Hallowed be the Big Book?

Wind and Sun

By Laurie A.

The Preface to the fourth edition of the Big Book notes, “Because this book has become the basic text for our Society and has helped such large numbers of alcoholic men and women to recovery, there exists strong sentiment against any radical changes being made in it. Therefore, the first portion of this volume, describing the AA recovery program, has been left untouched …”

That’s the problem.

Despite the book’s own caveats, e.g., “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realise we know only a little. God (sic) will constantly reveal more to you and to us …”,  and the dust jacket description of the book as the (neutral),  “basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous”, fundamentalist members treat it as the literal, revealed, inviolable word of God; commandments, not suggestions. As Joe C. observed of The Doctor’s Opinion in his book of daily reflections Beyond Belief (November 24), “Critics inside AA would have preferred that the 1976 and 2004 reprint offered AA members a second opinion (because) more has been revealed… It is not disrespectful to those who have come before us and done so much for us to show that the courage they taught us has enabled us to reach further.”

No doubt AA co-founder Bill W., who supervised the compilation of the first edition of the Big Book when he was less than four years sober, would tell the story differently were he writing today. He recognised that:

As time passes our book literature has the tendency to get more and more frozen, a tendency for conversion into something like dogma, a human trait I am afraid we can do little about. We may as well face the fact that AA will always have its fundamentalists, its absolutists, and its relativists. (Letter quoted by Ernest Kurtz in Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous)

Each faction will find justification in its pages. As Joe C. points out, “Our biases predispose us to seek evidence that supports our (opening) positions and deny even overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Open minds, sceptical of even our most heartfelt convictions, are our best defense against our own tendency towards confirmation bias.” (Beyond Belief, December 7)

For example, textual zealots tell us that there are many “musts” in the Big Book, from 55 references to 103 depending on the “authority” counting them! They neglect to add that in all cases but one the “must” in the first 164 pages is preceded by the word “we”, so for the must to apply to me I would have to be part of the “we”. The people who wrote the book were recording what they had to do to get sober (“We merely have an approach that works for us”); they were not telling anyone else what to do. On page 20 the book says, “If you are an alcoholic who wants to get over it, you may already be asking – ‘What do I have to do?’ It is the purpose of this book to answer such questions specifically. We shall tell you what we have done” (emphasis added). The logical, grammatical answer to, “What do I have to do?” is, “You have to do this”, but our pioneers gave us a text that is descriptive, not prescriptive. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (AACoA), Bill W. records that when 400 copies of the first draft of the Big Book were circulated for comments to anyone they knew who was concerned about the problem of alcoholism, the psychiatrist Dr. Howard made a “critically important” suggestion:

He pointed out that the text was too full of the words “you” and “must” and suggested that we substitute wherever possible such expressions as “we ought” or “we should”. His idea was to remove all forms of coercion, to put our fellowship on a “we ought” basis instead of a “you must” basis…  Dr Silkworth and Dr. Tiebout gave us similar advice.

So the redactors were at work from the very beginning and in the light of continuing revelation there is no reason for us in 2015 not to apply the scalpels of hermeneutics and form criticism to AA’s “scriptures” too – indeed, it is our responsibility and duty to do so.

Far from being a text book of incontrovertible instructions or rules the Big Book is, in fact, a story book, it says so in its very title, Alcoholics Anonymous – The story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. The dust cover of the fourth edition quotes a letter written by Bill W. in 1953:

The story section of the Big Book is far more important than most of us think. It is our principal means of identifying with the reader outside AA; it is the written equivalent of hearing speakers at an AA meeting; it is our show window of results.

In AACoA he wrote, “The story section could identify us with the distant reader in a way that the text itself (first 164 pages) might not.”  Kurtz noted, “From its beginnings and still today, the philosophy and spirituality – the healing – of AA is transmitted primarily by the practice of story-telling, of telling a particular kind of story the very format of which inculcates a way of thinking that shapes a particular way of life.” (NCCA Blue Book, 1986).

So, here’s a classic story about addiction. The wind challenged the sun to a duel. “I’m stronger than you. See that man on the common? I bet you I can rip the cloak from his back.” The sun replied, “Do your worst.” So the wind summoned all its strength and blew clouds across the sun, the sky darkened, it became menacingly cold. The man wrapped the cloak round himself. The wind blew a mighty gale and tried to tear the man’s cloak from him. In panic, the man clung on and wrapped the cloak ever tighter. Exhausted, the wind gave up. Now the sun came out from behind the clouds and said, “Let me try.” Its rays felt pleasant on the man’s face. He relaxed and as the sun warmed him he loosened his cloak, took it off and slung it over his arm.

As in Aesop’s fable, the tension in AA between those who cling to the delusional security of the straitjacket and those who wear their sobriety like a loose cloak has been there from the start. In AACoA  Bill W. describes how the conservatives (who thought the Big Book should be Christian in doctrinal sense), liberals and radicals wrestled to have their interpretation of the program take precedence. “The liberals (the largest contingent) were dead set against any other theological proposition (than the word God); they would have nothing to do with doctrinal issues (because the straight religious approach had worked in relatively few cases).”  Then Bill adds, “But the atheists and agnostics, our radical left wing were… to make a tremendously important contribution.” They wanted “a psychological book which would lure the alcoholic in. Once in, the prospect could take God or leave Him alone as he wished.” And by inserting the phrase as we understood Him after the word God in the Steps “our atheists and agnostics… widened the gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”  (original emphasis).

