The Trouble with Tradition Three
The following is the long form of Tradition Three as quoted in my copies of Alcoholics Anonymous (the volume that is reverentially and affectionately referred to as “The Big Book” by orthodox members of AA) and Twelve Steps And Twelve Traditions (both published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.):
Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought A.A. membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.
“The Big Book” makes very little reference to the twelve traditions except for printing them in its rear pages. More than a decade after he first participated in the creation of AA’s inaugural “Basic Text”, Bill Wilson acknowledged the need for an expanded examination of both the Steps and Traditions. He produced the volume affectionately known by the AA community as the “12 & 12”.
Sadly, the document is as much a product of its time and place as its predecessor.
At first the Third Tradition seems the ticket to AA for anyone who can admit to themselves that they have a problem with drink.
Thank goodness that part remains true – I know I have used it many times to justify my presence at meetings full of God-talk. But the commentary on the Third tradition in the “12 & 12” inadvertently reveals how much courage or simple bullheadedness can be required on the part of the agnostic/atheist to remain a member in the face of intolerance and sometimes open belligerence, both of which existed in ample amounts at the time the tome was written. The scary thing is that the same thing is as true in many places today.
I’m referring to the second story put forth under the title of Tradition Three in the volume known as “12 & 12”. This example chosen by Bill W. to illustrate the efficacy of the Third Tradition is as distasteful as it is likely to be accurate in its description of the experience of a significant number of agnostic/atheist AAs today.
Beginning with the paragraph starting with the sentence: “Not long after the man with the double stigma knocked for admission…” (the story of which I will come back to in a later article) we are introduced to Ed, a salesman with an unsaleable idea: atheism. “His pet obsession was that AA could get along better without its ‘God nonsense’.” Even with all the trickery, sweet talk and propaganda, Ed could not talk anyone else into his ideas, despite his persistence: “He browbeat everybody…” He is presented as a bull in a china shop; an undeniable part of the group that is tolerated despite his exigency.
The paragraph ends thus: “…and everybody expected that he’d soon get drunk – for at the time, you see, AA was on the pious side.”
I love this part. How pious is AA in comparison now? “There must be a heavy penalty, it was thought, for blasphemy.” Distressingly enough (for the rest of the group still steeped in Oxford Group religiosity), Ed proceeded to stay sober.” This and the rest of the story could also be somewhat distressing to read for most AA members who happen to be atheist or agnostic.
The anecdote continues to describe the so-called Ed’s continued transgressions, enraging the congregation to the point where its representatives are ready to throw him out: “You can’t talk like this around here. You’ll have to quit it or get out.”
Then comes the primary crux of the tale – “with great sarcasm” Ed quotes from the foreword of the manuscript that would eventually become the Big Book, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
Well, that stumped them and reluctantly they had to let him stay on.
The “anguish” of the group as Ed “stayed sober – month after month” is pathetic to read. “When, oh when…will that guy get drunk?”
In one of the most horrible stories I’ve read in the primary AA literature Ed did eventually fall off the wagon and needed help, help for which he asked from his home group (there were only two groups at the time according to the text). Now here’s the awful part: they refused to help him or give him succour, they refused to answer his call ON PURPOSE!
To quote from the 12 & 12 text: “In those days, we’d go anywhere on a Twelfth Step job, no matter how unpromising. But this time nobody stirred. ‘Leave him alone! Let him try it by himself for once, maybe he’ll learn a lesson!'”
Ed’s home group wished failure upon him because he persisted in espousing his non-belief and when the hoped-for fall became fact, not one of his AA fellow members lifted a finger to help. On the contrary, they hoped Ed would learn that without accepting God into his life he could not expect AA to help him. Ed’s AA group risked losing a member’s life to alcoholic poisoning or suicide (to mention but two possible outcomes) rather than help an avowed atheist, albeit an alcoholic. What happened to “Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation”?
The rest of the tale is only worth mentioning in showing its complete hypocrisy: whilst lying in a hotel room, drunk, crazy and alone his hand brushed past the Gideon Bible on the side drawer and the rest is sugar-coated candy lies about a redeemed atheist that finally came to believe. Thus even the horribly unchristian behaviour of the AA group in question is redressed as the catalyst that forced Ed into finally accepting God – a good thing. The idea that poor Ed painfully learned he had to make up this silly story and pretend to believe in God in order to be able to access human help in times of desperate need doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone, including the venerable author.
