The “God Word” Delusion: A Response from the London Group

The London Islington Agnostic, Atheist, and Freethinkers Group writes in response to The God Word Delusion,” by John Huey published here on August 2, 2020. 

Dear John,

As the group who initiated the process of securing the first-ever Conference-approved leaflet for agnostics, atheists, and freethinkers, we would like to put your remarks in their historical context.

You are correct that the final printed version was indeed not as radical, articulate, or comprehensive as we had intended, but that was due to the stifling structure of the Fellowship, not to those of us who are seeking to challenge and modernise it. 

After Conference first approved our request that the Literature Committee should produce a leaflet for AAF members and bring it back the following year, we promptly wrote to the Committee to offer our assistance in its preparation, in the naïve expectation that the Committee would want to consult and seek assistance from the group of members for whom the leaflet was designed to benefit.

We were instantly disabused of that idea and informed that only the Literature Committee members worked on drafts and our assistance was not appropriate, necessary, or desired. So, to be crystal clear, we were denied any access to contribute to the content of the leaflet, which was undertaken solely by the Literature Committee members.

Obviously, we registered our protest at this exclusion, and, interestingly, right at the very end of the process, we were told that the Committee had in fact been liaising with an AAF member in London. This was news to us, as that member never informed us of the fact during the process, and, whereas we had taken every step of our mandate through Group Conscience, we can only assume that individual expressed their individual opinions. How much of those opinions were incorporated into the text is unknown to us, but we were left with the clear impression that our structured and planned communications with the Committee were not welcome.

Subsequently, a 1st draft was brought back to the following Conference which we considered to be unfit for the purpose. It was basically a slightly reworded version of Chapter 4 and was not written in the house style of all the other leaflets, for women, LGBT members, young people, etc, as it had no stories to bring life to the content of the leaflet. We, therefore, lobbied the delegates NOT to approve the leaflet because of these deficiencies, and present an improved version the next year.

By the way, we were particularly incensed by the title that was originally chosen, namely “The God Word”, on the grounds that were we to offer it to a newcomer struggling with the issue, or they saw it on the literature table, they would almost certainly be so dismayed they would never pick it up or open the front cover. We offered numerous sensible and clear welcoming alternatives, but these were all rejected, and the compromise title, which was subsequently passed by Conference was to put the word “God” in inverted commas, so the title became “The “God” Word”. We did later hear this was meant to be ironic, which surprisingly is not in the straightforward house style of the other leaflets. We also picked up on the choice of the heavenly sky blue colour but again told that was not our business.

Anyway, at least we had secured a commitment to include stories of AAF members, so for the next few months, we waited expectantly for Intergroups to circulate invitations to members to submit their stories. The invitations did not arrive, so we were obliged to chase the matter up, to be told it was an oversight, so the request eventually came out quite late in the year and left little time for stories to be submitted.

 Nevertheless, lots of stories were duly submitted, including contributions from all of us in the London group who had initiated the process. Here is the one point in which I will agree with one of the central themes of your essay because not a single signed story from our group was accepted for publication, which included numerous contributions from members like yourself John, who are happy to attest that words like God, Higher Power or Spirituality are not in our vocabulary as atheists, but this, of course, has not prevented long term sobriety and service in the Fellowship.

With no disrespect to those members whose stories were published, it is fair to say that they were safer and certainly less radical than some of us would have wished. All perspectives have a place, but the collection has lacked the radical and visionary perspective we would have wished to see included. Having said all that, the leaflet was indeed very well received by the Fellowship and was groundbreaking. As well as being accepted worldwide, it has now been translated into Spanish and French and sold 38,000 copies in the USA in the first 3 months.

We’re sure the main factors were members’ delight that for the first time in our history we had a Conference-approved document giving AA’s imprimatur to AAF members, and that was welcomed worldwide. Secondly, the stories clearly resonated with many members, and we know ourselves that there is a wide spectrum of personal belief amongst members. Yes, it’s true that the most radical views were not represented, but those stories that were printed genuinely represent the views of a great many members who identify as AAF, so it has served a great purpose.

The reason we wanted to present this detailed response was primarily to inform you of the process we had to endure to get anything published over a 3-year struggle, given the ultra-conservative nature of the Fellowship, and the difficulty in achieving any change, however small. We see this as the first stage in a long process of modernisation, and it is naive to suggest you can achieve everything in one leap.

It’s fair to say that we felt the tone of your essay was somewhat over critical – however, perhaps this is understandable since you were unaware of the background and the obstacles we had to overcome to get even an imperfect version of our intended pamphlet approved, which is why we felt it important to put the full story on the record.

Can we not now please exert our energy to improving the overall quality and accessibility of all of AA’s literature to make it more inclusive and welcoming for the greatest number of current and future alcoholics? To this end, our group has had it confirmed that active consideration is being given to producing a 5th Edition of the Big Book in the USA and Canada, including looking at accessibility and relatability, and we have made representations to New York to be included in any consultations or conversations which may take place, as we did with our original leaflet.

