Atheism in Alcoholics Anonymous, with Bob K.

Bob K lives in Ontario, Canada, and has been sober in AA for 25 years.  He is a well-known AA historian and published author.  His book “Key Players in AA History” is a revealing account of the true stories behind the people who founded and developed Alcoholics Anonymous.
As an atheist activist in AA Bob as also a prolific contributor to the websites “AA Agnostica” and “AA Beyond Belief”.  He is well informed about the controversial developments in Toronto, where the local AA Inter Group threw out some atheist meetings who had revised the 12 steps by taking out all references to God.

Podcast with Bob K

Changing the 12 steps

Changing the 12 steps is something you just don’t do in Alcoholics Anonymous — but if the programme discriminates against atheists, how will the fellowship accommodate this?

I ask Bob what is it like as an atheist in North American AA meetings.  These are conspicuously more religious than the ones people attend here in the UK.  Most Canadian AA meetings begin with the Serenity Prayer and end with the Lord’s Prayer, for example, much like those in the United States.
We discuss the latest developments in the Toronto legal action and how it has, ironically, motivated a surge in atheist meetings in the area and given birth to important online resources that are now helping atheists in AA world wide.  This suit has real potential to cause resentment among AA traditionalists over the mounting legal costs, and its outcome may have longstanding international implications for the fellowship and it’s traditions.

History of AA and Bill Wilson

We also do some myth-busting about AA history.  There are many unchallenged falsehoods you still hear in meetings today.
AA’s founder Bill Wilson was a dedicated spiritualist who ran regular seances at his home and believed he could talk to ghosts.  He also experimented frequently with LSD, campaigned strongly for the use of niacin,  and was a huge support of other chemical assists in recovery.  Bill wrote about the need for “a methadone for alcoholics” and I’m sure he would have loved The Sinclair Method, but you won’t ever hear that shared in an AA meeting.
Another fellowship myth is that there was no help for alcoholics prior to foundation of AA.  That’s just not true. There were hundreds of successful sobriety groups, of all kinds, and Bob’s doing some great research on this.
Nor do you hear about some of the non-spiritual sources that inspired AA’s famous core text, “The Big Book”.  These include Richard Peabody’s one-time best-seller “The Common Sense of Drinking”, a huge inspiration on AA’s founders that has been entirely forgotten today.
This is not an “anti-AA” discussion. Bob and I both got sober in the fellowship and we’re both grateful for that.  Bob still attends regular meetings and believes strongly in the value of an active recovery programme.
However it remains a fact that AA membership numbers have flat-lined since 1992, during which time the population of North America has increased by over 30%.
Meanwhile secular AA is growing rapidly.  How will change come about? Is it just a matter of time and demographics?
“Key Players in AA History” is available via Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Key-Players-AA-History-Bob-ebook/dp/B00T57MIK4
This episode was guest hosted by Jon Stewart. Thank you for the opportunity to contribute.
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Commenting area

  1. Good to know there are people inside AA who care about it and would like to see it reach a place of reform. There are many people in AA who are open minded I have decided its a misconception that all AAers are very rigid. This comment is a sort of a retraction as I have been on this website sort of condemming it…but now I am feeling much more middle of the road about it. I really do think AA means well even when sometimes the way they help people is not always the best way. I was focusing on all the negatives but I think in life you can turn anything into really negative if you want to…abuse happens in AA but abuse happens in all human organisations and groups of people…I have decided I will continue with my twelve step programme with a fresh approach one being that I do not have to like everything about something to take part in it…well just imagine we would have no freinds or a job if we decided to reject everything based on something you do not like…I am prepared to agree that maybe its not the best approach for everyone and everything but its really what you make it in the end.

    • There are extreamists who are pro and against AA but I feel most people are somewhere in the middle. A lot depends on your circumstances. Those of us who were in deep trouble with drinking will have a different reaction to it to somebody sent by a court or a youngster who was just acting up for a bit.

      It still attracts far more people than all the other solutions and people want to be part of it. I do object to some of the treatment centers using 12 step insted of therapy and would have personally tried the Sinclair Method if I had heard of it, when I needed it, but I feel it is not my place to simply condem a method of recovery that many people find helps them.

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