Such all-inclusive practice is lost in current narrow legal rulings which seek to define AA as a quasi-religion. Never mind Bill’s protestations that, “As a society we must never become so vain as to suppose that we are authors and inventors of a new religion”, and “The atheist may stand up in an AA meeting still denying the Deity… in such an atmosphere the orthodox, and the unbeliever mix happily together…” (extracts from As Bill Sees It, 158 and 253). A posting on the AAhistorylovers website (12/9/14) noted:

High level courts use a three part test to determine if the wall of separation (between Church and State) has been violated… They took a long look at the Big Book and its 200 references to God; a look at the 12 Steps and their unmistakeable references to God; the prayers at AA meetings; and based on a full examination of these, ruled that AA doctrines and practices must be viewed as religious. Because multiple high level courts have ruled uniformly on this matter these rulings now constitute “clearly established” law in the US.

That’s the trouble with treating our texts as set in stone dogma; for as we know, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” There is no requirement on anyone to read, let alone study, the Big Book or the 12 &12, to practice the Steps, to believe in God, or to pray. Treatment centers which do require clients to take the Steps as part of their admission contract mire AA in controversy.

In the 1980s AA in Great Britain was left a substantial legacy in a will. To comply with AA’s seventh tradition the GB general service board trustees declined the legacy.  The lawyer concerned “challenged our right, as a charity to refuse monies and gave notice to pursue the matter through the courts. Losing our charitable status could lead to the forfeiture of all the Fellowship’s assets… the only solution was to submit a Bill to Parliament which would change the law and allow us to decline legacies gifts etc.”  (Letter from Jim H., GSB chairman, in “Share”, the GB Fellowship’s national magazine, March 1986)

In drafting the legislation, which was enacted in law as the Alcoholics Anonymous (Dispositions) Act 1986, the civil servants wrote their own preamble describing AA as “an inchoate fellowship whose members seek to overcome their addiction to alcohol by the practice and adherence to a code of principles which have evolved empirically since the fellowship was founded.”  Inchoate means: just beginning, not fully formed or developed. We’re a work in progress. And as David Sack, MD, said in “Psychology Today” (AA Without the God?), “AA will doubtless continue to evolve”. “Spearheads of God’s ever-advancing creation”, as the Big Book says. William White and Ernest Kurtz saw “diversification within AA as an inevitable process of adaptation to the increasingly diverse religious and cultural contexts inherent in the fellowship’s worldwide growth.” And in Not-God Ernie opined, “AA shall survive so long as its message remains that of the not-God-ness of the wholeness of accepted limitation; and this itself shall endure so long as AA’s spiritualisers and its liberals – its ‘right’ and its ‘left’ – maintain in mutual respect the creative tension that arises from their willingness to participate even with others of so different assumptions in the shared honesty of mutual vulnerability openly acknowledged (original emphasis)”.

We need no  iron-clad dogma to bind us together. As Bill W. said “In AA we have only two disciplinarians – great suffering and great love; we need no others.”

The wind and the sun.

Laurie is a retired national newspaper and BBC journalist in the UK. He has written two other posts for AA Agnostica:

49 Responses

  1. Roger says:

    I don’t want or expect the Big Book to be changed. It recounts the experience of men in the 1930’s: so be it. But it is neither unreasonable nor “dogmatic” to want more contemporary literature about the “fundamental nature of alcoholism and recovery” from AA World Services, which crescentdave points out hasn’t happened in half a century. That, in a nutshell, is the problem.

    • Laurie A says:

      Christians, Jews and Muslims are people of the Book. We are not people of the Book; we are a fellowship of the spirit.

  2. Lech says:

    Great article.

    As much as I find AA dogma unappealing, rife with contradiction, and delusional in places, I don’t think a revolution nor rewrite of the BB is necessary. In fact, I believe that either of these, as someone said earlier, would lead to discord that would make past religious wars look like playground scuffles.

    Evolution, not revolution.

    As an example of such, I submit the difference in the histories of Canada and The Greatest Nation On Earth.

    Canada had no American-style revolution, although a couple of attempts were made.

    We were ruled by the British crown for a very long time, and did just fine.

    No Northern War Of Aggression, no mass slaughter of the native American population. We did wipe out the buffalo, I grant.

    Canada evolved slowly and is a pretty decent place to live.

    There is enough diversity within AA that one should be able to find a place where one is comfortable.

    If you can’t find one, start your own.

    Each group is autonomous and can do what it likes.

    Why beard the lion to no purpose?

  3. Joe C says:

    Is an AA group an AA group without a big book? I say “yes,” btw.

    There are two kinds of Big Book dogma. Thumping is the road to reification type of dogma. Bashing is the “How could you forsake me?” dogma. One says it’s great the way it is – change is too risky. The other says this book ought to include me; until it does, go to hell. Both dogmas assume that this book is sacred, that it is the defining representation of our fellowship.

    One looks to GSO meca to protect it and the other looks East demanding revision and inclusivity. But I think both bashers who feel forsaken and thumpers who feel self righteous agree that the book named Alcoholics Anonymous defines and controls the fellowship of the same name.

