A Fellowship of the Religious?

Back to Basics

By Thomas B.

Prologue

Recently at an AA meeting I became aware of something which in my previous 40 plus years of continuous recovery, I had missed. On page 164 of the Big Book, AA is described by Bill as a Fellowship of the Spirit, capital F & capital S!

A Fellowship of the Spirit resonates deeply with me, since early on, as described in First AA Meetings, I have considered my higher power to be: G-O-D — Group Of Drunk/Druggies. During the last couple of years, however, I’ve experienced AA to be morphing into something other than a Fellowship of the Spirit. Increasingly, it is becoming a Fellowship of the Religious rigidly and dogmatically reflecting the Christian religion.

Two former Chairpersons of the General Service Board agree with this assessment. Bob Pearson in 1986 warned that, “If you were to ask me what is the greatest danger facing AA today, I would have to answer: the growing rigidity.” Last year, shortly after he left as Chairperson, the Reverend Ward Ewing, an Episcopalian priest, in an extended interview with Joe C. (mentioned again in last week’s article) had this to say about ending the 2010 AA World Conference in San Antonio with the Lord’s Prayer: “I was surprised and frankly I was a little shocked. Again, I consider myself reasonably religious and I want you to be religious but don’t try to make A.A. religious.”

The dynamic between the Christian religious orientation of AA in Akron, reflecting  the evangelical, pietistic Oxford Group ideology and a more open-ended and non-dogmatic spirituality has been a consistent theme in the evolution of AA’s history since its earliest days, when Jim Burwell and Hank Parkhurst in the fledging New York group were instrumental in widening the door of AA, so that any alcoholic with or without belief could find recovery within AA. During the past 25 or so years, however, there has been a resurgence of reverting back to the a more religiously oriented AA as it existed in the Oxford Group meetings of AA in Akron between 1935 and 1939.

How to Listen A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking with a guy in my home group, our GSR, whose long-term recovery I deeply admire. He asked me what I thought about Wally P. and the “Back to Basics” movement. I told him I didn’t know specifically about Wally P., but that I would look into it.

When I got home, I googled Wally P. Yup, just as I suspected, Wally Paton, the creator of “Back to Basics” is part of what I designate as “The Working the Steps Cottage Industry,” which has been an integral part of AA from its earliest history. The focus of this article is to examine this history and the recent exponential resurgence of a more religious approach within the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA’s First Evangelist, Clarence Snyder

Clarence Snyder, an AA pioneer whose last drink was February 11, 1938, was sponsored by Dr. Bob and the originator of Cleveland’s Group No. 3. Mitchell K, one of many avocational AA historians, myself included, became acquainted with Clarence  after several years of being sober, although mostly very alone, isolated and alienated. Through a fellow contact in the AA Loners Program, he connected with Clarence in 1980 and asked him to be his sponsor. After several requests, Clarence eventually discerned that Mitchell was “ready” and agreed to sponsor him. Here’s how he describes what happened, when Clarence took him through the steps:

When I got up off of my knees in that hotel room on April 4, 1981, I was a new man. The old had been washed away and I had been reborn . . . He told me that my ministry was to fix rummies.I was told that if a rummy wanted what I had, I was to tell them about, and introduce them to that Power greater than myself. The same power Dr. Bob had introduced him to. The same Great Physician, Dr. Silkworth had told those alcoholics who were declared hopeless could cure” them. That Power, that Great Physician, was the Christ Jesus. (Preface, How It Worked)

In 1983, Clarence asked Mitchell to write his biography to correct what he thought were misconceptions published by GSO in Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers. Entitled How It Worked, cited above, it was self-published by Mitchell in 1991.

How It WorkedMitchell K. presents Clarence’s AA program as first and foremost being rooted in what Harvard-trained AA historian Ernest Kurtz, PhD, describes in his doctoral dissertation,  Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, as “Akron-style AA,” which closely follows the methodology of the Oxford Group movement during the 1930s. Clarence’s recovery is based almost exclusively on the first 164 pages of the Big Book, which is superseded in importance only by the Bible. He claimed that he was the true founder of AA, because the first meeting called “Alcoholics Anonymous” took place under his leadership during May of 1939 in Cleveland, shortly after the publication of the first edition of the Big Book.

Throughout his life, Clarence continued to espouse the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Group Movement — Absolute Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love. He was openly skeptical about the need for the Twelve Traditions, often breaking his anonymity in public at the level of press, radio and TV.

Mitchell K. devotes a whole chapter to what he calls “The Orthodox Movement,” which  evolved during the 1950s after Dr. Bob died. The chapter includes a section titled “Back to the Basics.” Original Akron AA members Clarence, Bill D., AA #3, the man on the bed, and others along with Henrietta Seiberling formed the loose-knit movement. They were gravely concerned that AA was evolving away from Oxford Group Christian ideology. Here’s how Mitchell K. describes their purpose:

The Orthodox Movement’s goals were to keep the AA movement true to its original intent and purpose. Orthodox members felt that the new direction which AA was beginning to take would water down or dilute the effectiveness and success which the movement to that date had achieved.

Henrietta Seiberling was especially critical of Bill Wilson remarking,  “A lot of people up here are buffaloed into being “WWs” (Wilson Worshipers) instead of AAs… Bill will stand exposed for the show-off that he is.”

Clarence summarized the method of how Akron AA worked as, “Trust God, Clean House, Help Others.” On the other hand, he derisively described New York AA as, “Don’t drink and go to meetings.” Actually, that’s not an accurate assessment of New York AA — it’s don’t drink, go to meetings and help others!

From the 1960s until he died in March of 1984, Clarence traveled throughout the United States, giving numerous talks and formal retreats. He related how Dr. Bob sponsored him, and how AA, first in Akron and then in Cleveland, was actively involved in “carrying the message of recovery and leading people to his Lord, Jesus Christ,” as Mitchell K. describes it.

Further, Clarence thought the Twelve Concepts of Service and the organization of GSO was complicating the simple message of recovery Dr. Bob taught him. When Bill Wilson died in January of 1971, he graciously offered his assistance to the General Service Office, presumably to help them revert back to the “Keep it simple” program he fervently believed his sponsor, Dr. Bob, had rightly promoted. GSO politely declined his assistance.

Proselytizing in the 60s and 70s

Tom Powers was another notable AA pioneer. Sponsored by Bill W, he became permanently clean and sober on October 10, 1946. He helped Bill edit the second edition of the Big Book, as well as write Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. However, he and Bill W. had a falling out over Bill’s infidelities and inability to stop smoking.

Powers went on to found a treatment center in East Ridge, New York during the early 1960s, which utilized a methodology akin to the Akron AA way of working the steps, called All Addictions Recovery. Powers and his son, Tom P., Jr. wrote an article, Gresham’s Law & Alcoholics Anonymous, in which they contend that just as bad currency drives out good currency, weak and medium recovery dilute and drive out strong recovery. Strong recovery, in their opinion, is the original Christian-oriented Oxford Group methodology.

The Powers followed the beliefs of another early Oxford Group member, who was also most influential in Wally P’s “Back to Basics” program, James Houck. Houck proclaims that by working the original four steps of the Oxford Group — Surrender, Sharing, Restitution and Guidance — one could be cured of all addictions, to include “smoking, womanizing and drug addiction!”

