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The Atheist in AA Fighting to Get 'God' Taken Out of the 12 Steps

Last year, Lawrence Knight took Alcoholics Anonymous to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal to take a stand against how non-believers have traditionally been treated in AA.
AA members in New York in the 1930s. Public Archives.

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

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he believes, like many others, that the words "God" and "Higher Power," which are rampant throughout AA literature, are outdated.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 that 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 AA, 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.