And when we were wrong…


By Frank M.

I wanted to do this thing right. I wanted to do it by the Big Book. In fact I was pretty sure I needed to, because I appeared to be dying. When you relapsed, I was told, it was either because you had not been doing the Steps or doing them incorrectly. Well, I’d relapsed twice in recovery. I had recently been released from a lockdown ward after a suicide attempt. I had to get it right this time.

I’d been trying to use “God as I understood Him” for my Higher Power and even “God as I don’t understand Him” (as someone had suggested). It wasn’t working. I thought I might need a more accessible and tangible source of strength and direction.

What did the Big Book say? I really, really wanted to do this right.

After much study, and digging deep into AA history, I saw something that made my heart sink. It appeared that some of the conservative views out there on the Big Book’s directions regarding finding and utilizing a Higher Power were more or less accurate. Using your own limited understanding to approach God is not the same as substituting anything bigger or stronger than you for God. The second is AA lore, but not a solid read of the literal instructions taken in their full context.

I made a heartfelt plea one morning in my home group. I wanted to follow the Big Book, but my naturalistic higher power ideas weren’t really in there. They looked a lot more like what was described as not working. Like moral and philosophical convictions.[i]

“What do I do?” I said.

“More will be revealed,” an old-timer said gently. “They didn’t know everything.”

He was right. And eventually I saw clearly that more had in fact been revealed. And astonishingly it contradicted one of Big Book AA’s three main ideas. So why wasn’t I hearing about that from AA itself? Why did I have to go searching on Internet boards and outside literature to find it?

TO (b) OR NOT TO (b)

On page sixty of AA’s basic text a bold statement appears that fairly circumscribes what the Big Book suggests can work effectively as your Higher Power –

(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.[ii] 

That’s not the group, nor is it AA as a whole, if we’re being honest. Whatever it is, the woo factor is pretty high. Some folks I knew in recovery had adopted various new-agey ideas that fit the bill and skirted the personal God issue. That wasn’t going to do it for me. Ditto pantheism, the other popular way out of this little trap. But there was, in turned out, a far more direct route around all this.

They were wrong.

They were just wrong here. We know today that secular sources of truth, direction and strength, “higher powers” that are fully natural and fully human also work just fine. These too can break down the walls of alcoholic insanity in conjunction with the actions of the Steps. Tens of thousands of non-theists have achieved long lasting recovery in AA stretching over decades. No honest assessment of our ranks can miss this fact. Proposition (b) on page sixty of the Big Book is simply incorrect.


There are a number of factors involved. First there is the mistaken idea that because using God really works (and it does), proposition (b) is not incorrect. After all, before AA and God-based recovery nothing else had treated alcoholism. Besides being historically incorrect,[iii] this is like saying that since penicillin was the first antibiotic to successfully treat bacterial infections, it is therefore the only effective antibiotic. This kind of thinking might be funny if it weren’t so often fatal in our Fellowship.

But perhaps chief among the reasons we don’t fix this critical mistake in our message is the idea that AA isn’t broken. And for most theists this is essentially true. AA even works pretty well as is for non-believers who are able eventually to become believers. This is all wonderful. For them. But AA has always striven to be available to every alcoholic regardless of belief or non-belief in God.

So to the extent that AA doesn’t fully support non-theists, and to the extent that they fail as a result, AA is not working just fine. 


I must admit, I find atheist apologists in AA even more difficult to stomach in some ways than the God-botherers. They go to any length to try and demonstrate how the traditional AA Program, exactly as written, is completely available to the principled atheist or agnostic. They pick through the literature like corporate lawyers, checking the fine print for secular loopholes.[iv]

Suffice to say this all amounts to a desperate and somewhat pathetic attempt to show how the Big Book gives them permission to work their secular programs. (More on that in a moment.)

Personally, I would rather be up front about the Big Book’s pervasive theism and the fact that these are instructions for how you are supposed to connect with a mystical God. I would rather not deny the Big Book’s supernaturalist orientation. I would rather not whitewash and deny the Big Book’s obvious antagonism toward non-theists. I would rather be honest about it all than argue how the words are squishy enough for non-believers to edge their way in on the margins.

Yes, being a Big Book apologist might help me fit in more smoothly, but it’s selling out the non-theist newcomer. It’s wrong. It’s selfish. It’s really just dishonest.


The way to defeat all arguments about the legitimate approach to the Steps is not to argue (incorrectly and in a convoluted manner) that the Big Book is not really theistic or God-centric. It is to admit its deep and sincere theism, and then to deny the authority accorded to the Big Book that it doesn’t even claim for itself.

The way for the non-theist to fit in to AA is not to chop off our philosophical principles like bloody limbs and leave them outside the door. No, there’s a much better route.


Bill Wilson wrote how men like James Burwell widened the door to AA.[v] What this really means is that AA is available to non-theists only to the extent that they are willing to become something like theists once they get inside the tent.

It’s time to do better than that. What we need is not a wider doorway but a bigger tent.

And like always, it will start with honestly admitting our mistakes. First that we were wrong about proposition (b). More has been revealed that contradicts this early and never universal view.

