The Great Divide

The Great Divide

By Brent P.

It’s conventional wisdom. If, as an organization, you want to be as inclusive as possible and avoid controversy, you don’t allow sex, politics or religion to influence your mandate. Yet in merely allowing the word God to appear in its literature and its program of recovery, AA ensured that one day that word, and all its implications, would lead to division. And so it has.

The founders, in defying organizational convention, wisely codified AA’s absence of political affiliations, opinion and comment on outside issues. Members were, and are, encouraged to arrive at their own acceptable code of sexual conduct. But for whatever reason, lack of foresight or an inescapable, inculcated Christian consciousness, God, and therefore religion, made its way into the recovery equation. And all statements to the contrary do not change the fact that the word God is burdened by Judeo/Christian baggage. Insert the Lord’s Prayer, overly pious petitions to God in the 3rd and 7th step prayers, then dismiss those as spiritual exercises rather than religious, and you’re left with glaring contradictions. Those can be overlooked for just so long.

I have never believed AA’s references to God, or the dubious logic that justifies those references, to be insidious. In fact I believe, heartily, that it had much to do with being grateful for being sober and a humble stab at not glorifying the organization for whatever success it might be accorded for getting drunks sober. Regardless, God and religion are now sticking points for many who, like me, have a deep respect, an affection even, for what AA was and is, but recognize that in the 78 years since its inception, much has been learned about alcoholism and addiction. In addition, with AA’s international expansion and our diverse local culture, it is becoming more and more apparent, if AA intends to be accessible and relevant to alcoholics of every stripe, religion and race, the inclusion of the word God in the program is going to create greater and greater division. And the unwillingness to embrace new, quantifiable and verifiable data on the neurology of addiction ensures irrelevance.

I’ve maintained for some time that AA needs an overhaul, of King Jamesian proportions, of its printed material. Engineering that would be a massive undertaking, both from choosing the committee to oversee it, and achieving consensus on the final product. On the other hand, that process has in some way been started by some of the agnostic groups who secularized the steps. The actual secularization of AA may not be as difficult as many think. Conversely, finding the consensus to take such a step is likely harder than anyone can imagine.

The problem, as it exists today, is that AA is now divided. There are agnostic groups, not recognized by Toronto Intergroup, who, nevertheless, are operating and reading the steps according to their secular mandate. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Regardless of what we who have been around AA for awhile think, there are still people wandering into meetings, minutes, days or weeks sober, or maybe still drinking, who are looking for answers to their alcoholism. They aren’t looking for a debate and likely the last thing on any of these people’s minds are the finer issues of metaphysical discourse. But what happens if the first meeting that new person goes to is an agnostic meeting? He/she hears a version of the steps for the first time, then forgets them only to eventually learn those “suggestions” are read at every meeting and constitute the backbone of the program of recovery. Yet depending on which meeting he/she attends a different version of this critical component of the program is presented? Knowing how confused and rudderless most alcoholics are when they finally concede to attending AA, isn’t this a disservice? Just adding to their confusion? As much as I oppose any references to God in our literature, I don’t believe the arbitrary abridging of the steps is a good move. If AA is to be effective, a certain unity and consistency to the message is key. In other words the secularists and the believers have to build bridges rather than moats, at least if the intention is to remain a viable option for new members.

In most enlightened communities, faith is a personal issue. Believers are free to believe, doubters free to doubt. AA states, it’s single purpose is, “to carry the AA message to the still suffering alcoholic”. What’s getting lost as we quibble over God or not God, is what that message is. Is it hope? Is it that it is possible for a defeated, demoralized, destitute and debilitated drunk to recover and begin life anew? That he can find support and community among folks, once like him, who no longer need to drink? I say yes. And I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that. If as an organization AA can agree that its singleness of purpose is what is most sacred, then that is the neutral ground from which discussions on keeping AA relevant in a world that is much different than the one Bill Wilson and Bob Smith lived in can begin.