Joe and CharlieAnother extremely popular and widely spread method of studying the Big Book is the Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminars. Begun in 1973, these seminars have been supplemented by an extensive network of alcoholism and drug treatment programs under the aegis of the Kelly Foundation. They also publish extensive “Recovery Dynamics” materials that are based on the original “Akron AA” methodology of working the steps. Google, Bing or Yahoo “Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminars” — most of the entries on the first five pages connect you to venues, where one can view, buy and/or obtain materials used by Joe and Charlie in what has become a thriving business empire.

The Working the Steps Cottage Industry Exponentially Expands

For the past 25 years, so-called “Primary Purpose” and “Back to Basic” methods of intensely studying the Big Book have expanded massively, resulting in a widespread cottage industry of publishing and treatment ventures throughout North America. What failed to gain traction during the 1950s, “The Orthodox Movement,” lately has exponentially expanded. In addition to Wally P’s Back to Basics they include:

Dick B's BooksBig Book Muckers are an interesting group  started in Toronto in 1995. They intensely study the Big Book, parsing each phrase of each sentence to discover the inherent meaning to discern if one is a “real alcoholic.” Muckers and other Oxford Group oriented believers hold that a “real alcoholic” can only be “recovered,” or cured, by the grace of the heavenly Father as mediated by his son, Jesus Christ.

Another prolific writer dealing with AA origins in the Oxford Group is a retired lawyer and member of AA, based in Hawaii, who extensively publishes under the pen name of Dick B. Another self-proclaimed AA historian, Dick B. has published 46 books and some 1600 articles, which support and reflect the Christian roots of AA that led to the publication of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous with its striking red, yellow, black & white book jacket. In addition to his writing, Dick B. has evolved a veritable empire of interrelated corporations. These include the following endeavors:

In my small seacoast town on the Oregon coast every year a good number of men and women do a Step Study Team year after year after year. They vigorously examine themselves in minute detail as diligently as Rabbis down through the ages have parsed the oral and written Torah or with the rigorous precision that Medieval monks discussed the numbers of angels on the head of a pin. They derive much benefit from this yearly ritual, and I am most grateful that it works for them.

For myself, however, my recovery practice is not so much to “work the Steps” — rather, I daily strive to practice the principles, or virtues, that are derived from the Steps such as, forgiveness, mindfulness, gratitude, honesty, open-mindedness and willingness, etc.

The AA Speaker Circuit

Since AA’s earliest days, multitudes of speakers, including both Bill and Bob, as well as many pioneers in the evolution of AA, have spoken on the so-called AA  speaker circuit. As AA expanded, so did statewide and regional AA conferences, sometimes called Round-ups, even national and international conferences. Notable AA speakers were invited to address these various forums. Today, vast reservoirs exist of tapes and CDs, DVDs, even down-loadable MP3s and YouTube videos from the Internet, of numerous AA speakers, as well as speakers from Alanon, NA, CODA, ACA and many other 12-step programs. Here’s just one extensive compendium of AA and other 12-step recovery speakers, 12Step.org.

An infamous example of AA circuit speakers is Charles Dederich, an AA member in Los Angeles, who founded Synanon, a most successful “Tough Love” drug-rehab program. However, it devolved into a paranoid, destructive entity, which faced a multitude of legal charges, and closed its doors in 1991.

Clancy

On Saturday (April 26, 2014) Clancy I. will be speaking at the 35th Annual Eastern Ontario Spring Conference in Canada’s capital, Ottawa.

Currently, a notable AA elder statesman, Clancy I. has been alleged to have possibly created a widespread cult of personality within mainstream AA. Sober since October 31, 1958, and Managing Director since 1974 of the Midnight Mission on LA’s skid row, Clancy is invited to speak at AA gatherings all over the US and Canada. In addition to the article linked above about Synanon, Clancy and his home group, the Pacific Group, is also a major  focus of another FIX article, AA Cults I Have Known. 

Since 2009, recovering alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous (Great Britain) Ltd, have written a blog called aacultwatch, which traces the intrusion of the “Back to Basics” movement throughout AA in England. They conducted an extensive analysis of the rise of this phenomena, An Enquiry Into Primary Purpose and Back to Basics AA Groups, both in the US and in Great Britain. It covers the same general content of this article, but in exquisite detail, with footnoted references to a cornucopia of materials available online. Here is their conclusion:

A loosely connected international network of websites has created a virtual”  Primary Purpose intergroup, facilitating the global communication of an ideology and a cause which comes from literature and website sources outside of AA. This website network has enabled the formation of affiliated AA groups in at least eleven countries, by like minded AA members who share this ideology and cause. This cause appears to be the introduction of Oxford Group principles and methods, which were criticized by Bill W. as not being inclusive to all alcoholics, and to teach an interpretation of the AA programme, sourced from outside of the group conscience of AA.

One of several articles on the website is a data-packed analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Recovery Rates initially published by the Grapevine in 2008 for AA members and academics. The authors describe its purpose in the Foreword, thusly:

Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory
Franklin P Adams (1881-1960)

This paper addresses an erroneous myth that AA is experiencing a 5% (or less) success ratetoday as opposed to either a 50%, 70%, 75%, 80% or 93% (take your pick) success rateit once reputedly enjoyed in the 1940s and 1950s. The term mythis used to emphasize that the low success ratespromulgated are a product of imagination, invention and inattention to detail rather than fact-based research.

The Back to Basics crowd fervently believe that formerly in “the good old days” the Oxford Group methodology of AA yielded between 50%  and 93% success rates, whereas currently AA experiences a mere 5% or less.

Conclusion 

Is propaganda generated by Primary Purpose and Back To Basics ideology overtly influencing Intergroup Offices and the General Service Conference in North America?

We all know too much about the sad history of Intergroup Associations delisting agnostic groups. I recently became aware that Clancy I. spoke at a Toronto Roundup shortly before the Toronto Intergroup Office first delisted the Toronto groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics.

No doubt, another factor was the distribution among Toronto Intergroup representatives of “The White Paper,” written by an anonymous member with some 40 years of recovery from Florida, who parrots much of the “Back to Basics” ideology. One of the most incendiary comments he makes in his 28-page screed against AA meetings for agnostics and atheists is, “I would rather hear about serving beer at meetings than diminishing God’s central role.” (The White Paper)

In another place he proclaims:

However, as we all know, the spiritual path continuously gets narrower and narrower, thereby becoming less inclusive of our old ideas. To make progress, we have to move away from our will (ideas) and towards Gods. The entrance door to AA may be infinitely wide, but the entrance to the 4th dimension of existence is a very narrow beam… Sobriety is not the name of the game, God is.

His recommendation for us groups of non-believers is to form a separate organization to advocate and announce our meetings, just like Alcoholics Victorious does for fervently devout fundamentalist Christians.

Portland

The Portland Intergroup has this image on its website with the quote:
“When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help…”
That’s only true, of course, if the suffering alcoholic is prepared to swallow the God bit as part of her recovery.

When I approached the Portland, Oregon Intergroup Office manager, last month about listing our Sunday Beyond Belief meeting, we had a “debate,” as he termed it, as to whether we are really an AA group. He seemed to reflect the same rationale of “The White Paper,” and it is his opinion, which he says reflects the group conscience of the  Intergroup representatives, that we are not an AA group. Therefore, our meeting won’t be listed in print or online by the Portland Area Intergroup Office.

