Are We Inclusive Or Subtly Divisive?

By Ernie P.

Hello, everyone. My name is Ernie and I am an alcoholic. My sobriety date is January 6th, 2011. I currently serve as DCM of District 9 in Area 44. I am very honored to stand here before you today—for so many reasons. 

Is God a requirement for AA membership?

By its very nature, the question is controversial. But this only makes it that much more important that it be addressed today.

A simple google search of “Atheist in AA” brings up an overwhelming number of results.  Sifting through, you may stumble across an article on an Atheist/Agnostic AA Group called We Agnostics located in Toronto, Canada.  We Agnostics decided to change the 12 steps. Similar to the way that–in a step meeting–everyone shares what the steps mean to him or her, the group decided what the steps meant to them collectively. In doing so, they hoped to make the steps more relatable and accessible to those who attended their meetings. Afterward, the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup, delisted the group. Why? The intergroup stated that a belief in God is a requirement to be listed.

Because of the delisting, a member filed a claim with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario against the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup and AA World Services, claiming this was a human rights’ violation.  AAWS stated that AA is not a religious organization–and, eventually, the Intergroup reached a mediation to relist the group, agreeing that belief in a God is not necessary.

Over the years, atheist and agnostic groups have been listed in other parts of Canada and the United States to promote an inclusive approach to AA membership rather than promote any religious or theistic perspective, but there are still intergroups that refuse to list atheist/agnostic groups. 

As stated in the Long Form of Tradition Three: “Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence, we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.” 

Tradition three is reiterated in the book “AA Comes of Age”, further elaborating “that means these two or three alcoholics could try for sobriety in any way they liked. They could disagree with any or all of AA’s principals and still call themselves an AA group.”

Jim Burwell is credited with the adoption of AA’s third tradition as reported by Bill in the 12 & 12.  It was primarily Jim, along with Hank Parkhurst, who convinced Bill to change the 12 Steps to be more inclusive for those who did not believe in God.

From the beginning, controversy existed over the idea that belief in God was essential to sobriety. Jim and Hank argued that the alcoholic should be able to “take God or leave Him alone as he wished.” They paved the way for what is happening now, all these years later, with a growing population of agnostics and atheists. Jim also helped start the first AA groups in Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore.  If our past members were so concerned with being inclusive to all suffering alcoholics inside and outside the rooms of AA, shouldn’t we carry that out as well?

The facts and arguments I’ve discussed hit close to home for me—for I, too, am an atheist. 

I have to be honest; it was quite frightening when I came in to AA and saw the steps. All I wanted to do was stop drinking, and yet I kept hearing the word God. Eventually, it became easier to feel I was a part of the fellowship, mostly due to the many wonderful people in AA who have accepted me for who I am and allowed me to follow my own path. I find my higher power within the groups of AA. I could not have made it without my fellow AA members.  It’s with them that I finally realized I am not unique—or alone.  I am experiencing a new freedom and happiness, and I need to stay connected to this higher power.

As an atheist, I don’t want to force you to conform to what I do or do not believe. Conversely, I feel the same should apply to those who do believe in God.  I am profoundly grateful that your Higher Power works in your life.  But while I support you and your beliefs, I do not want your Higher Power in my life.  I think most atheists and agnostics feel this way.  We want to stay sober just as badly as you. Please, do not deprive us of our own path.  When we change the steps into something that is relatable to us, or make a mental adjustment to some wording in the Big Book, or 12 and 12, it does not set us on a rampage to change all the text of AA.  We are simply trying to stay sober in a way that works for us, just as those who believe in God are trying to stay sober in a way that works for them. 

When I take a sponsee through the steps, I do not change anything, I allow them to read the book as it is, and to tell me what it means to them.  This is the beauty of AA working in both of our lives. It is up to them if they wish to follow a path of belief or non-belief; it is not up to me.  If I tried to affect their beliefs, I would deprive them of an opportunity to grow, the same opportunity my sponsor and so many others have given me. 

I work hard to ensure I’m not critical of others and their beliefs.  I know I cannot be offended when people attack my views, if I then retaliate and attack what they believe in.  It solves nothing…

I find great value in the Big Book, the 12 Steps, 12 Traditions, 12 Concepts, and other AA literature.  I would probably not be sober today without the readings. I also need to stay open to the fact that my own personal beliefs grow and change in sobriety. The truth is, I do not know what I may or may not believe in 10 years, and the only thing that allows for my continued personal growth is an openness to knowing that there may well be changes—in me. But what about now?  If only I had had extra tools designed to guide the atheist and agnostic. Tools like the pamphlet, ‘The God Word’ could have assisted me when I questioned whether this program could really help me.  Tools of which some newcomers may also be in dying need of.

