Sunday, June 5, 2011

Does religion belong at AA? Fight over 'God' splits Toronto AA groups

From The Toronto Star:
It uses “fellowship” to help chronic drinkers quit the bottle. But there is little fellowship in a schism that splintered the Alcoholics Anonymous umbrella group in the GTA this week.
At issue is this question: Do alcoholics need God?
On Tuesday, Toronto’s two secular AA groups, known as Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, were removed or “delisted” from the roster of local meetings. They’ve disappeared from the Toronto AA website and will not be in the next printed edition of the Toronto directory.
The dispute started when Beyond Belief posted an adapted version of AA’s hallowed “Twelve Steps” on the Toronto website. They removed the word “God” from the steps, which are used as a kind of road map to help drinkers achieve sobriety.
“They took issue with a public display of secular AA,” says Joe C., who founded Beyond Belief, Toronto’s first agnostic AA group, 18 months ago. (In keeping with AA’s tradition of anonymity, members are identified by first names only.)
It proved popular enough that a second group started up last fall; it took its name from a chapter in the AA bible entitled Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly known as the Big Book. The group, We Agnostics, had only recently completed the paperwork to be part of AA before being booted out.
“What is unusual is that this didn’t happen in some backwater, but that it happened in a liberal, democratic, pluralistic place like Toronto,” says Joe.
The name of God appears four times in the Twelve Steps and echoes the period in which they were written — the 1930s. It invites those seeking sobriety to turn themselves over to God, who will remove their “defects of character.” They go on to speak of God’s will for the recovering alcoholic.
“They (the altered Twelve Steps) are not our Twelve Steps,” says an AA member who was at Tuesday’s meeting of the coordinating body known as the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup. “They’ve changed them to their own personal needs. They should never have been listed in the first place.”
He says that in the early days of AA, meetings ended with the Lord’s Prayer. “That has obviously stopped in all but hard-core groups. We welcome people with open arms. In our group we still say the Lord’s Prayer. One guy was uncomfortable with that. I told him to just step back when we pray. He does. He’s doing what he needs to do for him.”
The issue of AA’s use of God has come up frequently over the past 50 years. For the most part, the organization — which claims 113,000 groups around the world — permits other agencies to imitate its program, but not to call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous.
Other secular organizations, including Save our Selves (or Secular Organizations for Sobriety), offer addiction help similar to AA. But with some 100,000 members in 2005, SOS is far less popular than AA, which reports a membership of about two million. In Toronto alone, there are 500 AA meetings a week.
“This is not the first we’ve gone up against bigotry,” says Larry of We Agnostics. “This has been an ongoing struggle in North America.”
One man wept in dismay over the delisting at Beyond Belief’s Thursday night meeting at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education on Bloor Street West. Thirty-two people, mostly men, sat at desks in a classroom.
“I do believe in God,” he said after the meeting. “But you don’t need to believe in God to recover and I don’t think it’s appropriate at AA.”
The meeting opened with a statement that said, in keeping with AA tradition, the group did not endorse or oppose either religious belief or atheism. “Our only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.”
“I’ve tried AA meetings and I couldn’t get past the influence of right-wing Christianity,” said a big, Liam Neeson look-alike.
“Last night I went to a meeting and it was like a sermon again,” he told the group. “I felt I should quit.
“But someone told me, ‘hey, go downtown, there’s an atheist/agnostic meeting.’ So I thought I thought I’d give AA one last chance and I came here.”
There’s a moment’s pause.
“Welcome,” the group said.
One of the members, Roger, took issue with AA’s concept of the “God of your understanding.”
“First, there is a gender problem (several of the steps refer to Him). But more importantly, a creator God with a personal interest in me doesn’t fit well with my understanding of how the cosmos works.”
In January, Rev. Pete Watters, 82, and a Catholic priest, celebrated 50 years of sobriety with AA. Several thousand came to an Oakville union hall to celebrate his anniversary.
He knew the roots of the movement well and travelled for seven years with the late Bill Wilson, the charismatic co-founder of AA and author of the Twelve Steps.
In 1961, Wilson, whose early thinking on AA was influenced by the British evangelical Oxford Group, addressed the problems faced by non-believers. He opened the tent to all, but wrote that doubters could eventually take the first “easy” step into “the realm of faith.”
“People and agencies can help,” Watters says, “but the only one who can restore that person to permanent sobriety is God. But that’s the God of your understanding — that can be anything you want.”
In AA God can be interpreted as an acronym for “good, orderly, direction,” or as something that can be found in nature, a set of ethical principles, or even in the courage of fellow AA members.
But it’s essential to turn yourself over to something or someone other, says Watters. “If you don’t believe in any power greater than yourself, you are on your own.”
A woman member of a group that adheres to the traditional Twelve Steps puts it this way: “You need to believe in something higher than yourself. Our self got us drunk.”
Different steps
Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that cite God:
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, prayer only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Beyond Belief’s adapted Twelve Steps:
2. Came to accept and to understand that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the AA program.
5. Admitted to ourselves without reservation, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were ready to accept help in letting go of all our defects of character.
7. Humbly sought to have our shortcomings removed.
11. Sought through mindful inquiry and meditation to improve our spiritual awareness, seeking only for knowledge of our rightful path in life and the power to carry that out.


