Back to Basics and other threats to AA

Grace of God

By John H.
Washington DC We Agnostics Group

There are few people as psychologically vulnerable as newly recovering alcoholics. They may be subject to all forms of misdirection and manipulation.

In early recovery I heard phrases in AA like “my brain needed washing” and the tried and true ego deflator, “my best thinking got me here”.

I begged to differ then and I am even more adamant today.

Being somewhat isolated in my own program “bubble” in recent years, I only was vaguely aware of a growing national movement that has been brewing since the 1990s under the banner of “Back to Basics” which has metastasized and morphed to take on many forms in different parts of the country.

Some of this has been aided and abetted by publishers who handle fundamentalist-oriented literature (even Hazelden is involved) as well as part of the ever growing in-patient addiction and recovery industry that primarily is based upon the AA model. Areas and intergroup offices also have gotten hooked into promoting sobriety “tune up” workshops and retreats some of which have bizarre and medically dangerous characteristics. I am also convinced that aggressive political movements by the Christian Right in all aspects of American life have engendered elements of what only can be described as an offshoot of the Culture Wars within the formerly unallied confines of AA.

Back to Basics“Back to Basics” – as currently constituted – is based on the 1998 book of that name (Second Edition 2001, Eighth Printing 2006) authored by a very interesting character named “Wally P.” (such a folksy AA-related name could not possibly be fictional). The outlines and antecedents of the movement were well documented in these AA Agnostica pages by Thomas B. in his very good April, 2014 article A Fellowship of the Religious?

I won’t go over the already well-researched historical ground noted above and will instead focus (in an anecdotal and well-documented way) on what I have observed taking root in my own area based on the origins of this movement as well as the probable negative effects of this surge of fundamentalism on the AA program as a whole and the sometimes dire threat it represents to atheists and agnostics in early sobriety.

Much of what we need to know about the zealotry of “Back to Basics” can be gleaned from a talk given by Wally P. at a “Cocaine Anonymous” meeting in the late 2000s (he apparently identifies as a member of multiple 12 step fellowships in addition to AA).

The key portion is where Wally P. describes the genesis of his “mission from God” to write his book and spread the enlightenment contained in Back to Basics where we suffering alcoholics are “brought to our knees” to seek the intercession of an all-seeing, all-powerful God returning us to Dr. Bob’s original vision, the Akron pre-Big Book six-step program found on page 151 of Back to Basics, that involves the following:

  1. Complete deflation
  2. Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power
  3. Moral Inventory
  4. Confession
  5. Restitution
  6. Continued work with other alcoholics

All of this is centered on our so-called “bad personality or character defects” and ends where the sufferer (in this case Earl T. in Dr. Bob’s Akron medical office in 1938) goes to the mat with Dr. Bob himself… “When I said yes, we both knelt at his desk and prayed, each asking to have these defects taken away.”

Wally P. came to his mission in a curious way. It seems that in November 1989, with a little over a year of sobriety, he was having trouble with the “spiritual” part of the program and felt compelled to learn more about the fellowship’s Akron origins after seeing a picture of Dr. Bob’s home in Dr. Bob and the Good Old-timers.

Rather than call first to see if Dr. Bob’s house still is standing, Wally “spontaneously” boarded a plane and headed to Akron where he learned that Dr. Bob’s house recently had been purchased by a local group of AA members and was being restored to its original 1930s condition. It seems that Wally “coincidently” had arrived on exactly the day where the one meeting a year that is held in Dr. Bob’s house was taking place.

There were 75-80 people at the house and the speakers’ meeting was being conducted by seven or eight members with 40+ years of sobriety, each of whom had experienced direct contact with Dr. Bob. Also in attendance was Dr. Bob’s daughter Sue. After the meeting Wally was singled out as the person who had traveled farthest to attend the meeting (by accident, according to Wally). They asked him to be of service.

The next thing Wally knows he is part of a caravan heading to Cleveland (home of Clarence S.). He is brought to a forbidding looking building which turns out to be the Cleveland Salvation Army detox. Upon arrival he is told he will be leading a meeting there (he never had spoken at an AA meeting previous to this and, so he says, always was “passing” when called upon). When he demurs he is told by the good Dr. Bob-inspired old-timers to get on his knees and ask for guidance from God. Wally does so, Big Book in hand, and “having had a spiritual awakening” immediately experiences a profound conversion based on his having received a “mission from God”. Wally becomes the Chosen One as a direct result of a “laying on of hands” by people with a direct connection to Dr. Bob.

Wally has been on his “mission” ever since. It only was reinforced by a diagnoses of Stage Four cancer which has been reduced to Stage One due (according to Wally) to the prayers of other AA members for his recovery. He never mentions an oncologist, but I suspect such a professional was involved somewhere along the way.

Make no mistake about it. These people are deadly serious about this stupidity and Wally P. is on a Mission From God having been “Chosen”.

This total lunacy is, in my opinion, a serious threat to the open and caring version of AA I first knew and grew to love in the same time frame Wally and company were preparing to reform it, taking AA back to its so-called Akron roots. I actually shuddered when I thought about what would have happened to me as a newcomer had I been directed to proceed lock-step to the kind of “Back to Basics” meeting I was surprised to learn takes place at 6:45 AM every Friday just a few blocks from my home.

An early riser, I took my morning walk through the leafy streets of Bethesda, MD and found my way to the second floor of a Presbyterian Church and a well-attended meeting (30-40 members) with copies of Wally P.’s tome on every other chair. I picked up my copy and prepared to settle in.

The leader began by reading about the first step from Wally’s book (with a nearly audible sigh of relief from me). Instead of reading through she asked if people felt like commenting. There was a good mix of men, women, young, old, obvious newcomers as well as people with many years in the program.

When the members started sharing I saw very clearly that in this instance I was with just another bunch of drunks with Step One stories similar to my own. The power of identification was alive and well even here. For that I was very grateful. In that, our common problem is indeed the universal glue that holds us together.

Rigid approaches work for some, not at all for others. I was struggling to focus on that when they started fretting about how “powerless” they were in every aspect of their lives beyond their alcoholism. How “taking their power back”, “failing to keep surrendering in order to win”, “living in the program without any reservations”, and “resisting the reproductive power of the alcoholic ego” and any of a host of other lapses could drag them inevitably down toward that next drink. Oxford Group stuff straight out of the book.

I really was trying to reflect the true spirit of the program despite my reservations with what I was hearing. To focus on the solution (not drinking) as opposed to the problem (rigid dogmatism).

This was just another bunch of drunks who take their AA straight from a book (in this case Wally P’s text) and don’t ask many questions. A perfectly OK approach for them if they are there as volunteers, which appeared to be the case, but I still wondered about the newcomers in the room.

A case in point was a gentleman who appeared to be in his late 30’s who said he had less than 90 days. He indicated that, at first, he had issues with the word “powerless” as applied to aspects of his life other than the abuse of alcohol. However, he said that he had “come to believe” (despite the fact that his rational mind knew that he had power over some things) that in every fundamental way he was in fact “powerless” in just about every aspect of his life.

I immediately wondered how he might react to the proposition that when AA really works that we get power over our lives back. I kept quiet on this score because I had resolved, prior to going there, not to be contrary or oppositional in any way in that particular context.

When it was time for me to share, in the sweetest voice I could muster, I thanked them profusely. As I said, they were on the First Step which made it a lot more palatable and I indicated that despite our differences we all were in this together. I of course identified myself as an atheist with long-term sobriety, as well as being a founding member of DC We Agnostics.

That’s when the most telling detail became evident.

After hearing who I was, none of my brothers and sisters made eye contact with me after the meeting. The lady next to me was reluctant to hold hands which was sort of funny in that we don’t hold hands at our DC version of We Agnostics. After the meeting ended I stood there for a full minute playing with my cell phone and I could have been transparent! They looked right through me.

I was as sweet as pie (my usual smiley, happy self) but evidently was a self-professed heathen fouling the temple by my very presence.

