Is the AA Program a Procrustean Bed?

Procrustes: a mythical host who stretched or cut his guests to fit his “magical” bed, often killing them in the process.

By Frank M.

I should probably start by explaining that I have no problem with the use of the word “God” in AA literature. It’s the correct word for what those AA pioneers meant to convey about their profound and life changing experiences.

I am, however, saddened by the vehemence with which some AA’s try to deny our traditional Program’s unabashed theism. Though I understand their desire to make AA seem more accessible to the non-believer, I also recognize that they’re engaged in a battle with the truth here. And, as I learned in my own recovery, that never seems to turn out well.

Is the traditional AA Program, as many will contend, already flexible enough, or non-religious enough to accommodate the spiritual notions and personal beliefs of every alcoholic who might need us? Three main arguments to that effect reappear again and again. I’m going to make the case that all three are fatally flawed. I make it in support of the idea that more can be done. The door to recovery could be opened even wider, if we in AA are willing.

We’ll take those three arguments one at a time, and in no special order.

*  *  *

1. You can have any understanding of God that you like, so the AA Program isn’t really theistic.

This argument ignores the rather obvious fact that it’s still God, some kind of God, which we’re talking about in AA. Only in the rooms of AA and other Twelve Step recovery programs will you find such strenuous insistence that “God” can mean just about anything and still convey a sensible idea. It can’t, of course. No word or concept can do that.

In fact in AA it’s not just God, but a personal God we’re talking about. The Deist’s “clockmaker god” who made the universe and then departed, who can’t hear or answer prayers, who does not intercede in the lives of men or work miracles – that isn’t the God we’re really speaking of in AA, if we’re at all honest about it.

But it isn’t just God, it’s “God as we understood Him.” Isn’t that a lot more flexible?

Well, consider the following analogy. I declare that “banana as I understand it” is tasty and good. But not yellow. Not oblong, more roundish. Edible only if you cook it. Not a fruit. And barks like a dog.

Somewhere in there we’ve stopped talking about anything that can fairly be called a “banana,” haven’t we?

We do something like the above with God in AA. As Wittgenstein argued persuasively, “The meaning of a word is its use in the language.”[1] We in AA don’t get special dispensation on that matter. “God” in the phrase “Your own understanding of God” still must convey at least a couple of the essential properties of the idea God (creator, overseer of the universe and its order, etc.) or else become a meaningless grunt.

This kind of semantic overburdening actually diminishes the utility of the original term. Early AA’s understood what was meant when someone told them that God would be their new employer. Do we? Today we hear inane assertions like how a doorknob could also fulfill the function of Higher Power (that is, God) in the Steps. Really? A doorknob can be a source of truth, direction and inspiration? But is this really surprising when we start by insisting that “God” can mean virtually anything, as long as it’s not you? Which brings up the next argument.

2. All you need to do the Steps is to recognize that something is more powerful than you. So a theistic idea isn’t required.

This line of reasoning points, mistakenly, to numerous references the Big Book makes to “a Power greater than ourselves.” Setting aside the demonstrable fact that this is nothing but a euphemism for God where it’s used in Step Two and presumably everywhere else,[2] this argument still doesn’t hold water.

Anything that’s bigger than you can fit this phrase – is the assertion here. A simple counterexample might be that a mail truck is bigger than you. Ergo it can be used here in place of God in the Steps. It doesn’t take much thought to see that it would be difficult to pray to a mail truck to have one’s defects of character removed, as in Step Seven. Even a mountain, though great and powerful in a sense, is not God as the Steps require us to employ the concept. Should I make this particular amends or not? What would Mt. Shasta have me do? Hard to know.

What about using the group as your higher power?

In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions Bill Wilson remonstrates those newcomers and agnostics who “still cling to the AA group as their higher power,”[3] on how they will have to go much further in order to accomplish the later steps. In doing so he is making something quite clear. By his understanding (and he knew a little about the Program) the group as higher power was nothing more than a point of departure, or a placeholder. The Steps required more. Mere acceptance that there are powers greater than yourself is a good beginning, sure. Because – in Bill’s view – it can be a starting place on the way to finding God. Not because it works as a substitution for God in every Step.

3. People have been doing the Steps with different higher powers since the very beginning. So the Program clearly doesn’t require theistic ideas.

It’s true that many AA’s can and do achieve the intentions of the Steps using various ideas that are not in any fair sense God. And they recover too. But what this represents is a reinterpretation or reworking of the AA Program, not some kind of inherent flexibility.