More and more young people who do not believe in God are coming in to our fellowship. The fastest growing “religious” group in America is made up of people with no religion at all. It is up to us to make sure the door is open for all.

AA membership has plateaued for the last several years.  Unfortunately, the number of those suffering from alcoholism has not. If we hope to expand our membership base and serve all suffering alcoholics who need us, we must remember that we cannot be that biased person who pushes members back out the door.  If we tell newcomers they need not believe in God, that they can simply believe in the fellowship, then we must ensure we’re not holding back mentally or emotionally.  We can’t imply in subtle ways that, eventually, they will need to believe in God to succeed.

When my daughter enters this world in March or April of this year, it is imperative that she has a seat in the fellowship of AA should she ever need it—regardless of her beliefs.  This is about the future of AA and the seats not yet filled.

So… How can we reach out to those who oppose our beliefs? Is it even possible? When is it time to walk away from some people? When does religion—or the lack thereof—go from discussion to defensiveness? How do we stay united? Therein lies the wisdom to know the difference I suppose. 

In closing let me share four irrefutable facts: One, people with God have stayed sober. Two, atheist and agnostics have stayed sober. Three, people with God have relapsed. Four, atheists and agnostics have relapsed. 

Hence, I ask each and every one of us: Is God a requirement for AA membership? And, finally, do you consider yourself to be inclusive or are you subtly divisive?

Sources:

Craig W, Area 11 – Panel 65 Past Delegate, 2018 Chair of NERAASA

Paul W, Area 44, Past DCM District 28, Fellow Atheist

(Phone Interview) Larry K of “We Agnostics” in Toronto Canada

(Phone Interview) Greg T., General Manager of the General Service Office

Jay E, Area 44 – Panel 65 Past Delegate

Keith B, Area 44 – Panel 49 Past Delegate, Service Sponsor

AA service manual – tradition three

AA Comes of Age – page 81, 105

12 & 12 – page 143 – 145

Merriam Webster Dictionary

AA Toronto Agnostics

CNN Survey: One in Five Americans Has No Religion

AA Beyond Belief Podcast Episode 48: Larry K Interview

News Wire Article About Toronto Intergroup Dispute

Jim Burwell Article on AA Agnostica

Estimated AA Membership


Links

Listen to our podcast episode with Ernie P. 

Listen to the complete panel at NERAASA 2018

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  1. Glenn April 14, 2018 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Thanks for your courage in speaking out. It is vital that we always keep AA open to anyone who has a desire to stop drinking, regardless of their personal beliefs.  I am grateful that my sponsor was very practical–take what works and leave the rest. I have been sober and happy for 40 years. I’ve done a great deal of service work and sponsorship. All of this as one who does not believe in a god. The group-of-drunks and good-orderly-direction are my higher powers. To me,  “god” is a verb, not a noun. It’s all in the doing. Spiritually is what spiritually does.

  2. Paul W April 12, 2018 at 9:56 am - Reply

    Ernie,

    Well put; cogent and complete.  I was pleased to be of some help to you and honored to be referenced as one of your references.  In the end, it was your hard work that shows through.  Thank you for what you have done.

    Paul W.

  3. life-j April 11, 2018 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    Took me a bit to figure out what’s going on today, and what this was: A talk for a major assembly of regular AA. And that there is also a podcast, which I am in the process of reading. My first reaction before I had figured it out was that this article, which is a talk, is way too nice, but for the situation I think, after all, that it was well done. It is good to see that some of us are able to make it way up into the service structure, and be heard.

    I clicked on one of your references above, the estimated AA membership, and discovered a couple of puzzling facts which it would be interesting to discuss what it means:

    First I am aware that while 1992 was the all-time high number of members, it did drop to a low in 1995 from which it has recovered quite a bit, though overall membership is down about 300 k since 92. So there is some of it which should simply be attributed to fluctuation, though that of course begs the question: why the rather large fluctuation? However what I find puzzling is that the number of groups has increased by about 30% over that same period.

    I am aware that many, presumably fairly small groups have formed in new places around the world, where there was no AA before, and though these groups must contribute an absolute increase in membership, that this must mean membership is decreasing all the more in north America – or something like that? Would like to hear others’ opinions about this.

    Anyway, Thanks Ernie, I’m going back to read the podcast.

  4. Mary April 11, 2018 at 10:35 am - Reply

    Thank you Ernie. Very well said. I agree 100% as well. Will make copies , to help the ” believers” understand my perspective.

    Thank you.

  5. Micaela S. April 11, 2018 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Beautiful, well written, thoughtful essay.   I agree with all of it.

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