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.

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