Can AA continue as a “Fellowship of the Spirit,” noted in the second to last paragraph of the first 164 of Alcoholics Anonymous? Traditionally, I believe this is how AA has functioned for most of it’s 79 year history. Further, from my reading of AA literature, other than the Big Book, and my knowledge of the history of AA, I also firmly believe that this was the intention of both AA cofounders, Dr. Bob and Bill, as well as the wish of a significant portion of AA’s current worldwide membership.

Or, shall AA become increasingly fundamentalist and evangelical Christian only, which the original members of the Akron Oxford Group mostly were?

I certainly hope not. However, when I read again the rest of page 164, as well the theistic language throughout the preceding pages of the Big Book, there certainly seems to be a pervasive emphasis on the necessity to find and acknowledge God as the one and only source of one’s recovery. For example, on page 162 alone “God, He or Him” is mentioned a total of 10 times. Further, it is proclaimed, “This is the Great Fact for us.”

I’m dismayed by how much AA appears to be reverting “back to the basics” of its evangelical Christian origins in the Oxford Group movement. Nevertheless, following the suggestion of our Responsibility Declaration, I shall continue to speak my non-religious truth and share my 41 years of experience of godless recovery through the grace of the AA Fellowship of the Spirit.

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Comments

A Fellowship of the Religious? — 89 Comments

  1. Hi, Joe C’s interview with Ward Ewing was referenced in this article – is that available somewhere?

    • And thank you, friend, buddy, brother, pal, for keeping me not only sober but sane (most of the time) when we shared meetings, a men’s group and poetry together . . .

      I’m most grateful we’ll be sharing poetry again together tomorrow night !~!~!

  2. A fine article! — and a very disturbing one. I had no idea that the religious fundamentalists in AA were so numerous, so organized, and so aggressive. We AA freethinkers are caught between the Scylla of harsh and often unprincipled AA bashers and the Charyb­dis of god-talking AA fundamentalists or “Big Book thumpers”. We’ll have to continue speaking our truth to both (or all) sides — defending the things in AA that are right and criticizing the things that are wrong.

    • Hi John L, I don’t think the fundamentalists are so numerous, certainly not in the UK, but yes they are organised. These people are of course backed by the many professionals who make money out of the AA trademarks, such as the 12 Step professionals.

      By comparison the Atheists and Agnostics etc are are really just a motley crew of individualists.

      I think as Thomas said that this is a fight we must win.

      • Thanks Duncan . . .

        Though I appreciate your comment, let me clarify that I don’t necessarily think this is a fight we must win, or even can win. Increasingly after 41 years in recovery I appreciate the wisdom Bill expressed on page 84 of the Big Book right after his declaration of our code of love and tolerance when he wrote, “And we have ceased fighting anyone or anything — even alcohol.”

        I do, however, strongly advocate that we agnostics, atheists and free thinkers have an obligation to demonstrate our truth of non-theistic, especially non-Christian, recovery. One practice I do, which might be criticized as adversarial by some, is when we recite the Serenity Prayer, I say “goddess”.

        When a meeting, relatively rare in my area, ends with the Lord’s Prayer, I usually just look around the circle and remain silent. Sometimes, I’ll step outside the circle.

        At several meetings recently, I mention the Arabic salutation from the Islamic tradition that was part of Bill W.’s final message to the Fellowship read by Lois October 10, 1970 at the first annual dinner/dance in his honor in New York City he was unable to attend due to his emphysema: “I salute you and thank you for my life.”

        Personally, I’m most grateful for the many professional programs that offer requisite detox and other psychological services to alcoholics, which appropriately AA cannot provide. (Full disclosure here — for 30 years I worked professionally in the field of addictions as a New York State Certified Social Worker. I’m most grateful to be gainfully retired . . . ;)

    • Excellent point, John, that we need to share our truth equally with the unprincipled AA bashers as well as the Christian Fundamentalists.

      At my Morning Meditation meeting Big Book today, we read the story “Listening to the Wind” about a Native American women sober whose higher power is the Creator who expresses itself through the love and fellowship we experience in the rooms of AA.

      One mountain of recovery — many paths up it . . .

      • Every AA needs to stress that the Big Book is a guide, a finger pointing to the moon, and not an end in itself. If the Big Book worked, we wouldn’t need meetings, sponsors, and the cottage industries.

        We can also make the point that we share our experience, and the others can’t.

  3. Thomas,

    Thank you very much for this very significant article. Follow the money. Follow the power. Follow the predictable cults/sects/divisions of any religious movement and one sees this all over the place in AA. It is “All Too Human,” and therefore, predictable.

    Consider the way the far right evangelicals took over the Republican Party, and you’ll see a strong parallel with the take over of the various Intergroups by these types of authoritarians. And in a simple majoritarian rule, those of us of nonbelief WILL be subjected to the most severe discrimination. There is no reasoning, or accommodation that can be made with this sort of religious ideology. We are the “other,” the “evil to be resisted.”

    This is measurable. Isn’t it? One could argue that “demographics will win the day,” and that may be right, but there is reason to doubt the claim these future secular drunks will be coming to AA. All too many of those types of folks already come and simply abandon AA after an initial exposure.

    Some of us are greatly encouraged with more of a voice for those of us of nonbelief, and we’ve found a great deal of good and meaningful life within the Fellowship of AA. I am one of those.

    Yet, I am under no illusions that the issue of in inclusion of Agnostic type groups in AA Intergroup listings will eventually have to be WON in a court of law. Like all other types of systemic discrimination, and overt bigotry performed by religious majorities in this country’s social history, this issue will have to follow the same course of actions.

    Religious bigots have NEVER given up their power and authoritarian dominance, willingly. They have been compelled to do so, time and time again.

    There ya go Dick…

    • Sadly, I agree with your comments and am angered by much of what I see in and out of AA. My thought is…..What can I do to make a difference? At the moment I have concluded that it is important for me to attend AA meetings and share my experience, strength, and hope. Many times this results in talking about the fact that I have been sober in AA for nearly thirty years and that I am a atheist. My intention is not to convince others that their beliefs are wrong, but to show those who have similar beliefs to myself that they can stay clean and sober in AA. This has resulted in people pulling me aside after meetings and inquiring as to “How It Works” when you do not believe in God. I’m always happy to say that it works very well for me, my sponsor, and many others with similar beliefs. I have gone through the steps with some of these people using the Big Book, the Twelve and Twelve, and the book that explains it best for me, Marya Hornbacher’s Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power. I also encourage these people to be open and honest with others in AA about who they are and how they stay sober. I was sober for quite some time before I was able to speak honestly about being an atheist. There’s never a long line of AA’s waiting to hug me and thank me for what I shared, but being there for another AA who is struggling as I did is very rewarding. I also make a point to tell people about this web site for which I am most grateful!

      • Yes, George, thank you for your efforts to be available to people, more than we might readily realize, who experience difficulty with the original Oxford Group brand of AA — there are indeed many paths up the mountain of recovery, and it is up to us to do what we can to insure that other paths are kept open and available in the rooms of AA by speaking openly, but with respect for other’s perhaps radically different views, of our non-theistic, agnostic/atheist/free-thinking ways of staying sober and enjoying the benefits of continued recovery . . .

