To many in traditional AA fellowships, it is perplexing when secular, agnostic, or atheist members object to reciting the Lord’s Prayer in meetings. The basis of my own objections are that reciting the Lord’s Prayer allies the fellowship with a particular denomination and religion, and that it excludes and therefore oppresses me as a member. Please note that I have stated that the recitation excludes me and therefore oppresses me, and not that the recitation leads me to feel excluded or to feel oppressed. I shall return to this distinction at the end.
The first objection is straightforward. The Lord’s Prayer is associated only with Christianity, and in the version that I have heard in meetings, only with Protestant denominations. The Prayer comes from the New Testament of the Christian Bible. No non-Christian religion includes it. In addition, the version I have heard includes the phrase “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, now and forever,” which to my knowledge (having been raised Catholic) is not included in the Catholic version of the prayer. Therefore, reciting it allies the fellowship with a particular religion and religious denomination, contrary to the statement in the AA Preamble that “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution…”
The second objection is that reciting the Lord’s Prayer in AA meetings excludes secular, atheist, agnostic, and others who do not share the religious faith of the prayer. I will call them conscientious objectors, because their reason for objecting to the prayer arises from their own deeply held beliefs (or non-beliefs). They do not willingly take part in the prayer because, on some level, it violates their conscience to do so.
When it is the practice of a fellowship to recite the Lord’s Prayer in meetings, conscientious objectors have very limited options. They can join in the recitation, without seriously intending or believing it—which is to say, hypocritically. They can remain silent. They can exit during the recitation. It is important to acknowledge that all of these options continue to exclude the conscientious objectors. If conscientious objectors recite hypocritically, they take part in something that they regard as contrary to conscience, which means that the practice of the fellowship excludes them from being able to act on conscience. If conscientious objectors remain silent or exit during recitation, their exclusion is manifest: This practice of the fellowship does not permit the conscientious objectors’ involvement; the fellowship proceeds in this activity without them.
These options are forms of exclusion not because conscientious objectors are forbidden from holding their beliefs, or from acting according to their beliefs. They are forms of exclusion because the fellowship endorses and engages in a practice that they are forbidden from on the basis of their beliefs.
An analogy may help to illustrate this. Printed books permit people who are literate, sighted to read them. Printed books exclude literate, blind people, because literate, blind people cannot see the print. If a library claimed to be open to all people, regardless of their physical abilities, but only housed printed books, the library would exclude literate, unsighted people. AA claims to be open to all people, regardless of their beliefs, but the practice of AA fellowships that recite the Lord’s Prayer excludes conscientious objectors.
Now, claiming that conscientious objectors are not excluded by this recitation, because they do not have to take part in it, is analogous to telling literate, blind people that they are just as welcome to use the library’s books, or not use them, as any sighted person. It entirely misses the point that it is the very practice of reciting the prayer that excludes: it does not provide any way for conscientious objectors to participate in the fellowship.
In other words, the prayer is excluding not because of the conscientious objectors’ feeling of being left out by the prayer, but because the establishment of the practice of prayer by a fellowship fails to acknowledge that any prayer would be based on someone’s religious faith and not on someone else’s. The recitation of any prayer confers a benefit upon only those who share the religious belief expressed in the prayer, and it provides no benefit—in fact, imposes a cost or harm—upon those who do not have share religious belief. That harm is the exclusion itself, and occurs regardless of any further harm imposed on conscientious objectors subsequent to their exclusion. That is to say, the harm of exclusion occurs even if no one furthermore tells conscientious objectors that, for instance, they will never stay sober if they don’t pray, or that they do not belong; or worse, threatens physical violence against them (all of which I have either experience or heard of from secular members of AA).
One last remark, related to oppression, that I think is fitting. Power is the capacity to act, regardless of the rationality of the act. Power does what reason cannot and must not. I would even argue that power is the negative of reason: Being in a position of overwhelming power means never having to listen to reason. A rational argument, even an excellent one (which I am not claiming for the argument I’ve made here), can do nothing by itself to effect change. Thus, proofs of oppression mean nothing to the wielders of power.