Group Conscience Follies

Meeting

By John L.

Reading passages from the Big Book has become an increasingly common practice in regular AA groups. This irks me: it’s too much like reading Holy Scripture at a church service.  The two main passages are How It Works and The Promises, both of which falsely and harmfully claim that sobriety is only possible through supernatural intervention.

The AA Preamble is another matter. It describes exactly what AA is and is not, is concise and well written, and contains nothing offensive to any reasonable AA member. I think that it should be read at the beginning of every meeting, as indeed it is.

Recently one of my regular groups held a group conscience. A month in advance a sheet was circulated for us to make proposals to be considered, so I wrote down three, the main one being to stop reading The Promises.

At the last group conscience I attended, a different group several years ago, I proposed no longer reading How It Works. An inept chairman allowed two hostile members to interrupt me when I spoke, preventing me from making a coherent case. They kept saying, “I like it.” Someone moved the motion, and it went to a vote without any real discussion. Of course I lost, and that group, which I no long attend, continues to read How It Works.

One of the better AA pamphlets is “The A.A. Group … Where it all begins.”  The section headed “What is an Informed A.A. Group Conscience?” is worth quoting:

The group conscience is the collective conscience of the group membership and thus represents substantial unanimity on an issue before definitive action is taken. This is achieved by the group members through the sharing of full information, individual points of view, and the practice of A.A. principles. To be fully informed requires a willingness to listen to minority opinions with an open mind.

On sensitive issues, the group works slowly – discouraging formal motions until a clear sense of its collective view emerges. Placing principles before personalities, the membership is wary of dominant opinions. Its voice is heard when a well informed group arrives at a decision. The result rests on more than a “yes” or “no” count – precisely because it is the spiritual expression of the group conscience. The term “informed group conscience” implies that pertinent information has been studied and all views have been heard before the group votes.

The group conscience meeting was amicable enough (with too much food). There were about ten of us.  My first motion was that the book Living Sober should be displayed on the literature table. Here I was confused, since I had in mind the speaker’s table, where three slogans are draped over the front edge, weighted down by copies of the Big Book. When asked if I meant the literature table or the speaker’s table, I changed my motion to include both. This motion passed unanimously. It was encouraging that several people spoke on how much they liked Living Sober. Under the surface, the true AA is alive and well, even in regular groups.

My second motion was that The Promises should no longer be read. Remembering my previous experience I prepared a written handout, so that at least my arguments could be seen. Here it is:

Reasons not to read The Promises:

1. This takes up time, which could be used for discussion.

2. One line is objectionable: “We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” This is offensive to nonbelievers (atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, etc.) and also to those who believe that religion and recovery should be separate. The Big Book kind of religiosity (frontier revivalist, conversion, fundamentalist) is offensive to many who do practise their own religion privately. The line is harmful for claiming that we recovering alcoholics are helpless without the intervention of a supernatural being. In real life, what we can “do for ourselves” is stay away from the First Drink; we do have that power. The line also downplays the Fellowship – of humans helping other humans.

3. “The Promises” are poorly written. The prose style is clumsy and affected. When reading them, sentence by sentence, it is often a struggle to grasp what the author, Bill W., is trying to say.

4. The individual “promises” are often hyperbolic, grandiose, and untrue. What does it mean to lose a “fear of economic insecurity” in the current economic crisis? – with millions of formerly hard-working Americans unemployed, and with graduating college students facing debts of $40,000 or more. Recovering alcoholics should not be forced to blame themselves if they experience hard times.

5. Some AA members like “The Promises”; a few loathe them; but most simply tune out when they’re being read, just waiting to chime in with “We think not” (ha ha) at the end.

6. We should never forget the newcomer, who wants and needs sobriety, not religious indoctrination.

The others listened to me, but not a single one of them seconded my motion, so it died without even going to a vote. Well now, I hadn’t really expected the motion to pass, and was mainly interested in hearing what arguments would be raised in favor of reading The Promises. Here I was disappointed: no-one came to grips with a single one of my six points. These were at least average people, who presumably could read, but were either unable or unwilling to follow my arguments. Some of them just glanced at the handout, as though it were a caterpillar. Others skimmed over it. A couple looked as though they were struggling to understand something.

One said it was “snobbish” to describe The Promises as poorly written. I’m not a snob, but I take English prose seriously. If up to me, I’d strike out or re-write almost every sentence in The Promises. Take the glib alliteration of “Self-seeking will slip away.” – smugly written by an egregious and unrepentant self-seeker. Nuff said.