      • George, thank you for your kind words. It seems our choice to remain in traditional AA rooms as “open atheists” are grounded in the same philosophies. I go back and forth on the issue of starting a meeting for we evil others.
        I agree with your praise of Hornbacher’s book “Waiting,” and am excited she agreed to speak at the conference this fall. Pretty cool beans as far as I’m concerned.

    • I totally agree, Mark — Roger several months ago recommended a book to me by Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain. In it she examines the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, the so-called, Books of Abraham, which form the core of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The essential message of the Pentateuch is one can only worship the one and only true god, God, who urges one to go forth, multiply, and convert all heathens. If the heathens won’t convert then kill them and occupy their lands.

      In my elder years, after a lifetime of social and political activism, I increasingly choose not to fight, but to accept the things I cannot change, those I judge to be bigots, but for whom I still strive to practice our code of “love and tolerance of others . . .’

      • Thank you Thomas. Hope you can find something there of encouragement to you.

  4. Live and let live. If what you believe works for you, I’m glad for you. What I believe today, works for me. I’ve been atheist for 31 years, and that has worked for me. I don’t apologize for that. I don’t try to argue or change others with that. We in the fellowship have one thing in common; We must help others, or we will fail. Ernest, I took a workshop called “Guilt and Shame” by you at UNCW in ’85, I believe. That material has stood me well these many years. Thanks for your contributions to the well being of our fellowship these many years.

  5. I was raised as an atheist, not yet understanding that atheism requires as much faith as religion. If not for “god as we understand him” which allowed me to find my own higher power, I would never have stayed in the fellowship. Chances are I’d be dead of alcoholism.

    Almost a quarter-century ago I was sober almost a year at a meeting south of San Francisco when the “god thing” came up for discussion. I shared a bit of my story and my appreciation for AA’s inclusiveness.

    Another member, sober about as long as me, got really upset. “There’s only one god,” he railed, “and you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior!” A week later he was drunk, and I’m still sober.

    While AA “has no opinion on outside issues,” we are human beings and outside issues creep in, including evangelical christianity. Egos sometimes turn into guru-itis. There is a line in the big book: “We are not a glum lot.” One sub-group in San Francisco, constantly writing 10th steps on the pads they carried, became known as “the glumlots.”

    I’m old now, with aches and pains, but each day that I wake up without a hangover I thank my higher power, whom or whatever he, she or it may be, for joy in my life, for sobriety, for a meeting close by out here in the Arizona desert.

    And I think all of us, of whatever spiritual persuasion, can live with Annie L.’s simple prayer: Help. Thank you. Wow!

    • Albert, good friend, it is so good to read you here. You always have been a source of marvelous stories, even those in the format of rap poetry, when we participated in slams throughout Arizona in 2002-3.

      Thank you for your story here . . .

  6. Rev. Ewing
    I consider myself reasonably religious,
    and I want you to be religious,
    but don’t try to make AA religious.

    This has become a mantra in my recovery. I keep seeing new meanings. I believe in the fellowship and the sources of our inspiration.

    • Yes, boyd, as do I, which motivates me increasingly to speak openly, but with respect for ardent believers, about my non-believing recovery. There are certainly depths of “higher power” inspiration to guide us as we continue to experience “daily reprieves.”

      • I too believe in standing ground as an open and honest atheist in a traditional AA room. This has not come without cost. But it is doable, and can create a wider gate for others who still suffer.

        Takes a thick skin though doesn’t it? It is a tall order, too tall too often, to overcome addiction to alcohol and to put up with antics and abuse coming from zealous religious types in the rooms. Too many heathens simply throw in the towel and walk, or run away.

        I eventually took a positive action and penned a letter to my group. That letter became a catalyst/game changer for positive change toward openness, honesty, and growing tolerance in our group. Here then is a sample of some of my experiences in AA as an open atheist: A Letter Concerning Toleration.

        Maybe it will serve as a source of encouragement for those of us who feel all “alone” out there in the wilds of traditional AA meetings.

        Peace.

      • Thanks for not being tolerant of intolerance Mark. I read your letter and found the offensive behaviors you described nearly as effective at bringing up bile as a morning of dry heaving. It’s been awhile but I can still muster up the memory. The fact that your letter had a positive effect on the group tells me that you are in good company. Congratulations on your successful effort!

  7. I flunked out of the Pacific Group in 1987. I never put together 90 days in a row over 7 years of trying. In 1988 I found We Agnostics in Hollywood. Now it’s been 26 years, 2 months, and 19 days. Clancy still gives me the creepy-crawlies.

    • I’m grateful for you, Sherril, that you “flunked out” of the Pacific Group, and I’m exceedingly grateful I haven’t had to experience it . . . ;)

  8. As one wades through this site of unbelievers who seemingly dedicate themselves to the proposition that A.A. is or might become or never was Christian, he or she finds that the unbelievers focus on defamation. The rants and raves of Kurtz and some others are regular fare. But all fail in one particular: A.A. is not monolithic. He who tries to win his point by trashing others or by characterizing A.A. as this or that group of cottage industry Bible thumpers just detours students from considering: (1) A.A. consists of about 2 million members passing in and out. (2) By reason of the great compromise of 1939 which opened the “broad highway” to atheists and agnostics, the atheists and agnostics seem determined to rest their position on a parade of horrors presentation rather than an admission that the “broad highway” was paved by the committee of four to invite Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Gays and Lesbians, Airline pilots, and even lawyers to come and overcome. Even if some didn’t or wouldn’t take literally the phrase: “There is One who has all power. That One is God. May you find Him now.” I hope the more the atheists and agnostics rant, the more the members of the recovery community will examine themselves and say: “I’m not one of those. I’m just a drunk who came to A.A. to get over the mess I created. I wasn’t looking for a church, an atheist, or a Bible. But I wound up relying on God; and it worked!

      • Does anyone besides me get goose bumps when Ernie Kurtz comes on here? I mean, he’s ERNIE FREAKEN KURTZ!!!

        I’m starstruck!

        God bless you, Mr. Kurtz!

        Sort of.

      • Ernie, perhaps you don’t know Bob – he is that cousin we all try to keep hidden but occasionally he gets away.

    • Dick, friend, I’m ever so grateful that you found God in AA to help you overcome the mess you created, or at least I infer that this is your story as well.

      I’m ever so grateful I found the rooms of AA, wherein my higher powers, G. O. D. – groups of drunk/druggies – in Manhattan on October 19, 1972, five days after I had my last drink of Ballantine Ale in my mother-in-law’s apartment in New Rochelle, NY, on October 14 1972. They have provided me with the gift of recovery ever since.

      Your recovery has worked exceedingly well for you, as mine has for me. We both, and all who experience the “daily reprieve”, have much to be bounteously grateful for, no matter by whatever means our recoveries have occurred. This makes it a time of celebration for us all, most especially on this auspicious day in the mythology of the Christian tradition.

      Let me offer you the last public message that our co-founder, Bill Wilson, offered to alcoholics everywhere, the ancient Arabian salutation from the Islamic tradition, which was read by Lois at the New York Intergroup Association annual dinner on October 10, 1970, to some 2200 AA members and guests at the New York Hilton Hotel to celebrate his upcoming 36th AA Anniversary: I salute you and thank you for your life.

    • Many of us continue to make the very natural mistake of assuming that we know precisely what is getting and keeping us sober in AA, or that we EVER did.

