In the name of God

Name of God

By John F.

In many groups, AA groups or otherwise, the vocal minority often trumps and drowns out the more passive majority, particularly when a good portion of that majority is comprised of folks whose serenity has brought them to the point described on page 84 of the Big Book, where they “have ceased fighting anything or anyone — even alcohol.”  These days, the fundamentalist members, the back-to-basics tribe, that constitute the vocal minority within AA tend to preach that going to meetings and not drinking are simply insufficient for quality sobriety. The fellowship and sobriety are good things, they agree, but the twelve steps lead to god, and god trumps sobriety. As the White Paper, written in 2010 by a forty-year AA member in defense of excluding agnostic/atheist groups from Alcoholics Anonymous, states on page 9:

The twelfth step points to only one “result” from working the steps: a “spiritual awakening”. It does not say, “Having gotten sober as a result of these steps–”. Sobriety is not the name of the game, God is.

Prior to proclaiming that the name of the AA game is god, not sobriety, the White Paper author states on page 2, “I would rather hear about serving beer at meetings than diminishing God’s central role.” For those of us who have attended more than a handful of AA meetings, we know that the zeal for god and cheerleading “the steps” often seem paramount to the real goal: sobriety. How many times have we heard a sober alcoholic pejoratively referred to as a “dry drunk” only because that person is sober without using AA and the steps?

The tail, much too often, is wagging the dog.

The irony of that cognitive dissonance is highlighted when one considers that god seemed to be on a whirlwind vacation during the drinking/drugging phase of every addict’s life. If an ambulance drove by a man suffering a heart attack, we would expect the medics in that ambulance to assist the victim – even if he were grossly obese and trying to light an unfiltered cigarette while eating a stick of butter in the midst of his heart attack. Our expectations for an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent “god,” apparently pale in comparison to our expectations for human beings charged with the duty to help others in need. Expectations for a supreme being were often quite modest until we joined the program. Then we were read “How It Works” at the beginning of virtually every AA meeting we attended (shortly after those same meetings are started with a prayer); and we were admonished that “no human power could have relieved our alcoholism,” but “God could and would if He were sought.”  Those statements beg the question:  why even attend AA meetings with all that useless human power unable to help us manage our addictions?

The twelve steps do not, in fact, promise sobriety to anyone. They do, however, predict a “spiritual awakening.”  “Spiritual” is one of those words that much of the time seems one thing to the speaker and quite another to the listener. It reminds me of a teenager using the word “sick” to describe a rap concert or final exam. The concert was wonderful;  the test was horrible; and both were “sick.”

Even if one approaches the twelve steps with a non-mystical mindset, I’m not so sure they accomplish the goal of restoring addicts to sanity. Before making that argument, I need to say this: I’m a huge proponent of the principles underlying the steps. It’s hard to be against honesty, acceptance, forgiveness, humility, tolerance, living in the present, or school bus safety – and I’m a believer in all! That being said, a critical examination of the steps draws into question their utility when embraced literally. Let’s look at the steps, beginning with step one, which defines our problem. Due to an adverse reaction, unique to alcohol addicts, we lose control over our consumption once we ingest alcohol. Our craving for alcohol increases in proportion to the quantity we consume, and we are unable to moderate our drinking despite the plethora of adverse consequences accruing in our life.  In sum, we are damned if we drink.

However, once separated from our favorite beverage/drug, we remain damned because of what Dr. Silkworth famously labeled “an obsession of the mind” in The Doctor’s Opinion. In other words, even after time and detoxification, we find ourselves obsessing about how we can continue to drink – but somehow without the horrible consequences. The obsession might morph into a preoccupation with discovering another mood-altering substance that doesn’t have the same nasty consequences as our original drug of choice. We hope, we plan, we obsess – and we are miserable because we crave chemical euphoria. In all honesty, who in this world wouldn’t want chemically-induced nirvana if they could have it without adverse consequences? That obsession of the mind is what step two implicitly considers insanity. If we are powerless over alcohol once we ingest it, and we are powerless over our obsession to attain chemical euphoria when not using, we are caught between Scylla and Charybdis:  damned if we use and goddamn miserable if we don’t. Step two purports to solve this dilemma in the form of a higher power that will restore us to sanity – or more specifically, extinguish our obsession of  the mind. Let’s examine this for a moment, and I don’t believe it matters if the higher power is mystical in nature (a supreme being) or non-mystical (one’s AA home group, for instance).

Either way, we are instructed by the second step to put our faith, our hope, and our trust in that higher power for the express purpose of restoring ourselves to sanity. By this point, we have been away from booze long enough that it is no longer the “physical allergy,” eloquently described in The Doctor’s Opinion, that will cause us to drink; it is the “obsession of the mind” that will cause us to pick up and thereby trigger the physical allergy, the compulsivity. If step one defines the problem (lack of power), then step two defines the solution (more power). Step three tells us to embrace the solution (“turn our will and our lives over to the care of God”), and steps four through nine instruct us how to harness our higher power. If we could work a perfect step four and do a “searching and fearless moral inventory” so that we completely appreciated our fears, our resentments, and the harms we have caused to ourselves and others, we would then be ready to confess the same during a fifth step and next start in the direction of steps eight and nine. Again, if we could work those two steps perfectly and make amends to any and all whom we have harmed, we would arrive at the promised land promised by “The Promises.” If we continued to take personal inventory (step 10), prayed only for god’s will (step 11), and then, because of our predicted spiritual awakening, carried a message of hope to the suffering alcoholic (step 12), we would have completed all twelve steps, and, presumably, our obsession to use again (our insanity) would be forever removed, and we would be restored to sanity.

