The Trouble with Tradition Three


By  Svukic

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.

40 Responses

  1. Tommy H says:

    The Traditions were not confirmed until 1950 so they didn’t appear in the First Edition Big Book. Also, they could not be commented upon in the first 179pp, either

    You will also find the phrase “work the steps” did not appear until the 12&12.

  2. Svukic says:

    I think I made it clear that the traditions and commentary I was referring to were to be found in the “12 & 12” quote: ““The Big Book” makes very little reference to the twelve traditions except for printing them in its rear pages.” My copy of the Big Book is the 4th Edition.

  3. Geo B says:

    Loved this entire thread. I had been a agnostic or weak atheist for many years, having no strong grounding in logic and unaware of the manifold logical fallacies in religious thought, but on the other hand having no real commitment to any one religion.
    The day when I last ‘came to’ was the first day of my new life, because it started with the knowledge that I was the one who had destroyed my own life. I needed help, and I needed to stop drinking. I called AA (actually, the operator called AA for me because my hands were shaking so much that I couldn’t), and within 15 minutes I had a call back from another alcoholic who said he would pick me up at 7:30 that evening for a meeting.
    I didn’t hear a lot of god-talk then, or maybe I was too groggy to hear well, but the crowd was so open and welcoming that I decided to stay, and returned the following night.
    For most of the meetings then (this was in 1987 in California) I did not hear a lot of the god-talk that I came in later years to recognize as a blight on recovery in AA. It happened that a movement of the “great awakening” type so common in our history in the US had come to AA to give us the so-called good news about god and christianity and so and so on.
    These activists found their footing in those of us in AA who came from an evangelical past, as well as those whose original faith was roman catholic, and who could readily absorb the new doctrine, embodied in familiar phrases such as “where two or more are gathered in my name I will be in the midst.” (This exact phrase was used in many meetings.)
    Which is when I quit my local evangelistic meetings and began looking for meetings without this cant.

  4. JayCee says:

    I arrived at this page following this morning’s meeting with my sponsor. As someone new to recovery, we are at Step three. It’s likely to be the first major hurdle in actioning the 12 Steps.

    Simply put, I cannot accept the inference that we are so entirely helpless and completely removed from our own recovery process. For the believer in god, it’s surely an easy task to lay one’s fate in the hands of an imaginary entity, whose power rests in the minds of those who create the fantasies. I am not afforded the convenience of such imagination.

    To date, my approach to ‘Higher Power’ is to recognise the Fellowship, both as a collective and also the sum of it’s parts. I am forging a couple of new friendships, and the support from like-minded people who have experienced the hardship of alcoholism is of comfort. I am genuinely grateful for this.

    However, when transposing ‘God’ into an alternative higher power, here’s where Step 3 falls flat for me. I’m unable to accept that I must turn my will and my life over to a human form, or a collective thereof. It implies an absolution from taking responsibility for my own actions, which is a flawed mindset.

    I walked into AA by choice. I continue to attend AA by choice. Nobody is carrying me wholly against my will, or exclusive of my will. To suggest that I should be giving this over to another person or persons (in lieu of a ‘god’) is something I cannot accept.

    Has my self-assigned ‘Higher Power’ played a role in my recovery? Absolutely – I could not have escaped the lifestyle I was trapped in without AA (and admittedly, an 11th Step buddhist meditation that got me to AA in the first place). I’m comfortable in exploiting the ‘as we understand Him’ mantra to justify some of the God references – although increasingly this application simply doesn’t translate.

    As another Sydney atheist, I would be keen to meet with other like minded people to explore and discuss such matters, specifically for people who have worked the steps from a nontheistic position – because while my sponsor is not pushing a Christian angle, I feel that he many simply not have satisfactory alternative solutions to interpreting the word of the Big Book, in a manner of rational, critical thinking. Anyone wishing to meet in Sydney, drop me a line, perhaps we can rustle up a few other ‘godless’ sober people for an informal gathering.

