An AA Pamphlet for Agnostics – The 1970s

Fifty Chosen Articles:
Number Nine.
Originally posted in August 2013.

The word “God” (or “Him”, etc.) appears 281 times in the first 164 pages of the Big Book.

As a result, the struggle to make Alcoholics Anonymous more accessible to non-believers has gone on forever.

It began when the book was written. And the struggle continues to this day.

By Roger C.

A “Conference-approved” pamphlet for agnostics and atheists in AA was first proposed in 1975.

The proposal was the result of a letter from Al L., an AA member in Florida, who asked the trustees’ Literature Committee to consider publishing such a pamphlet.

(The trustees of AA consists of 14 alcoholics and 7 non-alcoholics. These trustees are the principal planners and administrators of AA’s overall policy and finances, which is about as high-level as it gets in Alcoholics Anonymous.)

This is what Al wrote to the trustees:

I’m a happy non-belligerent agnostic. I feel that many non-believers miss the AA boat before they find out that they are also welcome. The ‘God bit’ frightens then off before they learn that their spiritual beliefs or non-beliefs need not deprive them of the blessings of AA.

Is it possible for the “powers that be” in AA to publish a pamphlet designed specifically for agnostics? I don’t mean the Big Book’s version – Chapter IV We Agnostics – that doesn’t make sense to me. Never did…

Many agnostics believe at first that AA, with all of its “Let God Do It” and “That one is God, may you find him now” is really a thinly veiled attempt to shove “religion” down their throats. You and I of course know that isn’t the case…

I would not advise that such a pamphlet for agnostics imply or infer that “God” will get you sooner or later or that you will necessarily come to believe in the power of prayer or that you must “turn it over.”

My logic, common sense and dedication to AA keeps me sober – and I don’t think the non-spiritual have been given a fair shake.

There’s much of course in Al’s letter that makes a great deal of sense. Nonbelievers in AA have definitely not been given a “fair shake” over the years.

After all, what does an agnostic do when an interventionist God appears a total of six times in the 12 Steps? What does he or she do when the AA meeting – in a church basement, no less – ends with the Lord’s Prayer?

Welcome. Stay strong.

It is important to note that Al is asking for a pamphlet that lets go of the idea that God is necessary for recovery. The pamphlet would acknowledge straight out that agnostics and atheists can and, quite commonly, do get sober and maintain their sobriety within AA – and do that without God.

To its credit, the Literature Committee was open to the idea, at least initially. The trustees thought Al’s proposal was important enough that in February 1976 they appointed a two-member subcommittee to study the issue and report back. “The Committee recommended that the preparation of a pamphlet for Agnostics be studied by a sub-committee consisting of Ed S. and Paula C.”

We know nothing about Ed and Paula, except that they were obviously committed and hardworking. They completed their task in four months and in July 1976, they submitted a preliminary report strongly recommending the publication of this pamphlet. Here is what the report recommended, divided into three parts:

A Reasons for the pamphlet. A pamphlet for the agnostic and/or atheist should be compiled and written using mainly existing AA material on this subject as a consequence of the following:

    • This pamphlet is vitally needed to carry the message to both newcomers and old timers.
    • Alcoholics Anonymous, despite first appearances, is neither sectarian nor religious, and is open to all alcoholics of every persuasion or non-persuasion. The number of nonbelievers in the program, or who need the AA program but are discouraged by its theism, may be more substantial than is probably realized.
    • The chapter “To the Agnostic” in the Big Book is fine as a start but more material is needed to assure non-believers that they are not merely deviants, but full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification. (Emphasis added.)
    • This pamphlet will probably also help the God believer in AA to understand his/her own spiritual values better, as well as to develop tolerance and understanding of many newcomers to AA.
    • The pamphlet would affirm in clear and concise fashion that “the only requirement for membership in AA is a desire to stop drinking” and that our founders and the group conscience of the fellowship does not and has never considered an alcoholic’s spiritual beliefs as necessarily relevant to the achievement of healthy and happy sobriety.

B A draft should begin as soon as possible. The sub-committee will collect material from extant literature including the Grapevine. George Gordon (chair of the trustees’ Literature Committee) and Al L. will serve as consultants on this project.

    • If it appears that this pamphlet geared to the agnostic and/or atheist will not achieve the aims listed above, then it will be discontinued by the Committee at this time.

C This type of pamphlet does not fall under the category “special groups of alcoholics” literature. Rather it concerns a more fundamental and worldwide problem that has resulted in much misinterpretation of the AA Fellowship.