Next we have to be honest about what keeps us wedded to any outdated or unnecessarily limiting idea we find in the Big Book. It is an insidious need to feel certain and sanctioned. To feel we’re right, and validated. I had wanted to do this thing “right” and “by the Big Book.” and what I learned eventually was that these two ideas are not the same. The right way to do the Steps, if you choose to do them, is the way that activates the recovery potential in them for you. There’s only what works and what doesn’t. Nothing more matters.

What’s generating conflict in AA today is not just one side or another saying their approach is the only legitimate one. It’s our failure to see that there is no such thing as a “legitimate” or “authorized” or “permitted” approach to the Steps. Let it go. It was never important.

It’s time, as a Fellowship, we did a long overdue Tenth Step on this matter of just what is our best understanding of workable higher powers (by our collective experience). And of how that’s represented today in our literature, not just our rooms. If we can’t bring ourselves to do this, what hope have we of ever amending AA’s message to something more helpful and inclusive, and making ourselves of maximum service to all alcoholics?

All that’s needed to begin is more realistic and humble attitude toward our basic text, and perhaps a simple footnote to proposition (b)*

*Over the years we have found that God and many other sources of strength and wisdom, some of them fully human, can help you. If you’re willing to go to any length.

It’s nothing more or less than the plain truth. Let’s honor it.

[i] Alcoholics Anonymous – p. 62
[ii] Ibid. – p. 60
[iii] The Washingtonians (while their society was there to support them) achieved roughly equivalent success with getting drunks sober.
[iv] For a clear refutation to these claims (and a breezy read), see Short of a Game Changer–Appendix II
[v] Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 167

Frank has written some wonderful articles for AA Agnostica.

In fact, by far one of the most popular posts on the website is Frank’s An Atheist’s Guide to 12-Step Recovery (August 12, 2012).

He has also written Is the AA Program a Procrustean Bed? (January 6, 2013), which, in fact, is something of a precursor to this post. Frank also explained how the Girl Scout’s dealt with the “God bit” in a way that is a fine example for Alcoholics Anonymous: A Lesson for AA from our Betters.

Frank’s very first post on AA Agnostica was the essay, The Willow Tree Bark.

51 Responses

  1. Alex A. says:

    I have a different take on this. I am a Pantheist, but to me the book is just fine the way it is but not because it is the way it is. I have been a fundamentalist Christian in AA when I first joined in my early 20’s, by mid 20’s I denounced my faith becoming an Ex-Christian and converted to Nichiren Buddhism. I lost my sobriety because I felt I had no basis for anything resembling a higher power as my belief was in the Law of cause and effect, I am the higher power (I no longer believe I am the higher power yet still believe almost identical to the way I believed as a Buddhist). I eventually denounced Buddhism and took all the teachings from it that I agreed with and made my own practice. I believe that everything functions off the Law of cause and effect, how I react to things is based on the causes inside of me. I have an enlightened nature under my sub concious (God conciousness according to AA, Buddha nature according to Buddhism) which when I am spiritually sick as it is covered by layers of delusions and attachments (character defects) which is why NLP doesn’t keep the desire to drink away from me. I chant which alters those causes resulting in my inner guide coming through. I have no power in anything as free will is an illusion so literally “no human power” could have relieved my alcoholism as humans have no power, they appear to have power based on how they react to their environment at each moment of the day due to the causes inside of them dictating which choices they make. So, a Christian will believe it is “God” keeping them sober, and an Atheist will not believe it is “God” keeping them sober. Both view points are equally valid because both people despite having opposite views, both are reacting and interpreting reality due to the causes inside of them. The law of cause and effect is creating inside the Christian “God” and inside the Atheist “no God”. Is this not a “creative intelligence” like my computer is a “creative intelligence”? We call them “smart phones” for a reason. Intelligence doesn’t have to mean sentient. The law of cause and effect appears at times to be intelligent and at other times mindless. People give it a mind like a human “it has a plan” yet it would have to reside in a human mind to have human desires such as a plan. When people go on and on about “the grace of God entered into my heart to expell the obsession for alcohol”, grace also means according to the dictionary “flexibility” or “gracefullness” and if I am acting out of my inner guide I am acting and living by the “grace of God” which is a state of being as I am one with my inner guide which is connected to the environment around me, and its ways are of love and compassion, “grace” like a figure skater. The damndest thing (as the fundies in AA would want to lynch me for my beliefs as it would piss them off if they knew what I really believed) is that they can’t poke any holes in it as it doesn’t contradict the literature and makes more sense when reading the book from that perspective. Any time people want to tell me what to believe I always point out three things in the book. Pg. 47 at the top-When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Then go to Pg. xx of the Foreword to the second edition at the bottom of the page-By personal religious affiliation, we include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and a sprinkling of Moslems and Buddhists-and these concepts are VERY Buddhist in nature. This is conference approved literature and the people doing the approving certainly would have known something about Buddhism, so why else would they have included it unless they saw no trouble with its non-theistic/pantheistic leanings? Finally, pg. 95 at the bottom of the page. If he thinks he can do the job in some other way, or prefers some other spiritual approach, encourage him to follow his own conscience. We have no monopoly on God; we merely have an approach that worked with us. I also like to throw in for good measure how this is about living by rigorous honesty. Does the person actually follow the book or not? What of the pre-requisites to working the third step? We had to quit playing God, it didn’t work. If only you non-theist person you-would believe like I believe, if only you would turn your will and life over to the care of God as I understand God, you would be happy, I would be happy, and the world would be lollypops and rainbows. Gee, that’s funny, for someone so high and mighty Mr. AA as you, someone who thinks their beliefs about “God” are so superior to my inferior Pantheistic beliefs that aren’t even threatening to you-and if anything are encouraging to you (but your expectations are that your deity is the ONLY truth so it pisses you off when someone like me comes along), you sure like to play God an awful lot. I could probably learn more about rigorous honesty and following the steps out of a cracker jack box or a fortune cookie than what you are trying to push on me while condemning me for my beliefs. At this point in my life I don’t bring this up in meetings much unless the topic lines up with this because you can’t argue with close minded people or stupid bigoted people.