  5. Colin says:

    I’m 2.5 years free from alcohol! This fact is due to AA. I appreciate the nice old ladies who encouraged me as a new comer, I sat in meetings everyday for a year. I attended on average two to three, sometime four a day (around 1000 in a year). I almost lost my mind and the will to keep going to AA.

    Then I found a very small agnostic/atheist meeting and this website, and not so surprising to me, I had found my freethinking, action orientated fellows and it has changed my outlook on AA. I feel a change not only toward sober people, but also toward what it means to be sober.

    I read the comments to this post and have had all of those horrible things said to me too. I’ve had people literally ask me to walk outside, then tell me I have a horrible message and slam the door in my face, right after there five minute message about how god changed their life. I used to get mad, but now I just feel sorry for them.

    The strange thing that I find is that it is easier to talk to free thinkers about life issues, issues with sobriety, and positive action toward a positive fruitful life. I am so grateful that there are forums and meetings dedicated to the cause. Thank you.

  6. Christopher G says:

    At our new meeting we read this after the preamble and intro:

    Service Material from the General Service Office
    The term has no relation to material not published by G.S.O. It does NOT imply Conference disapproval of other material about A.A. A great deal of literature helpful to alcoholics is published by others, and A.A. does not try to tell any individual member what he or she may or may not read.

    Then we read whatever we want! And discuss whatever we want!

  7. Denis K says:

    The term, “Conference Approved” seems to create the idea with some folks that this literature is prescribed by AA and is somehow sacred like the Big Book.
    When explaining this to new people I use the term “Conference Created” to explain further.
    I suppose there will always be those who will mis-interpet conference approved to mean something other than what in fact it is IMHO.

  8. bob_mcc says:

    Yes, it is OK to read from “non-AA” literature in an AA meeting unless your group decides to use “conference approved” literature only. Groups are under no obligation to adopt such a restriction. Futher, when talking about whether a book is “AA approved” the question is often this: “Is the book General Service Conference approved literature?” Conference approval is only considered for books published by AA World Service in NY (AAWS). It serves as a way of saying that AAWS has put together a book and the General Service Conference has approved it. AAWS organizes the General Service Conference.

    The list of books with conference approval is not a list of what may or may not be used in meetings but a list of literature the conference feels accurately reflects AA’s basic message. Some groups independently decide that they will only use Conference Approved Literature, but there is no requirement that a group limit itself to a list. Each AA group is the highest authority in AA and can use any literature it wants to.

    Cut and pasted from Big Book sponsorship.

  9. Lola says:

    I agree with Roger, and also with everything Cameron said. Why do alcoholics insist in dissecting everything that is written? As co-chair of an Agnostic group, we were given our Group Conscience’s blessing to read what we want to and conduct our meetings however we want because “each group is autonomous”… but readings must be conference-approved. Agnostic versions of How it Works aren’t conference approved. So we read some “approved” stuff (preamble, closed meeting statement, a bit of chapt 3 from BB) and save the “unapproved” stuff as Topics for discussion. 🙂

  10. Roger says:

    I regularly go to agnostic AA meetings. How the 12 & 12 are interpreted and practiced actually makes a huge difference – you would be surprised – and is thus eminently worthy of discussion.

  11. Cameron says:

    I am Cameron, and I am an alchoholic and I happen to be atheist. Actually to be honest I am somewhat Anti-theist, which I know some people will understand. Whatever, I am an alchoholic, and have been for my whole life. I am sober right now, and sober today, and I am thankful for that within myself. I live in fear of booze, and whatever else is true I know that booze will ruin me, will kill me, and makes my life and the lives of those who rely on me, miserable. I can not drink. I am an addict, and booze is my drug of choice.

    About AA, 12 steps, traditions, higher powers, religion and so on: My first point would be that, my parents both found and stayed sober through AA, and as a child AA was a major part of our lives..with all of its traditions. I also know several other Alkies who are sober in AA, and who accept their sobriety in AA and who try to live, and believe the traditions.

    I have come to AA agnostica because the Religious emphasis in the traditions and practice at my local AA group is intellectually a problem for me: I can not stand in a circle and chant a prayer to a God which does not exist. My local group, in addition, seems to enjoy “slogans”…again, something I have trouble with.

