The History of Proposals for an Agnostic/Atheist Pamphlet in AA

According to one source posted on an AA Area website in the USA AA World Service considered a pamphlet for nonbelievers in 1975, 1981, 1988, 1995, 1997and 2000.

This pamphlet idea dates back to the emergence of agnostic AA meetings in North America. This isn’t to say the two activities are related. The agnostic groups have grown to over 100 worldwide and we have yet to see an agnostic/atheist AA pamphlet. Two stories, one of an atheist and one of an agnostic appear in the pamphlet “Do you think you’re different?” authored by Barry L in the early 1970s (Staff member of AA at the time who also wrote Living Sober. Hear Barry L’s last talk at the International Conference of AA in Montreal in 1985 on our links page or scroll down to the bottom of this blog post).

Imagine the usefulness of such a pamphlet? It isn’t unreasonable to conclude that next to not really wanting to get sober, “the God bit” could be the leading reason that turns newcomers away from AA as a way to get sober. As we hear in many agnostic groups now, “No one will be asked to adopt someone else’s beliefs or deny their own in AA” but forgive a newcomer atheist for missing that message in their first 30 AA meetings doesn’t include an agnostic AA meeting.

Despite our insistence that we are a spiritual program, rather than a religious program, some USA Circuit Courts have ruled that sentencing alcoholics to AA is unconstitutional because AA is ostensibly a Judeo/Christian organization. Now I don’t belief that obedience to God is written into our fabric, but it is how many groups behave. “Spirituality is any interfering/intervening God that you choose;” that may be inclusive for 1/3 of the world and the majority of USA middle-earth but for just as many people around the world, our most popular worldview would be dismissed as superstitious. Would US courts see AA differently if we had a pamphlet that told of success stories without God? Right now they view AA as what Jim Christopher of Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) has described as “a religion in denial.”

There is a new pamphlet that has been on the Literature Committee drawing board for over 11 years about the variety of spiritual experience in AA. It will include stories of atheists and agnostics. At the 2012 General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Literature Committee reported that 200 stories had been submitted and they had gleaned it down to 23 stories, in keeping with the direction they were given at the 2011 Conference. There are no emergencies in AA and this would be no exception. I expect a draft will be presented in 2013 and the earliest the pamphlet would be available would be the summer of 2015.

There is a real and motivated anti-agnostic underground in Alcoholics Anonymous. A White Paper on Non-believers argues that AA would be better off without catering to nonbelievers. Some liberals have called this paper the Mein Kempt of AA.. The author is anonymous. The main premise of the thesis is that AA is not and cannot be a pluralistic society:

“It is time to make the tough decision of whether we want to continue to allow the development of two AAs. One consisting of a path to sobriety using human power alone, the second, adhering to the belief that the only path to sobriety is through a God of our understanding. These two diametrically opposing belief systems simply cannot coexist!”

The author wields the politest of bigotry by “inviting” skeptics to take up residence in their own fellowship where they would be free to recover in doubt and in so doing would transform troubled AA of today to the mythological good old days when all groups were harmonious and homogenous and 75% of newcomers stayed sober.

The author offered several calls to action. The first was to write to GSO and voice objection to any talk of atheism as an option in AA recovery. Ward Ewing, AA’s Chairman of the Board in his Regional Forum addresses reports that there were many letters encouraging GSO not to articulate secular recover as a legitimate alternative inside of AA. The letters didn’t deter our Episcopalian Chairman. He sees the experiences of everyone getting sober as being helpful to all of us—widening our gateway, as it were.

The White Paper author blames the tolerance of secular translations of the Twelve Steps as the cause of AA’s sagging membership number. She or he sees agnostic AA as a watering down of Bill Wilson’s message as described in the Big Book. Nonbelievers are scapegoated the way communists or Jewish people have been in the past, as a threat to our societies survival. The author fails to grasp that AA itself does not treat the Steps as sacred and long before he or she got sober, our Twleve Step’s author applauded new ways to express the principles of AA recovery with or without God.

Secular versions of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (removing the assumption of a theistic being) date back to the 1950s. Bill Wilson was happy to see that people not of Abrahamic religious cultural background could find in the Twelve Steps sufficient guidance to get and stay sober without belief in a deity (See Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age pg. 81).