    Either way, these are opinions and not facts of life. I see they are passionate opinions so I don’t wish to piss anyone off. I just want to say that this isn’t my experience of AA. In some small way, isn’t begging for validation from GSO a form of reliance on outside agency.

    My AA group gets along fine without the Big Book. I am in the camp that prefers a wholesale revision. But my recovery doesn’t depend on it. I suspect that the newcomer’s sobriety isn’t dependent on it either. My AA group is already the highest authority in AA so we don’t need anyone’s approval to feel dignified and included as part of the whole.

    If GSO, which is the collecttve voice of all of AA, can’t get consensus on a modern text about alcoholism and recovery that’s too bad. But it’s not something that my group is dependent on. The world is full of books. We’re encouraged to find value and comfort anywhere we can.

    The fight for right always feels so good. Being a good guy in a fellowship of the evil or the blind sounds important. I get caught up in this as much as anyone. Just for today, I see my AA as bigger than the Big Book. I welcome the idea of a new one but it wouldn’t change much about how today unfolds for me.

    • Christopher G says:

      Nice input, Joe. I agree. I find myself wandering through both camps, getting the thrill of bleeding deaconism in either case. Ain’t drama grand?! You’ve drawn a bigger circle for me. Thanks for the view!

    • Laurie A says:

      Well said Joe, you speak my mind. If anyone is that desperate to have a new book added to the ‘canon’ or current books revised, all they have to do is get their proposal through Conference – and the best of luck!

    • John says:

      Happy New Year, Joe C! I’m an ex-stepper, but I often read your writings, and find them well-reasoned and insightful. Thank you!

      Laurie wrote a great article here, and his comment below regarding Ernie Kurtz’s comment to him that the fist 164 are really “bad” but radically beyond repair, leads me to this comment. Warning: It may sound way over-the-top. The Rogers, the Joe Cs, and the Lauries of AA remind me a bit of America’s Founding Fathers. They didn’t want to pick a fight with the British or have a lengthy armed conflict with England. They wanted reasonable change — evolution. However, ultimately they realized that meaningful change and fairness would NEVER happen. Instead of evolution, a REVOLUTION had to occur. In my humble opinion (and I’m no longer an AA member), meaningful change — particularly to the hyper-dogmatic religiosity of the first 164 — will NEVER take place. Bill W and his gang didn’t so much evolve from the Oxford Group. AA was essentially a REVOLUTION. The same thing has to occur now, in my opinion.

      You are involved with Rebellion Dogs Publishing; Roger runs this awesome website; and Laurie is a heavy-hitter with respect to AA across the pond and the WAFT movement worldwide. I see a Franklin, a Washington, and a Madison. Also, as much as I respect Mr. Kurtz and agree with him that AA’s GSO will NEVER change the first 164 or related dogma, I think his optimism that sponsors (good teachers) will ultimately be the catalyst for changing the dogma, for making AA more inclusive, is misplaced. My experience is that sponsors are most often at the forefront of the Back-To-Basics cancer increasingly afflicting AA. Taking sponsees “through the Big Book” — that is to say, indoctrinating sponsees in Big Book lore — is radically more common than a sponsor saying to a newcomer that the BB can collect dust on a shelf. Bill Wilson and company were very comfortable making a complete break with the Oxford Group and using crazy propaganda (just read about Bill’s white-light moment) to achieve their goals.

      Some very smart, open-minded people that frequent this website could further a similar revolution — and they would only have to use facts, truth, and compassion to make that happen.

      Lastly, I note, Joe, that you mention your AA group “gets along fine without the Big Book.” Here’s an honest question: Can a newcomer go to an AA online or printed publication and find your meeting or has it been de-listed (shunned) by AA?

      A great, sober 2015 to Everyone!

      • John M. says:

        Hi John,

        Very deftly argued response to Joe C. These kinds of exchanges are the fuel that keep AA Agnostica such an energetic and lively website.

        You work the parallels with the Founding Fathers of America to great effect and therefore conclude that we WAAFTs will have to find our own independence from AA along the same lines as the Thirteen Colonies inevitably having to split with England and, in the case of Bill W., he and others out of necessity having to split from the Oxford Group.

        Let me offer another analogy from the American experience but one that may not suggest the kind of secession you think likely.

        The preeminent abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, argued that the American Constitution itself was a pro-slavery document and therefore no direct appeal to the Constitution could be used to justify the abolition of slavery — other means would have to be used. In fact, Garrison thought that the Confederate States had every right to secede based on 1776 Revolutionary principles, and the fact that the Constitution upheld their rights as slaveholders.

        But, juxtapose Garrison’s commitment to the abolition of slavery with Frederick Douglass’ abolitionist stance. Influenced by Lysander Spooner’s, The Unconstitutionality of Slavery published in 1845, Douglass would help lead the abolitionist movement based on the Constitution’s inherent message of free rights for all, regardless of race or gender. (Though Garrison might have been right given that the Thirteenth Amendment had to be inserted into the Constitution in 1865.)

        Still, Lincoln’s message at Gettysburg was about rededicating America to the process of forming a more perfect union within the Union. (And Garrison would in time come around as a supporter of the full Unionist cause despite his continuing view that the Constitution was flawed.)