I have had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was a young kid, and undoubtedly, drinking initially helped me find present moment consciousness that my brain had tremendous difficulty finding without chemical assistance. However, even if I could do a perfect step four and five in Obsessive Compulsive Anonymous (yes, there really is such a twelve step group!), be rigorous about steps six and seven, make a perfectly comprehensive list of people I have harmed per step eight, make amends via step nine so that the folks I had harmed felt like they had won the lottery, and then work steps ten through twelve flawlessly, here is what I believe would happen. I’d still double-check the door as much as ever to make sure it’s locked; I’d double-check the knobs on the gas stove as much as ever to make sure the gas was off; and my OCD would continue much like before. In other words, my obsessive thinking due to my OCD – much like my obsession of the mind from alcoholism – doesn’t lend itself well to a cure based on a searching moral inventory or turning my life and will over to god or prayer or making restitution or even helping others. All of those things might add depth, reward, and purpose to one’s life, but they won’t arrest my OCD or my alcoholism.

In short, the twelve steps themselves are not a panacea or silver bullet for treating obsessional disorders such as addiction or OCD.

The most effective way to manage a chronic disease like OCD, I have learned, is to employ a technique called exposure and response suppression/prevention. That’s just a fancy way of saying when I have the obsession to engage in a certain behavior (double-checking the door lock or stove burners, for example), I cannot engage in the behavior because it will quickly become compulsively repetitive and have negative consequences. With time, the obsessions fade substantially, although there is  always something akin to a pilot light that remains on. I believe the obsession to drink is strikingly similar. With time, it fades substantially but never entirely.  It becomes manageable (suppressible and passing), and life improves radically as a result. The twelve steps (half of which reference a higher power or god) help some people find god and some find sobriety and some find both. And that’s grand! For those of us who enjoy the fellowship and our sobriety without religious adherence to the steps or a belief in a god, that’s equally grand.

In George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, the pigs proclaimed that all the farm animals were equal, but the pigs were “more equal.” Too often, a vocal cluster of back-to-basics fundamentalists posing as the high priests of AA and quoting the Big Book as though it were divinely-promulgated scripture, send the message to the newcomer than all routes to sobriety are equal, but their evangelical, god-based approach is more equal.  And by doing so, the primary purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous – namely, to help the suffering alcoholic – is undermined.

Too often in the name of god.

I have heard AA evangelicals piously preach that “all any alcoholic will ever need to know is written in the first 164 pages of the Big Book.”  With that in mind, I’m reminded of this statement by AA founder Bill Wilson on page 164, written seventy-five years ago:  “Our book is meant to be suggestive only.  We realize we know only a little.”

John F, a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is new to recovery and began regularly attending AA meetings this year in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where he resides with his teenage son, Shane, and their dog, Scout. He has been a trial attorney practicing the area of white collar and criminal defense for over 20 years. John has also been a law school instructor in Minnesota. He loves being a parent, traveling, fishing, reading/writing, the Green Bay Packers, and making new friends in recovery. An agnostic and skeptic by nature, John is inclined to question any organization that would allow him as a member, even one as wonderful as Alcoholics Anonymous.

45 Responses

  1. John F says:

    Roger C (the webmaster of this great website) recently asked me a question about a comment by Greg H (posted on June 23 at 1:43 am) in reply to my June 22 article, In the name of God.

    Greg H correctly points out that Dr. Silkworth did not write – in The Doctor’s Opinion – that alcoholism was a disease characterized by “an obsession of the mind.”

    What Dr. Silkworth famously wrote is that alcoholism has two central characteristics: “an obsession of the mind that condemns one to drink and an allergy of the body that condemns one to die.” (William Duncan Silkworth, MD)

    In a 1945 Grapevine article, Dr. Silkworth wrote this about the obsession of the mind, saying that it was the linchpin to sustained recovery: “It is, I am convinced, your second step [Step Two of The Twelve Steps of AA]. Once the A.A. alcoholic has grasped that, he will have no more “slips.’”

    See Dr. Silkworth’s Rx for Sobriety (Editor’s note: It specifically refers to a “mental obsession”).

    In sum, Greg H, I stand respectfully on my comments about Dr. Silkworth’s description of addiction – namely, an obsession of the mind (preoccupation with using) and an allergy of the body (profound craving after ingestion of the mood-altering substance). We can agree to disagree and thank you for your comments!

    • bob c says:

      My thought is that steps two through twelve are comparable to any spiritual or humanistic movement or program. Without some kind of profound understanding of my problem with alcohol, step one, all the program in the world could still mean a return to drinking. After all, major religions and other human movements had thousands of years to sober us up prior to AA. The main difference? Step one.

      • John F says:

        Thanks for your intelligent insights, Bob!

        My thought is that Step One merely defines the problem. With Step Two, the solution is defined: our problem in Step One was a lack of power (powerless over alcohol). Step Two offers a potential solution (power greater than ourselves to relieve the obsession/restore us to sanity).

        I think since biblical times we knew about the craving and powerlessness once alcoholic humans drank (once we pickup). Step Two purports to offer the power that can restore us to sanity – that is, relieve the obsession of the mind.

        Thanks for your comments, Bob. Really well said.

        Have you ever visited a guy on his deathbed for a non-addictive problem, and then when you tried to offer him LITERALLY anything as his dying wish …. it was booze/drugs – even after that person had been sober for a quarter century? Once completely detoxified, there’s still that obsession of the mind, too often it seems. I feel like that is what AA is about: the restoration of sanity (mystical or not) to appreciate and recognize that the next drunk will end like all the others.

        So why obsess about that next drink?

        Another crazy question: If a supernatural power can restore and treat addiction in that way, why not pray to have the physical allergy (the cycle of craving that begins immediately after that first drink) removed? If medical science or a supreme being had that power, focusing on the elimination of craving seems much easier than praying to be restored to sanity. What do I know – I’m just a dumb Irishman from Wisconsin.

