My AA, Right or Wrong

My Country

By John L.

Last November I led a workshop at the WAFT convention in Santa Monica, “Our AA, Right or Wrong”. This was a paraphrase of the saying:

My country, right or wrong; if right to be kept right, and if wrong, to be set right. (Senator Carl Christian Schurz, 29 February 1872)

The workshop had a good turnout and far-ranging discussion, although nobody was quite sure what the topic was. Some were afraid of being too radical. We have to go slow, they said. We have to find our own voice first. Change will be gradual, evolutionary.

Others said that we need to be outspoken, that other AA members are more open-minded than we sometimes think. One man said he appreciates militancy.

Pungent criticisms were made of AA fundies, and horror stories were exchanged. One woman was told by her sponsor: “You have two choices: either work the Steps or go out and get drunk.” People told about their experiences in re-interpreting or rejecting AA literature, in finding congenial people and groups.

My main points may not have come across: We should defend AA when it is right, and work to change it when it is wrong. I’ll try again now.

Defending AA

In my book, A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous, I discuss attacks on AA made by Charles Bufe, Ken Ragge, Jack Trimpey, Stanton Peele, and “Orange”. Some of their criticisms are valid, especially when dealing with AA religiosity, but other criticisms covertly reflect vested interests: the therapy, pharmaceutical, or liquor industries. None of these critics come to grips with the true AA, the AA that works: the AA that has saved untold thousands of lives, including mine.

To me the heart of AA is and will always be the 24-Hour Plan — total and life-long abstinence from alcohol, a day at a time — along with the Fellowship. Bufe, Ragge, and Peele all promote “moderate” drinking, which is death for alcoholics.

Right now there are two new books which attack AA for its bedrock principle of abstinence. One (Recover!) is by Stanton Peele, who has received funding from the liquor industry. The other (The Sober Truth) is by Lance Dodes, a psychiatrist, who thinks recovering alcoholics can have an occasional beer.

Customer reviews in Amazon.com often amount to cyber-warfare. John M. and I of AA Agnostica have written one-star reviews of the Dodes book. It would be nice for readers to click our reviews as “helpful”.

Changing AA

Some freethinkers in AA shy away from the idea of changing AA. They don’t want to rock the boat. They want to be accepted. Up to a point, this is sensible. For all of us, sobriety comes first, and newcomers especially should not jeopardise their place in the AA Fellowship. In most places there are no nontheist AA groups, so it’s necessary to get along with the majority of AA members, who, at least ostensibly, are theists.

However, we freethinkers should be willing to acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that some things in AA are wrong and ought to be changed. We should be willing to think about what AA ought to be.

Curiously, in pondering what an ideal AA might be, I have often thought back to the AA of my first sober years in Manhattan nearly half a century ago. Perhaps I idealise those meetings, but for all their faults they had a more robust sharing of experience, strength and hope — a stronger focus on sobriety. The Steps were merely “suggested”, and many members ignored them. Members shared their lives, their challenges and achievements, their joys and sorrows. Our goals encompassed physical, economic, social, emotional, and intellectual recovery, not just achieving “spirituality” or other nebulous virtues.

To be sure, some practices back then were wrong, like smoking at meetings or closing with the Lord’s Prayer (LP). Here AA has changed for the better: it’s been decades since I regularly attended a meeting where smoking was allowed or the LP was recited. The growth of secular AA meetings, our Internet presence, and our recent WAFT conference are changes for the better.

AA has changed for the worse in some ways. In my opinion, and that of others with long-term sobriety, AA has become less effective, less rational, and less free. This is not only a matter of increasing religiosity, but also increasing conformity. In discussion meetings, many people now just parrot phrases from the Big Book. If there is a discussion topic, they doggedly stick to it: someone may have gotten a job, or divorced his wife, or broken a leg, but instead of these he will drone on about acceptance or humility or gratitude.

When I came in, the Steps — either on the window-blind rollers or in meeting books — had the header, “Twelve Suggested Steps”. Now “suggested” has gone down the memory hole, and the header is “The Twelve Steps”. The change is subtle, but significant — and with the promotion of the Steps, the true AA is being obscured. Many younger AA members have never even heard of the 24-Hour Plan, the real heart of AA recovery: A day at a time we stay away from the First Drink.

AA As It Ought To Be

As an atheist I believe that all forms of irrationalism are bad. Religiosity in AA is and has always been wrong; it is irrelevant and detrimental to recovery from alcoholism. Having said that, I would not want an AA without believers, even including Big-Book-thumpers. A strength of AA is its crazy mix of all kinds of people, united in fellowship by a common problem.

At its best, AA has great freedom, both for the group and for the individual — an anarchy that actually works (sometimes). There should be room in AA for religionists and room for us infidels. I believe that AA members should have the right to believe whatever they wish, and the right to discuss their beliefs or non-beliefs in discussion, as part of their lives. But I also believe that official religiosity has no business in AA. Officially, AA should be secular, neither religious nor anti-religious.

Here are my thoughts on what changes should be made:

1. Revisions in AA Literature

It’s not too much to ask that AA literature should be truthful and conducive to recovery from alcoholism — but AA literature is filled with statements that are false and harmful. As nonbelievers we rightly object to Bill W.’s claims in the Big Book and elsewhere that no-one can achieve sobriety without help from a supernatural being — that we are powerless without “God”. We know this is false, because many of us have achieved good, long-term sobriety through our own efforts and the help of others. We are not powerless to stay away from the First Drink.

Some AA literature may need only minor revisions; other literature should at least be quarantined. Let’s start with Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book (BB). The best part of the BB is the personal stories, but even these were tendentiously edited to make it seem as though all of the recovering alcoholics owed their sobriety to finding God or at least having a “spiritual awakening”. The first 164 pages contain much that is untrue and much that is harmful, written in bad prose. Revising the BB would be futile and pointless. It is now more harmful than helpful, and should be phased out.