We have a long way to go in this religion-crazed country.

The pernicious nonsense of Back to Basics (which can accidently harm an atheist/agnostic newcomer) is not the only bizarre hallucinatory manifestation in the wider AA world. I was quite surprised to come across the following flyer regarding an AA “Fix Your Recovery” program entitled “Alcoholism: The Invisible Disease” at a Church in ultra-liberal (though quite wealthy) upper NW Washington, DC, a program prominently featured on the DC intergroup website.

Here we find what was quite a revelation to me (after 28+ years of my thinking that AA was a program of recovery from alcoholism) in that, “the Big Book suggests (AA’s) spiritual principles can, when practiced daily to the best of our ability, solve ALL our problems. And that is our experience!”

You really do have to read this stuff to believe it (download the pdf in the link above). ALL of our problems! Now I know for certain where Wally’s miracle cancer cure came from. Could I turn my old Moscow business problems into gold (zolotoy in Russian) at last? What about my kid’s educational issues? Could I get rid of those pesky folks down at Kaiser Permanente and turn my own latter day Medicare-funded health over to this Big Book thing? Had I totally missed out on what life has to offer?

I had to go down and investigate these miracles for myself.

On a very pleasant May Sunday afternoon I found myself at a Methodist Church (a very unlikely venue for me on a Sunday) on Connecticut Avenue in Washington and, after some effort and with the help of a very nice lady attending the meeting, found the basement room where the program was to be presented.

Since it was literally impossible (for a host of reasons) for me to sit through eight Sundays of this, I only was able to catch the final week which centered on Steps 10, 11 and 12.

Since the agenda of the presentation itself is not what drew me there I will be brief regarding that aspect. The leader talked about the following:

  1. The need, as an alcoholic, for constant self-monitoring and constant checking with a sponsor with numerous examples of this given.
  2. Oxford Group-based detailed inventories of personal character defects.
  3. A yearly inventory comparing your current Self to yourself in the previous year.
  4. An example of a detailed 10th step inventory of resentments done on the same person (a work supervisor) ten times in one year. Any slacking or backsliding on doing these inventories was described as “unacceptable”.
  5. Reciting on a daily basis (morning and evening on your knees doing Step 11) the St. Francis Prayer where the last line says “It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life”. How that thing is not religious! This was said seriously.
  6. How the leader, in addition to her sponsor, calls and speaks with at least five other alcoholics every day.
  7. How day by day, every day we suffering alcoholics need to do a daily inventory of our personal assets and liabilities of discord and harmony to tally up a balance sheet of  God’s will (it was not explained how she finds that out) or self-will.
  8. In addition to the above there have to be AA readings morning and evening.
  9. In terms of the 12th Step, she told of finding out about a prospect’s religious inclinations and calling them every day for a week before giving up, never waiting for them to call her. AA people only talking about AA things after meetings around newcomers and always bringing post-meeting conversations back to AA with the person with the most experience guiding the conversation, etc.

This is only a partial list of what I heard (attending AA meetings and sharing was not addressed). Since I did not attend the previous seven sessions, this is only one-eighth of this stuff. How one possibly has the time to make a living, enjoy a relationship, raise children, have non-AA friends, or live anything that might resemble a normal life was not explained.

I was polite during the meeting (even though I’m certain my eyes were growing wide and were accompanied by an involuntary headshake or two), I refrained from comment but had a question for the leader I raised after the meeting. What sparked my interest and caused me to go was the flyer promoting the event (see above) and the following excerpts therefrom:

Because we have a God-given right to fully recover, and to be 100% free of alcohol and other mind and mood altering (elevating, sedating, leveling) chemicals or substances, prescribed or otherwise, and because the Big Book suggests (AA’s) spiritual principles can, when practiced daily to the best of our ability, solve ALL our problems. And that is our experience.

Are you thinking the unmanageability in your life is due to an emotional, mental or psychiatric disorder rather than the disease of alcoholism?• Are you considering using prescribed medication to manage your emotions?• Are you currently using prescribed medication in an attempt to chemically manage your emotions, but they don’t seem to be helping…and if you are, is it possible, out of sheer desperation for an answer to your ongoing dilemma, or a desire to change how you feel, that you feigned, embellished, invented or exaggerated your symptomatic report to the prescribing doctor… like so many of us have?

It was now time for me to get to the point. After the meeting when the leader said she did not have a copy of the flyer and could not respond to my question regarding prescribed medication I sent the following to her in an email:

These passages seem to indicate to me (as well as a number of other long-sober members who received a copy to check my reading of this) that you are saying that AA can somehow replace medical treatment of psychiatric illness and “solve ALL our problems”. The implication of your words here seemed to be that members taking prescribed psychiatric medications might be somehow less than fully sober members of the fellowship.

While I consider myself fortunate never to have personally had a psychiatric condition requiring treatment I know many sober members of the fellowship with long term sobriety who require such treatment and benefit greatly from it. I seem to recall some statements many years ago from some members questioning the sobriety of members using prescribed medication for medical conditions but it has been a very long time since I have heard such things in AA. This was of even greater concern because it was published by WAIA (Washington Area Intergroup Association).

From Wayne B.’s website, “Life’s in Session: Are you… ‘in or out?'”

The reply I received was not from the leader of the meeting but from a gentleman by the name of Wayne B. who, it turns out, is a well-known AA circuit speaker whose sponsor is Clancy of Pacific Group fame which is from where I’m assuming at least some of this nonsense emanates.  His website, where he sells this program is to be found at “Life’s in Session: Are you ‘in… or out?'”. He also sells an AA board game (I’m serious folks and I need to find out if Bill Wilson lives on Park Place or Baltic) and there is a link there for that as well.

In the spirit of fairness, a verbatim excerpt from his response follows:

Hi John, my name is Wayne B.  I am in no way connected to the Back to Basics program, nor is Kerry, nor is the workshop Kerry presents.  As a matter of fact, it is a composition from our AA history, and Bill W’s successful recovery from “Spiritual” depression.

I am in fact the man who did the research into this subject, and it is I who formatted the workshop, the flier, and the content of the workshop you seem to have issues with.

I will tell you what I will do… after you have sat through, as an attendee, ALL 8 sessions of the workshop with Kerry, I will be happy to answer any and all of your questions regarding these concerns you have.  Until you have done so, your objections are unfounded and unnecessary.

Since I do, and you don’t, have experience being misdiagnosed several times as having mental illness, and being subjected to years of unnecessary medication since my symptoms were directly due to a spiritual dilemma, as evidenced by the fact I am sober 37 years, and have been off medication… all 9 of them, ever since, I think it is compelling and prudent that you would be interested in and have an open mind as to how these misdiagnoses are taking place in epidemic proportion in our fellowship.

If you don’t agree with the workshop, that’s fine.  If you are concerned about others, even when YOU YOURSELF state you have no need for medications, leaves me to wonder why you are overly concerned about this.

Well, as I said in my reply to Wayne, I’m not about to sit through eight of those sessions (as you can see he won’t fully address my questions until I drink the entire bottle of snake oil) though I could probably learn a thing or two more about this type of extremism. I’m polite but not that polite and am “overly concerned” with the essence of this which, if you suffer from mental illness and they get their hands on you, could indeed kill you.

I’m not a medical doctor and neither is Wayne. I really was stepping through the looking glass here and half expected to find further craziness such as “Christian Science” or a Scientologist with a psychiatric conspiracy theory and a visit from some Thetans. It’s that weird.

However, there is a serious issue here of so-called AA guru’s (Wayne has 37 years, is a circuit speaker and a Clancy acolyte) setting themselves up as medical experts without any scientific qualifications of any kind while spewing uninformed assumptions about things like the nature of depression and other serious medical issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s an “outside issue” if ever I saw one. It lends itself to being used as a wedge to further the Right Wing religious agenda on display here.