        Thanks again for your comments! Roger C and friends have created a wonderful website here! I feel lucky.

        • Tommy H says:

          “I feel like that is what AA is about: the restoration of sanity (mystical or not) to appreciate and recognize that the next drunk will end like all the others.”

          “If a supernatural power can restore and treat addiction in that way, why not pray to have the physical allergy (the cycle of craving that begins immediately after that first drink) removed?”

          Double BINGO!

          The reasserts what I maintain all along, while the primary problem is physical, e.g. our reaction to alcohol in our systems, recovery has to do with a change of thinking/motivation.

  2. bob_mcc says:

    Great article and very impressed with the insight of the program and fellowship. I thought you did an amazing job describing the way prejudice works with the silent majority. Cease fighting everyone and everything has on many occasions an excuse to bury my head in the sand; refusing to act on a wrong I see in the world. In AA or not.

    For this drunk, AA has the best odds–treatment and AA. Even though these odds are low. We, AA, all of us drunks, are to live by our conscious and that is the idea of the daily disciplines. We all have something to say and something to add to silence one type of drunk because their conscious is different than is the exact action the third tradition is to protect against. I believe there is a natural example for this, it is called diversity.

    Prejudice grows in in-group favoritism, failure to take action and in silence. As an atheist I do not consider myself as a subset of the fellowship and any time I see someone jockeying a false sense of superiority I ask them how “ridiculous is it for one drunk to judge another”?

  3. Tony L says:

    Thanks, John. Really found your share interesting and stimulating as most shares on this enlightening site.
    I usually realise how different meetings can be in different countries.
    We don’t seem to have that same level of religious zealots in the UK.
    That said, my tolerance can be stretched by another person choosing to read “How It Works”.
    Having read the replies I always feel more inclusive in my secular approach to The Fellowship.

  4. Greg H says:

    First, as for the remark, “However, once separated from our favorite beverage/drug, we remain damned because of what Dr. Silkworth famously labeled ‘an obsession of the mind’ in The Doctor’s Opinion,” I would simply like to point out that Silkworth never used that phrase or anything even remotely like it. He was much more focused on our physical reaction to alcohol, which he compared to an allergy.

    Second, I have been continuously sober and an active member of AA since attending my first meeting ever on Oct. 7, 2001. My personal story, Without a Higher Power, was even printed in the AA Grapevine magazine, and is reproduced on this site if you’d care to read it. As I clearly stated there, I have never even pretended to “work the Steps” (and apparently AA’s official magazine was fine with that) simply because the Steps are designed to very effectively address a set of “issues” that I – like probably the vast majority of alcoholics – never even had. Unfortunately, not having those issues did not prevent me from becoming physically addicted to the chemical ethanol. Fortunately for me, however, “the only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.” This I most certainly have.

    Now please take a close look at the Preamble, which gives us an excellent overview of what Alcoholics Anonymous really is, and really isn’t. It doesn’t even allude to the Twelve Steps. Then take a close look at the Twelve Traditions. Again, the Twelve Steps are not even mentioned. Read the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, and you will learn that the Twelve Steps did not exist in any form until Bill started writing chapter 5 of the Big Book a few years after AA got started. In no official sense at all can AA be called specifically a “Twelve Step program.” The Twelve Steps are a Twelve Step program. AA, on the other hand, is simply a “fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other.” Those are two entirely different concepts which should not be confused with each other.

    In the Big Book the Steps are “suggested as” a (i.e. one possible) program of recovery (I personally think the wording “suggestive of” would have been better), but each of us is entirely free to make of them what we wish, or even to ignore them entirely, as I do, and “work” any sort of program that works for us as individuals.

    Sadly, the mainstream AA culture has developed a Twelve Step monomania, which has for all intents and purposes transformed the “suggested” Steps into effectively the “Twelve Commandments.” I doubt that is ever going to change, which is why I am now devoting much more of my time to helping its rational, secular, 21st century successor, LifeRing (described in a recent post on this site), become as readily available as AA is today.

    • Svukic says:

      Wasn’t there originally 5 or 6 Steps adopted from the “Oxford Group” which was subsequently adapted and evolved into your most aptly named “12 Commandments”?

      • Greg H says:

        The general principles of taking a personal inventory, confession, making amends and praying to God for guidance were all inspired by basic tenets of the Oxford Groups; but the OG never had any “steps” per se. What some people think of as AA’s “original six steps” were never codified as such at the time. Long after the Big Book was written, Bill attempted on several occasions to sum up the informal early word-of-mouth program by stating them as six “steps.” See, for example, page 160 of Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.

      • Tommy H says:

        There is an active thread on A.A. History Lovers Yahoo group trying to come up with references to the Six Word of Mouth Steps prior to them being written down in the early 1950s and to date no one has come up with any.

        I will report back if anyone does.

    • Tommy H says:

      Extremely well put, esp the last paragraph.

    • Robert C says:

      You must be an exception. I have yet to meet one person, after 10 years of addiction recovery, who was addicted to alcohol in a pure sense, separate from a personality that supported addictive behavior. Also, people I’ve met addicted to alcohol or other drugs are isolated from their fellow humans. This must be viewed in context of alcoholic drinking. (Almost no irony that most alcoholics report severe shyness prior to drinking.) Change occurs to an alcoholic who exposes themselves to us in AA. Even if a person is not formally working the steps, most of those great principles are being incorporated into such a person’s return to health.

