By Joe C.
The 2018 General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous voted to adopt the British conference-approved pamphlet, “The ‘God’ Word: Agnostics and Atheists in AA” and once it is translated into Spanish and French, “La Palabra de ‘Dios’: agnósticos y ateos en Alcohólicos Anónimos” and “Le mot de ‘Dieu’: Agnostiques et athées chez les Alcooliques Anonymes” will go to print and then be available to any group or member or service committee that want/need it.
While I’m as excited to write about “The ‘God’ Word” let’s remember AA is always changing. AA history is as much about what happens in 2018 as it was about what happened in 1938… when Jim B got sober, by the way.
Re-visit www.aa.org and look at today’s PDFs of AA Word Services (AAWS) pamphlets. They are modernizing. Look at the covers: “Questions and Answers on Sponsorship” has a silhouette of two women, “A Newcomer Asks” has an illustration of a group facing the other way, culturally diverse and young. Cooperation with the Professional Community literature is more modern, more professional. Change is coming, thanks to initiatives at this year’s conference.
“The ‘God’ Word” pamphlet was easily approved to bring to the conference floor by the committee,” Kim S, Area 83 Eastern Ontario International delegate tells us, “It was item J in a list that went from A to M of advisory actions to be recommended. I was quite excited. As you know I was all for it at our Area and I asked some other delegates if it came up in their Area and they were all in favor, too. At the conference, on my notes, when the motion was carried, I wrote ‘Woo Hoo,’ which I said out loud, too; which you’re really not supposed to do. The motion to accept the advisory action passed with 121 votes for and 13 votes against.”
Saturday May 26th, a few days after I talked with Kim S for the podcast and this blog, we were with fellow Greater Toronto Area AAs at our annual Information A.A. Day. Members come to learn about how AA works beyond the local meeting, hear sub-committee reports (Archives, PI, CPC, Treatment, Accessibility, Corrections) and, as always, the Area 83 delegate’s power-point report about this year’s Conference. Kim S told everyone, just as she related to us, of laughter, crying and feeling humbled by being in the presence of an organization that takes its own inventory and makes changes for the better. Many achievements of AA-as-a-whole excited her; none more so than witnessing “The ‘God’ Word: Agnostics and Atheists in AA” becoming “Conference-approved.”
Get this: while there were many new faces in the audience, several of us were present at Intergroup for the vote to de-list agnostic/atheist AA groups from the meeting list. That was seven years ago. I remember some of them puffed up with pride that they had helped save local AA from secular infiltration (destroying AA from within). The de-listed groups, through a series of big and small acts, have been re-listed, the previously poisoned environment is more congenial.
These members who were pleased to excommunicate our groups back then, had nothing to say about “The ‘God’ Word,” now. And what could they say? It’s a very different environment in our local AA, today. No one seemed shocked that there would be a pamphlet about a god-free AA sobriety. As John S talked about in our podcast together (AA Beyond Belief #92), working together in service makes friends out of strangers. These fellow AA’s who voted against our two (and later three) early Toronto secular groups, I kept working with them in AA service. In a city of 4 million people and 500 meetings, members that do AA service are more of a small town—we can’t avoid each other if we wanted to. I’m polite to them, they’re polite to me. If either of us asked for a hand, the other wouldn’t think twice about helping. Sure, there are still those that think less of secular AA meetings, but they are viewed as the heretics now—not us. Locally, AA has self-corrected, returning to our unity of imperfect groups of flawed members, trying our best.
How many of these members will encourage their groups to order “The ‘God’ Word” in bulk? Some will ignore it completely; I doubt they have “AA for the Gay & Lesbian Alcoholic” in their shirt pocket, either. Take what you like and leave the rest: that’s AA. But we have a bridge-building tool now, that can help member-to-member, group-to-group (or central office) in our efforts to reach out to the world in aid of the still suffering alcoholic.
