Thursday, April 13, 2017

Beyod Belief: A Secular trip throgh AA's 12 Steps October 27 - 29, 2017

This is the view from the Sedona Mago Retreat Center which hosts the Recovery Series of weekend retreats. Back by attendee-demand, Joe C of Rebellion Dogs is hosting an agnostic/secular look at AA's Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, October 27 - 29, 2017.

What can you expect? The weekend fee includes registration, meals, accommodation (single or shared). Not included is the flight to PHX (Phoenix Airport). Rent a car if you're going on an extended holiday or catch the Sedona Mago shuttle bus.  The food is mostly vegan fair but there are fish and dairy offerings... lots of coffee and tea, too.

If you're going to explore before or after the retreat, your driving distance from The Grand Canyon or Las Vegas. It's a few more hours to Los Angeles but you can leave in the morning and be there in the afternoon.

Attendees can expect some lectures/prepared material and some workshop activities. We hope to attract a variety of members with a range of worldviews. The idea of our weekend isn't an echo-chamber for those of us who don't hold a theistic view of AA recovery. Anyone, for their own edification or to help with newcomers, ought to find this refreshing approach eye-opening with out throwing stones at more traditional AA-viewpoints.

More Information:

Joe C is the author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life and the host of Rebellion Dogs Radio.
Previous Sedona Retreats have included AA History Loves Symposium 2016 and "An Atheist and a Theologian Go On a 12-Step Call Together" in 2015 with John McAndrew MDiv.

Reach out to Jay Stinnett about Beyond Belief and other retreats:

Retreat director Jay S talks about the 2017 series including a family, The 4th edition of AA History Loves Symposium, meditation and secular AA weekends. S on Facebook talking about Sedona Mago Retreat 2017

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ernie Kurtz speaks about the new book Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life -  daily reflections for nonbelievers, freethinkers and EVERYONE

Over 700,000 daily devotionals are sold each year. Hazelden dominates the market with Twenty-four Hours a Day selling over 8 million copies, Languge of Letting Go, a 20 year book for codependents is still in Amazon's top 900 of all book sales, AA's own Daily Reflections sells over 150,000 each year. There are books for women, men, newcomers and young people. Finally, there is a secular offering that, while good for one and all, isn't something nonbelievers have to shoehorn their worldview into.

Ernie Kurtz received his Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University in 1978. Dr. Kurtz was the first researcher to be granted unrestricted access to the archives of Alcoholics Anonymous. Hazeleden had the wherewithal to publish Ernie’s Ph.D. dissertation—the book that resulted was, Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. Along with Katherine Ketcham Ernie gave us, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Modern Wisdom from Classic Stores (1992), and a book that demonstrates Kurtz acute understanding of addiction, Shame and Guilt (revised and updated in 2007). For those in the know, catching an Ernie Kurtz lecture on his academic study of spirituality would be a life-altering experience. For those of us who missed that opportunity, there is more of Kurtz on addiction and spirituality in the 1999 The Collected Ernie Kurtz. There are been other books and other writings, both scholarly and popular but today, Rebellion Dogs are honored to share Dr. Kurtz’s experience with reading the musings of Beyond Belief.

            One meaning of reflection, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the action of turning (back) or fixing the thoughts on some subject; meditation, deep or serious consideration.”This treasure of a book offers spurs to reflection and more. Drawing on a rich variety of often surprising sources, each day's reading provides not a mere bite but a full meal of thoughts for the coming or just-past day. Since my mornings tend to be rushed, Beyond Belief soon moved itself into my mid-afternoon “break” period, where it could shed more leisurely light both backwards and forwards.

            Beyond Belief terms its offerings musings rather than “meditations.”The O.E.D. gives the first meaning of the verb muse as “to be absorbed in thought; to meditate continuously in silence; to ponder.”  Absorbed . . . ponder: this book is not light reading. I have not so far wanted to fight with it, but I do find Beyond Belief often challenging, sometimes provocative, unfailingly stimulating.

            The book is aimed at a general 12-Step readership, but it is mindful that there heretofore exist no such aids for unbelievers, freethinkers, and the unconventionally spiritual. Given that the latest Pew survey found that twenty percent of the American people list their religious affiliation as “None,” it is certainly time that the Recovery world took into consideration this population's needs. Beyond Belief addresses that need in a confident, non-aggressive way. I doubt that any believer will find anything objectionable in its pages. This believer, for one, finds much that is spiritually helpful.