Like many of us, I look at the meeting literature table with pamphlets to youth, the queer culture, the elderly, people of colour, aboriginal North American’s and women, and I wonder what is missing. The nonbeliever is told that they are welcome but I don’t see their story displayed on the literature table.

When I found this History of Agnostic/Atheist Pamphlet proposals it read like a suspense thriller. Every time the idea comes up the literature committee loves it and recommends that the conference proceed. Every time the idea gets mothballed. There may be legitimate reasons why each attempt to have our story told got kyboshed but I don’t know why.

I tried to get confirmation from GSO as to the accuracy of this history of agnostic/atheist literature attempts. I got a nice letter and a phone call from the Chair of Literature. I was told that my request to verify or deny any or all of these records couldn’t be done. GSO doesn’t have the manpower. They would if they could but they can’t so they won’t. AA archives must have minutes from the committee meetings or statements in the Conference Annual Reports. The people mentioned by first name and last initial must have their letters in the AA archives if it is true.

I don’t live anywhere near New York City, but the next chance I have to visit the Big Apple, I will make an appointment to visit archives to see if I can corroborate any of the facts in this history. I have no reason to doubt what I read. It sounds plausible. But I would like to confirm it from a second source before I start yakking about it as a fact of our history. For your perusal here is a link to the HISTORY. Do you know more about this? If you know any of these people referred to or know of them, please pass on any information you have.

Also if you haven’t seen it, on AA Agnsotica Roger C has compiled a history of agnostic meetings in AA and not only will you find it informative, but if you have more to add to the story, Roger would be glad to hear from you, too.

Finally, If you want to read this White Paper yourself, HERE it is. I found it very disturbing. The paper turned my stomach to such an extent that I couldn’t even enjoy lampooning the flawed logic and erroneous conclusions that this document is full of. Not for one minute do I think that this represents the general attitude of AA members. I think that most of us are comfortable in our beliefs and don’t feel put off or threatened by alternative worldviews.

Where you come from, this might be innocent freedom of speech (everyone is free to express their opinion). In Canada any speech or literature that incites hatred against an “identifiable group” by creed, sexual orientation or race is a criminal offense. Personally I don’t put this rambling in the same category as advocating genocide but I thinking Canadian zealots should think twice about supporting such a document. It encourages discrimination and expulsion. Getting behind such a document might be a legal grey area here in Canada. Of note, this document was circulated to Intergroup Reps in Toronto Canada by Brian W as an authoritative directive in the campaigned to help Toronto Intergroup come to believe that AA in Toronto would be better by excommunicating agnostic groups from the Intergroup floor and removing agnostic meeting times and places from the Toronto meeting list.

It has been over a year since Intergroup overwhelming voted to cast out agnostic AA in Toronto. The groups are doing just fine without Intergroup and Toronto AA seems to be doing just fine without embracing our principle of Unity. It seems, according to Toronto culture, Unity can only be tolerated when defined as uniformity. Did this white paper tip the scale in Toronto? I can tell you that agnostic groups and mainstream groups were working harmoniously before this paper was circulated. Now there is somewhat of an “us” and “them” attitude that I never detected before.

I know that AA has been in this mess before. Once we didn’t allow women or African Americans as member, nor would we list a group as GLBTQ (Gay). Our children would disown us if we behaved that way now. Back then, discriminating against the few was argued as being a worthy sacrifice for the whole. Equality and human rights eventually are treated as obvious facts but it takes time. Complacency, more than bigotry, is the greatest risk to any organizations health and survival.

Less than a third of Toronto AA groups showed up to vote on the agnostic question. Edmund Burke (1729 -1797) said, “All that is necessary for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough good men to do nothing.” In Concept V Bill talks about the tyranny of an angry, hasty or a complacent majority. I think we owe it to ourselves to stay informed and to encourage inclusion and tolerance. Love and tolerance has saved the day in the past but never without concerted effort and kindness. I don’t advocate an “us” vs. “them” attitude. I advocate love.

AA is my home. I came here a broken teenager who may never have seen his 20th birthday. Instead I got sober, and helped raise other children to adulthood. It was an innocents lost for me to watch Toronto AA vote out nonbelievers. I believed that I was unconditionally loved in AA. I believed what I was told about being a member so long as I said I was a member. It broke my heart to be dismissed by my local AA. I don’t hate the people who voted against us. “AA will always have our literalists, traditionalists and reformers,” as Bill W said. And I must say that there was a worthy effort brought forward by others for AA to stay its course with inclusion and autonomy being our cue. Many mainstream AA groups were as devastated by the vote as our home group was. Their effort to see love and reason win the day should not be underestimated. What concerned me were the masses that said nothing. They may say it is not their business. Alright I say, but what does the responsibility declaration mean? What does our first Tradition mean? Are we not all in this together?

