Common Sense Recovery

Common Sense Recovery

Foreword to Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous,
Second Edition

By Reverend Ward Ewing

From the beginning there has been tension around theism in AA. The connection with the Oxford Group movement meant that, in Akron, a more traditional understanding of God would infuse the emerging fellowship of alcoholics and the book Alcoholics Anonymous. However, in New York, as the Big Book was being written, members expunged any theological positions and expanded the concept of God to “a power greater than ourselves” and to “God as we understood Him.” In addition, although the Big Book does not discuss AA groups directly, the use of the plural first person in the Steps and elsewhere indicates this dependence is also on other alcoholics with whom the alcoholic can identify.

Less than ten years later, as Bill W. was developing the Traditions, the ground for this position was made clear: There is only one requirement for membership – the desire to stop drinking. The only authority within an AA group is the group conscience. For the survival of the Fellowship unity is critical, and that unity is found not in agreement but in the primary purpose of living sober and helping the alcoholic. In my personal experience, the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is, as a result of these principles, the most inclusive organization with which I have been privileged to be associated.

As Bill W. wrote in the Grapevine in July 1965:

Newcomers are approaching AA at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion. In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy whatever should be a first consideration for us all. Let us not, therefore, pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive; let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she declares.

Despite these important points made by Bill W. almost 50 years ago, the tension remains. Recently I was privileged to participate in the first international conference of atheists, agnostics, and free-thinkers in AA. Clearly, many in AA who are atheists, agnostics, and free-thinkers feel excluded. Much of the language in the Big Book, in other approved literature, and in meetings is traditional theistic language. Certain parts of AA literature are at best condescending towards atheists and agnostics, if not downright disparaging, such as the remark in Dr. Bob’s story describing atheism, agnosticism, or scepticism as “intellectual pride which keeps [one] from accepting what is in this book.”

Admittedly the Big Book, including Dr. Bob’s story, was published in 1939 and reflects the earliest experience of AA whereas Bill W.’s statement in the Grapevine exhibits a view based on thirty years experience. Bill’s statement may well have been stimulated by his correspondence with Denys W., a self-defined “scientific humanist” from Cambridge, England, who sought to re-think the Big Book and revise the Twelve Steps to make them more acceptable to committed humanists. (Ernest Kurtz, Not-God, pp. 232-233)

Still, tensions continue in the Fellowship, largely as a result of members who believe the way they found sobriety is the best way. Many who have found sobriety through belief in a traditional theistic God search the Big Book for references that support their contention that their way is the “true way” and they seek to “restore” AA to conform to their understanding. Others, who would focus on the inclusive character of the Fellowship, including the absence of any religious or theological positions, often do the same. Should these tensions tear the Fellowship into hostile camps, the damage to AA would be severe, the ability to carry the message of hope to those who still suffer would be impaired, and the program would be diminished by the loss of the experience of a particular group.

The program of Alcoholics Anonymous developed in a pragmatic manner, based on the experience of members. The primary criterion seems to be “it works”. The heart of AA is the sharing of stories, of personal experience – the experience of limitation, that one is unable to control his or her drinking, that one cannot control life or the lives of others, and that seeking such control actually makes life unmanageable. They are stories of letting go of all that baggage and accepting a new way of living that is directed by a power outside the self, a power known primarily through the esprit de corps of the group. Some interpret this transformation as guided by God, as traditionally understood. Yet others see it as the result of “peer support, empathy, mentor guidance, and emotional reinforcement of group membership”.

I believe the health and future of AA requires this tension. We are dramatically different people. We have different experiences. We share different stories, seeking to be as honest as possible. The quality of this pragmatic program of recovery depends on the honest sharing by differing people of different experiences. I attend only open meetings and most of them are speaker meetings. What I experience in these meetings is honest disclosure – honest disclosure about drinking and about how the Fellowship has worked for the speaker. When I attend open discussion meetings, I am always impressed by the lack of cross talk and by the intense level of listening. I’ve come to understand that listening is one of the keys to recovery. We listen to hear truth – not dogmatic, theological, mathematical, or philosophical truths, but personal truth about feelings, faults, sneaky motivations – fearless honesty. “Identify, don’t compare” you tell me. Experience is the key. From such honest sharing comes the support that makes the impossible possible.

Adam N. has written an important book, sharing his experience as an atheist in the Fellowship, an experience that included dropping out of AA after twenty years of sobriety. As he describes what happened, “I grew restless, irritable, and malcontent. I heard nothing new, had heard it all before, and was totally over it. Meetings just felt like a waste of my valuable time. The slogans ceased to be wise aphorisms and morphed into moronic truisms.” For him AA had come to feel like a religious cult for “the simple minded” based on “mindless dogma” and accepting “fairy tales as profound truths.” He had come to find honest sharing of his doubts, his unorthodox, science-friendly free thinking, to be alienating, and that became a major factor in his leaving AA. Three years without AA and a “torturous year and a half of active alcohol and narcotics addiction” led to a return to treatment and AA. As he re-entered the Fellowship, he recognized that previously he “had held something in reserve all along. I am, when all is said and done, an atheist.” Fearless honesty – necessary for continued sobriety –led him to write this book with the hope of clarifying for himself how to interpret the religiously laden language of AA. This book has been published in the hopes that it might serve to widen the doors for others who suffer from this cunning, baffling, and powerful disease, whether they be theists, atheists, agnostics, free-thinkers, sceptics, or secularists.

