You Cannot NOT Interpret the Steps!

Ajlun Castle Steps

By John M.

Last May 14th I attended the annual Toronto Round Up which featured three speakers, two from Ontario and, the other, the headliner, a long standing, highly respected member of AA from California. Well known to many from AA conferences across North America, he was also the featured dinner speaker at the 2009 Ontario Regional Conference held at the Royal York.

In the morning, he presented a highly regarded talk on the story of AA and how we are all to “pass it on” (which was the theme of the Round Up). In the afternoon, he answered questions from the “ask-it basket” and after dinner he shared with us his experience, strength and hope. The speaker has a remarkable story to tell. He is very entertaining and quite humourous and, at the same time, he delivers an inspiring message of recovery.

As many of you are aware, the impending Toronto Intergroup vote on whether or not to delist two groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, was to be decided at the end of May at Intergroup so it was no surprise that the following question from the “ask-it basket” was forwarded to the speaker: “What is your opinion on agnostic groups taking God out of the 12 Steps?”

The speaker responded (and I am summarizing from the CD recorded at the event) that he was “very much opposed to that whether or not my feeling about God has anything to do with it.” He explained his position on the issue as one of accepting the AA program as a package and if we were to take God out of the Steps then where do we stop? Do we take the inventory out? Do we take the amends out? Any reference to God in the Steps is like our inventory and amends; “it’s part of the package.”

One cannot but respect the speaker for taking a stand and providing the reasons why he holds this opinion. One can disagree with him but at least we know the reasons for his opinion.

Perhaps with this question in mind and/or perhaps on learning at the Round Up about the possible delisting of the two AA groups (who have indeed taken any reference to God out of the Steps they read at their meetings), when he was delivering his own story in the evening about his battle with alcoholism and his subsequent recovery, he spoke about the meaning of the Steps in his life. When he came to Step Two he said the following (and here I quote verbatim from the CD):

I guess what the Second Step means – much to my surprise, the Steps all came to mean what they said. To this day I cannot sit through a weekend where people are interpreting the Steps, or even a meeting, for goddamnit they’re simple. They mean what they say. And the Second Step means you have to come to believe that there is some power here that will make it unnecessary for you to drink alcohol. That’s all! No big deal!

Of course, he is right! He has captured the essential meaning in the freeing action of our program of recovery. And what he said can certainly be what Step Two means: that is, it is one of the things Step Two can mean. But it is not what Step Two says. As we know, it is written as follows: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

As soon as a speaker (or writer) begins by saying what a statement means, he/she is eo ipso engaging in interpretation unless he/she quotes verbatim from the statement. The speaker tells us that he cannot sit through a weekend or meeting where people are interpreting the Steps (for “the Steps mean what they say”) but he then engages in the very act of interpreting the Steps which he indicates he disdains.

It is not my sole intention here to point out the speaker contradicting himself but instead to highlight that the speaker in fact spoke profoundly and meaningfully precisely because he captured the spirit of Step Two. His interpretation violates nothing in the Step (from what is literally written) and his interpretation quite simply expresses an essential truth of the Step.

So what do we take from this? Let’s at least acknowledge here that even an experienced, long term, very active member of AA will find it extremely difficult not to interpret the Steps.  When we interpret words or phrases we do so to make them deeply meaningful to our lives and to the lives of others. Otherwise they are mere words written down in the pages of a text.

Let’s shift the perspective a little, however, and assume that there are those who wish to adhere strictly to the literal, uninterpreted words in AA literature. Since we are dealing with the question of whether or not two groups can interpret the Steps and remain as members of AA, let’s look at what Bill W wrote in the 1946 Grapevine (the quotation here is from the essay “Anarchy Melts” which is included on this website):

In fact, our Tradition carries the principle of independence for the individual to such an apparently fantastic length that, so long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other–these rampant individuals are still an A.A. Group if they think so!

What could be clearer? If taken literally then, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics should still be listed members in Toronto Intergroup literature with full voting rights on the floor of Intergroup. The members who disapprove of these two groups interpreting the Steps have themselves interpreted Bill W’s words to mean something else in order to support the motion to delist. (By the way, the quotation above by Bill W. was read to the members on the floor of Intergroup prior to the vote.)

Further, Tradition Four reads: “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.” The literal meaning of “Each group should be autonomous” is also clear and therefore decisions at the group level are the sole business of the group, as the group conscience. So it cannot be here that  these two groups have violated anything from the standpoint of Tradition Four.