The moral of the story is to demonstrate the value of the Third Tradition in making AA all-inclusive even when individuals in AA unfairly discriminate. This would be fine if the purported tolerance of non-believing AAs did not hinge on the hope for their eventual acceptance of a supernatural God. It reverses the whole message and makes a joke of the “spiritual not religious” precept so widely espoused in AA.
The Third Tradition is no magic ticket to AA. One can wave around slogans but only when it is accepted by the majority does the slogan stop being a battle-cry and becomes a call for unity instead. In the end, it is the people of AA that help other people in AA and out – in meetings, as sponsors, on the phone, as outside friends. So it is the people of AA that must accept the tradition without resentment and without expectations of conversion before the idea that is the Third Tradition becomes reality. But is the right of membership for atheists/agnostics to an organisation whose life-blood is a God that is masquerading as a Higher Power really the answer?
Last Saturday afternoon I went to my AA home group’s meeting for the first time in many months, and the feeling of being recognised and welcomed by familiar faces that seemed genuinely pleased to see me was amazing. I truly felt warmth as if I was a returning long-lost friend. As I looked around I realised that here was the reason that I hadn’t given up on AA altogether.
When I relented to the urging of others and shared, I took a (small) page from the courage described by so many here at AA Agnostica and pretty much told it like it is – the reason I hadn’t come to a meeting for so long was because I do not believe in God. Even as I tried to explain my position I found myself softening the edge of my criticism and saying things like “I remain open minded” and “Never say never” even though I know very well that my lifetime of searching for truth will never be turned over by AA arguments as they stand. But I didn’t want to offend these kind, smiling people; I enjoyed the feeling of belonging and acceptance; even more I didn’t want to challenge the belief of those for whom God had played a large part in their recovery.
Of course I got the usual rebuff: advice about replacing God with the AA group (GOD can mean Group Of Drunks or another handy acronym Good Orderly Direction) – how anyone would use this highly abstract notion in the context of the “Higher Power” described in AA literature beggars belief. Even the ubiquitous (in spite of being ridiculous) example of using a tree as a Higher Power was mentioned. The woman who was parroting these words is a well-meaning lady but her answer was textbook. In other words, patronising.
It was at the end, just as the “meeting after the the meeting” got underway (and before I had a chance to leave) when someone slipped a card into my hand. I didn’t notice her at first because I was still recovering from the impact of the kind gift by F. (who had been sitting next to me during the meeting) of a current AA Reviver (the Australian version of “The Grapevine’ which usually costs A$3).
The name on the card said Julie N. I remembered her from the last few meetings I’d attended before I stopped going. She told me that she’d related to what I had said and wanted to get together over a coffee or fastfood to discuss it. On the card was her mobile and home phone number.
Only recently have I even considered the idea of trying to start agnostic AA meetings in Sydney’s West, since I filled out the form after discovering this site. It was a powerful example of why I should keep attending traditional AA meetings, imperfect sobriety record and all. Someone had already related to my confession of unbelief (however much the edges were softened) and responded by reaching out and making a connection.
There is so much potential in AA for the non-theistic person. The Twelve Steps, when re-interpreted through an agnostic lens, can be remarkably close to some Buddhist and Taoist practices of self-awareness – two mystical traditions that have stood the test of both time and modern theoretical physics. There is a basic principle that has been tapped in AA that has been proved to work – for five percent of those that ever attend. I think that the only reason that percentage is so low is because of AAs exclusivity – in spite of the Third Tradition AA has become avowedly religious and therefore is a victim of the very rejection it tried to avoid inflicting on prospective members.
I was one of those members but AA Agnostica has demonstrated just how much and why the cliche “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” can apply to the atheist/agnostic faced with the traditional AA or nothing. Julie N. showed me at the first meeting I went to since I threw the baby out that it might be possible to keep that baby without the bathwater.
If the phenomenal growth of this site is anything to go by, I think the baby will be growing into a toddler before long and we’ll all be facing teething problems!
Svukic is an Australian singer/songwriter who is currently studying to gain formal qualifications in music. She first came across the 12 Step model in her 20s at an NA meeting. She heard the word God and walked straight back out. At the beginning of 2014 Svukic walked into a women’s AA meeting as a last ditch effort to avert feelings of suicide. She credits that meeting with saving her from death, but she is still looking for the means with which to save her life. She has a sneaking suspicion that a formula for living does indeed exist in the Steps, if only they can be interpreted correctly. And for her that means excluding a supernatural and interventionist God. She is looking forward to publishing her music online soon. Her dream is to be a conductor of an orchestra performing her own original compositions.