Which God, Whose God, What God?

from AA Agnostica

By Paul W.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, “God” is simply defined as a Higher Power or a Power greater than ourselves.  Or so it is often said.

In the Twelve Steps, AA members are clearly told that they may have their own, individual definition of “God.”  Steps Three and Eleven use the words, “God as we understood Him.”  (Emphasis in the original wording.)  Nothing in the Big Book limits this understanding to the definition(s) of the authors[1] and editors of the Big Book, and its “textbook”[2] Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

With the permissive “God as we understood Him,” AA members are allowed (actually encouraged) to have their own concept of a god. This permissive stance allows many to be comfortable with the god of AA, since this god can be one of any individual’s imagination.

However, this presents a problem, actually, several problems.

Problem I: Many Gods

Logically AA’s allowance for personal definitions of god throws the window open to gods such as Bacchus, Neptune, Mars, Aphrodite, Venus, Diana, Vishnu, Isis, Juno, or any of the other gods of India, Greece, Rome, the Americas, etc. Remember, in AA there is only one stated limitation to the self-defined “god,” that is god must be a “power greater than oneself.”

With every AA member allowed to define god to his or her liking it is possible that at a meeting of, say 20 people, there could be twenty different gods? Is it possible for each person to be in the presence of 19 heretics? Or, is the meeting composed of a collection of heretics, filled with false gods? If everyone’s definition of god is acceptable, then are all the gods god?

This brings us to the question, if everyone is allowed her or his own god, and that god may not exist in another’s belief system, why the objection to a god which is not, which does not exist? If the AA member next to you has Maat as god (don’t Google it, I made it up), and you just know that there is and never was such a god, do you accept that person? If so, why the objection to nontheists, to people without a god, to agnostics, atheists, free thinkers, humanists, Buddhists, etc.?

Problem II – Is AA’s God Masculine?

Unfortunately, an argument can easily be made that however an individual defines and describes “God” AA assumes that “God” is masculine. God is in the masculine three times in the Steps and once in the “pertinent ideas” of Chapter 5, “How it Works.” Recall, “God as we understood Him, and the assertion that “God could and would (relieve us of alcoholism) if He were sought.” This portion of the Big Book is read aloud at many open meetings of AA. Thus, newcomers are informed and members are reminded that “God” is masculine.

Further, the practice at many meetings of using the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with, “Our Father.” Two more indicators of a masculine god; a lord and a father.

Problem III – Is AA’s God Christian?

Granted that in a letter to an AA member, Bill Wilson asserted that the wide acceptance of the Lord’s Prayer overcomes its Christian nature. While it is arguable that Bill was wrong about this, as many theologians assert, it is still clear that god in the prayer is masculine.

Even if Bill were correct and the prayer has become nondenominational, it is a prayer. And, it is generally associated with Christianity. Credit for this prayer is given to Jesus Christ in the New Testament (NIV) Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4. Christians are followers of Jesus and routinely recite this prayer during church services and privately. Reciting it at an AA meeting and having the attendees join in, strongly resembles a religious ceremony and gives pause to the “spiritual not religious” claim of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Problem IV – Characteristics of God

Another problem: at many meetings theistic members share about their concepts or definition of god. Many comment that, for them, god was a vengeful being, who condemned you for certain practices or thoughts. God kept a record and would punish you for infractions. For many, god was not a friend, nor a loving entity. Continuing, these members comment that, after gaining sobriety in AA, they have come to see god as a loving entity, a caring being.

Has god changed or has the member changed god? Do Christian AA members have their own god or their denomination’s god? And, did Jesus change who god is, or did god change himself from the Old Testament “kill all the men and children but keep the unmarried women for yourself, and drown all people but a few” god to a merciful and loving god?

Problem V – Reconciliation

The attempt to reconcile one’s freedom to have a customized, personal god in spite of AA’s focus on a singular masculine god and one of a Christian nature can send a person’s head spinning. I choose not to even give it serious consideration.

Problem VI – Ask a Member

When questioned about “AA’s” god, experienced members may state that everyone is free to their own definition god, including the accompanying qualities, attributes, powers, intentions, etc. The only caveat being that your god be a power greater than yourself.  (So we’re back to problems I through IV.)

If dealing with an admitted alcoholic who is a nontheist and has a problem with “the God thing” the nontheist is often told that he can make anything his Higher Power. The AA group itself is often recommended. This suggestion has some merit. Groups are stronger than the sum of its members. Think synergy. Being in the company of people who have achieved sobriety and learning the secular parts of their journey is powerful.

Unfortunately, some suggest that the nontheist can use a chair, a doorknob, electricity, a lightbulb, and the like as a higher power. If an AA member offering this advice isn’t being sarcastic or trying to insult the nontheist but is sincere he is either ill-informed or just plain ignorant. Just imagine handing one’s “life over to the care of —” any of the above examples. I’ve had some theists suggest that I use the power of the universe as my higher power, reminiscent of, “May the Force be with you.”