        The point of all this, of course, is that two individuals committed to the same cause of abolition could read the American Constitution in two different ways. And it seems like the history of the Supreme Court is the history of reading a document two different ways; and yet it is all about somehow making it all work. But alas, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly!

        Joe’s point, as I read it, is that viewing the Big Book in either of two ways, “thumping” or “bashing,” seems to confine us to only two options — there are others.

        So in the main, I think I’ll side with Joe C. — appreciate the Big Book for what it is, not view it as sacred text, and continue to support my home group, Widening Our Gateway, like Joe supports his, as the authority of group conscience where, as Joe also notes, we “find value and comfort anywhere we can.”

        And all of this, many believe, can be done within AA; revolution or secession need not be the only happy alternative.

        John, thanks again for your stimulating post!

    • crescentdave says:

      There are not two kinds of Big Book dogma. There is but one Big Book. There are a variety of people who express differing views concerning its message. But I get it; black/white, either/or thinking is seductive. It gives the illusion of clarity. But it’s not. Whatever dogma is connected with the Big Book is IN the Big Book.

      Here’s something else that’s not dogmatic: the Big Book IS the official voice of A.A. It’s the most widely read of all the books. It’s the biggest seller. It figures most prominently on the AA web site. It brings in the most literature revenue. And it is the most quoted of all the AA literature, in and out of the rooms. Now … nobody in AA says it’s the text. But truly? We know it is. And we’ve rubbed shoulders with entire generations of people who quote from or refer to the Big Book. Let’s not kid ourselves.

      So I don’t believe the Big Book should be changed. Now, I’m a realist. And the reality of the matter is GSO made it functionally impossible for the first 164 pages of the Big Book to be changed. I accept that.

      So one of the more than two viewpoints on AA literature as it relates to the Big Book says hey! There ought to be a book that we have that’s written in THIS century. Imagine that. A book which heavily relies on millions of alcoholics’ experience, strength and hope. That understands and incorporates solid, scientific research. That explicitly allows for the reality that people get and maintain really good sobriety without necessarily needing any personal relationship with any god. For any reason. A book that avoids sexist language and sexist thinking when discussing alcoholics, their families, partners and co-workers.

      Imagine that.

      So I’m wondering … is it dogmatic for me to want a book like that? Am I “desperate” because I’d like to read that kind of book? Even worse, does it reduce to me to the status of a “begging for validation?” I don’t think so. But I do agree with one element the more dogmatic have brought up: it truly would take “the best of luck” to get such a book “proposal through Conference.”

      It doesn’t matter whether or not I am all for the Big Book staying exactly as it was written. Because it never was about re-writing the Big Book after 1976. It was and it is about making sure nothing new is written on the fundamental nature of alcoholism and recovery. THIS is why we have had no new text material for over 50 years. If I have to point to a dogma which has been exercised far above and beyond any other point of view? I don’t have far to look. And there is simply is no equivalency in wanting literature which specifically acknowledges the reality of secular recovery in the rooms.

      The issue, as we are not tethered to religion, is not about good and evil. It’s about accuracy and fairness. We are due the acknowledgement and presentation of our recovery. Anything else dismisses our experience and denies an entire subset of present and future members a path to recovery. A path which has worked quite well for many of us, for many years.

      • boyd p. says:

        Yes. After a century of progress, what have we learned for the coming century that will help get us to the third? Devising the editorial process is daunting, certainly. Stories would be the easy part, but what would the first 164 pages look like? Perhaps the chapter headings could be retained, in part, for familiarity, piquing curiosity.

        A recently approved publication could help, “Daily Reflections”. What was the editorial process for it’s final approval? There are many anonymous authors there who make sense to our sensibilities. See January 3 & 25 for example.

        In the process, clarity of language and logic are important. but humility pushes me away from dogmatic expression from any quarter, no matter how “true”.

    • John says:

      Pardon my follow-up from my Jan 6th post at 12:30pm to you.

      Is your group listed by AA or de-listed – that is to say, shunned. Thank you, Joe C; Happy New Year!

      • Roger says:

        Let me answer on behalf of Joe as Beyond Belief is my home group as well: the group was de-listed on May 31, 2011. You can read all about that right here: A History of Agnostic Groups in AA.

      • John M. says:

        Just want to add to what Roger wrote. Three of our Toronto Groups have been delisted by Toronto Intergroup but all three groups are in good standing and regularly attend monthly Toronto GTA District meetings and twice-yearly Area meetings for Southern Ontario/Northern New York.

  4. Laurie A says:

    Crescentdave deplores the ‘utter and absolute lack of new AA literature’. That’s not fair. Conferences appoint literature committees which constantly update the literature. The current list includes: 12 books; 20 flyers; 29 pamphlets and 8 miscellaneous items.They reflect the needs of the changing membership, as do the stories in each new edition of the Big Book, the current edition of which includes three stories by non-believers. And of course the topical Grapevine magazine and its web forum cover the whole spectrum of experience in the fellowship; which makes the first 164 pages of the Big Book look more and more antiquated and out of touch with each passing generation.

    • crescentdave says:

      You can mention that literature is constantly updated – obviously the first 164 pages of the Big Book, the 12 & 12, Living Sober are not updated in any significant manner.

      It would be more accurate of you to assert that the stories in the Big Book are updated. Of course, there are reasons why the “first 164 pages” will never be updated – my comments cover this reality.

