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.
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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.” 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, 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,” 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.
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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.
 Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, remark #43
 AA Comes of Age, pg. 167
 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.