    But here is what I think we need to remember: AA works for a lot of alcoholics. It has nothing to prove, even though it perhaps cant work for ME, or for YOU. The fact that I dont accept all the traditions, dont believe in god, well, thats MY business. Nothing to do with AA , and nothing to do with anyone IN our OUT of AA.

    Speaking as an addict, and commenting in a forum where other addicts will probably be, I say that the ONLY thing that matters, is Getting Sober. Finding sobriety, and re-building my life. Talking about AA as an organisation, about its traditions, and of stories which seem archaic today, none of that matters a whit. None of it helps anyone get sober. It wont help ME stay sober.

    There are alkies who sincerely believe that their sobriety is found through a belief in god as they understand him, and that unapologetic, complete faith in AA and the 12 steps are the ONLY way to get sober and to stay sober; so nobody should be surprised that these alkies tell other alkies the truth as they see it.

    Alcoholisim to me, is an addiction. Like all addictions, it seems to have an onset…a developing pathway that includes repeat, self destructive uncontrolled behaviour, which if not overcome, usually results in untold chaos in the addict’s life. We all know these things. Addicts need to get sober. This is all that matters. We addicts cant afford, in my view, to debate AA, its traditions, religion, or any other peripheral issue. If AA does not work for you, find something that does. There is nothing to be gained from arguing AA traditions , if one is an addict.

    I can be reached here: if anyone wants to talk about getting sober. It wouldnt hurt me.

  12. Tommy H says:

    But not in any of the First Editions.

  13. Tommy H says:

    Nell Wing said Wilson never let the facts stand between him and a good story.

    ALL of his stories, including the ones written into our literature, including the Big Book, 12&12, As Bill Sees It/A.A. Way of Life, and A.A. Comes of Age, should be taken with a grain of salt.

  14. Roger says:

    Very good, Bill. And the author is alluding to the fact that the Traditions are commonly found – as Appendix I – in the Big Book.

  15. Bill C. says:

    This seems accurate, from Wikipedia:

    The Traditions were first published in the April 1946 AA Grapevine under the title Twelve Points to Assure Our Future [3] and were formally adopted at AA’s First International Convention in 1950.[1] Wilson’s book on the subject, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, was published in April, 1953.[3]

  16. Lola says:

    I forwarded this to a friend who said this: “The AA service structure (convention) was hammered out, and in the very first world-wide convention (Ohio 1950) the AA traditions were adopted as our official guidelines. Clearly, your author believes that the condensed “Traditions” were written as part of the Big Book when they were not.”
    Is he correct?

  17. todd says:

    Thanks for the post. I have been at 12 & 12 meetings where Tradition 3 was discussed. It was my time to share and so I explained to everyone that 1. I am an atheist, 2. Not all atheists proselytize or wish to convert others to their way of thinking or wish to change AA the way the (straw) man in the story was doing, 3. I know there are higher powers and things greater than myself (the weather being one obvious example or that we are all hurtling through space together on a large wet rock and there is nothing to be done about that but be aware of it) but that these things greater than me are not necessarily sentient or have a “will” or plan especially for me (I see no evidence of that). The group collectively yawned and advised me to keep coming back. In another meeting a person read Dr. Bob’s lament that he feels sorry for atheists, agnostics, skeptics, those with any form of intellectual pride that keeps him or her from accepting what is in the book. I was called to share and said that I feel sorry for Dr. Bob – he was a drunk proctologist! and that I can be an atheist and still accept that I can’t beat alcohol alone. I need AA. Or something exactly like it. The program, the fellowship, and sponsorship are the holy trinity for me. I feel it is self-evident that anytime I’m working the program, going to meetings, working with my sponsor or a sponsee (or just being real with any other alcoholic in AA) I’m part of a power great than myself. And I think I can summon enough of that power to guard against the first drink – provided I’m doing the work. At least, that has been my experience.

  18. John F says:


    Colossally cool post!