      Additionally, listing how many books AAWS publishes misses the point I make. Past Living Sober, written in 1975, which is more prescriptive than descriptive, there are no new AAWS books. Certainly nothing relating to the nature of alcoholism and recovery, like the Big Book and the 12 Steps & 12 Traditions.

      Pointing to pamphlets and flyers, etc. doesn’t refute my point. Nor, for that matter, do wallet cards and bookmarks and dvds.

      It should also be noted I did not include AA Grapevine, Inc. publishing in the scope of my original remarks. They do republish an ever-increasing number of books of compiled materials already donated to them via the Grapevine journal. The literature they publish is not considered to be source/study texts the way, for example, the Big Book and the 12 & 12 are viewed.

      Unless you’d pin everything on “20 flyers; 29 pamphlets and 8 miscellaneous items”, I find little merit to your response. If it helps clarify the argument a bit, let me amend my sentence:

      The utter and absolute lack of any new books relating to the nature of alcoholism and recovery from Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (AAWS) is shocking.

  5. Jack G. says:

    I have recently found that within the rooms of AA, as I have become more open about my atheism, that I am far from alone. As for the big book itself, I am coming to find more and more fellow members who feel as I do, that it is out of date; both linguistically and ideologically. To be constantly forced to take into account a far off time and place and perspective and “retranslate” such an important text for a modern outlook seems to me to be a futile exercise.
    A number of so called “old-timers” I am friendly with agree with me, that while the big book is an effective starting point, and the 12×12 expands a bit, the real progress in recovery with AA comes in the form of interpersonal fellowship. Regardless of the dogma, I know that for me, regular attendance at meetings is essential to my sobriety.
    I do see some changes being made in the way people approach things, and if I have learned anything it is this: There are as many paths to recovery as there are people in recovery. And I am fortunate that I live in an area where, in general, the people are amenable and open-minded rather than dogmatic.
    I try and remind myself that when I hear someone insisting that a belief in and relationship with God is essential to recovery, they are talking of themselves, nothing more.
    This was a very well written piece, and the comments have been refreshing. I am as glad to have found this website as I was to find AA.

    -Jack G., Akron, OH

  6. Marnin M. says:

    From Day One (1970) Blue Cross had shown a movie on nationwide TV called “The Hidden American” about alcoholism being a medical illness.

    I did not understand then why “God” or HP had to be such an integral partner in my recovery. It took a great deal of determination to stay sober in a sea of fellow members who were really practicing and worshipping the Oxford Movement.

    My agnostic sponsor at the Mustard Seed in New York saved my life by instructing me that I did not have to practice AA like the Oxford members did!

    Here in Florida I am considered our group resident agnostics.

    A “We Agnostics” meeting is starting this week and it will be exciting to meet some fellow travelers in sobriety here in Stuart, Fla.

    I would really like to see the Big Book rewritten in the light of today’s understanding of addiction recovery.

  7. John says:

    Great article! Thank you, Laurie. Your optimism is commendable!

    I’m talking out of school here, and I’m not a 12-stepper.

    I speculate that the BB, the steps, the influence of Intergroups, and AA’s GSO — will collectively maintain the stranglehold and stagnant state of AA until it becomes essentially extinct, similar to the Oxford Group. The BB’s first 164 haven’t changed in 75 years. The steps haven’t changed in 75 years. The power structure of AA precludes any group from tailoring the steps to that group’s needs or changing any wording (even the use of gender-neutral wording). In short, AA is adamantly adverse to change, despite the fact that perhaps 200 of AA’s 115,000 groups are WAFT (roughly 1 of 575 AA groups).

    At some point, I speculate that the BB will become a vestigial publication, followed next by the 12 steps. If and when that happens, AA will simply not be AA. It could be called the WAFT Group, AAAgnostica, the Washingtonians, whatever. AA has become a historical anachronism beyond salvation. Many good-hearted, intelligent folks on this wonderful website think that AA will “evolve” to become more inclusive, more science-based, less religious, more relevant, and less dogmatic. I, however, see a proliferation of back-to-basics groups and ideology that dwarfs the progress being made by WAFTs. My guess is that AA will reach critical mass and collapse upon itself before it can sufficiently distance itself from the dogma enslaving it.

    • Laurie A says:

      As Donald Rumsfeld said, ‘There are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns.’! Your speculation that AA will implode seems unduly pessimistic, but who knows? Membership has plateaued in recent years and of course a tree does not reach the sky. But in the benign anarchy of AA’s cell-like structure which defies top-down control there are signs of growth and progress and adaptation. It’ll probably see me out anyway!

  8. William P. says:

    I have always thought that the very title, “The Big Book” seems patronizing and a bit demeaning, as if readers are being treated as naive and helpless children. In addition, there are aspects which seem to me to be intellectually dishonest, such as comments like “we came to believe in a Higher Power greater than our selves (which is God)”. This seems to be a sneaky way of implying, “You may not really believe in God now but stick with the program and you’ll believe in Him, like we do.” Then, if someone questions this it’s possible to beat a hasty retreat and refer to the phrase “God- as we understand Him.” Buddhists do not believe in “God, as we understand him”. Neither do agnostics nor atheists. Clearly the “Big Book” reflects the influence of English evangelical Christianity, an influence which came to trouble Bill W, as indicated in his letters and cited by Ernest Kurtz.

