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The gospel of sobriety

Times have changed since Alcoholics Anonymous was formed 75 years ago. While surrendering to a higher power remains part of its official creed, AA insists it is not religious.

By Jasmine Budak

In a classroom above a Toronto subway station, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting gathers. The group settles into plastic chairs around a rectangular arrangement of desks, while trains rumble below. Tonight, roughly 25 people have trickled in, all here because they are alcoholics seeking the camaraderie and support of fellow alcoholics. 

But unlike a traditional AA meeting, this group makes no mention of God or any kind of higher power as a prerequisite for recovery. This is “AA for freethinkers,” an AA-affiliated intergroup called Beyond Belief. “We found AA was getting a little too evangelical,” says Joe C., who co-founded the group several months ago and, in the AA tradition, goes only by his first name. “In its purest form, AA works,” he says. “So we kind of take what we want and leave the rest.”

Beyond Belief isn’t against God. It bills itself as a place where alcoholics can get well “without having to accept anyone else’s beliefs or having to deny their own.” While the group still refers to official AA literature, founders have taken the famous 12 Steps and rewritten the six that refer to God. For example, AA’s Step 3 reads: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.” Beyond Belief’s version: “Made a decision to entrust our will and our lives to the care of the collective wisdom and resources of those who have searched before us.” No God, no higher power, no turning over of will. 

Since its inception in Akron, Ohio, 75 years ago, AA’s 12-step, group-therapy formula has spread to 145 countries and attracted more than two million members. AA came to Canada in 1940, when Toronto United Church minister Rev. George Little distributed AA books to a few alcoholics, who then began meeting — ironically — above a local tavern. Today, you can attend an AA meeting in the Arctic, Botswana, Canberra and most places in between. 

But for all its seeming success and worldwide acceptance as the alcohol-recovery program, AA’s references to God and spirituality have always rankled — and even turned away — non-believers. They take issue with the steps that call on members to surrender to a power that will ultimately “restore sanity” and remove “defects of character.” For agnostics and atheists, such language is at odds with AA’s assertion that it is and has always been a non-religious fellowship. Alcoholics who are uncomfortable with the very notion of a spiritual force are left asking: why mention God at all? 

Alcoholics anonymous co-founders Bill W. and Dr. Bob weren’t exactly religious zealots. Both were longtime alcoholics who had, at various times, sought help from the Oxford Group, a non-denominational Christian movement that was treating alcoholism with several steps that included surrendering to God and embracing a set of moral ideals. The two men met in 1935 when Bill, a New York stockbroker, arrived in Akron, Ohio, on a business trip. At his hotel, Bill was fighting the urge to head straight for the hotel bar. He called one of the local churches, requesting to be put in touch with another alcoholic, anyone who could relate to this gripping torture. Bill was introduced to Dr. Bob, a local physician. Late into the night, the two confided, commiserated and vowed to stay sober and help other alcoholics. (Shortly after that meeting, Dr. Bob took his last drink on June 10, which would become AA’s official birth date.)

Renewed and inspired, both Bill and Dr. Bob began counselling, and in some cases, curing addicts using two loose principles: sobriety is best approached on a day-by-day basis; and getting well requires the spiritual support of other alcoholics. These successes spurred an idea to spread their message. 

In 1937, Bill began writing what would become the book, steps and traditions of AA. Even then, early AA members disagreed about the degree to which God should figure into the process. Some called for a more scientific, psychological approach, while others sought God as the overriding channel through which alcoholics could get well. Bill’s final version appeased both camps. In 1939, the 12 Steps were published in the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, more affectionately called the “Big Book” by AA members. Any mention of God was followed by the disclaimer “as you understood Him.” Drinkers were called on to believe in a “power greater than ourselves,” which to this day is open to any definition of a member’s choosing. The Big Book also included a chapter called “We Agnostics,” a sort of plea to skeptics and non-believers to overlook the God references yet remain open to the idea of a “creative intelligence.” Religious or not, AA has always maintained that recovery relies fundamentally on a spiritual awakening, that members “must find a spiritual basis of life — or else,” as reads a phrase in the chapter.

“When I came to the program, I had to make a decision — a spiritual decision,” says Jackie P., a 60-year-old living in Vermont. Jackie had grown up Protestant, dabbled in Catholicism, but mostly turned to alcohol for solace. Now sober for 22 years, she claims AA helped her find her way back to God. “I know now that I’m not alone and that I have tremendous support and love, and we walk through hard times together,” she says. “When I’m truly in need, I just crawl into His arms.” 

For others, like Kevin G., a 34-year-old event planner in Toronto, this surrendering aspect is the problem. “I want to become empowered — isn’t that the point?” he asks. Kevin tried AA for about six weeks before walking away. “The more I went, the more I had problems with the approach,” he says. “It’s irrational to think that belief in a higher power is the way to treat a dependence on alcohol.” Kevin began researching the dozens of secular or alternative programs that have sprung up since the 1980s, most as a direct backlash to AA. “I like Rational Recovery the best,” Kevin says. “It’s all about willpower, listening to your inner voice and learning to say no to it until it weakens over time.” Kevin was also drawn to a program called SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety), which claims to value self-empowerment, healthy skepticism and scientific methods to understand alcoholism. 

Around the time these and other alternative groups were taking off, the issue of AA’s religiosity was being tested in U.S. courts. Since 1996, three federal courts have ruled that probationers, prison inmates and parolees could not be mandated to attend AA  meetings because doing so would violate the First Amendment. U.S. courts generally agree that AA is a religious organization, despite the fellowship’s open interpretation of God. In the AA book Come to Believe, the introduction characterizes the organization as a “rich diversity of convictions” and a “spiritual way of life.” 

“Religion is religion, and AA has none of that — denominations, rituals, structured belief systems, leaders,” says Mary Clare L., a public information co-ordinator at AA headquarters in New York City. “Spirituality is simply what happens in group meetings when we are with other alcoholics.” 

But if the fellowship is so open and progressive, critics ask, then why haven’t the Big Book’s first 164 pages changed since 1939? “The governing structure of AA decided that there is historical and spiritual value in keeping the text as it was originally written,” Mary Clare explains. “They haven’t even changed the typos in those first pages. But there, you’ll also read that Bill and Bob say they are not affiliated with any religion, and that we each have our own faith path.”

For Sean M., a high school teacher in Kitchener, Ont., hearing the term “God” at AA meetings was initially jarring. “When I first went into AA, I wasn’t happy, and I certainly didn’t believe there was a benevolent force out there, considering the kind of pain I was in.” But Sean kept turning up at meetings because he found comfort in being among people who shared his addiction. “I figured at least I was hanging out with other alcoholics who knew what I was going through — I finally felt understood. I mean, that’s all AA is. You’re basically just talking to a bunch of other drunks who understand you, and you feel better.” 

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