This last point is very important.

What the subcommittee is saying is that the goal is not to make room for agnostics and atheists in AA in the way that there are groups and meetings specifically for young people or our LGBT friends. Instead, the subcommittee is saying that what AA needs to do with this pamphlet is affirm that sobriety is indeed possible in AA without an interventionist God. Ultimately, that is the only way that it is possible for agnostics and atheists to participate in AA as “full, participating members in the AA Fellowship without qualification.” It is the recognition of the fact that “our founders and the group conscience of the fellowship does not and has never considered an alcoholic’s spiritual beliefs as necessarily relevant to the achievement of healthy and happy sobriety.”

Of course, try telling that to some of “our more religious members.”

In August 1976, the trustees’ Literature Committee reviewed the two-page report. It suggested that the subcommittee now write a new version of their recommendations in greater detail and present it to the 1977 Conference Committee on Literature before further action is taken on its preparation.

And here, unfortunately, is where light turns to darkness.

The committee reviewed the revised report in October of 1976.

And turfed it.

Moreover, the trustees Literature Committee did a ninety degree reversal and “decided not to ask the 1977 Conference Literature Committee to consider a pamphlet for agnostics/atheists.”

(The Conference meets for a week once a year every spring. It consists of roughly 130 members: delegates from 93 Conference areas in North America, trustees of the General Service Board, and various directors and AA staff. It functions as the active voice and group conscience of the fellowship. All official AA literature must be “Conference-approved.”)

To this day, even after “an exhaustive search,” a copy of the subcommittee’s final report has never been found.

What we do know, however, is that the effort to get a pamphlet for, about and by agnostics in AA continued on and on and on, into the 80s, 90s and continues in the new millennium.

In fact, the 2013 General Service Conference rejected such a pamphlet, called “AA – Spiritual Not Religious,” and referred the matter to the 2014 General Service Conference. You can read all about that right here: The General Service Conference Stumbles.

Maybe they will get it right in 2014. After all, it’s only been on – and off – the agenda for the past forty years.

One thing’s for sure: we’ll keep you posted.

Stay strong.

This post is based entirely upon the following document: History – Proposals to Create a Pamphlet for the Nonbeliever / Agnostic / Atheist Alcoholic.

8 Responses

  1. Witek says:

    AA really takes its time to show agnostics that they are welcome here. Despite Bill’s repeated assurances about broadening the entrance, shared responsibility, the only requirement for belonging…. etc. Fear blocks action. What if it turns out that it is possible to sober up without God? The primary, fundamental assumptions of the Big Book would be crushed.

    However, these assumptions are almost 100 years old; in most European countries, the percentage of secular people with liberal views has long time ago exceeded 50%, and many young alcoholics seeking help are repelled from the AA by its poorly masked religiosity.

  2. Dan H, Oceanside says:

    I don’t care if God refers to a benign cosmic intelligence or simply to one of the many voices in my head. It’s at least the best voice in my head.

  3. John Y. says:

    If you’ve ever tried to express the no god approach in an AA meeting you’ll get this “That’s god doing for you what you couldn’t do for yourself.”or, this one. “That’s god, god damn it.” Being atheist or agnostic in an AA meeting is like being a bastard at a family reunion.

  4. Bonnie R says:

    I would love to see the rewritten version and, perhaps, make a motion from agnostics in my area too. One for literature and one for the pamphlet in Public Information. Can you send copy of Big Book changes via email?

  5. Linda C. says:

    The God Word pamphlet (from the U.K.) and the Grapevine book, One Big Tent, are tiny (but important) steps in what I believe is the right direction. At least I have something to pass on to newcomers (or even long timers) who object or are having trouble with the “god thing”.

    As a Panel 60 conference delegate, I was one of many who were speaking out for a new piece of literature by “atheist and agnostic alcoholics who had stayed successfully [sic] sober in AA”… At the time I had been a “successfully” sober non-believer alcoholic for 30 years. It occurred to me at the time that the word “successfully” might have meant that we had not been hit by lightning or smote dead by a vengeful HP … I have re-written the first 164 pages of the Big Book to my liking and turned it over to my delegate to be passed on to whoever might want to read it.

    I love AA and believe, whole-heartedly that sobriety in AA is possible and wonderful and that the AA program, stripped of all the general references to a “higher power” of whatever name is still a fantastic way out of a life I never want to revisit.

  6. Tommy H says:

    No booze, no god, no problem.

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