Another piece of helpful advice given to a nontheist is to “act as if” or to “fake it till you make it.” I suspect that this is generally offered in the belief or hope that the nontheist will come to believe, to become a theist. It calls to mind the popular, “Came, Came to, Came to Believe.” Pause for a moment and consider the basic flaw in this advice. Members of AA who suggest this forget that they are in a program which has honesty as a basic principle. Acting as if and faking it are acts of dishonesty. It is telling a person to lie until he becomes honest – when he was honest in the first place by disclosing his non-theism.

Sometimes the doubter is simply told to believe that others believe. What does that accomplish? Quite frankly, I don’t have to believe that you are a theist, I know it.

Freedom Not to Believe

The felt, and frequently acted upon need to bring nontheists to believe in a god is covered by Bill Wilson’s comments in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. On page 81 Bill wrote, “we must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us.”

Suggesting that Bill would state this meaning membership only and not recovery is patently ludicrous. On page 105, Bill quotes the end of Tradition Three (Long Form), “Any two or three gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that as a group they have no other affiliation.” He then goes on, “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 AA’s principles and still call themselves an AA group.” Keep in mind that AA’s principles are the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, and the Twelve Concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill’s statements, after twenty-two years of experience[3], acknowledges the fact that nontheists do not have to believe in a god, are allowed to modify (change) the Steps for their own use, and can achieve sobriety without a god and be a part of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Which god, whose god, what god? It matters not what any individual theistic member thinks, what any Intergroup holds, how any Area delegate thinks, or what AAWS, Inc. declares. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age Bill Wilson acknowledges the rights of people to have no god at all and to modify the Steps to suit that stance.

[1] The plural “Authors” is used since, of the first 164 pages chapter 10, “To Employers” was not authored by Bill Wilson but by another alcoholic, Hank P. who, along with Jim B. was instrumental with softening the “God” references in the Twelve Steps before publication.  Both Hank and Jim were nontheists.

[2] In the Conference-approved Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, in direct reference to Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill Wilson clearly states, “This small volume is strictly a textbook which explains AA’s twenty-four basic principles and their application, in detail and with great care.”

[3] The Big Book, which is all but ubiquitously called the “Bible” of AA, was written after just a few years of AA experience. Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age was written after twenty-two years of growth and experience. Unquestionably, this Conference-approved volume contains Bill Wilson’s more considered thoughts.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM TRADITIONAL AA?

y Don M.

On September 16, 2017 Don M. addressed the Secular Ontario AA Roundup (S.O.A.A.R). The Roundup drew speakers from all over Ontario and North America including Texas and Las Vegas. Don’s subject was, “What Can We Learn from Traditional AA?”

As background, in 2011 the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) removed two secular AA groups from its meeting lists. This initiated a long battle by these groups to be restored to the lists. After several years, a member of one of the secular groups filed a human rights complaint against the GTAI. The complaint was heard by a human rights tribunal in Ontario and in 2017 the groups were added back to the GTAI meeting lists.

AA Beyond Belief is glad for the opportunity to post Don’s address.

Good afternoon. When I was first asked to share on this topic, I misread the topic as “What can weget from traditional AA?” My immediate response was, RESENTMENTS! Despite this being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the truth is the rejection and delisting of secular AA groups has resulted in a tremendous outpouring of energy.

The delisting of the atheist/agnostic AA groups in Toronto has resulted in the forming of websites, podcasts, and the writing, publication, and distribution of secular AA literature. The hurt and resentment was the catalyst that exponentially accelerated the growth of the secular AA movement.

Well, returning to the actual topic of this talk, “What can we learn from traditional AA?” I gave this considerable thought over the last three months and came up with four major points we can learn from traditional AA.

  1. Radical Inclusion

  2. Self-governance

  3. Principles of personal recovery

  4. Fellowship

Radical Inclusion

AA advocates a membership policy of radical inclusion. You are a member if you say you are a member and any two or three alcoholics gathered together may call themselves an AA group provided they have no outside affiliation. 

Two Bill W. quotes really emphasize the principle of radical inclusion:

“So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so!”

  • Bill Wilson, Grapevine, 1946

“Our AA door stands wide open, (We) sign nothing, agree to nothing, and promise nothing. We demand nothing. (We) join on our own say-so. We do not wish to deny anyone the chance to recover from alcoholism. We wish to be just as inclusive as we can, never exclusive…”

–Bill Wilson, the pamphlet “AA Tradition, How it Developed”

Although the principle of radical inclusion is firmly entrenched in our Traditions and Service Concepts, each AA group and service entity is autonomous and it is an understatement to say this principle is not always perfectly adhered to or respected in AA.

