AA Grapevine: Outside the Circle

By J.D. Virginia Beach, Virginia 

A member feels uncomfortable as he learns more about one of the prayers we use

The Preamble to AA states that we are not aligned with any sect or denomination. My home group ends their meeting with the Lord’s Prayer, as do most of the other groups in my area. But recently, my group, dedicated to following all the guidelines set down by our wonderful program, was willing to discuss a change in this format when I brought to their attention the fact that this prayer was indeed a Christian prayer.

The prayer is discussed in the book The Sermon on the Mount, by Emmet Fox. This book was highly recommended to me by an old-timer when I was new in AA more than 33 years ago to help me with my spirituality. And because I’m Jewish, I consulted a rabbi actively involved in AA to see if it was alright to read it, being that it was an interpretation of Jesus’ teaching. This highly educated person said, “If it keeps you sober, then read it.”

However, the book The Sermon on the Mount, which was influential to early AA I’m told, reads, “The Lord’s Prayer is the most important of all the Christian documents … the one common denominator of all the churches.” So this prayer I’ve been saying with no compunction all these years is now becoming difficult for me to say. I thus find myself standing outside the circle when it’s recited, and that doesn’t feel good.

A number of years ago I attended a workshop on spirituality vs. religion in AA. The message I came away with was: Anything that causes a member to stand outside of the circle in a meeting does not belong in AA. After discussing my feelings with members of my home group, it was agreed to bring up the topic at our business meetings of changing the closing prayer at our regular meeting. I feel extremely grateful that my group was open-minded and willing to do this.

Our group discussed this topic for more than six months. I had suggested closing with the Third Step Prayer. Others mentioned the Serenity Prayer. I was willing to go with anything found in our literature. However, even though the vote was 14:1 to keep the Lord’s Prayer (at the beginning of our discussions), and changed to 10:5 (at the conclusion of the discussions), the motion was still defeated. I am using my program to work on acceptance.

I do not believe my group is prejudiced against my or any other religion or race. In fact, the absence of prejudice is remarkable throughout all the meetings I’ve attended throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as my travels in Europe. However, I believe as alcoholics we are resistant to change, and there may be other reasons. But the message to me is that we are aligned with the sect of Christianity and that goes against our Preamble. If our “primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety,” it concerns me that when newcomers come into our meetings (be they Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or any other religion) and they hear that prayer, they too may come away with the feeling that AA is indeed aligned with Christianity.

Nevertheless, I will not leave my group, although some of my rose-colored glasses have come off. Thank God my group adheres to most of the Traditions and Legacies upon which AA is based. Though I’m not as adamant about attending all their meetings now, I still love AA, this group, and all the hundreds of people who have changed my life from one of despair into one of joy.

I do hope you will fill see fit to publish this. If honesty is one of the cornerstones of sobriety, I am thankful I can express my opinion and disappointment.

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Copyright © The AA Grapevine, Inc. (November, 2015). Reprinted with permission.

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This Post Has 15 Comments

  1. JHG

    The author’s experience, strength, and hope is helpful, but it is telling that atheists and agnostics are conspicuously absent from the list of those about whom the author is concerned (“Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or any other religion”). While it is probably true that, as the article asserts, AA is remarkably free of prejudice with regard to Judaism and to “any other religion or race”, many of us know that the same cannot be said about those who reject the idea of religion altogether.

    1. maria t

      An excellent Grapevine story. Its good for our fellowship to have this type of challenge to the pervasiveness of the LP in meetings published in “AA approved literature” so that our less open minded members have something thought provoking to read! It was also good and brave of JD to speak up and challenge his home group. However, JHG’s response sums it up well from my point of view. WAAFT’s in AA still are largely ignored at best. At worst, as has been my experience twice now, we are called out for questioning the god thing and for pointing out that sobriety in AA is possible without any sort of HP!
      I love bob k’s summation: “intelligent people come to AA seeking real help……… They are left to conclude we are hypocritical, or just stupid.” It IS an embarrassment to this intelligent alcoholic!

  2. Matt N

    I have been in AA for a long time and although I do not refuse to stand in the circle at the end of meetings I do abstain from reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I close my eyes and follow my breath until it is done. On occasion it has offered an opportunity for members to ask why I do not recite the prayer and my response is it simply does not resonate with me as a non believer.

  3. bob k

    The Lord’s Prayer is not just a Christian Prayer, it’s THE Christian prayer and of course, it allies us with Christianity, directly in contradiction of our own stated principles. The website AAAgnostica.org has 5 or 6 essays on the subject of the usage of this prayer in AA meetings. None are as gentle as this one.

