Has Alcoholics Anonymous Declared Itself a Religion?

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By Vic Losick

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Larry K., an AA member of many years was frustrated at what he considered to be the increasing religiosity of AA meetings in the Toronto area. So in 2009, he started two secular AA meetings. However in 2011, Toronto Intergroup removed both secular groups from its website and phone listings claiming that a belief in God was necessary for membership. As Larry K. noted, “…we lost our membership and our voice and our vote… We weren’t allowed to speak in our own defense or make appeals or anything.”

After receiving no meaningful responses to his written requests for explanations, Larry K. took his complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal, charging discrimination. One of the few ways that Toronto Intergroup could avoid the stigma of bias was to declare itself a religion, which indeed it did do. As part of a strategy to defend itself the Toronto Intergroup stated, “… it is a bona fide requirement that groups that wish to be part of this intergroup must have a belief in the higher power of God.”

Because this debate is so highly charged, repercussions may be felt across the world of recovery. The recent explosion of opioid addiction has added millions who might well benefit from such programs.

According to AA literature,“…any group of alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group provided that, as a group, they have no other purpose or affiliation.” And each AA group may, “…conduct its internal affairs as it wishes—it being merely requested to abstain from acts that might injure AA as a whole…”

In brief, this is how AA is organized: AA’s parent body is A.A. World Services, Inc. (A.A.W.S.), and its articles of incorporation specifically distinguish and distance it from local AA groups. The groups themselves are separate and autonomous entities, although A.A.W.S. holds the copyrights to all AA publications for AA groups around the world.

Critical to this arrangement are “intergroups,” which might be likened to local co-ops. Intergroups are established by individual groups, usually in cities, to coordinate services. Primarily they maintain a roster of meetings, with times, days and locations, and often operate a telephone hot-line for alcoholics. It should be noted that A.A.W.S. also maintains that, “it has no connection or control over any Intergroup.” – a claim questioned by some.

So it was the Toronto Intergroup that took it upon itself without consulting A.A.W.S. to delist the two secular groups in the Toronto area and invoke religion as its reasoning.

Whether a group is or is not listed by an Intergroup might seem unimportant, perhaps even trivial. However, for those who think that they might have a drinking problem, or for AA members from out of town, or even for active local AA members merely seeking a new or different meeting, the most common method for locating a meeting is either online or over the phone. To be excluded from this essential public information denies most people the broader choices that might help them get sober. (Full disclosure: I am a long-time member of AA, and a recently retired board member of the International Convention of Secular Alcoholics Anonymous. However, I speak here only for myself).

My personal experience strongly suggests that attendees of secular AA meetings are not whiners, nor do they want to “convert” anyone to atheism. And of course, if you are non-believer (or “other” believer”) and you really want to get sober, you can probably endure a modicum of religiosity. But after a few years the constant testimony from others that sobriety is “a gift of God” begins to wear on you. It’s not unlike having to sing, pray, and listen to sermons before being able to receive a meal at the Salvation Army.

(Just to be clear: I use the term “non-believer” in its broadest, most all-inclusive sense, which embraces agnostics, atheists, free thinkers, brights, skeptics, non-theists, naturalists, materialists, humanists, rationalists, secularists, et al).

The nature of addiction – be it to alcohol, opioids, cocaine, or marijuana – is such that it deludes the abuser into thinking that there is no problem even though evidence to the contrary abounds. Therefore even the slightest reason not to begin a life in recovery can derail an alcoholic. We’ll never know how many people who might otherwise have been helped by AA (or any other recovery program) have walked into a meeting only to be put off when they see “God” all over the suggested 12 Steps, and hear “No sobriety without God,” and who then turn around and walk out, never to return.

Those newcomers who stay and demonstrate even the slightest degree of religious skepticism are told to think of “God” as “Good Orderly Direction,” or “Group Of Drunks,” or even the proverbial “door knob.” For the newbie the inference is not to get hung up on the religious stuff; but to just let it wash over you. In the end, after you get some sobriety under your belt you will “come to believe” just as we “old timers” in AA have done.