  9. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, a lovely primary text, Laurie, your article “Hallowed Be the Big Book?” and most compelling & excellent commentaries about it from all who have commented here.

    Thus do we here on AA Agnostica share the stories of our “experience, strength and hope” to help each other stay sober in AA a day at a time despite our great doubt or no belief at all.

    This is “How It Works” and has worked since Ebby visited Bill and Bill visited Bob and Bill & Bob visited Bill D., the man on the bed, ad infinitum down to the present day and hopefully for a long, long, long while, as we Pan narrans keep relating with each other, telling our stories, identifying, finding new awareness about an always evolving recovery process, not one carved in any stone.

  10. Holley S. says:

    Good article, thanks.

    To protect my sobriety I have to stay away from the Big Book and other AA approved literature. It is too frustrating.

  11. Scott says:

    The common thread I see in the big book is the occurrences of phenomena appearing to be in the form of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Old Ideas, emotions and attitudes are cast aside suddenly in place of new conceptions and motives. (pg 27 paraphrased) What are these new conceptions and motives? It seems to me that “To stay sober, and to help others achieve sobriety” and to maintain an attitude of willingness, open-mindedness and honesty are indispensable. (see appendix II) What I have experienced is that there are a multitude of opinions about how others should “do it my way” instead of the way that worked in the beginning.

  12. Denis K. says:

    Thank you for this wonderful and logical essay Laurie.
    I plan to pass your piece along to all my AA contacts in hopes this will enlighten the open minded and curious and hopefully create doubt with the hard core traditionalists I am familiar with.

  13. Adam N. says:

    Thank you, and thank all the commenters as well. This is literature I can sink my teeth into. I look to AA Agnostica and many alternative sources now for recovery oriented readings. I am currently enjoying “Don’t Tell”, a great bunch of our stories compiled by Roger C. I gave a copy to my sponsor, and am waiting for my replacement to come in the mail. Recently I started a scientific magazine with an entire issue devoted to alcoholism. More is revealed, day by day. Joe C’s “Beyond Belief” is also a nice way to start my day. In short, a body of alternative material is fast becoming a viable option, some produced by us, some by the broader culture and the scientific community.

    AA has changed and continues to change. Subsequent to Bill & Bob meeting we have seen a six step program transmogrified into 12 steps: Jimmy B and others have created wiggle room for we free thinkers: most of the stories have changed: the serenity prayer was adopted; and alternative fellowships, including Alanon, have been created. Much change has occurred.

    One of the biggest changes in my lifetime has been the welcoming of addicts into AA. Decades ago, “AA purists” were strongly opposed to ‘addicts’ speaking about their drug related problems in AA meetings. But this problem has changed over time and, at least where I live, we double winners speak about the whole thing with nary a complaint.

    At the same time there is immense resistance to changing the big book itself, at least the first 164 pages (Really!? Even “To Wives?!). Many including myself believe that we will make more headway with an end-around. That is, rather than engage a long and bloody battle to change the big book, we should simply flood the market with alternative reading materials. We are free to use alternative materials in meetings. In no meeting is one required to use ‘conference approved’ literature, as far as I am aware, and most certainly not in Agnostic meetings. Mention these alternative resources in your shares, and let people know where they can look for alternative perspectives. We may not be able to change the ‘conference approved’ stranglehold on AA material, but we can expose and encourage people to read alternative materials.

    • Roger says:

      Thanks, Adam. As far as I am concerned “conference-approved” equals: “the delusional security of the straitjacket”.

  14. kevin b says:

    Simple yet eloquent and straight to the point. Thank you.

  15. MarkInTexas says:

    Very well done, Laurie! Thank you! My guess is this piece will be printed off, spread around, and garner solid support from many.

    Best regards.

  16. Joe C. says:


    I always enjoy your thoughtful take on the issues of the day. It rings true with me what you say about the Big Book being a story book, not a text book:

    “Far from being a text book of incontrovertible instructions or rules the Big Book is, in fact, a story book, it says so in its very title, Alcoholics Anonymous – The story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism.”

    Happy New Year everyone.

  17. John S says:

    This was a great article and quite timely for me since it’s only been a couple of weeks since I’ve decided that I’m done with the Big Book. Totally done with it. Not that I don’t respect the book for what it was at the time it was written, but I don’t like what it has become today.

    It would be funny if it weren’t so sad but for a society like AA that has been around for 80 years with currently 2 million members world-wide, we certainly have a tiny library.

    You would think since 1939 we would have more to say on the subject of alcoholism, and of course we do. There are a lot of good books out there written by people in recovery, people in AA that is current and helpful. It’s just not “conference approved”.

    “Conference Approved” now means to me boring and stale, the same old thing. Too bad. AA could be dynamic and interesting with a huge body of work, but no instead we cling to the past.

    I’ve moved on to read other books. We read non-conference approved literature at our meetings which to me is incredibly freeing. I like it that way too. Any book we read is only meant to stimulate conversation, not give instruction. The real recovery comes from what we share with one another.

  18. larry k says:

    In all the universe there is nothing, not a photon, quark, nor a scintilla of wave or particle that remains frozen in time. Everything changes.

