Living without God and alcohol: row erupts among recovering alcoholics in Toronto

Living without God and alcohol: row erupts among recovering alcoholics in Toronto June 6, 2011

TWO secular Alcoholics Anonymous groups in Toronto, Canada – known as Beyond Belief and We Agnostics – have been removed or “delisted” from a roster of local meetings. They disappeared last week from the Toronto AA website and will not be in the next printed edition of the Toronto directory.
The row started when Beyond Belief posted an adapted version of AA’s hallowed “Twelve Steps” on the Toronto website. They removed the word “God” from the steps, which are used as a kind of road map to help drinkers achieve sobriety.
Joe C, who founded Beyond Belief, Toronto’s first agnostic AA group, told The Star:

They took issue with a public display of secular AA.

Beyond Belief proved so popular that a second group – We Agnostics – started up last fall. It had only recently completed the paperwork to be part of AA before being booted out.
Joe added:

What is unusual is that this didn’t happen in some backwater, but … in a liberal, democratic, pluralistic place like Toronto.

The name of God appears four times in the AA’s Twelve Steps and echoes the period in which they were written — the 1930s. It invites those seeking sobriety to turn themselves over to God, who will remove their “defects of character.” They go on to speak of God’s will for the recovering alcoholic.
Said an AA member who attended last Tuesday’s meeting of the coordinating body known as the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup:

They [the altered Twelve Steps] are not our Twelve Steps. They’ve changed them to their own personal needs. They should never have been listed in the first place.

Said Larry of We Agnostics:

This is not the first we’ve gone up against bigotry. This has been an ongoing struggle in North America.

Another recovering alcoholic told the paper:

I’ve tried AA meetings and I couldn’t get past the influence of right-wing Christianity.

Another, Roger, took issue with AA’s concept of the “God of your understanding.”

First, there is a gender problem (several of the steps refer to Him). But more importantly, a creator God with a personal interest in me doesn’t fit well with my understanding of how the cosmos works.

Hat tip: Canada Dave

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  • Newspaniard

    It’s possible that “god” was the reason they turned to alcohol in the first place.

  • barriejohn

    There are a lot of very interesting and informative videos regarding AA on YouTube. Some of the comments here are well worth reading:
    AA undoubtedly operates like a cult – the similarities are striking.

  • Pete H

    “They [the altered Twelve Steps] are not our Twelve Steps. They’ve changed them to their own personal needs. They should never have been listed in the first place.”
    You know, I think he’s right. They should never have been listed as part of the AA Network. AA is a religious organisation, that is based around converting vulnerable people to god. (Which is what religion does in a wider context, generally).
    Since the whole basis of AA is (from what little I know) about accepting the notion of a higher power, I don’t see how a secularlised version of it (with all reference to god removed) is able to be considered part of that horrible organisation.
    It’d be like a humanist meeting group being listed on a church web site telling people of all the local churches, with “this church doesn’t do any god stuff” written next to it.
    AA is AA, and AA is religion, period. If you haven’t seen it before, check out the Penn and Teller Bullshit! episode on 12 Stepping. You can find it here:
    It’s in three parts – part 2 and 3 can be seen on the right.
    Of course, the secular alcohol support groups SHOULD have been listed in any city listings of help/support groups, etc, with a special mention that they are secular and not religious-based.
    I’m not sure why they’d want to be considered part of AA, to be honest.

  • Broga

    @barriejohn: Yet again you provide a terrific youtube. AA seems as desperate to keep secularists at bay as does the BBC. And for the same reason: they want to preserve their monopoly.

  • barriejohn

    Broga: “We’re here to help!” (The Koala Brothers, if it doesn’t ring any bells!!)
    Pete H: My thoughts precisely. I couldn’t see why they wanted to be listed in that particular publication either, but I suppose it’s where alcoholics would instinctively look, even if they knew nothing about AA or the way it operates.

  • barriejohn

    Mary Kenny (rabid Catholic) can “live with” the problems surrounding the “cultish” AA – now there’s a surprise!
    Very interesting comments again. There are many references to Dr Valiant’s research, which evidently demonstrated that their success rate is no more than 5%.