My third motion was that a description of the 24-Hour Plan be read, instead of The Promises.  Here is my second handout:

The 24-Hour Plan

You are only one drink away from trouble. Whether you have been sober a day, a month, a year or a decade, one single drink is a certain way to go off on a binge or a series of binges. It is the first drink — not the second, fifth or twentieth — that causes the trouble…

Live in today only. Forget yesterday. Do not anticipate tomorrow. You can only live one day at a time, and if you do a good job of that, you will have little trouble. One of the easiest, most practical ways of keeping sober ever devised is the day by day plan, the 24-hour plan.

You know that it is possible to stay sober for 24 hours. You have done it many times. All right. Stay sober for one day at a time. When you get up in the morning make up your mind that you will not take a drink for the entire day. Ask the Greater Power for a little help in this. If anyone asks you to have a drink, take a rain check. Say you will have it tomorrow. Then when you go to bed at night, finding yourself sober, say a little word of thanks to the Greater Power for having helped you.

Repeat the performance the next day. And the next. Before you realize it you will have been sober a week, a month, a year. And yet you will have only been sober a day at a time.

(From A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous, the “Akron Manual”, first published in 1939 or 1940.  Printed PDF version at Pagan Press Books. A full version of the manual is available here: Akron Manual.)

They responded enthusiastically to this description of the 24-Hour Plan, which some of them had never heard of before. Then someone asked if it were “conference approved”. No, I explained, it was written long before there was a conference to do the approving. That settled it.  Much as they liked it, they believed that, even with a group conscience vote, the group could not read such a statement unless it was approved. No-one knew where approval should come from, but they believed that some kind of approval would be needed. To me this is a symptom of increasing conformism in AA, the fear of doing or thinking something that is different or unapproved.

When I came into AA in 1968, the 24-Hour Plan was front and center; the Fellowship and 24-Hour Plan were the two pillars of AA recovery. Now it’s being lost in a fog of irrationalism. Although I don’t care for readings in general, I think “The 24-Hour Plan” would be appropriate as a reading or handout at beginners meetings. This is how we stay sober.

Any lessons here? If any attempt is made to change long-standing group traditions, several people should work together. It’s all too easy to silence, ignore, or isolate a lone individual. I think a handout is a good idea, although my first one above could be improved. We should ensure that meetings are properly conducted. No interruptions. One person speaks at a time. Speakers alternate between those favoring and those opposing a motion. No rush to bring motions to a vote. If one side makes a valid point, then the other side should respond to it; “I like it” is not a valid response to a point about helpless-without-god religiosity.

A part of me wants to say that groups should have the freedom to read anything they wish, including toxic crap from the Big Book. Discontents can find a better group or start a new one. This is fine for me, because I live in a big city, but those in small towns may not have such a choice. There’s also the newcomer to consider: his first meeting may be his last, if he hears hokey religiosity rather than information on sobriety.

Another part of me says, just tune out – ignore the nonsense and concentrate on whatever is useful or interesting. That’s easy enough to say, but hearing How It Works or The Promises, week after week, is like Chinese water torture. Each drop isn’t so bad, but the cumulative effect is maddening.

A third part of me says: Fight! We should stir the pot once in awhile. There’s nothing like a good argument.

__________

John L. has a section, Alcoholism: Recovery Without Religiosity, on his personal website.  He is the author of A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous.

John has written many a fine piece for AA Agnostica. And here they are:


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Group Conscience Follies — 48 Comments

  1. John L., thank you for your good deeds, service, and the sharing of your experience (S&H) here with us. As we are wont to do at the aafreethinker skype meeting, today we read much of your article as fodder for our sharing.

    While I appreciate the perspective and agree with the concerns, the line that most struck me was the line about a prior G.C. that was a “loss.” Others at the skype meeting spoke of having “lost” a G.C. vote, as well. In my case I regret to say that I STILL talk about the ONE time, more than a decade ago, when I attended a G.C., and after I “told” the group the “correct” thing that “WE” should do… and the group did not decide to do this “correct” thing – I have no recollection of what the issue was or what “my correct solution” was, but… – the STUNNING thing for me at the time was that I was VERY okay with the result. I had done “my part” of the equation… by voicing my thoughts/feelings/opinions… and then the chips had fallen where they may. The reality is that life is ever unfolding… and many of us never get to see the “good” that eventually comes from some of our actions, however much of a “loss” they might appear to be, when seen only as a single snapshot. In the article you mention no longer attending that particular meeting, though it wasn’t necessarily stated as a “cause and effect;” we all do continue to get the “ultimate veto” of voting with our feet as to where we bother to be present.