            If I have one criticism of this book it is that its musings are too rich. On quite a few pages I wished to pause and think after virtually every sentence. For many, reading Beyond Belief will require a pen or pencil in hand and perhaps a notebook on the side.

            This is the first daily reflection book of which I know that offers a lengthy (17-page) “Notes” section as well as a full Bibliography. The Notes are far more than mere citations, often presenting brief additional discussion and even new material that more frequently than not is as rich as the text itself.  

            In addition to the Notes and Bibliography, the end-matter of Beyond Belief contains a full Index that allows searching out individual musings on just about any topic. Having problems with “ego”? Check out May 29, August 8, September 24 or seven other dates. Polishing your gratitude? Flip to March 2, June 16, November 12 or eleven other dates.

            Beyond Belief will enrich anyone interested in living a 12-Step life.

Ernest Kurtz, Ph.D. (author of The Spirituality of Imperfection and Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous)
Released January 25th, 2013, in its first week on Amazon, Beyond Belief cracked the top 100 sales in the Recovery/12 Step category. Here's where more information can be found...

Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life is available on Amazon:

Anyone can read 100 sample pages from Rebellion Dogs Publishing at:

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

AAs Concept V make unpopular opinions legit!

Background: In Toronto Canada a new era of AA stewardship is sweeping AA Intergroup.  It is the era of governance, enforcement and homogeneity of a singular interpretation of the message of Alcoholics Anonymous. Though this blind rage will hopefully burn itself out, this is the type of story the Bill Wilson would surely draw upon in his Beranstain Bears “this is what you should not do, so let this be a lesson to you[i],” style of essays that the Twelve Traditions are full of.

In Toronto, agnostic AA groups (a proud part of the AA fold since 1978) were carrying the message to nonbelievers and providing a haven of like-minded alcoholics for long-timers that never did find a God they understood.  Some believers don’t like the idea of agnostic AA and stay away. In Toronto, intolerant believers saw the presence of agnostic groups in the meeting directory as a treat to the newcomer and the sustainability of their brand of the AA message. So Intergroup[ii] tossed the agnostic groups from the directory and the Intergroup steering committee stricken the agnostic groups from participation on the Intergroup floor, leaving no means of appeal – at least not by the directly affected parties.

Indianapolis, Des Moines and from what I hear, Boston have wrestled with this same bigotry which, like all intolerance is based in fear.  Bill Wilson’s AA was and is one of reducing barriers to entry – not putting them up. In a Toronto General Service District Committee meeting the following essay was presented as a discussion piece on AA’s Twelve Concepts:

Concept V[iii]: “Through our world service structure, a traditional “Right of Appeal” ought to prevail, thus assuring that minority opinion will be heard and that petitions for the redress of personal grievances will be carefully considered.”

Bill W quotes a French nobleman, De Touquerville who visited North America to witness the new Republic. As noted by Wilson, the nobleman expressed that, “the greatest threat to democracy would always be the tyranny of apathetic, self-seeking, uninformed or angry majorities. Only a truly dedicated citizenry, willing to protect and conserve minority rights and opinion, could guarantee the existence of a free and democratic society.”

When unpopular opinions are forbidden and minorities are scapegoats, De Touchqerville would view these signals as a society in decay. Are we a “truly dedicated citizenry?” Is AA in our area apathetic? Have we ever been part of a self-seeking, uninformed or angry majority that imposed our will on a minority?  Concept V – the minority opinion, is our best chance of not falling prey to this kind of complacency.

The General Service Conference may seem like they take forever to get anything done. Hearing the opinion of the minority is something that AA goes to great lengths to ensure.  Often when a two-thirds vote could easily be obtained the floor agonizingly waits to hear what everyone has to say. The minority can alter the will of the majority.

Barry L, author of “Do You Think You’re Different” and “Living Sober” was a GSO staff member in 1973 and 1974 and tells of the story when the Conference had to decide if Gay meetings could be so identified in AA directories. The mood of the floor was dead-set against the idea. Remember that homosexuality was still a felony and gay men and women were spoken of as deviants.

In Barry’s 1985 World Conference talk in Montreal he recalls, “The discussion in 1974 went back and forth, back and forth for two days and two nights. Much of the agenda was whipped out. I remember one man saying, ‘I guess if this year you list the sex deviants, next year you’ll list the rapists AA groups.’

