A Fellowship of the Religious?

Back to Basics

By Thomas B.


Recently at an AA meeting I became aware of something which in my previous 40 plus years of continuous recovery, I had missed. On page 164 of the Big Book, AA is described by Bill as a Fellowship of the Spirit, capital F and capital S!

A Fellowship of the Spirit resonates deeply with me, since early on, as described in First AA Meetings, I have considered my higher power to be: G-O-D — Group Of Drunk/Druggies. During the last couple of years, however, I’ve experienced AA to be morphing into something other than a Fellowship of the Spirit. Increasingly, it is becoming a Fellowship of the Religious rigidly and dogmatically reflecting the Christian religion.

Two former Chairpersons of the General Service Board agree with this assessment. Bob Pearson in 1986 warned that, “If you were to ask me what is the greatest danger facing AA today, I would have to answer: the growing rigidity.” Last year, shortly after he left as Chairperson, the Reverend Ward Ewing, an Episcopalian priest, in an extended interview with Joe C. (mentioned again in last week’s article) had this to say about ending the 2010 AA World Conference in San Antonio with the Lord’s Prayer: “I was surprised and frankly I was a little shocked. Again, I consider myself reasonably religious and I want you to be religious but don’t try to make AA religious.”

The dynamic between the Christian religious orientation of AA in Akron, reflecting  the evangelical, pietistic Oxford Group ideology and a more open-ended and non-dogmatic spirituality has been a consistent theme in the evolution of AA’s history since its earliest days, when Jim Burwell and Hank Parkhurst in the fledging New York group were instrumental in widening the door of AA, so that any alcoholic with or without belief could find recovery within AA. During the past 25 or so years, however, there has been a resurgence of reverting back to the a more religiously oriented AA as it existed in the Oxford Group meetings of AA in Akron between 1935 and 1939.

How to Listen A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking with a guy in my home group, our GSR, whose long-term recovery I deeply admire. He asked me what I thought about Wally P. and the “Back to Basics” movement. I told him I didn’t know specifically about Wally P., but that I would look into it.

When I got home, I googled Wally P. Yup, just as I suspected, Wally Paton, the creator of “Back to Basics” is part of what I designate as “The Working the Steps Cottage Industry,” which has been an integral part of AA from its earliest history. The focus of this article is to examine this history and the recent exponential resurgence of a more religious approach within the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA’s First Evangelist, Clarence Snyder

Clarence Snyder, an AA pioneer whose last drink was February 11, 1938, was sponsored by Dr. Bob and the originator of Cleveland’s Group No. 3. Mitchell K, one of many avocational AA historians, myself included, became acquainted with Clarence  after several years of being sober, although mostly very alone, isolated and alienated. Through a fellow contact in the AA Loners Program, he connected with Clarence in 1980 and asked him to be his sponsor. After several requests, Clarence eventually discerned that Mitchell was “ready” and agreed to sponsor him. Here’s how he describes what happened, when Clarence took him through the steps:

When I got up off of my knees in that hotel room on April 4, 1981, I was a new man. The old had been washed away and I had been reborn . . . He told me that my ministry was to fix rummies.I was told that if a rummy wanted what I had, I was to tell them about, and introduce them to that Power greater than myself. The same power Dr. Bob had introduced him to. The same Great Physician, Dr. Silkworth had told those alcoholics who were declared hopeless could cure” them. That Power, that Great Physician, was the Christ Jesus. (Preface, How It Worked)

In 1983, Clarence asked Mitchell to write his biography to correct what he thought were misconceptions published by GSO in Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers. Entitled How It Worked, cited above, it was self-published by Mitchell in 1991.

How It WorkedMitchell K. presents Clarence’s AA program as first and foremost being rooted in what Harvard-trained AA historian Ernest Kurtz, PhD, describes in his doctoral dissertation,  Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, as “Akron-style AA,” which closely follows the methodology of the Oxford Group movement during the 1930s. Clarence’s recovery is based almost exclusively on the first 164 pages of the Big Book, which is superseded in importance only by the Bible. He claimed that he was the true founder of AA, because the first meeting called “Alcoholics Anonymous” took place under his leadership during May of 1939 in Cleveland, shortly after the publication of the first edition of the Big Book.

Throughout his life, Clarence continued to espouse the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Group Movement — Absolute Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness and Love. He was openly skeptical about the need for the Twelve Traditions, often breaking his anonymity in public at the level of press, radio and TV.

Mitchell K. devotes a whole chapter to what he calls “The Orthodox Movement,” which  evolved during the 1950s after Dr. Bob died. The chapter includes a section titled “Back to the Basics.” Original Akron AA members Clarence, Bill D., AA #3, the man on the bed, and others along with Henrietta Seiberling formed the loose-knit movement. They were gravely concerned that AA was evolving away from Oxford Group Christian ideology. Here’s how Mitchell K. describes their purpose:

The Orthodox Movement’s goals were to keep the AA movement true to its original intent and purpose. Orthodox members felt that the new direction which AA was beginning to take would water down or dilute the effectiveness and success which the movement to that date had achieved.

Henrietta Seiberling was especially critical of Bill Wilson remarking,  “A lot of people up here are buffaloed into being “WWs” (Wilson Worshipers) instead of AAs… Bill will stand exposed for the show-off that he is.”