      We don’t, of course. And our founders had no special privileges there. So the history of their speculations on the matter is proof of nothing much. Some AA historians miss this last point entirely.

      We and they have our experiences of gaining freedom from alcoholic insanity and our guesses about what caused that. Little more.

      All we can say with some confidence at this point is that it seems to have something to do with getting honest, living somewhat more graciously, and serving other alcoholics. Because those are the only common factors we find in a wide variety of approaches to the AA program.

      You may choose to believe that doing those things somehow opens up a channel to God and fills you with his Power. I believe the phenomenon is entirely psychological in nature. It doesn’t seem to matter, as long as what you believe inspires you to do the work.

      And AA, while favoring the more miraculous explanation in its basic writings, has always remained open to members forming their own conclusions about WHY it works.

      Let’s not backslide on the intellectual freedom we cherish here as believers and non-believers alike. Because that freedom seems to be an absolutely indispensable ingredient in the individual alcoholic’s path to recovery.

      Thank you all for your lives in recovery and the inspiration you bring to others. Namaste.

      • Well said, Frank.

        Psychological and spiritual is the same to me. It’s all between the ears.

      • Well said, Frank — the longer I experience recovery the less I know or understand how it happened. In retrospect it becomes increasingly a deeper mystery, albeit one I cherish and am extraordinarily grateful for.

        Funny thing, when I first started reading and contributing to this site, I was a confirmed agnostic, but over the last couple of years I have become increasingly atheistic. I don’t know precisely what that means, but I suspect it has something to do with my needing more “spiritual/psychological” progress in the application of the our principle of “Love and tolerance of others is our code” . . . ;)

        And yes, amongst ourselves we can disagree, sometimes vehemently, but hopefully we shall always have the maturity and dignity to respect our mutual freedom of expression here. For myself, I have to remember that even if I don’t like what someone is saying, I cherish that person’s right of freedom to express their beliefs.

      • I have been agnostic all my life but was steered into atheism by reading Bart Ehrman, of all people. If anyone saw how the xtn religion, esp their scripture, was put together, they would be atheist, too.

        I am a bit old for Vietnam. I got off of active duty 11/63 and resigned my commission in ’68. That was the only way an officer can get out of the reserves. Many of us remember what was going on then, so I have a bit of guilt for being fortunate enough to complete my military obligation before it got really hot and not having to go.

        My late sponsor, who was also a college buddy, was a chopper pilot, two DFCs, and he got the VA to recognize that his alcoholism was due to PTS from the war.

      • I heard a paraphrase of the following in a meeting. Got me curious, did a search and found, “The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.” Socrates

      • Socrates was talking about what Hume would call ‘matters of fact’, things like ‘all swans are white’. We have to be humble about such assertions. A black swan might turn up somewhere.

        But even Socrates would agree that we are certain of what Hume would call ‘relations of ideas’, things like ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’.

        But it is false humility to feign ignorance about certain things. For example, I am certain there are no elephants in my office right now. If the words ‘elephant’ and ‘are’ have meanings, then I am justified in saying that. I don’t have to keep an open mind about it.

        Likewise, a god who treats people fairly can never appear. It’s too late. Life is not fair, and any god worthy of the name would have had a hand in that.

        Showing certainty is often off-putting in tribal relations, but is still justified in the realm of ideas.

        Politicians often mask their certainty to appeal to voters. In AA, it might be smart to do this. But it might not be, too. As long as we act as if an all-loving God is a live possibility, the God idea will have legs. It is not a live possibility. It’s ruled out. Bill Wilson recognized this, but accepted help from God anyway.

      • “It is false humility to feign ignorance.” Many variations on that theme are indeed a hazard. Thank you for highlighting it. Personal balance involving humility and declarations of clarity are bound up in culture, and my particular patriarchal upbringing. What is the next right step? Often it’s a tough call. I rely heavily upon the fellowship for insight.

    • > A.A. is not monolithic

      Hear, hear, Dick. There is room in AA for anyone who wants to get sober. In my ideal, no method of staying sober would be shown favoritism. Diversity increases our usefulness. And to be helpful is our only aim. Hell, even a New Age pagan Druid might connect with someone in a way I can’t, and save her life.

      But let’s be honest. Various methods ARE better than others, depending on our other values. Few people think involuntary incarceration is a good way to stay sober. Same with using Satan as your higher power. So we don’t quite mean it when we say, “do whatever works”. There are limits to pragmatism. Not all ways of getting sober are equal. Every position has its costs.

      I am an atheist because using God to stay sober violates my values. “God could and would if he were sought” simply means that “God could”, period. But he won’t unless we do certain simple things.

      If you’re an authoritarian, that might sound ok. But I’m a sappy liberal. I think we should give medical care to people with no strings attached. If a doctor handed out medical care the way the Big Book says God does, he’d go to jail. I support giving insulin to unrepentant death row inmates. Why? Because I’d be a monster if I let them die in my care.

      Bill Wilson noted all this in Bill’s story and again Chapter 11 of the 12 & 12. Until Ebby sobered up, Bill had rejected the idea of a personal God because of all the misery and injustice he saw. Bertha Bamford, mustard gas and smallpox meant if there were a God, he plays favorites.

      Bill’s discovery was that, despite this fact, it seemed he could get on God’s good side. Would he accept help from such a God? Of course he would. He was desperate and addled. Let God save me. I can worry about the kids in burn centers later.

      So, I am overjoyed that I called God’s bluff. I stayed sober 10 years on the Big Book program, and now 12 more without God. I am not beyond human aid. And it’s a big bonus for me that I don’t have to do business with a God who could help everyone, but lets many perish, presumably watching their whole ordeal, because the won’t work the Steps.

      Your reliance on God may work. But there are better ways to stay sober if you value treating the least of those among us compassionately.

      • Thanks for your comments Don. “Diversity increases our usefulness” sums it up for me. Having been uncomfortable with both God and prayer from my beginnings in AA I feel most fortunate that upon expressing those feelings to the man who became my sponsor I was told “Take what you need and leave the rest”. There were those who told me that a belief in God was an absolute if I wanted to stay clean and sober. That has proven to be factually untrue as my sobriety date is June 10, 1984. I think it is well worth noting that my sponsor was a man who believed in God and did use prayer in his life, fortunately for myself and the friends and family members who love and care about me, my sponsor was concerned with my sobriety and not my religious beliefs or lack thereof. I am most grateful for those like yourself and my sponsor who keep AA’s doors open wide rather than merely open on a crack.

      • Thank you, Don — you have most adroitly expressed the nub of my difficulty with any god who capriciously would allow some to “get it” and others not to.

        I have survivor guilt from Vietnam because in 1967 I volunteered to go, primarily because I wanted Charlie to do, what I was too chicken-shit to do out of fear that some GOD would manifest itself out of the Kosmos and send me to hell forever and ever, stemming from my Southern Baptism converted to Catholicism at puberty. I survived despite myself though one of the bloodiest years of that terrible war.

        By the time I celebrated my 10th anniversary sober in AA, 6 or 7 of the initial group of men and one woman who were instrumental in helping me get sober at the Midnight Meeting in Manhattan had not only drank again, they had died as a result of drinking. I can not believe in any god that would spare me and not offer the “grace” to them. I have survivor guilt about this as well.

        Yes, we have free will and all of that, but in no way can I subscribe to the rationale that I was specifically chosen to have this grace conferred on me by an almighty god, and they were not . . .

