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Is There a Place for Atheists in Alcoholics Anonymous?

A long-simmering feud is spreading around the world, after one AA establishment voted to expel two atheist/agnostic groups in Canada.

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The White Paper argues that two fundamental beliefs cannot coexist in AA, that belief in God is superior to all other creeds, and that believers in AA must suppress or eliminate the agnostic or atheist voice in the fellowship. Otherwise, AA will perish.

Most of AA remains moderate and accommodating, but in the post-Bill Wilson era the voice of moderation hasn’t always won the day. One delegate, who voted against the motion to expel the agnostic groups at the GTA Intergroup, marked the occasion by reading out a definitive statement by Bill W. from the 1946 Grapevine:

"Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA 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 AA Group if they think so!"

AA faces serious challenges. Just as BP would have preferred to keep the Gulf of Mexico oil debacle inside the boardroom, AA would have preferred what happened in a church basement in North Toronto to remain AA’s little secret. But the story broke in The Toronto Star and went viral. What would once have been an internal matter is now aired in the full sight of the public. 

Another challenge is that there are now three times as many atheists in North America as there were in the 1960s. So if AA wants to move away from inclusivity, it will surely be a smaller fellowship when it celebrates its 100-year anniversary.


“AA is a religion in denial,” says 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.” SOS is a fellowship of 20,000 recovering addicts, 90% of whom have been to AA. “I would be afraid of a 100% intellectual approach, too,” adds Jim, “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 a fusion of head and gut.” SOS is neutral on religion.

Jerry T., an agnostic AA member from Florida, points out: “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. Then it was the non-smokers. Most every specialty 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.”

Back in Toronto, David R. has attended SOS since the AA creed divide took place. “I have been alternately angry and sad, yelling and crying. But, like hitting bottom, there's relief, too," he says. "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 and dogma. I believe the controversy is less about belief in God, and more about the fact that we challenged power.”

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