    Intelligent people come to AA seeking help with very real alcohol problems and encounter Christianity’s Number One prayer, probably only briefly after hearing the “spiritual not religious” palaver. They are left to conclude that we are either hypocritical, or just stupid. It’s an embarrassment, and for the life of me, I can’t see the upside.

    LOVED the latest podcast, by the way!!

    1. Tomassina

      “They are left to conclude that we are either hypocritical or just plain stupid” – very true.
      It’s quite clear a very large percentage of us have never been educated to think logically.

  4. Fred S

    Since author J.D. believes in God and his issue is with the type of belief rather than belief itself, perhaps it would help him to know that Jesus was just giving a template, a model to use in prayer. At Matthew 6:9-13 where it is recorded, he starts off by saying, “This is how you should pray” and then the rest comes. So it’s an ordered list of priorities. Before you ask for anything for yourself, you need to recognize the sanctity of God’s name and indicate your desire for his rulership and will. After that you can ask for stuff for yourself: food, forgiveness for mistakes, and finally you ask God for guidance and protection. If you think of it as a template it might be easier to deal with, even though it was Jesus who gave it.

    But that doesn’t do anything for those who don’t believe and would rather not have to deal with it. Newbies who’ve gotten the inevitable “God as you understand him” speech (“Anything can be your higher power. That doorknob can be your higher power.”) might have trouble shifting from the doorknob-as-HP concept to asking that doorknob to provide their daily bread.

  5. life-j

    Relatively newly sober I found myself at an uptown meeting I hadn’t been to before. I happened to be in an anti-LP mood that day, and talked about it. I had the fortunate experience that a number of jewish people were at the meeting who felt encouraged to speak out against it as well, on religious cultural grounds. I then double dipped and suggested the group ended with the serenity prayer, but it fell on deaf ears. they ended with the LP anyway

    1. Susan

      Thank you for your thoughts! I have brought up this issue several times in Alanon meetings and have had many different results. I am Native American and consider myself an agnostic follower of some of my tribe’s spiritual teachings.

      I lived in Houston for many years and my home group discussed it and voted it down. They were respectful about it, and I felt my voice had been heard. Another group in Colorado, where my parents live, discussed it and voted to change to the Serenity Prayer. I was grateful for the change.

      The worst situation was in my “home” group where I now live in San Jose, California. I brought up the Lord’s Prayer and many people in the group were very uncomfortable with the idea of change. I didn’t expect them to stop using the Lord’s Prayer, but I did think I would be treated with respect and kindness during the discussion. There were several angry people and several people who were upset by the conflict and just wanted it to go away. One member said that he came to the meetings to hear positive messages, not conflict, and wanted to close the discussion. Another told me I had no right to tell him how to pray. There were several members, one Atheist, in particular, who were very kind and even stated that the group’s behavior was alienating and unkind.

      I left that group, and almost gave up the program, but thankfully, I continued my step work. I’ve gotten less and less comfortable with the Lord’s Prayer, and I now leave if it’s going to be read in a meeting. I try to only go to meetings that don’t use the Lord’s Prayer.

  6. Jack

    On page XX of the forward to the “Big Book” it states that Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization! Then the book continues to mention prayers to “God” and ends meetings with the Christian Lord’s Prayer. I think this is a hangover from the Oxford group. It is obvious that AA is a sect. I also think that it is going through growing pains. I remember when the word “addict” brought down the house. I do think that the growth that is occurring will open the AA door and move the program toward acceptance of all alcoholics! The fact that there are open secular AA meetings in existence now seems to prove this. I know that central offices will list all AA meetings ultimately in the future . (As they do the sect meetings now) I have been sober since May 1, 1970! The ability to just take what works for me kept me sober! As Bill said ” the steps are suggestive only”!

  7. Pat N.

    I was in a small Oklahoma town while volunteering with the Red Cross (they’d had a tornado nearby), and one day was partnered with a woman who turned out to be in the program. We decided to look for a meeting after work. The only one available was a men’s meeting, but they immediately welcomed my partner and it turned out to be the usual warm, supportive atmosphere. At the end, the chair asked if I would, as a visitor, like to lead the LP. I asked if I could use the closing my home group uses instead, and recited the Pledge “When anyone, anywhere…” . Only one other guy seemed to know it.
    The second I was through, the chair started the LP. I think it’s so ingrained in many Bible Belt meetings that he was uncomfortable not reciting it.
    I’ve seen people at a meeting near Boston make the “sign of the cross” following the LP. They can’t tell AA from a church meeting.
    I’ve thought of asking a group to say the Hail Mary instead of the LP, but haven’t had the guts.
    It might help clarify why some of us are unhappy w/ the LP.

