Doomed to Repeat: 65 Years Later, AA Still Hostile to Nonconforming Fellows

By Joe C. 

When talking with somebody about the inclusivity in AA have you ever thought of bringing Bill W. into the conversation?

Well, if the question is about groups who alter, modify or disregard AA’s Twelve Steps or Traditions, Bill has something to say. Should such people be thrown out of AA? Should such groups be delisted if they identify themselves as agnostic or secular? Bill set the record straight in 1953 at AA’s third General Service Conference:

“Do you think we should tell those people: ‘You can’t belong to Alcoholics Anonymous unless you print those Twelve Steps the way we have them?’ No.” Bill goes on to say, “We even have a Tradition that guarantees the right of any group to vary all of them, if they want to. Let’s remember, we are talking about suggested steps and traditions.”

Descriptive—not prescriptive—is how Bill W viewed our AA Steps and Traditions; alterations in or disregard for any or all of AA’s Steps and Traditions is permitted. This viewpoint is echoed in our AA Service Manual,[i] which is given to every new General Service Rep at the start of their two-year term.

AA has been called a “benign anarchy,” but Bill saw it as self-correcting and resisted giving anybody in the fellowship governance over the beliefs and practices of others.

Sadly, 65 years after the Third General Service Conference, some people use the first 164 pages of the Big Book as a disciplinary manual rather than a collection of suggested understandings and practices followed by the small number of AA’s founding members, who, we should remember, had only two or three years sober at the time.

In today’s AA, secular groups are being harassed and discriminated against by 12-Step clubhouses, districts, Intergroups, and GSO spokespersons. Sixty-five years after Bill’s address on “Variations of Form in The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” we still have self-appointed authoritarians asking, “Is group and member liberty getting out of hand?” Is this urge to control the conduct of individual AA groups actually protecting us against harmful interpretations of AA principles or only corrupting our primary purpose?.

This year, the Many Paths Group of Urbana Illinois was removed from the meeting list for what seemed to be a series of moving-target violations. First, Many Paths was told that they were being delisted because the group’s information appeared on and the group’s own Facebook page. Can this plausibly be interpreted as a violation of Tradition Six? And even if it were, nothing in the traditions or AA’s governance authorizes a district or intergroup to discipline a purportedly errant group in this way. Rather, we should look to our Service Manual for guidance: “Because we set such a high value on our great liberties, and cannot conceive a time when they will need to be limited, we here specially enjoin our General Service Conference to abstain completely from any and all acts of authoritative government which could in any way curtain A.A.’s freedom…”  (Warrantee Six, Concept XII)”[ii]

The issue of Facebook and turned out to be a red-herring. Many Paths closed the Facebook page and took its name off the list. The district then decided that only groups that guarantee their members all work the Twelve Steps would be listed. But how can this be determined, and by whom? In the end, Many Paths was restored to the list—for now—but hostility from the district persists. The district hasn’t fully realized that it has no business policing groups.

Northeast of Urbana Illinois, our first French freethinkers group, Les Libres Penseurs in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, is getting grief for reading their own non-theistic “How it Works”.[iii] Suffering from the same confusion between AA unity and uniformity, the Area 87 group conscience determined that if a group does this, district/area can expel them. Today, on the meeting list, The Freethinkers (Les Libres Penseurs) meeting is not listed.

This action seemed to be censored at the July 20-22, 2018 Eastern Canada Regional Forum in Quebec when an attendee looked for guidance from Greg T, GSO’s General Manager, on how to control groups that re-write AA’s portions of AA script. Greg reminded us that while GSO can’t change Traditions or Steps without the authorization of 75% of AA membership, groups and members are not bound by GSO rules. Did any of this sink in?

These two groups are not the only ones having their legitimacy questioned. But Saint-Hyacinthe and Urbana show that some service structures have taken on the illegitimate role of group compliance officers. Let’s go back and look at earlier cases; this won’t be an exhaustive list of AA-stewardship faux pas, but it will give us a sample of conflicts over group autonomy and the use of the Traditions to intimidate or expel AA groups.

