Group Conscience Follies
By John L.
Reading passages from the Big Book has become an increasingly common practice in regular AA groups. This irks me: it’s too much like reading Holy Scripture at a church service. The two main passages are How It Works and The Promises, both of which falsely and harmfully claim that sobriety is only possible through supernatural intervention.
The AA Preamble is another matter. It describes exactly what AA is and is not, is concise and well written, and contains nothing offensive to any reasonable AA member. I think that it should be read at the beginning of every meeting, as indeed it is.
Recently one of my regular groups held a group conscience. A month in advance a sheet was circulated for us to make proposals to be considered, so I wrote down three, the main one being to stop reading The Promises.
At the last group conscience I attended, a different group several years ago, I proposed no longer reading How It Works. An inept chairman allowed two hostile members to interrupt me when I spoke, preventing me from making a coherent case. They kept saying, “I like it.” Someone moved the motion, and it went to a vote without any real discussion. Of course I lost, and that group, which I no long attend, continues to read How It Works.
One of the better AA pamphlets is “The A.A. Group … Where it all begins.” The section headed “What is an Informed A.A. Group Conscience?” is worth quoting:
The group conscience is the collective conscience of the group membership and thus represents substantial unanimity on an issue before definitive action is taken. This is achieved by the group members through the sharing of full information, individual points of view, and the practice of A.A. principles. To be fully informed requires a willingness to listen to minority opinions with an open mind.
On sensitive issues, the group works slowly – discouraging formal motions until a clear sense of its collective view emerges. Placing principles before personalities, the membership is wary of dominant opinions. Its voice is heard when a well informed group arrives at a decision. The result rests on more than a “yes” or “no” count – precisely because it is the spiritual expression of the group conscience. The term “informed group conscience” implies that pertinent information has been studied and all views have been heard before the group votes.
The group conscience meeting was amicable enough (with too much food). There were about ten of us. My first motion was that the book Living Sober should be displayed on the literature table. Here I was confused, since I had in mind the speaker’s table, where three slogans are draped over the front edge, weighted down by copies of the Big Book. When asked if I meant the literature table or the speaker’s table, I changed my motion to include both. This motion passed unanimously. It was encouraging that several people spoke on how much they liked Living Sober. Under the surface, the true AA is alive and well, even in regular groups.
My second motion was that The Promises should no longer be read. Remembering my previous experience I prepared a written handout, so that at least my arguments could be seen. Here it is:
Reasons not to read The Promises:
1. This takes up time, which could be used for discussion.
2. One line is objectionable: “We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” This is offensive to nonbelievers (atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, etc.) and also to those who believe that religion and recovery should be separate. The Big Book kind of religiosity (frontier revivalist, conversion, fundamentalist) is offensive to many who do practise their own religion privately. The line is harmful for claiming that we recovering alcoholics are helpless without the intervention of a supernatural being. In real life, what we can “do for ourselves” is stay away from the First Drink; we do have that power. The line also downplays the Fellowship – of humans helping other humans.
3. “The Promises” are poorly written. The prose style is clumsy and affected. When reading them, sentence by sentence, it is often a struggle to grasp what the author, Bill W., is trying to say.
4. The individual “promises” are often hyperbolic, grandiose, and untrue. What does it mean to lose a “fear of economic insecurity” in the current economic crisis? – with millions of formerly hard-working Americans unemployed, and with graduating college students facing debts of $40,000 or more. Recovering alcoholics should not be forced to blame themselves if they experience hard times.
5. Some AA members like “The Promises”; a few loathe them; but most simply tune out when they’re being read, just waiting to chime in with “We think not” (ha ha) at the end.
6. We should never forget the newcomer, who wants and needs sobriety, not religious indoctrination.
The others listened to me, but not a single one of them seconded my motion, so it died without even going to a vote. Well now, I hadn’t really expected the motion to pass, and was mainly interested in hearing what arguments would be raised in favor of reading The Promises. Here I was disappointed: no-one came to grips with a single one of my six points. These were at least average people, who presumably could read, but were either unable or unwilling to follow my arguments. Some of them just glanced at the handout, as though it were a caterpillar. Others skimmed over it. A couple looked as though they were struggling to understand something.