This historical fact, that some of us have successfully rewritten the Steps to suit a more naturalistic worldview, does nothing to alter the truth that the original Program is very explicitly theistic in both its conceptual framework and practical directions. And pretending that non-believers have not absolutely needed to do this, to make significant changes in the Steps, does nothing to increase the acceptance of such practices in the rooms of AA.

James Burwell, an important early AA pioneer whose sobriety predated the Big Book, was one of the first to take something like this approach to the Program. He used the group and later “my own better self” as sources of strength, guidance, and inspiration. And he tried, at least in his public writing, to equate these things with “God as I understand God.” Politically it was wise. Semantically it’s nonsense. Even Burwell never claimed that he could effectively pray to the AA group to take away his defects of character. By this one change alone he had already radically altered the AA Program from its now traditional form.

*  *  *

In conclusion, AA’s Program is and has always been, as recorded in the basic texts, theistic to its very core. God, a Power greater than human, did for us what we could not do for ourselves – it asserts again and again. At the same time, the AA Fellowship is and has always been open to alternate approaches. We do this magnificent open-mindedness a disservice when we in any way limit those alternatives.

And that’s precisely what happens when we insist that the word “God” can be stretched to fit any workable concept of a higher power. The intention, I believe, is a good one: to make the traditional Program more available. But the effect is deeply troubling. We end up turning AA into a Procrustean bed, because the concept of God cannot even be stretched to fit any kind of spirituality, let alone any source of strength, hope, and wisdom. So what inevitably happens is that non-theists’ beliefs end up racked or chopped off at the knees to fit into the God frame. It’s painful, confusing, and sometimes even fatal.

The God idea works well in recovery when employed in a meaningful way. And so do sources of truth and direction that are in no sense God or even a Power. But the latter can require serious reworking of the Steps by an individual, and this should be supported fully by the Fellowship as just another way to employ the AA principles of recovery. The Program as written isn’t quite as malleable as some of us would like to think. It also isn’t perfect. And our sometimes smug self-satisfaction with it has been the enemy of needed change.

That last little bit of inventory taking on the level of the Fellowship itself is, I believe, very long overdue.

[1] Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, remark #43
[2] AA Comes of Age, pg. 167
[3] Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions pg. 96 (and note the exceptional use of the lower case “power” rather than “Power” here. No accident, that.)

Frank M. lives in Los Angeles, California, with his wife, and works in the entertainment industry. He grew up and went to school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Frank is a practicing Buddhist and fond of Stoic philosophy. A quote from Frank: “I’m working hard to apply at least a small percentage of what I’ve learned in recovery to my daily life. Sometimes I actually succeed.” You can read Frank’s other posts on AA Agnostica here: The Willow Tree Bark and An Atheist’s Guide to 12-Step Recovery.

14 Responses

  1. Sean says:

    Yes, thanks….but the article is strong on critique and empty on meat.

    AA is what it is….I got sober in AA and remain loyal to it 39 years later…as an atheist – I shall shortly be heading off to my home group.

    It got me sober…as it did to many folk who became great friends of mine over the years…all hopeless cases. And I, nor any of my friends were treatment centre prospects….we tended to be beyond the pale. But we could turn up to an AA meeting and get a cup of tea and a welcome…when I wasn’t welcome anywhere else. Totally inclusive… the only organisation I coud afford to join.

    You talk about “modern medicine” ….please tell what that has done for alcoholism? Created an industry for processing “addicts” as a means of enriching itself….without any great success with addicts.


    Sean O’D

  2. Cecila D. says:

    Thanks, Frank, for your thoughtful comments and for that email address.

    Michael: Reformations can be pretty bloody. I’m not sure I have the stomach for one. I’m an activist, and all this strife makes me think of the political groups I’ve been involved in that have split into factions. My lack of interest in intra-group conflict is one of the reasons I’m not doing any organizing these days.

    As for the wisdom of the group: I think there’s a fair bit of wisdom in all the craziness, and as a crazy person I don’t mind being around other crazy people. On the other hand, I could do without the people who told my sober boyfriend that he had to break up with me when I got sober, and the people who smile and tell me that I absolutely will drink if I don’t do what they tell me to do…

    I’m seriously considering either finding like-minded folks to start a Quad A group here in Vancouver, or stepping away from AA entirely to something less conflict-ridden. At this point it’s a tossup as to whether AA is a help or a hindrance to my recovery.