Clarence summarized the method of how Akron AA worked as, “Trust God, Clean House, Help Others.” On the other hand, he derisively described New York AA as, “Don’t drink and go to meetings.” Actually, that’s not an accurate assessment of New York AA — it’s don’t drink, go to meetings and help others!

From the 1960s until he died in March of 1984, Clarence traveled throughout the United States, giving numerous talks and formal retreats. He related how Dr. Bob sponsored him, and how AA, first in Akron and then in Cleveland, was actively involved in “carrying the message of recovery and leading people to his Lord, Jesus Christ,” as Mitchell K. describes it.

Further, Clarence thought the Twelve Concepts of Service and the organization of GSO was complicating the simple message of recovery Dr. Bob taught him. When Bill Wilson died in January of 1971, he graciously offered his assistance to the General Service Office, presumably to help them revert back to the “Keep it simple” program he fervently believed his sponsor, Dr. Bob, had rightly promoted. GSO politely declined his assistance.

Proselytizing in the 60s and 70s

Tom Powers was another notable AA pioneer. Sponsored by Bill W, he became permanently clean and sober on October 10, 1946. He helped Bill edit the second edition of the Big Book, as well as write Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. However, he and Bill W. had a falling out over Bill’s infidelities and inability to stop smoking.

Powers went on to found a treatment center in East Ridge, New York during the early 1960s, which utilized a methodology akin to the Akron AA way of working the steps, called All Addictions Recovery. Powers and his son, Tom P., Jr. wrote an article, Gresham’s Law & Alcoholics Anonymous, in which they contend that just as bad currency drives out good currency, weak and medium recovery dilute and drive out strong recovery. Strong recovery, in their opinion, is the original Christian-oriented Oxford Group methodology.

The Powers followed the beliefs of another early Oxford Group member, who was also most influential in Wally P’s “Back to Basics” program, James Houck. Houck proclaims that by working the original four steps of the Oxford Group — Surrender, Sharing, Restitution and Guidance — one could be cured of all addictions, to include “smoking, womanizing and drug addiction!”

Joe and CharlieAnother extremely popular and widely spread method of studying the Big Book is the Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminars. Begun in 1973, these seminars have been supplemented by an extensive network of alcoholism and drug treatment programs under the aegis of the Kelly Foundation. They also publish extensive “Recovery Dynamics” materials that are based on the original “Akron AA” methodology of working the steps. Google, Bing or Yahoo “Joe and Charlie Big Book Seminars” — most of the entries on the first five pages connect you to venues, where one can view, buy and/or obtain materials used by Joe and Charlie in what has become a thriving business empire.

The Working the Steps Cottage Industry Exponentially Expands

For the past 25 years, so-called “Primary Purpose” and “Back to Basic” methods of intensely studying the Big Book have expanded massively, resulting in a widespread cottage industry of publishing and treatment ventures throughout North America. What failed to gain traction during the 1950s, “The Orthodox Movement,” lately has exponentially expanded. In addition to Wally P’s Back to Basics they include:

Dick B's BooksBig Book Muckers are an interesting group  started in Toronto in 1995. They intensely study the Big Book, parsing each phrase of each sentence to discover the inherent meaning to discern if one is a “real alcoholic.” Muckers and other Oxford Group oriented believers hold that a “real alcoholic” can only be “recovered,” or cured, by the grace of the heavenly Father as mediated by his son, Jesus Christ.

Another prolific writer dealing with AA origins in the Oxford Group is a retired lawyer and member of AA, based in Hawaii, who extensively publishes under the pen name of Dick B. Another self-proclaimed AA historian, Dick B. has published 46 books and some 1600 articles, which support and reflect the Christian roots of AA that led to the publication of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous with its striking red, yellow, black & white book jacket. In addition to his writing, Dick B. has evolved a veritable empire of interrelated corporations. These include the following endeavors:

  • International Christian Recovery Coalition
  • Christian Recovery Radio
  • Freedom Ranch Maui Incorporated
  • A dual-armed publishing venture, Paradise Publications, Inc. and the Good Book Publishing Company
  • and last, but certainly not least, Dick B.’s Banners.

In my small seacoast town on the Oregon coast every year a good number of men and women do a Step Study Team year after year after year. They vigorously examine themselves in minute detail as diligently as Rabbis down through the ages have parsed the oral and written Torah or with the rigorous precision that Medieval monks discussed the numbers of angels on the head of a pin. They derive much benefit from this yearly ritual, and I am most grateful that it works for them.

For myself, however, my recovery practice is not so much to “work the Steps” — rather, I daily strive to practice the principles, or virtues, that are derived from the Steps such as, forgiveness, mindfulness, gratitude, honesty, open-mindedness and willingness, etc.

The AA Speaker Circuit

Since AA’s earliest days, multitudes of speakers, including both Bill and Bob, as well as many pioneers in the evolution of AA, have spoken on the so-called AA  speaker circuit. As AA expanded, so did statewide and regional AA conferences, sometimes called Round-ups, even national and international conferences. Notable AA speakers were invited to address these various forums. Today, vast reservoirs exist of tapes and CDs, DVDs, even down-loadable MP3s and YouTube videos from the Internet, of numerous AA speakers, as well as speakers from Alanon, NA, CODA, ACA and many other 12-step programs.