  2. Kenneth M. says:

    Frank: Bill W. My First Forty Years (1954), Hazelden. Transcribed from audio tape. Page 153-154:

    While Dr. Silkworth had deeply shaken my confidence in my own ability to recover, Ebby had somehow completely shattered it… He was living proof of all he claimed. Nothing theoretical or second hand about this… As these realizations burst in upon me I became wildly excited. It was not daylight clear why the clergymen’s advice “You can do it, but only with God’s help” hadn’t worked. By contrast, Rowland, Ebby, and I had admitted that we of ourselves couldn’t do anything at all… The moment the admission of hopelessness ran deep enough, any alcoholic could begin to receive faith and release. And one alcoholic turning the message to another could ready the sufferer for his gift as nobody else could.

    • Frank M. says:

      Kenneth, Bill Wilson believed (and made clear in his letter to Carl Jung) that what AA did was to make conversion experiences as described by William James available “on an almost wholesale basis.”

      While that certainly happens in AA, and while a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness aids in the surrender and ego deflation which usually precedes that experience, I must confess I think Bill was essentially wrong about all this. The conversion experience certainly represents a subset of recovery modality, but no more.

      Also the idea expressed there, that the clergymen’s advice “You can do it, but only with God’s help” doesn’t work? That is demonstrably wrong. Bill discounts all his own strenuous efforts in recovery (and he must in order to be consistent) just to service a theory he’s fallen in love with. It’s a theory of God’s power and man’s lack of power. He’s simply trying to align his recovery theory with the theology of Christian salvation through grace.

      He is not, in my opinion, entirely successful here. We have always had to do for ourselves what God cannot do for us. We take action. And we do it best with the help of our fellows.

  3. Frank M. says:

    I wrote that some non-theists comb through the BB looking for out clauses. I should mention that theist apologists for the full openness of the BB do the same on behalf of their non-theist fellows. (A generous if misguided effort.)

    And now it seems, per one of the comments here, that I missed another tactic, which is combing through earlier drafts of the BB looking for loopholes there too!

    If the language of the earlier draft(s) tells us anything, it tells us the true intention of the BB regarding the necessity of finding God before that message got blurred a bit with fuzzy language.

    Also, don’t miss the point of the whole BB argument when it comes to the experience of those who were writing it. It’s not to say, “this was our experience, yours may be different.” No, no, not at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite. There were saying –

    1. God was the only thing that worked for most of us.
    2. Read our description of the alcoholic and then decide – are you just like us?
    3. If you are, then logically God is probably the only thing that will work for you too.

    There’s no out clause to be found there.

  4. David H. says:

    Nan Robertson’s book, “Getting Better,” is a good read, bringing to light AA’s & Bill W.’s finances, their flaws and shortcomings. “Making money off of AA!”!!!
    “The AA establishment is still here to defend Bill W.” Does this imply that Susan Cheever and Matthew Raphael are “AA establishment”?
    Personality cults are always off-putting to me. Stalin and Mao like portraits of “the glorious leader” are a sure tip off of a rotten core.
    But where would most of us be if Bob and Bill hadn’t gotten together and pulled this thing together?

    • John L. says:

      I should have said that both Susan Cheever and Matthew Raphael are admirers of Bill W., but they present some negative information about him in their books — information that had been suppressed in the sanitized literature published by AA. Rather than representing the “AA establishment”, Cheever and Raphael bucked it at least a little.

      I’m not convinced that Bill & Bob “pulled this thing together”. Where would we be if other, more rational AA members had not curbed their religiosity, their self-aggrandizement and, in Bill’s case, his profiteering? Who knows?

  5. John L. says:

    I really like this post, especially the line: “They were wrong.” Or perhaps, “Bill W. was wrong”, since he presumably wrote it. The statement, “That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism”, is demonstrably false, since many nonbelievers have achieved long-term sobriety. My friend Ben, who died a couple of years ago at the age of 89, had been a sober atheist in AA for 59 years. I myself have over 45 years of continuous sobriety — 10 years more than Bill W. would have had *if* he had not relapsed in the final years of his life (a story for another time).