It is said that every system, at the moment of its very origin, contains the seeds of its own destruction. AA got it two thirds right when it excluded sex and politics from its mandate. But that one third, religion, is now the corrosive, destructive element. It is hurting AA as a whole. It is dividing people rather than bringing them together. It might be argued that AA is due for its own Reformation. Perhaps all that remains is the emergence of our Martin Luther to lead that. Maybe division is necessary. Maybe it’s a revolution that’s required instead of evolution. Still evolution seems ever less messy and more humane.

I started this talking about conventional wisdom. Yet AA’s genius was its unconventional approach to relieving alcoholics of the compulsion to drink. Put two or more together in a room and there indeed existed a power greater than the sum of the parts. A power that in enough cases worked to keep hopeless drunks sober, so that it was validated. The only mistake in acknowledging that power was calling it divine. But at this juncture AA needs to recognize some conventional wisdom and fearlessly acknowledge the elephant sized issue in the room(s). Because, as we all know, denial for alcoholics can be fatal.

Brent has written everything from epithets on bathroom walls to television commercials, TV shows, a blog, films and magazine articles. He’s enjoyed a love/hate relationship with AA for thirty years, but has concluded it’s easier and better to love than to hate. He is currently developing an innovative and engaging web series on addiction. Stay tuned!

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Comments

The Great Divide — 23 Comments

  1. I very much like this article and the appending comments. Fortunately, Wilson put in the disclaimer about prejudice in the AA readings, advising us to ask ourselves what these religious words might mean to us. I am so thankful for that. Otherwise I’d have departed long ago. I look forward to more paraphrasing to agnostic/atheistic language and experience, perhaps begging the believer to set aside prejudice as well, asking themselves what these terms might mean to them. Thank you Brent and Lisa for your input. Yes, unity is important and infighting won’t help. If I need an updated book the world’s libraries are full of them, as Wilson encouraged, and more are on the way. I don’t think I need to revise anything other than my thinking, but if it’s helpful to revise what I read to do that, more power to me! As Maria said, “why try to change the entire fellowship when you can just change your own actions and point of view?” and ” my life got a whole lot easier when I worried less about changing other people and situations and instead invested the time in bettering myself.”

  2. I like the suggestion to add a new updated intro onto the Big Book that takes into consideration the scientific breakthroughs in understanding addiction and also speaks with a voice more…contemporary, let’s say. The world is a different place than it was 20 years ago, much less 70. Didn’t Bill himself say that the steps just sort of worked out to be 12 as he thought about and fleshed out the original 6 after a couple of years? Wouldn’t that seem to signify that over 70 years Bill W. himself (peace be upon him) would likely further consider and even alter the text if it seemed appropriate? So keep the original in its place. But make it clear at the beginning that the religious overtones in the original were a product of the time and place and of the personalities of the people who produced the text. Make it clear at the outset that belief in a deity is in no way required for a person to get and stay sober, even though the steps as written indicate otherwise. End the “12-steps are written in stone” notion and point out that they were changed once, they can be changed again. And for those who can’t handle change, there are millions of copies of the Big Book already in print, as is. Find a meeting that uses it. I for one would rather see the changes made and not feel as though I have to pull the wool over my own eyes in order to participate in AA. (And I’d love to see otherwise literate, eloquent people not stumble through the archaic language when reading aloud. I mean, instead of sounding as if they know their onions, they come across as positively spifflicated. I know, I know…tell it to Sweeney.)

  3. I know this thread is a bit old, but I’ll try get into the mix anyway.
    Michael, I think you’re right in many of your points, including that if alcoholism isn’t a moral failure, why do we have to take a moral inventory?
    However an inventory over assets and defects of character, say, I think is a good thing.
    And as for the usefulness of AA in general, and the 12 steps in particular for getting and staying sober, I think that at this point it is invaluable that no matter where we go we can easily find a meeting with people that we have our alcoholism in common with, though I shudder at the thought of going to a meeting in the the Clarence S. heartland, and I also think that it is necessary to have some kind of structured program to work through in order to touch upon all those aspects in our lives that cause us trouble, and the 12 steps, MODIFIED, are pretty good for that. I find it preferable to stay under the umbrella of AA because that’s where most people come through at this time, and that in the long run Bob’s two options for AA are realistic, either AA as a whole will grow, and accept the agnostics, or it will pull itself together and throw us out, and we will have to start something else, well there are a variety of alternatives already, though I find other faults with all of them…
    As for the big book, I think its 164 pages ought to remain exactly as written and another 100 pages should be put in front, modifying it, but that may not be until hell feeezes over. Anyway, hopefulle AA will grow into the new millenium without either fossilizing or disintegrating.