I remember when Beyond Belief Agnostics & Freethinkers Group in Toronto (2009) began. The New York City agnostic-AA-site[iv] was the keeper of the worldwide secular meeting list at the time. They also posted an agnostic version of AA’s Twelve Steps. One day the New York Agnostics webmaster got a letter from GSO that said:

“Dear sir or madam,

It has recently been brought to our attention that you are hosting a Web site for a group using the name of Alcoholics Anonymous … A group which feels a need to change the 12 Steps and to change the message may be a recovery group, but it is not an A.A. group.

It has long been the case that Alcoholics Anonymous has freely granted permission to a wide range of ‘Anonymous’ recovery programs to adapt the Twelve Steps of A.A. as well as A.A. literature and the Traditions. However, once they have done so, they are asked not to call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous. So we respectfully request that your group stop calling itself an A.A. group.

Yours in fellowship,

Gayle, General Service Staff”

A “pack your bags, you’re no longer welcome here” letter from Big Brother GSO is intimidating. I wonder whether this General Services representative had read Warrantee Six. If not, she might have consulted page 81 of AA Comes of Age. Bill doesn’t tell Godless Buddhist groups to not call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, he celebrates the pioneering spirit demonstrated by Buddhists without implying that they did AA as a whole any harm with their interpretation of the AA message.  

Bill’s 1953 address prophesized, “The more we insist on conformity, the more resistance we create.”

Toronto Intergroup tried to eradicate a growing demand for secular AA, expelling both the We Agnostics and Beyond Belief Agnostics groups (and later, Widening Our Gateway group) from the meeting directory. Groups were stripped of their right of participation as voting Intergroup members. These actions had unintended consequences, arousing widespread awareness and resistance. By the time Vancouver Intergroup got in on the delisting fun, secular AA won the favor of AA members at large and there were nearly 30 agnostic/atheist AA meetings from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic coast of Canada.

 Unfortunately, after four years of efforts by Toronto secularists to remedy their situation, it took an appeal to The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to set things straight. The Tribunal ruled, with the force of law, that the acts of discrimination against secular groups were illegal.

In the aftermath, secular and mainstream AA’ers in Toronto are getting along with each other. Secular AA is mentioned in this year’s 75 Years of A.A. in Ontario booklet. Vancouver’s Intergroup’s chairperson followed the Toronto Human Rights agreement, avoiding their own day in court; Vancouver agnostic/atheist groups are back in the meeting book.

So, we’ve looked at Toronto, Vancouver and Saint-Hyacinthe in Canada, and at New York, Des Moines and Urbana in the USA. The misconceptions the secular groups in these locations ran into include:

  • There are sacred rituals/readings/wordings that are mandated by AA principles.
  • Group rights are somehow granted by GSO or Intergroup and these service bodies are charged with the duty of punishing nonconforming groups.
  • By discriminating against rogue groups, AA stewards are protecting AA’s Traditions and preserving the integrity of the AA message.

AA’s recent aggressiveness towards nonconforming groups is based on a perception of what our founders intended for AA. Is this perception accurate? Not if we heed the Special Report of the Third General Service Conference: 

Bill said he proposes to consider “whether this program of ours is frozen as solid as an ice cube, or whether there is any elasticity in it, whether we are going to get into this business of insisting on conformity, whether we are going to get into the business of creating an authority that says: ‘These Steps and Traditions have to be this way.’”

When the Twelve Steps were presented to the other alcoholics in New York, Bill said, a great uproar developed. “My sin was that I had varied the six into twelve!” And a lot of people objected to the reference to God in the new steps, as originally printed. “Because of this, we finally got around to the idea of the ‘Higher Power’ or ‘God as you understand Him.’ So the Twelve Steps themselves were a tremendous variation, not in principle, but in the manner of stating them.”

This pioneering story is now being reenacted in distant lands. In one country, the Steps have been altered somewhat in phrasing and reduced to seven. “Do you think we should tell those people: ‘You can’t belong to Alcoholics Anonymous unless you print those Twelve Steps the way we have them?’ No. They are merely going through the old pioneering process we had to go through ourselves.”