    Issues of supreme beings and gods (of our “understanding” versus our “misunderstanding”… LOL) aside – two incredible principles exist in the program, as I see it.

    First, the idea that a desire to quit drinking automatically qualifies us as members of the program is critically important. We don’t (or should not) shoot our wounded; so the simple desire to quit without more gives us all our membership cards.

    Secondly, the Second Appendix of the Big Book says that the result of working the 12 Steps is a spiritual awakening, which is defined as “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.”

    In sum, the program can work simply by having a desire to quit using and a desire to work toward a personality change that will allow us to honestly see and appreciate our relationship with mood-altering chemicals – that is, “restore us to sanity” (Step Two).

    A mystical entity by whatever name isn’t part of the equation for me and doesn’t have to be for any agnostic/atheist. Your article makes that beautifully clear! Your post also drives home the point that sometimes the Christian thinking that dominates AA can cause it to act in ways that are intolerant and quite un-Christian.

    Thanks for your contribution, Svukic!

  19. Lech L. says:

    I heard something along the same lines a month or so ago. Someone stated that it’s impossible to have ‘contented sobriety’ without working the Steps.

    If this is true, then I am delusional, or perhaps not a ‘real alcoholic’.

    I suppose another possibility is that I have been on a dry drunk of several decades duration.

    I concluded within six months of exposure to AA meetings that AA dogma was nonsense, and that I would never do most of what is espoused.

  20. bob k. says:

    The truth is that, in an AA meeting, individuals may, and do, say just about anything. Two of my favorite instances of AA meeting introductions are:

    1) “I used to be an alcoholic, but now I just drink 12 beers a day.” And,

    2) “Well, I’m not an alcoholic at all, you see. Nothing against you fine chaps. I was sent here by the magistrate after my 4th impaired driving charge. All a bit of a misunderstanding, and dashedly bad luck!”

  21. bob k. says:

    As far as WHO created the Gideon Bible story, the answer may lie with Bill W.’s biographers.

    Matthew Raphael (a pseudonym) writes, “Like his father before him, Bill W. was a spellbinding storyteller.”

    Pulitzer Prize winning Nan Robertson observes that he had “a lifetime penchant for embroidering the facts while accurately summarizing the gist of an event.”

  22. Svukic says:

    Thank you everyone for the wonderful comments!
    In truth I did not know that “Ed” was supposed to be Jim B. of “The Vicious Cycle” until after I submitted the article, when Roger informed me.
    The idea that it may have been Bill.W himself that was bending the truth instead of “Ed” as Chris G. suggests is very interesting.
    I’ll check out the chat room times and if it’s not in the middle of the night here in the Antipodes I might catch some of you there soon!

  23. Lorie says:

    The AA meetings I have been attending F2F for the past 3 weeks are becoming increasingly frustrating for me. A member stated tonight that it is IMPOSSIBLE for an Atheist or Agnostic alcoholic to obtain sobriety through the program.
    People also spoke frequently about the need to drop your ego, and stay humble. That is the only way to recovery.

    How can one be “humble” when stating they are “The Chosen Few”?

    I am so thankful to all of you here…

  24. Sherril B says:

    I believe Charlie P., now gone, met this gentleman or someone who knew him, and was told that he did not become a believer. He just got quiet about his beliefs to avoid being attacked. (Editor’s note: Charlie P. founded an agnostic AA meeting in 1980 in California. His story is told here: Father of We Agnostics Dies.)

  25. Tommy H says:

    Ed’s story is in the 12&12, not the Big Book.

    Someone told me a long time ago to take these stories with a grain or two of NaCl and there’s been less grinding of teeth as a result.

  26. life-j says:

    though I have always been open about my non-belief I never brandished it about much, until one day a newcomer walked into our fellowship, and told us she was an agnostic. There is another atheist in our fellowship, so now we’re three, but its when that newcomer walked in that I felt a need to speak out, so that she would not have to go through all the self doubts and self-lies that most of us have to go through, after already having gone through so much of it during our drinking time.