      • Greg H says:

        Of course you may very well be right about that, perhaps I really am an extremely rare exception. But Dr. Silkworth, who treated literally tens of thousands of alcoholics over the course of his career, apparently didn’t think so. In his discussion of “the classification of alcoholics,” he said:

        Then there are a types entirely normal in every respect except in the effect alcohol has upon them. They are often able, intelligent, friendly people.

        All these, and many others, have one symptom in common: they cannot start drinking without developing the phenomenon of craving. This phenomenon, as we have suggested, may be the manifestation of an allergy which differentiates these people, and sets them apart as a distinct entity. It has never been, by any treatment with which we are familiar, permanently eradicated. The only relief we have to suggest is entire abstinence.

        For me, what he didn’t say is just as important as what he did say. What he didn’t say is, “The only relief we have to suggest is a spiritual awakening.”

        It’s certainly true that the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous are not exactly overflowing with “types entirely normal in every respect except in the effect alcohol has upon them.” But that might be so primarily because such people, probably the vast majority of people who quit drinking entirely because they experience the chemically-induced “phenomenon of craving” whenever they do drink, usually find the Twelve Steps-pushing mainstream AA culture too obnoxious to endure for very long. I certainly did. But taking Tradition Three seriously, instead of thumbing my nose at AA entirely, I just searched out non-mainstream culture meetings to attend, and even started a couple of my own, because I do thoroughly enjoy participating in a fellowship with others who, like me, have chosen entire abstinence.

        I absolutely love the LifeRing fellowship, whose mainstream culture explicitly acknowledges the fact that every single one of us is wonderfully “exceptional” in our own peculiar way. I only discovered them a couple of months ago, but already I’m participating in that fellowship more, and in AA less. Since an entirely rational alternative has finally become available, I am now perfectly happy to abandon AA to that tiny minority of recovering alcoholics, perhaps 5% or so, who find some version of the Twelve Steps to be helpful because they actually do have the kind of “issues” that the Steps were intended to address.

  5. Brent P. says:

    I wasn’t surprised to learn the author is a seasoned litigator, one who has to construct cogent arguments on behalf of his client while anticipating equally well reasoned responses from his counterpart representing the opposition.

    My problem with so much of the Big Book is, in presenting the program of recovery, it repeatedly contradicts itself and draws conclusions from flawed logic.

    Having read the book more than once it states that the primary purpose of the program and the sober alcoholic is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

    But in reading on we arrive at the most ill advised and misguided chapter in the book, We Agnostics. It reads like it was written by a manic depressive in a manic phase, aided by liberal doses of dexedrine or some other stimulant. And IT tells us the primary purpose of the program is to find God. But God help the serious seeker who reads this chapter. It bounces around from Galileo, the Wright Brothers, that prosaic steel girder and the whirling electrons that comprise it, to our faith in electricity even though we can’t see it. Which means we can conclude nothing else but the existence of God. I mean really, was it God who gave Orville and Wilbur wings, or was it faith in themselves and the scientists and aviation enthusiasts who came before, that kept them going back to the drawing board despite the skeptics cawing the seemingly sound proposition, “if God had wanted us to fly he would have given us wings.”

    Being something of a stickler for precision and consistency, if I’m being pitched (or preached) to, this chapter has, more than once, had me tearing at my hair.

    I’ll shut up as soon as I’ve addressed the proclamation derived from the white paper John referenced early in his piece:

    The twelfth step points to only one “result” from working the steps: a “spiritual awakening”. It does not say, “Having gotten sober as a result of these steps–”. Sobriety is not the name of the game, God is.

    Who says a spiritual awakening has to have anything to do with God? Certainly churches and spirituality go hand in hand but long before there was ever a Jesus or a Christian God, there were spiritual disciplines practiced by ancient cultures that seemed no less capable of producing the quality of awakening we in AA are promised. And in most cases they achieved it with no faith in any single God.

    • Svukic says:

      I don’t think it is at all certain that churches and spirituality go hand in hand. I’m guessing that’s why one of AA’s recurring affirmations is the insistence on being “spiritual not religious”. They already knew then that their only hope of not scaring away agnostics was to make it clear that their “plan for living” was not the same as the more-often-than-not hypocritical religion that was practiced out of those monuments to Christianity, churches.

      Sadly the “spirit” of the gesture (pun intended) was and is increasingly being used to NOT scare away agnostics before the majority of the pious-minded AAs have had a chance to convert them. After-all, all one needs is a foot in the door, get ’em believing by degrees: first jokingly in the AA group (haha just think of God as G.O.D.: Group Of Drunks, haha) and then continuously amend and expand on that initial place-holder for a “Higher Power” to eventually – hopefully – get a full Church of AA convert, conforming and pleasingly orthodox to boot.

      I attended my last AA meeting months ago. The chairwoman and secretary of the meeting used her ‘share’ to point out – amongst other things – that The Big Book was “like, AA’s Bible” (in response to my earlier ‘share’ admitting I was a relative beginner to AA in terms of time clean and ‘slips’).

      There are Big Book Study meetings akin to Bible Study both online and face-to-face where participants go through the volume sentence by sentence, word by word, contemplating the deeper meaning of it all. The authors don’t even have to be regarded as divine for their words to be elevated to canonical status.

      • Dan L says:

        Thanks Svukic you expressed a lot of my own feelings.
        (Funny how that happens.) Where I went for treatment we were given a copy of the book AA and some others and told to read them at our own pace and to journal our thoughts about it. At various times in group discussion the AA book was discussed. We were told it was one tool among many given that the book itself was a sales pitch to sell more books and had been written by a committee of persons with a few years of sobriety. We were encouraged at all times to use it for our own purposes and to interpret it freely.
        Imagine my shock when coming out into the real recovery world I learned that the “BOOK” (cue angel chorus from backstage) was inerrant and sacred and THE STEPS (cue thunder like hundreds of stage hands banging hundreds of pieces of sheet metal) were mandatory!! I went to a bible… oh Big Book study where the preacher had a “key” that explained the sacred placing of every word. What an awakening that was. The parachute and ripcord story was repeated endlessly. Anyway I was lucky and found thinking friends who helped me stay sober and I have learned to use AA for my recovery and to help others.

