Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups

STAR: Does religion belong at AA? Fight over ‘God’ splits Toronto AA groups

AA uses 'fellowship' to help chronic drinkers quit the bottle. But there is little fellowship in a schism that splintered the Alcoholics Anonymous umbrella group in the GTA this week.

At issue is this question: Do alcoholics need God? On Tuesday, Toronto’s two secular AA groups, known as Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, were removed or 'delisted' from the roster of local meetings. They’ve disappeared from the Toronto AA website and will not be in the next printed edition of the Toronto directory.

The dispute started when Beyond Belief posted an adapted version of AA’s hallowed “Twelve Steps” on the Toronto website. They removed the word “God” from the steps, which are used as a kind of road map to help drinkers achieve sobriety.

'They took issue with a public display of secular AA,' says Joe C., who founded Beyond Belief, Toronto’s first agnostic AA group, 18 months ago. (In keeping with AA’s tradition of anonymity, members are identified by first names only.)

It proved popular enough that a second group started up last fall; it took its name from a chapter in the AA bible entitled Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly known as the Big Book. The group, We Agnostics, had only recently completed the paperwork to be part of AA before being booted out. 'What is unusual is that this didn’t happen in some backwater, but that it happened in a liberal, democratic, pluralistic place like Toronto,' says Joe.

The name of God appears four times in the Twelve Steps and echoes the period in which they were written — the 1930s. It invites those seeking sobriety to turn themselves over to God, who will remove their 'defects of character.' They go on to speak of God’s will for the recovering alcoholic.

'They (the altered Twelve Steps) are not our Twelve Steps,' says an AA member who was at Tuesday’s meeting of the coordinating body known as the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup. 'They’ve changed them to their own personal needs. They should never have been listed in the first place.' He says that in the early days of AA, meetings ended with the Lord’s Prayer. 'That has obviously stopped in all but hard-core groups. We welcome people with open arms. In our group we still say the Lord’s Prayer. One guy was uncomfortable with that. I told him to just step back when we pray. He does. He’s doing what he needs to do for him.'

The issue of AA’s use of God has come up frequently over the past 50 years. For the most part, the organization — which claims 113,000 groups around the world — permits other agencies to imitate its program, but not to call themselves Alcoholics Anonymous.
Other secular organizations, including Save our Selves (or Secular Organizations for Sobriety), offer addiction help similar to AA. But with some 100,000 members in 2005, SOS is far less popular than AA, which reports a membership of about two million. In Toronto alone, there are 500 AA meetings a week.

'This is not the first we’ve gone up against bigotry,' says Larry of We Agnostics. 'This has been an ongoing struggle in North America.'