  8. Pat Y.

    While I’m no fan of the LP being used in meetings, I find it especially egregious that my District, which represents a number of different meetings, including my We Agnostics home group (of which I am a proud GSR!), should use this patently Christian prayer to end its meetings.<\p>

    I have made my views known and at one point mounted a successful bid to remove the prayer, only to have it not just reinstated the following month but also to have the previous vote declared null and void on account of ‘irregularities.’<\p>

    < p align= "justify"> As upset as I was with my District at the time, I cannot say the result was unexpected. Ever since that meeting last February, I have staged a protest, standing in the center of the circle in silence. Sometimes others join me, sometimes I’m alone, but every time, my dissent is noticed by everyone in the group.<\p>

    I must say, it is a strange and oddly exhilarating sensation, getting ‘prayed at’ by the 30-40 people in attendance, and it has become what I look forward to the most at each District meeting. A number of my fellow District members have expressed their support privately,and I can always count on a few ‘thumbs ups’ from a couple members.<\p>

    This January will mark one year since I first made a motion to remove the prayer and I’m presently working out my strategy to reintroduce the subject in a more tactful and reasoned way than I did last year. While I don’t realistically expect the District to change anytime soon, I believe I do have an obligation to speak my truth and live up to my role of ‘perennial gadfly’ within my District.<\p>

  9. crescentdave

    Like so many groups, there was a significant number of people in our collection of meetings who were uncomfortable with closing the meeting with an explicitly Christian prayer. We did away with it and now most meetings close with the Serenity Prayer … quite easy to say/not say the opening word and feel “part of.”

    A year ago, a group of fundamentalists pushed the business meeting to reconsider it’s decision. When I had a chance to speak, I approached it this way: “Given you’ve heard a significant minority of people are very uncomfortable with this prayer, for how many of you is the recitation of the LP necessary to your continuing sobriety? Because it seems this would be the only compelling reason, in the face of discomfort, to continue saying the prayer. And if this isn’t the case, if it isn’t necessary for your ongoing sobriety, for how many of you is it more important to say the LP as a matter of principle as opposed to not say it over concern for the alcoholics who have clearly stated they feel like they’re “outside of the circle?”

    To me, the choices are clear and those who continue to insist on holding onto these types of explicitly religious prayer are exercising their sense of entitlement.

  10. Kurt W

    When I finished reciting the Pledge to close my home group’s meeting, silence crushed the usual bonhomie. Someone soon threw up the LP and most everyone chimed in with relief. My next call to my sponsor elicited his claim that the LP was “group conscience.” In my then-18 months I’d seen the Serenity Prayer suffice and, anyway, I’d meant to avoid invoking G-d at all. So now I’m approaching my second anniversary without a home group or a sponsor.

    There are plenty of other meetings in my area, so I don’t seriously lack AA’s fellowship — but the end of every meeting incites the fear of being chosen to close it. (The nearest Freethinkers meeting is half an hour away, and usually runs too long.) Hell, I lived in fear for 50 years before AA turned out to be my only solution. Settling for sobriety on the margins works well enough; acceptance is an answer, and anyone else’s is their problem.

  11. Peter T

    I am so happy to have found a growing movement of Freethinkers in the rooms.  I’m coming up on 3 years sober doing it in way that’s honest to myself, which does not include “prayer” – I still have no idea what that actually is – or other dogma.

    I live in Vermont which is not a terribly diverse state, and where most people have had some flavor of bible-based churching, so the closing LP is terribly pervasive – even at Living Sober book meetings!  Recently I started leaving the meeting room just as the LP was about start, but tonight, at a big speaker meeting, I finally found the courage to stay seated while everyone else circled up around me.  I have never seen anyone else do this up here, and I’ve attended easily 1,000 LP-closed meetings.

    It was rather liberating.  Nobody told me not to come back.  I was actually a little disappointed that nobody asked me “what was that all about?”  I can only hope it inspired at least one other person to consider their own truth, and choice in this matter.

    Thanks to all who have made this site and “AA Agnostica” possible.

    1. Chuck D.

      Hi Peter,

      I live in VT too. I have been in AA for many years,most believing in a personal “god” of some sort,theistic to say the least. After reading many books from Harris,Hitchens,Grayling,Coyne, and others,I couldn’t justify the reasons for having faith anymore. I stayed away from AA for over 2 years and it was very tough. I have since returned to attending a few meetings here and there and talking with other alcoholics. It”s different now because I’m different in my perspectives. I believe firmly and passionately about one alcoholic sharing with another. I’m still trying to adapt, to fit in, and find my little “place in the sunshine” like Bill W. referenced many years ago. Thanks for sharing everyone.

      In peace,

      Chuck D.

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