An infamous example of AA circuit speakers is Charles Dederich, an AA member in Los Angeles, who founded Synanon, a most successful “Tough Love” drug-rehab program. However, it devolved into a paranoid, destructive entity, which faced a multitude of legal charges, and closed its doors in 1991.


On Saturday (April 26, 2014) Clancy I. will be speaking at the 35th Annual Eastern Ontario Spring Conference in Canada’s capital, Ottawa.

Currently, a notable AA elder statesman, Clancy I. has been alleged to have possibly created a widespread cult of personality within mainstream AA. Sober since October 31, 1958, and Managing Director since 1974 of the Midnight Mission on LA’s skid row, Clancy is invited to speak at AA gatherings all over the US and Canada. In addition to the article linked above about Synanon, Clancy and his home group, the Pacific Group, is also a major  focus of another FIX article, AA Cults I Have Known. 

Since 2009, recovering alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous (Great Britain) Ltd, have written a blog called aacultwatch, which traces the intrusion of the “Back to Basics” movement throughout AA in England. They conducted an extensive analysis of the rise of this phenomena, “An Enquiry Into Primary Purpose and Back to Basics AA Groups”, both in the US and in Great Britain. It covers the same general content of this article, but in exquisite detail, with footnoted references to a cornucopia of materials available online. Here is their conclusion:

A loosely connected international network of websites has created a virtual”  Primary Purpose intergroup, facilitating the global communication of an ideology and a cause which comes from literature and website sources outside of AA. This website network has enabled the formation of affiliated AA groups in at least eleven countries, by like minded AA members who share this ideology and cause. This cause appears to be the introduction of Oxford Group principles and methods, which were criticized by Bill W. as not being inclusive to all alcoholics, and to teach an interpretation of the AA programme, sourced from outside of the group conscience of AA.

One of several articles on the website is a data-packed analysis of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Recovery Rates initially published by the Grapevine in 2008 for AA members and academics. The authors describe its purpose in the Foreword, thusly:

Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory
Franklin P Adams (1881-1960)

This paper addresses an erroneous myth that AA is experiencing a 5% (or less) success ratetoday as opposed to either a 50%, 70%, 75%, 80% or 93% (take your pick) success rateit once reputedly enjoyed in the 1940s and 1950s. The term mythis used to emphasize that the low success ratespromulgated are a product of imagination, invention and inattention to detail rather than fact-based research.

The Back to Basics crowd fervently believe that formerly in “the good old days” the Oxford Group methodology of AA yielded between 50%  and 93% success rates, whereas currently AA experiences a mere 5% or less.


Is propaganda generated by Primary Purpose and Back To Basics ideology overtly influencing Intergroup Offices and the General Service Conference in North America?

We all know too much about the sad history of Intergroup Associations delisting agnostic groups. I recently became aware that Clancy I. spoke at a Toronto Roundup shortly before the Toronto Intergroup Office first delisted the Toronto groups, Beyond Belief and We Agnostics.

No doubt, another factor was the distribution among Toronto Intergroup representatives of “The White Paper,” written by an anonymous member with some 40 years of recovery from Florida, who parrots much of the “Back to Basics” ideology. One of the most incendiary comments he makes in his 28-page screed against AA meetings for agnostics and atheists is, “I would rather hear about serving beer at meetings than diminishing God’s central role.” (The White Paper)

In another place he proclaims:

However, as we all know, the spiritual path continuously gets narrower and narrower, thereby becoming less inclusive of our old ideas. To make progress, we have to move away from our will (ideas) and towards Gods. The entrance door to AA may be infinitely wide, but the entrance to the 4th dimension of existence is a very narrow beam… Sobriety is not the name of the game, God is.

His recommendation for us groups of non-believers is to form a separate organization to advocate and announce our meetings, just like Alcoholics Victorious does for fervently devout fundamentalist Christians.


The Portland Intergroup has this image on its website with the quote:
“When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help…”
That’s only true, of course, if the suffering alcoholic is prepared to swallow the God bit as part of her recovery.

When I approached the Portland, Oregon Intergroup Office manager, last month about listing our Sunday Beyond Belief meeting, we had a “debate,” as he termed it, as to whether we are really an AA group. He seemed to reflect the same rationale of “The White Paper,” and it is his opinion, which he says reflects the group conscience of the  Intergroup representatives, that we are not an AA group. Therefore, our meeting won’t be listed in print or online by the Portland Area Intergroup Office.

Can AA continue as a “Fellowship of the Spirit,” noted in the second to last paragraph of the first 164 of Alcoholics Anonymous? Traditionally, I believe this is how AA has functioned for most of it’s 79 year history. Further, from my reading of AA literature, other than the Big Book, and my knowledge of the history of AA, I also firmly believe that this was the intention of both AA cofounders, Dr. Bob and Bill, as well as the wish of a significant portion of AA’s current worldwide membership.

Or, shall AA become increasingly fundamentalist and evangelical Christian only, which the original members of the Akron Oxford Group mostly were?