As atheists and agnostics in AA I feel we have a duty to expose and confront such madness wherever and whenever we find it. This is the sort of thing that kills people like us (with or without mental illness) by driving us away when confronted with a rigid approach to AA that has real hazards associated with it.

There is a rising tide of inherently damaging religious dogma that is setting back the program decades. Can you think of any Right Wing political movement that literally wants to take us back to the 1930s or 40s? Dr. Bob has been dead nearly 65 years. Bill Wilson has been dead 44 years. Many of us think it’s time to evolve without totally dismissing the true breakthroughs of Wilson and Smith which involved Step One, the power of identification, sharing and helping another alcoholic.

Here in the United States we revere our founding fathers. The Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial glow in the morning sun despite the fact that both Washington and Jefferson were slave-owners. Our country, over time and with great struggle, totally rejected some of their operating principles and world views without undermining their truly innovative and vitally important contributions to human history. As a fellowship AA needs to grow in the same way with respect and admiration for our founders, but absent blind adherence to methods and beliefs more suited to the 1930s, 40s and 50s than the modern world. I won’t live to see the change but the change can at least begin with us and begin now.

It’s time to move on to the next level here and tell the truth. When the fundamentalist AA person says “spiritual” they 100% mean religious. When they say “God as you understand him” they 100% mean the Christian God that THEY understand. When they say “suggested” they mean “mandatory.” If you reject this (any of this) they flatly say that you are condemning yourself to an alcoholic death. They might as well take an atheist out and shoot him or her. That’s the truth!

This isn’t the AA I know and love and fortunately all is not lost yet. There are many members who are believing Christians and liberal at the same time, but I strongly feel they are, little by little, losing ground to the fundamentalists. We may very well find, after more time has elapsed and further investigation has been done, that there is a coordinated, nationwide effort to turn AA “Back to Basics” that manifests itself in many ways other than the “program” by that name.

Once the fundamentalists get you shadow boxing with their perversion of the language, “St. Francis isn’t “religious”, “voluntary is mandatory”, “GOD is not GOD”, “We love you but are sad to report you are condemned to death”, you literally don’t know which end is up and the vulnerable and unprotected (the ones that aren’t driven away to continue their drinking) can end up totally in their grip. I strongly believe that this sort of indoctrination is the aim of many in this wing of AA. The world of science, light and reason is under assault by the forces of medieval superstition.

They need to be resisted.


68 Responses

  1. Ath&SoberThroughAA says:

    This effort parallels those underway in many other organizations such as the National Speakers Association. “Christians” infiltrate leadership and actively proselytize and use the organization to promote their brand of belief. They try to exclude others such as Mormons and in some cases discriminate against gays. It is no surprise they target AA an organization that has an enormous and penetrating reach to so many vulnerable people. Make no mistake. They want to turn AA in a stealth conversion vehicle.

  2. Rich H says:

    AA standing still and not going backward? While the rest of the recovery world moves into the 21st Century? That is going backward!

    “An ‘Into the Future’ movement, a synthesis of the best from the past with what reason and evidence tells us should be a part of recovery going forward.” I have started a new meeting here on Maui called “The Next Frontier”. Ostensibly it is an Emotional Sobriety meeting but we are open to any forward looking topics and literature, especially literature written by you guys who are AA members.

    There is some B2B movement here. Someone just came to see me yesterday to see if our Intergroup and newsletter would publicize something that sounded very much like that “Life’s In Session” stuff. I said we would if it is AA. We have to make room for those B2B people just as we have to make room for progressive and WAAFT meetings. The meetings that don’t work will hopefully fail.

    • John H. says:

      Hi Rich… You may have to list them but it doesn’t mean you can’t call them out on an outside issue such as the medication craziness included in the “Life’s in Session” stuff if something like that comes up. By the way, as I’m certain you may know, BTB has been delisted in some places for putting those non conference approved books on the chairs at meetings and leading directly from them. My point in the article was that “wrong is wrong” and when we see it we need to articulate the facts as best we can without violating any traditions ourselves. Unpleasant but necessary in light of where some of this is going. Not all candlelight, love and misty romance in AA these days.

      • Rich H says:

        As the Central Office manager, I don’t feel it is my duty to be the AA police so I don’t “call them out on an outside issue such as the medication craziness included in the “Life’s in Session” stuff.”
        I also would never advocate delisting any group “for putting those non conference approved books on the chairs at meetings and leading directly from them.” I know of no Tradition which prohibits the use of non-conference approved literature.
        Wrong may be wrong but we are not governors who punish groups for violating Traditions. Each group has the right to be wrong so long as they are not harming other groups or AA as a whole.

  3. John F. says:

    I just started reading Back To Basics. I sobered up in Cleveland OH in 1972. Old-timers back then sobered up in the 40’s and 50’s. Some knew Bob and Bill. They were very strong AAs but not dogmatic in their approach. What is interesting to me is that I NEVER heard anyone even mention this Back To Basics approach. I never heard of it. If it was important, if it worked, these men and women would have at least talked about it – how it helped them or others. What they did talk about was come hell or high water, don’t drink and go to meetings, be willing to believe. I agree all this is about religion. Believe in our god and all is solved. It will be the death of a united AA.

    • John H. says:

      Hello John… What a pleasure to hear from someone with your vast experience. And from Cleveland no less!

      Since you have direct knowledge of the old timers from the 40’s and 50’s your comments are most valuable to those of us who have less time and the deep perspective that comes with that experience is obvious.
      This guy Wally claims direct lineage through Dr. Bob’s original Akron membership as well as a close relationship with his daughter Sue that dates from his 1988 Akron/Cleveland “conversion”.

      Most of our real old timers from the early days (despite what we hear of people like Clarence) would never have put us in this blind alley of rigidity even though the majority of them were definitely “believers” of one sort or another. I wish more of them had written down their thoughts before they left us.

      Thanks so much for reading my article.

      • John F. says:

        You hit a responsive cord in me when you used the term rigidity. You are correct, the people that I came to know in the early 70’s were not rigid on spirituality. They only suggested I be willing to believe if belief seemed right to me. They used to say it is very difficult for them to know god’s plan for them, so how are they going to tell others how to live or what to believe. They were much more humble men and women than I see today. They understood the 11th step and the word ‘only’. If I was just coming in I don’t know if I could make it, with all the prayer requests, prompts like ‘ who keeps us sober’ before the lords prayer, Jesus references and miracle talk. The Akron area is the worst. And we wonder why so many reject AA?

    • Dan L says:

      Thanks John F. for your reply from your unique point of view. It is rather suspicious that this “back to the goode olde dayes” thing began to spring up when the live witnesses to the real old days are passing from the scene. I am certain these people are trying to recapture a past that just never was. Most “fundamentalist” movements seem to be the same like that. I really don’t believe AA was meant to remain static and rigid and I am sure that Bill, at least, imagined something much more vibrant and dynamic. Thanks again.

  4. Steve says:

    We speak of networking but I don’t know that we *are* networking. I read the post from someone in Newfoundland asking for contacts from atheists/agnostics in the area – I would love the same thing for Montreal & surroundings.

    Perhaps there is a means to develop a network of contacts, whilst maintaining anonymity to the degree necessary, within AA Agnostica?

    I would very much like to network with like-minded people in or around my region.

    • Roger says:

      Hi Steve: We do indeed have an anonymous way to “develop a network of contacts” with people in your region, and any region. Just click on the image below, and complete the “An Agnostic Group in my Community” form.

      A Group in my Community

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for this John, I knew far too many “Muckers” in Toronto when I lived there and lost friendships with a few who embraced this fundie movement zealously, encouraging me to attend. At the time Muckers’ Meetings were de-listed by Toronto Intergroup though that may have changed.

    Right now, I am the only self-identified atheist at AA meetings in all of Newfoundland. If there are any others out there, please get in touch with me wisewebwomanatgmaildotcom. Replacing the at and the dot with @ and .