Granted to say the delisting of the secular AA groups by the GTAI was an egregious violation of this principle. We in secular AA owe Larry K. a debt of gratitude for his courage and tenacity in taking the GTAI to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal over this exclusionary and discriminatory behavior. When backed into a corner, the GTAI’s only defense was to declare AA a religion and ask for a religious exemption from the human rights legislation.

Although the GSO was not initially unambiguously supportive of the secular AA groups, when GTAI declared itself a religion, GSO reacted by delisting the GTAI. In the end, GSO stood by its principle of radical inclusion. But it did need a kick in the butt by the Human Rights complaint to get it to clarify its position and stand by its principles.

Now, radical inclusion MUST go both ways. The reason we in this room are still in AA and not starting our own fledgling fellowship is due to this radical inclusion. So, we MUST apply this principle in our own meetings and be welcoming and encouraging of people who believe in God.

About two weeks ago, an AA member who was new to the Kingston area, came to our meeting. They were desperate for a meeting but were unsure of what a secular meeting would be like. When they started to share they asked, “Can I talk about my Higher Power at a secular AA meeting?” I am delighted to say there was a spontaneous chorus of “Yes, talk about whatever you believe” from my group. Another one of our members came to our first meeting to pray for us. He enjoyed the open mindedness and acceptance so much he joined our group. He frequently states he learned more about spirituality from our group than any other AA group he has attended.

Let me now address one behavior in secular AA that troubles me. On many websites and online posts, people refer to some traditional AA members as “Fundies.” I’m quite sure I am familiar with these intolerant and rigid members. I believe Bill W. would have referred to them as bleeding deacons.

There definitely has been a rise in originalism and back-to-basic groups in AA. Some members believe the Big Book is the revealed truth from God and all the Big Book and steps are perfect and cannot be changed. They believe AA should be rigid and unchanging and they actively marginalize, silence, and exclude those with different opinions. I vehemently disagree with these ideas. I don’t believe this religious fundamentalism and literalism belongs in AA nor does it comply with our tradition of radical inclusion. My goal is to disagree without being disagreeable.

My concern with the label Fundy is that it is a put-down and derogatory and more importantly is dismissive of the person and a block to constructive dialog. I hope the dismissiveness and polarization we see in politics and society at large does not enter AA. I prefer to call these people by the labels they give themselves: originalists. We all are complex human beings and have paradoxical beliefs. It is better to engage and learn from whomever we can.

Lastly, let’s consider what a Fundamentalist is. It is a person that studies or believes in the fundamentals of an organization. I consider AA’s fundamentals to be:

radical inclusion;there is no government;governance is by informed group conscience;we help each other without any remuneration;people are loved and tolerated for who they are;trial-and-error is encouraged;groups are free to use any literature that is helpful; andwe meet regularly in fellowship to form relationships, encourage each other and help newcomers.

If these are indeed AA’s fundamentals, then I am happy to call myself an AA fundamentalist.

Self-Governance 

One of my favorite pamphlets in AA is “The AA Group … Where it all begins”. The pamphlet clearly describes our governance process by an informed group conscience. Groups are encouraged to take time discussing issues and reach substantive unanimity before taking action. The pamphlet also discusses the rights of the minority.

In our District, there was a motion to delist our group and remove our GSR from the district table. The District was committed to following the principles of AA in reaching its decision. A 2/3 majority was required to remove our group from the District. The vote was only 60% in favour of delisting our group and thus the motion was defeated. More importantly, the result was accepted by the majority based on their commitment to AA principle.

It is interesting to note that the GTAI vote that delisted the agnostic/atheist groups in Toronto was 24 for (61.5%), 15 against (38.5%), and 9 abstentions. This motion would have failed using the principle of requiring a 2/3 majority.

Principles of Recovery

AA is a fellowship of men and women that help each other recover from alcoholism. AA recovery is based on a set of principles: personal responsibility; rigorous honesty, tolerance and kindness to others; self-appraisal; continual improvement; service to others without reward.

Our 12th Step talks about how, “we tried….to practice these principles in all our affairs”. My beef is that the principles of recovery are not clearly found in the 12 Steps of AA. The 12 Steps talk about belief in a God, having God fix you, developing a conscious contact with this God, and praying and meditating. Personal responsibility and other principles of recovery are discussed in the text of the Big Book, but it is kind of like “Where’s Waldo” to find these principles in the 12 Steps contained in the Big Book.

This ambiguity and lack of clarity also exists in our Traditions. I recently read an entry in Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life by Joe C. in which he speculated what the effect would be if the 12th Tradition read, “Personal Responsibility is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions ever reminding us to place principles before personalities”. The original Tradition reads: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation”. If you read the explanations of this Tradition, anonymity is meant to remind us to be humble. So, humility is actually intended to be the spiritual foundation of the Traditions. Again, there is room for interpretation and I believe there is a lack of clarity in this tradition. 