I certainly hope not. However, when I read again the rest of page 164, as well the theistic language throughout the preceding pages of the Big Book, there certainly seems to be a pervasive emphasis on the necessity to find and acknowledge God as the one and only source of one’s recovery. For example, on page 162 alone “God, He or Him” is mentioned a total of 10 times. Further, it is proclaimed, “This is the Great Fact for us.”

I’m dismayed by how much AA appears to be reverting “back to the basics” of its evangelical Christian origins in the Oxford Group movement. Nevertheless, following the suggestion of our Responsibility Declaration, I shall continue to speak my non-religious truth and share my 41 years of experience of godless recovery through the grace of the AA Fellowship of the Spirit.

100 Responses

  1. Mike H says:

    I do not know of what Bill said but I do know what Clarence S. relates. What Clarence says is that the Catholics in Cleveland were not allowed by the Church to go to non Catholic religious meetings such as the Oxford Group. Clarence decided that it was time after the Big Book was published to start a meeting, taking the name from the book and thereby being separate from the Oxford group so that the Catholics in Cleveland would have no problem with their Church. I believe in, Pass it on, in a short paragraph or two Bill speaks of Clarence and this episode in AA history.

  2. bob k says:

    Rule62va, you need to rethink your comment about the Wilsons being out of the Oxford Group in 1934. It surely WASN’T 1934. Bill was barely out of Towns Hospital in mid-December 1934. The Oxford participation, by your time frame, would have been less than 2 weeks. No so.

  3. Rule62va says:

    Bob K,

    I would only note that the dialog of the Manhattan group meeting in 1955 (Bill W and Lois) indicates that they were out of the Oxfords in 1934 and working out of Clinton St until the club in 1940/41.

  4. Tommy H says:

    I think Clarence was right and what you refer to is misdirected. Step 5 refers to the “exact nature of our wrongs.” To me that means not what we did but the character defects that caused it. We look at our transgressions with the idea of getting rid of what is behind them. We are trying to find out what specifically is responsible for our problems which manifest themselves in less than useful behavior.

    And we go on from there.

  5. Roger says:

    There is no one way to understand or do the Steps, Scott. As it says at the beginning of The Little Book: “There are many versions of the 12 Step program of recovery. In fact, there are about as many versions as there are alcoholics in AA who use the program to get sober and to maintain their sobriety.” I recommend that book to you if you want more information about the Steps. It’s got twenty different versions, four interpretations of each of the Steps and an essay on the origins of the Twelve Steps. You can access it right here: The Little Book.

  6. Scott says:

    Ok thanks. I notice Clarence Snyder seemed to have a different take on his interpretation of the 12 Steps. for example step 5; where he talks about admitting the nature of our wrongs, not the wrongs themselves. This seems to contradict much of what I hear at meetings, and much of what I read about written by others in AA as to how the steps should be done. Do you notice this difference? I understand you’re in Agnostic AA and have another interpretation as well. Would you please share your experience?

  7. bob k says:

    Clarence announced in May of 1939 that the Clevelanders would no longer be driving down to Akron for the Oxford meeting at T. Henry and Clarace Williams’ house and that they were starting their own group in Cleveland. The Cleveland meeting was called “Alcoholics Anonymous.” Dr. Bob, Clarence’s sponsor was not pleased.

    New York alcoholics had fully separated from the Oxford Group in 1937.

  8. Scott says:

    Nice. Thanks for reply. Did Bill split with Oxford Group before Clarence Snyder did?

  9. bob k says:

    From memory, I believe Bill writes of the split in both Pass It On and and AA Comes of Age, listing various conflicts of philosophy etc. as the reason for QUITTING the Oxford Group. It was Lois who put out the version that they were “kicked out.” I believe this is in Lois Remembers.

    Sam Shoemaker’s assistant pastor very much disliked the Wilsons and he pushed for their ousting. A major bone of contention were the Wilsons focus on alcoholics without a lot of regard for the Oxford Group’s “bigger picture” goals.

    Here’s a bit from the “Sam Shoemaker” chapter of the soon to be released Key Players in AA History:

    “Although Bill and Lois, and later, other of their recruits like Hank P., attended Oxford Group meetings, “it was clear almost from the beginning that Bill Wilson was not well-suited to be an Oxford Group member… He never shared in, or had much sympathy for, the Oxford Group’s goals”. (Hartigan, p. 65)

    Whether the Wilsons quit, or were thrown out, remains uncertain, but Shoemaker was upset and did not speak to Bill again until after he detached from Buchman’s group. (Key Players, p. 94)

  10. Scott says:

    Are there any written quotes by Bill Wilson where he states as to the reason we broke away from the Oxford Group that you could please share?

  11. Dave C. says:

    Much appreciation for the scholarly research and contributions of AA historian and author Dr. Ernie Kurtz as well as related opening the space for reflective listening to this positions and related views of what is really going back to basics. I would have had some concerns about this weekend BACK TO BASICS 21st Annual Retreat for Alcoholic Men lead by Fr. Terry R. of Los Angeles. Since I have had the privilege to hear him present and share at meetings, my impression is that he will be more congruent with the AA free thinkers (including perhaps Hornbacher’s book,” Waiting”) rather than the noted Christian religious fundamentalism AA positions and agendas. I have hopes of bringing this controversy to the surface at this gathering for possible open generative exploration. Then we will see what we see.
    Namaste, Dave C. Thousand Oaks, CA

  12. Roger says:

    You can read Joe’s interview with Reverend Ewing right here: Retiring General Services Board Chair Ward Ewing Reflects on His Time with Alcoholics Anonymous.