AA is about what we could expect from a group of drunks without leader or rules. Shit happens, mistakes happen and we learn and correct ourselves. I think AA will survive this. I am pleased to report that our group has survived. But there is a lesson to be learned and reconciliation still hasn’t taken place. Our group is part of the General Service structure and we are active in Treatment Centers and Public Information. Yet for many who don’t understand our anarchistic society, we still hear, “Your meeting was hard to find. I heard you got kicked out of AA.”

LINK to Barry L's 1985 AA talk at the Word Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous in Montreal Canada.
 

3 comments

  • Sam Harris fan

    Sam Harris fan Dallas

    Thanks for the article. This is a bad problem that alienates newcomers. Using Sam Harris' book on Free Will being illusory, and a sound understanding of the12 step's sound philosophy (unveiled from mysticism) I wrote a anthropomorphically void 12 steps. I resent chapter to the agnostic, it doesn't do anything for atheists or agnostics, it only reaffirms weakened faith through sarcastically poised psychological trickery. Page 49 is the worst page in the book, specifically middle paragraph, unedited from the original manuscript which was offensive as hell. 80 years ago they had excuses, now there are none.

    Thanks for the article. This is a bad problem that alienates newcomers. Using Sam Harris' book on Free Will being illusory, and a sound understanding of the12 step's sound philosophy (unveiled from mysticism) I wrote a anthropomorphically void 12 steps. I resent chapter to the agnostic, it doesn't do anything for atheists or agnostics, it only reaffirms weakened faith through sarcastically poised psychological trickery. Page 49 is the worst page in the book, specifically middle paragraph, unedited from the original manuscript which was offensive as hell. 80 years ago they had excuses, now there are none.

  • Dan Howard

    Dan Howard Oceanside

    Check out the pamphlet (Conference-approved) "AA as a Resource for the Health Care Professional"--“. . . no belief in God is necessary; atheists and agnostics find plenty of company in A.A.”

    Check out the pamphlet (Conference-approved) "AA as a Resource for the Health Care Professional"--“. . . no belief in God is necessary; atheists and agnostics find plenty of company in A.A.”

  • Rebellion Dogs Publishing

    Rebellion Dogs Publishing

    True that about the Health Care Professional brochure. Thanks for that mention. The same is true with "A Newcomer Asks..." AA pamphlet p-24 Q: “There is a lot of talk about God, though, isn't there?” A: The majority of A.A. members believe that we have found the solution to our drinking problem not through individual willpower, but through a power greater than ourselves. However, everyone defines this power as he or she wishes. Many people call it God, others think it is the A.A. group, still others don't believe in it at all. There is room in A.A. for people of all shades of belief and non-belief." A couple of updates of note since this blog was posted: First, the agnostic/freethinkers groups referred to as 100 in number have doubled - there are 200 in North America now. Secondly, at the 2014 General Service Conference a new pamphlet about Spirituality was approved and has gone to the presses for distribution in English, French and Spanish (maybe by August 2014). We are delighted to report that a variety of vantage points will be presented in this new literature including the experience, strength and hope of atheists and agnostics who found sobriety in AA.

    True that about the Health Care Professional brochure. Thanks for that mention. The same is true with "A Newcomer Asks..." AA pamphlet p-24 Q: “There is a lot of talk about God, though, isn't there?”

    A: The majority of A.A. members believe that we have found the solution to our drinking problem not through individual willpower, but through a power greater than ourselves. However, everyone defines this power as he or she wishes. Many people call it God, others think it is the A.A. group, still others don't believe in it at all. There is room in A.A. for people of all shades of belief and non-belief."

    A couple of updates of note since this blog was posted: First, the agnostic/freethinkers groups referred to as 100 in number have doubled - there are 200 in North America now. Secondly, at the 2014 General Service Conference a new pamphlet about Spirituality was approved and has gone to the presses for distribution in English, French and Spanish (maybe by August 2014). We are delighted to report that a variety of vantage points will be presented in this new literature including the experience, strength and hope of atheists and agnostics who found sobriety in AA.

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