    I had managed to get my local group to close with the Responsibility Pledge but now, a member who had supported this, has reverted to the LP. Along with being the only woman in AA within a 100km radius, I am also the dangerous atheist outcast.

    This shift in closing also begs the question as to why the LP is more meaningful that the RP – which is the foundation, in my opinion, of what AA is all about.

    • John H. says:

      If you can hang in there so courageously in Newfoundland of all places while doing your best to be of service what possible excuse could the rest of us have? You have my utmost respect.
      Thanks for the kind words about the article. Best, John.

  6. Joe C. says:

    One of the Back to Basics pitches is that it follows a method adopted in Ohio to which stats were kept for a limited time on the newcomers engaged. The claim is that their method (if I recall correctly is to be taken through the 12 Steps à la 146 pages in four sessions) achieved a 75% success rate. Half were sober a year after the process, 25% relapsed and didn’t return and the other 25% relapsed but did get sober by the end of the record keeping.

    Without challenging the integrity of the data keeping or its relevance to 21st century alcoholics or addicts, let’s give this B2B by the (Big) Book a baseline for comparison. Compare these 12 Step by the book adherents to AAs that didn’t use the book or 12 Steps.

    The first edition of the Big Book has 28 stories of alkies that were sober prior to the book or the Steps as we know them today. Being as all 28 are dead we know how the story ends for each member. Half (14) never drank again, seven died as drinkers and the other quarter relapsed but made it back to sobriety in AA.

    I don’t doubt the B2B method is effective but I don’t know that it’s more effective then other approaches to AA. And beware of labels. I have heard of groups calling themselves Back to Basics that are all about returning to the oral tradition of AA, one or more alcoholic(s) sharing with another, no experts, leaders or sacred or codified method (now that’s really basic). I’ve also heard of We Agnostics groups that were the help lost sheep find their way back to the great Shepard in the sky.

    Later this month I’m going to AA archives to do some research on atheists & agnostics in AA which feels daunting and exciting all at the same time.

    To John and everyone who weighed in, thanks for helping to enrich my day.

    • John H. says:

      You are most well informed as always Joe… I’ll look forward to the results of your Archives research. As to myself I’m going to Atlanta in July to look some of them in the eye and chat them up a bit.

      There are all sorts of looney approaches of course including the amusing adverts on CNN for that non AA model joint in Malibu with the hot tub, acupressure and view of the ocean… Everything but the guy with a silver tray with something really GOOD on it! We are prey and fodder for folks in business as well as the ones out to save souls. The more I look at our wing the saner we get!

    • Laurie A says:

      Arthur S., Tom F. and Glenn C. of aahistorylovers wrote a paper accessible on Hindsfoot: AA Recovery Rates: Contemporary Myth and Misinterpretation.

    • Tommy H says:

      I find it a bit strange that their statistics reflect exactly those whose stories were in the original BB.

      Some people I know came up with similar values for today’s A.A., Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Recovery Outcome Rates: Contemporary Myth and Misinterpretation.

      Note the rates are for people who “really tried.”

  7. Laurie A says:

    A patient told the doctor, “It hurts when I raise my arm”. The doctor said, “Then don’t do it”. “God (evolution) gave us brains to use…” (Big Book, page 86), so the newcomer (and the rest of us) should use them. If a particular group/meeting hurts, go somewhere else (not necessarily in AA).

    One problem is that it’s hard to evaluate the extent and influence of this malign movement. For example, there are about 4,500 AA groups in Great Britain (excluding Ireland), a quick word search of the likely suspects on the AA GB website revealed 29 Primary Purpose groups, 14 Road To Recovery groups and 29 Back To Basics groups. Of course some of those might be mainstream AA, and others under titles like e.g. Big Book Study groups might be hotbeds of fundamentalism; without sending a witch-finder around to check we have no way of knowing. This brand of AA began to gain a foothold in Britain after Joe and Charlie’s first visit to the UK in 1989; Clancy I. has also been the celebrity speaker at conventions (round-ups) for many years. Anecdotal evidence only takes us so far and I believe the extremists’ influence will always be limited. We should really be concerned if they gathered such a critical mass that they could e.g. force Conference to produce a pamphlet advocating non-co-operation with the medical profession.

    Some British AA members were concerned enough about the growth of these groups and the damage they cause to set up a website to monitor them, you can find it here aacultwatch.

    • John H. says:

      Thanks for the link Laurie.
      If this has taken hold like this in the UK (though currently limited as you point out) can you imagine the traction it might get in our delusion haunted land?
      GSO in NYC seems at least rational still and their process here is so convoluted that any fundamental assault on the rights of members coming from the religious right would take years to implement and is a long way off.
      What got ne concerned was the “grassroots” nature of this and how (exactly like the cancer it is) it could slowly invade surrounding tissue and kill the entire body over time.
      An informed group conscience is the only way to battle this here and I hope something in our “wing” of the fellowship can gestate that will both inform (and possibly drive) the debate before it is too late.

      • Thomas B. says:

        John, after an amazing Pacific Regional AA Service Assembly that I reported upon here several weeks ago, I was re-enthused about the long-term viability of AA via the service conference structure, but after attending this past weekend the Area 58 Oregon Assembly, I’m not so sure.

        Yes, at the bottom of our inverted service structure at the levels of GSO staff and Trustees, we are quite enlightened, but at the top of the service structure at the group level, the two-thirds majority required for “substantial unanimity” who get into general service are likely to be Christian, a good number throughout many rural and small-town areas of our “One Nation Under God” even bible-carrying Christians along with their Big Book.

        I’ll be interested in reading about your experience this summer in Atlanta. I hope you will write us an article about it. Remember that, five years ago in San Antonio, the former Chair of the AA Board of Trustees, the Rev. Ward Ewing, was somewhat surprised that it was the group conscience of the organizing committee to end the conference with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, about which he has eloquently opined was in violation of our tradition of non-affiliation and being generically spiritual but not religious.

      • Duncan says:

        John H, I think you did a great job there John. You pointed out that those who rule are not really the people in AA but the publishers and the Health Trade. These are the ones calling the shots.

        In the UK Wally P is not big but his words are being used, along with many others before him. I am sure he will soon take a trip over here.

        I think it fair to say that aacultwatch is not Freethinker Friendly.

        • John H. says:

          Thank you Duncan… That term “Freethinker” has never been properly defined for me. It’s just so vague.
          Atheism I fully understand. There could not be something more straight forward. Agnosticism I “sort of ” get but have obvious issues with due to where I am at personally but this Freethinker thing is totally mystifying to me! Come to think if it so is the politically correct term “Secular Humanist” and the utterly confusing religion that really is not a religion known as Unitarinism and the other Secular churches that pop up from time to time. Maybe one of your Oxbridge folks over there could fill this literal minded American in.

  8. Brent P. says:

    I’m not alone. And to think it took an American to relieve me of the doubts that dog me when, after I share, are ignited by what appears in many circumstances as indifference, in others, intolerance and still others, simmering hostility.

    AA in north Toronto, Ontario, Canada is different from the American AA that I so often read about but never have experienced. There is a Back to Basics group here that I attended once. The few people in attendance did seem to believe that God was the solution to all their problems but, in many ways, their problems were few. To a man and woman, theirs were financial problems. Basically, if they had more money their problems, as described by them, would be solved.

    Sadly, for them, Canada just isn’t as overtly religious as the US. Our political leaders don’t have to proclaim their religious affiliations in order to satisfy voters. Use the word God in one or two speeches and you’ve qualified.

    On the other hand, Canadians are generally less vocal than our brothers and sisters to the south so, maybe, proportionally we’re the same, it’s just the real religious loons are harder to identify. Except in AA meetings.

    They don’t preach or refer to any particular religion, they expose themselves when they reveal their faith in God making certain the subways run on time.

    An example of how that line of thinking works. Should God be nursing a hangover (water into wine anybody?) and he fails to fix the subway that breaks down, the one taking you to your job interview, well that means you weren’t supposed to get that job. In fact despite dire financial straits, you just might not be meant to work at all. It’s that or you’re born to share your experience, strength and hope as an addictions counsellor.