    We can freeze the words “as written” and they will begin to fade. The language will shift along with the contextual understanding of the reader. They will shift meaning one blush to the next. Collectively the words will form a pattern of understanding, but the pattern is only conceivable by the discernment of boundary concepts, some rigid, some loose. Only the individual can discern the pattern… and only for themselves.

    The only truth in any of this, is what we feel to be true for ourselves. That truth will be folly to others.

    That moment in time where two men met to share their burden with alcohol is only magic, because from amongst all others who have done the same, they chose to make something of it and share the sweet relief from suffering.

    While we discuss, argue, pontificate and persuade one another, we need be mindful that we all want what works… to be shared with another… we don’t want to erode our success by making the sublime issues into a blissing contest.

  19. life-j says:

    Thanks, for yet one more well researched article on why it is ok for us to be the way we are. I always read them with great pleasure of having my own ways reaffirmed, just like no doubt the god people read the big book and glow when they read that dr. Bob feels sorry for us. The big question is where do we go from here? The god people are not going to change. Except to the worse, frankly. The intergroup I was fighting to list a meeting used to end with the responsibility statement. Since the great coup by the Christians they now end with the LP.
    Well, I guess eventually the official schedules won’t matter so much anyway, word will get around or people will have the imagination to look for AG meetings on the internet. And we will get better at putting ourselves out there so that when someone searches for “agnostic atheist alcoholics anonymous” or the like, they will always find us. Hopefully people even in the bible belt will have the imagination to believe we must exist, and all they need to do is find us.
    ‘Cause, even though we have found out that we have a number of sympathetic people in “high places”, we will need to accept that AA as a whole will prefer to wither and die rather than change, but they won’t wither and die anyway, they will just become one more obscure religious sect, and be all happy with themselves and each other. But by the time it becomes real obvious, maybe then an openminded alternative will have a real chance of success.

  20. Tommy H says:

    A good read.


  21. Chris G. says:

    A wonderful perspective, Laurie. One of your lines really got my attention: “Far from being a text book of incontrovertible instructions or rules the Big Book is, in fact, a story book, it says so in its very title, Alcoholics Anonymous – The story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism.”

    I have always appreciated the power of stories, but I never really understood the why of it until recently discovering Terry Pratchett’s amazing story telling, and what is behind it. Out of everything I have read since getting sober, his work has had the most powerful effect on my program. A few quotes to make the point:

    “The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’). In any case it’s an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.

    “Our minds make stories, and stories make our minds. Each culture’s Make-a-Human kit is built from stories, and maintained by stories. A story can be a rule for living according to one’s culture, a useful survival trick, a clue to the grandeur of the universe, or a mental hypothesis about what might happen if we pursue a particular course. Stories map out the phase space of existence.

    “And some of those stories have such a compelling logic that narrative imperative takes over, and they transmute into plans. A plan is a story together with the intention of making it come true.

    “We need our stories to understand the universe, and sometimes we forget that they’re only stories. There is a proverb about the finger and the moon; when a wise man points at the Moon, the fool looks at the finger. We call ourselves Homo sapiens, possibly out of a hope that this may be true, but the storytelling ape has a tendency to confuse moons and fingers.” (Science of Discworld II)

    Sobriety is my Moon. I’ve had to learn to ignore a thousand righteous fingers, waved and shaken in AA meetings. But the stories – often the stories of the same people shaking the fingers – they led to my plan to get sober. Sharing our stories is a huge power in AA.

    • Christopher G says:

      What an awesome share! Gotta read this author!

    • JP says:

      HI, Chris. Good to hear of another fan of Terry Pratchett. I knew a man in the rooms that often said that spirituality could be found any where, including the Sunday comics.

  22. JP says:

    A great article Laurie, well researched and written. I absolutely agree, that reading of the big book must not be demanded of members. However, I do not believe that the big book is “total crap” as I have heard some claim. I have found parts of the big book it to be most help. Other parts, such as “The Chapter to the Wives”, I put a paperclip around many years ago so I wouldn’t even have to consider it again. I suggest: read it and take what you can from it that will aid in your sobriety and your life in general.

    • Laurie A says:

      Agreed. In Al-Anon they say, take what you like – and leave the rest. I sent a copy of my article to Ernie Kurtz and he replied:

      Can you imagine the current worldwide crop of alkies agreeing any changes in the Book? Any attempt to revise the Book as it is now would result in a splintering that would make 19th century Protestantism seem unified… Bad as the first 164 pages are, can you imagine how much worse all the revision attempts would seem to vast, vast numbers… Never forget, alcoholism is not contagious but recovery is. What we realistically need is not a new or revised Book but able and open and genuinely sober sponsors… every classic work requires a good teacher. That is how I view the Big book and AA today.

      • kevin b says:

        Thank you, Laurie A. for that quote from Ernie K. Informed and effective sponsorship is key to avoiding BB fundamentalism.

      • crescentdave says:

        People talk about how difficult it would be to make any changes in the Big Book and, indeed, the set of conditions imposed in order to make any changes are so wildly unrealistic, no change will occur. That’s a given. GSO has said as much and advised people to look at the Big Book as “source material.” This might makes sense, as long as the organization known as AAWS continues to add to its written knowledge base. But it doesn’t. It is purposely frozen in time.