The first part of the Twelve and Twelve, commenting on the Steps, is as bad as the worst parts of the BB, and should be quarantined. However, the second part, dealing with the Traditions, is better. Between the two parts, the quality of thought and prose is so different that a dual authorship may be assumed. Credit should be given to Bill’s unacknowledged editor and co-author, Tom Powers, who worked beside him in Stepping Stones. As a writer Bill needed help. Once in GSO in New York I read letters he’d written entirely on his own; they were almost illiterate.

Living Sober, by far the best AA-published book, needs only slight revision and updating. Actually, Living Sober was revised in 2012, mostly for the worse. In the original Living Sober (yellow and tan cover), the Steps were half-heartedly mentioned in one brief chapter, “Trying the Twelve Steps”; the Steps themselves were conspicuously absent. In the revised Living Sober (blue cover) “THE TWELVE STEPS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS” came back, printed following the main text.

When I recently re-read the main AA pamphlets, I found them better than I’d expected. But even in the best of them, standing out like a sore thumb, are pockets of religiosity, which have nothing to do with the topics of the pamphlets. Either AA is a religious organisation or it isn’t.  Since AA claims officially not to be religious, it should prune this unnecessary religiosity from its pamphlets.

2. Revisions in AA History

AA history is fraught with contradictions and omissions. To take just one, crucial example: When and by whom was AA founded? This is not obvious. In his AA history, Ernest Kurtz gives no fewer than four founding moments, and he omits the most important one: when Clarence Snyder held the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Cleveland on 11 May 1939. This was the first meeting of a group with the name, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the first time since the Washingtonian movement (mid-19th century) that alcoholics themselves, free from religionists, organized to help each other achieve and maintain sobriety.

Officially, AA was founded on 10 June 1935, when Dr. Bob had his last drink (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age). But this is preposterous. Having a last drink is not founding a movement or an organisation. In this shameful episode, Bill gives Bob a beer so that his hands won’t shake too badly as he performs surgery. It should be obvious that a doctor with shaking hands, recovering from an alcoholic binge, should not endanger another person’s life by performing surgery.

Officially, AA was founded by Bill W. and Dr. Bob, based on their insight that recovering alcoholics can help each other. But in actuality, this mutual help, alcoholic to alcoholic, was the heart of the Washingtonian movement a century earlier. And such mutual help was present in various temperance movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And to give the Oxford Group credit, alcoholics within it did help each other get and stay sober, and did so before Bill or Bob even got sober themselves.

I don’t expect honest revisionist histories to be published by AA as “conference approved” literature, but they should be done. Such histories should treat Bill and Bob fairly. Some AA critics have raised serious and seemingly well documented charges against Bill W. AA historians should investigate these charges and report on them with unflinching honesty. If Bill gets knocked off his pedestal, so be it; after all, he was the one preaching about “rigorous honesty”. The true AA, as described in the AA Preamble, will survive.

Revisionist historians should go beyond Bill and Bob, to study neglected areas of AA history. There may have been other recovering alcoholics who did more than they to make the true AA what it is. One example: the 24-Hour Plan, which, along with the Fellowship, is a pillar of AA recovery. The earliest description of the 24-Hour Plan I’ve found was in the “Akron Manual” of 1939 or 1940. Does it go back further? It is true that the Washingtonians clearly understood staying away from the first drink, but I have not yet found any reference to the day-at-a-time element.

One would hardly know it from official AA literature, but AA developed many of its best features in its spectacularly successful first years in Cleveland: the emphasis on fellowship rather than “spirituality”, rotating leadership, sponsorship, etc. The 24-Hour Plan also? During this year, Bill and Bob made frequent trips to Cleveland to see what the secrets of success were. What were they? I suggest that future AA historians focus their efforts on Cleveland, not just Akron and New York. An excellent contribution in this area is Mitchell K.’s biography of Clarence Snyder, How it Worked.

3. Revisions in Practice

One of AA’s greatest strengths is the freedom it gives both groups and individuals — a freedom that is overlooked by its critics. Unfortunately, in recent years this freedom is being eroded by a growing and intolerant fundamentalism, causing legitimate secular AA groups to be delisted.

Still, especially in large cities, it is amazing how very different AA groups can be. In Manhattan, where I got sober, one group was dominated by the old upper class. Another group consisted of men living in the Salvation Army shelter on the Bowery. Some groups had members who were well educated and articulate. Others had members who could barely read through a paragraph of the BB or 12 & 12 (but they did their best). Primly pious members of some groups were mainly concerned with fluffing up their own spirituality. Other groups had radicals and nonconformists, artists and writers and other creative people. The Perry Street Workshop, my first home group, was heterogeneous, but the leadership core consisted of intelligent people with good sobriety, who knew more about alcoholism than most doctors.

Although I have my own ideas on what an ideal AA meeting would be, I cherish AA’s infinite variety. Anyway, here goes:

To begin with, the ideal AA meeting would not have readings. To be sure, this would eliminate reading from the BB, 12 & 12, Living Sober, the Grapevine, or the Holy Bible. But then, why couldn’t non-religious AA groups read from the works of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Robert Ingersoll, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, or Karl Marx? — all of whom are much better thinkers and writers than Bill W. One possible exception might be a description of the 24-Hour Plan, as described in the “Akron Manual” of 1939/1940. This would be appropriate for a beginners meeting.

The ideal AA meeting would not have prayers. At first I liked the Serenity Prayer, which does speak strongly to alcoholics, especially in early recovery, and I would not object to its being displayed on a wall — but I’m sick of it now, having heard it thousands of times to close or open meetings. The group recitation of a prayer, any prayer, is a religious ritual, which offends and excludes the non-religious.