Contacting AA World Services Publishing in the hope of reporting an estimated time of arrival for the new pamphlet, no estimate can be offered; no luck, pas de chance, sin suerte. New literature projects are extensive this year.
What happens to committees, groups or AA-as-a-whole when people voluntarily take on tasks and then have decisions and expenses micromanaged or questioned? This leads to moral problems, egomania/power-trips and dysfunction. According to our Twelve Concepts:
“Our service structure cannot function effectively and harmoniously unless, at every level, each operational responsibility is matched by a corresponding authority to discharge it. This requires that authority must be delegated at every level — and that the responsibility and authority of every entity are well defined and clearly understood.”
So, GSO won’t come to AAWS Publishing in the next year with “that cost more than we expected,” or “We’ll have to re-think doing this at this time.” That’s just not how AA runs. Not all of AA understands or embraces this concept but informed leadership sticks by members/service groups decisions and they don’t have their authority rescinded. The ball is in AAWS Publishing hands.
What else is going on in literature?
Modernization—here’s some examples:
The text on page 18 of the pamphlet “Members of the Clergy Ask About Alcoholics
Anonymous” that currently reads:
Please check your local telephone directory or newspaper for the number of
.. Be revised to read:
Alcoholics Anonymous can be found on the Internet at aa.org and in most
telephone directories by looking for “Alcoholics Anonymous.” Additionally, online meetings are available, which members of the military and others often use when they are in places where there is no meeting nearby.
This type of “age of internet” changes are happening in several pamphlets.
Other changes to help underrepresented populations include:
- The revised pamphlet “A.A. for the Woman,” be retitled “Experience, Strength and Hope: Women in A.A.,”
- The revised pamphlet “A.A. and the Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic,” be retitled “Experience, Strength and Hope: LGBTQ Alcoholics in A.A.” be approved with minor edits provided by Publishing regarding use of gender specific language.
- The draft pamphlet “Experience, Strength and Hope: A.A. for Alcoholics with Mental Health Issues – and their sponsors” to be approved.
Mentioned in the podcast, Public Information was drawing attention to another underrepresented AA population: young people. Made by youth in AA, a new video was approved.
A key to overcoming systemic discrimination in any organization is encouraging diversity. While there’s no need to be ashamed of our past, the more we can replace images of middle-aged white guys with a more contemporary and diverse view of AA, the more attractive we will be to populations of all kinds.
Another challenge that Kim told us about, if you google “help to stop drinking,” www.AA.org doesn’t come up—the first few pages are mostly treatment centers. AA is exercising that ticklish job of attraction, not promotion, in re-establishing our lost voice (online) among the still suffering alcoholic.
What’s the path for a new pamphlet to be considered?
The General Service Conference represents AA-as-a-whole and their 2/3 agreement is what constitutes “conference-approved literature.” There are two committees: the trustees’ Literature Committee (TLC) which meets four times a year and the Conference Literature Committee (CLC), reviewing recommendations from the TLC. CLC can also make recommendations, requests, suggestions to the TLC. If you or I wrote a letter about a pamphlet, that would be given to the TLC. If our Area delegate was charged by our members to request the creation of a pamphlet, they could make a request to the TLC or they could bring it up as a floor action at the Conference. If there is a seconder for the motion, the Conference will debate it and if 2/3 agree, the Conference will refer the request to the TLC.
AA’s History of 40 years of requests for a pamphlet for Atheists and Agnostics
In September 1975 Al L wrote to the literature desk, “My logic, common sense and dedication to A.A. keeps me sober—and I don’t think the non-spiritual have been given a fair shake.” TLC created a sub-committee to consider an atheist/agnostic pamphlet as Al was suggesting.
Reviewing the subcommittee report, the 1976 TLC did not recommend that the CLC consider such a pamphlet.
However, “Do You Think You’re Different?” had just been approved, containing one atheist story. The following advisory action was accepted: “It is recommended that in the new pamphlet “Do You Think You’re Different?” the agnostic story (“My name is Jan”) be added and the Spanish story (“My name is Maria”) be deleted.”