  13. Nela U. says:

    Hi, Joe C’s interview with Ward Ewing was referenced in this article – is that available somewhere?

  14. Tommy H says:

    Every AA needs to stress that the Big Book is a guide, a finger pointing to the moon, and not an end in itself. If the Big Book worked, we wouldn’t need meetings, sponsors, and the cottage industries.

    We can also make the point that we share our experience, and the others can’t.

  15. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Duncan . . .

    Though I appreciate your comment, let me clarify that I don’t necessarily think this is a fight we must win, or even can win. Increasingly after 41 years in recovery I appreciate the wisdom Bill expressed on page 84 of the Big Book right after his declaration of our code of love and tolerance when he wrote, “And we have ceased fighting anyone or anything — even alcohol.”

    I do, however, strongly advocate that we agnostics, atheists and free thinkers have an obligation to demonstrate our truth of non-theistic, especially non-Christian, recovery. One practice I do, which might be criticized as adversarial by some, is when we recite the Serenity Prayer, I say “goddess”.

    When a meeting, relatively rare in my area, ends with the Lord’s Prayer, I usually just look around the circle and remain silent. Sometimes, I’ll step outside the circle.

    At several meetings recently, I mention the Arabic salutation from the Islamic tradition that was part of Bill W.’s final message to the Fellowship read by Lois October 10, 1970 at the first annual dinner/dance in his honor in New York City he was unable to attend due to his emphysema: “I salute you and thank you for my life.”

    Personally, I’m most grateful for the many professional programs that offer requisite detox and other psychological services to alcoholics, which appropriately AA cannot provide. (Full disclosure here — for 30 years I worked professionally in the field of addictions as a New York State Certified Social Worker. I’m most grateful to be gainfully retired . . . 😉

  16. Thomas B. says:

    Excellent point, John, that we need to share our truth equally with the unprincipled AA bashers as well as the Christian Fundamentalists.

    At my Morning Meditation meeting Big Book today, we read the story “Listening to the Wind” about a Native American women sober whose higher power is the Creator who expresses itself through the love and fellowship we experience in the rooms of AA.

    One mountain of recovery — many paths up it . . .

  17. Thomas B. says:

    And thank you, friend, buddy, brother, pal, for keeping me not only sober but sane (most of the time) when we shared meetings, a men’s group and poetry together . . .

    I’m most grateful we’ll be sharing poetry again together tomorrow night !~!~!

  18. Duncan says:

    Hi John L, I don’t think the fundamentalists are so numerous, certainly not in the UK, but yes they are organised. These people are of course backed by the many professionals who make money out of the AA trademarks, such as the 12 Step professionals.

    By comparison the Atheists and Agnostics etc are are really just a motley crew of individualists.

    I think as Thomas said that this is a fight we must win.

  19. Mark C (MarkInTexas) says:

    George, thank you for your kind words. It seems our choice to remain in traditional AA rooms as “open atheists” are grounded in the same philosophies. I go back and forth on the issue of starting a meeting for we evil others.
    I agree with your praise of Hornbacher’s book “Waiting,” and am excited she agreed to speak at the conference this fall. Pretty cool beans as far as I’m concerned.

  20. Mark C (MarkInTexas) says:

    Thank you Thomas. Hope you can find something there of encouragement to you.

  21. Herb Y says:

    Great writing Thomas! My friend, my buddy, my brother, my pal.

  22. Dan L. says:

    Thanks Dick. It seems that your route to recovery was so effective that it is hard to picture that there might be another way to achieve the same goal. Having reached this pinnacle of sobriety it must be easy to look down on those struggling to find their own way. I do not reject god any more than I reject leprechauns or unicorns as a vehicle to recovery. It is a journey of the spirit and one way to keep people off your path is to insist it is the only one when there are visibly many others.

  23. John L. says:

    A fine article! — and a very disturbing one. I had no idea that the religious fundamentalists in AA were so numerous, so organized, and so aggressive. We AA freethinkers are caught between the Scylla of harsh and often unprincipled AA bashers and the Charyb­dis of god-talking AA fundamentalists or “Big Book thumpers”. We’ll have to continue speaking our truth to both (or all) sides — defending the things in AA that are right and criticizing the things that are wrong.

  24. George S says:

    Thanks for not being tolerant of intolerance Mark. I read your letter and found the offensive behaviors you described nearly as effective at bringing up bile as a morning of dry heaving. It’s been awhile but I can still muster up the memory. The fact that your letter had a positive effect on the group tells me that you are in good company. Congratulations on your successful effort!

  25. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, George, thank you for your efforts to be available to people, more than we might readily realize, who experience difficulty with the original Oxford Group brand of AA — there are indeed many paths up the mountain of recovery, and it is up to us to do what we can to insure that other paths are kept open and available in the rooms of AA by speaking openly, but with respect for other’s perhaps radically different views, of our non-theistic, agnostic/atheist/free-thinking ways of staying sober and enjoying the benefits of continued recovery . . .