    1. l First off, I believe that "delisting" a group from a directory simply because the group chooses to follow its conscience flies in the face of everything that the 12 Traditions are about. No entity in AA should have any real authority to dictate to a group or individual how that group or person shall live out its purpose. Same goes for the God thing or the spiritual principles involved. The spheres really do have their music, but none of us have the right to tell anyone else how they must listen

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. And too, I think that fact that this controversy with AA is being made public far more affects AA as a whole than anything that a few groups are doing.

      I also think that groups that disregard our single and primary purpose pose a far greater threat than a bunch of atheists.

    4. Somehow, I don't see a conspiracy brewing here. If someone has an agenda, I fail to see who profits from the article or, for that matter, who loses other than AA getting some bad press. Not the first time that's happened.

      We have here an AA group (groups?) that chose to rewrite the 12 steps. That's fine, just don't call them the 12 Steps of AA as they're not. Call them the 12 Steps of We Agnostics or something.

      The article says that the WE Agnostics were "booted out" just after completing their paperwork to be part of AA. Not so fast. What happened was that a group of morons in Intergroup decided that they weren't pure enough or something to be listed on the Meeting Schedule. Sounds like Intergroups everywhere.

      But I don't see where GSO has chimed in yet, and it's GSO who determines who can be considered part of AA, not some fucking Intergroup.

      The 3rd Tradition says that any two or three alcoholics who gather together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation. Don't see any other affiliation mentioned here.

      The 4th Tradition seems to focus on Intergroup in saying that "no ...regional
      committee...should ever take any action that might greatly affect AA as a whole without first conferring with the trustees etc."

      Looks to me like Intergroup gave AA some bad press w/o consulting with GSO first. It'll be interesting to hear what they have to say.

    5. I'm with Joe. Sounds like an intergroup thing. And no traditions are being broken by the offending groups. It's the other way around, it is intergroup that is doing the tradition breaking.

      Seattle Intergroup refused to list a group because it had "A.A." in it's name. Don P. told about how Denver Central Office refused to list his home group "An A.A. Group," for the same reason and how the CO had to be reminded that it works for the groups and not the other way around.

      Our local central office people have some screwy ideas too. The refuse to keep a lot of literature on hand because, get this-because of they do it might hurt the local 12 Step shop's business.

    6. Patrick, thanks for removing the drama.

      Our central office liaison went to the CO meeting last night. He was telling me that, once again, the CO manager flatly stated that the "Central Office is not to be a clearing house for literature." That if groups or committees needed a large order of literature they could order from G.S.O. or get if someone needed a book they could get this-"Go to Rainbow's End and get one." Rainbow's End is the local 12 Step Shop.

      And they wonder why our group broke away from the general service structure.

      On another note, we got word that we are going to have to find a different place to meet on Mondays. The church is being sold. I'm bummed.

    7. We've had to move before. The one thing that should bug me is that the meeting place always seems to be in the closest vicinity of a certain member. But I don't fuss too much over that as I like to drive. I'm also one of the younger members.

      I've seen moves turn into a good thing. But I guess it could also go the other way. A local noon group just split up partly because the Catholic church basement they met in had their rent raised... from 200/month to 400/month. It was once a very well attended meeting. The group got so small that it seemed they wouldn't make rent. Then the folks at the church reduced the rent to the original amount. But the split from the group was a nasty deal and it remained final.

      One thing that Pueblo's CSO does is print a newsletter every two months. At the end of the year, they list all of the contributions of the area groups... if by donation or literature bought.

      Thanks for hangin' in there and sorry about the drama. I've done things on this blog that weren't too cool and you guys were always very polite but firm letting me know of your disapproval. I've finally come around to addressing those issues... and not doing them anymore as best I can. But when someone else refused to honor our new direction, I did what I thought I had to do. I don't have the time nor the desire right now to "moderate".

    8. Patrick,
      my thoughts are that you are doing the best you can, just like everyone else. I for one, see a lot of growth and maturity in you, it doesn't seem like you are looking to kick ass and take names under the notion of defending the program. ( I think most of us go through that, I sure did,big waste of energy)
      You call it as you see it, I can get with that.