    Ironically (for this atheist), I have long imagined that the reason I was (so oddly!) able to be so OKAY with the group not doing “my correct answer” was because I had so often heard that the expression of the G.C. as being in the hands of “a loving god,” or rather, not in my hands.

    Even though I do not imagine some loving/overseeing judge and jury am sometimes able to accept the notion that G.C. is the collective expression of all its participants. Once in a while I am able to see “the moment” (THIS one… THE moment of life as it is here and now) as a sort of G.C. from the collective of the universe. Depending on which corner of the universe we are talking about, “my part” is somewhere between miniscule to the point of un-measureable to modestly significant… but rarely paramount.

    It is rare that I can really live this way (seeing “my part” in the moment as just one of many ingredients to the recipe of “what life has cooking.” Still, I seem more at peace when I can. My “job”/ my “role” in life is exactly to “do my part,” and to let the universe (or G.C. of the moment) unfold as it will. The ongoing challenge of recognizing what is ACTUALLY “my part” is perhaps what leads to many of my frustrations. Too often my ego steps in… center stage… and frequently when it does, it loses… even when it “wins,” as the big book says about wars something like “the victor only appears to win.” Sure, my ego will gladly take the appearance of victory, but what I have long gotten from aa is the repeated invitation to be “a part of;” … less the “egomaniac with an inferiority complex,” and more the “worker amongst workers.” To do that in a way that is “to thyne own self true,” can be a challenge … to “fit in” maybe of maybe not by rounding some of my rougher edges, but hopefully not losing “myself” in the process.

    I remain grateful to my connection with AA, to which I credit my sustained sobriety. I am also very grateful for the many voices… from Jim B. onward to our current and growing chorus of… perhaps not so much “sane and sober” as “rational and sober.” Very amusingly to me, at our little skype meeting someone said what I will paraphrase as “I wish for others their sobriety more than I wish for them their sanity (or realism).” If the god delusion works for them… so be it. As someone else voiced, it is more when others try to declare that it is ONLY through god that people can stay sober, that he feels the need to speak loudly with an alternative voice. Someone’s experience is their own to share…but opinions are another matter… and perhaps better the jurisdiction of G.C.s, meant (when properly conducted) to give voice but, too, help smooth the oft ruffled feathers of opinionated (but sober) drunks.

    • Scott, you covered a lot of ground, and I mostly agree with you. You wrote: “In the article you mention no longer attending that particular meeting, though it wasn’t necessarily stated as a ’cause and effect’.” Well, I no longer attend that particular meeting mainly from anger over how the group conscience meeting had been misconducted, rather than from having lost the vote. Also, with travel time that meeting took up 3 1/2 hours of my time, which I can’t afford.

      You’re right about egos. But I make a distinction between relatively trivial “opinions” and important principles. To me it’s an important principle that AA meetings should not have *official* religiosity: “god” readings from the Big Book, 12 & 12, or Holy Bible, or recitation of the “Lord’s Prayer”. It’s a long, hard road ahead for us freethinkers in AA, but we ought to prevail. Let’s make our voices heard in discussions and in group conscience meetings

  2. Yes John good article. I think we did follow the 24 Hour plan in UK in the early days of my sobriety. Everything was just about “today” and only “today”.

    For example even today sobriety chits are very uncommon here although I am sure these too will come here. In my early days it was extremely difficult to find out how long someone was sober as all they would say was “just for today” or first up was the longest sober.

    Nowadays we all say how long we have been sober. Couple this with eternal readings etc and we will have AA as you have it there.

    • I have been to those meetings where everyone states their sobriety date like they are running for office: “By the grace of my higher power whom I choose to call ‘God’ and rooms like these and people like you, I have been sober since September 31st, 2005.” My self-introductory comment at such meetings is, “… and I’ve been sober all day today.” Sometimes I get “Good job” or “Hang in there” from well-meaning fellow alkies, but I also sometimes see the question in the eyes of the date-quoters: “Is he mocking me?”
      Yes.

    • To me there are paradoxes here. Our recovery, and indeed our lives, depend on total, life-long abstinence from alcohol. At the same time, we stay away from the First Drink a day at a time (or even, in early sobriety, an hour at a time). We “live in the now”, but we also remember the past and plan ahead for the future.

      A group I attend gives out sobriety chips on Anniversary Night, the last Tuesday in the month. Sometimes this can be moving, as when a newcomer goes up to claim his 90-day or 30-day … chip (and a hug). They seem so proud they were able to do it. When I made 90 days, it was a milestone; there were no chips, but I knew I was getting better.

      • I agree John but how wonderful it is to realise that I can still live ( most times) a day at a time.