“A delightful woman from one of the northern States or maybe Canada, standing about three feet tall, came to the middle microphone and pulled it down to her face and said, ‘Where I come from alcoholics are considered deviants.’  The chairman astutely saw that the mood of the floor had changed and he asked if anyone wanted to call the question. The vote was cast and only two delegates voted against the gay and lesbian groups; it was almost unanimous, 129 votes to two.[iv]

Every generation thinks it has found some new threat to AA sustainability.  If I was to bring up the topic of a group changing the wording of the Twelve Steps, you might think I am talking about AA literalists vs agnostic groups at Toronto Intergroup Circa: 2011. While it is true that here in Toronto, what the minority calls “group autonomy,” a resounding majority of Toronto Intergroup reps call grounds for dismissal, 55 years ago, AA had a different attitude towards minority rights and group autonomy.

A poignant story comes from “AA Comes of Age.” In the mid 1950s AA was reaching alcoholics around the world, where the God belief that dominates AA culture was not shared by many. Bill Wilson was quite clear about the liberty for individual groups in his Chapter on Unity from “A. A. Comes of Age.”  On page 81 he is talking about Buddhists who said that they would love to be part of AA, yet they would be replacing the word “god” with “good” so that the practice of the Steps could be compatible with their atheistic belief. In 1957, Bill writes:

“To some of us, the idea of substituting ‘good’ for ‘God’ in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of A.A.’s message. But here we must remember that A.A.’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made A.A. available to thousands who never would have tried at all had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.”

Today’s Toronto Intergroup convincingly disagrees with our cofounder. Voting out atheists has surely increased the popularity of Intergroup participation. Intergroup is generally represented by 40 to 50 of Toronto’s 200+ groups. We got 82 bums in seats to keep two nonconforming groups from returning to Intergroup participation and to vote out a new deviant group.

AA stewards have come out of the woodwork to see and participate in AA democracy – or at least AA democracy minus Concept V. When agnostics were first banished from the meeting list last May, AA’s “Right of Appeal” might have included this reading of AA history from Comes of Age. The reading might have made it clear that the exact wording of our Twelve Steps are neither law nor orthodoxy. Intergroup could have been reminded that not only has it always been permissible for each group to do as it chooses, but this autonomy has always made AA bigger and better, reaching the hand of AA out to all who suffer. 

But in May of 2011, the groups that were voted against were voted out of Intergroup. The voice of the minority was buried as the meeting names were stroked off the Intergroup list of members.

The AA Service Manual states that “When a minority considers an issue to be such a grave one that a mistaken decision could seriously affect AA as a whole, it should then charge itself with the duty of presenting a minority report.”

Bill goes on to say, “minorities frequently can be right; that even when they are partly or wholly in error they still perform a most valuable service, when by asserting their ‘Right of Appeal,’ they compel a thorough debate on important issues. The well-heard minority, therefore, is our chief protection against a, misinformed, hasty or angry majority.”

In an AA without Concept V unpopular opinions or ways of doing things are suppressed or eradicated, uniformity replaces unity and our AA becomes a culture of conformity, replacing the tapestry that preceded it. This is the natural consequence of apathetic, self-seeking, uninformed or angry majorities that resist scrutiny. Long live Concept V.

[i] Berenstain Bears:
[ii] Toronto Intergroup minutes, especially May 2010, March 2011:
[iii] 37th printing of “The Twelve Concepts” by Bill W., Concept V, page 22 in the A.A. Service Manual
[iv]Barry L got sober in 1945. Forty years later at the World Conference in Montreal he spoke, three weeks later he passed away. Hear it Here (from

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Subjectivity of my Reality

The only problem with reality…

The only problem with reality is there are so many versions of it. Game Time: Think of a 12-Step meeting you look forward to going to. Now think of one that makes you roll your eyes. I practiced what I preached - they are in my head right now. Man those sanctimonious bastard think they know everything. Not like my home group - we aren’t perfect but we know a little something about humility, love and tolerance. How different are these two groups? To an impartial observer, they might not see much difference in either of them.