  4. This is a reply to no one and every one.
    First of all, thanks to all who’ve read the post and commented. Where there’s dialogue there’s hope.
    I know for me, if nothing in AA ever changed I could likely live out my days contented, sober and sanguine. I largely resigned from the debating society just over two and a half years ago at the end of a particularly harrowing decade long relapse. Glad to be alive and glad to be in AA.
    Nevertheless, my return required me to reconcile some long standing issues. The biggest was God. That was achieved after some serious, and I’d like to believe, open minded investigation. St Augustine called God the Great Mystery, unknowable. Blaise Pascal suggested that it was better to bet on the existence of God and be wrong than it was to bet against his existence and be right. I never quite got that one but I made a serious effort to understand what he was saying. In the end however, all I could say with conviction was, I don’t know.
    Still, as a member of AA, one who cares about it and many of its people, I regret that our literature, our text, is so rife with contradictions, wild conjecture, demeaning advice to wives, repentance and the repeated suggestion to abandon oneself to God. While I think I understand where all that came from, the Big Book reads more and more like a quaint, parochial relic of a time long past.
    I’ve yet to meet anybody in AA who doesn’t agree that alcoholics must change if they are to get and remain sober. For most of us that’s meant challenging old beliefs then jettisoning the ones that were selfish and destructive.
    Yet when that same process is suggested for the entire organization, that at regular intervals, it pause and reflect on its tenets to test their validity in the face of new information, circumstances and the fresh insights those give rise to, its often met with haughty intransigence.
    Most doctrinal organizations that strive to remain relevant have a review process built into their mandate. If AA wants to continue as an international service organization, attractive to alcoholics of every race, creed and culture, then it must be able to recognize and amend those components that serve more as barriers rather than gateways.
    I frankly think it’s the people who seek constructive change who are the more committed to AA’s growth and longevity. Those who suggest, if you don’t like it leave, sound, well, like selfish alcoholics. The idea that the founder of AA and a hundred editors, way back in the late 1930′s when long term sobriety was about three years, nailed the problem and the solution once and for all, seems a little naive. We are people who subscribe to the suggestion, “we continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong, promptly admit it”, so why the fuss when the same thing is suggested for the organization as a whole?

  5. The steps were introduced to me as suggested. My sponsor left “God” as an option, that the group could serve as a higher power. (I prayed to an arrow head that I carried around in my pocket because I simply could not pray to a deity in the early days.) I struggled to sit through meetings due to the constant mention of God . I wanted to stay sober. I wanted to live, so I stayed in meetings.
    One day, I happened upon the book,” Came to Believe,” and fell in on the agnostics stories. What a relief. I didn’t feel like a leper in the program any more.
    What I’ve come to understand is that religion and it’s practices, are merely group meditation. The eleventh step: theirs includes prayer; my meditation doesn’t, but has the same result. Calmness, clarity, and peace.
    I use only the remaining steps of my own choosing. What keeps me sober is being willing to help the alcoholic that still suffers.
    The program will evolve over time. I’ve been patient for thirty years now, and much has changed, albeit slowly.
    I’m so grateful to have found this site.

  6. As the chairperson of one of the agnostic/atheist AA meetings in Chicago, I was disturbed to read that Toronto apparently refuses to recognize its agnostic groups! Our AA Central Office has always listed Quad A meetings in the AA directory, as it should according to the founding precepts of AA itself (“The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”). In fact, we’ve had much greater difficulty with issues relating to whether self-identifying addicts may or should attend AA (as opposed to NA, CA, etc.) – I’ve seen people asked to leave AA meetings after they introduce themselves as addicts but not alcoholics, and I myself skirt the issue in meetings with a bit of humor (I hope) by saying “Hi, I’m Lisa, and I’m powerless over mood-altering solids, liquids, and gases.”