  3. Once at a meeting the topic was the promises, and I sat in silence growing increasingly irritated until finally my time came to talk, and I said, “‘We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it…we will see how our experience can benefit others’? Bullshit! Okay, maybe I will concede one year for the sake of sharing my experience, strength and hope with newcomers. But I want the other 19 back!”

    • Yes! How can we not regret what we have lost from drinking? We can move on, and try to accept those losses with serenity, but they are real. They still hurt.

    • Ok… Here’s what’s real. Not one of us on this planet will get a single second of their existence back. That’s the nature of life. All we ever have is the instant of awareness we’re living in. That’s it. The ‘past’ is like an echo. The ‘future’ is completely unknown to us. All we have to work with is ‘now’. If there’s something we’re not happy with in our life we can only take responsibility for it. Expecting others to change their beliefs or practices to suit us is delusional. If we feel irritated, it’s our feeling and our responsibility. We need to ask ourselves why we let it bother us. We can either keep it or let it go. Does our response make us feel good? If it does, we should stay with it. If not..?. Well, that’s our choice… Any situation is only what it is… We add the meaning afterwards. Cheers

      • It’s true we really have to take responsibility for our selves and our reactions. But we cannot discount the existence of forces outside of ourselves and our responsibility to impact these as well. There are terribly unhealthy and even sociopathic entities and individuals that we can and must resist at certain times – a principle of darkness as Jung put it. Every personal transformation is automatically also a political one, and vice versa.

      • What Bob C said. If what I’m not happy with is that my boss is sexually harassing me, the idea that the “problem” is somehow located in my emotional response is reactionary codswallop. People’s conduct materially affects other people and they can and should be compelled to take responsibility for it. It’s valid to work on a more skilful emotional response, and it is valid to file a human rights complaint. I’ll take both.

      • The debate seems to have wandered far from the point. My comments only apply in the context of the original debate.

  4. Group conscience in AA isn’t all that different that group behavior anywhere. John, you’ll likely remember the 42nd Street Group at Alanon House at the West end of the Theater District. That building is slated for demolition which is a shame for us AAs, as this small room has hosted AA meetings (and other 12 Step groups) several times a day since the 1940s. Hanging on the wall is an old baseball bat donated by Bill Wilson that they humorously call, the group-conscience ‘peace maker.’ Did they have more of a sense of a humor then than we do now? This group has the same chair speakers have sat in since the 40s and as John remembers from Perry Street, the SUGGESTED Steps hang behind the speaker. I took a few snaps of the place and posted on Rebellion Dogs Facebook page if anyone is interested.

    All things being equal, people vote to keep things the same. And if you think rigidity is a characteristic of theism, just try rearranging the table and chair set up at Toronto’s Beyond Belief group and see what an uproar you cause.

    We had a business meeting were all of our readings were on the chopping block. Some wanted to alter them, some wanted to remove one, some liked that one but could do with out this one. I though for sure that the meeting would get a total make-over. While everyone (or almost everyone) had some change they’d like to see, nobody had the support of 1/2, let along 2/3, of the other members. There were three or four motions and all of them were debated and defeated and there were no changes to the meeting rituals.

    When The We Are Not Saints group started in East Toronto and Chuck was contemplated what rituals to include and what to leave out, I told him, “Start with next to nothing; it’s way easier to get a group to add something than to take something away.” And to this date it has the same rituals it started with: The Preamble, chair identifies as an alcoholic for 2 or 3 minutes, asks for three topics from the floor which she or he writes down on a note pad and around the table the pad goes; closing an hour later with The Responsibility Declaration.

    I can’t exactly speak about what would be better for newcomers or members of other groups when I sure don’t want to hear their two cents about what our group reads or omits. Some like those repetitive readings and rituals; it comforts them. I don’t care for them really, but some of them are important for a first-timer to hear. I’m like John in as far as I think those two readings (How It Works & The Promises)may be the work of a manic phase in Bill W’s cycle. Many of us know about depression (personally or through friends in AA). We all know Uncle Bill suffered from depression. Well, is it possible that he was bi-polar and might have been in a manic state when he wrote some of that book? “Either God is everything or He is nothing; what is your answer to be?” “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path,” “God could and would, if He were sought.” There is nothing humble and gentle about these zealous statements. They are brash and binary statements to make, no matter what ones worldview. John mentions more of this hyperbole above.

    I’m no psychologist but it seems mania begets mania and that’s what makes Pacific/Atlantic groups attractive, and their popularity shows that they are attractive. One gets positive reinforcement for (what appears to me to be) outlandish claims and assumptions. Maniacs love positive reinforcement as much as any of us and it becomes supported and ultimately, expected. I don’t doubt that some people feel high coming out of a “revivalist” style AA meeting.