    Gosh, one group of people I know in AA have gotten very wealthy with a business that purports to get people sober, steer them to the most expensive treatment centres (and take a cut of the profits from that), counsel them, in weekly sessions that cost about $150 per and God knows what else.

    My point is that AA today, like first and second generations of Christianity, is factionalized. That being the case there should be agreed upon names that identify the type of group you’re going to attend. This notion that we’re all the same and that the answer to every question we have is in the Big Book. And if you don’t recognize it there, you pray and God will take over. That being the case, you’ll have to be patient and very very vigilant because God never answers directly, he hides his answers in the most unlikely of places. It’s up to you to discern what exactly that message is, interpret it then tell the rest of us how God answered your prayer when your drunken brother urinated it into the snow.

    I know I’m skidding around like a water bug here, but AA will never ever again be a place where alcoholics go to identify with the alcoholic’s story, then discover the solution to the discomfort of early or later sobriety lies in helping another drunk. For free. That the Big Book, while well intentioned, is of absolutely no practical value after the second or third chapter called More About Alcoholism. After that it’s pure conjecture, a book that’s transitioned from acknowledging a Higher Power to simply saying what they really mean, God. Try and find a reference to a Higher Power from the middle on.

    For me, I’ve identified the one AAAA that I can get to, and the other liberal minded groups in my neighbourhood. If I did pray, it would be for the newcomer who walks into a “Mucker’s” meeting. Muckers, that’s what we called the Back to Basics folks, are dangerous to newcomers. Critical thinking doesn’t exist in their meetings nor does anything else but God. Their ability to chase a newcomer into the arms of the millions of other charlatans making a profit from our disabilities (not fucking defects!) is truly remarkable.

    AA today takes pride in not keeping up with new information, be they neurological insights, psycho-emotional problems that almost always accompany addiction, or true pathological mental illnesses. If in treating your alcoholism you expect some insights into recent medical, behavioural or scientific findings, forget it.

    Some problems can be cured organically (good old clean living), without drugs or medical treatment. But others can only be treated. Cures for mental and emotional illnesses do not abound, but drugs that can relieve the crippling symptoms are available and frequently prescribed, just like they have been (thank you to my doc) to me. Thanks, oh so inadequate thanks, go to the professional, the doctor, my doctor, who also happens to be a member of AA, for treating that which can be treated.

    I know, I know, I’m making that most common of mistakes, seeking medical help for problems, that so far, can only be treated by doctors. I know she’s not God, but I haven’t had a great deal of success with God so I guess she’ll just have to do.

    Great article, exceedingly well written, a genuine pleasure to read.

    • John H. says:

      Hi Brent… Many an American salesman (I was one of them till I learned better) has come to grief when venturing north and failing to realize that Canada is a Foreign Country with different ways. I have had the pleasure of getting to know your lovely Nation from Vancouver to Halifax and those great places in between. I was shocked, dismayed and amazed to hear that the American purveyors of this “Back to Basics” pabulum had not only made inroads up there but had what seems to be a substantial number of converts as well. The delisting issues in Vancouver and Toronto still seem incredible to me and I think you are very fortunate to have both well informed public advocates up there (Joe and Roger) and dedicated members such as yourself who take this mindless reactionary activity seriously and attempt to confront it.

    • Bob c says:

      Well put.

      Keep in mind everyone and their sponsor from here to LA claims that other peoples’ programs are dangerous to newcomers. Don’t think for a minute that muckers and agnostics don’t tend to unite on that contested front. In fact muckers are the most vehement claimers in AA that people are killing newcomers.

      Your comment also reminded me that back in our drinking days we had a running joke about a buddy of ours, who used to do some dope then hop on his Harley and ride around. We figured he was the root cause of evil in the world, because as soon as he was on that bike, God would have had to focus exclusively on keeping that dude from smashing into a tree.

      • John H. says:

        Good Morning Bob… What an interesting comment. My friend (wonderful, bright 19 year old kid) actually hit the tree on his BSA loaded on wine and LSD in 1968 and took his girlfriend with him. It cured me of an incipient motorcycle habit but it took me another 19 years after that to put it together with my own issues and make a decision to stop my own forms of self abuse.

        The difference between a militant Atheist such as myself and a “Mucker” (what a wonderful term you guys have for them up there) is that we, though we obviously hold something of an absolutist world view on one issue, refuse to write the definitive prescription (and the entire script) for our fellow members. It’s the difference between freedom of thought and action (without alcohol and drugs) and bondage to a restricted and circumscribed existence based on the fear of things that just don’t exist. Take freedom away from people like us and its far worse than death.

  9. Ath&SoberThroughAA says:

    The best thing we can do is show up and come out. I am forever grateful the atheist AA old timer who announced his (non)affiliation / nonbelief in contrast to the others. I talked with him thereafter and found a path to sobriety. Now I always announced my (non)affiliation nonbelief so that other searchers can know they are not alone. That’s my 12th step.

  10. Thomas B. says:

    Excellent article, John. Thanks so much for delving more deeply into Wally P.’s “Back To Basics” movement. Funny thing, I lived in Tucson for a year-and-a-half between 2002 and 2003 and never heard of Wally P., though I was quite active in Tucson AA. If I were a believer, I would have to proclaim, “Thank god . . . ;)”

    I fully agree with you that the regression of AA into a doctrinaire, dogmatic interpretation of how it was allegedly done in Akron following the evangelical, pietistic theology of the Oxford Group is a reflection of what has been happening within North American society and culture increasingly since the Reagan Revolution in 1980, especially here south of the Canadian border.

    The New York Times this week reviews a book, One Nation Under God by Kevin M. Kruse, which traces the history of the insertion of God fully within the political arena of American life ever since the 1930s, when AA was founded with its Oxford Group roots and conservative politicos and their supporters in industry were rabidly campaigning against Roosevelt’s New Deal. After a bit of a reprieve during the 60s and 70s, the marriage of evangelical Christianity and the Republican rightwing has been a predominant feature of our politics pushing it hard to the right, which the recent election demonstrates. This rightwing stance has also infiltrated into the rooms of AA.

    This weekend I was at the post-GSO Conference Oregon Area 58 Assembly in Eugene, OR, where one of the agenda items discussed was the approved Advisory Action for the Trustee’s Literature Committee to develop literature for the alcoholic with mental illness. It will be interesting to see if the radical right wing of AA “Back to Basics” folks will be able to resist this effort to dilute god’s saving grace as much as it has been able to successfully resist AA developing appropriate literature for agnostics, atheists and freethinkers since 1975 !~!~!

    We’re still waiting for appropriate literature from AA, but as Roger also announced today, we’re going ahead and publishing our own stories with Do Tell! Hope, Strength, Experience. I can hardly wait to read our stories.

    • John H. says:

      Thanks Thomas… My NYT Book Review sitting next to my desk as I type this… I’ll look forward to that review. I feel extreme sadness to even have to raise the issue of the “Christian Right” in conjunction with AA. It absolutely is an “outside issue” of the worst possible kind but it’s quite obvious that there is a quiet move on to more deeply insert some of their doctrine into our fine program of recovery. In this case the truth absolutely does hurt.

      • Thomas B. says:

        I found this Charles M. Blow editorial in this morning’s NYT, John, a most interesting follow-up to this discussion. It mentions the recent PEW Research findings and the Kruse book, One Nation Under God reviewed last week: Unaffiliated and Underrepresented.

        I’m aware certainly on the more rural Oregon seacoast, but also in the progressive environs of Portland a concerted effort by evangelical, pietistic members packing the house of business meetings to change the “informed group conscience” to their Christianized brand of AA.

        To counter this, the QuadA groups in Portland are in the process of putting up a website, Secular AA Recovery in Portland, which will list all of our open AA meetings and state our adherence to the 3rd Tradition and dedication to the Responsibility Declaration.