I have great respect for AA’s Twelve Traditions, which are, in Charles Bufe’s words, “a blueprint for organization according to noncoercive anarchist principles.” For over three-quarters of a century, the Twelve Traditions have kept AA alive. But they are not above and beyond criticism. Take the second Tradition:

For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

This is confusing, contains gratuitous religiosity, and absurdly implies that a “loving God” expresses Himself in group conscience meetings. If so, then He changes His mind from time to time. First He allows smoking in meetings; then He bans it; and so on. I would re-write the second Tradition as follows:

Groups reach decisions democratically. After hearing all viewpoints, in a full and unhurried discussion, they vote. Our leaders are no more than trusted servants; they are not rulers.

A troublesome issue is the Steps, the elephant in the parlor. Are they essential? Although AA has been branded as a “12-step program”, in my opinion it is not. The true AA, as described in the AA Preamble, is a fellowship, in which we share experience, strength and hope in order to get sober, stay sober, and lead good lives in sobriety. I object to the Steps, not only because of the “god” references, but also because they falsely imply that alcoholism is caused by character defects, rather than the other way around. Alcoholism, the continued intake of ethyl alcohol in a susceptible body, does cause character defects: deformations of the personality. With time and total abstinence, the true and good personality of the recovering alcoholic returns. The process may need help from other people, but in my opinion, the Steps are a poor tool for the purpose. I would like to see the Steps de-emphasised and eventually phased out.

Conclusion

A lot more could be said on all of these areas, but I’m going to wind up. Our forces — we atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, etc. in AA — are gathering strength. At the same time, the religious fundamentalists are preparing for battle. This is a time to be bold. Let us be honest, principled, and steadfast.

__________

References

Akron Manual (1939/1940).
Bill Wilson: Alcoholics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.
Mitchell K., How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder.
Ernest Kurtz, Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Matthew J. Raphael, Bill W. and Mr. Wilson: The Legend and Life of AA’s Cofounder.

__________

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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My AA, Right or Wrong — 50 Comments

  1. Thank you John for the wonderful article. To an atheist in AA it is a breath of fresh air. I also have little use for the 12 steps and the God stuff. They are a method towards salvation or redemption through God. They have little good advice for a recovering alcoholic other than to heap more shame and guilt onto us, at a time when we are usually already drowning in both. How many times have I seen folks midway into their 4th step disappear and never return. The steps start off on totally erroneous and irrelevant footings. …ADMITTED…POWERLESS…UNMANAGEABLE.

    When I admit something it is usually in reference to something I did wrong. Hence a lead in to the rest of the steps where I try to right all my wrongs. Right off the bat it implies that the root cause of my drinking is my badness. Powerless as you pointed out is false. Unmanageability is a relative term. What you consider manageable I might consider insane. A very misleading set of concepts when in reality most people coming into AA have simply realized that alcohol is problematic in their lives and are seeking help and guidance to deal with it. I did not come to AA to find God, get gooder, or seek advice on how to manage my life. I was quite capable of dealing with those issues in my own way, in my own time, if I felt I needed to.

    I wanted to add to your thesis a powerful marketing tool that AA continues to employ to indoctrinate us into the steps and the holy big book, namely BB and 12 step studies. I always went into these, usually at the suggestion or strong arming of a sponsor, under the impression that they would be open forums for discussion and healthy debate. Was I ever wrong. I was regularly ganged up on, openly attacked and having my desire to stay sober questioned if I even suggested anything outside of the rote dogma. The questions in the exercises had to be answered a certain approved way or you were beaten on until you changed your answer to the correct one.

    This is when I realized that AA is utterly hypocritically closed minded, when they preach open mindedness. Simply put, AA is in need of a reformation and I have little hope that will happen. Religions are so stubborn. The Catholic Church only took 400 years to admit that Galileo was right. AA in its current form, sadly, will be dead long before that.

    • Michael H,
      Thanks for your comments. I agree whole-heartedly with you. I think we agnostics and atheists need to start writing down the things we did that really helped us get sober. Check out my related blog at http://www.agnosticaahouston.blogspot.com. Send me your list of practical steps to sobriety and I’ll add it to the blog.

      • Tim, on your blog I would disagree with the primary purpose, we are here to help the alcoholic who still suffers not the agnostic, atheist, gay, religious, woman etc. Cheers Daniel.

      • Daniel,
        In my opinion, the primary reason for agnostic AA meetings to exist is to help agnostics and atheists who want to get sober but who can’t and don’t swallow the religious pill that other AA groups dish up all too often. We exist because other AA pretends its primary purpose is to help people achieve sobriety but confuses that with “getting religion.” That’s what Ebbie Thatcher called it and that’s what it too often is. You can go to any AA meeting and find people who pretend to want to help people get sober by pretending you have to get religion to get sober. I don’t buy that.

  2. As a relatively new member of the group, I am surprised as I work my way through the literature, by the amount of religiosity I encounter. When my sponsor suggested that I might like to check out the AA Agnostica site, I was skeptical. Now, however, I am relieved to see, once again that I am not alone. Thank-you, John L for your enlightened writing! I have begun to cautiously ask around but to date, have not found anyone interested in meeting to discuss holding meetings with a lesser focus on god and a greater focus on sobriety.

    I hold no ill will towards those who put their “Higher Power” first. I would just like to have some open, honest conversation with someone who holds sobriety sacrosanct and the means secondary.

    This site is giving me hope. Thanks!

  3. John, thanks, well written, many good points.

    Just yesterday I got to reflect on another volume of AA literature – the Reflections.

    And I’m starting to think that this book in large measure is responsible for the religious turn that AA has taken.

    Have a look at yesterday’s reading, September 15.

