven’t given us a try yet. The Traditions only speak of God once, the Concepts, not once. So the more I move away from the Steps the more secular AA looks.

    But I suppose that doesn’t make it “neutral” if “the way of God” is assumed to be breathing in the irreligious words of the service manual.

    It seems so slow in real time but I’ve seen a lot of change towards legitimizing a secular voice in AA. I for one don’t see a point in asking believers to stop talking about higher powers but our secular community is quietly going about our business, offering meetings with a practical and compassionate approach to overcoming dependence on alcohol. And people find us every day.

    It’s putting a dent in the problem. Our home group is ten years + old and when we started there was no AA Grapevine Booklet devoted to the writings of atheists and agnostics in AA. There was no pamphlet by/for nonbelievers. Now there is. There was about 50 other secular meetings and now there are close to a thousand. The change is happening in our meeting and it’s being supported by AA as a whole. Most central offices list secular (or atheist/agnostic) groups as a search parameter. AA is different that it was in 2010. I think it’s better.

    David, you mentioned the membership survey; we were doing that every three years but identity issues stalled the 2017 survey and it’s still trying to work out kinks. Can we ask if you are male or female, period, anymore? We always have, but what about now? We separate race into, what, five categories? How do mixed race members answer the question? Millennials lead the charge in being pigeonholed as “this” but not “that.” So, asking these questions does help us recognize where underrepresented populations are, but we don’t know how to ask the questions in this day and age.

    Atheism may represent about 5 to 10% of Americans. Maybe one day, secular AA will be 5-10% of meetings. Right now we haven’t reached the 1% point. Mind you, plenty of non-believers accept that AA was born from a theistic culture and they can go to AA, pay no attention to higher power stuff, and make friends and get what they need from the meetings. Imagine if Jim B couldn’t put up with AA? In the same way, not all women go to women’s groups and not all members in their teens/20s only go to young people’s groups. Same with LGBTQ+ groups, etc. But still, we are on the road to 10,000 secular groups and that will be a nice milestone to make.

    As you pointed out to me David, Living Sober is on aa.org for free now, so we can all read it in our Zoom meetings. I heard someone with double digit recovery call Living Sober his 31 step program – (the number of chapters in the booklet): Living Sober PDF.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if when we gave a Big Book away we included Living Sober, too? Maybe some of us will.

    Let’s keep this conversation going; I’ll be talking with other members about AA’s call-out for ways to make the Big Book more accessible and more relatable? This is a good time to express our views and how we feel AA could build more bridges and fewer barriers. If there was ever a time for our secular meetings to be at the district and Area table, it’s now. Just like AA Grapevine or Toronto’s Better Times can only draw from articles submitted, if we are not part of the conversation going on now, we won’t be part of any changes that are being considered. AA Agnostica is blogging about it, I will too, but we are invited to join the conversation with AA as a whole. Maybe ten years from now, the accomplishments of the last decade will be overshadowed. Or, there could be regression. Maybe it has to do with how well all of AA can “play with others in our sandbox.”

    I thought the GSO video about possible changes to the big book laid it on the line nicely in a quote from Bill W when the 2nd Edition was being considered, 20 years into AA:

    “Since the audience for the book is likely to be newcomers, anything from the point of view of content or style that might offend or alienate those who are not familiar with the program should be carefully eliminated,” Bill W in consideration of the Second Edition.

    Thanks for this timely reminder, David.

    • Dianne B. says:

      I am very interested in updating the Big Book… The language in the newer issues ought to include more recovery language. I would love to help out in a survey.

    • David W says:

      I’m of the belief that attempting to re-write parts of the Big Book is so fraught with pitfalls that the finished product will never be anything that can be considered inclusive, and it’s likely to be full of contradictions. I think it would be more fruitful to archive the current version and write a new flagship book from scratch. The archived version can continue to be made available to any person or group that wishes to use it.

      Putting the current Big Book in the hands of the professional community and outside parties will continue to stereotype AA as a religious organization despite internal denials to the contrary.

      I think a question that needs to be raised is who is the target audience of either a BB rewrite or new book. Is it for members to be used in meetings, or is it for outside parties seeking information on AA?

      If AA’s main focal point of recovery continues to be the twelve steps, I would hope we could create a book with a road map that could promote the underlying principles of the steps rather than a rigid set of rules such as giving oneself over to god. Ideally it would allow the reader some latitude in how to personalize the step program.