    9. Thanks. I think the internet really amped up my ... "quest" to thwart injustices done to the "program".

      Now I am just waiting for the day when it really hits the mainstream... when I see a local newsletter that says, "Do you guys see what they're saying about us at Stinkin Thinkin?" I just don't see it. Talk of Orange is out and about... but it's really just static from what I can tell.

      But when and if that critical mass hits, I have been there and done that. I see what they're saying. I see that these folks either really have had bad experiences with A.A. or they are hell-bent on bringing it down. I'm able now to put aside my prejudice and consider that what they're saying is so... even though I live in a different world.

      Giving them the benefit of the doubt, if what they say is so... A.A. is really a messed up place. We know better... as in a better A.A. Maybe the anti-XAers do us some good. Maybe they clear out the chaffe and real alcoholics can once again be isolated and come together anew.

      Nobody is gonna stop one drunk helping another drunk. This is the spirit of A.A. Get a non-alky in the mix... and we have the mess you see now. The anti-XAers refuse to explore the validity of some alkies. They do not explore the line between the alky and the hard drinker. In fact, they consider that a manipulating tool of ours... the same way we supposedly use the traditions to cover our ass and manipulate our circumstances... you know.... hide behind them.

      Until my A.A. peers come to me and discuss this anti/XA phenom... I'll not give it much credence either. But they sure seem to be creating their own "industry". They've got radio stations and stuff now. They ought to come up with a magazine or a weekly article.

    10. I'm just got a call last week that the hospital where we hold our Wed nite meetings is throwing us out due to renovations planned for the cafeteria.

      We have 3 weeks to find a new meeting place, and Wed nite seems to be real popular with churches holding Bible studies. And we need a place that'll hold 40 -50 people. Gonna be interesting.

      As to the anti/XAers, you know my feelings. I like chatting with MA and FTG, but feel no need to defend the AA program or attack their opinions. As MA commented, we have a lot more in common than we think. Sometimes we can learn a lot by finding that common ground.

    11. Y'all might find this hard to believe, but we really aren't anti-AA. I would like nothing more than for y'all to have the AA you envision, and which you try and provide for yourselves. I shit you not.

      Also, Saturday I was at the local grocery store, and saw a clone of my granddad who died about fifteen years ago. I took a picture with the guy. It really made me miss him. Now I logged in here read about Rob's grandfather and wanted to give my condolences.

    12. The closest I had to a grandfather was my uncle Red... a stubborn old West Texan who wound up his days in Havasu... and died at about 91 years old.

      MA, that's why I say anti/XAers... meaning anti AAers and or ex-AAERS. Sorry to lump the two together... but It's simpler that way.

    13. Thanks for the kind words MA, I hope you have fond memories of your grandpa.

    14. Back to the topic at hand...

      I don't like the changing of the steps like that and having the group even wanting to call it A.A. I also don't like intergroup getting involved... but why put them in that position?

      Aren't there gobs of other secular organizations they can hook up with?

      I think the God thing is important to A.A. right now... not just back in the 30s and shit.

      Booze hasn't changed, drunks haven't changed, God hasn't changed... why change the steps?

      If the God thing bugs you... and the chapter To Agnostics doesn't move you... why not just put the book down and go find something else?

      I stay A.A. needs God... it needs to be a capital G, and it is NOT religion. Why? Because A.A. is open to any brand... so long as you check your specific brand at the door... or keep it to yourself.

      Why is this so hard for folks to understand?

    15. This appears to be a traditions issue and how they are interpreted and followed. My questions are these.

      1. How much autonomy can a group have?

      2. Does a group changing the original steps impact AA as a whole? I would suggest that shit like this is another thread that is eroding the original program.

      3. How far removed has GSO gotten from the principals of the program. Are they really trusted servants, I have serious doubts. Although I disagree on some fundamental points with our critics, some of them have done their research and homework. There are some glaring discrepancies that go a long way to fueling their arguments.

      My observation is that the majority of AA is bullshit, mindless slogans, self appointed gurus, etc...Ironically, I agree with the majority of what ST-Orange etc are saying. I am just so fucking spiritual these days I don't debate anymore LOL.

    16. I think that Rob's point about mindless slogans is a good one. The source of these slogans (90 in 90, we'll love you until you love yourself, etc) isn't AA, but rather the bullshit Rehab programs out there.

      So we end up with drunks getting out of Rehab, telling us that they've already done the first 3 or 5 or 12 steps, and mouthing the mindless slogans because they learned AA in Rehab. What isn't explained to them is that Rehab isn't Recovery.

      I recall being taken to an AA meeting while in Rehab many years ago and being told that we were prohibited from talking during the meeting, that we were only allowed to talk at meetings held in the Rehab Center. I told the counselor to fuck himself, and was thereafter never allowed out to a meeting during my stay. Turns out they were afraid that we may say something that reflected on the AA being taught in the center.

