Toronto Ban on AA Atheists Sparks Global Flap

By Jesse Beach 06/13/11

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.

god3 copy.jpg
Can it really be AA? Photo via

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.

Members from several local God-oriented AA groups began talking about how to put a stop to this agnostic “sect,” and eventually got in touch with Mary Claire Lunch, who worked in the city's General Service Office’s. She told them, “What the other AA group does is none of your group’s business. Taking another group’s inventory with regard to the Traditions is just not done. What a slippery slope that could be! You might offer to bring this observation about the other group changing the Steps to the attention of your Area Delegate.”

So Robb W., Panel 61 Delegate for Area 83, was the next to hear from the aggrieved parties. His response, a precise parsing of the fellowship's abstruse Traditions, is worth quoting in full, above all for his final sentence, which could not have been more conclusive or less ambiguous:

"I have received numerous emails and phone calls about a particular group in the GTA that is using their own version of the 12 Steps. The only rules that we have in Alcoholics Anonymous are those which we impose upon ourselves. We do not force people (or groups, districts or areas) to conform to our will. While conformity to the principles set out in our 12 Steps is suggested, it is still only a suggestion.

"That being said, Tradition Four states that ‘Each Group is autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.’  Many things are done in AA groups, districts and areas under the banner of 'group autonomy.' This is rightly so although we need keep in mind the second half of the Tradition: ‘except in matters affecting other Groups or AA as a whole.’ It is the responsibility of the General Service Conference to preserve the integrity of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous.

"If a group chooses to use its own interpretation of our Steps and Traditions, they should have the freedom to do so. However, this should be kept within that group for those who agree and not placed in the public domain as representing or related to Alcoholics Anonymous.

"We need always keep in mind that wherever two people gather to share and recover from Alcoholism, they may be called an AA Group provided that, as a group, they have no other purpose or affiliation.

"There is only one requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous and it does not include belief in God."

And that might well have been that. But the anti-agnostic contingent somehow found in this letter a mandate to ask the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup to strike the two GSO-sanctioned groups from their directory. And so, with the support of about 30 other groups—in a city of about 200 groups and over 500 meetings—the agnostic AA groups were cast out and denied all future AA services and publicity. Quoted in The Toronto Star, a supporter of the Intergroup action said of the agnostic AAs: “They’ve changed [the Steps] to meet their personal needs. They should never have been listed in the first place.”

"When I posted a notice about AA Freethinkers online, members of other AAs would come immediately behind me and tear it down."

Across the continent in California, Doug L. had a comparable experience. He lives in South Orange County now, but got sober in the hipper Laguna Beach area. “Sobriety was good. I spent much time with my sponsor discussing my higher power," he recalls. "He was into yoga and encouraged me to get serious about my calling to be a Buddhist practitioner.”

Moving to a new town meant a new AA environment. “It did not take long for people to realize I was not going to accept a Christian concept of God," Doug says. "The more I tried to help newcomers who questioned the God stuff, the more I alienated myself in the fellowship. You see, we have a lot of fundamentalist Christians in South County.”

Doug’s attempts to start a Freethinker meeting met with hostility. “When I posted a notice about AA Freethinkers online, members would come immediately behind me and tear it down. When I discussed the idea, I was told I was going to get drunk if I didn't admit I was powerless! The idea of removing God from the 12 Steps was met with righteous indignation.”

Soon Doug was read the riot act by his fellow 12-Steppers: “I was told that our Intergroup would not list any Freethinker or agnostic meetings. I was told that I was not to discuss Freethinker issues. I was told that AA is all-inclusive and there was no need to have splinter groups; I reminded the Steering Committee that our meeting directly lists separate gay meetings. In response I was labeled a troublemaker.”

Still committed to establishing a Freethinker group in his area, Doug now works the 12 Steps “on concurrent paths with the 12 Steps of Buddhism—there are many similarities between the two sets of steps.” But there are some differences, too. “The teachings of the Buddha tell me I am not powerless.”

AA had one million members when agnostic groups joined the scene in 1975. That figure doubled in the next 25 years. New York, San Francisco and Chicago are examples of cities where groups that accept God and groups that reject God can tolerate each other. But in the last 10 years AA has been shrinking. According to the GSO service manual, membership dropped from 2,160,013 in 2000 to 2,044,655 in 2008, a fall of 5.6%. Certainly the world's number of alcoholics is not shrinking. Is the 76-year-old fellowship going through some growing pains? And what's to blame for that?

Last year, an anonymously-authored White Paper on Non-Believers was circulated to Intergroup reps and Executive Committee members in Toronto. It makes a passionate plea:

"Fellow members, we are allowing in our midst the initiation and promotion of a path called ‘Sobriety without God.’ What if the newcomer of the future is encouraged to choose that selection instead of the traditional 12 Step path?  And what if, as a result, he ends up with a somewhat acceptable ‘water-wagon sobriety’ instead of the promised ‘spiritual awakening’ of the 12 Steps?  Are we not guilty of duplicity of the highest order and can we any longer think of ourselves as ‘trusted servants?’ After all, the power we are serving is clearly God Himself!"