  11. life-j says:

    John, thanks for this. frightening stuff. Living in a rural area I’m somewhat out of touch with AA at large, just have my local area and local fights. One of the comments here did get me to wonder if things really have gotten worse – it does seem to me that there was every bit as much god talk 25 years ago as now. And it was in 1979 that the idea of an agnostic/atheist book/pamphlet was first shot down and has been many times since.
    Maybe I’m just expecting that AA would have evolved with the times while in actuality what it does is stand still, it’s not sliding back, it’s just still, like the bottom of the ocean or a grave.
    I don’t know, but I read your post with much interest, and I particularly liked your comparison to the founding fathers. Things must evolve, when everything surrounding does.

    • John H. says:

      Hi life-j… Thanks for you comments. Of course the “God stuff” has been around from the earliest days as it was in the late 80’s when I was first exposed. It just seems to me that things have gotten a bit more “organized” in that regard with activist Christians taking the initiative to a greater extent than I ever recall. They of course have the absolute right to express themselves in any way they chose within the bounds of the law and I am fairly clearly saying that we have that very same right (and obligation) considering what we have in front of us.

  12. Tommy H says:

    Well done.

  13. bill says:

    I have always been an atheist but very reluctant to mention it anywhere. Been sober 8 years without AA this time. As a young man in the 80’s I really needed to get sober but felt as much of an outsider in AA as out. I found a psychologically based program on line known as SMART. It’been 8 years now and it is difficult imagining myself drinking again .However i still have an occasional urge-not to drink,but to be around some ex drunks.AA would really benefit if it wasn’t so rigid.

    • John H. says:

      Bill… You can find like minded folks everywhere if you seek them out but I realize that not everyone is as lucky as I am in having had a very stable alternative for many years. I wish you luck in finding the right place for yourself but rest assured we are out there (in person or on line) to a much greater extent than in the past.

  14. Adam N says:

    It is a supreme irony that many well intentioned recovering folk work hard on a “back to basics” movement at the exact time when what is needed is, on the contrary, an “Into the Future” movement, a synthesis of the best from the past with what reason and evidence tells us should be a part of recovery going forward. They want us to start driving Packard’s again, when what we need to do is put some R & D into our Hover Boards.

    • Dan L says:

      I couldn’t agree more Adam. Sciences, particularly psychiatry and brain science have come so far in the last few decades that for me a lot of the useful and useless aspects of the AA model stand in sharp relief. I do not know how many times I have suggested some information regarding our modern understanding of brain function and been told flat out “If it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it.” I don’t think it ever worked as well as these modern day mythologisers would have us believe.

  15. John O says:

    When someone in A.A. tries to play doctor, and tells me that medications don’t belong in a good program of recovery, I remind them of the Conference Approved A.A. pamphlet –

    P-11 The AA member – Medications & other Drugs – Report from a group of doctors in Alcoholics Anonymous. AA members share their experience with medications and other drugs.

    Boiled down to its essence, its ultimately you and your doctor who decide. “No AA Member Plays Doctor”.

    And the Living Sober book has an appendix on that and in Chapter 21.

    The Living Sober book also has a Chapter 23 – Seeking Professional Help.

    The Big Book does have a lot of positive to say about utilizing outside professional help (doesn’t have anything on medication though).

    • John H. says:

      Those are great references John and I am familiar with all of them. Unfortunately the fundamentalist mentality is immune to reason. Most of the people reading these posts absolutely get the point but the “true believer” really believes some incredibly bizarre stuff. Fine for them. Poison for the newcomers in the minority. All we can do is keep repeating the truth which is what you have done so well here and hope that the facts get to the people who need them. Actually, that’s what we all are doing here.

      • John O says:

        “Unfortunately the fundamentalist mentality is immune to reason. ”

        Yup. We’re supposed to follow the Big Book and A.A. literature rigorously and without questioning (because our best thinking is what got us in trouble).

        Except when the literature says something that they don’t like. Not only the stuff on medications and getting outside professional help, but that apparently awful 3rd Tradition, “The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking”, and much more about the voluntary nature of A.A. (Tradition 3 in the 12&12 for example).

        Somehow they turn that into a requirement to have a minder (I mean sponsor) and go through what amounts to boot camp, as you so well document.

  16. Faith R. says:

    Thanks, John! Nice article.
    Our We Agnostics group in Palm Springs has–right next door–a pretty back-to-basics type meeting. A number of young people have left that meeting and come over to ours. We don’t require that people believe or not believe anything. They have been returning to our meeting. A number of them have said how thankful they are that the We Agnostics meeting is there for them. On a positive note, perhaps the young people will be the ones to bring AA back to center (and sanity).

    • John H. says:

      Thanks Faith… You really have hit on something. It’s contemporary young people who are embracing rational alternatives (as in the latest Pew data referenced in Joe C.’s latest post here) in greater numbers than ever before. It’s our job (the old ones) to bring the facts forward regarding both our historical legitimacy and current viability within the confines of in both traditional AA and wAAft (AAAA) type meetings. They get the point when they find out how long some of us have been around living productive alcohol free lives without the restrictions and confines of a totally 12 Step bounded, literal minded, constricted existence.

  17. Maureen F. says:

    I went to a weekend workshop by Wally P. a couple years ago and found it to be very useful. I do not believe in God. I go to what you call “mainstream” AA meetings in the Boston area and am finding an increasing number of others who also do not believe in God. I am sorry that so many of you are struggling with this.

    • John H. says:

      That’s very interesting Maureen. I’ve read Wally’s book and been to one of his BTB meetings (as described in the article) but did not see his take on AA useful in any way. But that’s just me of course and we are all entitled to encounter any aspect of the program any way we chose to. That’s the great thing about it don’t you think? AA’s ultimate take on being flexible as long as we don’t take that first drink. I doubt old Wally is a fan of “flexibility” though.

    • Alyssa (soda) says:

      Adding to what u said Maureen. So many young people who are non-religious won’t ever set foot in an AA room for this very reason.
      I am more than sorry. It’s scary & horrifying. Here’s to hoping we atheists can stand up & help with the struggle.

    • life-j says:

      It’s all a matter of how condescendingly we have been treated by the fundamentalists, I think. When I went to our local intergroup to have our freethinkers meeting lister on the schedule I figured it would be a 10-15 minute item – at most. 14 months later I resigned in disgust, and have become radicalized from it much against what I would have preferred.
      As for the “believing in god” bit – to me it is a bit of the same double bind as “have you stopped beating your wife yet?”.
      If I “don’t believe in god” – to me that means there is a god, most likely an all powerful, all seeing one – I just don’t believe in him.
      It’s not even like they would ask me if I believe there is a god, at least then I could just say no.
      What can I say when people ask me? There is no god, the emperor has no clothes, I don’t believe in something that isn’t there?
      I don’t know, seems to me it’s nobody’s business but my own, and of course it’s your business if you don’t believe in god, I just stumble on that sentence whenever I come upon it.

  18. Dave M. says:

    I am glad to have found this source of recovery information. Sadly, in Oklahoma, where meetings close with the Lord’s Prayer, and religiosity is rampant, I have left AA and now attend SOS meetings.

  19. Eddie S. says:

    A great read John although I must admit more than a little depressing.

    My first AA meetings were in Burlingame, CA in 1983 and there were any number of times when I came close to bolting for the door. Why? Because of the nonsense behind the wink wink mentioning of a so called higher power and, heaven forbid, everything happens for a reason. The good news is I have yet to have another drink since that eventful December day while participating in meetings in 46 states and a few in Europe. The unfortunate news is the fundamentalist intrusion into the local meetings (since I pulled off the road in my motor home) has so co-opted my notion of 12 Step work I now pick and choose my spots on the internet.

    Needless to say I’m delighted to have found this newsletter and the opportunity to enjoy the fellowship of like minded people.