There is a popular, rather laissez-faire expression in AA, “Take what you want and leave the rest.” However, for the true believers, the questioning of AA without God, is the “third rail” of the recovery movement. And there are definite legal repercussions as well. Although AA is not a religion in the commonly accepted sense of the word, the US Supreme Court has ruled that it is religious to the extent that forcing people to attend AA meetings could violate their constitutional rights.

In one case, Barry Hazle of Shasta County, California, was paroled from prison after serving part of his sentence for meth possession. As a condition of his parole, Hazle was mandated to attend a drug treatment program, a program requiring his belief in a “higher power.” A life-long atheist, Hazle resisted and was sent back to prison to complete his sentence. He sued the State of California, and several years later was awarded $1,950,000. Had the judge had the option to send Mr. Hazle to secular meetings, this costly outcome might have been avoided.

In several other cases, courts have similarly ruled, although AA never maintained that “…a belief in the higher power of God” is necessary for membership. In fact, the AA Preamble” states, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

Allow me to describe a typical, conventional AA meeting: The overwhelming majority of meetings are held in church basements (“They save your soul upstairs. We save your ass down here.”) The suggested 12 Steps & 12 Traditions (Link to the 12 and 12) along with other AA slogans are hung on the walls.

The opening remarks usually contain the AA Preamble, and the reading of some excerpts from AA conference-approved literature, which can get fairly religious. The most common selection is “How it Works,” which contains the 12 Steps, and ends with “…Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power — that One is God. May you find Him now!”

A featured speaker (just another AA member) then shares his or her “experience, strength and, hope” for about 15 to 20 minutes, followed by a secretary’s break (passing the hat, and announcements), followed by other attendees “sharing” from the floor (in which belief and thanks to a Higher Power are often heard), and then the meeting’s closing remarks are read which again can get fairly pious. Finally, all rise, hold hands and recite “The Lord’s Prayer” (or less frequently, “The Serenity Prayer”).

Secular AA meetings do not differ much: most notably, the 12 Steps are not on display; and the opening statements usually just include the AA Preamble and sometimes the addition of a “Secular AA Preamble.” Most importantly, there is no mention of God or Higher Power. The secretary’s break still includes passing the hat and making announcements, followed by “sharing” from the floor. Anyone can share anything, including their particular beliefs, non-beliefs, or no religious preferences at all.

The closing remarks again make no mention of God or Higher Power, but usually refer to a long-standing AA dictum, “Whenever anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that, I am responsible.” After which all rise, hold hands and recite an AA slogan, “Live and Let Live.” There is no prayer.

When it started in the 1930’s, the decade after Prohibition, Alcoholics Anonymous, was greatly influenced by the Oxford Group, a then recently moribund, intensely Christian movement; hence AA’s close relationship with Christianity. So it’s not surprising that most of AA’s original members were primarily white, male Christians, and in many respects Christianity remains AA’s default posture today.

The book, Alcoholics Anonymous, written mostly in the late 1930’s by one of AA’s co-founders, Bill W., is always referred to as the “Big Book.” It maintains an outdated view of society written in ponderous prose. As with many other institutions, AA has its share of “originalists” – those who insist on a rather rigid interpretation of the Big Book and AA. Some of these fundamentalists go on to refer to a “bigger book,” by which they mean the Bible. In certain parts of the country members have been known to rise, state their name, and recite, “I’m an alcoholic and a sinner.” In fact, some of these uber believers maintain that the real goal in AA is not to achieve sobriety necessarily, but instead to form a deeper bond and belief in God.

Many of Bill W’s writings are revered as if they were the “Federalist Papers“ of AA. Here is part of his letter of May 4, 1957: “To begin with, the Steps are not enforceable upon anyone—they are only suggestions. A belief in the Steps or in God is not in any way requisite for A.A. membership. Therefore, we have no means of compelling anyone to stay away from A.A. because he does not believe in God or the Twelve Steps. In fact, A.A. has a technique of reducing rebellion among doubting people by deliberately inviting them to disagree with everything we believe in.”

Despite writings like this, some AA members – including fragile newcomers – are still told that they will drink without a belief in God. In 1956, the American Medical Association declared alcoholism a disease – a medical model also embraced by AA. That would make alcoholism the sole disease that can only be “cured” (or arrested) by a belief in a Higher Power.

