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:
- Defining Recovery in AA in the 21st Century (January 3, 2021)
- Can AA Please Evolve? (November 15, 2020)
- Why Are 12-Step Fellowships so God Centric? (October 18, 2020)