  • barriejohn

    Some fascinating comments here as well:
    It was Dr George Vaillant, BTW!

  • Hypothetically speaking, if they (the AA) had a choice: give up God or give up alcohol, which would they choose?
    Cos, if it’s the latter, them the really shouldn’t be promote themselves as an anti-alcoholism organization.

  • DallasAtheist

    For many, this action will only serve to reinforce the notion that AA is little more than a cult/replacement addiction. Also, shouldn’t it really be about personal inventory and accountability rather than asking a spirit being to “fix you?”

  • Paul

    Firstly, I just want to say that I love Freethinker! This is my first time posting here.
    As for AA, I live in the Michigan, the place where AA originated, and here judges order alcoholics with DUI convictions into AA. The alternative is jail.

  • JohnMWhite

    @Paul – is that not somewhat in breach of the establishment clause if judges are prescribing attendance to religious meetings? Unless by AA you mean all alcoholics with DUI convictions are marooned in Ann Arbor. :p
    Yet again we see the teeth of faith-based works bared here. While they claim to only want to help people, it is clear that this help comes with strings attached, and anyone daring to evade those strings does not deserve the help. It reveals exactly where their priorities lie if these AA organisations deliberately try to make it difficult for people to find secular help for their addiction, and that priority is not helping those in need.

  • gill kerry

    Very interesting, didnt know any this stuff. According tk AA UK they are not religious (well they would say that!). But AA orgs history says otherwise. Damascene visions., meetings wuth Dr Bob etc. Now off to investigate that paramilitary organisation the

  • Anonymous

    JohnMWhite, those challenges are finally being made successfully.
    April 2010
    Atheist Wins Establishment Challenge to Faith-Based Treatment Program

  • Broga

    @Paul: Welcome, and I look forward to your further visits to this site. My knowledge of the AA is minimal and some of the comments here have shocked me. I had, rather unsuspectingly, thought that the references to God were incidental or a metaphor for something beyond ourselves. Perhaps the mystery of the cosmos. Instead I discover that the AA is a cult to push religion. What is clear is that its reputation, which it promotes, far exceeds its successes.

  • Pete H

    Broga, check out the Penn & Teller link I posted – lots of interesting info on AA in there, all done in P&T’s particluar style.

  • Psychodiva

    As a therapist when I was working with addicts I refused to refer people to AA but asked them instead if they wanted to be referred to a secular / non-religious group or receive help from me and my colleagues. If they wanted AA I would give them a lot of information (and make it clear it was a religious organisation) and they were then given the number to refer themselves- many were surprised by the amount of religion in the group and did not want referring to it, some were ok with it and I left them to refer themselves and wrote to their GP to ensure it was done- this was however in the UK where it is easier to refuse religious help – I have read about addicted being made to attend AA through the courts in the USA- is this true? even tho it is a religious group?
    oops I just read some more of the comments- good to see that referrals through the courts are being challenged 🙂 and AA UK are telling fibs- my interaction with them as a therapist when I asked them questions before agreeing to refer people they came up with the same literature with ‘god’ and ‘higher power’ in it as everywhere else

  • Broga

    @Pete H. Will do, Pete. Thanks. I’m a big fan of Penn and Teller – atheists who don’t hide it and know how to get their points across. I’m heading for your link now. Cheers.

  • Mark

    Here is another video titled:
    Top Ten Reasons To Run From Alcoholics Anonymous
    My experience with AA is this…I was told to get treatment after my second DUI, (just barely over the limit) It didn’t matter that my 1st DUI was over 15 years ago, I must have a problem is the way they looked at it.
    Fact is, I would only drink and party on the weekends and usually when single…because that is where the single women are…at the bars. (never did the bar hopping thing when in a relationship)
    I rarely drank during the week and mostly when offered, (Want a beer…ok), it never interfered with things I wanted or needed to do, I would never scrounge or steal to buy a bottle of booze, and I never woke up and had urges to drink.
    So I went to a few meetings and realized, these people are fu*ked up, they literally could not think of nothing else but booze. I also immediately realized it was a religious organization or cult, with the leaders reaping financial rewards.
    I never went back to AA and solved my problem with a simple logical method…I do not drink and drive…bingo, problem solved!