  3. Michael H says:

    Hi Cecilia, I caught on to the religious nature of the program right from the start. They would tell me “I’m a sick person, not a bad person” and say my drinking is not a moral issue, but when you look at the meat of the steps, they are all about transforming me into a “gooder,” more pious, moral, honest, grateful servant of God’s will. I would protest to a sponsor that I don’t believe in a Mr. Wizard in the sky, who grants favors, one that blackmails me into worshiping Him on threats of everlasting hellfire. A usual response to this would be “So you think you’re God then,” and if that doesn’t knock me down enough, they throw in the usual claim that I am “arrogant” or “defiant”. Which is a typically ignorant attempt to throw guilt back at me to see if it would stick. Beating down the ego seems to be a favorite pastime in AA. If none of those tactics worked he would say, “Then why not make the Sun your higher power. If it was not for the Sun, you would not be here.” Seems to have a shred of truth in it, but follow it through. How do you pray to a ball of burning hydrogen 93 million miles away. How does this hot ball answer my prayers, how does it remove my character defects? What is Mr. Sunshine’s will for me today? Explain the physics behind these tricks. Non-sense once again. How about the group as your higher power? When I look around a typical group I would be hesitant to leave them unattended on my front lawn. You have a disturbed bunch of nut cases, religious fanatics, felons, raw newcomers crawling the walls, clicks, loners, folks forced to be there by the courts or threats from spouses at their wits end, AA socialites, debutantes, preachers, teachers, lechers, and some nice regular folks who stay out of controversy and take AA like their weekly church attendance, a place to relax, gather their thoughts, dress up, and occasionally get a good belly laugh or remember when. You also know that within 6 months half of the people who joined will disappear. Hardly a confidence inspiring association. I think that the problem in AA today is that it has not evolved with the times. People used to listen to their doctor, priest, teacher, parents, police officers, men, usually men in authority without question. Today’s kids coming in know more about the world at the age of 10 that the pioneers knew their whole lives. Today we have access to science and research and statistics and alternatives at our fingertips through the internet. Today’s kids also get mixed up in other potent street drugs that were not even around when we old farts got into alcohol. I even prefer NA’s reference to getting high as a fix, because that is exactly what alcohol did for me, it Fixed me. Now we have large movements in traditional AA that want to ban druggies, ban atheists and their secular steps. I think we should blow the walls down between these distinctions. Why should one addictive molecule curry special favors over another when they all do the same think in terms of taking control of your life, health, finances, and future, leaving us burnt out shells of our former or potential selves, dragging down those most loved ones around us for the ride. We need a reformation in AA. Has anyone noticed that membership has peeked and is headed downward for the first time in its history? Or that traditional church attendance is falling faster than the 29 stock market crash? Or that atheism is the largest growing threat to organized religion today with more that 50 % of European countries populations predominantly atheists while that number is 20 % in the US and rising fast. I’m afraid that AA is doomed to a curious relic of the past 30 years into the future if it does not return to it’s primary purpose of helping the next suffering alcoholic who stumbles into a meeting. As best we can with whatever works best for the individual.

  4. Frank M. says:


    Your struggle is a far too common story in the AA fellowship. Many of us have felt that double bind you describe. “You can have any kind of higher power you want. Oh, and don’t mess with the Steps, which if you read them right require you to use God.”

    I hear you saying it’s helpful to know that someone gets this. And yes, I do. I’m glad this essay did that at least.

    But recognizing a problem is only the beginning. And you’re still out there without a home group to fully support your non-theistic journey in recovery. Lots of folks are.

    There are places online for non-believers in recovery, of course, but they have their own shortcomings. They often turn into conclaves for complaint about AA and theism in general, where little discussion of how we got sober is heard by the newcomer.

    What do we do? Well, I still get some comfort and support in those fairly wild online atheist/agnostic meetings. And I also spend some time chatting one on one by email with fellow AA’s. Meetings by two’s really. But meetings. Good ones.

    Feel free to write me anytime here:

    Best regards,
    Frank M.

  5. Cecilia D. says:

    Thanks for this article. Many people have done good work digging out the wisdom from underneath the obviously Christian framing, but the idea that this is somehow “all in the Book” has never made sense to me. As I read it, the object of the steps is to achieve sobriety by producing belief in, and obedience to, God. I am often troubled by the encouragement of a strangely distorted and close textual reading of the Big Book that discourages people from reading the words in context and in their ordinary meaning. People are encouraged to twist the words around until they mean pretty much anything, but writing down an adaptation is treated like heresy in some quarters.