The other part of the Tradition, however, may have been (for many who voted to delist) the key to their decision (despite what Bill wrote in the Grapevine). They too have based their decision on their own interpretation of Tradition Four.  I was the Intergroup representative at the time for a group just north of the city and  nowhere was anything presented to the members which demonstrated, with any kind of supporting data or from any reported uproar from other groups or “confused” new comers to AA, that Beyond Belief and We Agnostics negatively affected “other groups or AA as a whole.” Some supporters of the motion to delist said that there could be mixed and confusing messages to new comers to AA if there were other versions of the Steps other than the original. But this was their interpretation of only possible consequences not current, existing ones.

Some may point out, however, that the qualifying phrase used in the 12 Steps, “God as we understood him,” allows us the freedom to interpret God or Higher Power in any way we please. So why remove God from the Steps? Many of us who claim to be atheists, agnostics or free thinkers, in fact, do this on a regular basis and the word “God” does not deeply offend us. But if we remove God from the Steps, this does not necessarily imply that we do not believe in power(s) greater than ourselves; without God, we are not necessarily left isolated and riotously self-willed. The strength we gather from the spirit of our program of recovery is greater than any one word (which in at least one religion there is a tradition that maintains that an infinite deity cannot be expressed in one word without falling into idolatry).

Other nonbelievers on quite reasonable and modern grounds simply confess that God has no meaning (except negatively) for them and therefore other more secular words and phrases can express quite profoundly that AA is not a “solely-about-me” recovery program but is rather all about the power of some form of “otherness.”

There are finally those who have been so emotional scarred by a religious upbringing that any reference to God creates an inexorable barrier to 12-Step recovery. Of all people, alcoholics should be sensitive and compassionate toward the alcoholics of this type. We all know how naive and insensitive the advice is by non-alcoholics to “just stop drinking” or the “just say no” campaign: the alcoholic knows that our illness occurs at a deeper level than the level of conscious free will. We are therefore acting like these very same non-alcoholics offering this advice of “just say no” when we tell the religiously scarred alcoholic to “just get over” his/her abhorrence to God references. (And if there are any alcoholics who do not believe other alcoholics suffer in this way from previous religious wounds, I would ask that they go out and share their stories at the “you just lack moral character” forum of public opinion to see how much sympathy for their woundedness they get!)

It is especially this type of alcoholic (as well as other non-believing alcoholics) that the agnostic interpretation of the 12 Steps and the rest of the AA program can help to remove the final barrier to those seeking recovery.  This point is nicely noted by atheist Marya Hornbacher, author of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power:

The subject line of an email to me said, ‘You have taken away my last excuse for not going to AA.’ That cracked me up. Many do stay away from AA because they feel like they are going to have to believe in a certain type of spiritual platform.

Or, on hearing about the result of the Intergroup vote to delist Beyond Belief and We Agnostics, a church going member, with over 50 years of sobriety in AA, despondently remarked to my wife and me: “Why do we continue to place barriers in the way of people who are just trying to get sober.”

There is an almost hidden, subtle bias in AA even as we claim that we are a spiritual not a religious program. God becomes AA’s default setting where everything said must somehow return to God’s grace. Note how easily everyone accepts a speaker’s declaration at meetings when he/she says, “ I owe this to my Higher Power whom I choose to call God.” No problem here! However, a long standing sober member of my home group once told me that when she was sharing at a closed meeting she spoke of her higher power “whom I choose not to call God.” The looks she got, the raised eyebrows, the shuffling of fannies in the chairs indicated to her that her declaration was a problem for many in the room. At that moment, it felt to her as if she had uttered a blasphemy.

Finally, some argue that the delisting of the two groups is not about the God-issue per se but that this is all about the Charter of Alcoholics Anonymous such that to change or amend the 12 Steps requires the written consent of three quarters of AA groups worldwide; the Charter acts to protect the group conscience of AA as a whole. Here, an interpretation is key. Some take this at face value. Others interpret this to mean that indeed this is the case (wisely and democratically so) at the level of AA publications (“Conference approved”) and in AA policies and procedures to ensure AA unity and harmony but that deviation from the suggested (page 59, Big Book) Steps of recovery can occur at the level of group autonomy.

Returning to the featured speaker at the Toronto Round Up, recall his interpretation of Step Two even though he claimed not to be able to sit unperturbed through an AA meeting when others interpret the Steps. His interpretation of Step Two rings so true to us even though it is his interpretation of Step Two: “And the second step means you have to come to believe that there is some power here that will make it unnecessary for you to drink alcohol.” Right on!