  • AgentCormac

    I have personally known two people who have got involved with the AA here in the UK for help with their addiction to alcohol.
    One of them has never spoken about his experience at all, but has been off the drink for years – and as far as I know has no religious leanings one way or the other. The other (with whom I have now lost contact but was, last time I saw him, still sober), was absolutely tortured by the whole religion thing. One minute he thought he was a buddhist, the next minute a christian, the next he couldn’t figure anything out other than there must be some ‘benevolent being’ out there somewhere that wanted him to be sober. And while he was full of praise for the AA for helping him keep his addiction at bay, there’s no doubt the religion aspect of it had messed with his head big time.
    All in all though, I have to say the AA helped both lads find a way to get off the booze. And it has probably saved their lives.

  • Donald Macdonald

    What utter hogwash this is. AA is a secular organisation. I have been in it, sober, for 25 years. I have worked in numerous alcohol counselling/therapy settings. AA is suitable and acceptable for people of all shades of theistic belief and non-belief; for people of all faiths and people of none. I have seen AA help people transcend religious sectarian bigotry that was already endemic in their communities. Can I suggest you read the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous), 12 steps and 12 traditions and AA Comes of Age. Should at least enable you to comment from am informed position. Another useful bit of reading is anything by a guy called Sean O’Halloran, an academic who has written at length aboutthe discourse of AA (yeah yeah, I agree with what he writes).

  • JohnMWhite

    The 12 Steps of AA, from
    1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
    2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
    3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
    4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
    5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
    6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
    7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
    8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
    9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
    10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
    11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
    12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
    Does not sound very secular to me.

  • Pete H

    Agreed. Sounds like standard “You’re a dirty, hopeless sinner and your only of salvation is through our god” religion to me.

  • JohnMWhite

    Indeed. To be fair, I am sure that AA can and does work in a secular manner at times, but that is really down to individual groups and circumstances. As an institution it has Abrahamic faith encoded into its DNA.

  • James G

    I was a sober member of AA for several years, and finally made the break after a process of self de-programing :). If, as McDonald suggests,you should read the AA literature and come to the conclusion that the program is NOT religiously based, may I suggest a course in comprehensive reading.

  • Yep, but doesn’t the deity’s reps serve a bit of booze in church on sundays with a nice (but rather dry) cracker? And isn’t the wine and cookie supposed to then magically become bits of his dead son in some sort of worship ritual? It’s a bit like a bookmaker running an anti gambling group. Surely if you don’t subscribe to the nonsense, then subscribing at gun point isn’t gonna help in quitting the dreaded booze. Perhaps they should try rasberry kool-aid in church in an effort to help. Effort? What’s that…

  • Donald Macdonald

    Well James G, some comprehensive, or evn cursory, reading of what I posted would show you that I did not say that it was not religiously based (its origins are out of, inter alia, the Oxford Group, Washingtonians etc) – I said it was a secular organisation. Which it is.

  • JohnMWhite

    Donald, if you are to look up anything from Oxford, may I suggest the Oxford English Dictionary? AA is not secular. At best it is non-denominational, which I think is the word you’re looking for, but even then it is pretty heavily implied that this is the male Abrahamic god that is to be adopted as support for those seeking to deal with their alcoholism.
    So no, it is not a secular organisation welcoming to all people.

  • James G

    Big Mac:
    See above!

  • Neal O

    I found the people in AA a massive help. In my experience the reality of local groups at their best is that of a group of individuals sharing their common experiences to help themselves and others. For me that part was most helpful in my recovery from addiction to alcohol.
    That said I’m a proud atheist and humanist.The AA 12 steps I largely ignored coming to the conclusion that much beyond step 1 was inappropriate for me.
    Now I rarely go to AA meetings but am very pleased that I did. With no options like these Canadian groups I would recommend any alcoholic going albeit with an open mind. Yes you may get some pressure but in my experience you will also get a lot of help and support like in all the best self-help groups. ‘Just take what you want and leave the rest’ was very sound advice given to me in my early days of recovery.
    Oh, and after P&T which I love, for the alternative view try googling the orange papers – that really does give a critical view of AA.