In 1966, Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann expanded this theme in a book called The Social Construction of Reality. Consider that each autonomous 12-Step group is its own society, like two towns in the same country (fellowship). Berger and Luckmann write:

“Two societies confronting each other with conflicting universes will both develop conceptual machineries designed to maintain their respective universes. From the point of view if the intrinsic plausibility the two forms of conceptualization may seem to the outside observer to offer little choice.”

Let’s say a medical student picked two meetings to attend to learn about our brand of addiction and recovery. He picked the two closed meetings to school on consecutive nights. One was a mainstream AA meeting and the other was a Gay group, or Agnostic or young people’s group. Would he notice that one was different from the other. Each of them were peer to peer groups, they both read, “What is AA,” took a Seventh Tradition, talked about the only requirement for membership, the problem of powerlessness, the idea that alcoholism is a progressive, fatal illness and together we can do what alone we cannot. So even if one group was a “special interest” group, formed because members needed a place they could really relate to other alcoholics or addicts that appreciated what makes them different, these “conflicting universes” between mainstream and special focus groups could be so small that the casual outside observer doesn’t even see it. If we are members of these groups, we see what differentiates us; the outsider sees the common theme.

What I know is real is really what I believe; what I believe colors everything I perceive as I tend to ask life to corroborate my worldview. My worldview is what I see outside my window. I don’t see the whole world, but  I create my view of the world from what I can see (and a little more from what I imagine). My view has limits.

Everyone in recovery knows that our worldview can change. I was sure that alcohol and drugs were the missing piece in the puzzle of my life. Everything made more sense and I felt more complete when I was intoxicated. I vehemently defended this perceived truth when confronted about my addiction. But now I accept that I am powerless. I have a totally new worldview, because I am looking out a different window.

To borrow from Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860):

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

You told me I was powerless and my life was unmanageable. I scoffed at first. Then I raised my voice and got drunk at you. Now I am sober and expect to stay sober all day. My truth of the past went through three stages as it morphed into what I believe now.

If we keep seeking, we go through this three-stage phase all the time. We all learn to “let go absolutely.” What becomes of that will once released is a much debated idea. Many know exactly what happens and why; that is their truth. All I know is that I hate being controlled and I want to have control. I believe that letting loose of my desire to control the agenda is good for me. What becomes of this willfulness is purely subjective. Now there have been times when I needed to understand what’s behind the curtain. Isn’t that funny – I was willing to let go of my controlling tendency, but I insisted on understanding what became of this will of mine – as if that’s important. But it was important to me, so I listened to some smart sounding people and made something up that kind of made sense to me. I explained this truth of mine in exquisite detail. Then I started to believe something else and explained how wrong I was then, and what the real truth is now. Oh, “there are none so righteous as the recently converted.” I have been converted a few times now.

Understanding that my truth and what is real to me is subjective is important to me for two good reasons. First, I don’t want to stop growing. Second, I want to have compassion for others and if they differ from me, I best not think I am enlightened and they are deluded. It wouldn’t be any better to see them as whole and me as incomplete. Humility for me today is about me and my world being right sized. Maybe I am my brother (and sister’s) keeper, but I am not their master.

I think that a spiritual journey is a continuum, more circular than linear. My tendency is to lock in on those who reinforce or validate my current worldview. I am quick to dismiss alternative worldviews. It is a reflex. It happens before my cognitive functions are engaged. That’s why I like think, think, think; if I give myself time to think and think some more before I react I can be more civilized than my base instincts. And really, who am I going to learn from. The people who mirror my moves, or the many who move to the beat of another drummer

Have you ever seen the award winning documentary, “Escape from Death,” about the books by Pulitzer Prize author Earnest Becker, called, “Denial of Death” and “Escape from Evil?” See the trailer  

This movie and the work of Terror Management Theorists shines a light on why I am more likely to dismiss, or feel threatened by, someone different than me, than I am to feel communion and connection. I want to get along; I want to see the beauty in others. To do so takes exercise to rise above my base instincts. Like all of us, I suffer from attribution tendencies. I attribute “reasons” for my flaws and those I love and I attribute “defective character” to the flaws of those outside my circle. For example: I am late because of traffic and look how busy I am. You are late – how could you show so little respect for my time, you narcissist!

