Canadian Atheist Still Says Mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous Is Unethical
Byron Wood, a nurse from Vancouver, was going through a rough time in his life a few years ago. After suffering the aftermath of a mix of alcohol and drugs, he went to a local clinic, where a doctor committed him to a hospital. Wood became a “non-practicing” nurse in that time, with the understanding that once he completed a recovery program, he’d be able to practice again.
The problem with that plan occurred after he was told to join Alcoholics Anonymous as part of his rehabilitation:
… Wood attended a residential treatment program in Ontario in the spring 2014, staying for five weeks, though he took issue with their methods.
“If I questioned the 12-step philosophy or tried to discuss scientific explanations and treatments for addiction, I was labelled as ‘in denial’,” Wood said. “I was told to admit that I am powerless, and to submit to a higher power. It was unhelpful and humiliating.
“There was a mentality among staff that addiction is a moral failing in need of salvation. We were encouraged to pray.”
The idea of submitting to a Higher Power made no sense to Wood, who’s an atheist. He knew he could recover, but pretending like he wasn’t in control of his life wasn’t the way he wanted to do it. So Wood attended AA for a while… but decided to stop. And because he stopped, he was fired. (Officially, it was changed to a “resignation” the following month.)
Eventually, he filed a Human Rights complaint against the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and the B.C. Nurses’ Union saying they discriminated against him because of his atheism. By forcing him to go through a religious treatment program — when secular, scientific alternatives were readily available — they were essentially punishing him for not believing in a God.
All of this happened a couple of years ago, and there’s still no resolution. However, the CBC just ran a rather sympathetic profile on Wood describing the various issues he raised, including the idea that addiction should be treated in a one-size-fits-all sort of way;
Several experts and critics of 12-step programs have written letters to the tribunal, saying that Wood’s complaint is in the public interest. His supporters include scientists, doctors, psychotherapists, lawyers, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Humanist Association, and the Centre for Inquiry Canada.
According to Dan Reist, an assistant director at the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, most peer-reviewed studies have shown that AA is not particularly effective.
“Does it have behind it some good scientific studies of cause and effect that is often claimed by the proponent? The answer to that is: No, it doesn’t,” he said.
There is strong evidence that AA works for certain people, Reist added, but only those who want to be there.
“The idea that we can simply grab people, force them into a situation where we can fix them, misunderstands the very nature of addiction. That’s what’s wrong in the Byron Wood case,” Reist said.
This shouldn’t be complicated. Wood had no problem going through a recovery program as part of his rehabilitation, but AA wasn’t useful or scientific enough for his tastes. More importantly, even though there were other secular options — like SMART Recovery or Secular Organizations for Sobriety — they didn’t “count.”
While Wood has a different job these days, he misses nursing. The saddest thing about this is that he did nothing wrong in terms of his recovery but was still punished because he wasn’t willing to lie about the efficacy of a religious treatment program. It’s a travesty. The government shouldn’t allow it to happen to anyone else.