The spirit of interpretation in AA is deeply engrained in our history. Note Dr. Bob’s approval of the interpretation of the 12 Steps in Ed Webster’s The Little Red Book, Bill W.’s own interpretation of the Steps in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and, of course, at many meetings, one member is asked to share his/her interpretation of the slogans. In short, one cannot not interpret the AA program of recovery. It is a key to living sober, keeping words and phrases alive in our own experience so that we can stay vigilant, not rest on our laurels, and, happily, not succumb to the sinister singularity of that first drink.

11 Responses

  1. Bob H. says:

    I have been a member of AA for 10 years, continuously sober for the last 8 years. I accepted everything I was told for the first few years but then began to question the use of the word “God.” I was told that this is a god of your understanding but to paraphrase Shakespeare, “A rose is a rose by any other name.” Wikipedia describes God as: “God is most often conceived of as the supernatural creator and overseer of the universe. Theologians have ascribed a variety of attributes to the many different conceptions of God. The most common among these include omniscience (infinite knowledge), omnipotence (unlimited power), omnipresence (present everywhere), omnibenevolence (perfect goodness), divine simplicity, and eternal and necessary existence.” My understanding does not come into it. If I ever share this I am looked on as a blasphemer.

    I am glad I have found a web site that allows me to hold views that helps and not ridicules me.

  2. Larry K. says:

    Well done article and of course a well thought out observation.

    When I came into AA all of the groups that were in my area were closed discussion groups. Once a month they may become open speaker meetings and medallions would be celebrated then.

    The closed discussion meetings always were based on topics and if there were newcomers in the room then you could be pretty sure that Step one and Tradition 3 would be two of the topics. All of the steps would be discussed over time…but one thing rings so true.

    It was in the personal interpretations of the steps that we heard the meanings of the steps. They were made personal and they examined the deep meanings and responses that were necessary to work through the process. The power was on the collective fellowship and its broad interpretations of our personal ideas that touched all of us in the room. If we listened…we heard the rich meaning of the work… to get better.

    If I can’t hear the message… I will never hear the message. I need to hear my message, the one that gives meaning to my my hopes…

    It is from that where I can draw my strength.

  3. Pat N says:

    Great article. I can’t see a simple road sign without interpreting it – that’s what brains do. I’m always amused by folks of the fundamentalist/evengelical sort who insist they only need the simple, clear truths of the Bible, and then spend hours and volumes interpreting it.

  4. Jo-Anne K says:

    “So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed.”

    This is not how I actually describe the founders of the Beyond Belief group but I am glad to be one of the kindred spirits. Ha Ha!

  5. Joe C says:

    “Every act of communication is an act of translation,” Gregory Rabassa.

    • John M. says:

      Thanks for directing me to Gregory Rabassa, Joe. I see that he has said about his own book, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents: “My thesis in the book is that translation is impossible. People expect reproduction, but you can’t turn a baby chick into a duckling. The best you can do is get close to it.”

      When I wrote this piece back in October, I was also going to include the fact that anyone translating the Big Book into another language would have to deal with “changing” the original text when it came to translating it into another language. In Cantonese or Mandarin, for instance, “God” may get changed into something like the “Good” or something to do with the “Cosmos.” I do not know, but it would be fascinating to talk with someone who has translated AA material into languages other than English or, more specifically, languages from non-western cultures.

  6. Billy F Promises Group - Garnerville, NY says:

    Great Article… I just celebrated 25 “secular” years of sobriety and I finally figured out this one thing… “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience strength and hope with each other so they can solve their common problem and help others to recover from Alcoholism.” That’s it.

  7. Bob K. says:

    I just re-read this article, and wanted to pass the comment that it is extremely well written, in my not very humble opinion. Nice job.

  8. John K says:

    Thank-you all. I am, if anything, of Buddhist persuasion. I am one who does not subscribe to the parroted belief system of Christianity. I am a member because I have a desire (today) not to drink/use. I look forward to attending the above mentioned meetings. I am not new but look forward to my new-free-thinking friends in sobriety.

  9. Don S. says:


    Often, when I take this kind of conciliatory tone with religious members of AA, they grow silent. They would really like to make room for naturalistic interpretations of AA, but can’t quite shake their fear. They love AA and they are uneasy but can’t say why. They liked it better when agnostics were quiet.

  10. Cirocco J says:

    I would never have agreed to attend AA had I not found an agnostic group. The place of these niche groups under the AA umbrella is absolutely essential! Isn’t our struggle one of sobriety and not ideology?

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