Toronto: Religious Bullies Distort the Alcoholics Anonymous Mission

In Toronto, two Alcoholics Anonymous groups that specifically removed reference to God and religion in their version of the Twelve Steps have been de-listed by the central organization there, a straight exhibition of the abuse of power and a breach of integrity in the pursuit of selfish ends.

Alcoholics Anonymous, as anyone who has listened to Charlie Sheen’s anti-AA rants knows, employs repeated evocations of God and “a higher power” in its formula for treating alcoholism.  But while many have successfully turned to faith in their journeys to sobriety, most individual AA chapters neither insist on religious belief nor preach it, leaving it to each member to decide what his or “her higher power” is. To many, it is a God, and to many it is the fellowship of AA itself. The point of the higher power is to help an alcoholic discover the spiritual strength and resolve to conquer a pernicious and powerful disease with no known cure. the objective of AA, however, is not to seek to strengthen religion.

The 12 Step recovery program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson in the 1930’s continues to succeed more frequently as a life-saving measure to battle alcoholism than any other means, and the effectiveness of the program resides in group support and routine, not religious devotion. The act of excluding atheists and agnostics from inclusion in AA is not only a distortion of the organization’s sole purpose and mission; it is simple cruelty. No caring individual should participate in an Alcoholics Anonymous group that advocates submitting to proselytizing as a condition of being part of the AA network.

A member of Beyond Belief, one of the de-listed groups, told the Toronto star that the group’s “ only wish is to ensure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, or having to deny their own.” That isn’t a description of AA new to Beyond Belief ; it is firmly in the tradition of Bill Wilson’s creation itself. The vast majority of Alcoholics Anonymous groups respect the right of all attendees to believe in God or not as they wish. Part of that respect involves actively working to avoid turning the hour-long gatherings into revival meetings; a member is welcome to talk about how his or her spiritual beliefs have assisted recovery and sobriety, but not in an oppressive or judgmental manner calculated to make the non-believers present feel isolated or excluded. This is ethical conduct, nothing more.

Looking over the list of the hundreds of AA groups in my metropolitan area, I see lawyer groups, doctors groups, twenty-something groups, seniors groups, women’s groups, gay groups, military veterans groups, atheist groups and many others. None of them would turn away a visitor in need who did not fit in their self-designated category, and all regard the uniting characteristic that brings its group together as entirely secondary, indeed incidental, to the defining mission of Alcoholics Anonymous: getting sober, saving families, and saving lives. That religious AA members would exercise their power within the organization to make desperate atheist alcoholics feel unwelcome turning to the recovery method most likely to give them hope merely shows why so many individuals, drunk and sober, have turned away from religion, and will continue to do so as long as it breeds such an oppressive number of bullies and bigots.

20 thoughts on “Toronto: Religious Bullies Distort the Alcoholics Anonymous Mission

  1. I’m not so sure. The Twelve Steps are AA, and vice versa; if Alcoholics Anonymous truly believes that the references to God and religion therein are fundamental precepts of the Twelve Steps, then they have an ethical obligation to say, “These guys aren’t using the Twelve Steps, and as such, are not a part of our organization.” I’m also not sure I see the cruelty angle; AA doesn’t seem to have any issue with the group continuing to meet or even the fork of the Twelve Steps.

    I believe atheistic sobriety groups serve a wonderful purpose, and can contribute the same amount of civic and personal value with or without the AA label. And I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of both the complete failure of Alcoholics Anonymous in its stated mission and the success of people who never used any kind of group in that same mission. However, I do believe every group has the right to its identity, and if God is inextricable from AA, then AA has the right, and possibly the obligation, to protect that identity.

    • In response to the previous post; AA is a worldwide fellowship which has not only included, but been shaped by many atheists & agnostics from the start. AA is a living organisation that excludes none. Everybody’s experience of sobriety is viewed to enrich the knowledge of the whole, and there might be lessons in failures too. The recent rejection and shunning of atheist &/or agnostic groups in parts of Canada & US is done by local collectives of AA groups & not AA’s General Services Board which carries 75 years of wisdom of the fellowship’s experience. Dogmatism is carried by those who like a world with it, in AA or not. The fact that these bullies have so far managed to distort what AA is and pass it off as the truth is the real issue.

      • I don’t doubt that atheists and agnostics have been valued members of AA, or that the groups in question have performed a vitally important service to their members. I do believe, however, that AA has the obligation to protect its identity, and if they believe that has been compromised, the right thing to do is to sever ties with the group (who, as was mentioned in the article, could easily identify with similar organizations more attuned to their beliefs).

        Thank you for informing me as to the structure of AA; I wasn’t sure if they had an overarching leadership or were a number of local and regional organizations. The former being the case, the General Services Board should step in and decide whether this is appropriate; the burden of stating the group’s identity falls on them.

        • There is no over-arching leadership group, in Canada or the USA, or the local Central Offices. One of the 12 Traditions says, “Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” Each AA meeting is autonomous, and does not take orders from above (not even from God).