Part of Step Ten and Eleven for me is to meditate on compassion and assess how I am doing when I am in the kitchen where things get hot. I also review when I find myself defending my reality. When I am so sure I am right and I have figured a problem out, I now like to ask myself, “What else could this mean?” That’s one way, I have learned from others how to think, think, think.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Taking Inventory of this generation's AA service legacy

The process of inventory taking is as prudent, if not necessary exercise for all of us personally. Groups take inventories and so should service bodies. How has this generation of AA stewards steered the good ship Double-A?
1. How is AA’s reputation? Has it improved or waned in the last 10 or 20 years?
2. How has AA as a whole been doing? Is it growing, shrinking or staying the same?
3. Let us never fear needed change. Certainly we have to discriminate between changes for the worse and changes for the better. But once a need becomes clearly apparent in an individual, in a group, or in AA as a whole, it has long since been found out that we cannot stand still and look the other way. The essence of all growth is a willingness to change for the better and then an unremitting willingness to shoulder whatever responsibility this entails.” Bill W. Grapevine July 1965. This was Bill’s message to us before his death. Do we fear and resist change or embraced it?

AA’s reputation? Friends of AA were everywhere 20 years ago. We had our critics in and out of AA but the public had a generally positive opinion of AA. Just type AA and cult into a search engine and see how many anti-AA youtube videos, blogs and published articles you find. At present there are still over 10,000 treatment centers sending new people our way every month but is that unwavering support or a lack of after-care alternatives?
That brings us to growth/contraction. 1993 was the peak of AA size in terms of members. In a recovery community of 20 million people AA members are about 10% of that. These treatment centers are sending people every month but AA isn’t growing; it hasn’t grown in almost 20 years.
As for question 3, groups more than people, resist change. An informed group conscience will vote to keep things the same more often than move forward. That’s human nature. But it’s also natural to follow addiction all the way to the grave. As individuals we have beaten the odds. Maybe as a group we need to apply the same rigorous devotion to change for the better.
Good luck AA. May the next generation do a better job at adapting to the needs of our members and readying us for those still to come.
Addiction Magazine looks at Toronto Intergroup's resistance to change and refusal to include Agnostic AA groups in their meeting list and website. Check it out here:

Saturday, October 1, 2011

June 2011, The Fix runs story about Intergroup descrimination against agnostic groups

AA’s Dogma is run over by its own Karma
Accommodation vs. Tradition means some 21st century soul searching for planet Earth’s best know self-help group by Jesse Beach
Was Alcoholics Anonymous engineered to be a mosaic or a melting pot?  Does the culture embrace one and all who have a desire to stop drinking or intended to blend everyone into to a single message of AA homogeneity?
David R, a Secular Humanist, is an active member of one of Toronto Canada’s first Free-thinker AA meeting, called Beyond Belief Agnostics group. He had just rotated out of his tenure as group secretary which included looking after the AA literature supply, weekly announcements and looking after the group’s monthly commitment to take the AA message into a detox at a local hospital.
"Just tell me what to do ’cause I hurt so bad," was David’s attitude when he first came to AA.  “I really, really, really wanted to stop drinking and I was truly ready to ‘go to any length’ and I did.  My first sponsor told me to ‘jump right into the program.’
“Because I am a people pleaser, I faked it with the theistic elements, half-knowing I was faking.  I was afraid that I would drink if I didn't. I am grateful to be sober.  I have a good life, I couldn't have done it without AA; by AA I mean lots of meetings, the support of some understanding people and activities not related to drinking. 
“I have always had a questioning kind of itch in AA.  There are many concepts that didn't seem right, helpful or logical to me right from the beginning.  They didn't fit my actual experience of how I got sober and was staying sober.”  David had been through the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and he had taken other alcoholics through the Steps.  He heard about an agnostic group in another meeting and he checked it out. 
“Because I had been so compliant in traditional AA meetings, I found it difficult to hear people complain about "the god thing" and how they had felt excluded at other meetings. I found that I was uncomfortable when people questioned AA dogma or were firmly atheist.  For a while, I went through a period of not feeling at home in either Beyond Belief or traditional meetings.  I called myself ‘agnostic’ in the strict sense of ‘not knowing and not possible to know.’  
“The main thing that I got from Beyond Belief at first was the concept that AA didn't know everything, and that there were people, with very long-term sobriety, who questioned core dogma and didn't get drunk or struck by lightning.  So although that was initially very uncomfortable, it was eventually very liberating.  The purpose of rational thought and skepticism is not to comfort, but to uncover the truth.  My sobriety feels safer the more based on truth and rational thinking it becomes.”
David joined Beyond Belief and was part of a growth surge.  The meeting that started with a dozen members agreed on a format from ideas posted by some of the other agnostic groups in North America and Europe that have been welcoming members of AA since 1975.  The format included Appendix II from Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book), “The Spiritual Experience,” a widely used translation of the Twelve Steps in agnostic language, and speakers, discussion on AA’s “Living Sober” which focuses on the secular aspects of finding and maintaining sobriety.  Every meeting started with the agnostic preamble that reads:

