Alcoholics Anonymous Accused of Discriminating Against Agnostics and Atheists

By May Wilkerson 02/25/16

According to the AA program, "the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking," but one man is accusing Alcoholics Anonymous of having religious requirements as well.

Alcoholics Anonymous Accused of Discriminating Against Agnostics and Atheists
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According to the third tradition of 12-step group Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Theoretically, this would mean the group’s atheist and agnostic members, of which there are a growing number, are welcome, as long as they want to stop drinking. But is that always the case?

A man named Larry Knight is filing a claim against AA World Services and its local chapter in Toronto, Ontario, accusing the organization of discriminating against atheists and agnostics by refusing to list secular groups on the AA website.

According to Knight, back in 2011, two AA groups in Toronto were “delisted” from the official list of local meetings because they had written references of God out of the 12 Steps of AA, as written out in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, aka “the AA Bible.” The steps contain multiple references to God, which was more universally acceptable back when they were written, in 1939. But today, many AA groups have adopted a more liberal approach to the steps, and moved away from the program’s religious, church-like aspects. In some cases, new secular groups have been formed.

The two Toronto groups, called Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, had rewritten some of the steps, for example replacing “God” with “mindful inquiry,” and “God’s will” with “our right path in life.” And apparently the Toronto main office of AA was not pleased. According to Knight, there are now 11 weekly secular AA meetings in the greater Toronto area, but none are listed on the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup (GTAI) website.

Knight wrote to the AA headquarters in New York asking for them to intervene in GTAI’s decision not to list his agnostic group. But after receiving “no calls and no response from AA,” he took his complaint to Ontario’s human rights tribunal, claiming discrimination on the basis of creed. “The reason we went this way is because after three years of discussion, nothing happened,” Knight told the Toronto Sun. “The clock ran out and we’re still not allowed to vote. It’s important to feel that we are equal partners with an opportunity to speak.”

GTAI is arguing that a belief in God is essential to practicing the steps of AA, and that the agnostic group is free to “follow its own process” but not with official ties to Toronto’s AA office. “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,” said a GTAI spokesman.

But Knight argues that the only requirement for AA, as listed in the steps, is “this desire to achieve sobriety and to help others in this achievement,” he said at a hearing last month. “AA was not meant to be presented on any religious terms and ... atheists and agnostics have been included as members in other parts of Canada and the United States over the years in order to promote an inclusive approach to AA membership rather than promote any religious perspective.”

After hearing both sides, the tribunal ruled this week that Knight’s claim of discrimination should go to a full hearing. “The fundamental question,” they said, “is whether the Code requires a religion-based charitable organization to accommodate other beliefs by altering the services they provide on the basis of a differing creed by an applicant seeking to use those services.”

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.