    The fellowship didnt take real kindly to my “atheist evangelizing”. Though they grudgingly were accepting, they surely weren’t supportive and a few were rather on the negative side. We’ve had our battles over it.

    Anyway, don’t know if you are aware of it, but we also now have a live chat room here, there’s a button at the top, main page, for it, and a schedule, and registration instructions (easy).

    Hope to see you there sometime.

  27. Tommy H says:

    I am a bit bothered by the 12 & 12 reference to Jimmy (Ed) reading the Bible and finding his changed attitude there. I guess I blipped right over that all these years. Svukic says: “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.” Did Jim B. actually make up the story, or is Wilson just flat-out lying about it?

    I looked fairly widely for Jim B., and can find no other reference to the bible bit, so I guess Bill was doing his usual thing and put his “spin” on it.

    I hadn’t thought of “Ed” as an allegorical mixture of characters, as Joe C. points out. That makes sense.

    I don’t think there are any claims that the personal stories in the books are literally true.

    They used professional journalists and authors to help write stories for the First Edition.

  28. Thomas B. says:

    Such a exemplary, thoughtful, honest and truthful-to-one’s-beliefs-and-experiences article, Svukic — Thank you !~!~!

    Also, the comments display the kind of thoughtful contemplation about the process of “taking what you need/ leaving the rest” by focusing on solutions to one’s addiction in the rooms of AA that has kept me engaged in AA for the past 41 years, despite the disconnect I have with most people in AA. That disconnect is my problem.

    As others have noted, when I am upset, the only thing I can do is to use the principles of recovery that I continue to learn about through hearing other people’s experience about how they work them in AA. I experience the essence of recovery by extending love and tolerance, especially when it happens through gritted teeth, concerning those I most harshly judge to be blatantly intolerant of us WAFTs –it’s grist of the mill of my continuing daily gift of recovery.

    Coming here, reading the article, and commenting on Sundays, after I return from the WAFT meeting I chair in Portland, Oregon, has been the core of my recovery process for the past several years — thank you again, Roger, for this ever-evolving and expanding website !~!~!

    Svukic, the primary reason I have become much more willing to “out” myself in AA rooms as an agnostic leaning more and more to atheism is so that I can be an example that one can get and stay sober without a god or magical/mythical higher power, but through the Fellowship of one drunk/druggie connecting with another drunk/druggie, such as you related happened to you so poignantly at the last meeting you attended. Bravo !~!~!

  29. Christopher G says:

    By the way, I want to thank all on this website, as well as Joe C’s, rebelliondogsradio, and his book Beyond Belief, for inspiring me to new growth. We started a new meeting 3 weeks ago with your help, encouragement, suggested meeting formats, etc. in our little town of 3,500 that already has two dozen traditional meetings a week. I have been a bit apprehensive about backlash but am seeing that I need not defend myself or this path. If believers need not apologize for their god or way of spirituality, why should I?
    Again, thanks to all.

  30. Christopher G says:

    Thank you, Svukic, for this thought provoking essay. I, too, have thought much about the 3rd tradition’s long form. I am amazed at the liberty of identification in the phrase “Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism”. That pretty much opens to the door to anybody, since alcohol addiction or abuse is only one of many symptoms of alcoholism according to the BB. It says nothing of the “desire to stop drinking” (a symptom also) and everything about the “causes and conditions” (the real issue of self-centered fear, or are these symptoms, too?). I interpret this as perhaps the most tolerant phrase in AA literature. Pair that with the challenge of our only code of love and tolerance and I find myself between a rock and a hard spot. How do I think, talk, and behave in the light of treating anyone (in AA or not) who suffers from self-centered fear (i.e. alcoholism) just as I do? Drinking or not drinking, god or no god, steps or no steps; “In the end, it is the people of AA that help other people in AA and out –” as you so succinctly wrote. “Yes, sir, that’s my baby!”
    To paraphrase Edwin Markham,
    “They drew circles that shut us out.
    Heretics, rebels, things to flout!!
    But we and love had the wit to win
    And we drew circles to shut them in.”
    I see two cartoon characters, a believer and a non-believer, both with thinking bubbles above their heads with that poem in each one, so they in effect are drawing circles around each other. Quite ironic that the “code” aptly fits both.