    It starts out with a much abbreviated quote from page 152 of the big book – actually an excellent quote if one reads it in its entirety – but in the Reflections it is quoted, and then promptly ignored – and then they forge ahead with a whole bunch of god nonsense. Not only is there no mention of god in the BB for at least a whole page before and after the quote, but the Reflections make a virtue of slipping something about god into almost every day’s reading, and in an often real contrived manner, such as that at the end of most of them “I thank my higher power…” for whatever it is that comes more or less naturally from participating in the fellowship in a mindful and dedicated manner, much as it is said in the BB on page 152.

    The Reflections were published in 1990, two years after I came around, so I don’t have a real good sense of trends in AA at the time. I wasn’t clearheaded and experienced yet, but I’m hearing from everyone that this was about the time the Revival in AA really got off the ground, and membership levelled off.

    I go to a noon meeting in the next town on Tuesdays, which is supposed to be a Living Sober meeting, and indeed it is read, but first – at all meetings of the week – the daily Reflection is read, and discussed for up to half an hour. I have a way of making myself unpopular over that, of course, but now I’m beginning to wonder if that book is really at the heart of AA’s trouble. No, of course it cannot be solely responsible, I know that, but I’m wondering if it really looms larger than we may have been aware of.

    • life-j’s comment Sept 16 on the Daily Reflections begs for information about the Twenty Four Hour little book of daily reflections published by Hazelden starting, I think, in the 1970s. This little book is far more religious than AA’s Daily Reflections. It was written by a Catholic priest in recovery who surely got the idea from daily readings of the Catholic Breviary, another little black book of meditations. Catholic priests were required to read that daily.

      • The 24 hours a day book was written by Richmond Walker a member of the Oxford Group. He got sober in 1942 in Boston and moved to Florida where he published the book in 1948. Hazlden started to publish and distribute the book in 1954.

      • And the GSO decided that the little black book would NOT be designated Conference-approved literature. I was reading a bit about this in old issues of the Grapevine. It sounds like Daily Reflections may have come about to help people with Step 11.

      • In addition to being related to Step 11, AA undoubtedly started publishing its own Daily Reflections because it learned Hazelden had sold many thousands of copies of its 24 Hours a Day. AA publishes to raise money for the rest of its work.

  4. John writes: “One would hardly know it from official AA literature, but AA developed many of its best features in its spectacularly successful first years in Cleveland: the emphasis on fellowship rather than ‘spirituality’, rotating leadership, sponsorship, etc.”

    I beg to differ. Snyder was an unapologetic, militant Christian. What he soft-pedaled was any specific Christian sect. Here are some quotes from the Clarence Snyder book John refers to:

    “Prayer and Bible reading was a prerequisite, Clarence felt, but only at home.” p. 142 This is immediately contradicted-on the same page in the book (!) by “The meetings were very simple. They opened with a prayer or the reading of a verse from the Bible.” p. 142

    “Clarence felt, the emphasis on spirituality was what had made Ohio A.A. so successful.” p. 211

    “Bill made numerous trips to Cleveland to see what worked so well” and “He tried to bring back the program of recovery as it was in Ohio to the New York members, but they would not assimilate the spirituality into their brand of A.A.”

    From “How It Worked, The Story of Clarence H. Snyder”

    In 1972, Snyder wrote an interpretation of the 12 Steps. Here is a passage from it with Clarence talking about step 3: “Now here is the step which separates the men from the boys (or the women from the girls) – this is the step which tells the story as to whether we are going to be in A.A., or around A.A.. Yes, we can attend meetings, visit the clubs, attend the social functions, but, unless we really take step #3, we are continuing to make up our own program. Since our entire program is based upon dependence upon God and our lives are to be directed by Him!”

    Ten years later, in one of many such speeches he had given over the years, Clarence Snyder showed just how specific his insistence on a particular religious path was in a video from 1982:

    “those people wanted to cut out the ‘god thing.’ So Hank had found a printer, during the slow stage in his business, so we had a cut off date … so we compromised and put ‘god as I understand him’ in italic to suit the agnostic, atheistic circle. And a lot of people say it’s a great thing. But I think it’s one of the worst things that ever happened.” Because people don’t get right down to the nitty gritty of this and turn their will and lives over to the care of god.” … when I take people through the steps, they get down on their knees for step 3 and get down on their knees for step 6.

    But people resist this kind of thing. “But you’re talking religion! What’s the matter with religion? We’re not talking religion, we’re talking about what was taught us in the good book. Our whole program emanates from the sermon on the mount and the book of James in the bible. So if you want to know what these steps are, read the 5th, 6th and 7th chapters of Matthew and the book of James.”

    Here’s the link to the video recording: Clarence Snyder 1982.

    • “Snyder was an unapologetic, militant Christian.”

      You have certainly demonstrated that Clarence Snyder was an forthright and unapologetic Christian. “Militant” may be a bit too strong. Compare Clarence with Dr. Bob, his sponsor, who acted as gatekeeper for the recovering alcoholics within the Oxford Group; Dr. Bob wouldn’t allow anyone in unless he had first gotten down on his knees, prayed with him, and accepted Jesus as his saviour. I don’t see that Clarence ever barred anyone from a meeting for lack of religious belief.

      My generalization was based on a letter from Clarence to Hank P. in which he wrote: “Our policy will be mainly this. Not too much stress on spiritual business at meetings…. Plenty of fellowship all the time.” (4 June 1939, quoted in Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, p. 167)

      Clarence was only one man. Within the first couple of years in Cleveland — the true birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous — there would be hundreds of members and dozens of groups. Unless I’ve forgotten or overlooked it, I don’t think we really know how AA became AA in many ways — for example, the different types of meetings: 1) speaker meetings open to the public, 2) discussion meetings open only to alcoholics, and 3) beginners meetings. Rotating leadership. Sponsorship of newcomers, to guide them through the difficult early months. Slogans. It would be interesting to know where and how these AA features developed.

      Anyway, thanks for your information.