    Still, I disagree that the basic AA texts are in need of wholesale revision. When I first came around, I certainly believed that the Big Book should be rewritten: I wanted changes not only to all the “God” references, but also to every instance where “God” was assumed to be a “he” – In fact, the feminist in me felt even more strongly than the atheist/agnostic/over-educated-philosopher in me! But now, more than 14 years later, I think that the old-timers in my home group were right when they suggested what was “really” behind my (incessant) complaining about all such wording issues: that voice was really just my inner addict, trying to find (yet more) ways to get me out of the rooms and back into active addiction.

    And now, I agree with Brent P.’s insistence that unity is critical. To maintain/achieve that unity, though, I think we should leave the Big Book and other foundational AA texts alone. Attempts to change those works would undoubtedly lead to an enormous amount of in-fighting. At least in its unchanged form, we can all agree that the Big Book was written generations ago, at a time when even saying “God as we understand him,” let alone including the Book’s “spiritual” appendix, were themselves radically open-minded choices. At least as I interpret the Big Book, 12 and 12, etc., there is no requirement that one’s greater or higher power be divine (or anthropomorphic, or singular, or male). I have used my sponsor, the group, the collective wisdom of AA, and (for the past decade or so) a set of values that are both within and outside of me (compassion, integrity, perseverance, empathy, etc.) as my “higher power,” and those “powers” have all enabled me to follow AA’s “suggestions” and work all 12 steps, no problem. Same goes for the dozens of sponsees I’ve had, and for many more people I’ve seen come in, and stay in, the rooms.

    • I think that the religiosity and misogyny of the texts can actually activate the addictive voice in the atheist/agnostic/feminist. The addictive voice is the “alone” voice, after all, and when you’re being patronized by people for “not getting the God thing” and treating the big book “like a book,” it’s unsurprising that one’s sense of isolation can be fed in the rooms. It’s sure the case for me sometimes.

      Substituting various things for God certainly works for many people, but I don’t think it’s supported by the text and requires an effort after meaning that is hugely taxing.

      In the rest of the world, we acknowledge that misogyny and compulsory religion are barriers to people’s full participation in society. Why in AA must these barriers be written off to “the addictive voice” or a lack of willingness? For the non-believer, AA requires extra work: re-writing the texts, remaining serene in the face of a lot of well-meaning condescension and dire predictions of failure, and sometimes engagement in the kinds of institutional struggles experienced by the Toronto Quad A groups. It’s no wonder a lot of people walk out the door: it’s difficult enough to have to deal with that sort of thing when you’re healthy, but when you’re struggling and in need of help it’s that much worse.

      • amen (ha) Cecilia! i agree wholeheartedly..my problem with the god thing and some of the wording in the text is the same as yours, as well as the issues i have found for women in aa, many of whom are feeling powerless when they walk in, don’t need to be told to feel more powerless, surrender all to the program and some unknown god, berate themselves by doing an “inventory” in the negative way its laid out in the book. the book may be just a book, but its like a relgion in aa, the “book” is like the koran, its divinely inspired and cannot be changed. I call BS! it was written long ago in a different time and society and medicine has changed so much since then, it is due to be updated, and the hypocrisy taken out of it..and like the author said, take all religious references out of it and the meetings!

  7. Interesting dialogue, and as other commenters have pointed out, well-articulated and supported with robust concepts. However, I struggle with the investment of so much time and effort into lamenting the “God dilemma” of AA.

    The author correctly points out that, despite qualifications to the contrary (“God as we understood him”), the Big Book is rife with direct references to “God,” and it therefore provides ample support for certain religious members to insist that faith in god is a requirement for committing to the program and fellowship.

    To that, I ask, “So what?”

    The fellowship is unquestionably entangled in the notion of a god and as another above has said, that’s not changing anytime soon.