  20. steve b says:

    Maybe I’m oblivious to the impact of the back to basics movement, but in my 35 years of sobriety in AA, I have not noticed any trend towards increased religiosity. Yes, it seems to me that most mainstream AA meeting are too religious, but I remember that was also the case years ago.

    AA works because it’s easier for most alcoholics to sober up in a group rather than by themselves. But the founders, misled by the religious claptrap they were exposed to in the Oxford Group, trumpeted turning to god as the way to sobriety. Now, this is not a good foundation for sobriety, since there is no god. And, if there really was a god who cared about our sobriety, why did he let us become alcoholics in the first place? And why does he save only a few chosen ones and let the rest suffer and die? I guess god must move in mysterious ways.

    I go to mainstream AA meetings, and I hear god talk constantly. Sometimes I will make comments like “If you really need to pray to god or have a higher power, then why am I sober?” The usual response is an awkward silence, or a suggestion that god is keeping me sober even if I’m not aware of it, or that AA is my higher power, even if I say that I find AA helpful, but not a higher power.

    The most serious problem with people who truly believe in the religious approach to sobriety is that they are delusional. Good luck on changing that.

    John’s experience with Wayne reminds me of an email exchange I had with a Christian theologian. I had been amused by reading some of his strange and irrational work, and I asked him several simple questions, such has how he knew there was a god, and how he knew that god had planned that humans would evolve from earlier life. He responded by telling me that after I first read several of his books, he would then be happy to discuss these things with me. I browsed the books online, saw they were garbage, and that was the end of the matter.

    • John H. says:

      Hi Steve… I didn’t know about this crazy stuff either until I went looking for it and I found more than I bargained for in two of the most liberal areas of the US (Washington, DC and Montgomery County, MD) and it really made me wonder about what is going on Nationally. I went to two International Conventions (1990 & 1995) and encountered very little of it in those days there compared to what might encounter out and about in AA around the country. I’ll be going to Atlanta in a few weeks to test the tenor of the times a bit more at our 80th AA Birthday party down there where there is one meeting for us (We Agnostics 11:30 AM on July 4 at the Georgia World Congress Center Rooms B405-407)and HUNDREDS with titles such as Seeds of Faith, Willing to Believe, The Spiritual Principles, Finding a Higher Power, etc, etc… We will never change this stuff but we have a responsibility to continue to try to at least convey that there is growing access to alternative messages out there.

  21. De Wmsz says:

    I always fall back on page 133 of the Big Book in the chapter “The Family Afterward”. The same page that talks about being happy joyous and free addresses the idea of seeking outside help. I was hanging out with a bunch of folks of the “you’re not sober if your taking other meds” group and was suicidal. I sought other help, got meds and got better. Today, I too am off meds and will not hestitate about “suggesting” to someone who I think has problems way beyond alcoholism to seek outside help. Who are we really but a bunch of drunks who only have out own experience to draw on? I think “fundamental” anything is truly dangerous. Willingness and an open mind will take us far.

  22. Laurie A says:

    They are a pestilential nuisance and damage parts of AA and no doubt send some newcomers back to drink. However, their bone-headed zealotry appeals to their own kind and keeps some of them sober many years, as we know from Clancy and Wayne P. et al. ‘We have ceased fighting anyone or anything…’ Anyway it won’t catch on, except on the fanatic fringe.

    ‘We intend the foregoing (advice about religion) as a helpful suggestion only. So far as we are concerned, there is nothing obligatory about it… We cannot make up others’ minds for them. Each individual should consult their own conscience…’ ‘Now about health. We are convinced that a spiritual mode of living is a most powerful health restorative … But this does not mean we disregard human health measures. God (sic) has abundantly supplied the world with fine doctors, psychologists, and practitioners of various kinds. Do not hesitate to take your health problems to such persons… though God has wrought miracles among us, we should never belittle a good doctor or psychiatrist. Their services are often indispensable in treating a newcomer and in following his case afterward…’ (The Family Afterward, Big Book); also, ‘There is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find him now…’ (How It Works, Big Book). ‘May you find him now’ is an invitation, not an order.

    • Christopher G says:

      Love this! and thank you John for your research!

    • John H. says:

      Hi Laurie… I seem to recall you are from the UK (am I correct?) where the “fanatic fringe” is far less likely to have credibility than over here where the “City on a Hill” and the concept of the USA as some sort of “New Jerusalem” is alive and well within large segments of our population. This causes all sorts of problems of course and without addressing the obvious political implications of this I will say that within AA the organized groups such as BTB appear to have new traction based on my initial analysis of the number of groups active under that name as well as all sorts of offshoots popping up all over the place.
      I envy our UK and European friends who have to be concerned far less than we do about these issues. It’s an important distinction to make moving forward I think.

    • Stephanie says:

      It’s an “invitation” to find God or fail. That’s pretty much the problem with the program in a nutshell, eh?

  23. William P. says:

    I recall that the Blues Brothers also said that they had “a mission from God”, namely to raise money for their old teacher nun they called “the Penguin”. Would they have fitted in nicely with several of the God centered AA groups?

  24. Dan L says:

    The first day I got out of a very progressive treatment centre after about seven weeks of valuable therapy I encountered a pair of AA guru’s. One was a “cult of personality” type of guy and the other a “back to basics” fanatic. I was nearly out drinking then and there. Fortunately I had been warned about sick people in AA and was able to weather my revulsion. The problem with the “back to basics” crowd is not only their religiosity (which can be seen as just another skirmish the culture wars launched by the religious right). The main thing is in almost all fundamentalist doctrines – and not just AA – is they wish to go back to some magic dream time which never existed. In their minds there is always a pre-existing Garden of Eden type existence from which we have fallen through sin and worldliness. As Will Rogers famously said “Things ain’t what they used to be and never were.” I can see no value or virtue in this approach to recovery and I just see it as another example of human frailty mixed with the spiritual imperialism of religion. I, for one, can live well without it.

  25. JP says:

    Thanks John for this piece. I applaud your investigation before contempt. I don’t know that I would have been able to sit through these meetings. I was a member of CA in Toronto for 28 years and what you wrote about is the kind of fundamentalism that made me leave. I still attend one meeting occasionally that is not fraught with this crap because the long-time members of the group would not let it be infiltrated.

    I am an atheist and a member of Beyond Belief in Toronto and very grateful that it exists.

    What strikes me is that it is all a matter of interpretation. Wally P. had one interpretation as does Wayne B as do you and I. My interpretation of the program is much different that many of my fellow members of the Beyond Belief group. I believe in the 12 step as a way out. I do believe that the principles contained in the step can solve all of my problems. Of course, my interpretation allows for the use of prescribed meds including the antidepressant I need to take to be in the world. My interpretations allow me to seek outside help, to be honest about my goals and how to obtain them, and to continue to grow into the type of person I wish to be by the use of moral inventory, confession, restitution and continued work with other alcoholics.
    I too fear for the newcomer and that is the reason I believe it is vital for each of us to continue to go to meetings and speak our truth. Not as, “my way or you die” manner but just to give the newcomer an options.

    All the best, Jo-Anne.

  26. Steve says:

    Once again, getting a newsletter from this website has me reading, physically feeling tension fade and audibly sighing with relief as I read through it.

    I am still “new” at this. 18 weeks in, but extraordinarily comfortable as a 50 year old man who has finally and simply accepted that it’s actually OK to live life without alcohol. I’ve done it before for a few years, but never with a formal program. AA, to me, seemed like it could give me a little more framework to maintain sobriety in the long term.

    My first f2f meetings were a bit of a mess. And I have defined myself as an “agnostic” forever now. So “the God stuff” was not the end of the world. Not for me, but whatever…

    A couple of weeks went by, and perhaps too much time on and I started to get a little jittery. All the f2f meetings had speakers saying things like, ” … but thank you God, you have given me my sobriety and …” so on. This happened a lot. It was getting more and more uncomfortable for me. I quite obviously did not fit in.