    AA literature should not continue to say things that are provably false. This means that the Big Book and a lot of other books and pamphlets should be corrected. If an issue is genuinely debatable, then AA literature should give all sides of the controversy. Yes, indeed, AA should be a *big tent*.

    • Frank M. says:

      “AA literature should not continue to say things that are provably false.”

      That’s really the bottom line, isn’t it? It’s not only dishonest and unhelpful, but it undermines our reputation and credibility. And that further erodes our usefulness.

      Thank you, John, for summing that point up so neatly.

      • Laurie A says:

        I saw a cartoon in which a wife pleads with her husband,furiously working on his laptop, “Come to bed, dear.” He replies, “Soon, darling, there’s someone wrong on the internet.” So having put you all right ! I will not post again on this topic; others can have the last word: Big Book, page 20: “If you are an alcoholic who wants to get over it, you may already be asking – ‘What do I have to do?’ ” The logical answer to “What do I have to do?” is indeed an instruction, “You must do this (that or the other).” Those who compiled the Big Book did not issue such an instruction, they said: “We shall tell you WHAT WE HAVE DONE…” Then it’s up to the drunk to decide what to do.

    • David H. says:

      No fair John L.
      No fair sucker punching Bill W. below the belt (“if” he had not relapsed in the final years of his life), and then running off.
      The man isn’t here to defend himself, after all.
      Let’s hear the evidence, chapter and verse.

      • Laurie A says:

        Quite right. Susan Cheever in her biography of Bill recorded how on his deathbed he called out for whisky. But the man was delirious – and he wasn’t given it. So he died sober.

      • John L. says:

        Fair enough — I should have provided evidence. But that would have made an excessively long “comment”, and I’m saving “chapter and verse” for a future article. I think his demand for whiskey — he was not delirious — meant that he had been drinking when still able to get it himself. Briefly, other evidence would include a statement by an old-timer, Bill W’s use of drugs other than alcohol, his non-attendance at AA meetings in the final years of his life, and his fanatical promotion of mega-dose niacin (alcoholics are really schizophrenics who can thus be cured). In his writings Bill W. neglected the 24-Hour Plan: Stay Away From The First Drink, etc.

        The AA establishment is still here to defend Bill W. In their Bill W. biographies Susan Cheever and Matthew Raphael (pseud.) show that in several areas AA shielded his reputation: LSD, niacin, spiritualism, and sexual compulsion. A relapse might also have been covered up.

    • Laurie A says:

      They weren’t wrong ABOUT THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE! (See my posting below)

      • John L. says:

        If they did not get sober through the intervention of a supernatural power, they were wrong. (See my posting below under Laurie A’s posting.)

      • Frank M. says:

        We need to get a lot more humble regarding what it means to talk about our “experience.”

        By analogy, if I tell you that I had cancer, and I said a prayer, and I got well – that’s my experience.

        But if I say that God healed me of cancer – that’s a theory.

        It’s the latter that we encounter everywhere in the big book. And to extend the analogy, it’s a very questionable theory too, that God healed me. Because you’ll notice that I next go on to tell you how something like surgery and chemo were involved as well!

    • Laurie A says:

      So Bill was no saint – surprise, surprise. That doesn’t prove he had a relapse – can’t wait to see the “evidence”. Meanwhile let’s remember without this flawed human being we would not be enjoying this robust exchange. As to the first few score, they certainly believed no human power could have relieved their alcoholism, though they were humble enough to include the caveat “probably”. Maybe they were sincerely wrong – but you can’t prove it. As Bertrand Russell said, “There may be an earthenware teapot on the far side of the Moon but the chances are vanishingly small.” There’s room for us all.

      • Laurie A says:

        John L. “He (Bill) was not delirious”.
        “As the emphysema progressed, Bill’s nights were frequently filled with dreams and visions. Even when awake he sometimes fell victim to hallucinations… Bill’s ravings about the things he thought he was seeing turned his existence … increasingly nightmarish…” (Bill W., by Francis Hartigan, Thomas Dunne Books, 2001) Sounds pretty delirious to me – but then of course I wasn’t there. Oh, but then neither was John L.

    • rich n says:

      Sorry, what is the point of an unsupported, probably libelous attack on Bill W.? Did you miss the bit about love and tolerance?

      Keep your dry drunk to yourself, no need to spread malice. AA should be a big tent, not a circus tent.

      • Cecilia D. says:

        You can’t libel the dead. If there’s a theory about the end of Bill W.’s life that differs from what’s commonly understood to be true, then let someone advance it to stand or fall on its own merits. Bill W. isn’t entitled to any more or less deference in death than any other figure of history.

        Meanwhile, I am puzzled by the idea that advancing such a theory would necessarily be malicious — unless you believe that relapsing is a valid reason to think ill of someone, which love and tolerance would presumably preclude.