This group of A.A. attempts to maintain a tradition of free expression, and conduct a meeting where alcoholics may feel free to express any doubts or disbeliefs they may have, and to share their own personal form of spiritual experience, their search for it, or their rejection of it. We do not endorse or oppose any form of religion or atheism. Our only wish is to assure suffering alcoholics that they can find sobriety in A.A. without having to accept anyone else's beliefs or having to deny their own.

The group grew to 30 to 50 attendees at Thursday’s 6:30 PM meeting so they added a Saturday evening Step-study.  A new group “We Agnostics” formed on Tuesday nights at 8 PM at the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto.  Each group had its share of 25 to 35 year sober members that showed AA worked with or without God, but more remarkably, David and the rest of these groups witnessed half a dozen one-year celebrations from new members that were introduced to AA or a way to do AA that worked, where other traditional meetings had not.  Agnostic AA was working in Toronto.

For literalists this wasn’t AA at all.  Tradition Three, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking,” wasn’t the target of their uncompromising literalism.  It was “God as we understand Him.”  The prevailing requirement to be called an AA group was God; no God, not AA.

So where does that leave Hindus, Taoists, Native Americans, Unitarians, Muslims, Buddhists, Humanists and the ever growing number of non-theistic creeds in our culture? Atheists aren’t the only “No God, please” creed who struggle with alcoholism.

After a few phone calls and more than one cup of coffee a few members from a few groups started talking about how to stop this agnostic sect.  They found themselves in touch with General Service Office’s Mary Claire Lunch who told them, “What the other AA group does is none of your group’s business. Taking another group’s inventory with regard to the Traditions is just not done.  What a slippery slope that could be... You might offer to bring this observation about the other group changing the Steps to the attention of your Area Delegate.”

So off to Robb W, Panel 61 Delegate, Area 83 they went and they were told, “I have received numerous emails and phone calls about a particular group in the GTA that is using their own version of the 12 Steps. The only rules that we have in Alcoholics Anonymous are those which we impose upon ourselves. We do not force people (or groups, districts or areas) to conform to our will. While conformity to the principles set out in our 12 Steps is suggested, it is still only a suggestion.
“That being said, Tradition Four states that ‘Each Group is autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.’  Many things are done in A.A. Groups, Districts and Areas under the banner of Group Autonomy. This is rightly so although we need keep in mind the second half of the Tradition ‘except in matters affecting other Groups or A.A. as a whole.’ It is the responsibility of the General Service Conference to preserve the integrity of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“If a group chooses to use its own interpretation of our Steps and Traditions, they should have the freedom to do so. However, this should be kept within that group for those who agree and not placed in the public domain as representing or related to Alcoholics Anonymous.
“We need always keep in mind that wherever two people gather to share and recover from Alcoholism, they may be called an A.A. Group provided that, as a group, they have no other purpose or affiliation.
“There is only one requirement for membership in Alcoholics Anonymous and it does not include belief in God.”
The anti-agnostic contingent found in this letter a mandate to ask Intergroup to strike two GSO sanctioned groups out of the Greater Toronto Area directory.  With the support of about 30 groups in a city of about 200 groups and over 500 meetings agnostic AA in Toronto had been denied the freely given services or reaching newcomers, offered to any other group.  Quoted in The Toronto Star, one member in support of the Intergroup action says, “They’ve changed (the Steps) to their own personal needs.  They should never have been listed in the first place.”
Across the continent, Doug L lives in South Orange Country Ca now but got sober in the hipper Laguna Beach area.  “Sobriety was good. I spent much time with my sponsor discussing my higher power. My sponsor was into yoga and he encouraged me to get serious about my calling to be a Buddhist practitioner.”  Moving to a different town meant a new AA environment.
“It did not take long for people to realize I was not going to except a Christian concept of God. The more I tried to help newcomers, who questioned the God stuff, the more I alienated myself in the fellowship. You see we have a lot of fundamentalist Christians in South County.
“My Freethinker proposal to start a new meeting was met with much resistance. When I would post a notice about AA Freethinkers online, members would come immediately behind me and tear them down. When I would discuss the idea of a freethinker meeting, I was told I am going to get drunk if I don't admit I am powerless! The idea of removing God from the 12 steps was met with righteous indignation. So I work the 12 steps on concurrent paths with the 12 Steps of Buddhism. There are many similarities between the two sets of steps.
“The teachings of the Buddha tell me I am not powerless. When I asked if I could have a freethinker meeting, I was told that our Intergroup would not list any freethinker or agnostic meetings. I was told that I was not to discuss "freethinker" issues as it was an outside issue. I was told AA is all inclusive and there is no need to have splinter groups. I reminded the Steering Committee that our meeting directly lists Gay meetings. I am now labeled a trouble maker.  I am still committed to establishing a freethinker meeting in my area.”
AA was one million members when agnostic groups joined the scene in 1975.  Together AA doubled in the next quarter century.  New York, San Francisco and Chicago are a few examples of metropolitan areas that get along, believer and non-theist alike.  Love and tolerance has been AA’s code. But since the start of the new millennium AA started shrinking. Is AA experiencing shrinking pains? 