One of AA’s biggest open secrets is that the original program had 6 Steps. These steps were passed on by word of mouth and were largely secular. The 6th of these Steps talked about God, if you had a religious belief, but it seemed largely optional. One version of these steps is:

  1. Admitted hopelessness

  2. Got Honest with self

  3. Got honest with another

  4. Made Amends

  5. Helped others without demand

  6. Prayed to God as you understand Him

Again, these Steps are not perfect but they are much clearer in the recovery principals that AA advocates. They are also in AA conference approved literature; which may reduce the resistance groups get from traditional AA members if they adopt them.

Fellowship

Lastly, the program offers fellowship, love, and encouragement for newcomers and long-timers alike. There are over 100,000 meetings in North America where people meet to help themselves and recover from alcoholism. This love and support is invaluable for recovery from alcoholism. 

I have the privilege of traveling for my work and have attended AA meetings all over the world. I have always been welcomed and included based on my self-admission of being an alcoholic. I have also noticed that not all AA meetings are the same. When we refer to “Traditional AA” there is actually a huge variety of meetings types and formats. Some of these meetings are extremely secular in nature. When I travel, I find the meeting nearest my hotel, and if the city is safe, I walk to the meeting and then walk home. I get exercise as well as a chance to meet other recovering alcoholics.

I believe the empathy and compassion (one alcoholic helping another) is actually the core to recovery in AA. The Steps, sponsorship and the rest of the program are suggested only. I have met many people who are sober strictly by attending meetings.

What we don’t like

I can’t resist adding a 5th topic to my list: we can learn from what we don’t like in traditional AA meetings. There has been much written in secular AA about the problems with the Big Book chapters, “How it Works,” and “We Agnostics” and other literature, so I won’t repeat it all here.

What I will discuss is AA’s singleness of purpose. I recently attended a speaker meeting at a mental institution where they read the singleness of purpose.

This is an open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous…In keeping with our singleness of purpose and our Third Tradition which states that “The only requirement for AA member- ship is a desire to stop drinking,” we ask that all who participate confine their discussion to their problems with alcohol.

The speaker that night started to tentatively mention that they had a process addiction that they had to treat in addition to their alcoholism. They danced around the topic for a few sentences before finally spilling the beans that they had developed a gambling addiction during sobriety. I was so happy this person had the courage to speak about their second addiction in an AA meeting. How can we “practice these principles in all our affairs” (as the 12th Step advocates), if we are not free to discuss these issues in an AA meeting. This community that I was visiting has a large casino and many in the room seemed to nod knowingly when the speaker shared of their gambling addiction. 

I myself am also recovering from a process addiction in addition to alcoholism. A friend of mine says that he is a “Try-addict…if I try it, I am addicted to it”. My experience is a large number of alcoholics identify with this and feel they have an addictive personality.

I believe the singleness of purpose does a great disservice to newcomers and old-timers alike who may be suffering from multiple addictions.

Lastly, and this really is my last point, I am concerned about the aging population in AA. My dad has been sober for over 40 years and when he visits from Alberta we attend meetings together. I went to three speaker meetings with him this summer. The average age of the membership in these meetings appeared to be over 70 years old. Unless these groups can attract younger members, they will eventually fold as the members age and die. 

I believe secular AA can help AA attract younger members and continue to exist. Given the demographics of our society (40% or more identify as secular), I think secular AA is more likely to be attractive to young(er) people. 

Secular AA currently has about 0.5% of the AA groups (about 500 groups out of 100,000 groups). Since July 2015 when three of us started a secular group in Odessa (we were 167 on the NYC list I think), this number has more than doubled. My hope is that secular AA can continue to double in size every two years. In just 12 years, this would give secular AA 32% of all the groups in AA (1%, 2%, 4%, 8%, 16%, 32%). 

If you are in a stable secular group with more than 15 members, I encourage you to consider starting a new group. I would love to have secular meetings in every community and every day of the week in large cities. Also, if you belong to a special interest group, why not start a special interest secular group. I would love to see secular-women’s meetings, secular-LGBTQ meetings, secular-men’s meetings, and so on.

Thank you so much for inviting me to share at the first ever S.O.A.A.R  roundup. I congratulate the organizing committee for a job well done and for including speakers from all over Ontario and the world.

Jane Doe's Story

My sobriety date is Mar 27, 2012.

I am an agnostic in AA which may or may not be a big deal where you live but it IS a big deal where I live.  A few years ago, I started an Agnostics Group in my town, and my naive little bubble of everyone in recovery loves each other was popped when a member with like 30 years sober brought up in a group conscience meeting to no longer allow our group to announce our meetings, I fought (verbally) and he lost....then fast forward to last month and another group went to the local inter-group meeting and our group name was actually on the agenda.  They wanted to vote that we no longer be recognized as AA because some of our members are agnostic and **gasp** atheists, even though we are registered with GSO.  The inter-group had sent spies to our meeting and were breaking peoples anonymity left and right saying, well in this meeting so and so talked about how they did the steps without God and so and so quoted from this literature saying it helped them and it isn't right, etc.


