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.
WHY DON’T WE JUST FIX THIS?
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.
WHAT ABOUT THE NON-THEISTS WHO SAY IT IS?
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.
WHAT ELSE IS THE NON-THEIST TO DO?
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.
A BIGGER TENT, NOT JUST A WIDER DOOR
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.