Y2K membership, according to the time line, was 2,160,013.  2008 numbers in the GSO Service Manual fell to 2,044,655, 115358 or 5.6% less members.  If 10% of the 2000 membership died and the remaining 90% stayed and all had just one successful new 12th Step in eight years, the 2008 numbers would be 3.9 Million.  Clearly that’s not happening.  Is this a problem?  Is there a need for a scapegoat?

An anonymously authored “White Paper on Non-Believers” was circulated by a member outside of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup to Intergroup reps and executive committee members. The document makes the passionate plea, “Fellow members, we are allowing in our midst the initiation and promotion of a path called, ‘Sobriety without God.’ What if the newcomer of the future is encouraged to choose that selection instead of the traditional Twelve Step path?  And what if, as a result, he ends up with a somewhat acceptable ‘water-wagon sobriety’ instead of the promised ‘spiritual awakening’ of the twelfth step.  Are we not guilty of duplicity of the highest order and can we any longer think of ourselves as ‘trusted servants?’ After all, the power we are serving is clearly God Himself!”
The general theme of the White Paper celebrates mythology about how much better AA was in the good old days; harmony reined and newcomers all got sober by finding God.  Agnosticism wasn’t a creed; it was an intellectual holdout to the one and only truth, God keeps us sober.  But AA would love non-believers to health until they got better and found this one truth.
 Of course that one truth isn’t true at all.  Jim B, an AA founder didn’t believe in a Supreme Being, he was the reason for the only requirement for membership being a desire to stop drinking, he outlived Bill W and he died sober, having first brought AAs message to new cities and new members from Philadelphia to San Diego. 
The White Paper premise is that 1) Two fundamental beliefs cannot coexist in AA, 2) Belief in God is a superior creed to any other creed and 3) Believers in AA must suppress or eliminate the agnostic or atheist voice in AA and if they don’t act quickly, AA will perish.
So is AA a mosaic or a melting-pot? Most of AA is moderate and accommodating but since the death of Bill Wilson the voice of middle ground isn’t a universal message.  Read at GTA Intergroup by a group who voted against the motion to discriminate against agnostic groups was the 1946 words of Bill Wilson from the Grapevine:
Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. Group. This clearly implies that an alcoholic is a member if he says so; that we can't deny him his membership; that we can't demand from him a cent; that we can't force our beliefs or practices upon him; that he may flout everything we stand for and still be a member. In fact, our Tradition carries the principle of independence for the individual to such an apparently fantastic length that, so long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other--these rampant individuals are still an A.A. Group if they think so!
AA faces some new millennium challenges.  Just like British Petroleum would have preferred to keep their Gulf of Mexico oil debacle inside their board room, AA would have preferred if what happened in a church basement in North Toronto could have been AA’s little secret.  But the public wouldn’t have it.  Citizen journalists control the agenda of what is hot and what is not in a blogger, twitter world.  The story broke on the front of the Toronto Star and was viral in a day, with musings from member and non-member bloggers alike.  In the new millennium what was once considered “a private matter” now breeds distrust and criticism. 
Another new reality is that 21st century newcomers are a different demographic with atheists being three times the North American population that they were in the 1960s.  According to a 2009 study (Evolutionary Psychology –ISSN 1474-7049-Volume 7[3]) the USA stands alone in 1st world countries with over half the population having an absolute belief in God, at 62%.  Canada is 30% and most of Europe is around 25%.   60% of the USA prays frequently while 10 to 30% is the norm in other 1st world countries.  So if AA wants to move from inclusivity it will surely be a smaller fellowship when it celebrates its 100 year anniversary.
“AA is a religion in denial” jokes Jim Christopher, founder of Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS). “Belief in a path of faith can work and that is great.  No one can deny that AA works for a lot of alcoholics.” Jim heads a fellowship of 20,000 recovering addicts, 90% of them who have been to AA. “I would be afraid of a 100% intellectual approach, too.  Becoming addicted isn’t an intellectual process.  According to my intellect, booze brought euphoria, a lie that my intellect called a life-affirming experience.  Recovery is my sobriety priority, a fusion of head and gut.  Not dualism but a cooperative commitment both cognitive and visceral.”  SOS is neutral on religion.  If you came from faith and lost it, go back and get what you need.  But it isn’t mandated as part of the SOS recovery process.
David has been to SOS since the creed divide in Toronto AA started.    A week after the Intergroup vote, David says, “I have been alternately angry and sad.  Yelling and crying!  But, like hitting bottom, there's relief, too.  I am livid at the unfairness and injustice.  There was no dialogue, no attempt to address the issue of the rewritten 12 steps, no acknowledgement of the service we've provided and the people we've helped. There was no fellowship, just ideology, power play, dogma.