        But why do we stop here? The utter and absolute lack of new literature from Alcoholics Anonymous World Services (AAWS) is shocking. Among the very few AAWS books written since the original Big Book are subsequent edition updates of stories and minor grammatical corrections, and two time-specific books – Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, 1980, which focuses on developments in AA around Akron and Cleveland and Pass it On, 1984, a biography of Bill Wilson.

        AAWS has consistently shut down the possibility of new books, stopping work on a post “AA Comes of Age” history book – work that cost AA upwards of $750,000. Multiple authors were dismissed and in an unprecedented move, all the work involved with the project was sealed, deliberately kept out of the archives, so that it could be reviewed by no one. Nothing more was specifically written on the distilled experience, strength, and hope of a million alcoholics who got sober since the last book written on the nature of alcoholism and recovery, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, 1953, and the last general history book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 1957.

        The largest abstinence-based movement in the field of alcoholism and recovery has not published a new source book for over 61 years. The largest abstinence-based movement in recovery has been incapable of authoring its own history book for 57 years. Clearly, this has come about by design. Equally clearly, the movement to institutionalize and sanctify the original literature has been a resounding success.

        The dynamic involved in creating new source material necessarily needs to address this fundamental issue. Here is a fellowship which has denied any written expression of a collective reality based on the experience, strength and hope of a massive number of recovered alcoholics who have far more recovery time than all the authors of all the literature of AA combined.

        I believe mainstream AA is quite comfortable with challenges of the Big Book, secure in its knowledge that its own internal rules make it impossible for any change to take place. Our emphasis needs to be placed on 1. supporting existing literature as source material while 2. agitating for new literature – based on the overwhelming body of experience and wisdom we now possess. The Big Book was written by a gifted man with multiple sources of input, and it was at the cutting edge of what we knew, 70 years ago, about recovery. But all this knowledge and all these people pale, compared to the sheer amount of recovery time and knowledge we now possess.

        To me, the childlike need to have a bible, which answers all our questions and tells us what to do, coupled with the fear of what will happen if we allow other voices to be heard, lies at the heart of this shameful history of self-censorship. It will take courage, fortitude and focus to help AA change from within. Or not. Perhaps we pursue meetings outside the AA mantle, write and distribute our own books.

        One thing I can say for sure; no one who objectively considers this situation can portray AA’s insistence on limiting study material to books over 50 and 60 years old as signs of a healthy and evolving organization.

      • Chris R. says:

        Big Book fundamentalism has completely divided the English speaking AA fellowship in Tokyo. Much like Biblical fundamentalism makes ecumenicalism impossible, Big Book fundamentalism makes unity impossible. Strange that book states “Love and tolerance of others is our code” could inspire such taking of other people’s inventories.

  23. John M. says:

    Thanks, Laurie, for your close reading of the texts you use; you have a fine sense of the forest which allows us to see the trees more clearly.

    As you suggest at one point, the strength of our program is that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Our weakness, probably common to most organizations, is that no one is required to study our organization’s literature and history and, therefore, some distortions predominate over time and unsuspected lacunae prevent us from moving on in new and more comprehensive ways, beyond our customary AA way of proceeding.

    For this reason, I have always thought that AA Agnostica is such an important forum in that it created/creates a space for open discussion and increases the possibility that our customary or conventional ways of doing things can be scrutinized in terms of AA’s originating spirit.

    Essays like yours bring to everyone’s attention the bigger picture in which to view where we — AA — have been and where we might, as loyal AAers, proceed to further widen the gateway for all those who suffer.

  24. Christopher G says:

    If the bleeding deacons of reified AA wish to litigate for old-time religious AA, this article is most certainly “creative tension” enough to quell it.
    Let us continue to widen the gateway!

  25. Dianne P. says:

    Thank you, Laurie, a wonderful read. You’ve captured many of my favourite quotes of Bill W.’s (and found me guilty of attaching myself to evidence that further supports my non-beliefs). One more quote that I tightly hung on to after I was sober long enough to have my own thoughts about AA, but not long enough to have my own words:

    We are only operating a spiritual kindergarten in which people are enabled to get over drinking and find the grace to go on living to better effect. Each man’s theology has to be his own quest, his own affair. —As Bill Sees It

  26. Jack says:

    My AA birthday is 05/01/1970. This is the first time that I have felt completely comfortable in our fellowship! We are evolving!

    • Marnin M. says:


      My AA birthday is Oct 27, 1970 so we are about even in lengths of sobriety.

      The recent convention of agnostics, atheists and free-thinkers has made a big difference in my sense of belonging in AA.

      In the past I felt like an AA misfit. Now I truly feel like I belong and am equal to the AA members who feel the GOD of AA has personally blessed them.

      Upon further reflection my sense of equal membership increased enormously when the book “Don’t Tell” was published with my story.


  27. Boyd P. says:

    There is a broad spectrum of “tradition” that has accumulated in between “iron clad dogma” and sharing “great suffering and great love”. What to discard? What to retain? And what to invent. The outcome will remain mysterious. The journey is our challenge, one day, one moment, at a time.

    Thanks for this informed and constructive post.

  28. Pat N. says:

    Another great article, Laurie. I’ll be copying it for my files.

    I think sobriety should mean a reduction in fear, among other things. Clinging to the illusory “safety” of any written words is like clinging to the “safety” of a bottle, in my opinion.

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