  6. bob k says:

    Frank is one of my favorite people who I have yet to meet, and I am absolutely envious of his tremendous powers as a writer, and as a thinker. He has a rare ability to articulate complex ideas in the most readable of ways.
    I am not optimistic about AA making any changes to the literature, or other accommodations to “ye of little faith” within my lifetime, BUT the cause is just.
    The world is becoming more secular, and an unaltered AA will be mocked by the generations to come. It may be that there will be, in the not too distant future, two AA’s. Interesting times are coming. We are pioneers of SOMETHING.
    Frank is AWESOME!!

    • Michael says:

      I also love to read Frank, however, while not an apologist for the God concept in AA, continues to be an apologist for the 12 steps. The entire purpose of the steps is to convince us that we are

      1) powerless and hopeless (steps 1,2)

      2) that only an acceptance of a personal deity can relieve our alcoholism (step 3,7,11)

      3) this deity will only grace our lives if we humble ourselves to Him through perpetual “house cleaning”
      (steps 4-10)

      While I would agree that there is some usefulness in taking an inventory, making amends, and focusing on our own faults rather than the other guys faults, I do not believe this course of action targets my cellular affinity to the ethanol molecule. Only science can uncover the true cause and cure for addiction. And as long as we cling to the religious idea that we are born flawed and require Heavenly intervention through a path of humility, confession and atonement of our sinning nature, we will not make any headway with addictions.
      As an analogy, I have at various times in my life been “hopelessly” addicted to nicotine and at times been completely free of it’s grasp. Would doing inventories and confessions and amends have made any difference in helping me quit smoking?

      AA behaves like a fundamentalist religion, ignoring science and clinging to a set of retarded, ancient concepts that hinder progress toward a real solution.

      Since fellowship and support in a group setting does help alcoholics, at least initially, trying to live without alcohol, lets call a spade a spade and discard the nonsense in AA. Start an SOS (Secular Organization for Sobriety) chapter in your area, for example, if you really want to help the still suffering alcoholic. I would bet my house that if proper statistics could be kept, an SOS group would help far more alcoholics than an AA group. But more importantly, not permanently screw up as many people. AA, just like most religions is fear based, archaic, wrong, and does far more harm than good. If you like to think of yourself as a flawed wayward child of God (a sheep), and that’s why you drink, then AA is a wonderful place brimming with smiling happy sheeple. No thanks, I’d rather join a bowling league. Same effect (fellowship, a way to kill an evening)

      • bob k says:

        WOW!! I wonder if you have ANY idea how poorly you have represented the people on your side of this debate.

      • Michael says:

        Not that I claimed to represent anybody, but how do I misrepresent so hugely as you claim?

      • John M. says:


        I cannot, of course, speak for Bob but some of the things you claim in your original comment were a tad extreme. I’ll only briefly address the following by you. “The entire purpose of the steps is to convince us that we are: 1) powerless and hopeless (steps 1,2)”

        The fact that you are commenting as you do on a website where the majority of AA Agnostica supporters do not powerlessly accept some of the “mainstream” AA dogma makes some of us wonder where this is coming from. It is simply not our experience – though, like you, we may have encountered this kind of perverse “teaching” by some in the rooms.

        Those of us from Toronto continue to “fight the good fight” against an Intergroup that will not “promptly admit” its error in de-listing us. Our resistance is hardly powerlessness or hopelessness in that we believe that we can effect change within the fellowship as opposed to joining other types of recovery programs or starting our own.

        Now, not all the supporters of AA Agnostica have indicated (in their comments over the past couple of years) that they are strong believers in the 12 Steps, but those of us who are – while maintaining our distance from the theistic slant – have found the Steps to be quite empowering and not, as you suggest, disempowering.

        There is certainly some truth to what you say above, but the canard you present about the Steps betrays perhaps your limited exposure to other literature about the 12 Steps.

        Our editor, Roger, for instance, has included in his recently published The Little Book, four interpretations of the 12 Steps by Dr. Allen Berger, Stephanie Covington, Dr. Gabor Mate, and Theresa Jacobs-Stewart, and all four interpretations undermine your claim that the “entire purpose of the Steps is to convince us that we are powerless and hopeless.”

        A google search for “cognitive behaviour” and “12 Steps” will also yield numerous academic and non-academic articles on the similarities between the 12 Steps and various cognitive and rational emotive based models. For example, Cognitive Restructuring and the 12-Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous where the authors summarize their study as follows: “Cognitive restructuring occurs in therapy and in AA. It can, therefore, be the bridge that encourages understanding and cooperation between the two factors influencing recovery.”

        Perhaps, Michael, you might find the rational kernel somewhere within the mystical shell of the 12 Steps.

  7. Glenna R. says:

    Me again,I’m shocked at how many people in AA, to use the Porter’s word in Macbeth, would equivocate their way to heaven or some other good place.

  8. Glenna R. says:

    Great piece, Frank. What I like the best is your view which is the same as mine that I’d rather be honest than argue that the words are squishy enough for me to find a way to edge my way in!!