The range of believers in AA reflects the US population at large. This spectrum varies from the very devout to those who don’t give faith too much thought. So you might ask, “Why the anger?” Ironically, it is usually the most pious both in and out of AA who feel the most threatened by non-believers. For those believers in AA who are convinced that sobriety is only possible with a belief in a Higher Power, non-believers in AA pose a threat to their sobriety as well.

So is AA (at least in Toronto) a religion? As with many corporate agreements, the party accused of wrongdoing usually “settles,” which means that the corporation pays a fine, but never admits to any “wrongdoing.” Such was the case in February. (Link to Toronto Minutes). After mediation, Toronto Intergroup backtracked and claimed it wasn’t a religion after all, and stated “The Respondent does not admit liability….” The two secular meetings “…can be listed in the GTA Intergroup…regardless of the specific beliefs or practices of the group members or the group as a whole…”

One would think that the exclusion of non-believers was an outlier position since many secular AA groups are listed by their local Intergroups. And we might even take heart since the Vancouver, B.C. and Vancouver, WA Intergroups, perhaps prodded by the Toronto agreement, have changed their policies and have now decided to list all groups including those self-described as secular. However, cities such as Denver and Fresno still refuse to include their secular brethren. (And it should be noted that even in “pagan” New York City secular AA groups were forced to scrub any altered versions of the 12 Steps so as not to offend those who wanted to delist them as well).

Secular AA is not anti-religious, but rather non-religious, and this is not a new phenomenon. The first secular AA groups were founded in Chicago, and have been in existence for over 35 years. Today there are over 300 groups worldwide, having doubled in number in the last two years. (Link to www.SecularAA.org)

But we are not talking about a secular take-over of conventional AA. Secular AA is still but a small fraction of the total AA membership (over 2,000,000 at last count). Nor does secular AA want to convert anyone to anything. Rather, it just wants conventional AA to be inclusive instead of exclusive. Secular AA does not question the deeply held convictions of believers, but insists on mutual respect given to all AA members. There are attendees at secular meetings who are believers but who prefer to keep religion and sobriety separate, talking about God in church, and talking about sobriety in AA meetings. It’s hard to describe the liberation one feels when there is no official religious talk at AA meetings. And it’s hard to go back.

Coincident with the explosion of opioid addiction Americans now seem to realize that the best way to deal with substance abuse of all types is with treatment rather than punishment. If conventional AA wants to be an active participant in the 21st century it would do well to shed it’s 1930’s Christian-centric ideology, and make a sincere effort at pluralism. Discrimination against non-believers is one of the last remaining forms of socially acceptable bigotry.

Non-religious members of AA do not want to “take God out of AA.” Rather, they want to add meetings where the insistence on a belief in God is not a requirement for sobriety. They do not want to have to accept any one else’s beliefs, nor have to deny their own.

Vic Losick is a documentary filmmaker based in New York City.

@AAsecular

© Vic Losick MMXVII All Rights Reserved

983 COMMENTS

  1. I learned of the existence of humanist AA at the Toronto gathering in 2005, at which time I was 16 years sober, and still an atheist. With a like-minded friend (a “litter-mate” actually, we went back to Cambridge MA and started a secular group; we called it “As We Understood…”. It was initially modeled on the format of the NYC East Side “We Humanists” which is now my home group, since I moved to the greater NYC area 10 years ago.

    The Cambridge group (on Tuesdays) is thriving, so I am told. Our initial reason for starting it was this: In a own where Harvard and MIT are major players there were numerous younger people with serious drinking issues who were likely to be turned off by fundamentalist religiosity. When a person is dealing with all the issues and conflicts which come when going clean (even if rehab is not needed) it makes absolutely no sense to add confusion about religious beliefs to the mix. I know several from my old drinking days (now 28 years in the past) who walked away because of this — and a few of them died.

    • The BB specifically addresses this in We Agnostics. I am perplexed as to how this is not comprehensible. No “religion” is required, church attendance is not required, belief in a “god” per se is not required.

  2. Thank you for this comprehensive, fair, and, no pun intended, sober account of the difficulties that Toronto AA faced with the secular groups. I was there.