In 1980 the CLC rejected the TLC suggestion for a “daily spiritual guide book” so, it’s important to keep in mind that rejected ideas aren’t reserved for secular views of AA. In October 1981 Ed S wrote, “Even though it would not be a best seller, could we have a pamphlet written by an agnostic or atheist for those who have trouble believing?” Ed was a former trustee who had worked on the 1975 subcommittee.
June of 1988 Eastern Pennsylvania Area 59 delegate Bill G requested that the TLC “consider a pamphlet for the ‘non-believer’.” Jack M had written directly to the literature desk without positive outcome and Area 59 put their support behind the idea. Tom M of Florida had also written in 1989 and he pointed out, “Both agnostics and atheists do in fact have a moral and spiritual base founded on humanistic principles.” Trustees recommended that the Area 59’s proposal be considered by the 1989 CLC. CLC conferred, “The committee discussed the proposal for some sort of spiritual literature for atheists and agnostics and did not see sufficient need to take action at this time.”
In 1989 the idea of a broad spirituality pamphlet that included non-believers was again advanced by trustees and upon recommendation from TLC to the 1990 CLC, proposed this advisory action (which the Conference passed): “The proposal for a pamphlet on the spiritual aspects of A.A. not be approved, because there is not sufficient need at this time.”
Southeastern New York Area 49, delegate Paul S wrote a 1995 letter showing substantial unanimity of the groups in his Area for an agnostic/atheist pamphlet (working title, “A.A., Religious or Secular?”). This was recommended to the 1996 CLC who, “considered a request for a pamphlet directed to the concerns of the non-believer (atheist and/or agnostic) and made no recommendations.”
A We Agnostics Group of NYC member, in July of 1997, asserting by letter that not only would it help newcomers, but an agnostic/atheist pamphlet would be a valuable tool for PI + Cooperation with the Professional Community (CPC). “The subcommittee feels that in the absence of other similar requests that the ‘no recommendation’ stance of the 1996 LCC stand.”
Five or more members wrote in 1999, mostly from New York requesting that a pamphlet about the spiritual aspects of AA, from a non-believer’s point of view be considered. The CLC again rejected a trustees’ “Spiritual Variety” pamphlet recommendation.
The 2001 CLC reported: “The committee suggested that the trustees’ Literature Committee consider adding to or clarifying existing pamphlets such as “This is A.A.” and “A Newcomer Asks” to address a variety of individual interpretations and individual experiences of spirituality in Alcoholics Anonymous.”
In 2002 an Advisor Action proposed by the CLC and approved by the Conference, the following: changes be made to “This is A.A.”: “…from ‘There are even a few self-proclaimed atheists and agnostics among us” to “There are also atheists and agnostics among us.”
In 2003, TLC “Reported that after lengthy discussion, the committee agreed to take no action on the request to develop a pamphlet concerning A.A., religion and spirituality.’”
The 2006 TLC forwarded a suggestion to CLC on a broad religion/spirituality topic and the CLC reported: “After a thorough discussion, the committee felt that there are already numerous references on this subject in the existing A.A. Conference-approved literature,” and took no action.
In 2008, Hawaii District 17, with the support of substantial unanimity petitioned the TLC to consider an agnostic/atheist pamphlet. A subcommittee did substantial research on previous literature activities on the subject from the 30 years from 1975 to 2006. After considerable consideration, TLC followed the established precedent and took no action.
Here’s where our General Service Conference stood in 2011: “…the trustees’ Literature Committee continue to develop literature which focuses on spirituality that includes stories from atheists and agnostics who are sober in Alcoholics Anonymous… a draft pamphlet or progress report be brought to the 2012 Conference Committee.”