    I was referred to the We Agnostics chapter by a few people. And wow – did they really think this was going to help? That this would serve? This chapter was almost a dagger in my chest.

    Within a day or two I happened into an online meeting. And the chair of the meeting read that wonderful sentence including the words, “we feel sorry for you”.

    That was it. I was done. I actually had tears in my eyes and I felt physically ill. I was deeply damaged and I was deeply angered all at the same time. I posted something about feeling attacked in that meeting. It *did* feel like an attack. The guy who chaired the meeting messaged me with what I took as a fairly supportive message, asking who the hell attacked me? Who did it?! I had to reply to him that it had actually been *him* with that reading. He never has replied…

    I’m a businessman. A type “A” kinda guy. I really don’t like to be pushed around, and I don’t like to fail. So I gathered a smidgeon of courage out of the profound despair that I was feeling, and I searched about that site and more for Agnostics and AA. I found that there was a group on ITR and a weekly agnostics meeting! And I resolved to attend.

    To say that this meeting, and the people in it may have actually saved my life is not an understatement. I reached out to the chair of the meeting and we met through FaceTime. He’s 5 years younger than me. Sober for over 13 years. And for the very first time I heard someone in AA say to me, “It’s ok – I know *exactly* how you feel. I can help you get through this.”

    I think I may owe this man my life.

    To know just how close I came to giving up on AA. To giving up altogether. I had been drinking with the goal to drink myself to death. I almost got there. And I was headed back there, had it not been for finding Agnostics and Atheists in AA.

    As I said, I am still new. I have found a couple of things that have been particularly powerful in accepting my inability to manage alcohol (yup – I understand “powerless” with that one) – the first is simply having people who I can see, listen to, talk to and whom I can believe truly understand and empathize. Models that prove to me that this can work. The fellowship itself, I would guess.

    And the other is helping others. There are so many people in crisis, and there is opportunity every day to at least try and help – and for me, this is extraordinarily powerful.

    I have my niche too though. I have resolved to make sure that any time that I can possibly be there for that Atheist or Agnostic who may find themselves in the space I was in – total and utter despair due directly to the religious fundamentalism that infests so much of AA – I want to be there to help “these poor unfortunates” to know that they too can succeed in sobriety. Through AA if they choose. Through other support systems if they choose. Whatever – I want to be there so that they know that this whole “God thing” may be an integral part for some, but it is NOT an absolute.

    So I spend a lot of time trying to balance things in forums. I make sure that people know that I am Agnostic. I call out the thumpers and I take the space to ensure that there is a safe place to land when someone arrives the way I did.

    Eventually, once I have gone through all of the steps and when I am familiar enough to pass some knowledge on, I expect to start a We Agnostics meeting here.

    I am *so* grateful that I have found you folk. I am *so* grateful that you are who you are, and that you have helped me find some comfort in AA, as we understand it, as we practice it and as we succeed with it.

    Thank you for this post. This is important stuff. This paragraph from this post is the absolute truth:

    This is the sort of thing that kills people like us (with or without mental illness) by driving us away when confronted with a rigid approach to AA that has real hazards associated with it.

    The fundamentalists did almost kill me.

    And I don’t feel that it is overdramatic to say that people like you may have saved my life.

    Thank you. Now let’s save the next one. 🙂

    • John H. says:

      Why thank you Steve,
      You seem to have a remarkable grip on the facts of the matter at 18 weeks. I wish things had been as clear to me at that stage.
      As I have been saying over and over for many years (as was the essential message given to me by my late sponsors)make a decision, don’t drink, go to meetings, share, help another alcoholic. All this complicated nonsense about the steps and such becomes much clearer the simpler it all becomes. No Gods or Demons here. Just human interaction at it’s finest.

  27. gary says:

    This is no more than the pervasive re-circulation of ignorance that exists whenever people are afraid and consequently easily manipulated – you’ll notice the christian right wing fundamentalist movement does not thrive in universities or among scientists or in any educated context unless permitted by personal profit.

    John rightly identifies this with snake oil – the promise that you are insufficiently composed to live without the right medicine and the medicine offers no alternatives to itself except personal destruction. They even bring out the anecdotal lame boy who drinks it and walks away without stumbling, i.e. the man who overcomes physical or psychological disorders by following the masters playbook.

    It’s a low level form of high level arrogance and like a flood will only be stopped when it reaches elevations too lofty to inundated.

    A wonderful compassionate and informed take from someone with both the tools, the experience and the perspective to address it fairly.

    • John H. says:

      Thanks Gary… Your comment is most humbling as have been many of the others here thus far.
      It’s hard to speak directly to the facts as you see them without playing games or pandering to perceptions of “sensitivity” but I am quite heartened to see so many here speaking so clearly. It gives me great hope for the future of AA which is something I think we all need a dose of these days.

  28. Bob c says:

    Thanks so much for that piece. It takes courage to actually show up to things we don’t like or agree with. That’s good agnosticism in my opinion. You got my blood going here on a lazy Sunday. I might even get some housework done now!

    One sweet irony is that the back to basics fundamentalists say, “only god can do it for you, the fellowship is irrelevant” but also, “we won’t be your friend unless you believe that too.” If it’s got nothing to do with fellowship why the heck would they not just be cool with a hell-bound-not-true-alcoholic like me? At bottom there is still the same desperate desire to belong and connect with others, but couched in an antisocial discourse. No one has more excuses for being antisocial than an addict or alcoholic.

    It also does not surprise me that Wally (whose back to basics I have done) did a revealing talk at cocaine anonymous. CA uses the big book just like AA (unlike NA who has their own literature). CA meetings are severely fundamentalist right now – it’s worth checking out. I thought it was the devastating desperation of cocaine and crack addiction fueling this, but I’m not so sure. One CA group in Toronto on Friday nights is a Christian meeting specifically. I am not kidding. They are reading from bibles and we tried to stop them but have not succeeded. It’s called “The Recovered With Life Group“. Though I kind of hated it, I went there to experience it. Even better would be if I had the guts to join the group: that is how the indigenous power of the traditions allows all of us to impact the groups.

    Back to basics is pretty basic. It’s the adornments of anti-social religiosity that complicates it and causes it to devolve into obsessive moralism rather than good old AA recovery.

    • John H. says:

      Bob… Very interesting remarks regarding Cocaine Anonymous. I had one exposure to that group many years ago (Cocaine not being a part of my story) when my old dear friend the late Gaston N.(who I wrote about in my last piece here on diversity) invited me to speak at one of their gatherings at Howard University at an anniversary of his. Gaston was a very well known radical Atheist and I was so identified myself. As the only white person at the meeting I was a bit of an anomaly as well but I recall we were both very well received and welcomed even by our recently deceased former Mayor (who was back in office at the time) who was one of the luminaries in attendance. I had a great time and did not see CA in that light at all in 1996. Things must have changed for the worse.

  29. Michael T. says:

    Thank you, John! I appreciate your perspective and need the encouragement to be OK with my resistance to the fundamentalists in AA, especially in my hometown of Terre Haute, Indiana. Often, when in meetings I say to myself, “Whatever gets you through the night”, as my way of tolerating, not resenting, some of what I hear, but I worry about the newcomers that don’t want to be a member of a religious cult. I have apologized to newcomers after meetings for what they have been told, hoping to help them identify with the first step and not to be afraid of the fundamentalists. I have never identified myself as atheist in meetings, but have been honest with individuals after meetings when discussing my personal, non-theist spirituality. Just like the bible and religion, there are many anachronistic concepts in the Big Book that can be quite frightening if taken literally, as way too many people do! Thanks for your clarity!

    • John H. says:

      Hello Michael… I’ve been to Terre Haute (visited the USP there once on a sales trip long ago) and know a bit about that part of the world. It’s not easy for you there but I must assure you that your courage and fortitude are greatly admired. Thanks for doing the great work you are doing out there. Never fear these people. They are drunks in need of help and guidance just like we are.

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