Is There a Place for Atheists in Alcoholics Anonymous?
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Across the continent in California, Doug L. had a comparable experience. He lives in South Orange County now, but got sober in the hipper Laguna Beach area. “Sobriety was good. I spent much time with my sponsor discussing my higher power," he recalls. "He was into yoga and encouraged me to get serious about my calling to be a Buddhist practitioner.”
Moving to a new town meant a new AA environment. “It did not take long for people to realize I was not going to accept a Christian concept of God," Doug says. "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.”
Doug’s attempts to start a Freethinker meeting met with hostility. “When I posted a notice about AA Freethinkers online, members would come immediately behind me and tear it down. When I discussed the idea, I was told I was going to get drunk if I didn't admit I was powerless! The idea of removing God from the 12 Steps was met with righteous indignation.”
Soon Doug was read the riot act by his fellow 12-Steppers: “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. I was told that AA is all-inclusive and there was no need to have splinter groups; I reminded the Steering Committee that our meeting directly lists separate gay meetings. I am now labeled a troublemaker.”
Still committed to establishing a Freethinker group in his area, Doug now works the 12 Steps “on concurrent paths with the 12 Steps of Buddhism—there are many similarities between the two sets of steps.” But there are some differences, too. “The teachings of the Buddha tell me I am not powerless.”
AA had one million members when agnostic groups joined the scene in 1975. That figure doubled in the next 25 years. New York, San Francisco and Chicago are examples of cities where groups that accept God and groups that reject God can tolerate each other. But in the last 10 years AA has been shrinking. According to the GSO service manual, membership dropped from 2,160,013 in 2000 to 2,044,655 in 2008, a fall of 5.6%. Is the 76-year-old fellowship experiencing shrinking pains? And is there a need for a scapegoat?
The anonymously-authored White Paper on Non-Believers was circulated last year to Intergroup reps and Executive Committee members. It makes a 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 12 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 12 Steps? 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 White Paper promotes the mythology of how much better AA was in the good old days, when harmony reigned and newcomers all got sober by finding God. Agnosticism wasn’t a creed, but an intellectual holdout from the one truth: God keeps us sober. (But AA would "love" non-believers to health until they got better and found this one truth.)
The problem with this position is that the “one truth” never existed in the first place. 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 died sober, having brought AA’s message to new cities and new members from Philadelphia to San Diego.