In 2012, 201 stories were submitted. General Service Board Chair, Ward Ewing reported that there were also many letters received opposing moving forward with the “AA—Spiritual not Religious” draft. With 23 stories distilled down from the 201 submitted, the Conference was asked to approve the draft. It was rejected as is, sent back in 2013 for further consideration in 2014.
In 2014 it was recommended (and agreed upon), “The pamphlet on spirituality with the title ‘Many Paths to Spirituality’ be approved.”
In July 2016, the A.A. General Service Conference in Great Britain, having been tasked to create agnostic/atheist literature and having been approved by the Conference, published and printed leaflet 3267: “The ‘God’ Word: Agnostics and Atheists in AA.”
Can a pamphlet help newcomers or AA-as-a-whole?
Our Cooperation with the Professional Community and Public Information national and local efforts will find this arrow in our quiver particularly timely. When correctional or medical professionals resist the urge to refer alcohol-use disorder clients to AA, the number one reason for their reluctance is—not because there’s a more successful model than AA—because (their perception is) that AA is religious. Our rebuttal, “AA is spiritual, not religious,” hasn’t been persuasive in the eyes of the law:
“an Ohio atheist and humanist convicted of drug charges, filed in Cleveland federal court a lawsuit against presiding Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, officials of Cuyahoga County departments, and also against a treatment center. He said the judge and the treatment providers compelled him to participate in the Alcoholics Anonymous treatment program. Lindon claims the latter has roots in monotheistic spirituality.”
This was May 2, 2018 from World Religion News. A few years ago, Barry Hazle was awarded $2 Million and the correctional facility (State of California) and treatment center had to each make restitution. AA didn’t get sued, AA didn’t do anything wrong. AA would never fight a circuit court that deemed us to be a religious organization because of our Traditions. If that’s the court’s view, their welcome to it, without rebuff.
What American treatment center or drug-court wouldn’t be timid today about recommending, let alone enforcing, AA attendance? It’s a litigious minefield.
This pamphlet is a door opener to a larger conversation about the secular AA option available, be it outside or inside institutions.
The “But you can’t call yourself AA, if you don’t believe in God,” argument is now easier to reason with, thanks to this new pamphlet. Seeing, “conference-approved” goes a long way with members who believe in higher authorities.
Believers in AA will be better armed to help any newcomer, regardless of what they do or don’t believe. Hearing stories like this, candid and heart-felt, opens hearts and minds.
Newcomers will find eye-opening to their own prejudice about AA as being quasi-Judeo/Christian.
“If you’re of an atheistic or strongly agnostic mindset like myself, chances are you’ll walk into a meeting, see the steps hanging on the wall and want to scream, laugh or walk back out. People told me their stories, of God, the divine, the power of love, an intelligent creator. I told them I believed in mathematics.”
Now that’s agnostic. Another quote from “The ‘God’ Word” is:
“There is a place for atheists and agnostics in AA; a way through to happy, sober life and we should help each other to find it.”
How large is the percentage of AA members who do not subscribe to an anthropomorphic, intervening supernatural force at work in our day-to-day lives? We don’t know. While secular AA groups grow, how many more mainstream members don’t hold the view of a supernatural higher power but find contented sobriety in mainstream AA? This pamphlet might help some members searching for a better explanation of recovery than “God as we understand Him” language they use to fit in. “God could and would if He were sought” doesn’t accurately explain what it was like, what happened and what it’s like, for everyone.
AA is adaptive. We know that. Now, with the help of this pamphlet, newcomers will see that AA can help them without having to adopt someone else’s beliefs, nor having to deny their own.
About the Author, Joe C.
Joe C got sober 40+ years ago in Montreal Canada at the age of 16. Rebellion Dogs Publishing released Joe’s Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, the first secular daily reflection book for addicts and alcoholics. Joe is a regular columnist, focusing on music, finance, billiards and addiction/recovery lifestyle. Joe also hosts IndieCan Radio and Rebellion Dogs Radio. Sometimes, Joe facilitates workshops for behavioral health professionals and sometimes for members of the recovery community.