I met my sponsor while drunk in a meeting and a fellow member jokingly told me she was now my sponsor when she repeatedly had to reign my drunk self in. I am grateful to him, she is an amazing sponsor. She never once told me I had to believe in God and never once told me but helped me through the steps and is still there for me today. After a couple years I started to explore the concept of my higher power in a different way. Up until then I had been trying to find a definition that fit the entity I believed I had to believe in but just couldn't. A God like those around me believed in. With the suggestion of a friend I started looking at starting an agnostic group. I attended a meeting in another city an hour and a half away named Agnostics and Others, in Raleigh NC. I spoke with the founder or that group and then myself and others co-founded a group in Fayetteville NC under the same name, Agnostics and Others.  We had some support here but to my surprise had a lot of hostile opposition.  My view of AA changed drastically. There were people vocally wanting to stop the announcement of our group, people who used to say hello and hug me at meetings stopped talking to me altogether, some to this day still haven't said a single word to me, I've had women say to my face I couldn't say certain things and basically make me feel unwanted in a program that helped save my life.  I stopped attending AA for about a year and started listening to speakers on the Internet.  I love love love hearing people share their stories even if the speaker is deeply religious I still feel connected to their experience. For me it isn't about trying to make people not believe in God and/or prayer.  I feel like recovery is about showing love and support regardless of if someone is deeply religious or not religious at all like me.   This speaker project came about when I started looking for stories from people who were agnostic, atheist, minorities and not being able to find them.  I am someone who abused alcohol, drugs, people, and food. It helps me to hear I’m not alone and so I decided to try and make a collection of stories that help people find their story.  The site is not an AA site.  I want to find all kinds of stories and label them accordingly so people can easy find speakers.  I'm asking people to record their story, or type them if they want and share their experience, strength, and hope with their addiction. They can then tell me how to label it, is it their story with alcohol, drugs, self harm, etc, is is the voice of an alcoholic, addict, al anon, etc.  Or are they many of these voices? I am an alcoholic and addict and bulimic.  I no longer drink, or do drugs, or use food as a means to control my life but I used to. So when I share and then someone tells me (which they have) that I can't talk about drugs or food struggles but ONLY alcohol, then I'm not really being totally honest about me. That is why I want to include all kinds of recovery shares on this site. Because everyone deserves a life free of addiction. It's been several years since the Agnostics and Others meeting was created and there are still people who are trying to get rid of the group.  Our group was on the inter-group agenda.  I'm here for the love and support not the negative hate.

Fast forward to today.  I love recovery despite this.  It taught me how to live, IT SAVED MY LIFE.  One of the things I've learned is recovery, any recovery program is that it requires action.  

I love listening to people share their stories so am trying to start an online library of sorts where people can find voices that are like their own.  I want to clarify that the site is not just for AA.  I want to create an online library that have all sorts of stories of addiction and recovery, be it alcohol, drugs, food, AA, NA, OA, HA, SA, etc as well as Al Anon, Narc Anon.  I would also like to have more voices for minorities whose stories are hard to find online, Asians, African Americans, LGBT, etc.  

This is the link to the website I'm trying to build.

https://voicesinrecovery.weebly.com/

How effective are music therapy and music-based interventions in the treatment of substance use disorders?

Music therapy (MT) and music-based interventions (MBIs) are increasingly used for the treatment of substance use disorders (SUD). A systematic search on published articles examining effects of music, MT and MBIs and found 34 quantitative and six qualitative studies. These articles reported beneficial effects of MT and MBI on emotional and motivational outcomes, participation, locus of control, and perceived helpfulness, but results were inconsistent across studies. Many randomised controlled studies focused on effects of single sessions, and no published longitudinal trials were found. The researchers stated that ‘The analysis of the qualitative studies revealed four themes: emotional expression, group interaction, development of skills, and improvement of quality of life. Considering these issues for quantitative research, there is a need to examine social and health variables in future studies. In conclusion, due to the heterogeneity of the studies, the efficacy of MT/MBI in SUD treatment still remains unclear’.
 
Hohmann, L, Bradt, J, Stegemann, T & Koelsch, S 2017, ‘Effects of music therapy and music-based interventions in the treatment of substance use disorders: a systematic review’, PLoS One, vol. 12, no. 11, pp. e0187363, open access https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187363.

DOOMED TO REPEAT: 65 YEARS LATER, AA STILL HOSTILE TO NONCONFORMING FELLOWS

From Secular AA
https://aabeyondbelief.org/2018/08/26/doomed-to-repeat/

By Joe C. 