    • There’s an excellent essay, Clarence Snyder: Almost Co-Founder, on this website. The piece is in large part drawn from Mitchell K.’s biography, but it’s the Reader’s Digest version.

      Mitchell himself appears in the comments section and makes the point that 1938-1970 Clarence was vastly different from the evangelical Christian that he became late in his life.

      Bill Wilson seems to have become increasingly liberal-minded as life progressed, whereas Clarence veered dramatically in another direction around 1970. I must agree with John L. that the Clarence of AA’s formative years was VASTLY more open to including all in the tent of recovery than was his stodgy sponsor.

      Give the Clarence essay a read. The author is a handsome bastard – too bad there’s no picture.

    • We Agnostics and Free Thinkers (WAFT).
      Subsequently updated to:
      We Agnostics and Atheists and Free Thinkers (WAAFT).

  5. John L says: “It’s been decades since I regularly attended a meeting where…the LP was recited.”

    To which I say, “You sure don’t live in Texas.”

    In 21 years of association with AA I have never heard the term “24-Hour Plan”. I have, however, heard the expression “one day at a time”, which fills me with revulsion because of its association in my mind with the 1970’s-era hit song of the same name by Cristy Lane. That song alone is a valid justification for murdering songwriter Kris Kristofferson. I can’t hear the phrase “one day at a time” without hearing that wavering, warbly voice screeching its imitation-pious appeal to “sweet Jesus”. But beyond that, the concept has always irritated me because of its requisite dependence upon George Orwell’s doublethink, in which one simultaneously accepts two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. Quoting the phrase in which it is introduced above: “total and life-long abstinence from alcohol, a day at a time”. Okay, which is it: a day, or life-long? The “one day at a time” concept relies on the abstainer convincing herself, “I only have to go without a drink for 24 hours. I’m not responsible beyond that; I can drink if I want to.” But not if the abstainer already has the understanding that this is to be “life-long abstinence”. I’m glad it worked for you, John L. It would never work for me. Rigorous honesty kicks in and I know it’s bullshit.

    • Actually, I have attended meetings in the past few years where the LP was recited — I live in the Boston area — but I didn’t continue going to them. At two different meetings in Dorchester (part of Boston) people not only recited the LP, but they crossed themselves. I just remained seated. It’s been decades since I was in Texas, and I’ve never attended a meeting there. It seems to be different on the East Coast. In the past three decades in the places I’ve lived in — Manhattan, Provincetown (Cape Cod), and Boston — most if not all meetings end with the Serenity Prayer.

      I don’t regard the 24-Hour Plan as doubletalk. Having hit a very low physical bottom, I know that for me, picking up the First Drink would be signing my death warrant. I am committed to lifelong abstinence. However, my sober journey through life is one day at a time. I think the Akron Manual description of the 24-Hour Plan (link above) describes pretty well the apparent paradox: total abstinence for life, and yet a day at a time. Also, the description of the 24-Hour Plan in Living Sober.

      • Thanks, John. The LP is firmly entrenched here, being recited to close at every group I have attended since 1987 (my “21” above was a miscalculation) until I found Dallas WAG. I did attend a group in Red Oak, TX where, once I had explained my agnosticism to them, they began to switch to the Serenity Prayer for my benefit when I was present. However, I’m not able to do as the 24-Hour Plan suggests and say to myself, “I’ll have a drink tomorrow,” knowing as I do that I will commit to another 24 hours of abstinence and will not have the drink tomorrow. Obviously it works, as it has for you. Different mindsets, I suppose. It feels like self-deception to me, and that’s one of the things we’re trying so hard to avoid in working this program. I felt best about sobriety after I accepted the reality that mine was to be life-long. I didn’t have to deal daily with the psychological ramifications of promising myself a drink and then denying it to myself a few hours later; I just went ahead and bit the bullet and accepted that I would never drink again, and having done so I settled into it and have been happy with it.

  6. Thanks John for your excellent post, and appreciation for all of the links provided; I’ve just read through the biography of Clarence Snyder. It’s great that more information on all aspects of our Fellowship is becoming more freely available these days, particularly through posts on AA Agnostica. The comments are great too and provide a broad range of subjective views on ‘spirituality’ and other themes with a range of personal interpretations. All good stuff!!! The header of your workshop started with ‘Our AA’ but your post starts with ‘My AA’ and that hits the nail on the head for me. We’re all as different in AA as day and night. I hold my views on various AA themes open to interpretation e.g. spirituality, illness, sponsorship, religiosity, allergy, no human power, fellowship, programme, etc. We AAs will always be discussing and debating the language of AA. I attend Tolerance Tuesday Discussion Group in Glasgow UK where we use the readings from Beyond Belief to provide a focus to start our discussion. It’s not a freethinkers meeting per se, it’s a meeting for everyone. We usually manage to avoid blows being struck. The clue is in the title of the meeting and, as is stated at the start of the meeting, “We are not here to teach tolerance, we’re here to practice it.” I just keep turning up at AA, speak my truth, remain silent during the serenity prayer, and retain my gratitude for the motley crew of fellow AAs who make the effort to turn up and share the shit and share the magic that is AA. I’m still practicing!!!!

  7. Good essay. Unlike John L, I have not noted an increase in religiosity during the time (35 years) that I have been sober in AA. As far as I can tell, it has always been about as religious as it is now. And good luck on changing that. At the meetings I attend, I will sometimes state my opinion that the notion of “god” keeping people sober is bunk, and it is a rare occasion indeed when anyone will verbalize agreement. There is a secular sobriety group, modeled on AA, called Secular Organization for Sobriety, which emphasizes sobriety and fellowship. It has no required rituals, no steps, and no “suggested” path to sobriety. I helped start 2 SOS groups in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, and both of them failed for lack of attendance. I suppose that when people think about getting sober, they think about going to AA. I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong with that, but I really miss SOS.