  31. wisewebwoman says:

    Thank you so much for this powerful rundown on Trad 3.

    I come here because I am no longer alone.

    I come here to hear the voices of reason and logic and not the “woo”.

    I come here as I can no longer read the ‘stories’ in the BB and 12 & 12 without internally groaning and learning from Joe C to extract what I can in what is meaningful to this alcoholic.

    I come here to share that a leader at a meeting in St. John’s a few weeks ago qualified as an atheist and my heart lifted. We closed with the ‘responsibility pledge’ and not the LP. I was crying.


  32. Joe C says:

    Self-reliance is always an option; the factual reliability in our unsophisticated lay-organization is suspect. I joke that if one is thinking of leaving AA because of all the hypocrites, don’t: one less hypocrite won’t make any difference. Better to stay and be as good an example as one can be. I say this because I am as much a liar, hypocrite or bad example (for that matter) as anyone I point my finger at. For this reason, I have a – and need a – more tolerant attitude to my fellows than would be the case for our more righteous members.

    In Ernie Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham’s EXPERIENCING SPIRITUALITY it is said that a myth is something that never happened because it is always happening. I respect anyone’s right to dismiss our historical literature for inaccuracies or bigotry; I admire integrity. For my purposes, I try a pluralist instead of binary view; instead of “is this true or is it false,” I like to ask, “What truth for me can I glean from this story?”

  33. daniel says:

    I believe the book describes me to the tee, selfishness-self-centeredness is the root of my troubles and my character defects are the primary cause of my destructive drinking which comes from the 12×12. When I found out what my problems were the book described the solution which are spiritual actions and you shared how to take those actions in the closed discussion meetings. For me lot of what else goes on at meetings is a lot of noise, some is good some is not so good, I take what I like and leave the rest. Cheers, Daniel.

  34. Bill Condie says:

    I came to believe that God and Good were synonymous and were found in all of us.

    And that’s what keeps me in AA, plus tolerance of bible-thumpers! (Some days it ain’t easy.)

    Looking forward so much to the conference.

  35. daniel says:

    I did not have a desire to stop drinking when I came to my first meeting, I came to get the heat off. By taking action to come to the meeting I had a desire to stop drinking when I left that night, mainly because of the examples in the room.
    The Traditions today allow me to improve all my relationships and I do that by looking at the check list after each tradition.
    In Tradition 3 the questions are:

    Do I prejudge some AA members as losers?
    Is there some kind of Alcoholic I do not want in my AA group?
    Do I let language, religion (or lack of it), race, education, age or other such things interfere with my carrying the message?
    Am I over impressed by a celebrity? By a doctor, clergyman, writer, ex-convict? Or can I just treat this new member simply as one more sick human like the rest of us.

    It took me 10 years to get into the Traditions and they have helped immensely in looking at my problem which is self and my character defects. Cheers, Daniel.

  36. steve b says:

    If Ed’s story in the big book is fictional but presented as fact, then this is dishonest, and opens up the question of what else in the big book is fake, and how are we to know? Maybe I’ve been naive, but it never occurred to me before that the big book may contain false and misleading statements. If so, what reason is there to trust anything in the book?

  37. Chris G. says:

    From her vicious attack on the story to her warm welcome at her traditional home group, some patronizing, then the statement of what AA has to offer when we get past the god thing. I love it.

    I am a bit bothered by the 12 & 12 reference to Jimmy (Ed) reading the Bible and finding his changed attitude there. I guess I blipped right over that all these years. Svukic says: “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.” Did Jim B. actually make up the story, or is Wilson just flat-out lying about it?

    I looked fairly widely for Jim B., and can find no other reference to the bible bit, so I guess Bill was doing his usual thing and put his “spin” on it.

    I hadn’t thought of “Ed” as an allegorical mixture of characters, as Joe C. points out. That makes sense.

