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  1. Beenthere2Hippie
    A Toronto man has taken Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc. and the Greater Toronto Intergroup to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, alleging discrimination against atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers.

    The GTA Intergroup, which acts as a central organizing hub and directory for AA groups in Toronto, has essentially kicked out all atheist groups who have changed traditional AA language by taking out the word "God" from the Twelve Steps.

    There are currently 501 AA meetings held at 252 locations across the GTA. However, atheists looking for AA meetings without a God attached will not find one in any of them because the GTA Intergroup eliminated local atheist and agnostic meetings from their promotions and directories. Now, secular options in AA are officially considered non-existent in Toronto. Accordingly, questions remain as to whether the current AA program is modern enough for a pluralistic society.

    The first atheist and agnostic AA groups in Canada—Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, both of which are located in Toronto—were also the first agnostic and atheist groups to be booted out of an AA Intergroup. Since then, similar patterns have developed in Vancouver and Kingston.

    Last year, Lawrence Knight, 58, known simply as "Larry" in the rooms, took AA to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to take a stand against how non-believers have traditionally been treated in AA. Knight found sobriety through AA after his drinking became too much for him to control in the early 90s. But he believes, like many others, that the words "God" and "Higher Power," which are rampant throughout AA literature, are outdated. More specifically, he's arguing that that alcoholics who have been abused by religious fundamentalists in their childhood, (himself included), can have negative associations with the word "God"—some even find the religion and the ensuing dogma which follows highly triggering.

    AA literature reflects the Protestant culture of the 1930s. But without any alternatives to traditional AA recovery, atheist and agnostic alcoholics are forced to find ways to make the literature work for them, such as considering a "Higher Power" to be the AA program, rather than a "God," or using the word "God" as an acronym for "Good Orderly Direction."

    Knight was one of a handful of people who started the secular AA meetings in Toronto in 2009, after having watched newcomers afflicted by the abuse of fundamentalists in traditional meetings for years. According to Knight, a newcomer once gave a talk about his atheism at a meeting where he was swiftly accused of "sending people out to die," which is how fundamentalists interpret atheism in AA recovery. According to the tenets of AA, one must turn over their lives over to the care of God to stay sober, and to say otherwise, is to send the suffering alcoholic back on the street where they will meet their painful death.

    A few weeks later, Larry and a few others started the first secular AA meeting known as "Beyond Belief." That meeting was delisted by the GTA Intergroup in 2009 for taking God out of the steps. After the delisting of secular groups occurred, Knight, among others, made a conscious effort to stop attending AA meetings affiliated with the GTA Intergroup.

    This tension is nothing new, however. Several proposals have been considered in the past concerning the development of an official AA pamphlet directed to the atheist alcoholic. Since the early 70s, this concept has been explored at least six separate times. However, motions for official inclusivity of the atheist and agnostic perspective have been ignored, if not flat-out denied and vetoed.

    Knight explained how atheists have kept their mouths shut for the sake of recovery, or out of fear of reprisal, or perhaps apathy, hoping the fundamentalism and exclusion in the rooms would eventually stop. "We finally need to step up and address the things which need to be addressed," he said. "We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the future and we owe it to everybody."

    One of Larry's comrades, Roger C. (last names are omitted in AA), published Don't Tell: stories and essays by agnostics and atheists in A.A., explaining how there appears to be an unofficial policy in AA, similar to the infamous "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the US military regarding the treatment of the LGBTQ community.

    The GTA Intergroup has been stalling over the past year, but all parties will finally sit down for mediation toward the end of November in an attempt to avoid going to court. On November 6 there will be a district meeting in which every general service representative from every AA group in western Ontario will vote on a motion to eliminate the Lord's Prayer from that specific meeting. Moreover, The Grapevine, AAs own "reader's digest," has for the first time released an issue completely dedicated to stories by atheist and agnostic members of AA.

    As this is an ongoing matter before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, AAWAS was unable to provide comment, according to an AA spokesperson. AAWS has requested its status as respondent be removed, based on the fact it's based in New York, not Toronto, where the agnostic delisting took place. The transcript states:

    "This Interim Decision addresses the Request by the respondent, A.A. World Services, Inc. ("AAWS"), that the Application be dismissed as against it because the applicant has not alleged that it discriminated against him and because the Application is outside the jurisdiction of the Tribunal."

