By Douglas Todd
Vancouver Sun, Published on April 5, 2014
“We came to accept and to understand that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.”
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Six men who admit they are “powerless over alcohol” recited these words from Step 2 of a Canadian-created, secular Twelve Step program at the beginning of a recent meeting in West Vancouver.
Alcohol has devastated their lives; the impact extending to their partners and children. Yet over many years these men of various ages have got back on their feet — with the help of fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Not, they believe, with the help of God.
These particular warriors against alcohol are atheists and agnostics. Even though they are meeting in a quiet room of St. Monica’s Anglican Church in West Vancouver, they are tired of the emphasis that some members of Alcoholics Anonymous put on God.
They are not alone. Scores of atheist and agnostic groups like theirs are popping up across North America in the name of combating alcoholism without divinity.
But the emergence of atheist and agnostic Twelve Step groups has come with some sparks of conflict with the two-million-member original Alcoholics Anonymous movement, which was founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson, an ecumenical Christian.
(Bill Wilson is often known as Bill W., out of respect for AA’s tradition of anonymity. The people interviewed for this article are identified only by their first names and last initials.)
Since AA began, Step 3 of the traditional program has called on members to “make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understand him.” Several other steps also mention God or a higher power, leaving the definition open-ended.
Even though the men in the West Vancouver group expressed gratitude for the support they received over the years in AA’s Twelve Step program, they said they are increasingly weary of the “God talk.”
They said they cringe when some AA members enthusiastically insert mentions of God or a higher power into support meetings. Occasionally, they say, some evangelical Christian AA members have started talking like preachers.
“I just had to keep my mouth shut about being an atheist at those meetings. I felt dumped on when I mentioned it. Like I wasn’t really a member of their club,” said George S., as he sits on one of the church’s leather couches that surround a giant coffee table.
In the past, some of the thousands of AA meetings held across Canada each week have included recitation of the Christian Lord’s prayer, but the men acknowledge that practice is largely gone.
Still, many AA groups continue to use 20th-century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s so-called Serenity Prayer, which goes, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
To get away from the word, God, two atheist and agnostic alcoholics groups have formed in the past two years in Metro Vancouver. In addition to the West Vancouver group, there is a larger meeting of both sexes on Tuesday nights at Holy Trinity Anglican Church on Hemlock and 12th in Vancouver.
Both weekly groups follow the secular Twelve Steps as outlined in The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps, written by an Ontario man known as Roger C. Its title is a play on the classic AA guide, commonly known as The Big Book.
Metro is in a region of North America with among the lowest proportion of residents who attend religious institutions.
Many of the men attending West Vancouver’s agnostic group on this Monday evening are not happy their meetings have been “de-listed” from the Greater Vancouver AA directory.
Unlike AA bodies in cities such as San Francisco, New York, Halifax and elsewhere, the Greater Vancouver AA administrative body recently decided that an atheistic version of the Twelve Steps does not fit the guidelines of the original AA, in which “God as we understand him,” or a self-defined higher power, is believed to play a significant role in recovery.
Members of the West Vancouver group, which calls itself We Agnostics, feels shunned by the delisting, saying it will make it hard for other desperate alcoholics to discover where to find their non-religious recovery meeting.
“It’s like being shut out of the Yellow Pages,” said Steve B.
He maintains all AA organizations should live up to a key AA motto, which is “the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.”
The North American AA’s general response to organizations that take “God” out of the Twelve Steps, or make other significant changes to it, is that they can imitate the Twelve Step program, but they aren’t allowed to call themselves “Alcoholics Anonymous.”
There are hundreds of traditional Alcoholics Anonymous groups in Metro Vancouver.
A man who answered the phone at the regional head office for AA, which is called the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society, said atheists and agnostics who are alcoholics have every right to start their own groups.
But he refused to comment on the delisting of the two atheist-agnostic groups, adding, “When it comes right down to it, we have no opinion on it whatsoever.”
Steve B., however, is not about to let go of the issue.
An alcoholic and “deep atheist” since his teenage years in East Vancouver, Steve, now 64, fell off the wagon in the mid-2000s after a solid career as a transportation specialist in the public service and academia.
He ended up on the streets of the Downtown Eastside for several years, succumbing also to crack cocaine. He lost everything, including family. It’s only in the past five years he’s been able to rebuild his life.
Most often attending the Hemlock Street group, which is known as Sober Agnostics, Steve B. knows how important support groups are for alcoholics. They saved his life.
In response to similar theological controversies, various atheist and agnostic associations for alcoholics have been cropping up around North America.
One organization, called SOS (for Secular Organizations for Sobriety), claims 100,000 members. Another agency is called the Buddhist Recovery Network.
In addition, many atheist and agnostic alcoholics, like those in the two groups in Metro Vancouver, are having their meetings listed online through an organization called AA Agnostica.
Some of the West Vancouver men acknowledge they still attend traditional Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Even though they are turned off by theistic beliefs, they have learned to be tolerant when some members of regular AA groups start speaking about God.
They say they understand that AA references to “God as we understand him” leave open the possibility that the higher power to which members surrender has an open-ended definition. For some AA members, “God” or “higher power” can refer to anything from human consciousness to the evolutionary process.
Still, the men appreciate they finally have their own group, where they can be themselves and don’t have to squirm when an over-enthusiastic AA member starts insisting that a divine supreme being is the sole key to their healing.
Now they have choices. And they know that whatever the result of the fight over the delisting by the Greater Vancouver Intergroup Society, atheist and agnostic alcoholics are becoming increasingly organized.
AA Agnostica, for instance, is organizing its first international convention. The conference, titled, Many Paths to Recovery, will be Nov. 6 to 8 in Santa Monica, Calif. Some of Metro Vancouver’s alcoholics plan to attend.
This article was published in the Vancouver Sun on Saturday, April 5, 2014. The photo is by Steve Bosch.
There were two minor errors in the article. First, AA Agnostica does not have its own list of agnostic meetings but rather now links to one at the website Secular AA. And the agnostic AA convention slated for Santa Monica this November is being organized by a team based in Los Angeles, California.