Toronto Man Fights with AA World Services Over the Word "God"

Toronto Man Fights with AA World Services Over the Word “God”

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the word "God"I know I’m not the only person who has sat in a 12-step meeting on a cranky day rolling my eyes as somebody shares about the super-spiritual miraculous transformative power of their Higher Power Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Amen). But Lawrence Knight of Toronto, Canada has taken the eye roll to a whole new level by filing an official complaint against Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc. (AAWS) and the Greater Toronto Intergroup (GTA) to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario. His allegation? The program discriminates against atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.

A recent article in Vice Canada reveals that Knight’s complaint is based on the fact that his Toronto atheist meeting “Beyond Belief” was removed from the local meeting directory in 2011 after he rewrote the 12 steps, nixing all references to “God” and a “Higher Power.” Shortly after, the only other atheist or agnostic AA group in the area, “We Agnostics,” was also removed. According to this article, the result of these actions was that secular options in AA don’t exist in Toronto. The piece goes on to claim that other Canadian atheist and agnostic AA groups in Vancouver and Kingston have also been removed from their local meeting directories because of what happened in Toronto.

Something Smells a Little Funky Here

Now, I’m no Bible (or Big Book) thumper, and I certainly understand why some people—especially newcomers—are turned off by all the God talk in the 12 steps, but I know a little bit about how these types of service committees operate and the arguments presented in this article just don’t ring true. First off, meetings are listed (or removed) from a local directory based on a decision by the representatives of the local groups—not the intergroup itself. So Knight’s beef is really with the other members who voted to boot his group. The complaint against GTA and by extension AAWS is more than a little overblown.

Second, to state that simply removing the meeting from the directory renders it non-existent is ridiculous. There are plenty of AA meetings happening all the time in every city that aren’t listed anywhere (see: every home meeting and plenty of others). The meetings he’s talking about are just not officially affiliated with AA anymore. They’re still functioning and listed online as far as I can tell from a quick Google. And I’m willing to bet they’re more popular than ever in the midst of this hubbub (alcoholics and addicts love drama). Finally, to allege that other intergroups have removed atheist and agnostic groups from their directories because of the actions of the GTA is a little paranoid. The very nature of these types of service bodies is self-governing, so while this could totally be true, there’s really no way of knowing for sure or proving such a claim.

Go With(out) God

I get it. It sucks that this guy has been vilified for standing up to the old school AA fundamentalists in his area. He thinks the language of the steps is outdated. Um, duh. It was written by a couple of guys all hopped up Oxford in the 1930s. Apparently, Knight also had some negative experiences with religious fundamentalists in his childhood and has taken it upon himself to stand up for all those who may feel triggered by the word “God.” While it’s nice that he cares about the newcomers who may not feel comfortable with organized religion and admirable that he is so firm in his convictions that he is willing to make this stand, really, what’s he trying to prove?

The 12 steps are an integral part of AA and God is part of the steps, like it or not. If he doesn’t like it and he absolutely can’t find a way to reconcile his personal beliefs with the principles of the steps, then don’t be a member. If the principles aren’t the problem and it’s just about the language, then maybe he should get the fuck over it (he’s been sober since the early 90s according to this article, so something must be working). It seems like a great opportunity to, well, work the steps or at least do some personal reflection and healing. If he can’t get over himself and his past, there are plenty of other great options for peer support.

In God’s Hands

However I feel about it, the complaint is moving forward. AAWS filed an application to be removed as a respondent, claiming that it has no jurisdiction over the GTI because it is technically based in New York. The request was denied on the grounds that the AAWS provides oversight to the GTI, which is a service in Ontario, and therefore is accountable for the actions of the GTI. This in and of itself is a huge victory for Knight. The fact that he successfully managed to hold the AAWS accountable for the actions of a service body in another country is unprecedented.

But that’s probably all he’s gonna get. The presiding official has determined that the likelihood of the complaint being valid is so slim that they won’t even be moving forward with a full hearing. Instead, there will be what’s called a “summary hearing” to determine whether or not Knight has any chance in hell of demonstrating that there was legal discrimination. So, the next step is a conference call. In the meantime AAWS’s October issue of the Grapevine was dedicated exclusively to the stories of atheist and agnostic members. Well played AA, well played.

Mr. Knight, I’ll pray for you.

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About Author

Becky Sasso is a writer and editor who worked at the world headquarters of an international 12-step organization and has a Master's in communication from Johns Hopkins University. She currently serves as the head of Marketing and Development for The Gentle Barn Foundation and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.