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Toronto Ban on AA Atheists Sparks Global Flap

Last week, a simmering feud exploded in Toronto, after the city’s AA establishment angrily voted to expel two atheist groups from the fold. Now the controversy is spreading around the world.

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By Jesse Beach

06/13/11

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Was Alcoholics Anonymous meant to be a mosaic or a melting pot? Does its culture embrace everyone who a desire to stop drinking, or is the intention to blend everyone into a single vision of AA homogeneity? These were the questions raised by a recent furor in Toronto, after two AA meetings were banished from the city’s official directory for catering to atheist and agnostic members with an adapted version of the 12 Steps. Not surprisingly, the controversy quickly spread around the world.

"Just tell me what to do ’cause I hurt so bad," was David R.’s attitude when he first joined AA. “I really wanted to stop drinking and I was truly ready to ‘go to any length’—and I did.” The trouble was that God “as we understood Him” meant, in David’s case, no God at all. “Because I am a people-pleaser, I faked it with the theistic elements, half-knowing I was faking," he says. "I was afraid that I would drink if I didn't. I am grateful to be sober. I couldn't have done it without AA: the meetings, the support of some understanding people and activities not related to drinking.”

You sense a “but” coming next. Says David: “There are many concepts that didn't seem right, helpful or logical to me, right from the beginning. They didn't fit my experience of how I got sober and was staying sober.” Having worked through, and taken others through, the 12 Steps, he heard about an agnostic group—one of Toronto’s first “Freethinker” meetings, called Beyond Belief—and checked it out.

“Because I had been so compliant in traditional AA meetings,” he says, “I found it difficult to hear people complain about ‘the God thing’ and how they had felt excluded at other meetings. I was uncomfortable when people questioned AA dogma, or were firmly atheist. I went through a period of not feeling at home in either Beyond Belief or traditional meetings; I called myself ‘agnostic’ in the strict sense of ‘not knowing and not possible to know.’”

Where does that leave Hindus, Taoists, Native Americans, Buddhists, Humanists and the many other non-monotheistic creeds in our culture?

Gradually, he had an attitude adjustment. “The main thing I got from Beyond Belief at first was the concept that AA didn't know everything, that there were people with very long-term sobriety who questioned core dogma and didn't get drunk or struck by lightning. Eventually that realization became very liberating.”

As a Secular Humanist, David is now an active member of Beyond Belief and recently served as group secretary, responsible for the AA literature supply, making weekly announcements and handling the group’s monthly commitment to take the AA message into a detox at a local hospital. His initial hope that the agnostic position can strengthen the will to sobriety, rather than threaten it, has grown into a conviction. “The purpose of rational thought and skepticism is not to comfort, but to uncover the truth," he says. "My sobriety feels safer the more based on truth and rational thinking it becomes.”

David was part of a growth surge for Beyond Belief, which started with a dozen members who agreed on a format of ideas posted by some of the other North American and European agnostic groups that have been welcoming AA members since 1975. Every meeting started with this preamble:

"This group of AA attempts to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else's beliefs or having to deny their own."

Beyond Belief attracted up to 50 attendees at its Thursday meetings, and added a Saturday evening Step-study. A new group, We Agnostics, also started on Tuesday nights. Each group had its share of 25-to-35-year sober members, living proof that AA works without God. David and his comrades also witnessed half a dozen one-year celebrations from members who had found that the new groups succeeded for them, when others had failed. Agnostic AA was working in Toronto.

Only for literalists, it wasn’t AA at all. Tradition Three—“The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”—wasn’t their focus. It was “God as we understand Him.” They took this to mean that a primary requirement for being classified as an AA group was a belief in some sort of God. No God? No AA.

So where does that leave Hindus, Taoists, Native Americans, Buddhists, Humanists and the many other non-monotheistic creeds in our culture? Atheists aren’t the only “No God, please” people who struggle with alcoholism.

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