    As a newly sober agnostic, this has made attending AA meetings difficult for me. When I state that I don’t believe in God, people immediately say that I don’t have to, just pick a higher power and go. But to what power shall I pray for the removal of my “defects”? To what power shall I turn over my will and my life? Without a belief in a deity, that just doesn’t make sense to me. And I’ve lost track of the number of people who’ve told me that it’s ok to be an agnostic in AA because of “We Agnostics,” when even the most cursory reading of that chapter makes it clear that an agnostic is expected to become a believer by working the steps. But any kind of critical approach to the text is met with disapproval (“too smart for the program,” yadda yadda). And being firm about one’s beliefs means that one is lacking “willingness”.

    There are no agnostic meetings in my city, and at this point I’m looking for other options. I don’t want to argue with people in AA about these things, because these are the beliefs to which they pin their sobriety. But AA’s usefulness for me is primarily in the cultivation of patience and non-reactivity, and I need a fellowship that does more than that. I’m feeling pretty demoralized. I’m no less clear about my decision to be sober, but it would nice to feel less isolated.

  6. Frank M. says:

    Thank both Zeus and Quetzalcoatl that AA has more to offer than either the Steps or the 24 hour plan – the latter of which is essentially “just don’t drink today.” Each of those approaches works for some alcoholics and kill others.

    But to call either one “AA’s real Program” may be the same mistake in different clothing. I would suggest we do better to let folks use what works for them without enshrining some ideas and impugning others.

    Regarding the AA Preamble: that is by definition “a preparatory or introductory statement” related mainly to our AA Traditions. In my understanding no attempt is being made there to be descriptive of AA as a whole. The preamble is not definitive, and making the claim that it is opens up an opportunity for a solid counter-argument that should be beside the point.

    It isn’t hard for an AA conservative to follow the assertion that AA is only a fellowship with the demonstrable fact that AA has always been more than a fellowship. AA wouldn’t exist today without the Big Book and the Steps. AA Groups were organized around and fired up by these ideas. We exploded as a society after the Big Book was printed in large part because, rightly or wrongly, it claimed to represent a blueprint for recovery.

    A thing can be fairly defined by its telos or purpose. For decades AA’s purpose was to pass on a new approach to treating alcoholism by propagating a 12-Step program through the best possible line of transmission – alcoholic to alcoholic.

    Obviously I’m all for making AA more open to outside literature and approaches. We should evolve beyond our history. But I think it’s a serious mistake to hang the heavy lifting this task requires on the slender hook of “but we’ve only ever been a fellowship.” The BB was and is a huge part of AA.

    And let’s do more. Lots more.

    Best regards,
    Frank M.

  7. John L. says:

    Well, I certainly agree with Frank M’s arguments against attempts to define Higher Power so as to be acceptable to us nonbelievers. This is what’s called “sweetening the system” – where the system is inherently and irredeemably flawed.
    Frank repeatedly refers to “The AA Program”, the “Program as written”, and so on, meaning basically the Steps and various writings of Bill W. It’s true that AA literature does conflate the Steps and the Program, at the same time it asserts that they are only “suggested”. For my part, as I have expressed elsewhere, I regard the Steps as harmful and irrelevant to recovery from alcoholism. The true AA Program is the 24-hour Plan, which is, and has always been, what keeps us sober.
    The AA Preamble (not written by Bill W., but by an editor of The Grapevine) expresses concisely and cogently what the true AA is and is not. There is no mention of a Program or Steps or Higher Power or spirituality. AA is a fellowship of alcoholics who help each other stay away from the First Drink.
    Atheists and agnostics have been in AA from the very beginning. The Fellowship belongs to us every bit as much as it does to the religionists. Over the years I have known many people in AA who were outspokenly anti-religious. My friend Ben, who died a couple of years ago at the age of 89, had 59 years of sobriety; he was an atheist who ignored the Steps, although he thought they might be helpful for some people. My friend Richard, who died at the age of 80, had almost 40 years of sobriety; he despised the Steps, and attended only the agnostics groups in New York, once they had formed.
    We shouldn’t hand AA over to the religionists without a struggle. On occasions when I make particularly pungent criticisms of the Steps or HP, a few people make faces, but others come up to me after the meeting, all smiles, to say how happy they were that I spoke out. We’re not such a small minority as we sometimes think.