“The controversy has been driven by fear and ego.  I believe the controversy is on a deeper level less about belief in god and more about the fact that we challenged power.”
Jerry T of Florida watches the news online and comments: “AA's history is one of it knowing better and being proven wrong. First it was the women who couldn't be alcoholics who had to fight for their place in the program.  Then it was the non-smokers, and this was the first time the ‘outside issue’ defence was the big counterargument.  Most every speciality meeting had some kind of fight or controversy surrounding its existence. The wonderful thing about our struggle is that it is going to force recognition of a lot of elephants in the room.”
As David and the rest of AA debates the type of AA that is best for one and all, David reflects on Freud’s term, the narcissism of small differences.  “In order to maintain our fragile identities, we make big work out of inconsequential differences.  We can thereby prove our separateness/superiority, when in fact we're just like the people we're criticizing.  You know, human.”

White Paper on Non-Believers:
Jim B, AA’s first Atheist:
to join the conversation click on The Fix above, see what others have said, have your say.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power

This is a great book for everyone in recovery - a great start to the 21st century.  Check it out for yourself:

Here's some freebees from the book, but please read it and tell me what you like about it:

When we shut down in this way – by addiction, by fighting, by attempts to control, by what the Big Book aptly calls “self-will run riot” – we have no space in ourselves for spiritual growth or awareness.  And we need that space.  Without it, our spirits wither…Our hearts become rigid and cannot love.  We have no ability to really experience the life we are living.

It is a regrettable habit we have of thinking we are entitled to have all that we want.

I fight.  I resist.  It doesn’t even matter what I resist; their sis simply something in me that tends to resist things as they are.  I have been fighting since I was very small.  And I believe that my addiction was a response, in some measure, to the fact that the fight was futile, and I could not tolerate that fact.  I couldn’t tolerate the fact that I did not control the worlds.

Doubt is at the very heart of spiritual experience. Without it, we would never ask the hard questions about the nature of our existence: Why are we here: How did we get here? What are our origins?  What is our purpose and what are our ends?  These are spiritual questions asked by spiritual people and they lead to growth… When we doubt, we learn to accept that we may not ever know.  When we question, we learn to accept that there may be no answer.  We shout our doubt out into the universe, we learn to accept that we may be met with a silence we do not know how to read… to accept doubt, a lack of certainty, is to accept the very nature of life as it is.

…the Twelve Step program isn’t actually an attempt at religious conversion.  Really, it just tries to bring us to a place of new spiritual understanding that allows us to live differently in this world.  The Steps are not intended to get us to heaven or save us from hell.  This is not about life in another world, above or below.  This is about how we live here.