    Still, I’m glad they have a place to meet and they’re having a good time. I don’t care if they read “How It Works,” The Torah, a self-help book or pray. But I would echo John’s comments about the prudence of informed group conscience at our own group. Consensus is always best but when that’s not possible, we all get our say but we don’t all get our way.

    • Joe, I can’t remember having gone to a meeting at Alanon House, although I wish I had. It’s good to see the word “Suggested” in the header of the Steps. I wonder when it went down the Orwellian Memory Hole.

      Your descriptions of group conscience tiffs bring back many memories. On the whole, I think that good, robust arguments, both in meeting discussions and in group consciences, are good, so long as they don’t get out of hand. The group conscience meeting I described in my article was friendly, and there were no hard feelings afterwards. My main regret was that I was back on my diet, and couldn’t eat any dessert.

      Change can be slow, but it does happen. For decades, untold thousands of group conscience meetings decided that smoking should be allowed at meetings. Then, finally, the “loving God” changed His Mind, and led group consciences to ban smoking in the rooms themselves.

      In the last few years here in Boston, a number of groups have changed their format. Previously, a meeting would last for an hour and a half, with a 15-minute break (mainly for cigarettes). Now the meetings last for one hour, with no break. If the smokers get fidgety, they can take a break on their own.

  5. Excellent article, John — Thank you !~!~!

    At the recent Oregon Area 58 Assembly, both our delegate, Gus P. and two past delegates made comments about how wondrous and miraculous it is to witness the dynamics of AA’s Group Conscience, i.e. “a loving god as he may express himself”, during discussions on a number of pressing topics before the General Service Conference. I couldn’t help but compare their remarks to the mumbo-jumbo from ardent capitalists, extolling the virtues of “the invisible hand of the market” in guiding our economic policy. How well has that worked out for those of us on main street as compared to those on Wall Street, eh?

    I have come to accept that in our One Nation Under God, it is unlikely that AA shall ever essentially change to reflect our non-believing views.

    However, as a member of our vocal and growing non-believing minority within AA, our voice can still be instrumental in assuring that the hand of AA will always be there for anyone who has a desire to stop drinking with or without belief – that’s where I’m focusing my efforts within AA, to be a voice for other non-believers who want to stop drinking. That’s what you have done with your writing since 1968 and what we have done here at AA Agnostica to include our latest publication of Do Tell !~!~!

    At the Portland Beyond Belief meeting this morning, I was deeply moved by a newcomer who stated that before he found our meeting he was in despair that he could ever get sober. Instead of committing suicide as he was contemplating several weeks ago, today he is full of hope that he can not only arrest his addiction, but also can live a reasonably happy life, like the rest of us sober non-believers in AA.

    That’s why we don’t pick up and go to meetings, so we can help others.

    He’s exactly like you and I were, when we came to AA in 1968 and 1972, and I am most grateful that I have been able to provide with other members of our Beyond Belief group, what he needs to experience a satisfactory life in sobriety that we have experienced for the past almost five decades.

    • Thanks. Yes, I agree that our helping hands, as non-believers, ought to be present for all newcomers. I’ll check out the book you linked to: One Nation Under God. When I was a kid in grade school, during and just after WWII, we pledged allegiance to the flag without any mention of “God” or of “the United States”. The cadences were much better. We raised our right arms, as we pledged, in what would now be considered the “Heil Hitler!” salute.

  6. When conference approval comes up, I ask why the Lord’s Prayer is used to close as it’s not from CA literature.

    Just sayin’ . . . .

    • Good point. A meeting in the Boston area recently held a group conscience, as which they decided to read – not only “How It Works” and passages from the 12 & 12 – but also passages from the Bible.

  7. Great post. I’m a frequent reader here, but infrequent commenter. As to the title issue of Group Conscience issues in particular, I’ve been trying to address the topic of ending meetings with the Lord’s Prayer here in my small rural home group. Managed to get it to a vote once, but voted down. Subsequently, each time I’ve tried to bring it up, everybody was in too much of a hurry to get home that there was “no time” for any issues to be discussed or decided. But I’ll keep plugging away.

    Related to that, there was one other member in my Home Group who, along with me, remained silent during the closing recitation of the LP, but at last week’s meeting, he was reciting it along with the lemmings. Not sure I care to mention it to him or ask why the change, but it is odd.