        Funny thing — my recovery is much more substantial today embracing atheism then when I was a waffling about being a wishy-washy, somewhat believing agnostic . . .

    • Which great compromise are you suggesting was made in 1939?

      I am reading the inclusion of the Jews that were in serious trouble in Europe at that moment in time and other non-Oxford protestants or Catholics etc.

      There would be no first pamphlet called Mr. X and alcoholics anonymous being written without the Oxford Group being left in the dust. Surely you aren’t suggesting it was a compromise to leave Buchman and the boys and his courting of the Nazi party behind. The Cleveland group was the first AA group…the other 2 groups were Oxford groups…that morphed. Rev Lupton’s sermon that outlined the four principles of AA, was written after being professionally examined by select experts from the community. That is not a compromise, that was a careful endorsement based on the only reasonable evidence available.

      I have no truck with your general message…until it is used dogmatically, especially on those that have been victimized by athoritarian religions. Not all religions are as such. The language however is stained by the events of people’s personal history. Some of the greatest injuries involve belief systems and abuse. I hope those that have been shunned by members of AA who are dogmatically religious (as opposed to spiritual) come to understand that only those without a solid faith in their personal beliefs impose those ideas on others. It is a form of external re-inforcement and verification from a position of doubt.

      Personally, I believe doubt is one of mankinds greatest assets.

      • >doubt is one of mankinds greatest assets.

        Doubt is the beginning of knowledge. But there are some things we can not doubt. I can’t doubt that, if God is real, he lets innocent kids suffer. It’s not my fault that I know this for sure, and it’s not dogmatic or arrogant to say it.

        Believers dance around and avert their eyes at this fact, then say, “Are you God? How do you know he doesn’t have a good reason for ebola and birth defects?”

        I don’t need to be God to know that an all-powerful God didn’t have to put ebola in the world. He left out many possible horrors. He could have left out one more.

        So, it saddens me when good people like Bill W and Dick B accept help from such a God. Bill W was explicit about it: he knew how God treated many people, but pragmatically, out of desperation, accepted God’s help anyway.

        The good news that agnostic AAs have is not just that we belong in AA, too. That’s the selfish part. What we really have is a cruelty-free alternative to belief in God. Of course, we don’t know if it will work for everyone. But we know that it has worked for us.

      • I would guess that Dick B. is rightly referring to the book itself as the great compromise. The book claims a unanimity that never existed. “We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree..” NOT!!

        Surely the atheists were less than thrilled with “God as we understood Him” plus a couple of “your own conceptions.” Equally, the book was a disappointment to those who felt they were saved by Jesus Christ.

        In retrospect, Wilson made some wise choices. At the time, the majority of the Akron folk were surely displeased.

      • Thank you Larry, Don and Bob — I find this discussion very enlightening, helping me to clarify my still at times most doubtful and downright confused thinking.

        I’m especially glad to learn, Larry, about Rev. Lupton’s sermon — thanks . . .

    • Thanks Dick. It seems that your route to recovery was so effective that it is hard to picture that there might be another way to achieve the same goal. Having reached this pinnacle of sobriety it must be easy to look down on those struggling to find their own way. I do not reject god any more than I reject leprechauns or unicorns as a vehicle to recovery. It is a journey of the spirit and one way to keep people off your path is to insist it is the only one when there are visibly many others.

  9. Since the February posting of the article about LifeRing.org by AA Agnostica, I have become a content, happy member of LifeRing. My path of recovery now includes the best of what I appreciate about AA, as well as the expansive, inclusionary view of LifeRing.

    What a breath of fresh air to no longer self-edit nor muffle my belief in the vast nature of the great mystery, without having to diminish its scope by calling it any one thing or another.

    Perhaps our celebration in recovery fellowship and our common good purpose is in continually emerging as the wonderful, miraculous, precious, and capable human beings we are, as mind- and spirit-numbing ways are left by the side of the road. It is this kind of celebration of union that interests me.

    Thank you, AA Agnostica, for making this forum of discussion possible so that, without bashing AA, we may expand on what is good within it and flourish from the living principles derived from the Steps–such as, forgiveness, mindfulness, gratitude, honesty, open-mindedness and willingness.

    . . . . . . . .

    “It is substance addiction that creates a void as it systematically shackles the human spirit, poisons every bodily system, tortures the emotions, and impoverishes the intellect.
    It is when alcohol or other mind-altering, addictive drugs are taken out of the equation that what emerges is usually a wonderful, miraculous, precious, and capable human being.”

    — Mahala Kephart
    LifeRing.org

  10. Let me say at the outset that I have no animosity toward religion…early in my sobriety, over a quarter of a century ago, a re-investigation of my previous religious practice was of great benefit to me personally and to my family. That search opened the door for my wife, who had been battered into her own state of ‘pitiful, incomprehensible demoralization’ as a result of living with me through those very troubled years, to return to a faith she rejoices in and has brought her much personal peace and contentment.
    My own personal search has led me to a different place however. I am a non-theist and my personal take on spirituality is as vibrant, fulfilling and comforting as any of my theist friends in our fellowship.
    I, too, have become alarmed at what seems to be a renewal of an attempt to pull back AA into a state of “earlier purity” that never existed in the first place.
    At our annual group inventory I made what seemed to be a rather modest request that we open our meetings with a moment of silence and close with the Serenity Prayer with the caveat that “…you may join us if you desire but it’s absolutely not mandatory.” I used to joke that the ceiling of the church may cave in on us all with the presence of a non-believer like myself there. The out roar and outrage of the “Faithful” nearly did the job. The motion was seconded and soundly defeated. The chief objection was “An AA meeting without the Lords Prayer? That’s insane !”
    The next weeks meeting had several new attendees. Turn out they were from a back to basics group in a town some twenty five miles away…there , presumably, to staunch the tide of the ungodly infidels and their unholy message. They came armed with Big Books and printed materials from the business side of primary purpose/back to basics (Do they really have another side?).
    After listening to several read selected items from the big book (please note that they NEVER read passages that may contradict their narrow interpretations), raised my hand to share and informed them that I always do appreciate someone citing our basic text, but I had been able to read myself for over 60 years and would most certainly hear how those phrases affected their search for and continuing sobriety. In other words, their EXPERIENCE……Silence. I thanked them for attending and mentioned that if they ever developed “this hopeless state of mind and body” they would be welcome to return and maybe we could help them.
    Stick to your guns, share your experience, strength and hope, carry the message of your own personal recovery in AA, be true to yourselves and let the whirling dervishes whirl. We have nothing to fear. Two million members worldwide is NOT a sign of failure.

    • Thanks. I have less than three years of sobriety so I cannot speak with any more authority but it surely gives me a great sense of validation to hear a long timer like yourself echo what I have been feeling since my beginning. It has always amazed me to see the reverence shown by these people toward a pamphlet which is a clearly slapped together committee written sales pitch made by a group of nonprofessionals at the dawn of the information age – almost half of whom died drunk. I always thought that that was the miracle of the book, that in spite of what it was it became a valuable tool. My other source of wonder is how the book-muckers flat out ignore any message that doesn’t push their case for a verbatim interpretation of their favourite parts. I love this site for this weekly sense of validation. Thank you all from the bottom of my damaged brain. One more “parachute without a ripcord” analogy and I might blow a blood vessel.