Bill told of his surprise when he was presented with a proposed draft of revised Steps to be used in working with seamen who, he had been assured, “were not going to take the Twelve Steps the way they are written.” Examining the “revision”, he was amazed to note that they corresponded, number for number, with the six steps in the original A.A. word-of-mouth program!

“Where variations of the Traditions are concerned, we’ve gone up and down like a window shade. We even have a Tradition that guarantees the right of any group to vary all of them, if they want to. Let’s remember, we are talking about suggested steps and traditions. And when we say each group is autonomous, that means that it also has the right to be wrong.”

“My feeling is that the more we insist on conformity, the more resistance we create. But if the Traditions and Steps reflect accurately what our experience has been, the alcoholic, no matter where in the world he may be, will eventually adopt the principles that will work the best for him.”

In 1953, Bill encouraged unity—not uniformity. He didn’t see Alcoholics Anonymous as holy writ or the final word: “If any improvements are to come, who can say where they may come from?”

In As Bill Sees It and the “A.A. Grapevine,” Bill talks about the endurance and sacredness of the principles of AA… that’s principles, not the wording or language of the steps and traditions: “So there is little doubt that AA principles will continue to be advocated in the form they stand now… While we need not alter our truths, we can surely improve their application to ourselves, to AA-as-a-whole and to our relations with the world around us.”[v]

Bill didn’t insist on Big Book principles “exactly as written.” Perhaps this is because he himself adapted the steps of the Oxford Group to the needs of his time and circumstances. Based on his remarks at the Third General Conference and in his writings, there can be little question of his openness to changes that meet the evolving circumstances and needs of AA’ers today. Heeding Bill’s open-mindedness and inclusivity, nobody needs to be kicked out of AA, and certainly no group needs to be delisted again. We can unite around our common goal of helping alcoholics sober up and recover from their malady while also recognizing that there are different paths leading to this objective.


[ii] Ibid “Twelve Concepts of World Service by Bill W.” p. 72



[v] “The Shape of Things to Come,” A.A. Grapevine, February 1961, Bill W, As Bill Sees It, p. 86

About the Author

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 in 2013, the first secular daily reflection book for addicts and alcoholics. Joe is a freelance writer, focusing on music, finance, billiards and addiction/recovery lifestyle. Joe also hosts IndieCan Radio and Rebellion Dogs Radio. Upcoming for Joe, are research pretentions for this October’s Annual NAADAC (National Association of Addiction Treatment Professionals) conference and AA History Lovers Symposium in February. For more info or to contact Joe, visit Facebook or @

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2 years ago

Ive been sober and active for 32 1/2 in Los Angeles area. I have never seen any hostility toward anyone for what they believe or dont believe. Im glad people arent that way here

Bill K (COTU Bill)
Bill K (COTU Bill)
2 years ago

Many thanks to Joe C. for pointing out the facts supporting the fact that AA should, by definition, be inclusive and that the self-appointed arbiters of fellowship control are conducting a campaign without a mandate. Well informed members like Joe need to debate the Pooh-bahs and point out that the Emperor, indeed, has no clothes. I believe the struggle for inclusivity in AA can be fought at two levels. Those of us who are, and intend to remain, relatively inactive politically, can do much at a lower level to promote inclusiveness in AA. I believe that the average AA member… Read more »

2 years ago

 Thanks to the courageous for not backing down & working to bring  the focus back, to recovery for all!

2 years ago

Music to my ears! 12 Step recovery groups demanding conformity is frightening & needless to say unhealthy as there have been thousands, including myself, who said, enough religiosity I’m outta here. So finally, w/enough like minds, we can begin again. Thanks to the courageous for not backing down & bringing the focus back, to recovery for all!

Joe C
3 years ago

With thanks to lifej for this (research and translation) here is the Seven Step program, referred to by Bill in 1953, as it exists today: The Link Movement is clubs for former drug addicts who support each other to avoid relapse. The first Link association, Sällskapet Länkarna  was formed in 1945 in Stockholm, inspired by the American AA movement (Alcoholics Anonymous). Since then similar associations which are based on The Seven Points (see below), have been formed in many places in Sweden. During the 1950s it was split up into several national organizations: Lænkarnas Landsforbund, Länkens Kamratförbund and Fria Sällskapet… Read more »