    However, the tribunal denied this request based on the Knight's argument that, although AAWS is located in New York, its services transcend all borders. AAWS oversees the General Service Office (GSO), which serves as a world clearinghouse of AA information and publishes AA literature.

    The Greater Toronto Intergroup is an official AA umbrella service responsible for listing and delisting groups in their local area. Nevertheless, Knight still attends traditional meetings, mostly outside of Toronto when friends are having sobriety birthdays. He still values traditional AA, which he says helped save him from his addiction. But this does not mean he agrees with the exclusionary and fundamentalist behavior of some of its members who force their religious beliefs on others.

    The Greater Toronto Intergroup did not respond to interview requests in time for publication. Mediation will begin on November 18.

    By Ryan Moore - Vice/Oct. 24, 2016
    Photo: AA archives
    Newshawk Crew

    Author Bio

    BT2H is a retired news editor and writer from the NYC area who, for health reasons, retired to a southern US state early, and where BT2H continues to write and to post drug-related news to DF.


  1. jazzyj9
    That's awesome! If "God" and "higher power" were removed I think this would make AA/NA more accessible to the general public. I wonder how this would change the program though, since their basic premise is that the individual is powerless and that an entity greater than themselves is what enables them to maintain sobriety.

    I think this is an error and that is why it doesn't work for so many people. People can be powerless in one moment in time and find the strength to change which can be motivated by external circumstances or internal ones. I think the AA/NA dogma is harmful by minimizing and degrading the individual identity and bolstering the AA persona. It is very cultish, the group identity supplanting the individual personality.

    AA/NA doesn't try to seek understanding of why someone would turn to drugs in the first place. I think addiction stems from both biology and psychological circumstances.

    AA/NA works for some people because it is a supportive community. That is a good thing, but I don't think that can sustain abstinence long term in many people.
  2. Phenoxide
    Seems kinda frivolous to me. AA is inherently faith-based and there should be no obligation that they endorse support groups with a different philosophy. Alternative recovery programs should be available, but these would not be AA.

    The issue here is that people are going to recovery meetings, presumably by court order, that are not compatible with their core beliefs. That is not AA's fault.
  3. Binge Artist
    I am incredibly happy about this! I am so sick of seeing god and all this nonsense where it doesn't belong. Matter of fact I used to live in the GTA (Mississauga not Toronto however) and when I was 14-15 got caught with some pot, and they sent me to some bogus youth rehab centre.

    Being naturally inclined toward science and education, I refuted all their prayers and even told them to stop shoving their fairy tales down my throat. The unfortunate part was I was then mistreated for the rest of the program, which I was forced to participate in because of the situations. It was either follow this diversion program (in Canada for youths) or get charged.

    These days I'm much happier in my post-secondary medical program with plenty of fellow atheists/agnostics. Funny how the dogmatic get weeded out from education.
  4. jazzyj9
    Court programs should not force a person to go to a religious program in my opinion. I believe in separation of church and state. Public schools shouldn't be allowed to promote a specific religious doctrine either.

    I see your point that AA/NA shouldn't have to change to accommodate other beliefs.
  5. RoboCodeine7610
    The whole AA program is based on the idea of a 'higher power' and has historically been associated with very low success rates. Why take out one piece when the whole approach needs to be re-thought from scratch?

    Not to mention, the entire program was conceived almost 100 years ago. You would think that a new approach, one that takes recently learned information into consideration would look significantly different. Including harm-reduction within the program would probably be a good start.

    Also, on a somewhat unrelated note, I've noticed that the terminology associated with addiction can be quite misleading to the general public and even to a lot of addicts themselves. For example, the term 'detox' is misnomer that many people take seriously; that is, they believe the purpose is to remove 'toxins' having no concept whatsoever of physical dependence, withdrawal, and the mechanisms associated with it. Narconon is a prime example of that...

  6. Healer
    If god should be removed from AA literature than it would need to be removed from the pledge of allegiance and USA currency...at least it should be. If somebody doesn't believe in god to the point they think AA needs to remove god from itself why do they think just because they don't believe that the opposing side is somehow wrong? Taking them to court for discrimination is a good...first step.