What I like best about this book is its focus on experience. The narrative is essentially one drunk sharing his story with others who may be helped by that sharing. The heart of AA is the sharing of one’s story, of one’s experience. Adam’s journey is one of seeking fearless honesty and a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the AA Fellowship. In the end, I interpret him as moving to a new kind of faith. This faith is not in some unseen magical being but is in the program and fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is a faith based not on doctrinal (or Big Book) correctness or some theoretical belief, but a faith based on experience, a faith that is pragmatic, free of religion, transformational, and focused on concern for others. In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which developed over the years in a pragmatic manner based on the experience of members, his sharing represents the mainstream, even if it is not often heard. This is an expression of his experience, and we can identify with him if we look for the similarities rather than differences.

While this essay is written primarily for the atheist, agnostic, and free thinker in AA, I encourage those who see themselves as religious to read it as well. I have many reasons. First and foremost Adam is sharing his story. That sharing is the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is the language of the heart; all need to listen respectfully, with an openness to learn. Second, many who claim to be religious worship a god that is too small, a god who seems to be a personal servant. We must listen to the critiques of belief and current religious practice. They provide an opportunity for growth and maturity. And finally, religious members should read this book in the name of all inclusiveness. In keeping with the third tradition, every member of Alcoholics Anonymous can benefit from becoming sensitized to concerns about excluding members and potential members. In the name of the unity of this Fellowship we must all be committed to affirm that there is common ground for all members of this Fellowship, be they theistic, agnostic, atheistic or whatever.

Adam speaks of “immersion in [a] fellowship [that] offers us exactly the life sustaining support we need, feeding us at a core level, bringing us an increased sense of personal value, purpose, emotional fulfilment and peace of mind.” The power of AA is greater than any individual person; it makes the impossible possible. Many in AA refer to this lifesaving force, this culture, this esprit de corps, this higher power, as God. Others who cannot bring themselves to compromise their rational understandings, to believe in some sort of deity, still experience this power within AA groups. I would suggest that the differences between those who wish to call it God and those who have a different understanding of its nature are small in comparison to our shared experience. What we believe about something is far less important to living than what we experience. Experience is what transforms us; belief is our attempt to explain. Experience trumps explanation. Experience provides the basis for the dialogue between those who are religious and those who are free thinkers, agnostics, and atheists in AA. I thank Adam for sharing his experience. I hope it will be a means for strengthening the unity of the AA Fellowship, as AA is all about supporting each other in recovery and in carrying the message – regardless of belief or lack of belief.

Reverend Ward B. Ewing Retired Dean and President of the General Theological Seminary; Trustee emeritus (non-alcoholic) and past Chair of the General Service Board


16 Responses

  1. Sean T. says:

    The power of AA is greater than any individual person; it makes the impossible possible.

    That quote from the above article about sums up my belief at this time. I have been sober in A.A. for over 31 years and have always maintained some sort of belief in “a power greater than” myself. Being raised Roman Catholic, I always named the power. But now I don’t. I can’t explain what the power that can transform lives in A.A. is but I acknowledge it is there. At times I feel as if I am freeloading off the strength those who believe in a God are transmitting. Maybe that is the case. I don’t know. And old timer would say in meetings that it is not important what you name a higher power, what is important is that it works for you. He also said he knew a man who referred to his higher power as “Something with a capital S”. That works for me.

  2. Suzanne T. says:

    Thank you for printing the forward.

    In reading it, what strikes me is the absence of any reference to the actual program of AA, working the 12 steps.

    I remain very grateful to the power of the Fellowship of AA and my transformation was a direct result of working the steps. My way of paying it forward is to sponsor others thru the steps, providing them a way to get to steps 4 thru 9 that does not require them to believe in a theistic entity.


    • Adam N says:

      I apologize if the forward was misleading to you. I do discuss step work in the book, in several chapters, as it has been and continues to be an important aspect of my recovery as well.

      • Suzanne says:

        Buenos dias Adam,

        I wasn’t referring to you or your book. I was referring to this foreword by Ward Ewing, former chair of the AA General Service Board.

        It’s interesting to me that Mr. Ewing never mentions the steps. His perspective is the strength of AA is each of us telling our stories.

        In my experience of 18 years, I think there’s 2 programs. One is the steps and the other is the fellowship. In the Fellowship you no longer recover. Everyone is recovering and staying sober by going to meetings and sharing our stories. As Ernie Kurtz points out in Not-God, this shift is what organizations do… they become self sustaining to the detriment of the individual.