    • I totally agree, Bill — it’s our diversity, not our uniformity, wherein we find common ground to the “experience, strength and hope,” so as to keep experiencing the “daily reprieves” . . .

  11. Thank you. I really enjoyed reading your essay. I primarily attend AA for my substance abuse problems with cocaine and alcohol. I started out as a teenage problem drinker but got into competitive sporting competitions that required a strict diet of high protein and lower carb’s, and as we all know beer is not a food substance that any athlete can abuse and be successful in their chosen sport, so I had to diversify. I like AA as it’s the only aftercare program available one day at a time for life. Unlike other diseases alcoholism can’t be cured, only on a daily basis can a person work to maintain their sobriety. Thanks, John.

    • Thanks John — my son hit his first rehab when he was 14 and was in and out of rehabs, jails, psyche wards, etc. for the next ten years. I visited him and his wife in Arizona last week, where he is in his ninth year of recovery via Buddhism and living a most gratifying and productive life.

  12. Religion loves to plant its flag on good things, then add nothing of its own. It is too often imperialistic and parasitic in this way.

    Having said that, our religious MEMBERS are not parasitic. Many of them are victims of conditioning. Others are much like myself, but have kept their religion.

    I am recovering from religion as well as alcoholism, so I share that in meetings. Giving up a punishing god for a loving one is a familiar theme among AAs. I simply gave up my loving god, too, because I saw the he didn’t treat people equally, and I quit needing him. I found a sufficient substitute in atheism.

    I love our religious members, but it would not be loving to let them take over the fellowship. Since AA = its members and no specific ideology, AA’s character will doubtless change over the decades.

    Change that reflects the people we are here to help is healthy change. Thomas’s article shows that some AA’s openly say that AA is not about helping all the drunks, but about serving God. They have the right to say that. But I will counter their claims. The real basics of AA lie in one drunk helping another.

    • Yup, Don, I sometimes refer to myself as experiencing a “daily reprieve” from a Southern Baptist childhood, who converted to Catholicism at puberty.

      My belief (pun intended) is that the quintessential factor in recovery is one drunk/druggie carrying the message of hope to another drunk/druggie — it’s been that way since Roland Hazard III carried the message of hope to Ebby Thatcher who carried it to Bill Wilson who carried it Dr. Robert Smith and so on, ad infinitum. At least I hope so . . .

  13. Well, of the three of us who graduated from a 90-day program at the beginning of the month, two 2 bible thumping Jesus freaks and I, who identify as an atheist, the Jesus freaks have already relapsed. I’ve got 136 days today and my life is filled with love and kindness. I even love my Jeezoid brothers, but I know BS when I hear it. I hope they make it back. Their imaginary Skydaddy evidently isn’t going to save them.

    • Congratulations, Lenny. Keep coming back. I hope your friends also come back.

      A gift I got in my first year of recovery was hearing a young man in New York as I was, who was celebrating his 8th Anniversary, say that he considered himself a newcomer every day he didn’t drink by going to meetings because every day he remained sober he kept experiencing new understanding, new awareness, new gifts of being sober. I too, today, am a newcomer . . .

  14. Is my CRS really that bad? I started studying AA history way before there was an internet. I know that Clarence Snyder was a god person, but I thought that he did not become an evangelical until he hooked up with Grace Moore in the late 60’s. I had always read and heard from people that knew him that he wanted AA to be spiritual NOT religious and that is why he was one of the ones that wanted to break off from the Oxford group. Of course he would never say that in later years. I know that Tom Powers used to be an atheist. I’m not sure when he changed, but I think that it is when he was helping Bill Wilson write the 12 & 12 along with Betty Love who was not an alcoholic. To say that they were just editors is really stretching it. Bill was totally incapacitated on many days of that project with his depression. Ironically, I first started learning about the history of AA at a Joe & Charlie seminar. It was not part of the official seminar; it was just something Charlie Parmley did on the side. He gave me the impression that the way AA hid things, that maybe it was going to come back to haunt them. Disclaimer–maybe I am totally wrong about everything I have learned over the years or maybe I just remember things the way I want to.

    • Your absolutely right, Neal — I also suffer from CRAFT . . . ;)

      My understanding is that Clarence Snyder broke away from Akron AA because most of the men in Cleveland in the early days were Catholic, who in the 30s were forbidden by their priests from affiliating with heathen Protestants, especially those belonging to the evangelical, pietistic Oxford Group.

      There are many of us who belief (feel) exactly as Clarence originally did, that we want AA to be generically spiritual, inclusive of all beliefs, including no beliefs at all . . .

      • There is a nice article on Clarence on this site, largely gleaned from Mitchell K. biography. I can’t remember the essay writer’s name. It’s that good-looking fellow.

        Before Grace, wife #3, Clarence, although always a believer, seems to have favored keeping meetings relatively free of religious practice. In part, he was surely to keep the potential points of contention between Protestant and Catholics to a minimum.

  15. Thanks for the article. I do not know whether to be frightened or disgusted or mildly amused. I was taught that an addict must find his own way to sobriety using the guidance provided by the steps and any other tools that come to hand. If this program itself can be taught in specific detail why is the success rate of the fundies so low? The high percentages claimed for “the goode olde dayes” are bogus and I do believe the 5% rate is rather low. AA is meant to help people deal with alcoholism and it does in my short experience. The problem I had was I knew I had to change and discard many beloved ideas and habits that were killing me. These individuals presented an absolutely unacceptable process of surrender to an arbitrary, yet omnipotent and paradoxically self defined god which they conveniently described and defined. I lived on a farm and I know what a barn smells like.

    • Thanks Dan — I too waffle within the same continuum of fright, disgust and amusement.

      In working with AA Agnostica the past several years, for perhaps the first time in my over four decades of recovery, I’ve had to regularly, sometimes breath by breath every day, apply what we are “instructed” on page 84 of the Big Book: “Love and tolerance of others is our code.”

      I’m forever grateful I got sober in New York City, far removed from the influence of “Akron-style AA.”

      • Thank YOU Thomas for the reply. I love this site because it gets me thinking. It seems to me the problem we face is fear that we generate in the godly. Fear, resentment and envy, those perennial bogeymen of the addict’s mind. No wonder they want to keep us away… because we represent a true threat to their shaky faith and observably false humility. (I mean what is humble about “I talk to god and she talks to me”?)
        Resentment from those who felt they were forced to accept god to stop drinking and are envious of those who manage without the help of arbitrary authoritarian god. So it is great that we have the facts and the history to put all our ducks in a row and demonstrate quite rationally why we should not be excluded. Unfortunately until we can sooth the personal fears and resentments of those who reject us we are going to have a problem. They have an annoying ability to mobilise their rather paltry numbers and force their fears and resentments on the majority. There is nothing like scaring a drunk or a recovering drunk to generate an unfavourable outcome.

  16. The conservative drift in AA reflects the conservative drift in the real political world. Religion is the staff of the alienated and the shield of the oppressor and more and more, as the rich, greedy and powerful gain more and more control over our lives they need to have that religious shield firmly in place. Without a social change there will be no change in AA.

    • Hi Charlie,

      I was going to use a couple of things from Chris Hedges’ recent column in Truthdig, Recalled to Life, in my book review of a couple of weeks ago but didn’t have space to include it. If you have not seen it, you may be interested.