  6. Thomas B. says:

    A most useful article, John — Thank you.

    I’ve been sober in recovery from my primary drug of addiction, Colt .45 by the case lot, since my first AA meeting on October 19th of 1972. I also suffer from a number of other “grave emotional and mental disorders” to include PTSD, Depression, Bi-polar II Disorder, ADHD, and I’m sure there are a number of other diagnoses in my copious medical records from many years of therapy, as well as treatment by the Veterans Administration since 2001 for PTSD resulting from combat support duty in Vietnam in 1967-68, for which I have been determined to be 100% permanently disabled since 2007. I also worked professionally, and successfully, in the field of addiction for 27 of the 42 years I have been in recovery throughout New York City and Long Island.

    Some of the most inspired (?), enlightened(?), prescient(?), psychic(?) – What !?!?! -language of “How It Works” is when Bill wrote these words: “There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.” I’ve been able to stay sober for a long while, but I readily admit that much of that time I’ve been most incapable of being honest. Nevertheless, I have not drank again. And, I attribute this solely to going to AA meetings.

    My opinion is that most of us in the rooms are not wrapped too tightly. Then again, some of us are perhaps wrapped too, too tightly to the point of religious mania, sometimes crossing an invisible line into psychotic delusions of grandeur… 😉

    All of us are works in progress, constantly evolving through changing consciousness, awareness and insight. If you don’t drink and you don’t die, you radically change and evolve into other ways of being, mostly more healthy and life-enhancing than the behaviors of one who continues to drink.

    Nevertheless, I have experienced AA in the 42 years since I’ve been faithfully (pun intended) going to meetings morph increasingly from an open-ended, all inclusive fellowship of drunks supporting each other to stay sober into a more and more rigidly dogmatic, evangelical and pietistic Program – with a Capital P – that resembles more a religious cult than a “Fellowship of the Spirit”, as Bill describes us on page 164 of the Big Book.

    In response, my spiritual progress has evolved from being initially a wishy washy agnostic – mostly out of fear that there might indeed be a punishing god who would send me to hell forever and ever – to a confirmed agnostic, accepting that I am unable to know of or comprehend whatever divinity there may be, to currently a devout atheist for the past couple of years since I’ve been involved with AA Agnostica.

    My current favorite author is Frank Schaeffer whose latest book is: “Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God”. I’m thoroughly enjoying reading the first book of his God Trilogy, “Crazy for God.”

    Meanwhile, I go to meetings to share 42 years experience of staying sober by not picking up, going to meetings, and helping others. By practicing our code of “love and tolerance of others,” I aspire to be a positive power of example that one can stay sober without god, just as surely as those, who proselytize that the only way to stay sober is to do so with god.

  7. Marnin M. says:

    Of miracles, Scott R. says in his talks, “Miracle, schmerical” – “the coffee’s a miracle too!”

    I’m feeling lonely in my Sunday morning home group in Jupiter, Florida.

    As a new comer in 1970 I was told take what I want and leave the rest behind. That is exactly what I have been doing in AA all these many years.

    Back when I joined the AA window shades of the steps said in RED BLOCK LETTERS “as suggested.

    This is gone now and one would think that the steps were commanded the way AA is practiced here.

    My wish is for someone else to get up at a meeting and share that it is very lonely practicing a secular program here.

    I’ve often shared that if I were a newcomer today I doubt if I would succeeded in Florida AA. Hopefully someone would have steered me to AA Agnostica.


  8. wisewebwoman says:

    Awareness, to me, has been one of the greatest gifts of all.
    Acceptance followed in short order.
    Action Plan – my treatment plan for my alcoholism took a long while to gel as I wrestled with the Christian God concept and the repulsive heavenly father embodied (for me) by an abusive biological father and his enforcers, the misogynistic priests of the RC church.
    The cult-free serenity on the other side of all this, nearly 28 years later, is profound. Some would call it a spiritual awakening. I would call it embracing reality.
    I love articles such as John’s. Thank you!

  9. Steven A says:

    I found it difficult to tolerate the thumpers in the 10 plus years I bounced in and out of the rooms however I wonder if it was merely preparation for the time when I had to fully commit to the AA programme when I had ran out of options. I beg to differ with a few points in the article mainly the obsession and the spiritual experience. My definition of the obsession was the idea that overruled everyones idea including mine that I should not drink again. I can’t identify it with OCD and I think the two are entirely different. Silkworth’s description of it is correct however he describes the problem as two fold, mind and physical. This leads to the reference of the spiritual malady which I feel backs up the thumpers ideology. I think Silkworth used this as a throwaway term possibly. Also the spiritual experience is referred to in the appendix as a psychological change or personality change sufficient to recover from alcoholism. This is possible without the use of God in the programme and it’s easily adapted with good sponsorship and an open mind. I only have small criticism on the piece being a bit academic. We are not all professionals or academics and hence the need to keep it simple. I think one of the problems with people in AA is that they are far too literal, and forget the times in which the book was written. Keep it coming though I lapped it up.

  10. steve b says:

    John, you not only challenge the supremacy of the true believers, but you seem to question the usefulness of the steps. And that’s good. There are many non-believing members of AA who nonetheless believe in the steps, usually after playing around with the wording so that the word “god” is safely removed. And yet is there any scientific evidence that working the steps helps people to stay sober? I don’t know of any. And even if we work the steps in a very generalized way, concentrating, say, only on learning to accept oneself better and to get along with others better–can we say we know this works to keep you sober? Again, I don’t know.