    • For a few years there was an SOS meeting here in Boston, but by the time I found out about it, it had already folded for lack of attendance. The one secular AA group here, “As We Understood”, also has no prayers, rituals, etc.

  8. Wonderful article, John — thanks.

    I agree with much of what you have to say and, like you, am immensely grateful for having achieved “old time” sobriety in the more open AA of New York City in the early 70s, compared to the stultified, formulaic, dogmatic rendering that much of AA in North America has devolved to become in the last 40 years. Nevertheless, I believe that change in AA is inevitable, though it seems to be increasingly resisted by many ardent believers in AA.

    We secularists in AA are already having a significant impact upon AA — I take great comfort in recent initiatives by the Grapevine and GSO to have a special issue of the Grapevine next dedicated to us unorthodox agnostics, atheists and those who believe differently from the majority orthodox members of AA. As well, the Trustee’s Literature Committee is giving special preference to articles submitted by agnostics and atheists in upcoming AA pamphlets called for by the 2015 General Service Conference last April.

    I trust the growth of secular AA throughout North America means — especially among millennials and Gen-Xers coming along behind us aging boomers, who are finding solace and recovery in the Fellowship of our secular AA communities — that this influence shall continue.

  9. I think the key to long-term sobriety is, as Bill put it in Appendix II of the Big Book, “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism”.

    And if the Steps are a way of achieving that personality change, then I am fine with the Steps, especially secular Steps as presented in the ground breaking work published in 1991 and written by Arlys G. and Martha Cleveland, The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery.

    Making Alcoholics Anonymous more inclusive is not a question of “phasing out” any particular path to recovery but rather celebrating and being respectful of them all. Isn’t that what makes us different from the more fundamentalist and dogmatic members of AA?

  10. Thank you…valuable insights and observations.

    I agree we need to prune back the branches that are preventing growth for new membership.

    We can and must do better.

    No reason not to.

  11. John, Thanks for a great article! I say it’s time for us to demand more vigorously that AA change.

  12. Always a pleasure, John.

    I often recommend your book. I don’t always agree with your positions but I love your well-reasoned arguments. I find myself saying either, “Your absolutely right,” or “I never really thought about that – but you make a good point. I’ll have to think about that some more.”

    You touched on something today I am wrestling with. Is there a better way to describe the network of mutual-aid, anonymous societies than “12-Step fellowships”? What everything has in common from Al-Anon to GA to OA to Online Gamers Anonymous is the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. But by calling them 12-Step fellowships it does further reinforce the idea some have of the inseparable relationship between the members and a “common solution.” Of course we are fellows of common suffering and our solution is as individual as our thumb print. But what is the best way to describe the larger universe of 12&12 fellowships? Maybe “12 Tradition fellowships”? I don’t know.

    I’ll be in Arizona next weekend and we’ll certainly be discussing some of these ideas expressed today.

    • “Is there a better way to describe the network of mutual-aid, anonymous societies than ’12-Step fellowships’?”

      I don’t know. Maybe something like, “mutual-aid, addiction recovery groups” — but that’s rather cumbersome. As a pure, low-bottom alcoholic, I don’t fully identify with other chemical addictions (cocaine, heroin, crystal meth, etc.) and even less with the non-chemical addictions (gambling, shoplifting, pyromania, fingernail biting …). For all of these I think the 12 Step/Higher Power bit is at best irrelevant.

      What they all have in common is mutual support either for abstinence or, OA for example, moderation. Can stay away from the First Drink for the rest of one’s life; can’t stay away from food for more than about 30 days.

  13. My main issue with WAAFT is that many of its members are often as narrow minded and exclusive as the theists of whom they object. I shall use “My AA Right or Wrong” as my example.

    I am an atheist for whom rationality has its limits, spirituality is central in my life and the steps, as I understand them, are central in my recovery. Therefore, when I read that spirituality, printed in quotes, referred to as a “nebulous virtue” I feel excluded from fellowship with the holder of that prejudice.

    The article later criticizes the 12 steps “because they falsely imply that alcoholism is caused by character defects, rather than the other way around.” My experience is that the implication referred to is not false. I felt a profound emptiness way before I ever drank. I consider that feeling to have been my primary character defect out of which flowed my self-centeredness and various anti-social behaviors. In others, that feeling has been described in philosophical, spiritual, psychological and rationalistic language, but however it is described and understood, it was a fundamental fact of my early life. Drinking alcohol appeared to fill that hole. It seemed to fix me so I continued to drink. Working the steps, even more than the fellowship, enabled the emptiness to dissolve. Not everyone need work the steps to be sober, but they are essential to my program, to my happiness. If the steps were phased out of the program, I would have been gone too.

    We, in the fellowship, understand and use the program differently. There should be room for all of us.

    • A fragment from David’s comment: “I am an atheist for whom rationality has its limits, spirituality is central in my life and the steps, as I understand them, are central in my recovery.”

      I cannot pretend to understand an atheism that limits rationality, and appears to have an understanding of spirituality that may trump reason. Nevertheless you are to be commended for finding happiness in exercising your understanding of the program.

  14. I have not read what changes you propose yet, when it comes to newcomers you say they should not jeopardize their place early in recovery when in fact the majority of newcomers leave AA never to return as they are turned off by the God thang! Maybe AA members like us should be at newcomer meetings letting them know there are alternative steps and you do not need God or all of the steps to get sober.

    In Santa Clara county there are 600 meetings a week. I have never been to 1 meeting in 24 years where it was not closed with the lords prayer.

  15. A very nice layout of the issues we are currently experiencing, thank you.

    Here is a very compact version of Tradition 2 I have tried out:

    For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – the thoughtful consensus of our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

  16. Thank you John L.

    It is always a pleasure to read your thoughts. We appear to think a lot a like.