    The image that sticks in my mind is that of a young person saying to the group, in tears, “Why do they want to take my sobriety away from me?” Spaces of empathy and compassion are rarely sircumscribed with hard lines.

    The truth is, no one in AA can exclude anyone from a meeting, and it should go without saying that the secular group I attended didn’t have that as a goal. Our group welcomed everyone, truly welcomed, whether religious or non-believer, as what unites us is not belief or non-belief but the common goal of attaining sobriety. Our group was simply an option, an alternative, with a focus on the newcomer, so that those put off by any perceived “religiosity” could see a way in.

    One of the great benefits of attending AA is to hear others’ testimony, the story of how they came to be in AA – recounted sometimes with devastating, self-deprecating humor that wouldn’t be out of place in a stand-up comedy act; other times with heart-wrenching sincerity; but whatever the speaker’s style, in all of them the newcomer sees herself, hears his own story. If a non-believer hears nothing but religiosity, they cannot totally identify. It seems a small point, but it is not: To get that “click” of recognition, that shock of “that’s just how it was with me!” can mean all the difference.

    AA is a robust organization with a brilliantly conceived structure. I’m glad to hear that it’s reached equilibrium in Toronto. Focussing on what connects us is always more constructive and more representative of – God’s love? The power of human empathy, humanist values? which one of us truly knows? – than on what divides.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    • One question I have, how do you take a newcomer through the 12 Steps and leave out half of them? How does a newcomer achieve the (AA) necessary spiritual experience or spiritual awakening. Whether one is religious or not, recovery in AA is centered around an experience with a higher power. If a meeting doesn’t include many steps and doesn’t include the central tenet of AA, how is it an AA meeting?

      • In my own experience…

        First of all, not every one takes the Steps, certainly not ‘literally.’ Suggested Steps are optional Steps and many a sobriety in AA is “a-la carte,” taking what they like, such as the one day at a time program, fellowship, testimony, helping and getting help. For some the transformation doesn’t come from faith in a deity, confession, amends, prayer, etc. As Bill W wrote in AA Comes of Age, “We must remember that A.A.’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made A.A. available to thousands who never would have tried at all had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.” (p.81)

        Secondly, I am a Step fan; I have gone through this process several times. I don’t believe in a prayer-answering, sobriety-granting higher power. There have been god-less 12-Steps by AA members, for AA members since the Buddhists first changed God for good over sixty years ago. There are agnostic, secular, cognitive/behavioral, variations of the same principles for people who hold no supernatural view of life, addiction or recovery. I tell anyone I’m working with – regardless of their beliefs – to re-write the Steps in their own words, something they agree with and can commit to. And if they end up with eight steps or 10 or 14, it doesn’t matter. It is not un-AA to choose your own conception of the Step process any more than it would be un-AA to choose your own conception of a higher power.

  3. I`m not with AA, but another group, and we have created our own Secular group in our own area. It is true that people had something to say negative, and even some `long time atheists`felt judged for some of the readings we had procured – from the World Services, none the less. Read this and felt grateful that our own Service Structure for our area is a lot more Tradition oriented at this point (regardless of age, race, sexual identity, religion or LACK of religion). To invite religion is to indeed shut out many people seeking Recovery – in any group. I don`t recall many feeling loved by whatever God Construct operated over their lives while in the throes of their disease. I don’t expect many to be comfortable when first beginning their new journey, either. Equally, this home group gets told that there’s something different about the group, they can’t put their finger on it, but they feel incredibly comfortable sharing – and welcome. Much respect, thank you for speaking your truth.

  4. If you do away with the 12 steps &12 traditions and the big book you are not an A.A. group you can do whatever you want and call your selves whatever you want but it’s not A.A. it’s another example of Newcomers wanting to be different still. I really don’t care what others do as long as it doesn’t affect my program and what works and has proved to work.A.A. Still has the single greatest recovery percentages than anything else in the world. So have your little Sub-Zero but please don’t call them A.A.

    • So true. This is the point the writer doesn’t seem to have the wit to understand. Completely flummoxes me. They want to publicize their meetings thru AA channels, but don’t want to be AA. Idk.