    To that end, why bother with AA? More to the point, why try to change the entire fellowship when you can just change your own actions and point of view? Find another program. Better yet, make your own program and start your own fellowship that draws from the parts of AA that you find most effective components of the organization (and by “you” I don’t mean the author or anyone specific, simply those wishing to change AA).

    One of the brightest epiphanies I experienced through the steps was the realization that my life got a whole lot easier when I worried less about changing other people and situations and instead invested the time in bettering myself.

    If someone does not relate to the program of AA as it stands, why must it be the entire organization that needs to change, rather than the individual? AA certainly is one of the most effective paths to recovery, but it certainly isn’t the only one.

    • Perhaps the answer was given by Bill Wilson in his letter to the AA Grapevine in July, 1965.

      “Let us never fear needed change. Certainly we have to discriminate between changes for worse and changes for better. But once a need becomes clearly apparent in an individual, in a group, or in A.A. as a whole, it has long since been found out that we cannot stand still and look the other way.”

      When AA became a world-wide organization, the need for a more expansive stock of ideas that could serve as sources of good direction for this philosophically diverse fellowship multiplied many fold. So to be of maximum service in keeping with its Fifth Tradition, AA needs to change. It’s way overdo in fact.

      And when the truth presented itself that sources strength and direction other than the God concept could support recovery — evidenced by the long term sobriety of many, many non-theists — the need to correct a factual error arose too. This one, from the Big Book, end of Chapter Five:

      B. That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.

      The idea that probably only God could provide the power to overcome alcoholic insanity, to maintain our sanity, and to drive positive character change (which we believe serves our long term sobriety) is demonstrably false. And the practice of abandoning old ideas that weren’t true, and keeping a humble relationship to what is real are two of AA’s foundational values. AA has no choice but to make this change or to follow a blatantly hypocritical path.

      And I fully accept that maybe AA can’t change. But I think we should at least give it a fair, and honest, and whole-hearted try before just throwing up our hands.

      Not for me, and not for those reading right now who have found steady sobriety. We don’t attempt this for ourselves. We do it for the thousands, perhaps millions of alcoholics AA could help that it doesn’t help today.

      Best regards,
      Frank M.

    • This is hardly a reasonable solution. I’ve been “bothering” with AA for over 30 years and don’t think leaving it is any solution. I also don’t think expressing one’s atheism or agnosticism is deleterious to most in AA and I know from personal experience it is helpful to some who are atheists or agnostics and new to AA. I do believe it is fruitless to change the big book or any other AA literature. The atheist or agnostic can live with it – I have.

  8. “Unrepentant agnostic” is the phrase I use to describe myself, today.
    Still not sure about what agnostic really means! In terms of the Big Book it is a starting point that is sufficient. Humbly beginning the journey is the common ground that we are seeking. The fellowship works, in spite of ourselves.

  9. Or we could try to learn from our betters.

    On October 23, 1993, the Girl Scouts of the USA voted 1,560-375 to permit individuals to substitute another word or phrase for “God” in their promise.

    Here’s an excerpt from the motion and the comments that followed:

    “For some individuals, the word ‘God’, NO MATTER HOW BROADLY INTERPRETED, does not appropriately reflect their spiritual beliefs. Since the belief in a spiritual principle is fundamental to Girl Scouting, not the word used to define that belief, it is important that individuals have the opportunity to express that belief in wording meaningful to them.”

    “Affirming that the belief in a spiritual principle is fundamental to Girl Scouting, GSUSA recognizes that some religious groups such as Buddhists… use words other than “God” to express their spirituality.” (B. LaRae Orullian, Girl Scout National President). [emphasis mine]

    Girls Scout of America is here recognizing a plain and obvious fact. Many religious and non-religious spiritual and humanistic groups and schools of thought (and their followers) not only use words other than “God,” they use ideas that in no sense can be conflated with God. And this is still “spirituality.” For example, a Buddhist might use “the teachings of awakened ones” as her higher power, her source of strength and good direction. Only in AA would someone try to call a practical set of wisdom teachings “God as you understand Him” in order to salvage some orthodox language and outdated ideas.