    Recently I attended a meeting where an old blowhard was ranting on about how the purpose of AA and the Big Book was to enable you to find your higher power, and that he and certain of his friends, all of whom had more than 40 years of sobriety, had agreed that this higher power was none other than – you guessed it! – Jesus. I then said that I thought the purpose of AA was to help people get sober, that Jesus was only a mythological figure, and that Christianity was a false religion. Boy, did the blowhard get angry! Sometimes you can have so much fun at a meeting.

    • david m says:

      I then said that I thought the purpose of AA was to help people get sober, that Jesus was only a mythological figure, and that Christianity was a false religion. Boy, did the blowhard get angry! Sometimes you can have so much fun at a meeting.

      You’re doing the lord’s work there, steve.

      Well done!

      • Svukic says:

        I wish I had your courage Steve. Maybe through reading about other people’s courage to stand up to the religious majority and even have fun ruffling the die-hards’ feathers like you did I will overcome my fear of animosity and downright rejection which has kept me from AA meetings because I feel I have to suppress my honesty in order to conform.

  11. Michael says:

    Thought provoking article. I’m a strong supporter of AA moving towards more inclusiveness of atheist/agnostic meetings but I’m also a firm believer in the steps from my own experience and from the changes I’ve seen in friends and people I’ve sponsored who have worked the steps. I have no issue with atheist/agnostic versions of the 12 steps that I’ve seen. I don’t believe a belief in a higher power is necessary. Taking a moral inventory, sharing it with someone trusted, making amends, keeping the focus on ourselves, not on those we resent, have nothing at all to do with a belief in a god necessarily. For me it was crucial work for finding peace of mind and overcoming depression and self obsession.

    It seems to me that the issues in this article go far beyond the ‘god’ question. If a person is so opposed to AA that they even reject the importance of the 12 steps, they might want to consider Rational Recovery or some other path to sobriety. If they need the social support of AA as I believe most of us in recovery do, then maybe they should just tolerate the importance that others place on the steps. This isn’t the same as remaining silent when others show intolerance of atheists and agnostics.

    • larry k says:

      Personally, I find blind obedience a popular defect of character. I am also a firm believer in the “any lengths” version of AA. So I have that level of faith and that character trait like most of us. It behooves me to constantly check and re-check my actions. Yes, I can become obsessive about my own doubts and actions… but I do tend to alleviate the “blind” part of the scenario. The 12 steps are a process, a recipe so to speak. When the purpose is to bake a cake… you modify the recipe to suit the ingredients and procedures… it can never be fully reproduced identically. Years ago I followed the recipe for Essau’s potage (the oldest written recipe) it was a wonderful experience to prepare a biblical meal and understand more closely the staples of life from that time. I can assure you, it will not find itself in a can or the frozen food isle of the supermarket anytime soon. I am glad we have adapted our diet to suit the available ingredients of life… and know I can adapt them again tomorrow… this is how we improve our processes of recovery. This is how we bake a cake called sobriety. This is how we cook our lentils today.

      • Michael says:

        I’m not sure to what extend you’re referring to my comment but I’m not in any way advocating blind obedience. I’m advocating tolerance, “taking what you want and leaving the rest”. That’s the point of my comment, who cares if others find the steps to be the most important aspect of their sobriety? Why would anyone who feels differently feel a need to argue against another person’s path?

        The path to more inclusiveness will not be paved with arguments against the approach that others have taken in sobriety. Even atheist/agnostic groups embrace step work. To me the debate should be focused on the willingness of AA to allow atheist groups to identify under its brand. I’d also like to see more awareness of the importance of respecting the beliefs and non-beliefs of other members in all AA meetings. Theists and atheists deserve equal respect but when lines are crossed, boundaries should be established. It’s good debate and I enjoyed the article.

        • Larry K says:


          To stray away from the clear meaning of tradition 10, the long form, is to stray away from freedom, diversity and tolerance. Let’s call it “way off the path”. I agree that tolerance is essential. I might even go so far as to say it is the single greatest virtue we can aim for.

          You said: “Theists and atheists deserve equal respect but when lines are crossed, boundaries should be established”.

          This is the rub. What lines, what boundaries? The freedom of belief has been well established in constitutional law for centuries. AA has dealt with this issue time and time again. Belief is not an issue, They have no opinion on sectarian issues. The issue is in the membership and the democratic principles that periodically raise their ugly heads at the intergroup or central office level and within individual groups. In one breath a group can recite the responsibility declaration and expel an agnostic or atheist with the wind. For that matter, that decision may include Christians who find the public discussion a religious challenge i.e. sects that would consider anything beyond a personal relationship as a blasphemy.

          As for criticism…You are right that we should hold on to the idea that we should take what we need and disregard the rest. I also think it is healthy to have self criticism and a healthy skepticism in all matters, not just AA issues. AA is certainly big enough to handle that. There is nothing wrong with calling poppycock, poppycock. There has been a lot of poppycock and hyperbole in AA since the beginning. I think it is a service to some members to hear other people speak of it from time to time.

          When will they fix that Herbert Spencer attribute?

          You were quick to do the “go to rational recovery” tap dance that I have heard so many times in the last few years. The 12 steps are the 12 steps…they are a list of suggestions that hadn’t been done until they were written down. I doubt that the thoroughness of the 12 steps could ever be made empirical or measurable. This is why they are “suggestions”. They were based on personal measures that members had collectively suggested as things that had helped them.

          I find it ironic that none of the steps are “Don’t Drink”. That is the action that keeps people sober.