  17. John L, I look up to your work as an example of the very finest in genuine freethinking. You are a freethinker par excellence and thereby a real role model for we AA members, a fine antidote to the stuffy conformity which tends to suck the air of intelligent discourse right out of the minds of we fellowship members on a disturbingly regular basis. You are an elite member of the anti-zombie brigade, my friend. Your work is indispensable. I will propose to my ‘We Agnostics’ meeting that we read this essay as a conversation instigator at the next gathering I attend. AA Agnostica.org consistently offers up the finest in meeting topic format materials. Adam N.

  18. Hi John,

    I’d hate to use the Fox News phrase “fair and balanced” to describe your piece, so I’ll just say that your essay is a well balanced argument for the strengths and weakness of AA as it is currently constituted.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  19. It is vitally important that each of us find other alcoholics we can talk to. This is usually facilitated by meetings. I live in Boston and have attended a variety of meetings here. I regularly attend the ones that are most helpful to me. I am not an atheist or agnostic, nor am I religious. At first, and for a while, I had resentments about all the Christian and male-dominated words and references in the Big Book. But other members of my group helped me see beyond that. I was not able to do that on my own. We all know that open-mindedness and willingness are keys to staying sober. And honesty, including being true to oneself. There will always be things I disagree with in AA because it is composed of human beings, and we make mistakes. We are not required to believe or do anything in AA. If you have a desire to stop drinking, you are welcome to join. We come together to help each other because we have a disease that cannot be treated in isolation. I cannot help you if I think I know what’s right and I think you’re wrong. People leave AA one resentment at a time. So find meetings that support you so you can support others. If there aren’t any in your area, start one. Or attend on-line meetings. I am reminded of a line from a poem by Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” The AA that works for me lies in such a field.

  20. Excellent! (As usual, by the way.)

    G.K. Chesterton, the English man of letters, said that saying “My country, right or wrong”, was like saying “My mother, drunk or sober”.

    I agree that the 12 steps should be abolished. They are poorly written and pietistic. I think steps 4-7 are an incoherent mess. If the steps are supposed to be a plan, why don’t they mention not drinking, valuing ourselves, or forgiving others, for instance?

    The goals behind the steps are universal, and I think newcomers should be encouraged to write their own individual plans – in pencil, with an eraser attached. My current “steps” number 7, and I rewrite them several times a year. My understandings and needs are different from my early days, and my plan should reflect this.

    I agree that “Living Sober” is the best official AA book. It addresses why people come to AA, and is the only AA literature I recommend to newcomers.

    And I really like the Tradition 3 revision. That’s the only tradition written without a rational basis.

    Keep up the good work, John!

  21. I don’t seem to be making any headway in the AA groups that I attend in my small Bible belt town as related to adhering to the AA Preamble “… not allied with any sect, denomination, …” The Lord’s Prayer is still a part of every meeting! Any suggestions? Do I just sit out from the group as they recite their prayer? Or do I just quit going to meetings? I think there are about four of us who fall into the category of agnostic/atheist members.

    • With four of you, why not start your own agnostic meeting, Don? Plenty of information here: How to Start an AA Meeting.

      And there may be others in your area looking for such a meeting. You can click on the image below and complete the form to find out. Best wishes!

      Start a Group in Your Community

    • Hi Don J.

      You asked for suggestions. I can tell you what I have done, and what appear to be the results of those actions.

      I live in the West Texas Bible Belt, in Wichita Falls, TX.

      I staggered into AA 5 years, 9 months, and 3 days ago. The first AA meeting I attended seemed quite like a Southern Baptist tent revival meeting, including passing the plate. 🙂 It opened with the Serenity Prayer, and ended with the Protestant Religious ritual, the “Lord’s Prayer.”

      EVERYONE in the room “circled up” and recited this Protestant mainstay. I attempted to be a “part of” by standing, and holding hands with my fellow alkies at first. I did not hide the fact I was an atheist, and that prayer did not get me sober, nor was it part of my learning to Live Sober.

      As I observed the folks standing there, most with heads bowed and eyes closed, it appeared to me many were just going along with what was expected.

      But many were not just going with the flow, and this ritual was “meaningful” to them. The more hyper-religious, Big Book thumping types were among those who liked to say shit to me, and about me while I “stood with them” as a brother alkie.

      “Look! We got the Atheist to pray!” Snarky things very often by those who really did not like atheist among them.

      After about a couple of months of putting up with this sort of nonsense from the more Religiously Fanatical, I asked myself, “Why am I participating in any way with this Protestant Religious Ritual, if in fact, it has nothing to do with my getting sober, or staying sober? What purpose does my participation serve other than a way to be singled-out as an “other” by fundamentalist bullies? What does it mean “we” are about Honesty, and Tolerance?

      All I “knew” at the time was this ritual had nothing to do with me, my own worldviews, nor had any meaning literally or figuratively.

      I made the decision to become more consistent as an atheist (metaphysical naturalism) and stop participating in these Protestant, in my area, Christian Fundamentalist practices and customs.

      I simply remained in my chair when the folks “circled up” and said “Who keeps us sober?”

      I was the only one. I observed my sitting out only highlighted that fact that “AA” was an exclusive, Christian club. Those were lonely days. So, I sat there alone in the face of overt, sometimes vicious religious bigotry and ignorance.

      At first my nonparticipation only served as more fodder for the religious bigots to make hay about me not “getting with the Program.”

      I began to “make the case” that this Protestant Religious Ritual has nothing to do with me getting sober, learning to live sober, and is not a requirement for membership per Tradition Three.

      An odd thing happened. It took a couple of weeks, but I began to notice that occasionally, another individual would “opt completely” out. We were not friends so I did not perceive their nonparticipation had anything to do with some personal alliance.

      Over time, another, and another would completely “opt out.” This continued, and continues today in my home group.