      It is a powerful and poignant recounting of a recovering alcoholic and drug addict in Camden, New Jersey, and a trenchant critique of the wealthy and powerful who prey on the vulnerable and who thereby sustain this environment of despair, desperation and poverty.

    • I agree totally with you, Charlie, but then this, I suppose, the politics of it, is in our tradition “an outside issue.”

      One of the grandest of ironies in these decidedly non-halcyon days is that Bill Wilson was a Wall Street Banker !~!~!

    • Charlie,
      I think it is near impossible to understand what is going on “inside” AA without a strong understanding of what is going on “outside” AA in American society. Good point.

  17. A brilliant and useful marshaling of evidence, Thomas: thank you especially for the rich supply of links. This post will long be a useful source for all students of AA.
    ek

  18. At the risk of getting too, “Mutual Admiration Society,” Thomas B., I have to ditto the comments of John and Bob. This is a thoughtful essay. Personally, I am all for back-to-basics – in as far as it works for people. Many seek absolute answers to infinitely perplexing questions. These answers are offered in this monotheistic view of AA recovery. What concerns me is the idea that more liberal interpretations are a threat and that this one binary interpretation of AA is superior to all others. That goes beyond the idea of an orderly universe and gets a wee-bit close to a form of radical authoritarian AAism that in political debate is called Fascism.

    I am not calling this Fascism; AA fundamentalism is not that. If atheists have a right, fundies do, too. But in my own revisionist history I recall the break from The Oxford group as a move away from absolutes and towards relativity and/or reconciliation with our flaws. “We are not saints,” “Progress, rather than perfection” and all that.

    That’s more than enough from me. Thanks. This is solid.

    • Joe, I readily admit I sometimes struggle in a most Fascistic manner with my non-belief. This struggle helps to keep me humble and to avoid the bad karma of three fingers pointing back at me, whenever I get on my high horse of judgmentally criticizing those whose belief I’m so convinced is wrong, dead wrong.

      I am so grateful that Bill and Dr. Bob and many of the old-timers who they got sober with truly had the humility to know that, “We are not saints . . . We practice spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.”

  19. Thomas, great history on this element in AA over the years. I’m glad you mention Dick B. since he is one of the most dickish of all the ones you mention.

    Because these elements – these guys – are so vocal, so “in your face, out there,” it’s these guys who our AA critics focus on and present to the public, in THEIR screeds, as the face of AA and therefore all that’s wrong with AA.

    Your piece here at least lets those who are reading and listening know that some of us IN Alcoholics Anonymous find this kind of AA cultism distasteful and dangerous.

    Just a point of interest by the way: if you go back to the post-May 2011 archives of aacultwatch who, as you mention, do track a lot of the “Back to Basics” shenanigans, you will find that “The Fellas,” as they refer to themselves, wrote about how courageous Toronto Intergroup was in de-listing those two most dangerous of AA cults – Beyond Belief and We Agnostics.

    Read closely, I think one finds that in aacultwatch there is a conservatism and rigidity that is operating there also. Jeez, with friends like these, we don’t need enemies!

    • You know, John, aren’t we humanikins just the most contrary and unpredictable of beings? We’re worse than trying to herd cats . . . ;)

      One thing I’m fairly sure of — none of us has the total truth. Late last night, not being able to sleep again, I was reading a wonderful pdf by Glenn F. Chesnut about AA History Lovers — one of the things he kept stressing is how fickle THE truth is. It seems that everyone has their own perspective on what it’s alleged that Pontius Pilate queried over 2000 years ago, “What is truth?”

      I do a lot of memoir writing, and I become more convinced upon examination that some of my most treasured memories are riddled with error . . . ;)

      • Thomas, a major insight for me was that positive truths are hard but negative truths are easy. I have no idea whether any type of god exists, but I know for sure that no god exists who treats people fairly.

        Even God is bound by the facts on the ground. Our ignorance is great, but not complete. Some truths jump out at us.

      • Nicely said, Thomas, and I hear ya! What you say reminds me of Justice Learned Hand’s understanding – do you think there was any pressure on him to live up to that name? – of liberty and truth: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

        I may have sounded in print a little over the top with my “friends may be enemies” comment, but I really just wanted to say that we should approach “The Fellas” with a healthy skepticism, as we should do with most things. I used to read aacultwatch regularly a few years ago and almost included it on my 10 Favourite Recovery Websites blog last year. They indeed do lots of research.

        It is things they write like the following that gives me pause to approach them with caution:

        August, 2011: So, and in response to the rather disingenuous question posed in the title of this piece: “Is There a Place for Atheists in Alcoholics Anonymous?” our answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. Indeed they cannot be excluded according to our own traditions. But, and to paraphrase that same introduction: “Is There a Place for Atheist AA groups in Alcoholics Anonymous?” our answer is an unequivocal ‘no’…. and nor for that matter any other kind of affiliated/specialist/alternative ‘agenda’ (the last our new designation for ‘cult’!) group. Finally, of course, such ‘groups’ are entirely free to set up on their own, create their own networks, write their own literature, create their own guidelines/rules/precepts/commandments etc so long as they do not use the name Alcoholics Anonymous or claim in any way to be connected with AA. It is after all a free world… isn’t it?

        Feb 2012: Toronto [Intergrouup] AA is an example of a pro-active service structure rather than a moribund one; this is what is meant by “leadership”. Here also is illustrated the necessity of a “canonical” literature within AA (ie. conference approved) which establishes the foundation both for our programme of recovery and the constitution of our society. Without these we are simply directionless and clueless – or as it might be put – just another bunch of drunks! Similarly the formation of “dual purpose” groups (of whatever denomination or type) by definition creates an “outside affiliation” and therefore (under Tradition 3) excludes these from further participation within the AA service structure (which will necessarily entail de-listing of the group and removal of its members (qua “group” membership) from service structure participation (and where necessary appropriate notification to outside agencies to that effect under Warranty Five, Concept 12) etc – but which does not affect in any way the right of each individual to be a member of AA as such ie. the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking ).

  20. WOW!! What a remarkable essay! As a hobbyist writer myself, I have an idea of the scope of effort involved in the research done for this piece. Well done sir, and kudos on the wonderful clarity of expression so difficult to achieve in an article of this breadth and complexity.

    I am at various stages of completion on four topics addressed in this endeavor. “Back To Basics,” and “Muckers, Rhymes with ____ers” are exposes.

    I attended a Wally P. live presentation about 3 or 4 years ago that was surreal – Wally, 100 worshippers, and me. The true mission could be described as “Back To The Oxford Group.” Wally decries AA’s now very old decision to move away from Christianity.

    AA, of course is EXTREMELY regional. In Southern Ontario, the majority of fundamentalists are religiously anti-religious. Their “book worship” is very, very God-centered, but does not overlap into Christianity. In a great irony, they wax nostalgic about “Akron AA” as it was in the early 40’s (such great stats, and all), without understanding exactly how Jesussy things were in that locale during those times.

    “DR. BOB, Part II,” and “THE FRAUD THAT IS FUNDAMENTALISM” may hold some interest for those who enjoyed Thomas’ piece as much as I did.

    Outstanding work, my friend.

    • Thanks so much, Bob — I await with great anticipation your next installment about Dr. Bob, which has been acutely whetted by some of Roger’s comments about it here . . .

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