      • Russel S says:

        I think that Jeffrey Munn’s book – Staying Sober Without God – is an excellent example of translating AA’s twelve steps into a road map that promotes the underlying principles of the steps. Its a great read!!

        When we started our secular meeting, we had no issue with GSO, but the local AA made it quite difficult for us to get registered on the local AA website. Slowly but surely they have accepted that secular meetings are genuine AA meetings although we are still the only one in my area.

        • Dianne B. says:

          I am in the process of reading “Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?” by Charles Bute and “The End Of Faith” by Sam Harris. Everyone ought to read the AA book, in my opinion, and that includes inside the jails, on the detox book shelves, on IOP shelves, in therapist offices, in libraries, in Colleges that have concentrations in Recovery Coach, Life Coach, LICSW & MSW degrees, lawyers and judges, probation and parole officers and on shelves in on site AA conference meetings rooms.

      • Dianne B. says:

        I am in favor of keeping the Big Book in it’s historical content and place it in an archive for study and discussion OF THOSE TIMES”… Please update the Big Book and utilize modern day language and meaning along with more chapters which contain treatments for alcohol use disorders and a directory for each state for detox, IOP, psychiatric hospitals which focus on substance use disorders and a short biography on whether any site is religiously orientated, uses the Big Book, the 12 Steps and on site AA meetings and NOT Secular Literature. Sooooo many stories of those who go to detox and lose their minds due to the routine of AA as guided by God and The Big Book… NOT AT ALL what is needed in early recovery.

      • Dianne 0. says:

        I agree.

  7. Doc says:

    Clinging to outdated ideas is one barrier to sobriety. There is lots of new data about alcoholism which had been discovered over the past 70 years. AA needs to come into the 21st century. It needs to be aware that not all who want sobriety are heterosexual, god-believing, men.

  8. Dianne B. says:

    I am fairly new to the Secular, Agnostic, Atheist, Free thinker segment of AA and am firmly in support of updating AA’s 2021 concept of the mythical God in the sky and the implied “mystery” that the belief in God will provide sobriety and an improved quality of life. Have the original Big Book kept as a historical vision of AA but update the wording so meaning is not kept hostage by outdated terminology. I am reading and learning of non-dogmatic AA and love it.

  9. Glenn Rader says:

    Thank you for the great article David. All of the progress that I have witnessed in making AA more welcoming and inclusive has come from grass-root efforts. There is nothing compelling that has been done by the AA World Services toward this end.

  10. Dan L says:

    Thanks for the article David. It has long been my feeling that in this day and age of “information” our small library of ancient literature is quite a burden relative to it’s value. The fact that we consist mostly of very conservative old men doesn’t exactly promote cutting edge thinking.

    There are a couple of things that have always annoyed me since I came in. One is that the idea of alcoholism as an allergy remains uncorrected in “The Doctor’s Opinion”. Oh I know it is small but it demonstrably false. Another is the “we” tone adopted through the 12&12. “We” did this and “we” believe that and god “did this for us” and “we can all agree” ad nauseam.

    The Big One for me lately is that AA itself does not describe nor does it subscribe to the medical and psycho-emotional model of addiction that is on use professionally today. Something we know quite well to be a behavioural disorder (Alcohol Use Disorder – AUD) associated with a substance is described as a “spiritual malady” and treated like a blessed mystery when it is not. We have a pretty fair idea of how AA is beneficial to us and how as a treatment modality it can be effective but nothing in approved literature goes anywhere near it. In our best publication “Living Sober” the author admits the allergy theory is a clumsy but useful analogy. Nothing of the “leave everything up to god’s healing grace” is removed so we are basically nothing but a faith healing cult without any underpinning in reality. It is as if the world were frozen in 1939 when the Book itself was bleeding edge. Those pioneering days are ancient history. In turning our backs on science and medicine we are speeding the descent into irrelevance.

    AA Agnostica made AA usable for me when I could not bear any more of the ignorant religiousity being heaped on me by well meaning alcoholics. I am grateful to the people who led me here.

  11. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you David for a cogent and compelling article which elucidates just how “un-inclusive” AA still is in 2021 throughout much of North America. I am most fortunate that my home group where I currently live in Tucson, AZ has in its chairperson guidelines to end our daily meetings with the Responsibility Pledge. During the past year I can recall only one or two times when the Chairperson chose to end our meeting with the Lord’s Prayer. On those occasions I simply looked at the large poster on the opposite wall which read “Love and tolerance is our code” !~!~! For this I am most grateful…

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