One said it was “snobbish” to describe The Promises as poorly written. I’m not a snob, but I take English prose seriously. If up to me, I’d strike out or re-write almost every sentence in The Promises. Take the glib alliteration of “Self-seeking will slip away.” – smugly written by an egregious and unrepentant self-seeker. Nuff said.
My third motion was that a description of the 24-Hour Plan be read, instead of The Promises. Here is my second handout:
The 24-Hour Plan
You are only one drink away from trouble. Whether you have been sober a day, a month, a year or a decade, one single drink is a certain way to go off on a binge or a series of binges. It is the first drink — not the second, fifth or twentieth — that causes the trouble…
Live in today only. Forget yesterday. Do not anticipate tomorrow. You can only live one day at a time, and if you do a good job of that, you will have little trouble. One of the easiest, most practical ways of keeping sober ever devised is the day by day plan, the 24-hour plan.
You know that it is possible to stay sober for 24 hours. You have done it many times. All right. Stay sober for one day at a time. When you get up in the morning make up your mind that you will not take a drink for the entire day. Ask the Greater Power for a little help in this. If anyone asks you to have a drink, take a rain check. Say you will have it tomorrow. Then when you go to bed at night, finding yourself sober, say a little word of thanks to the Greater Power for having helped you.
Repeat the performance the next day. And the next. Before you realize it you will have been sober a week, a month, a year. And yet you will have only been sober a day at a time.
(From A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous, the “Akron Manual”, first published in 1939 or 1940. Printed PDF version at Pagan Press Books.)
They responded enthusiastically to this description of the 24-Hour Plan, which some of them had never heard of before. Then someone asked if it were “conference approved”. No, I explained, it was written long before there was a conference to do the approving. That settled it. Much as they liked it, they believed that, even with a group conscience vote, the group could not read such a statement unless it was approved. No-one knew where approval should come from, but they believed that some kind of approval would be needed. To me this is a symptom of increasing conformism in AA, the fear of doing or thinking something that is different or unapproved.
When I came into AA in 1968, the 24-Hour Plan was front and center; the Fellowship and 24-Hour Plan were the two pillars of AA recovery. Now it’s being lost in a fog of irrationalism. Although I don’t care for readings in general, I think “The 24-Hour Plan” would be appropriate as a reading or handout at beginners meetings. This is how we stay sober.
Any lessons here? If any attempt is made to change long-standing group traditions, several people should work together. It’s all too easy to silence, ignore, or isolate a lone individual. I think a handout is a good idea, although my first one above could be improved. We should ensure that meetings are properly conducted. No interruptions. One person speaks at a time. Speakers alternate between those favoring and those opposing a motion. No rush to bring motions to a vote. If one side makes a valid point, then the other side should respond to it; “I like it” is not a valid response to a point about helpless-without-god religiosity.
A part of me wants to say that groups should have the freedom to read anything they wish, including toxic crap from the Big Book. Discontents can find a better group or start a new one. This is fine for me, because I live in a big city, but those in small towns may not have such a choice. There’s also the newcomer to consider: his first meeting may be his last, if he hears hokey religiosity rather than information on sobriety.
Another part of me says, just tune out – ignore the nonsense and concentrate on whatever is useful or interesting. That’s easy enough to say, but hearing How It Works or The Promises, week after week, is like Chinese water torture. Each drop isn’t so bad, but the cumulative effect is maddening.
A third part of me says: Fight! We should stir the pot once in awhile. There’s nothing like a good argument.
John has written many a fine piece for AA Agnostica. And here they are:
- Sober & Out (October 8, 2014). A review of a book by the AA Grapevine for gays, lesbians and the transgendered in AA.
- Sophrosune: A Higher Power for Freethinkers (August 10, 2014).
- Perry Street Workshop (February 16, 2014). This is where John attended his first AA meeting in 1968 and he still considers it his “home base”.
- Physical Recovery (February 17, 2013).
- Washington Forebears of Alcoholics Anonymous (July 15, 2012).
- The Program (February 28, 2012). John writes about the importance in his recovery of the 24 Hour Plan.
- A Proposal to Eliminate the Lord’s Prayer from AA Meetings (November 17, 2011). Written on an Olympia manual typewriter, this proposal was circulated by John in New York City way back in 1976.