    • Frank M. says:

      It’s a little weird finding myself on the same side as the AA conservatives regarding what the BB actually says about God (minus the tiny little accommodations here and there, that is).

      But we have to remember too that what Bill and Bob and some others thought about the WHY of this whole phenomenon of AA recovery was in large part their speculation. Let me unpack that.

      If I’m feeling a bit chilled, and I go sit in the hot sun, I do get warmer. That’s a fact. It’s undeniable. But if I theorize that it’s all happening because Zeus’s hot and fiery chariot is being driven across the heavens? My perspiration is not proof of that theory.

      Those men regained their sanity. Why that happened isn’t something even they could claim to understand fully.

      That’s where guys like Dick B. miss the boat. It doesn’t matter that they really did think Jesus was healing them in Akron in the beginning. That doesn’t prove that He was.

      And then, of course, the BB claims no authority over what we can practice. And it’s not, for the above reason, some kind of dispositive authority on what was going on.

      Still, it really throws people when you say that the wording is no where near as flexible as many non-theists have been arguing.

  9. Lech L. says:

    Why don’t you hear about it from AA itself? Pretty simple answer – AA is a religion, or certainly close enough to it for many that I see little difference. No religion likes to have its doctrine contradicted. Heretics may not be burned at the stake, but they are not popular.

  10. Frank M. says:

    Thanks to everyone for the comments. Nice to see the piece inspires conversation and critique too. I want to add something regarding that “probably” there in proposition (b) of the BB.

    Strictly speaking it keeps the proposition from being logically false, yes. But it’s akin to the following–

    Had someone written a travel guide in 1928 and (ignoring Lindbergh)asserted “Probably only some kind of ship will get you from the Americas to Europe.”…

    That’s perfectly understandable, in historical context. But today it risks misleading at the very least. And practically speaking, it would make exceedingly poor advice for a modern traveler who gets seasick.

    • Laurie A says:

      Those pioneers were relating their experience: ‘Probably no human power could have relieved OUR alcoholism.’ Doesn’t say, YOUR alcoholism. The Doctor’s Opinion notes ‘… the aggregate of recoveries resulting from psychiatric effort is considerable.’ SMART recovery, SOS etc didn’t exist in the 1930s, but those early AA’s prudently used the word probably to indicate that they had an open mind to other remedies. Elsewhere the book encourages problem drinkers who don’t like the AA approach to try ways that might work for them – ‘Upon therapy for the alcoholic we surely have no monopoly’. Tradition 3, long form, says AA membership does not depend on money or conformity – so why conform? As Al-Anon says, ‘Take what you like and leave the rest.’ The Spiritual appendix says no-one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program, which suggests that someone who does have difficulty must need that difficulty.

      • Roger says:

        I have difficulty with the notion of an interventionist God – quite prevalent in the Big Book and the Steps – whether I need to or not.

      • John L. says:

        We may differ as to what constitutes the “AA approach”. To me the real AA, the AA that works, is expressed in the AA Preamble. As a Fellowship we help each other get sober, stay sober, and rebuild our lives. To me the heart of AA is the Fellowship and the 24-Hour Plan – a day at a time we help each other stay away from the First Drink. See my article on The Program.

        Bill W. (not all of the “pioneers”) may have been describing what he *believed* was his experience. That doesn’t mean that it was true – doesn’t mean that a supernatural being got him sober. Likewise, many AA members believe that they owe their sobriety to “working the Steps”. Maybe so, but perhaps they are really sober *in spite of* the Steps.

  11. Laurie A says:

    “AAs tread innumerable paths in their quest for faith…” (12+12) Including you and I, Frank. In my case faith in AA, not faith in God? I came into AA 29 years ago an agnostic and I remain a determined agnostic. There are no “literal instructions” in AA literature, as you assert. Merely narratives of experience, suggestions and directions. (A signpost gives directions but it can’t instruct you where to go). “AA does not demand that you believe anything.” (12+12) So don’t. The oldtimer’s words to you, “More will be revealed” are a direct quote from the Big Book, “We realise we know but little, God will constantly reveal more to you and to us.” I don’t believe God is revealing anything to me but certainly more has been revealed over time. Dr Bob’s words “If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a sceptic or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel
    sorry for you” and “Your Heavenly Father will never let you down” are patronising nonsense – so ignore them. As Bill W said, “Every AA has the privilege of interpreting the program as they wish, according to their outlook and experience.” The Big Book is not inviolable set in stone scripture. The book says “God gave us brains to use,” no God didn’t – evolution gave us brains to use – so let’s use them. And lighten up!

    • Frank M. says:

      “There are no ‘literal instructions’ in AA literature, as you assert. Merely narratives of experience, suggestions and directions.”

      That may be true of the stories section, but is it accurate to say of “How it Works” and “Into Action” that there aren’t quite specific instructions there?

      The instructions for Step Seven are very concise. And equally ineffective for most.

      We are free to ignore these directions (though often we find ourselves not supported by our fellows when we do). But I wouldn’t conflate this allowance with a an actual lack of directions. On this we’ll have to agree to disagree.