    As for the other readings, every meeting around here begins with the Preamble, of course, and “How it Works” unfortunately seems unavoidable. The Traditions are also almost universally read, but I’ve mostly no problem there (except, perhaps, for #2’s “a loving god”).

    In our Home Group, we add one more reading, near the end of the meeting, after the discussion portion. It is left to the chair to decide, from among several choices, what would be read, and the chair often let’s the reader choose. For some time the choice was the already discussed as prpblematic “Promises” or the drippingly religious “A Vision For You”. I managed to sneak in the much less offensive “More About Alcoholism” (From chapter 3, up to and including “Scince may one day…but hasn’t done so yet.”) and “Acceptance” (from one of the stories – page 417, I believe, of the 4th Ed.) Acceptance is mostly, um, acceptable (sorry!) if one changes “…nothing happens in god’s world…” to “…in this world…” — which I do mentally when listening to it and as I read it (resulting in an occasional ruffled brow, but no comment).

    Also, I agree with those who are concerned with the overwhelming amount of time being spent on ritual and readings (offensive or not). While our little group often has few enough members present at any given meeting that extra “filler” is welcomed, in bigger groups with enough participants, the time would be much better spent in discussion, IMHO.

    • If you’re comfortable doing it, just keep trying. In most small meetings, the main thing is discussion, and nobody pays much attention to the readings. Readings from Living Sober are done at some Boston meetings, and these are helpful and rational enough. And Living Sober is conference-approved.

  8. I don’t think the topic’s that important….Of course there will always be people who have strong beliefs that are completely at odds with our own and among them are those who imagine theirs to be some sort of cultural norm… it doesn’t matter unless we allow it to. The value of any belief isn’t in whether or not it’s true but in whether or not it’s useful. Does it bring the outcomes we desire?
    In the groups I attend, there are people who ramble on about the spook in the sky and various other invisible super-beings whom they talk to, out loud, at some length. I usually just go into a kind of zennish breathing meditation while this happens. They’re lovely people with the kindest hearts, though they do look at me askance from time to time. The rest of the time people share their experiences, their wisdom and their hope. Someone else’s expressed beliefs aren’t our problem unless we make it so… If you find yourself struggling, it’s only ego…remember to breathe, let it go… Keep it light…. Cheers

    • I think that officially, AA should be completely secular — neither religious nor anti-religious. Privately, people can believe whatever they wish, and, within limits of time and relevancy, can discuss their beliefs when sharing.

  9. Thanks John. The world is made more bearable by your efforts. I appreciate how hard you’ve tried to get Groups to do things that would make some of us happier AA Members; I even liked the points about the style of writing which never seems to go beyond those of us who complain as our arrogance. Yes, we’ve all been ignored and isolated, that’s why we like this venue so much and thanks to Roger and the people who write for it at a time when even though I can write am unable to for health reasons involving my husband and myself. I suspect I agree with all you’ve said which I can rarely say of anything or anybody. I even tried the Quakers as I noticed they didn’t like AA ask me to leave my mind at the doorway. I’m talking about a non-programmed Quaker Meeting which may not be like in the USA. Yes, I believe like them that the mind is a big part of spirituality whatever that is which we all have sought. The Business Meetings follow the AA framework although there are no motions only direction taken when all are in accord-sounds like Heaven but it is a good method and if followed properly works. Anyway, I only intended to voice my gratitude for this outstanding post.

    • Thank you. I have great respect for the Quakers, having worked with them in the anti-war movement. (The Vietnam war, that is.)

  10. Darn it, John, I woke up this morning having all the answers, and you’ve made me start thinking again.

    My We Ags group has read an amended version of the Promises for years (decades?), and I’ve liked it because they’re coming true for me. I do think we should preface each Promise with “Much of the time…”, or “More or less…” For me, they are a good weekly reminder of how cool sobriety is, but I never thought about its discouraging some newcomers. I’ll bring it up as a discussion topic.

    Our amended version says “…we will suddenly realize that ACTIVE PARTICIPATION IN THIS GROUP RECOVERY PROCESS is doing for us..these ARE extravagant promises…..”

    I certainly agree that “how it works” is twaddle. It may have been how it worked for Bill and some others, but it sure as hell isn’t how it’s worked for me. I think the Steps are poorly written and redundant.

    • I have belonged to the same group for 27 years and pretty well have seen it all at business meetings.Attending these meetings has helped me with one of my major defects of character- self-righteousness,that intolerance of other people and their opinions has been minimized a lot.
      A number of my motions have been defeated,after hearing the group discussion on one of my motions I even voted against it.
      The key to me is that the group conscience always gets it right, if its the right motion it stays in , if its the wrong motion it gets voted out later so I don’t really have to worry to much about all of it. Cheers Dan

    • I like your amendment to The Promises, which eliminates my most serious objection to them. If the promises give hope to recovering drunks, then that’s good. I’m not sure how they would register with someone who was really down-and-out.

