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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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Was Alcoholics Anonymous meant to be a mosaic or a melting pot? Does its culture embrace one and all who have a desire to stop drinking, or is the intention to blend everyone into a single AA homogeneity? These were the questions raised by a recent furor in Toronto, where two AA meetings were banished from the city’s official directory for catering to atheist and agnostic members with an adapted version of the 12 Steps. Not surprisingly, given AA's reach, the controversy has spread around the world.

"Just tell me what to do ’cause I hurt so bad," was David R.’s attitude when he first joined AA. “I really wanted to stop drinking and I was truly ready to ‘go to any length’—and I did.” The trouble was that God “as we understood Him” meant, in David’s case, no God at all. “Because I am a people-pleaser, I faked it with the theistic elements, half-knowing I was faking," he says. "I was afraid that I would drink if I didn't. I am grateful to be sober. I couldn't have done it without AA: the meetings, the support of some understanding people and activities not related to drinking.”

You sense a “but” coming next. Says David: “There are many concepts that didn't seem right, helpful or logical to me, right from the beginning. They didn't fit my experience of how I got sober and was staying sober.” Having worked through, and taken others through, the 12 Steps, he heard about an agnostic group—one of Toronto’s first “Freethinker” meetings, called Beyond Belief—and checked it out.

“Because I had been so compliant in traditional AA meetings,” he says, “I found it difficult to hear people complain about ‘the God thing’ and how they had felt excluded at other meetings. I was uncomfortable when people questioned AA dogma, or were firmly atheist. 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.’”


Gradually, he had an attitude adjustment. “The main thing I got from Beyond Belief at first was the concept that AA didn't know everything, that there were people with very long-term sobriety who questioned core dogma and didn't get drunk or struck by lightning. Eventually that realization became very liberating.”

As a Secular Humanist, David is now an active member of Beyond Belief and recently served as group secretary, responsible for the AA literature supply, making weekly announcements and handling the group’s monthly commitment to take the AA message into a detox at a local hospital. His initial hope that the agnostic position can strengthen the will to sobriety, rather than threaten it, has grown into a conviction. “The purpose of rational thought and skepticism is not to comfort, but to uncover the truth," he says. "My sobriety feels safer the more based on truth and rational thinking it becomes.”

David was part of a growth surge for Beyond Belief, which started with a dozen members who agreed on a format of ideas posted by some of the other North American and European agnostic groups that have been welcoming AA members since 1975. Every meeting started with this preamble:

"This group of AA 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 AA without having to accept anyone else's beliefs or having to deny their own."

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