Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Does Alcoholics Anonymous really need to be religious?

It's something I've never put much thought into before, but I guess that the venerable institution of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is in fact a religious, indeed a specifically Christian, outfit.
It may be the butt of many a spoof and comedy routine, but as far as I know, AA does a bang-up job of helping people kick their alcohol problems. The organization goes back to 1934, when founder Bill Wilson experienced what he thought of, in the Christian zeitgest of the period, as a holy vision on his way to hospital, leading him to establish the network of peer counselling groups according to his own precepts, and it has changed very little since. Indeed, Step 3 of the famous 12 steps exhorts members to: "Make a decision to turn over our will and our lives to the care of God as we understand Him." It doesn't get much plainer than that.
However, not everyone is entirely comfortable with this level of religious content, and there was a feeling that, in some areas at least, meetings were becoming increasingly religious in tone. So, Larry Knight and others in the Toronto area started organizing agnostic AA meetings to service this perceived need, and at first the regional organizing body (the grandly-named Greater Toronto Area Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous) seemed to embrace the move, and listed the meetings in its directories.
Then, in 2011, the Intergroup abruptly de-listed these groups and meetings, and started to actively ostracize those local groups that offered a more secular interpretation of the 12 steps. Mr. Knight, himself actually a member of the Unitarian Church, felt obliged to take his local AA coordinating body to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in order to get them to recognize and list the agnostic groups (arguing religious discrimination). Just this week, he won the case, and the Intergroup is once again listing the rebel meetings. As a quid pro quo, though, they have agreed to use the official 12 steps, complete with the mention of God.
Interestingly, these agnostic AA groups have blossomed since the court case began in 2014, going from just 2 groups in the GTA to 12 today, and from 80 to 350 worldwide. There is clearly a market there. Personally, I don't really understand why the AA feels the need to dogmatically cling to its Christian roots. Surely, its raison d'etre is to alleviate and cure alcoholism, and it should therefore be open to all, regardless of faith (or lack thereof). In fact, one of its founding Traditions is that "The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking". That also is very plain.

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