When talking with somebody about the inclusivity in AA have you ever thought of bringing Bill W. into the conversation?

Well, if the question is about groups who alter, modify or disregard AA’s Twelve Steps or Traditions, Bill has something to say. Should such people be thrown out of AA? Should such groups be delisted if they identify themselves as agnostic or secular? Bill set the record straight in 1953 at AA’s third General Service Conference:

“Do you think we should tell those people: ‘You can’t belong to Alcoholics Anonymous unless you print those Twelve Steps the way we have them?’ No.” Bill goes on to say, “We even have a Tradition that guarantees the right of any group to vary all of them, if they want to. Let’s remember, we are talking about suggested steps and traditions.”

Descriptive—not prescriptive—is how Bill W viewed our AA Steps and Traditions; alterations in or disregard for any or all of AA’s Steps and Traditions is permitted. This viewpoint is echoed in our AA Service Manual,[i] which is given to every new General Service Rep at the start of their two-year term.

AA has been called a “benign anarchy,” but Bill saw it as self-correcting and resisted giving anybody in the fellowship governance over the beliefs and practices of others.

Sadly, 65 years after the Third General Service Conference, some people use the first 164 pages of the Big Book as a disciplinary manual rather than a collection of suggested understandings and practices followed by the small number of AA’s founding members, who, we should remember, had only two or three years sober at the time.

In today’s AA, secular groups are being harassed and discriminated against by 12-Step clubhouses, districts, Intergroups, and GSO spokespersons. Sixty-five years after Bill’s address on “Variations of Form in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” we still have self-appointed authoritarians asking, “Is group and member liberty getting out of hand?” Is this urge to control the conduct of individual AA groups actually protecting us against harmful interpretations of AA principles or only corrupting our primary purpose?.

This year, the Many Paths Group of Urbana Illinois was removed from the meeting list for what seemed to be a series of moving-target violations. First, Many Paths was told that they were being delisted because the group’s information appeared on secularaa.org and the group’s own Facebook page. Can this plausibly be interpreted as a violation of Tradition Six? And even if it were, nothing in the traditions or AA’s governance authorizes a district or intergroup to discipline a purportedly errant group in this way. Rather, we should look to our Service Manual for guidance: “Because we set such a high value on our great liberties, and cannot conceive a time when they will need to be limited, we here specially enjoin our General Service Conference to abstain completely from any and all acts of authoritative government which could in any way curtain A.A.’s freedom…”  (Warrantee Six, Concept XII)”[ii]

The issue of Facebook and secularaa.org turned out to be a red-herring. Many Paths closed the Facebook page and took its name off the secularaa.org list. The district then decided that only groups that guarantee their members all work the Twelve Steps would be listed. But how can this be determined, and by whom? In the end, Many Paths was restored to the list—for now—but hostility from the district persists. The district hasn’t fully realized that it has no business policing groups.

Northeast of Urbana Illinois, our first French freethinkers group, Les Libres Penseurs in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, is getting grief for reading their own non-theistic “How it Works”.[iii] Suffering from the same confusion between AA unity and uniformity, the Area 87 group conscience determined that if a group does this, district/area can expel them. Today, on the aa87.org meeting list, The Freethinkers (Les Libres Penseurs) meeting is not listed.

This action seemed to be censored at the July 20-22, 2018 Eastern Canada Regional Forum in Quebec when an attendee looked for guidance from Greg T, GSO’s General Manager, on how to control groups that re-write AA’s portions of AA script. Greg reminded us that while GSO can’t change Traditions or Steps without the authorization of 75% of AA membership, groups and members are not bound by GSO rules. Did any of this sink in?

These two groups are not the only ones having their legitimacy questioned. But Saint-Hyacinthe and Urbana show that some service structures have taken on the illegitimate role of group compliance officers. Let’s go back and look at earlier cases; this won’t be an exhaustive list of AA-stewardship faux pas, but it will give us a sample of conflicts over group autonomy and the use of the Traditions to intimidate or expel AA groups.

I remember when Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers Group in Toronto (2009) began. The New York City agnostic-AA-site[iv] was the keeper of the worldwide secular meeting list at the time. They also posted an agnostic version of AA’s Twelve Steps. One day the New York Agnostics webmaster got a letter from GSO that said:

“Dear sir or madam,

It has recently been brought to our attention that you are hosting a Web site for a group using the name of Alcoholics Anonymous … A group which feels a need to change the 12 Steps and to change the message may be a recovery group, but it is not an A.A. group.

It has long been the case that Alcoholics Anonymous has freely granted permission to a wide range of ‘Anonymous’ recovery programs to adapt the Twelve Steps of A.A. as well as A.A. literature and the Traditions. However, once they have done so, they are asked not to call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous. So we respectfully request that your group stop calling itself an A.A. group.