          I’ve been going to Los Angeles’ “We Agnostics” group for years. They are the most tolerant, welcoming bunch you ever want to meet. I’ve been in a meeting where some one says, “There is no God and I hate him!”, and others where somebody said, “I’m sober today bcause Jesus is my saviour.”

          In neither case did anyone throw coffee cups at the speeakers or demand that they leave. But I once heard some one tell a newcomer, “Let us love you until you’re ready to love yourself.”

          That attitude is why I’ve been sober in AA for over 30 years.

    • God is NOT inextricable from AA. FYI, the third step reads: “Made a decision to turn out will and our lives over to the care of God AS WE UNDERSTOOD HIM.” In the list of the steps that last part is in italics.

      The DC area is full of AA meetings that include believers (in God), Buddists, agnostics, atheists, etc., along with those whose “higher power” is the AA groups themselves, doorknobs — whatever — where they can talk safely about their disease and be understood. No one is turned away if they don’t buy into God. No one.

      Your facts and opinions are misguided, wrong, and anachronistic.

      • I don’t see where I said God was. As a matter of fact, I made explicit reference to the groups in question being valued members of AA.

        What I did say is that, as a non-member, that’s not my call. Questions regarding the identity of an organization belong to that organization itself; Toronto AA has every right (and, I believe, the obligation) to defend that identity, and have chosen to do so in a way that, while disagreeable to some members, is not unethical.

        If you believe my opinions (I have yet to claim “fact”) is misguided, wrong and anachronistic, that’s fine. But I’d appreciate you correctly identifying them first.

        • The point is, I think, that AA has always been a fiercely mission-focused organization that has a well-established tradition of letting individual groups adapt the model to its needs. Taking a group out of AA means that it will be harder to find, and the alcoholics and AA members looking for such a group won’t know that it is an AA modeled session. God is not the mission of AA. and neither is empire building or marketing. It’s mission is saving lives and helping alcoholics (one member has said that in AA, “God” means “Group Of Drunks”), and putting a standard use of God in the 12 Steps above that mission is an abuse of AA’s reason for existing.

          • I know nothing of the Toronto issue. I do know that the Los Angeles “We Agnostics” is considered a legitimate AA group, and its meeting time and place are listed in the LA Central Office directory. As are several others, such as “Atheists & Agnostics in Recovery”, etc. The directory also notes whether smoking is allowed or not, whether a meeting is handicapped accessible, etc.

            For anyone in doubt, here is the preamble read out by the leader before each meeting (seems similar to Toronto’s):

            “We do not endorse atheism, nor oppose it. We do not oppose any form of religion, nor endorse it. Our only purpose is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobrkety in AA without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs, nor to deny their own.”

            Now, if that’s not practicing the “Golden Rule”, I don’t know what is. (Incidentally, so far as my research can find out, that “Golden Rule” was taught by the Hindus thousands of years before the time of Jesus. He did not invent it.)

            • Forgot to mention: we do not use the “Serenity Prayer” before the meeting, nor the “Lord’s Prayer” after it. Members are welcome to pray on their own time, in their own place.

              Sometimes after, we hold hands for a reassurance, and say, “Keep coming back, it works.”

              And sometimes we hold hands and say, “When anyone, anywhere, reacbhes out, I want the hand of AA alway to be there, and for that I am responsible.”

              Simple, and as good as any group prayers.

  2. AA Literature instructs members to use a God of their own understanding. Wouldn’t this include the Agnostic/Atheist concept of God?

  3. Holy cow! There are numerous “self help” and 12-step type organizations one can approach in an effort to heal whatever ails them. AA happens to believe that God could, and would if sought, help a person who is powerless over alcohol. No more, no less. Some use the term “good orderly direction” as the words for the acronym. Who cares? So long as AA exists, and has created a framework from which other self-help groups can copy for their own ideals, then the sufferer is all the better. There is AA in 120 countries, there are millions and milions of “members”, and the only requirement for membership is: a desire to stop drinking. How simple can it get. If a group chooses to label itself using the AA brand it must comply with the 12-steps and 12-traditions. Otherwise, it’s not an AA group. Simple. If I were to create a loose interpretation of Coke-a-Cola and call it Coke I would be breaching the copyright and trademark acts. I am a grateful member of the Hamilton AA family. Sandra H.

    • Many groups comply with the Steps and Traditions while adjusting the language to remove express reference to God. AA has always been anti-bureaucratic; obviously, there is a limit to how much the model can be customized and still be an AA chapter.

      • Agreed, all groups comply with the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions one way or another, as they see best.

        But what is really frowned upon by ALL is the 13th Step.

        • I know, I know, some non-members were asking, “What is the 13th Step?”

          13th Stepping is taking sexual advantage of a vulnerable newcomer. Does it happen? Hey, we’re talking about alcoholics here. It is why some AA literature, and AA’s accumulated wisdom strongly sugggests there be no dating between members until the newcomer has at least a full year of sobriety.

  4. I was told of this article on an anti-AA site originating in the States. What a wonderful article and group of responses. It is a lovely organization that ha helped millions, and I am grateful to see that some of those happy people are lending their voices. People outside of the organizaiton often criticize without knowing the first thing about AA. Namaste!

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