      • Michael says:

        Larry K

        That is what we’re discussing in my opinion, boundaries. It’s good to debate. In my opinion there are many things to criticize in AA but the steps aren’t one of them. That crosses a boundary, I’m an agnostic and a firm believer in the steps. This comes from personal experience, not ‘group think’ or caving into the ‘Big Book thumpers’. I also respect that others don’t feel the same way. Expressing this is a healthy thing but criticizing others, insisting that the 4th step is like Catholic confession, is critical and crosses a boundary. I went to Catholic school, trust me, I did not see my sponsor as someone who could speak for god and forgive my ‘sins’. For whatever mysterious reason, practicing the 5th step gave me some peace. If someone finds peace in some other way, who am I to criticize? I apologize for the Rational Recovery comment, it didn’t sound as I intended but I really do wonder why people don’t find alternatives when the program goes against their beliefs in such a strong way. It’s not a ‘love it or get out’ attitude I have, I’ve been to Rational Recovery meetings, I respect it.

        • Larry K says:


          I got sober going to meetings and talking to those that recovered before me. Everyone worked the steps to the best of their abilities. For some that may have only been halfway through the first step! That matters not. I am not to judge another’s inventory. All I can do is lead by example. I have no problem listening to an AA meeting the way they were run when I came in the program, but I am affected mightily if I hear or see individuals persecuting others on the matter of belief. The word God for some is no different than a peanut allergy. For me, when a speaker leans forward into the microphone and says…”and you know I mean Jesus.” I develop an anaphylactic reaction.

          But where I care little about how an individual actually “understands”, “interprets”, or conceptualizes the steps, there are still healthy questions to be asked about them. This is an honest program, I have kept hearing (for several decades), I would love to know how, in real terms, one turns ones will over to someone/thing else? Will is not a transferable item.

          Curious about your take.

      • Michael says:

        Larry K

        I was only reacting to your analysis of other people working the steps. Pointing out that I don’t think atheists/agnostics will get very far if we criticize other people’s interpretations of the steps or their belief in or use of a higher power. That’s a perfectly good debate for this website I suppose but I was thinking of the larger picture.

        I’ve advised atheists to use an AA group as something bigger than themselves and turning their will over is no more than taking some of the suggestions on blind faith to see if they work, and of course leaving the suggestions that rub them the wrong way, like prayer. It’s the way my sponsor worked with me. I think it’s undeniable that the collective knowledge and experience in an AA group is larger than that of one individual newcomer. I had a huge ego when I came into AA, I was hardly aware of how miserable this made me. I think the second step in some form was critical for my recovery and trying some of the suggestions that seemed reasonable did prove to be valuable for me.

        I’ve heard this concept of using an AA group as a ‘higher power’ repeated many times in AA, no religious people have an issue from what I’ve seen. If they do, they keep it to themselves.

        Yes, hearing ‘Jesus’ spoken in a meeting really bugs me and it bugs most of the people at the meetings I go to, when someone does it week after week, they usually get a lecture after the meeting by a home group member. AA has no professional facilitators so all kinds of boundaries will be crossed and I think people who are offended by Christian talk should speak up, this website is a good place for reinforcing that idea. I understand that there are meetings where Christ talk is the norm and that’s unfortunate but if someone lives in a large enough community, they should try every meeting in town until they find the right fit.

    • Duncan says:

      My belief is that whatever you think kept you sober then that is what you tell other people. No rules at all in AA.

      • Michael says:

        It’s really that simple. It’s a matter of respecting all opinions or at least not arguing to attempt to disprove them. When 90% of a group seems to think a certain way, the 10% left may feel ostracized which is why I feel that atheist/agnostic groups should be embraced. I don’t think that arguing to change AA at its core is productive, it only creates more division.

  12. Andy R. says:

    I have heard (and hated) that rote reading innumerable times: “no human power could have relieved our alcoholism”.

    That’s the very basis of AA meetings – a group of humans who come together and somehow find the power to relieve our alcoholism!

    “How it Works” is NOT how it works. (Then again, how you can trust a chapter that starts “Rarely have we seen a person fail” – hmm, a 95% failure rate of achieving lasting sobriety qualifies as “rarely”. Though since the book next blames the relapser for not properly working the program, some AA members – usually the more dogmatic thumpers of their perceived sacred texts – argue the self-absolving qualifier makes that dubious claim true. Funny the gymnastic contortions in logic that thumpers go through to find a way that their sacred text remains “inerrant”.)

    Thanks, John, for your article… and some well-pointed finger-wagging at the dog-ma! 🙂

  13. John L. says:

    Good article. I especially liked the original analysis of Steps 1 and 2. Certainly Bill W.’s Steps can be helpful – if secularized and rewritten. But then, why not start from scratch?

    I wouldn’t worry about double-checking doors and gas burner knobs. Better safe than sorry, and it’s a dangerous world we live in. Just yesterday here in Boston, a pedestrian was killed and two others seriously injured when they were walking on the sidewalk. There was a three-car crash, which ran off the road and into them. OCD notwithstanding, it’s good to look both ways before crossing the street, and then to do this again, and then to run to the other side – and once on the other side, to stay as far as possible away from the curb. I don’t know if I’m kidding or not.