Yours in fellowship,

Gayle, General Service Staff”

A “pack your bags, you’re no longer welcome here” letter from Big Brother GSO is intimidating. I wonder whether this General Services representative had read Warrantee Six. If not, she might have consulted page 81 of AA Comes of Age. Bill doesn’t tell Godless Buddhist groups to not call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, he celebrates the pioneering spirit demonstrated by Buddhists without implying that they did AA as a whole any harm with their interpretation of the AA message.  

Bill’s 1953 address prophesized, “The more we insist on conformity, the more resistance we create.”

Toronto Intergroup tried to eradicate a growing demand for secular AA, expelling both the We Agnostics and Beyond Belief Agnostics groups (and later, Widening Our Gateway group) from the meeting directory. Groups were stripped of their right of participation as voting Intergroup members. These actions had unintended consequences, arousing widespread awareness and resistance. By the time Vancouver Intergroup got in on the delisting fun, secular AA won the favor of AA members at large and there were nearly 30 agnostic/atheist AA meetings from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic coast of Canada.

 Unfortunately, after four years of efforts by Toronto secularists to remedy their situation, it took an appeal to The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to set things straight. The Tribunal ruled, with the force of law, that the acts of discrimination against secular groups were illegal.

In the aftermath, secular and mainstream AA’ers in Toronto are getting along with each other. Secular AA is mentioned in this year’s 75 Years of A.A. in Ontario booklet. Vancouver’s Intergroup’s chairperson followed the Toronto Human Rights agreement, avoiding their own day in court; Vancouver agnostic/atheist groups are back in the meeting book.

So, we’ve looked at Toronto, Vancouver and Saint-Hyacinthe in Canada, and at New York, Des Moines and Urbana in the USA. The misconceptions the secular groups in these locations ran into include:

  • There are sacred rituals/readings/wordings that are mandated by AA principles.

  • Group rights are somehow granted by GSO or Intergroup and these service bodies are charged with the duty of punishing nonconforming groups.

  • By discriminating against rogue groups, AA stewards are protecting AA’s Traditions and preserving the integrity of the AA message.

AA’s recent aggressiveness towards nonconforming groups is based on a perception of what our founders intended for AA. Is this perception accurate? Not if we heed the Special Report of the Third General Service Conference: 

Bill said he proposes to consider “whether this program of ours is frozen as solid as an ice cube, or whether there is any elasticity in it, whether we are going to get into this business of insisting on conformity, whether we are going to get into the business of creating an authority that says: ‘These Steps and Traditions have to be this way.’”

When the Twelve Steps were presented to the other alcoholics in New York, Bill said, a great uproar developed. “My sin was that I had varied the six into twelve!” And a lot of people objected to the reference to God in the new steps, as originally printed. “Because of this, we finally got around to the idea of the ‘Higher Power’ or ‘God as you understand Him.’ So the Twelve Steps themselves were a tremendous variation, not in principle, but in the manner of stating them.”

This pioneering story is now being reenacted in distant lands. In one country, the Steps have been altered somewhat in phrasing and reduced to seven. “Do you think we should tell those people: ‘You can’t belong to Alcoholics Anonymous unless you print those Twelve Steps the way we have them?’ No. They are merely going through the old pioneering process we had to go through ourselves.”

Bill told of his surprise when he was presented with a proposed draft of revised Steps to be used in working with seamen who, he had been assured, “were not going to take the Twelve Steps the way they are written.” Examining the “revision”, he was amazed to note that they corresponded, number for number, with the six steps in the original A.A. word-of-mouth program!

“Where variations of the Traditions are concerned, we’ve gone up and down like a window shade. We even have a Tradition that guarantees the right of any group to vary all of them, if they want to. Let’s remember, we are talking about suggested steps and traditions. And when we say each group is autonomous, that means that it also has the right to be wrong.”

“My feeling is that the more we insist on conformity, the more resistance we create. But if the Traditions and Steps reflect accurately what our experience has been, the alcoholic, no matter where in the world he may be, will eventually adopt the principles that will work the best for him.”

In 1953, Bill encouraged unity—not uniformity. He didn’t see Alcoholics Anonymous as holy writ or the final word: “If any improvements are to come, who can say where they may come from?”

In As Bill Sees It and the “A.A. Grapevine,” Bill talks about the endurance and sacredness of the principles of AA… that’s principles, not the wording orlanguage of the steps and traditions: “So there is little doubt that AA principles will continue to be advocated in the form they stand now… While we need not alter our truths, we can surely improve their application to ourselves, to AA-as-a-whole and to our relations with the world around us.”[v]

Bill didn’t insist on Big Book principles “exactly as written.” Perhaps this is because he himself adapted the steps of the Oxford Group to the needs of his time and circumstances. Based on his remarks at the Third General Conference and in his writings, there can be little question of his openness to changes that meet the evolving circumstances and needs of AA’ers today. Heeding Bill’s open-mindedness and inclusivity, nobody needs to be kicked out of AA, and certainly no group needs to be delisted again. We can unite around our common goal of helping alcoholics sober up and recover from their malady while also recognizing that there are different paths leading to this objective.