      • Laurie A says:

        From: “The Book That Started It All: the original working manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous” (Hazelden; 2010). Shifting from prescriptive to descriptive language: handwritten endpaper margin note related to this category of edit: “We have constantly said that the trouble with organised religion is that they try to dogmatically pour people into moulds. So why should we give specific instructions in the book saying do this or do that? You can obscure many alcoholics.” Shifting pronouns: Foreword, paragraph 1, lines 3 and 4: “To show other alcoholics PRECISELY HOW [THEY CAN RECOVER] TO (WE HAVE RECOVERED) is the main purpose of this book.” This sets the voice of the Big Book in the first person plural… The importance when the authors chose not to change it is particularly noticeable in chapter seven when the authors choose to leave the prescriptive more directive pronouns as they are, possibly because they are now speaking to people who have had personality change sufficient to recover from alcoholism, a group of people less sensitive to being told what to do…. It is easy to understand that the first 100 (sic) AA members could be overzealous in their language. And yet it is clear from the descriptions of AA’s earliest contributors … that neither Ebby nor Bill had any agenda beyond honestly sharing their experience. Many alcoholics are oversensitive to even a hint of being controlled. ‘But he did no ranting’ is a powerful moment in Bill’s story.” So those pioneers may not have got it absolutely right but they tried. There are “no more lectures to be endured” – or instructions!

        • Roger says:

          Perhaps you should share this with the Vancouver Intergroup that is about to boot two agnostic groups off of its meeting list, based entirely on the contents of the Big Book.

  12. John K. says:

    Excellent intellectual content. Unfortunately AA theists resent medical and or psychological remedies that provide the alcoholic/addict with a program of recovery. I have personally tried to open the minds of some of the religious Right Wing, but to no avail. They still believe Noah’s Ark to be a true story. Instead of getting traditional AA’s blessing, maybe we should build our secular tent, starting with the treatment centres, giving people new to recovery more than one option. Thanks and good health to all.

  13. Dan L. says:

    Thank you Frank. I just love something that gets me thinking first thing in the morning.
    One thing I feel we can’t overlook is that god works for believers because they want it to and they are comfortable with it. In my own very limited view “AA as I understand it” works for me. There is a huge and not totally understood human element in the AA process which is akin to religious services, politics, sports rallies and other things that humans do together that breaks through the psychological isolation which is a characteristic of the addict. I find I want to participate with the believers to achieve this sense of community but cannot share their godiness or even feel like pretending to. They are resentful in advance of anyone changing their flimsy belief system but I view that as their problem. My problem is how to convince the newcomer that “as you understand HIM” is a false front for theism… but he or she can still proceed to use AA to further their recovery.
    Around here we have a few “designer god” people. They design their own god and how they get away with it is beyond me.
    Anyway I do not have a higher power but have certainly found a higher purpose than feeding my addiction. Thanks.

    • Frank M. says:

      “One thing I feel we can’t overlook is that god works for believers because they want it to and they are comfortable with it.”

      I agree completely. This is why I think the whole secular/theistic question is best answered by the word “and.”

      AA works with secular sources of truth, strength and inspiration AND it works with God ideas in this same function.

      Unfortunately, there are still those in the Fellowship who cling to the now unjustifiable idea that God is “probably” the only way. And if He is the only way, then it follows that suggesting any other option is – in the mind of some believers – a terrible thing to do to a drunk who “really” needs God.

      In fact, Bill Wilson argued that the God idea was so unwelcome to many ego-inflated alkies that ONLY the thought that there simply was NO other way to get better would get them to Him. Part of the point of hopelessness was, in effect, to force you to turn to your Heavenly Father out of lack of options.

      So you can see that someone thinking like this is going to have a tough time accepting the secular alternative into AA.

  14. David H. says:

    We should write our own book or booklet or pamphlet. Something like Living Sober. Leave the BB alone. It’s a document of its time and as such is very instructive.
    Wilson had plenty of editors, some of them professional writers and editors, but more to my liking were the members of the groups. The manuscript was sent out to hundreds of people for comment and suggestion.
    Wilson’s incorrect definition of what an atheist is on page 10 of the BB and page 28 of the 12×12 should stand and be pointed to and corrected in our new book.
    I agree with Thomas B. that the “Probably” in proposition b is effectively saying “but it could happen.”
    I do agree with the idea of a footnote, like the one on page 34 of the BB about young people in AA. Something like:

    Over time many thousands of non believers have achieved lifelong sobriety without a god.

    But try and get the woo peddlers to see it!

  15. Pam L says:

    This was a great read. You read my mind.

  16. Pat N. says:

    Excellent. We should call a spade a spade. While we’re at it, let’s throw out the chapter to agnostics, which is derided by every sober agnostic I know.

    I’m in England presently, Cambridge area. Every meeting so far includes (a) some God-referencing reading(s) from the BB and (b) several members who mention their agnosticism/atheism.

    I think Wilson needed a good editor. The BB is a tendentious, falsely modest, and poorly-written work, and I haven’t read it in years of sobriety.
    Two things helped me get sober when I was ready: The people of AA-their love, example, and practical ideas; and living in the present, which I learned from them.