  5. I get his point. Nonetheless, without the Steps and without a higher power of some sort, it’s not AA. If it’s not AA, then it doesn’t have a place in an AA list of meetings. Seriously, no 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th, etc. How is that AA? I’m not religious myself (btw a belief in a god does not necessarily require religion). There are other roads to recovery, such as SMART. This is like going to a bar mitzvah and proclaiming the divinity of Yeshua to other attenders.

  6. When men come to our rehabilitation program one of the first questions I ask is “what are we going to have to change for you to be in this program.” Of course I am only using sarcasm to make a point, why do people feel that they have the right to change a well established organization? You cannot use the AA literature without including God, He’s in the book so many times that a group would have to rewrite the formula and corrupt the properties of AA. I don’t blame the Toronto Intergroup for trying to save it’s precious way of recovery, anything else is not AA. Secular bullies are not uncommon.

    • “Why do people feel that they have the right to change a well established organization? ”

      Because it needs changing. The Bible has been updated, many times to become more relevant. You really think AA is above needing to be updated? Quite arrogant don’t you think.

  7. “Secular groups”, “Non God Groups”? AA does not promote any religious body, but to believe that by starting secular groups you can avoid the truth is absurd. I’ll be the first to say that if people are defining their God in A.A. that’s different. When I hear sharing about Jesus, Mohammad, etc… I do believe someone has crossed the line, but that’s not what I am hearing here. The only reason why people like Larry are sober (if he really is an alcoholic) is because of a greater power than himself however one wants to define it. Larry and his cronies didn’t get to A.A. on a winning streak. Make no mistake about it there is a God and when I see things like this it proves our nature as humans. People have been rebelling against God from the beginning so people like Larry are garden variety. Larry you should be ashamed of yourself by making up your own A.A. and others just like you as you see fit. People like Larry are trying to rewrite a program that works. I have been around since the early 80’s and we were talking about it than. People were so uptight with God in the Literature, The Lord’s Prayer, The Serenity Prayer, Dr. Bob’s comments at the end of his story, on and on and on. People were so offended by God. This is nothing but a humanistic approach to recovery. In A.A. we call it self will run riot. If you don’t like the way the program is laid out than do your own thing. Rational Recovery did or as it is known today as SMART Recovery. There you will find a humanistic approach to your problems.

  8. Mr Losick’s guest article admonishing AA is typical of the “victim-hood” mentality that is now causing schools to allow men into a the ladies room if they happen to be feeling like a woman trapped in a mans body that particular day, or maybe some are pedophiles posing as a “transgendered” person to leer at, or molest little girls. There is no objective way to tell the difference. Yet they demand accommodation, and when not granted their wishes they call those who disagree with them, “haters, bigots, red necks, etc… So people like Losick, demand accommodation– because they feel victimized or marginalized and expect millions of satisfied grateful people to deviate from simple path the AA founders envisioned. A few years ago a atheist group went to court to stop the Billy Graham foundation from sending toys to the very poorest children in the world. Their reason? Some atheists found it offensive that those who volunteered to work for weeks wrapping and addressing presents for children, who would otherwise not receive any gift or toys– from doing so. Why? They were offended that a Christmas card was handwritten for each child by name by–asserting that including the term “Merry Christmas” was unconstitutional. The outcome–the atheists won in a liberal court and successfully protected millions of poor children from “constitutional abuse? When interviewed the leader atheists was asked if his group, had sent the children any kind of gift for the holidays, to which he answered NO. but we saved them from getting presents from Christian who gave their money and volunteered to by, wrap, address and deliver millions of gifts. Bottom line in both cases, people who desperately need help are not allowed to give it because by doing so, would offend someone who doesn’t believe the the way a hand ful of atheists do. Good Work!

  9. This is a disgrace. I have 40 years+ and never encountered this. Its so hard for anyone to walk in these rooms the first time. I ALWAYS heard “belief in a power greater than yourself”. This can reference the power that make plants grow or a deep connection with one’s highest self- spiritual not religious. In the 80’s when so many began coming forward with abuse from Priests, none of them could believe in G-d. The abuse of power from the priests took that from them. Would that Toronto group reject these survivors of sexual abuse? The anonymous nature of the program is violated by the position this group. In my opinion, they are abusing power-like the priests.

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