  8. Tim C says:

    My take on this theme is a little different. I believe AA literature and talk has always been somewhat inconsistent and contradictory. A lot of that body of thought says you have to believe in a personal god. Other passages say not so. This inconsistency bothers me, but so does the total denial that AA simply contradicts itself, leaving individuals free to believe as they see fit.

  9. Frank M. says:

    I believe I know you from the online group AA Freethinkers, John K. Thanks for sharing your message of recovery there and elsewhere. Good to hear from you.

    Best regards,
    Frank M.

  10. Frank M. says:

    The only answer I can see to this problem would be general recognition in the fellowship that we got some things wrong in our book.

    Whether or not God was getting some of us sober (and I’m willing to just set that aside as something that doesn’t absolutely have to be resolved) others of us were using the same general principles and getting sober without God from the start. Failure to recognize that fact, and claiming that probably only God could help us alkies, was not only a mistake, it was an outright dishonesty that we’re still paying for as a society.

    But if we could admit that, and take a humble look at our own past and the mistakes we made, maybe the lesson there about the danger of thinking we have the final answer for anything would be quite powerful.

    Can we do that as a fellowship? I must admit I’m not optimistic.

    Frank M.

  11. steve b says:

    As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. When AA got started, the founders mistakenly believed that god had gotten them sober–which would have been a nice trick, since there is no god–and the god thing has been central to AA ever since. I rather doubt that AA is capable of the change needed to welcome alternative nontheistic approaches to recovery, and quite frankly, I was much happier with SOS (Secular Organization for Sobriety), which is modeled on AA, minus the steps and a higher power, and with complete freedom to devise one’s own method of recovery. Unfortunately, SOS never caught on where I live, so I go to AA as my Plan B.The AA Atheists and Agnostics online group is pretty cool, though, and it provides shelter and relief from the drumbeat of the Big Book thumpers.

  12. Roger says:

    Hi Rosa: There’s a good article about the Courts’ understanding of the religiosity of Alcoholics Anonymous right here: The Courts, AA and Religion. I trust your daughter is well! Roger.

  13. John K says:

    Good day fellows in recovery. I personally am very happy we atheists, agnostics and freethinkers have a safe place and forum to share on our successful and meaningful place in the world of diverse and successful recovery. I an an ex-competitive bodybuilder and used a number of philosophies and the shared wealth of different sports and coaches to enhance my personal health and welfare. Unfortunately the AA module of recovery until recently was a closed model. The general philosophy was Christian, and in my opinion a right wing version, i.e. the Oxford Group. These ancients even had problems with Jews and Catholics! I for one look forward to Sunday. The first thing I do is review the new article on this beautiful and all inclusive forum and website. In closing, I would like to say that I met the good folks from Beyond Belief two Christmases ago. I was in Detox at CAMH. I will say that all those in attendance at the service meeting they held had nothing but happy and healthy remarks for this beautiful group of recovering alcoholics/addicts in AA. Thank you. John K.

  14. Rosa B. says:

    I think I heard somewhere that the US Supreme Court or some superior court in the US has ruled that AA is a religion for legal purposes, etc. It’s obvious to me that it is – I was brought up in a very strict evangelical group and slowly worked my way out of the brain/mind manipulation involved – so I can readily recognize that AA is about God – because to work the program I would have to go back to the “evangelical/magical” way of thinking I could not accept even with a lifetime of brainwashing! However, aside from “God”, what can it be about AA that gives alcoholics a motive/ability to change and stop drinking? IMHO it’s just pretending to believe (as I did in my youth) something very very good – so that one has a reason to make an effort to not drink – if one is sent to AA for legal reasons – DUI etc. – the reason is obvious – one has to go along with the program or not drive – or family reasons (my partner will leave me) – but otherwise I don’t see the motivation to change unless it is that one meets other people with alcohol issues – and even then in AA all these people are saying they can only get better by believing in a higher power! I went to about 5 (regular i.e. not agnostic) AA meetings and essentially the whole thing was about God and what kind of higher power etc. and some people were talking about how happy (high!) they were now that they had “got” AA and the steps – but I could understand that part – it was the same thing that happened when in my childhood religion someone got “saved” – it was a transformational experience – but to me it’s important that it is also reality based. The only time in my adult life when I “believed in” God was when my daughter was born – I was so concerned for her wellbeing that I consciously decided to believe in God for “awhile” so that I would have the option of praying that she would be okay! It worked fairly well in terms of anxiety reduction but I knew what I was doing and I didn’t start trying to get converts!

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