  26. Thomas B. says:

    Mark, I just read your most excellent letter to the New Life Group in Wichita Falls, TX — most excellent !~!~!

  27. Thomas B. says:

    Albert, good friend, it is so good to read you here. You always have been a source of marvelous stories, even those in the format of rap poetry, when we participated in slams throughout Arizona in 2002-3.

    Thank you for your story here . . .

  28. Thomas B. says:

    Agree with you to the max, Phil — thanks for being here with us . . .

  29. Thomas B. says:

    I totally agree, Mark — Roger several months ago recommended a book to me by Regina M. Schwartz, The Curse of Cain. In it she examines the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, the so-called, Books of Abraham, which form the core of Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The essential message of the Pentateuch is one can only worship the one and only true god, God, who urges one to go forth, multiply, and convert all heathens. If the heathens won’t convert then kill them and occupy their lands.

    In my elder years, after a lifetime of social and political activism, I increasingly choose not to fight, but to accept the things I cannot change, those I judge to be bigots, but for whom I still strive to practice our code of “love and tolerance of others . . .’

  30. Mark C (MarkInTexas) says:

    I too believe in standing ground as an open and honest atheist in a traditional AA room. This has not come without cost. But it is doable, and can create a wider gate for others who still suffer.

    Takes a thick skin though doesn’t it? It is a tall order, too tall too often, to overcome addiction to alcohol and to put up with antics and abuse coming from zealous religious types in the rooms. Too many heathens simply throw in the towel and walk, or run away.

    I eventually took a positive action and penned a letter to my group. That letter became a catalyst/game changer for positive change toward openness, honesty, and growing tolerance in our group. Here then is a sample of some of my experiences in AA as an open atheist: A Letter Concerning Toleration.

    Maybe it will serve as a source of encouragement for those of us who feel all “alone” out there in the wilds of traditional AA meetings.


  31. Dan L. says:

    Thank YOU Thomas for the reply. I love this site because it gets me thinking. It seems to me the problem we face is fear that we generate in the godly. Fear, resentment and envy, those perennial bogeymen of the addict’s mind. No wonder they want to keep us away… because we represent a true threat to their shaky faith and observably false humility. (I mean what is humble about “I talk to god and she talks to me”?)
    Resentment from those who felt they were forced to accept god to stop drinking and are envious of those who manage without the help of arbitrary authoritarian god. So it is great that we have the facts and the history to put all our ducks in a row and demonstrate quite rationally why we should not be excluded. Unfortunately until we can sooth the personal fears and resentments of those who reject us we are going to have a problem. They have an annoying ability to mobilise their rather paltry numbers and force their fears and resentments on the majority. There is nothing like scaring a drunk or a recovering drunk to generate an unfavourable outcome.

  32. boyd p. says:

    “It is false humility to feign ignorance.” Many variations on that theme are indeed a hazard. Thank you for highlighting it. Personal balance involving humility and declarations of clarity are bound up in culture, and my particular patriarchal upbringing. What is the next right step? Often it’s a tough call. I rely heavily upon the fellowship for insight.

  33. Don S. says:

    Socrates was talking about what Hume would call ‘matters of fact’, things like ‘all swans are white’. We have to be humble about such assertions. A black swan might turn up somewhere.

    But even Socrates would agree that we are certain of what Hume would call ‘relations of ideas’, things like ‘all bachelors are unmarried men’.

    But it is false humility to feign ignorance about certain things. For example, I am certain there are no elephants in my office right now. If the words ‘elephant’ and ‘are’ have meanings, then I am justified in saying that. I don’t have to keep an open mind about it.

    Likewise, a god who treats people fairly can never appear. It’s too late. Life is not fair, and any god worthy of the name would have had a hand in that.

    Showing certainty is often off-putting in tribal relations, but is still justified in the realm of ideas.

    Politicians often mask their certainty to appeal to voters. In AA, it might be smart to do this. But it might not be, too. As long as we act as if an all-loving God is a live possibility, the God idea will have legs. It is not a live possibility. It’s ruled out. Bill Wilson recognized this, but accepted help from God anyway.

  34. boyd says:

    I heard a paraphrase of the following in a meeting. Got me curious, did a search and found, “The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.” Socrates

  35. George S says:

    Sadly, I agree with your comments and am angered by much of what I see in and out of AA. My thought is…..What can I do to make a difference? At the moment I have concluded that it is important for me to attend AA meetings and share my experience, strength, and hope. Many times this results in talking about the fact that I have been sober in AA for nearly thirty years and that I am a atheist. My intention is not to convince others that their beliefs are wrong, but to show those who have similar beliefs to myself that they can stay clean and sober in AA. This has resulted in people pulling me aside after meetings and inquiring as to “How It Works” when you do not believe in God. I’m always happy to say that it works very well for me, my sponsor, and many others with similar beliefs. I have gone through the steps with some of these people using the Big Book, the Twelve and Twelve, and the book that explains it best for me, Marya Hornbacher’s Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power. I also encourage these people to be open and honest with others in AA about who they are and how they stay sober. I was sober for quite some time before I was able to speak honestly about being an atheist. There’s never a long line of AA’s waiting to hug me and thank me for what I shared, but being there for another AA who is struggling as I did is very rewarding. I also make a point to tell people about this web site for which I am most grateful!

