November 2, 2011
Is there a connection between these two events?
2) October 2011, Toronto Public Information makes arrangements to donate one Big Book for every library and guidance office in the Toronto District School Board. The free books are refused, no explanation given. The same month a 20-year-old member of the Public Information Committee inquires with the York School Board (a suburb of Toronto) about having alcoholics come talk to the students about teenage alcoholism and recovery. The school board tells her that they do have an alcohol and drug response plan in place but it doesn’t include 12-Step programs.
When I was a teenage AA member, talking at schools was frequent. Up until now, Toronto schools have always stocked the Big Book. Is AA suffering from a PR crisis? Has public sentiment soured on AA?
I don’t know if there is a direct correlation between Educators reading that AA has discriminated against its own non-theistic members and then deeming AA literature as inappropriate for public school children. But both events are part of convergent trends. Outside AA the world grows more secular. Inside AA, in some quarters reification is setting in, promoting a hierarchy of authority and ways to recover within the program.
Des Moines, Indianapolis and Toronto have done a very un-AA thing: The practices of a group and judgment on the group’s worthiness, has been decided by an Intergroup body. At time of writing I understand the Indy has corrected this problem but it wasn’t unanimously approved. Wounds of battle still fester.
These are all groups that meet AA General Service Office (GSO) standards. GSO doesn’t police the activities and readings of groups because we have Traditions. Each group is self-governing, autonomous and beholden to their own group conscience. As Bill W wrote, every group is a group if they say they are, even if they are anti-AA, anti-god, anti-each other. If there is the slightest interest in sobriety, they are welcome in AA.
Agnostic groups have been part of the AA fold since 1978. Roger C of Beyond Belief is compiling a history of agnostic groups and you can read his blog at http://aatorontoagnostics.org for more on that. There are a number of interpretations, translations or variations including Humanist, secular and agnostic in print and on the net.
Many hard-core atheists don’t need AA’s 12-Steps in their own language. They interpret the Steps the way they like, taking what they like and leaving the rest. Others don’t have a “god of their understanding” and speaking in that language would be disingenuous at very least and a dangerous straying away from rigorous honesty at worst.
This translation of the Twelve Steps tells our story in agnostic terms. It saves lives among non-believers and causes hostility among AA’s literalist community. What Bill Wilson describes in the World Service Manual as an angry and rash majority, three Intergroups have cast the agnostics out against their will in an attempt to purify AA from water-wagon sobriety. Changing the Twelve Steps is considered heresy and these Intergroups ignored the urging of General Service to respect each group’s autonomy, Intergroup has declared the changed Steps as a breach of traditions and they are acting as AA enforcement in the service of God.
dog·ma/ˈdôgmə/A principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.
AA’s authority rests in the group conscience. There are no bosses. Groups who read, print, distribute or practice the God-free steps or any other non-conference approved literature may be right or they may be wrong. That would not matter to the founders. The founders granted AA groups the right to be wrong. AA was designed to be self-correcting and not enforced. If agnostics are not to be as part of the AA fold, they will go away all by themselves; it requires no voting or draconian measures.
Intolerance and the fear that creates it has been part of AA DNA since the get-go. Bill Wilson said this about his own bigotry in the 1961 Grapevine, “In AA’s first years, I all but ruined the whole undertaking with this sort of unconscious arrogance. God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so- to numbers of nonbelievers… Even now, I catch myself chanting same old barrier-building refrain: ‘Do as I do, believe as I do – or else.”
Everyone’s narrative about their own actions is as the hero or victim, never as the villain. Toronto Intergroup, fell prey ( or maybe “pray”) to what Social Psychologist Lee Ross termed “fundamental attribution error.” If you’re new to this term it plays out like this: We attribute causes of our own shortcomings (and those we love) as being situational. We attribute shortcomings of those outside our circle as being a lack of character. I was late because the traffic and the burden of my “things to do” list. You were late because you don’t value me or my time. You lack integrity. I am busy. It’s the same fault but different attribution to each “crime.”
Intergroup literalists who are what I affectionately coin as drunk on dogma, see one truth, to which they stand ready to defend. Any threat or violation of such “ultimate truth” must be eradicated. It is not discrimination or bigotry in their mind. It is dutiful stewardship of the program that God has bestowed upon us.
Convinced that agnostic interpretation is the erosion from within that our founders warned us about, they seek out a mandate to turn a blind eye to love and tolerance. They find this in a passage in the AA World Service Manual. In there it says that The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions can only be altered with 75% agreement from the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Anyone on a mission would take that and run with it as a mandate to no longer treat agnostics as rights-bearing equals, so long as they are pledging allegiance to the bastard-Steps of recovery. However, anyone who reads the document in its entirety will see that this 75% requirement is for the entire body of AA to change the Twelve Steps for one and all. There is nothing that suggests women can’t use a gender-neutral reading of the Steps. It doesn’t mean that people who don’t believe in God have to talk like the rest of us to fit in.
Toronto Intergroup is represented by well under half of the Greater Toronto area groups. In a city of over 400+ meetings, getting 60 voting members out would be an accomplishment. It took 23 Yes’s to approve a motion to de-list Toronto’s two agnostic groups.
These defenders of honor would not connect their actions that night with AA being shut out of high schools. But if your world view includes Karma, the butterfly effect or the law of unintended consequences, you might not see a one-to-one correlation here, but you could see that they represent similar trends.
Outside of AA the world is growing more secular.
- The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found less than 60% of New Englanders have an absolute belief that there is a God.
- In Canada, 39% of people belief in a guiding God.
- Ireland and Italy have about 50% with an absolute belief in God and the rest of the western world is at or below 25% with a belief in a deity.
Inside AA reification risks the transformation of a fellowship of equals into dogmatic rituals, unified belief and a hierarchy of authority. Most people are pretty anecdotal about their belief in a higher-power. A few of us promote the Steps as a path to God and don’t want a contrarian world-view pestering them.
Bill Wilson talked of his bigotry being subtle and/or aggressive. Since he wrote that article atheism has tripled in the USA and I expect he would welcome these changes. Discrimination is subtle when we tell newcomer nonbelievers, “You will get it eventually – keep coming back.” When we politely suggest that you agnostics and your secular steps are not AA, suggesting, “Go on down the road and start your own fellowship – we wish you well,” we are in violation of our responsibility pledge. When we scapegoat nonbelievers as practicing water-wagon sobriety and being responsible for AAs declining population or (alleged) falling recovery rates, we are practicing aggressive discrimination. How will the next generation judge us for shunning non-theists?
One of the discussion topics/presentations for the 2012 AA General Service Conference is “Change – Essentials to AA’s Growth and Diversity – Let’s Keep Our Doors Open for any Who May Suffer from Alcoholism”
When we are afraid we try to keep things the same, or as we perceive them to have always been. Sadly that creates mythology about the good ol’ days and dogmatic practices, some subtle, some aggressive.
Diversity can’t happen without accommodation. Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, Buddhists, Apostate’s and Pagans will all continue to find their way here. Is our house in order and are we ready to welcome them? Hey, we don’t have to change. There is always extinction. I hope we are up to the challenge. It doesn’t require a scholastic understanding of all of mankind’s creeds. It just requires an open mind. When people arrive at our doors they don’t need to be told. They need to be heard. When people feel heard, then start to ask questions.