      So now we're faced with folks coming into the program thinking they know everything about Recovery, and try to impart their "knowledge" on the rest of us. The bullshit I hear in meetings some days make me wonder where the program is heading, and I think Rob and the rest of you know the answer to that.

      This little 85 year old lady with a million years in the program really stunned me last night by saying that she's beginning to understand why the old timers are leaving. And she's always been Ms. AA, speaker at national conventions etc. She predicts, like a lot of folks, that AA is going to go underground, with closed meetings not on the Intergroup schedule.
      It may be the only way to save what we have left.

      I was talking to a guy visiting from Maryland last night and he mentioned a 50 page white paper floating around from GSO addressing the agnostic/atheist issue. It's been sent to various Intergroups for comment. Anyone seen it?

    17. Good post Joe,
      I am so glad my sobriety isn't contingent on meetings or people. I've said before, I believe I could walk away and never attend another AA meeting again and be fine as long as I maintained discipline and lived a spiritual life. looks like I'll have a chance to explore that theory. Maybe sooner than we think.

      I'm hoping Jim will weigh in on the tradition questions I posed. It's 95 and humid as hell here in NH.

    18. It was 103 here in Virginia, but central air conditioning is SOP, too. I've already weighed in on the autonomy issue, and I think it's a problem that GSO is going to have to resolve. Personally, I don't give a shit what they do to the steps, so long as they don't call it AA.

      I was mulling this subject over in my mind today, and I think the better question is "Does God belong?"

      If your answer is no, then AA isn't for you. Never gonna work. Sorry. Don't waste your time coming to meetings. Core of the program is that we cannot get sober on our own. We need a higher power to help us. Certainly there are those out there who did get sober on their own, but we're not part of that crowd.

      And on my continuing rant about Rehab, there was a woman at last night's meeting who's doing the outpatient thing. She's required to attend a meeting each night. HOWEVER, she can only attend meetings that are approved by her counselor. We were going over the schedule and she pointed out certain meetings that her counselor would not approve. I suggested that she just grin and bear it, as this is court ordered rehab and she has to succeed or she faces some jail time. I couldn't fucking believe it.

    19. Here's something Bill Wilson said in a GrapeVine article. I'm paraphrasing. He said that the most anti-God, anti-each other, anti-Big Book bunch of alcoholics can call themselves an AA group provided that they have no outside affiliation. It's the outside affiliation that hurts AA as a whole, not the taking liberty with the steps. Therefore, I don't see these groups as being Tradition breakers. I wouldn't go to the meetings, but they as free as the rest of us to fuck things up and do what they want and maybe doe of alcoholism.

      The ones who breaking Tradition is Toronto Intergroup. Traditions being broken, or at least badly bent are Tradition 4, Tradition 3, Tradition 10 (by expressing views of sectarian religion publicly, thereby involving the public in a controversy that should remain internal), and Warranty Five of Concept XII, that no conference action should ever be punitive. I view the actions of Toronto Intergroup as punitive. Because the Intergroup does not agree with the views of those groups, they punish them by delisting them.

      About the move. We'll be OK. Our group conscience is Monday night. I am just warning the others to be pro-active, but not panic.

    20. Sure. They can do what they want and as they wish. But if they want to change the steps, and if they will not give the spiritual way a shot, why call it A.A.?

      Putting myself in their shoes, why not just do something else? Why bring the controversy to the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous in the first place? Isn't this just selfish to the core?

      If A.A.W.S. came to us and said, "You're not A.A. We're kicking you out." We'd just say, "Fine." and go change our name to something else and go on about our business.

      What makes us different than them is that we are submitting ourselves to something that we have used and found to be useful. They're trying to conform to what the unrecovered folks want. How's that even working?

    21. Of course it's selfish. But it is just as selfish to insist that someone else do it "my way or the highway." And of course I have mixed feelings about it. But I have to leave my feelings out of it when it comes to principles. And you know, one of the beautiful things about A.A. is that a group or an individual can do whatever the hell they want. And one of the tragic things about A.A. is that a group or an individual can do whatever the hell they want.

      Our group kicked itself out of A.A. by not supporting the service structure. But we are still A.A. because we say we are. If anything, G.$.O./A.A.W.$., inc. is not A.A., but entities using the A.A. name.

    22. Yeah, I suppose it's best to not get kicked out.

      If they'd kick them out, then who will they kick out next?

      It's tragic that a group can do whatever the hell they want... unless it's stuff like requiring that you be alky and that you do steps. My experiece with those groups is that there is much power there... and it's even scary at times... uncomfortable... hot!