  36. Mark C (MarkInTexas) says:


    Thank you very much for this very significant article. Follow the money. Follow the power. Follow the predictable cults/sects/divisions of any religious movement and one sees this all over the place in AA. It is “All Too Human,” and therefore, predictable.

    Consider the way the far right evangelicals took over the Republican Party, and you’ll see a strong parallel with the take over of the various Intergroups by these types of authoritarians. And in a simple majoritarian rule, those of us of nonbelief WILL be subjected to the most severe discrimination. There is no reasoning, or accommodation that can be made with this sort of religious ideology. We are the “other,” the “evil to be resisted.”

    This is measurable. Isn’t it? One could argue that “demographics will win the day,” and that may be right, but there is reason to doubt the claim these future secular drunks will be coming to AA. All too many of those types of folks already come and simply abandon AA after an initial exposure.

    Some of us are greatly encouraged with more of a voice for those of us of nonbelief, and we’ve found a great deal of good and meaningful life within the Fellowship of AA. I am one of those.

    Yet, I am under no illusions that the issue of in inclusion of Agnostic type groups in AA Intergroup listings will eventually have to be WON in a court of law. Like all other types of systemic discrimination, and overt bigotry performed by religious majorities in this country’s social history, this issue will have to follow the same course of actions.

    Religious bigots have NEVER given up their power and authoritarian dominance, willingly. They have been compelled to do so, time and time again.

    There ya go Dick…

  37. Tommy H says:

    I have been agnostic all my life but was steered into atheism by reading Bart Ehrman, of all people. If anyone saw how the xtn religion, esp their scripture, was put together, they would be atheist, too.

    I am a bit old for Vietnam. I got off of active duty 11/63 and resigned my commission in ’68. That was the only way an officer can get out of the reserves. Many of us remember what was going on then, so I have a bit of guilt for being fortunate enough to complete my military obligation before it got really hot and not having to go.

    My late sponsor, who was also a college buddy, was a chopper pilot, two DFCs, and he got the VA to recognize that his alcoholism was due to PTS from the war.

  38. Phil E. says:

    Live and let live. If what you believe works for you, I’m glad for you. What I believe today, works for me. I’ve been atheist for 31 years, and that has worked for me. I don’t apologize for that. I don’t try to argue or change others with that. We in the fellowship have one thing in common; We must help others, or we will fail. Ernest, I took a workshop called “Guilt and Shame” by you at UNCW in ’85, I believe. That material has stood me well these many years. Thanks for your contributions to the well being of our fellowship these many years.

  39. Mark C (MarkInTexas) says:

    I think it is near impossible to understand what is going on “inside” AA without a strong understanding of what is going on “outside” AA in American society. Good point.

  40. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you Larry, Don and Bob — I find this discussion very enlightening, helping me to clarify my still at times most doubtful and downright confused thinking.

    I’m especially glad to learn, Larry, about Rev. Lupton’s sermon — thanks . . .

  41. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you, Don — you have most adroitly expressed the nub of my difficulty with any god who capriciously would allow some to “get it” and others not to.

    I have survivor guilt from Vietnam because in 1967 I volunteered to go, primarily because I wanted Charlie to do, what I was too chicken-shit to do out of fear that some GOD would manifest itself out of the Kosmos and send me to hell forever and ever, stemming from my Southern Baptism converted to Catholicism at puberty. I survived despite myself though one of the bloodiest years of that terrible war.

    By the time I celebrated my 10th anniversary sober in AA, 6 or 7 of the initial group of men and one woman who were instrumental in helping me get sober at the Midnight Meeting in Manhattan had not only drank again, they had died as a result of drinking. I can not believe in any god that would spare me and not offer the “grace” to them. I have survivor guilt about this as well.

    Yes, we have free will and all of that, but in no way can I subscribe to the rationale that I was specifically chosen to have this grace conferred on me by an almighty god, and they were not . . .

    Funny thing — my recovery is much more substantial today embracing atheism then when I was a waffling about being a wishy-washy, somewhat believing agnostic . . .

  42. John M. says:

    Ernie, perhaps you don’t know Bob – he is that cousin we all try to keep hidden but occasionally he gets away.

  43. Thomas B. says:

    Well said, Frank — the longer I experience recovery the less I know or understand how it happened. In retrospect it becomes increasingly a deeper mystery, albeit one I cherish and am extraordinarily grateful for.

    Funny thing, when I first started reading and contributing to this site, I was a confirmed agnostic, but over the last couple of years I have become increasingly atheistic. I don’t know precisely what that means, but I suspect it has something to do with my needing more “spiritual/psychological” progress in the application of the our principle of “Love and tolerance of others is our code” . . . 😉

    And yes, amongst ourselves we can disagree, sometimes vehemently, but hopefully we shall always have the maturity and dignity to respect our mutual freedom of expression here. For myself, I have to remember that even if I don’t like what someone is saying, I cherish that person’s right of freedom to express their beliefs.