        There is a lot of variety in how we each get sober, stay sober and some of us really recover… i.e.: our obsession to drink disappears. An explanation of this is offered by Dr. Harry Tiebout in a series of fascinating articles about the surrender process to being an alcoholic and our ego.

        “The fate of the surrender reaction is in itself an interesting study. With some, the surrender experience is the start of genuine growth and maturation. With others, the surrender phase is the only one ever reached, so that they never lose the need to attend meetings and to follow the program assiduously, apparently relying on the constant reminders in their daily existence to supply the necessary impetus to the surrender feeling, at least insofar as alcohol is concerned.” (The Act of Surrender in the Therapeutic Process)

        I live in Ecuador and I pop in to the local meetings hoping to find newcomers who want to work the steps. I’m experiencing a strong reaction to the meetings… I’m recoiling as if from a hot flame. I feel like I’m walking into a Christian Coven, where you can’t recover because the disease is out in the parking lot doing push ups. Another element that comes through is the woundology and “original sin” concepts that we are basically sinful and life is a battle to overcome our sinfulness, that we will never win. I feel sad when the folks talk about their spiritual sickness and how they still have evil inside them or that they cannot take any credit for their recovery… it is all God.

        So I prefer the program of the Big Book, where you walk out of step 9 as a “free person” with a fresh new foundation upon which to script and build the rest of your life. This is the road to being happy, joyous and free!

        I remain so grateful to my non-theistic sponsor for guiding me thru the steps.

        In the Fellowship of Recovery,

  3. Tad F. says:

    For 32 years I have fought the good fight as an atheist in AA. If more people would join this fight openly in meetings – instead of hiding behind special meeting groups – then we’d be a lot further along in the general acceptance of our view than we are now.

    • Ted S. says:

      I do that in every meeting I go to. And it is very hard. The meetings I go to are on eastern Long Island New York. The north fork. If anyone else is in my area please speak up at meetings.

    • John R. says:

      Not sure “hiding behind special interest groups” is the characterization I would use. We created two Freethinker meetings in order to give newcomers an alternative perspective, but this is in addition to the many meetings available to them that use the Lord’s Prayer, “gotta get God to get sober”, etc. I’ve been talking about this for at least the last 15 years of my 33 years of sobriety, and continue to do so if it pertains to the topic at hand.

      • Adam N says:

        I am so grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the forward progress of the recovery movement, within AA, without AA, either or both. As we freethinkers contribute more, and more openly, we ideally serve the all important purpose of focusing the conversation on the true core operative principles of recovery, devoid of obfuscating theistic concepts and language, and simultaneously of making these principles of recovery available to all in need, regardless of belief or lack thereof. We get to do this, each according to our abilities and strengths. The latter chapters of CSR are devoted to articulating some of the many different ways we each can contribute to the continuing growth and maturation of the recovery movement. Kudos to each of us for contributing in our own individual manner, each according to his ability and talents and personal character, whether starting alternative meetings, coming out atheist to our old school fellow’s, or writing and reading on agnostic blogs. The diversity of contributions is itself a sign of great health and vigor within the movement.

  4. Joe C. says:

    Thanks Ward, thanks Adam. We are many voices inside the 12 Step community. Adam, I expect this will be a book that has a long shelf-life. People will be discovering it for years to come.

    And where would we be without our friends, who, as Ward has said many times, giving us the objectivity that only comes with having “one foot in and one foot out (of A.A.)?”

    I have said before that Ward was the best friend an AA unbeliever could ask for. He was such a champion in the failed (but noble) attempt to bring an Atheist/Agnostic pamphlet to group’s literature tables. You’re a shining example of how to see what unites us, not just how we differ.

  5. bob_mcc says:

    When I came to AA there was fear that losing a special member of my home group would mean trouble because of all the effort they put into the group, others, and AA. As one mentor said “when me lose someone near and dear to us another will appear.”
    The void of losing Ernie K. appears a little smaller today with Ward Ewing’s understanding of WAAFTs. Thank you Ward.

    • John M. says:

      You are so right, Bob. And Ernie Kurtz, like Ward Ewing, was a believer who remained open, supportive, friendly, and faithful to those of us who see ourselves as atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.

      Ernie was and Ward is exemplary of truly inclusive people who strive to keep all of AA equally inclusive.

  6. Thomas B. says:

    What a gift Ward is to we WAAFTs !~!~!

    Thanks Roger for posting this and informing me of another obvious I missed . . . 😉

  7. Tommy H says:

    I wish I could express myself as clearly and succiently as Rev. Ewing.

    Very well put.

  8. John R. says:

    Does anyone know how extensive the revisions or additions might be? I had just gotten the first version, so am somewhat disinclined to get another unless it seems worthwhile…

    • Roger says:

      Unless you want a paperback version, John, your first edition is all you need. The changes are not that extensive, and they certainly do not change the message, which is well communicated in the original.

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