The White Paper promotes the mythology of how much better AA was in the good old days, when harmony reigned and newcomers all got sober by finding God. Agnosticism wasn’t a creed, but an intellectual holdout from the one truth: God keeps us sober. (But AA would "love" non-believers to health until they got better and found this one truth.)

The problem with this position is that the “one truth” never existed in the first place. Jim B., one of AA,'s early founder, didn’t believe in a Supreme Being. He was the reason for the oft-quoted passage in the Big Book that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. He outlived Bill W. and died sober, having brought AA’s message to new cities and new members from Philadelphia to San Diego.

The White Paper argues that two fundamental beliefs cannot coexist in AA, that belief in God is superior to all other creeds, and that believers in AA must suppress or eliminate the agnostic or atheist voice in the fellowship. If they do not, AA will perish.

The vast majority of AA members are moderate and accommodating, but in our post-Bill Wilson era, moderation hasn’t always won the day. One delegate, who voted against the motion to expel the agnostic groups at the GTA Intergroup, marked the occasion by reading out a definitive statement by Bill W. from a 1946 edition of The Grapevine, AA's official publication:

"Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA Group. This clearly implies that an alcoholic is a member if he says so; that we can't deny him his membership; that we can't demand from him a cent; that we can't force our beliefs or practices upon him; that he may flout everything we stand for and still be a member. In fact, our Tradition carries the principle of independence for the individual to such an apparently fantastic length that, so long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other—these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so!"

AA faces serious challenges. Just as BP would have preferred to keep the Gulf of Mexico oil debacle inside the boardroom, AA would have preferred what happened in a church basement in North Toronto to remain AA’s little secret. But the story broke in The Toronto Star and went viral. What would once have been an internal matter is now aired in the full sight of the public. 

Another challenge is that there are now three times as many atheists in North America as there were in the 1960s. So if AA wants to move away from inclusivity, it will surely be a smaller fellowship when it celebrates its 100-year anniversary.

"I believe the controversy is less about belief in God, and more about the fact that we challenged power."

“AA is a religion in denial,” says Jim Christopher, founder of Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). “Belief in a path of faith can work, and that is great. No one can deny that AA works for a lot of alcoholics.” SOS is a fellowship of 20,000 recovering addicts, 90% of whom have been to AA. “I would be afraid of a 100% intellectual approach, too,” adds Jim, “Becoming addicted isn’t an intellectual process. According to my intellect, booze brought euphoria, a lie that my intellect called a life-affirming experience. Recovery is a fusion of head and gut.” SOS is neutral on religion.

Jerry T., an agnostic AA member from Florida, points out: “AA's history is one of it knowing better and being proven wrong. First it was the women who couldn't be alcoholics, who had to fight for their place. Then it was the non-smokers. Most every specialty meeting had some kind of fight or controversy surrounding its existence. The wonderful thing about our struggle is that it is going to force recognition of a lot of elephants in the room.”

Back in Toronto, David R. has attended SOS since the AA creed divide took place. “I have been alternately angry and sad, yelling and crying. But, like hitting bottom, there's relief, too," he says. "I am livid at the unfairness and injustice. There was no dialogue, no attempt to address the issue of the rewritten 12 Steps, no acknowledgment of the service we've provided and the people we've helped. There was no fellowship, just ideology, power play and dogma. I believe this current controversy is less about belief in God, and more about the fact that we challenged AA's power establishment.”

The pro-God contingent may have won in the short term, at least in Toronto, but their victory is bound to be short-lived. Given current social and demographic trends, AA’s power struggle over the "God Question" is far from finished, and Canada is bound to be far from the last battle-ground.

Jesse Beach is a writer in Ontario, Canada, and is in recovery.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Joe - Book shoot - 2346 - EYES DARKENED (2).jpg

Jesse Beach may be a contrarian. Clean and sober since the disco-era, Jesse finds the prayer-answering, sobriety-granting higher power notion a wee-bit superstitious for his pallet. Still, he finds a secular view of 12-Step culture no impediment to contented recovery. As a rebel, he's no follower either. Anonymity is so-last-century in this next-Gen smiley faces and voices recovery culture. Jesse's not shy; he just finds the message is the medium - not the messenger. Be the face and voice of recovery; have at it; Jesse is kickin' it old-school. Psst, Jesse Beach might not even be his real name. 

Besides addiction/recovery lifestyle journalism, Jesse's word-smithary is also found in music, finance and cue-sport magazines and websites. Jesse hosts a radio show on Sirius XM called, IndieCan Radio, "the best music you've never heard!" When he's away from his computer, you'll find him mountain climbing, cooking or songwriting.

Lurk or make contact with Jesse B on Rebellion Dogs at his website, Twitter, and Facebook.