    There are many ways to get into support groups that aren't religious.
  7. JarvyJarvison
    I'm a lapsed Catholic borderline atheist and the way I see it, NA is just not for me. God is the very basis of the program. If you don't like NA because it's theistic, try another program like SMART Recovery or something.
  8. DeepGreenSea
    There are lots of NA/AA groups that don't require GOD as the Central Idea that is Larger than The Addict...

    But they all seem to feel like they should never quiet about this fact-they like are being naughty or could get in trouble. To me this suit is nothing but good news....
  9. Budgetadvisoryservice
    I think this is dumb.

    The article's great, don't get me wrong, but there's nothing in the rules that says you have to refer to god or a higher power. In fact, the only requirement for membership is a willingness to abstain from alcohol use, or in the case of NA, harmful drug use. Whilst the serenity prayer, a major part of the pre and post ambles of conventional meetings, is a Christian prayer to god, there is no requirement for participants to recite the prayer. A number of people I know just omit the word.

    The concept of higher power need not be a spiritual reference. My higher power is the Universe, as I understand it from a scientific perspective. I know one guy who's higher power is a chair, any chair, because it keeps him off the ground when he's too tired to stand. The concept of higher power, as it relates to the 12 steps, is amorphous and is entirely open to interpretation. It is a fundamental part of the foundation principal of forgiveness which underlies the 12step concept.

    Without a higher power, who do you surrender to? The concept of surrender, enacted from step two, supports the process of compartmentalisation of the issues which lead to and are perpetuated by addiction. Compartmentalisation is an important part of the process, as it allows the addict to get space from the moral pressure they often feel do what seems impossible - to live without drugs or alcohol.

    The idea of 'handing over' your problems has real merit. The reality for many addicts entering recovery is rife with moral and ethical dilemma. This can compound the suffering of withdrawal as the addict often feels that they have failed in their relationships and responsibilities. Those feelings can be overwhelming, often driving the person experiencing them to seek refuge in inebriation. By 'handing it over' to a 'higher power' the addict can get enough space from the weight of personal responsibility to address the underlying disharmony which forms the basis of their destructive behaviour.

    The 12 steps are an antiquated process. The strength of the 12step fellowship is greater than a process and it's real strength lies in the inclusive nature of the group. Anyone can join, you don't have to contribute and if you stick around, you will learn useful skills that can help you live a drug free life which is fulfilling and unique. Arguing that AA and NA are ineffective is to minimise the success that the fellowship has in its true aim, to provide a supportive community for recovering addicts to share their experiences in anonymity. In the world we now live in, I believe that groups of that kind need to be nurtured without having their financial viability threatened by litigious claims and processes.

    It seems to me that the claimant has more problems with the fellowship than the use of a few words and his own perception that you've got to bash bibles to be a 12 stepper. I think it's a fairly narrow view to take, that 12 step fellowships are exclusive to secular, atheist or agnostic belief systems.

    Really, they don't come more atheist than me, the eternal pragmatist. I don't see the problem with leaving out the god word. In fact, I know one meeting in Auckland where the serenity prayer starts with the word 'grant' and nothing else is different from a conventional meeting, except that all the members want to associate with other secular professional types.

    Get over it folks. Forget about what you assume and work with what you know. AA and NA are groups of people who get together to support each other in sobriety. Who cares if they dance around a mushroom or worship a soggy turd? If you're broken and fucked, I'll bet that any issue you have over nomenclature is peripheral to what you really should be focussing on, and that is what the fellowship is really about.

    I'll bet that the guy who's taking his claim to court would be better off spending his time and energy by supporting others in recovery as he receives support, not attacking a group who's only real purpose is to help those who want it.

    My two cents for free.

  10. jazzyj9
    ^^I agree with you regarding community support being of great value in maintaining sobriety for some people, especially in the beginning. The "addict" persona however, a one size fits all definition of personal experiences with addictions are necessarily false. No two people are alike, no addiction is exactly alike. There are similarities sure, but not identical. Additionally, some people who have, in error, surrendered their will to drugs and/or alcohol in the past would benefit more from reclaiming their former identity as a unique individual.

    "my name is joe shmoe and I am an addict/alcoholic" is not a healthy way to identify if one is every going to be free of addiction. Community support can only get a person so far, then the individual will and/or "soul" if you will must step back in. There seems to be no place for that in AA/NA that I have observed. Also, who the heck wants to relive their life as a crack head over and over. That gets old after a while.

    Those are my 2 cents, no offense meant.
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