  44. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, boyd, as do I, which motivates me increasingly to speak openly, but with respect for ardent believers, about my non-believing recovery. There are certainly depths of “higher power” inspiration to guide us as we continue to experience “daily reprieves.”

  45. Albert L. says:

    I was raised as an atheist, not yet understanding that atheism requires as much faith as religion. If not for “god as we understand him” which allowed me to find my own higher power, I would never have stayed in the fellowship. Chances are I’d be dead of alcoholism.

    Almost a quarter-century ago I was sober almost a year at a meeting south of San Francisco when the “god thing” came up for discussion. I shared a bit of my story and my appreciation for AA’s inclusiveness.

    Another member, sober about as long as me, got really upset. “There’s only one god,” he railed, “and you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior!” A week later he was drunk, and I’m still sober.

    While AA “has no opinion on outside issues,” we are human beings and outside issues creep in, including evangelical christianity. Egos sometimes turn into guru-itis. There is a line in the big book: “We are not a glum lot.” One sub-group in San Francisco, constantly writing 10th steps on the pads they carried, became known as “the glumlots.”

    I’m old now, with aches and pains, but each day that I wake up without a hangover I thank my higher power, whom or whatever he, she or it may be, for joy in my life, for sobriety, for a meeting close by out here in the Arizona desert.

    And I think all of us, of whatever spiritual persuasion, can live with Annie L.’s simple prayer: Help. Thank you. Wow!

  46. Alyssa (soda) says:

    @bob. Totally starstruck. 😉
    Thank Goodness 4 Ernie. & thank Ernie 4 Ernie. Lol

  47. ernie kurtz says:

    LOVE your sense of humor, Bob: it surely bespeaks good sobriety. “Keep coming back — it works!” Ernie K.

  48. John M. says:

    Nicely said, Thomas, and I hear ya! What you say reminds me of Justice Learned Hand’s understanding – do you think there was any pressure on him to live up to that name? – of liberty and truth: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.”

    I may have sounded in print a little over the top with my “friends may be enemies” comment, but I really just wanted to say that we should approach “The Fellas” with a healthy skepticism, as we should do with most things. I used to read aacultwatch regularly a few years ago and almost included it on my 10 Favourite Recovery Websites blog last year. They indeed do lots of research.

    It is things they write like the following that gives me pause to approach them with caution:

    August, 2011: So, and in response to the rather disingenuous question posed in the title of this piece: “Is There a Place for Atheists in Alcoholics Anonymous?” our answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. Indeed they cannot be excluded according to our own traditions. But, and to paraphrase that same introduction: “Is There a Place for Atheist AA groups in Alcoholics Anonymous?” our answer is an unequivocal ‘no’…. and nor for that matter any other kind of affiliated/specialist/alternative ‘agenda’ (the last our new designation for ‘cult’!) group. Finally, of course, such ‘groups’ are entirely free to set up on their own, create their own networks, write their own literature, create their own guidelines/rules/precepts/commandments etc so long as they do not use the name Alcoholics Anonymous or claim in any way to be connected with AA. It is after all a free world… isn’t it?

    Feb 2012: Toronto [Intergrouup] AA is an example of a pro-active service structure rather than a moribund one; this is what is meant by “leadership”. Here also is illustrated the necessity of a “canonical” literature within AA (ie. conference approved) which establishes the foundation both for our programme of recovery and the constitution of our society. Without these we are simply directionless and clueless – or as it might be put – just another bunch of drunks! Similarly the formation of “dual purpose” groups (of whatever denomination or type) by definition creates an “outside affiliation” and therefore (under Tradition 3) excludes these from further participation within the AA service structure (which will necessarily entail de-listing of the group and removal of its members (qua “group” membership) from service structure participation (and where necessary appropriate notification to outside agencies to that effect under Warranty Five, Concept 12) etc – but which does not affect in any way the right of each individual to be a member of AA as such ie. the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking ).

  49. bob k. says:

    I would guess that Dick B. is rightly referring to the book itself as the great compromise. The book claims a unanimity that never existed. “We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree..” NOT!!

    Surely the atheists were less than thrilled with “God as we understood Him” plus a couple of “your own conceptions.” Equally, the book was a disappointment to those who felt they were saved by Jesus Christ.

    In retrospect, Wilson made some wise choices. At the time, the majority of the Akron folk were surely displeased.

  50. Don S. says:

    >doubt is one of mankinds greatest assets.

    Doubt is the beginning of knowledge. But there are some things we can not doubt. I can’t doubt that, if God is real, he lets innocent kids suffer. It’s not my fault that I know this for sure, and it’s not dogmatic or arrogant to say it.

    Believers dance around and avert their eyes at this fact, then say, “Are you God? How do you know he doesn’t have a good reason for ebola and birth defects?”

    I don’t need to be God to know that an all-powerful God didn’t have to put ebola in the world. He left out many possible horrors. He could have left out one more.

    So, it saddens me when good people like Bill W and Dick B accept help from such a God. Bill W was explicit about it: he knew how God treated many people, but pragmatically, out of desperation, accepted God’s help anyway.

    The good news that agnostic AAs have is not just that we belong in AA, too. That’s the selfish part. What we really have is a cruelty-free alternative to belief in God. Of course, we don’t know if it will work for everyone. But we know that it has worked for us.

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