      Today, for any given meeting approximately half, sometimes less, sometimes more, completely opt out of this very Protestant Religious Prayer Ritual/Custom.

      I do not make an “issue” out of the fact that many still do “circle up and recite Christian scripture.

      My view is that I am not about restricting another’s freedom to believe and practice whatever it is that is somehow helping them.

      My view is that I will intellectually honest about “me,” and that does not include aiding and abetting the perceived Christian supremacy in my home group.

      I don’t jump around from group to group in an attempt to somehow make an issue of what other people do. I chose to “stay,” planted in one group.

      I would have never guessed that my “actions” in line with consistent, intellectual integrity about “me” (rigorous honesty) would seem to have had the effect it has.

      Who cares if half the room, or even a majority of attendees still circle up. It does not concern me. What does concern me, and you, and folks like us is that the gates are widen a bit, and somehow or other people SEE they do not have to conform to religious practices, and rituals and that we do really thing Honesty and Tolerance are actually being practiced in real time, in real life.

    • Four! That’s a lot.

      I have hung with 4 over the last 30 years in AA. Two died and the third moved away. But I started a WAAFT meeting once a week anyway. So far there have been more than me in attendance but everyone else has been an overt believer.

      Yet this morning one of the regulars who was enjoying an all class reunion made a special point of showing up because he was angry at the 2PM meeting yesterday. He commented that even as new as he was he could see why I kept suggesting that religion has no place in an AA meeting.

      What happened was that someone mentioned drinking wine at communion. Next the Lutheran was telling the Catholic that it was real blood and body or some such thing while the other guy was steaming. I got up and left. My regular said he thought that wise as after I went they settled down and wondered if I was angry. I wasn’t, but did not tell anyone (except you) that.

      We were 4 people at the meeting this morning. I show up an hour early prepared to entertain myself if necessary but so far someone has always shown up and usually we have a productive meeting. No prayers. Just a little formality like closing with the responsibility pledge and opening with a little preamble I wrote.

      I particularly liked the article today for it’s reassurance that I don’t have to pay homage to the steps or the big book. They are both flawed, but do contain some worthwhile insights.

      Incidentally, my meeting operates within my old religious home group but has this special experimental quality. The other meetings of my group often close with the LP though occasionally will honor me by closing with something less religious.

  22. Thanks John for an enjoyable read this Sunday morning (as I gird myself for a district committee meeting). I cannot object to anything you put forward and cannot add much to it. I do think the steps can be made useful by de-literalising them and encouraging the user to broadly interpret them for his or her own needs. I agree they are not the cornerstone of sobriety but the idea that there is only one way to interpret and apply them renders them utterly useless for most sane people. The idea that the BB contains “precise instructions” is bullshit of the worst order as it contains anything but. There are some helpful hints here and there. Even the “one day at a time” concept needs to be tailored for individual use. I cannot remain sober if I think there is even one drink waiting for me in the future. I must come to terms with the idea that when things get tough there is no “beer break” for me. Once again thanks.

    • Thank you, Dan, for pointing out that “Even the ‘one day at a time’ concept needs to be tailored for individual use.” I was thinking exactly the same thing as I read this article. The so-called “24-hour Plan” is no more universal in it’s applicability than is the “depend on a Higher Power to keep you sober” plan. Promoting it as being just right for all of us is nothing short of irresponsible, because it really, really isn’t anywhere close to being right for many of us.

      Not all of us were physically addicted to alcohol when we decided to quit drinking for one reason on another, but I certainly was. During the course of my first week or so of enduring the physical withdrawal symptoms, sometimes I had to resort to staying sober more like one hour at a time, or even 5 minutes at a time. By the end of that first week I had finally progressed to one day at a time, but quite frankly even that was still a major struggle. At that point, while I was still enduring bouts of intense cravings on a daily basis, if some bozo had told me I was going to have to continue staying sober “one day at a time” for the rest of my life I would have known full well that I couldn’t possibly do that, so I would have just given up and bought a bottle on my way home from that AA meeting! What I personally needed instead was to be reassured again and again was that my cravings would soon be completely behind me once and for all, and at that point I would no longer even wish that I could “enjoy” drink from time to time.

      Yes, I know that the 24-hour plan does appear to work for many people. But over the course of my 14 years in AA (haven’t had a single drink or other drug since attending my first AA meeting ever) I have seen several people who relied on it relapse and in a couple of cases even die drunk after more than 20 years of sobriety. Not surprisingly, I noted that in every such case they had probably never lived a single day without enduring “the phenomenon of craving” because they had simply substituted an addiction to other refined carbohydrates (soft drinks, donuts, candy, etc.) for their previous addiction to alcohol, which essentially is itself just another refined carbohydrate. By keeping their addiction alive, they kept their cravings alive.

      In my opinion, AA’s single greatest failing is not its single-minded obsession with the Steps (which I have never bothered to even pretend “working” myself). It’s the consistent failure, even at nearly all WAAFT meetings, to seriously address the underlying physiological imbalances which for most of us can be brought entirely under control simply by addressing our physical lifestyles with things like avoiding all processed foods (especially any containing added sugar or high fructose corn syrup), eating a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet, getting plenty of sleep and at least a modicum of exercise. That certainly has worked very well for me. I haven’t experienced any cravings at all for over a dozen years now. I don’t “preach” taking care of our physical health the way other people preach the Steps, but I do try to make sure that every newcomer I encounter is at least made aware that it is a significant recovery-related issue they might well benefit from looking into.

      • My experience was and is similar to yours. I went through “protracted withdrawal syndrome” for almost two months after my last drink, and only got over it when my doctor put me on a hypoglycemia diet (low carb, no sugar). Now, 47 years later, I still have to watch this, though not quite so strictly as back then.

        My article, Physical Recovery (on this website), goes into this a little.