That seems to us to be a far more constructive project on which to spend our time –

Come and join us, John.

Yours, 

London Islington Agnostic Atheist and Freethinkers Group
August 2020

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Murray J.

    Thank you! I’m glad you provided the history behind the pamphlet. It’s good to have perspective.

  2. Brendan F

    This is such an excellent and balanced article. It helps explain the presumptions in John Huey’s article and it’s unfair criticisms.
    It gives a good explanation of how some conservative elements in AA behave to actually prevent the fellowship evolving. I say conservative but there are stronger words which spring to mind. Such a shame that any AA acts to prevent widening the portal of attraction in the 21st century.
    This article is sincere and composed. It gently serves fair warning to those unable to readily appreciate and understand what is required to help the still suffering alcoholic. It should also encourage those of us who need to speak our honest views and no longer stay silent on the “god” issue.

  3. Roger C.

    “We see this as the first stage in a long process of modernisation, and it is naive to suggest you can achieve everything in one leap.”

    Well said.

  4. Don

    Bravo.
    indeed, “conservatives” within any human group, and the inevitable hierarchy groups propagate and endure, resists, all change. a given.
    any and all change, is deliriously slow, and incremental, under the control of managers. (not leaders)

    I celebrate the endurance of those willing to muddle through the most frustrating process.

  5. John L.

    Thank you for your clarification, which shows what you and we are up against. The pamphlet is not what we might hope for, but at least it’s a small step forward. I agree that we should work on “improving the overall quality and accessibility of all of AA’s literature.” 
    I gave a talk on this topic at the last WAAFT conference — argued that all of the pamphlets should be revised to get rid of the gratuitous religiosity that has been grafted on them.
    https://aabeyondbelief.org/2018/10/14/aa-literature-revise-reject-replace/

  6. Sasha Lee

    There’s a point at which the word “conservative” no longer applies. I believe this behavior can more aptly be characterized as “reactionary” or “radical” – if not simply dishonest- in its attempt to give the lie to the (purported) purpose of the pamphlet.

    1. Dean W

      Thank you for having the courage to use the appropriate word here, “dishonest”. We’re talking about a fellowship that, despite all evidence to the contrary, still denies that it is a religious organization. The idea that incrementalism is an appropriate response to such denial is ludicrous.

  7. Oren

    Bravo, London! I am very glad that you have replied. Thank you for sharing this clear description of your experience in this long and tedious, but ultimately revolutionary process.

  8. Dan L

    Thanks for your story of bravery and persistence. One of the problems we face in AA is trying to accept with enthusiasm publications put out by the organisation to placate us which are never progressive enough and always seem to leave a “back door” open for escape into conventional AA theism.

    That this is clearly done to soothe those members who oppose our direction is galling to say the least. There aren’t all that many wishy-washy uncommitted atheists who need to be won over to either world view (but mostly the theist one). In order to have something reflecting our needs published it must be approved first by those who strongly – if not violently – oppose our world views and philosophies of life.

    I view agnosticism as the default point of view and not theism. Neither theists nor atheists are in total agreement as to what their world views are. I have not heard of atheists resorting to violence or oppression against other atheists over matters of atheism but theists have a long tradition of murdering each other and suppressing each other over disagreements involving liturgy. Continuing this tradition into AA is hardly in the spirit of our fellowship.

    Being an atheist since I was a small child when I was watching movies on TV I always understood why the Romans fed the Christians to the lions and otherwise did things to hurt their feelings…or worse. I used to be so upset when “Heaven” would win through! That is not how things happen in the real world.

  9. Chris Rawlinson

    Thank you very much for this background story. As someone who has just recently come to discover that there is this whole other side to AA, namely agnostics and atheists, I’m happy to finally be able to be true to my own beliefs and not fear I might drink again simply because I cannot, and do not, believe in a theistic entity. I was encouraged by the idea that there was finally a Conference Approved pamphlet ” The “GOD” Word” that spoke to my belief system, but was also somewhat taken aback by it’s somewhat watered down tone. I am not surprised by this given the conservative nature of AA in general…and your rebuttal points out that it was not easy to even get the pamphlet printed at all…that AA LIterature Committee fought any real inclusion from actual agnostics and atheists..save for the few included in the pamphlet. It seems obvious from this recounting of the process that they attempted to thwart this effort as much as possible while still producing a pamphlet. I tend to understand the reluctance to embrace even the smallest change to a program that saved our lives..whether that be on an individual level, group, Area, District, or AA World Services level, but this is not 1935 anymore; change must come..however painful for those opposed to it. I never wish to take away another members right to believe in whatever he wishes, but I do not appreciate AA’s rigidity to theistic sobriety and their reluctance to offer me the same courtesy. I’m in total agreement…let’s not allow AA’s dug-in belief that we must all ” find Him now” to divide us on this matter, but instead unite us in promoting the inclusion of AAFT viewpoints in any and all Conference Approved literature going forward. Thanks again