  14. Dan L says:

    Thank You John. I really enjoyed that, especially the part about OCD. I have had to try to deal with PTSD along with my ethanolism for a lifetime. I was taught by psychiatrists that addiction, OCD and PTSD are very closely related and live in the same neighbourhood in our brain/selves. The therapy for one often compliments recovery for another. In many ways I see us as slaves of a trained Pavlovian response in that we seem to get an inordinate psycho emotional response from consuming ethanol so we train ourselves and alter our lives to make this our primary purpose. I got so good at this that I was literally miserable and helpless when I could not drink and recovered immediately from this around and about beer number two. When I finally was able to stop I continued, unconsciously, to manipulate myself and my environment to prepare for that big Molson induced payoff which wouldn’t come. Madness ensued.
    When I first came into AA and was able, after a time, to understand the program all I could picture was faith healers and snake handlers. It was disgusting to see the crazy eyes of those raving about how their “higher power” took care of literally everything from deciding what to have for dinner to arranging green lights in heavy traffic. I got drunk for ten years. Second time around I went to a place where I was given professional treatment and a much better understanding of what was wrong with me. Upon release a little less than three years ago I was able to come into AA and use it to help myself and others within some healthy boundaries I was able to set. I had been taught that as an atheist it was up to me to find a reason to be sober and as a humanist the reason was not hard to find. I love AA and use it daily but obsessing about god or not god is just as bad as obsessing about anything else. It detracts from the good practices available in the program. Thanks again for your insights.

  15. Frank P. says:

    My background is also somewhat in the legal arena. I have an extreme background in judicial practice. I am an Editor in Chief of an International Encyclopedia of Judicial practice with a Chief Judge of the Appelate Court of Egypt as a peer reviewer. As an individual who understands frameworks and standards of judge craft I tend to disagree with your evidence. One of the elements of being a judge is “gatekeeper” to evidence, whether scientific or not. Using the Daubert standard I base my decisions on rigorous examination of the evidence and documentation presented. About six years ago I had a stroke based on the over consumption of alcohol. That was before I became experienced in judge craft. However, now that I have read, examined and communicated with experts in the field I now think differently. Before I make decisions on imbibing any alcoholic beverage I remind myself that 1) I have paid the consequences of over consumption and 2) there is scientific evidence documenting the consequences of said over consumption. My decision therefore is to sentence myself to a lifetime of avoidance of aforementioned liquid. I used to believe in God due to my parents, now deceased, belief. However, due to rigorous evidence documenting the non existence of said deity I tend to follow that mindset.

  16. Christopher G says:

    Very nice article, John. I’m especially fond of the Animal Farm reference. I may use it, if you don’t mind, as a reading for discussion at a new meeting I’m starting on Thursday. I am a recovering believer and “thumper” and have recently had a quiet epiphany that doing the steps “by the book” and having a so-called spiritual awakening aren’t meant to feed my ego and make me better than anybody, not even a little bit (like the hypocritical statement I’ve heard around the rooms that “some are sicker than others”). They only make me more accountable and responsible, and most of all, useful to other sufferers as an equal, not “more equal”. “They, LIKE ME(!), are perhaps spiritually sick.”
    Keep up the good work!

  17. Bob C says:

    I like this piece.
    Also, the steps and most of the big book inspire one to work and change our attitudes and behaviours towards other people and ourselves – far from a divine intervention. So big book fundamentalists who claim the “it’s about god, period” parts of the big book, do so at the expense of all the other parts of the book that do not purport such a view. The big book actually says all kind of things, some of which are contradictory to each other… (Oh my god did I say that????)
    That book is not inerrant. Inerrancy, unsurprisingly, is a Christian theological concept related to the bible being perfect. Such a view, applied to the big book, magnificantly fails to account for all the Other things that book says.
    I have also closely observed some of the more fundamental members I meet. Many of them suffer in anguish with a lack of acceptance in themselves and others, and so have found a neat little niche by which to express such a lack. Such people, perhaps without being aware, suffer from the “I’m sooooo bad that only a divine intervention could stop me, help me. I am worthless and the best I could do was drink”.
    I much prefer to think that this organism is amazing and incredible, and that alcoholism was the worst I could do…

  18. Tommy H says:

    Why do we need to cede the words spiritual and mystical to the supernatural?

    Steps six and seven are mentioned in the article only in passing. For me at least this is where the healing is, they are not trivial, and should be treated better.

    • Chris G. says:

      Steps Six and Seven are, to me, about change and growth, and have come to be one of the core parts of my sobriety journey. Far from trivial, I think they should get a lot more attention, but as stated in the BB – both the steps themselves and their explanation on page 76 – they are presented as pure faith-based pleas for intervention. I never really understood their meaning or usefulness when I was in the do-it-by-the-book mode.

      Martha Cleveland, in her book The Alternative 12 Steps, first made them come alive for me. She states them like this:

      6. Be entirely ready to acknowledge our abiding strength and release our personal shortcomings.
      Principle: Willingness to change

      7. Work honestly, humbly and courageously to develop our assets and to release our personal shortcomings.
      Principles: Personal responsibility, Involvement in change, Courage, Humility, Self-discipline

      Nothing very mystical or spiritual in that.

      I was at a traditional meeting last week where these were the discussion subject. For some people there, change and growth were nearly invisible behind their total focus on God Show Me and God Help Me. In the name of God, indeed, they were prevented from seeing the power these steps represent, and the hard work involved.

    • Lon Mc. says:

      I’m curious to know what you have left when you brush out “supernatural” from its entanglement with “spiritual and mystical.” If we approach it with critical thinking, and are thorough and deeply self-honest about it, it looks to me like we should be left with very slim pickings at the end.

      • Tommy H says:

        Look for a message in what you might formerly call spiritual and/or mystical w/o involving the supernatural.

        Is a feeling of awe looking at a beautiful sunset or Hubble photo dependent on the supernatural?

        The definitions of these words are so varied they have no meaning.

  19. Lech L. says:

    I often refer to myself as a dry drunk because I have not worked the program.

    • John L. says:

      Me too — and proud to be one! Someone should make a good, punchy slogan for us. If I may paraphrase a famous manifesto:

      Dry drunks of A.A. unite!
      You have nothing to lose but a bogeyman.
      You have a fellowship to win.

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