    This is what Jim B himself says in The Vicious Cycle (BB story 5, 4th edition):

    I tried to contact the boys in New York, but telegrams bounced right back, and when I finally got Hank on the telephone he fired me right then. This was when I really took my first good look at myself. My loneliness was worse than it had ever been before, for now even my own kind had turned against me. This time it really hurt, more than any hangover ever had. My brilliant agnosticism vanished, and I saw for the first time that those who really believed, or at least honestly tried to find a Power greater than themselves, were much more composed and contented than I had ever been, and they seemed to have a degree of happiness I had never known.

    Peddling off my polish samples for expenses, I crawled back to New York a few days later in a very chastened frame of mind. When the others saw my altered attitude, they took me back in, but for me they had to make it tough; if they hadn’t, I don’t think I ever would have stuck it out. Once again, there was the challenge of a tough job, but this time I was determined to follow through. For a long time the only Higher Power I could concede was the power of the group, but this was far more than I had ever recognized before, and it was at least a beginning. It was also an ending, for never since June 16, 1938, have I had to walk alone.

    He credits the rough treatment – no answers, no help – for making him take “a first good look at himself”. No mention of any bible. He does mellow some, and accepts the power of the group. So the bad treatment Svukic laments as so terrible probably actually helped him. Much later, he wrote in Sober for Thirty Years:

    1. The first power I found greater than myself was John Barleycorn.

    2. The A.A. Fellowship became my Higher Power for the first two years [1938-40].

    3. Gradually, [in the process of starting the first A.A. group in Philadelphia] I came to believe that God and Good were synonymous and were found in all of us.

    4. And I found that by meditating and trying to tune in on my better self for guidance and answers, I became more comfortable and steady.

    No hint of any bible reading.

  38. Ann Mattocks says:

    I love Tradition 3 because when I came in, I kept being told that I was not a “real alcoholic”. This tradition told me I didn’t have to even be an alcoholic to be a member. All I’d heard was the short form. Now, reading the long form, I know that it makes the unwarrented assumption that all of us will find a god of some kind.

  39. Joe C says:

    The story of Ed, I would suggest is a historical fiction. Just as a Hollywood historical fiction uses a few characters to relate the collective experiences of many, I believe Ed is one of these characters. He is, in large part, the story of Jim B who – in his own story “A Vicious Cycle” – never says that he prays to or believes in a creator god concept.

    I invite some of our history buffs to pick at my loose use of facts here but I have come to understand Bill W (and or anyone else involved in penning the 12&12) as trying to give everyone something they can connect to in each of these stories. While any reader is invited to conclude that “Ed” came to believe in god in the depths of despair. The story concludes with a sober and content “Ed” appearing over morning coffee and asking the other members if they had done their morning meditation. What is then said is a version of the story he shared with the other men:

    As he tossed on his bed, his hand brushed the bureau nearby, touching a book Opening the book, he read. It was a Gideon Bible. Ed never confided any more of what he said and felt in that hotel room. It was the year 1938. He hasn’t had a drink since.

    Believers will read that and “see” that Ed had a spiritual awakening, found god and got in line with the majority. What it actually says is that that Ed stopped fighting the inclusion of God, prayer and meditation in AA. He was no longer saying that god-talk was counter-productive. The fact that the story is of “Ed” and not Jim, invites some artistic liberty to allegorically sell an idea. I am sure Jim would have written the story somewhat differently.

    I have believers look at my sobriety and what they see is god working anonymously. They don’t see AA working without god, they see His grace working in my life without my initiation. That’s not everyone but it happens enough for me to see it as cliché. Do I need to correct them? Sometimes I want to, sometimes I try, but there are dual realities that while contradictory, get along fine in the groups I attend.

    This peace is briefly interrupted when they or I wish that the other would save time and see it our way.
    Thanks for the essay, Svukic. I hope we hear more from our Aussie cousins.

  40. John M. says:


    I think this is a brilliant deconstruction of Tradition Three!

    And I am also with you that once deconstructed, all the Steps and Traditions can be reconstituted as an excellent “formula” for living that will serve WAFTs quite well.

    Thanks so much for your excellent piece.

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