Toronto's AA Intergroup Bounces Atheists After Spirited Battle

By Dirk Hanson 06/06/11

A long-simmering dispute over spirituality in A.A. finally led traditionalists to trash atheists in a public Toronto take-down.

aa booze.jpg
Time for a new take on the God part?
Photo via abookman

A long-standing rift in the A.A. rank and file broke into the open over the weekend as Toronto’s two atheist/agnostic Alcoholics Anonymous groups were thrown off the official city list. The Greater Toronto Area Intergroup, the local A.A. coordinating organization, voted to remove the two groups from the published directory of meetings, and from its website. The Toronto Star said the city’s two secular groups, named Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, kicked up the fuss by adopting a rewritten version of the famous Twelve Steps, removing all references to “God” that appear in Bill W.’s original version. “The name of God appears four times in the Twelve Steps,” writes the Star’s Leslie Scrivener, “and echoes the period in which they were written—the 1930s.” But rewriting the basic tenets of A.A. as preserved through the years did not sit well with many A.A. members. “They [the altered Twelve Steps] are not our Twelve Steps,” said an A.A. member who was at the meeting of the Intergroup that de-listed the two groups. “They’ve changed them to their own personal needs.”

It's well known that A.A. dynamics vary widely, and many A.A. meetings over the years have ended with a group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. “That has obviously stopped in all but hard-core groups," the A.A. member told the Star. “We welcome people with open arms.” We think that is the right approach, but banning the groups is an odd way to welcome them. “I’ve tried A.A. meetings and I couldn’t get past the influence of right-wing Christianity,” said another prospective member. Serving these drinkers is the goal of the atheist/agnostic groups.

“God as we understood him,” as it says in the Third Step, has been a stumbling block to many throughout A.A.’s 75-year history. Thinkers from Carl Jung to Gregory Bateson have seen in A.A.’s higher power not Godhead, but rather a recognition of processes beyond a single individual—the power of the many, compared to the power of one. The group itself becomes the “higher power,” in many cases. Is it time to officially admit that it's possible to be secular and sober in A.A.? Writer Joe Chisholm sent us this quote by A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson, from the A.A. Grapevine of April, 1961: “In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking with this sort of unconscious arrogance. God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging—perhaps fatally so—to numbers of non-believers.”

Here are two examples of the changes in the Twelve Steps that got Beyond Belief booted out of the Toronto A.A. circle:

Step Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Adapted version: Came to accept and to understand that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.

Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
Adapted version: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the AA program.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]