  10. Charlie J

    Thanks for the explanation and your groups determination, your groups actions most certainly will save lives. I personally have been told that AA is too religious by some non-believing “prospective” members. Some have left and never returned to another meeting and some have died.. Obviously the literature committee and intergroup forgot to read and apply the responsibility statement to themselves. “When ANYONE reaches out for help”… There is no eligibility requirement that states you must be religious or that you must think like all the members of the group. The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking…

  11. Joe C

    Hey London, it’s Toronto calling; thanks for your service.

    You understated the impact of The “God” Word. According to the 2020 70th General Service Conference final report sales were as follows:

    • The “God” Word: Agnostics and Atheists in AA, 93,163 (English sales in USA/Canada)
    • Le Mot “Dieu”—Membres agnostiques et athées chez les AA sold 5,807
    • La palabra “Dios” — Los miembros de A.A. agnósticos y ateos sold 3,116

    More on the 2020 conference and AA year in review on Rebellion Dogs Publishing

    I remember the talk about mobilizing to have USA/Canada adopt the UK conference approved atheist/agnostic pamphlet. There was talk about asking for a home-made one instead. I for one, cautioned against it.
    A) it’s easier to adopt a pamphlet that’s already (UK) conference approved
    B) once approved, changing an existing pamphlet is also way easier than having something made from scratch that meets your needs/expectations – as you well know.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work. I’m still thrilled with the UK’s first contribution A Newcomer Asks which is now the 2nd best selling pamphlet after Is AA For You?

    And you keep up the good work, too John H. The unapologetic atheist voice is a vital part of the conversation. I hope you don’t mind when I say you’re like Bernie Sanders, John – good ideas but un-electable.

    Hey John S, maybe this would be a good panel discussion for ICSAA zoom conference this fall (International Conference of Secular AA). What do you think?

    1. John S

      I think that’s a good idea for a topic at the ICSAA Zoom conference.

      1. John Huey

        We will see about that election Joe.. Not in my lifetime perhaps but total national/international freedom from these people and their retrograde and destructive ideas is attainable. Watch your inbox. My response to the excellent remarks from London is out on Wednesday. BTW, I love Bernie but am voting for that other Joe as a stopgap measure until we can find some real Socialist freedom in the Marco world. I’m tinged with realism politically as well.

  12. Dean W

    Thank you, London, for your very interesting backstory on the pamphlet. Yet this is what I hear in your tone, and in the tone of many in secular aa: “Let’s be grateful for our second-class citizenship in an organization that claims to have no second-class citizens. Let’s chip away at their BS, because we can incrementally change this religious organization’s nature, and eventually they will accept us atheists and agnostics as full-fledged members.” To me, this is unrealistic, probably delusional, and might even be magical thinking – perhaps even as magical as the thinking of the religious zealots who control AA.

    Wouldn’t it maybe be better to form a new, independent fellowship where we are full-fledged members from day one?

    1. Joe C

      pick one: Life Ring, SOS, SMART, Women for Sobriety, Dharma Recovery. All of these are born of a reaction to AA, members getting sick and tired and doing it their way. Some of them are even splinter groups from the others. I go to some of these meetings. They are nice people.

      1. Dean W

        Thanks for the suggestion, Joe. They aren’t the only possibilities, though.

      2. BurntOutOfferings

        Looking up these mentioned groups, I was really hoping to find something for CODA or ACoA for atheists and like. As I’m recovering from God will smite you dogma in my life, I choose not to go to regular (non religiosity guaranteed BS) meetings, as they are not at all conducive to my recovery. With Covid killing group meetings I was expecting to find online groups easier. Geographic boundaries gone, just time zones to work around. But also, spending hours scouring the nets for a good lead.

    2. John S

      If you think about AA as your homegroup, you can make it anything you want. This may have changed a bit under COVID, but you can still have secular AA meetings and do whatever you want, read whatever you want, etc. With that sort of freedom, I question the necessity of AA groups banding together to start something new. That being said, I think it’s great if groups and individuals want to start a new recovery movement, it could end up helping a lot of people. I’m not interested in doing that, but if you are, then you should find some like-minded people and do it.

      1. Dean W

        Nice try, John, but obviously AA is more than my homegroup. Let’s try to stay in the real world, OK? Why don’t you just come right out and say, “Don’t go away mad, just go away?”

        1. John S

          If that is what I intended to say, I would have said it.

          1. Dean W

            Would you? In the comments on John Huey’s article he also advocated for a separate fellowship. What is your reply to him (and the tone of that reply)? I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I know the difference between hero worship and condescension. If you want to play semantic games, let’s play.

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