[i] https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/en_bm-31.pdf

[ii] Ibid “Twelve Concepts of World Service by Bill W.” p. 72

[iii] https://aaagnostica.org/2018/07/01/la-necessite-de-groupes-aa-laiques-au-quebec/

[iv] http://agnosticaanyc.org/

[v] “The Shape of Things to Come,” A.A. Grapevine, February 1961, Bill W, As Bill Sees It, p. 86

About the Author

Joe C got sober 40+ years ago in Montreal Canada at the age of 16. Rebellion Dogs Publishing released Joe’s Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life in 2013, the first secular daily reflection book for addicts and alcoholics. Joe is a freelance writer, focusing on music, finance, billiards and addiction/recovery lifestyle. Joe also hosts IndieCan Radio and Rebellion Dogs Radio. Upcoming for Joe, are research pretentions for this October’s Annual NAADAC (National Association of Addiction Treatment Professionals) conference and AA History Lovers Symposium in February. For more info or to contact Joe, visit Facebook or @ http://www.rebelliondogspublishing.com

Every AA member has alternative steps. It's inevitable.

By Stephen S and Justin M

Everyone has developed an alternative version of the steps in their mind. Why is the word “god” still on the steps and traditions banner? Surely, we should be able to recognise that it is no longer necessary. Surely it can be replaced with “higher power”.

You may be surprised, but I am going to say that it needs to be kept, at least in traditional meetings.

At face value, the writing “god as we understand him” allows us to interpret the “god” word to be anything that I want. The steps invite, almost demand, that we interpret them. We have to come to an understanding of god “as we understand him”.

It may be a bug in the original wording. The wording indicates that I have to do work to come to understand a god of my own understanding.

Or it might be a feature. A feature that Bill was convinced to put in, to “widen the gateway” by atheists who were among the first members of AA.

Importantly, there is a concept within Semiotics that unalienably makes everyone to interpret “god as we understand him”.

Words have usages, they do not have fixed meanings. Some words have multiple usages. Usages change over time.

Semiotics uses two terms to describe how words and their usages are transmitted in a message exchange. The terms are encoding and decoding.

Encoding is the process of creating a message for transmission by an addresser to an addressee.

Decoding is the process of interpreting a message sent by an addresser to an addressee.

All communication depends on the use of codes. When the message is received, the addressee is not passive, as decoding is more than simply recognising the content of the message. Over time, individuals develop a cognitive framework of codes which will recall the denotative meaning and suggest possible connotative meanings for each signifier.

The actual meaning for each message is context-dependent: the codified relations between the signifiers in the particular context must be interpreted according to the syntactic, semantic and social codes so that the most appropriate meaning is attributed.

Some message exchanges are open to dialogue, where usages can be negotiated and refined. Other message exchanges are closed – i.e.: there are no exchanges but a one-way phenomenon.

The Steps, whether in the Big Book or on the banners, are a one-way phenomenon. Umberto Eco calls such phenomena “closed texts”. But he does recognise that there exists more open texts which may have latent usages or be encoded in a way that encourages the possibility of alternative interpretations

We inevitably decode closed texts for ourselves. We may have an exchange about that decoding with other members or sponsors. But, then, we are comparing their decoding to our own. We are not in an exchange with those that originally wrote them. Such an exchange is impossible – the authors are dead. This has left us with a situation in which everyone has developed an alternative version of the steps in their mind.

Umberto Eco suggests that there will be a dominant decoding of closed texts and possibly several minority decodings. This is the case in AA, with traditional meetings generally encouraging members to adopt the dominant decoding of the Big Book and other AA literature.

However, given the academic understanding above, it is most reasonable that anyone, myself included, would have an alternative decoding of The Steps. All other members have an alternative decoding of The Steps. Some may be more or less in line with the dominant decoding. Others may diverge wildly. The key point is that the member’s decoding will inform how they understand the steps – they form a set of alternative steps that work for them.

In that sense, there may exist as many sets of alternative steps as there are AA members. Every member will have a set of alternative steps. However, given the third tradition, I can't force others to do my alternative steps. And vice versa.

AA has an obligation to recognise decoding and not stand in the way of members to freely come to an understanding of god “as we understand him”.

To paraphrase MLK, all we say to AA is, be true to what you said on paper. All AA members seek a relationship with sobriety. Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead.

MLK was killed by an assassin’s bullet. But his dream was not killed with that bullet. We all benefited from his dream.