    When AA officially recognizes what the rest of the world knows, that the God concept–no matter how vaguely you want to define it–does not encompass all forms of spirituality, when we further admit that the goals of spirituality are what have always mattered here (love, growth, humility, service, wisdom, deep connection to our fellows and to life), not God worship–

    AA will have caught up with tens of thousands of little girls.

    Is that too much to ask?

    Best regards,
    Frank M.

    • In the case of AA, yes, it’s probably too much to ask, but if you ask me, and say pretty please, I will grant your request.

      • For those interested, a number of 12-Step alternatives – in which the word “God” is absent – are available here: Alternative 12 Steps. To post and share them, no permission was ever requested.

  10. It’s no mystery why the founders asserted that god got them sober: they actually believed it. Keep in mind that those guys were members of a fundamentalist Chistian group who practiced the precursors of AA’s steps, and then carried them over to the nascent AA. And I would estimate that well over 95% of AA members rely on this god for their sobriety, many of them believing it’s dangerous to tinker with their “divinely-inspired” program; and they will definitely oppose any attempts to secularize it. So, good luck on getting the robots and zombies to wake up. I think there’s about as much chance of that happening as there is of persuading your average church lady that she’s mistaken about her religious beliefs, and converting her to atheism.

    And, as for atheists and agnostics groups playing around with the wording of the steps–well, what’s wrong with that? Do we want rigid uniformity in what we do to stay sober? I myself think that the steps are at best optional, and what’s most important is alcoholics helping one another to stay sober. I think SOS’s approach makes a lot of sense. It’s modeled on AA, but they threw out the steps and the higher power and encourage its members to develop their own paths to sobriety. To me, SOS is what AA ought to be, but it ain’t never going to happen.

  11. I was in the not the least surprised to read professional writing credits at the end of this lucidly articulated essay. And, there is much in the piece with which I agree, BUT (there’s ALWAYS a ‘but’), there will be no major overhaul of the Big Book in the foreseeable future!

    Belonging to a variety of international on-line recovery sites has provided me with some sense of the sentiments regarding this very topic. The ‘cult of the book’ is very, very strong. The crusade for latitudinarianism is a whimper. Of course, talk of change sets the secularists into disagreements with each other, as to HOW and WHAT changes are to be effected. In the meanwhile, the fundamentalists have ‘circled the wagons’ and are uttering a clear message of “Get God, or get gone.” Their view of AA’s stagnation is that the 1939 message is being diluted.

    Of course, at some point, some clever chap will offer a secularized re-write of the Big Book. This will cause further division as the fundies will be furious, and the heathen left wing will be pissed that it wasn’t done “MY WAY!” (Cue Frank Sinatra).

    I see two realistic possibilities moving forward:

    1) AA becomes more accepting of a growing ‘agnostic’ sub-group, keeping us under the umbrella, albeit as the redheaded step-brother.

    2) The fundamentalists push for stronger measures against those who have dared to alter “the sacred words.” An increasingly clear message to newcomer atheists and agnostics of “Do it our way, OR seek elsewhere,” will send free-thinkers to LifeRing, Smart and others yet to come. AA unity will be restored!

    Atheists and agnostics have been battling for years to get AAWS to publish a simple pamphlet stating that the twelve steps CAN be worked effectively without a supernatural element (which is, of course, what many of us have done). It looks like the pamphlet will NOT be endorsed and printed.

    A final comment to Pat N. – IF the “DON’T TAKE THE FIRST DRINK” system worked, there would BE no recovery groups. That has been an ineffective plan for most of us, and has a history of centuries of failure for our predecessors.

    • I didn’t make myself clear about DON’T TAKE THE FIRST DRINK being the core of AA. I knew that truth long before I quit drinking, but I couldn’t seem to do it. I had to find a fellowship of folks who had vomited in the same toilets, and yet gotten sober, in order to start practicing the simple concept. They did this primarily through example and practical hints, although many of them claimed it was the Steps. Of course I had to start doing things to avoid that lst drink-becoming honest, making amends, breaking habits, learning more, etc. But it was the people-their love and their example, that taught me now to avoid the lst drink. So far.