  17. life-j. says:

    I do agree with most of the above, as usual. Then I trailed off on some of the links to another Frank M post that I can’t find again, where a couple of things related struck me. One was that we have to quit playing god. The problem with that is that it keeps everything in terms of “the god stuff” – I was never playing god in the first place. Maybe some of these type A personalities on Wall Street of the 20s were, but not me. All my choices were simply fear based. I was afraid of feeling the way I was going to feel if things played out the way it looked like they were going to play out, and the one sure fix was alcohol – no matter what I felt I could count on feeling something else, once I drank sufficiently. When I quit, my life certainly was unraveling faster than I could pick up the pieces, but probably the worst problem was that the alcohol was no longer doing its job. It no longer was guaranteed to change how I felt, not even close anymore. As likely as not I would still feel the same once I was as drunk as I could get. But I never played god. A shot of alcohol that would change the way I felt right now was way better than anything I could have done 5 minutes later that might even have solved whatever problem I did not want to feel the consequences of, even if it might have been a perfectly sane and practical and complete solution, I was still likely to choose what would take away my feelings sooner rather than later, that’s how scared I had become of myself, or should I say of my non-self.

    Even the idea of a higher power I think we need to get away from talking about. So long as we keep it in our program it will always be a way to sneak a god in the back door. True two heads think better than one, and so by AA logic these two heads can be a higher power to the individual heads, but I think we need to get to where this is simply a *level playing field*. Together we are doing what we could never do alone. By sharing our weakness with each other, we gain strength. There is no higher power, and we need to root out the idea. Even atheists in AA talk about finding a higher power, because they’re buying the idea that “something greater than ourselves” is needed. It’s not something greater than ourselves that is needed, simply more than ourselves, we can’t do it alone. You and me aren’t greater than me. We’re just you and me working together, lifting the burden of alcoholism together, and whatever emotional problems made us wander into the halls of alcoholism in the first place.
    Just like moving a piano together instead of trying to do it alone.

  18. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Frank M. for another thought-provoking essay. However, to my mind, TO (b) OR NOT TO (b) is not the either/or proposition that you effectively pose it to be — the insertion of “probably” mutes the stark black & whiteness of the statement “no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.”

    Since Bill first wrote “How It Works”, which was editorially approved by the first 100 or 70 or whatever number of folks in Akron and New York who reviewed and approved it, another principle that is as major a theme of the Big Book as “proposition (b)” has come into play — “more has been revealed” to demonstrate that many of us can and do get sober without the aid and assistance of any direct intervention by a personal god.

    This whole conflict between “theists” and “non-theists” in AA is a tempest in a teapot, so typical of what we humans manifest so often on this earthly plane. It’s doubtful that either side will back down and admit the other side is right. However, hopefully both sides will utilize another principle deeply embedded within our organizational DNA: “love and tolerance is our code”, so that we can agree to disagree about “God” and find common ground in being grateful for and celebrating all of our recoveries, some with a personal god, many of us without.

    Increasingly for me this is the challenge for continued progress, never perfection “to grow along spiritual lines.”

    • Frank M. says:

      Thomas,that’s a fair point. In my mind the “probably” is very clearly a kind of false modesty. It is so overwhelmed by the firm message in so many other places regarding how nothing but God had worked, that it amounts to an empty gesture.

      The language of the BB was softened here and there to ease contentious responses to various claims, that’s all. I see this an simply another example of that rhetorical technique.

      Also, I wouldn’t want to ask newcomers to hang their life or death choice (and recovery is often life or death) on a single “probably.” (Though a good lawyer might argue that it was “allowed.”)

  19. Karen M. says:

    Thanks so much for this essay! It’s a revolutionary idea to me that AA could do a Tenth Step on the parts of the Big Book that are just wrong. For proposition (b) I usually substitute in my head “That my individual human power could not relieve my alcoholism.”

    • Frank M. says:

      That’s a viable substitution, and (as one who subscribes to naturalism) I imagine it’s what really is working in the rooms of AA. We need an outside influence to crack through the craziness.

      Some people have argued that “God” is just a metaphor in AA for this very idea, or at least can be used as one. We needed something beyond our present, individual resources. My response here is that a metaphor is supposed to make an idea more accessible, not more obscure!

    • Lola says:

      Amen sistah!

  20. Ed S. says:

    Great essay! I do not believe that a god or the steps have kept me sober these past 26 years. It is the unconditional love I receive from fellow members of AA that replace the negative feelings that I had before going to meetings. Our We Agnostics meeting, of course, is the best and I hope more of them appear.

    • Lech L. says:

      What has kept me sober for 32 years is not drinking. I believe AA played a big a role in my abstention, but I can’t ‘prove’ that. I may have come to realize that not drinking was the answer to my problem through other means, but that’s not the way it happened.

      • Eric T says:

        I’m with you Lech. The biggest – yet simplest – thing I had to wrap my head around was to NOT drink, regardless of the circumstances, and then actually DO that. Every day. So far so good!

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