  11. Thank you.

    Im not sure what I believe. People could learn a lot about what they say they believe by trying skepticism for even a moment. A good example of so called objective inquiry meeting religious orthodoxy is how Christian scholarship at most universities are marred by tightly controlled, orthodox beliefs about the bible. For example, it is not considered good Christian scholarship to incorporate the gnostic gospels, such as the gospel of Thomas, or even a consideration of the new evidence that Jesus may have had a wife, etc. Its very narrow and insular and disallows at the start questions that are legitimate. Asking them is academic suicide if you study religion, from what I understand.

    My point I think is this: I normally do not have a problem with people discussing god, I usually have a problem with THEIR VERSION OF GOD. Most AA fundamentalists, as has been pointed out in this piece have a particular view that they assume is pervasive. I find rather, that most people escape into shallow belief, belonging and worship over true study, wrestling with principles and developing ones own way.
    I suspect that though I’m an agnostic, I have a much better and well-rounded concept of god than do most so-called believers.

    Then again, I’m insufferably arrogant when discussing the religious type.

    Thanks for the piece.

    • Thanks. I do understand. I’ve tried out different beliefs and philosophies, and haven’t felt the need to commit yourself for all time. I suppose that only a small minority of people can wrestle with principles and develop their own way — but they exist, in and outside of AA. Seek and ye shall find them.

  12. Thanks John, I couldn’t agree more. I recently ran into a buddy who like me came in over forty years ago. We were at the back of a meeting which was now eighteen minutes into traditions, promises, profanity statements, public service announcements and color coded chips. “Anyone out there with 15 minutes of sobriety? Come up and get your chip and be sure and tell us us how ya’ did it?” My friend leaned over and whispered “Can you imagine what those old timers who were here when we came in would have thought of all this horseshit?” We started laughing. But then I remembered. My home group put a timer on the podium. You had five minutes to get through the introduction. Today any criticism of long winded openings is usually met with a moronic ” It’s not for you, it’s for the new comer”. Really? Most new comers can’t remember their last names. And probably a good thing because if they were conscious a lot of them would run out screaming.

    • Some things change and some remain the same. In the old days, the top AA speakers, the circuit speakers, were really good. No wasted words or hot air. They could make an audience laugh, or cry, or listen and learn. In closed discussion meetings, people talked about all kinds of things, but always felt the obligation to be interesting or even entertaining. There were lots of good arguments, which never seemed to get out of hand.

  13. Thank you, John, for your efforts. I drank for over fifty years and finally threw in the towel. I knew about AA for all those years and readily “qualified” but I valued life very little. Life or death ? One a prelude to the other. Anyhow, sober for 14 months, my group knows my views on an interventionist God. I said it was the height of conceit at one meeting given the x number of people who truly deserve it. When referred to We Agnostics as a remedy for my problem I refrained from asking whether the well intentioned soul had read it critically. I declared the chapter to be “The Prodigal Son” at one meeting. Generally, I just go along with our group, a well heeled yacht and horsey set, and stand silent when the Lord’s Prayer ends the meeting.
    I am just glad that I found this group and began reading Ernie Kurtz’s Not-God for an understanding that these tensions are not new within AA. We have some who are very Hebraic in their adherence to what they consider a divinely inspired program. I just can’t do it. As America sang, “Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he already didn’t have.” Oh ! Acronyms. I know that some of you are writing on the fly or on a smart phone but the old Dominican nuns of my “ute” taught us – always define an acronym in your first sentence and never let it stand alone. Capisce? Of course JMJ was always welcomed at the top of your page.

    • Thanks. It’s not necessary for everyone to agree on everything. Helping each other in sobriety is enough.

  14. The Keep It Simple group I founded in February has just three readings – the Preamble, long form of Tradition Three (emphasising non-conformity) and, at the end, the Responsibility Pledge. The rest of the time is spent sharing ESH. The men who wrote the Big Book in 1939 were describing their own experience in their own words. But the world has changed and the high-pitched whirring you hear is Bill W. turning in his grave because he changed too. He wrote in 1949, ‘Every AA has the privilege of interpreting the program as he likes.’ It’s not holy writ. I wrote in the AA Great Britain magazine ‘Share’, about the unnecessary clutter that has crept into meetings since I got sober in 1984, ‘And don’t start me on the interminable readings – Preamble, Steps, Traditions, lengthy excerpts from the Big Book, the Promises, Declaration of Unity, Responsibility Pledge, Just for Today card, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Magna Carta etc. (I made up the last two but you get my drift). How long before someone adds the 12 Concepts to this litany.’ But each group is autonomous; if that’s what they want, so be it. But I don’t have to like it. Thank goodness we can buy a coffee pot and start a group more to our own liking.