  12. I don’t believe AA’s sacred writings need to be overhauled any more than the bible needs it.

    Devout Christians are perfectly happy to live with the inconsistencies and outdated advice found in their sacred tome, and we can as well.

    I have never put much stock in the vast majority of AA dogma, but it bothers me not one wit that it exists. It’s an historical anomaly just like the bible or the koran.

    Revision would simple lead to pointless dissension.

    I am perfectly capable of letting stuff pass through like the proverbial feces through a goose.

    I appreciate and understand the views of the agnostic activists in Toronto, but I think they are making mountains out of mole hills.

    • They may well be mole hills, but to those of us who have suffered at the hand of religious or ritual abuse those mole hills still keep the doors from opening freely.

  13. I share the concerns for the still suffering alcoholic. We must maintain the unity in AA but also need to reduce the “god” focus. It is becoming more obvious that a large number of newcomers are struggling with the God content and are confused when their failure to understand. I spoke recently at an open meeting and when I said that my sobriety was the result of one alcoholic helping another and had nothing to do with an entity called god, there was a lot of head nodding, especially among the newer members.

  14. Good article, but the question remains: why do we need steps at all, 12 or 3 or 100? Most recovered people did it without AA or its Steps. I am more and more convinced that there’s basically only one step: DON’T TAKE THE FIRST DRINK. All the rest of AA culture is really about how to do it, and that’s an individual journey not reducible to standardized, prescriptive Steps. We each have to take our own steps. What AA can do is give us a nurturing bunch of other recovering folks who tell how they did it. Some of those were religious, but what worked wasn’t dogma but behaviors.

    • Agree totally with you Pat. Coming from a Catholic background I immediately smelled the steps as a path for the wayward sinner or lost sheep to return to the fold. It comes from the ages old Christian belief that we are all born sinners, and without God to “redeem” or “save” us from our wretched sinning selves we are destined for a pointless life of selfishness and vice and will spend eternity in the fires of Hell. Steps 1 to 3 beats us into believing that we are pathetic hopeless idiots without God’s direction. The Steps 4 to 9 prescribe how through confession and atonement of our sins, our souls will be “cleansed or emptied of sin” and God will fill up the hole. The rest of the steps are about doing “His” work and “His” will on earth, becoming dutiful missionaries and testaments of his power and glory, “trudging the happy road of destiny” in sobriety to our place beside Him in Heaven, “saved” from eternal damnation. Toss in a virgin birth, an ascension into heaven and other assorted miracles and you pretty much have the Christian doctrine in a nutshell.

      So my point is, if the point of the steps is to save or fix the selfish wretched sinner and to redeem him in God’s eyes, what’s that got to do with fixing alcoholism or botulism for that matter. It’s that religious belief that if you are in God’s favor, He will look after you and solve your problems. I’ve known too many good, religious people who practiced their faith impeccably who just the same drowned to death with alcohol. I made this connection by accident years ago when I needed a meeting and none were available except a service group that met at a Catholic Retreat for Priests and Nuns with addiction problems! These were the nicest bunch of people, humble, human, selfless, who prayed to God to relieve them of their alcoholism, who regularly confessed their sins, and generally led exemplary lives that I could never hope to follow. I began to think that if these guys, who have a hot line to God, can’t stay sober with God, then what were my chances with this 12 step theory? I was nowhere near as “good” as these people and had no intention actually of becoming so any time soon. I liked a little vice now and again. Still do.

      So if I am anywhere near right about the above, what sense does it make to massage the 12 steps and play word substitution games if you still intend to follow Bill’s formula for cleansing and confession and atonement to become a more holy, worthy person in God’s eyes? Now there is nothing wrong with making amends if you’ve done something reprehensible in the past or you owe money for example. Nothing wrong with being a little more authentic in how you live. But there are many ways to work on personal growth and some people have no interest in that and just want to live life without alcohol. Why force them to do this “do gooder” introspection thing all day long. No wonder the majority of people run out of AA after a while and never return.

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