  15. Thanks John, for further eye-opening expostulations.

    I tune out so much at this point (Daily Reflections being part of the format of our meeting) that the stuffing is just about kicked out of me. When I hear “AA just reinforces my Christianity” I think to myself:I can only attend about 10% of my meetings now, the rest needs my filtration plant activated.” And honestly? It’s hard work.

    We’re all just one arm length away from a drink. How do we do that? With each others’ ESH.

    AA members give me strength. Not Skygod.

  16. Thanks John. I just love reading when other people write what they think! What a surprise that is. I went to a CPC/PI workshop yesterday which was fun but one member, a person I have known and respected since I came in a short time ago, repeatedly expressed concern about CPC/PI presentations “getting away from the Big Book and the Steps”. I personally cringe at the thought of presenting the BB as therapy to a crowd of professional people. Telling Health Care Professionals of my “allergy of the body”… holy shit Batman! I still have some intellectual pride! As far as the promises go count me among those who loathe them. Unfortunately they make some people happy. When I participate in a group conscience I am also careful to try not to impose my libertine, leftist and loco view of “how I think things should be” on other people’s traditions. Groups are autonomous and so are people. My home group continues to do the LP and it was approved by group conscience only because some key older members politely asked that it not be jettisoned.
    I found myself asking me why I would make these old gentlemen unhappy to suit my political aims. “This too shall pass” was my thought and I did not vote against it. To me, unlike so many others, recovery means thinking and thinking a lot about a lot of things. I have the freedom to do this now that I don’t have to always plan my next drink. I am really getting to despise the cult of no free will and powerlessness that has grown in A&A. People who are doing “god’s will” are probably the greatest force of repression there has ever been. But now I rant. Thanks again.

      • Hello Jen. Cooperation with the Professional Community and Public Information. In a broad sense we try to inform the public and concerned professionals (medical, corrections, education, law enforcement people) about AA and how we might try to help them do their jobs.
        We are supposed to act as individuals, not representatives, of AA although some see it as a method to prosyletise the hoi-polloi. Many districts have a CPC/PI committee.

    • Thanks. If the presentations are “getting away from the Big Book and the Steps” — GOOD! The further away the better.

  17. I’ve reading the postings on this blog for over a month now. I have been sober 8 years primarily because I am in my mid 50’s and am completely tired of the old booze life. No desire to drink at all. Back in my 20’s when I first realized I was alcoholic I ran into AA full throttle. Never being a believer in the supernatural, the teachings of the Big Book has as much meaning to me as the holy bible. Inevitably I went “back out”and tried returning but felt too embarrassed to stick around. Recently after 8 fulfilling years of self learned sobriety I thought it might be cool to hang out at some meetings. Primarily for socialization reasons as I felt like hanging out with some fellow ex-drunks. But I have to admit it’s not for me. Their “scriptures” get in the way of what could be a productive sharing of feelings – with the ultimate goal of helping newcomers. So I tried but sincerely fail to understand why any of us non-believers should attempt this lunacy.

    • Sorry to hear about your alienation from AA. If I were you, I wouldn’t give up. Try going to different groups, if this is an option in your area. Or try to find a congenial person or persons in the group you go to. But be true to yourself, and if this means going it alone, then so be it. Just continue what you’ve done for eight years: stay away from the First Drink. I’ll add that in sobriety I’ve gotten much help and fellowship from people outside AA.

  18. Another excellent post. Thank you for your service, Roger.

    John, I absolutely love your work. ‘Freethinker’ had an enormous impact on me. Between AA Agnostica and “Freethinker” my eyes were opened to the possibilities, most especially that it was OK to think about sobriety, to think about how it worked and all the things I had previously accepted based entirely upon the ecclesiastical virtues of faith and obedience. I am now a proud, card carrying member of the “Debating Society” we are so consistently enjoined to resign from. I am now a true freethinker, and have never been happier in my sobriety. I also appreciate the emphasis upon knowing our history and our roots, as this is an essential aspect of understanding why things are the way they are in the here and now. Thank you John. You had a great impact on my writing and on my life, all for the good.

    • Thank you. I’m flattered, and happy that you are happy in your sobriety. Even when hard knocks come, and they will, it feels good to deal with them in the real world, here and now.