Why It Works

Why It Works

By Thomas B.

Before I went to my first AA meetings, I was pretty sure I knew what AA was all about. I had seen a couple of old B&W movies, depicting AA as a bunch of old men who had been on skid row and talked about God a lot. Thanks to a Jesuit education, I was a confirmed agnostic and somewhat nihilistic regarding myself and the rest of humankind. Increasingly suicidal, my days were mostly spent drunk in a slough of despond and despair.

I was 29 years old when I went to my first meetings and sure enough, all four of the speakers at the Upper Westside beginner and open meetings I first attended on October 19, 1972, were old men, who had been on the Bowery and who talked about their god a lot.

I didn’t drink anyway and within a couple of weeks I was making coffee for the Young People’s Meeting in lower Manhattan and had joined the Midnight Meeting Group. I became immersed within the AA Fellowship and soon had a circle of fellow alcoholic friends with whom I identified and who likewise identified with me. Here were people who drank like I did, had the same kind of embarrassing — or worse — experiences while drinking, and yet somehow together we were now sober and living somewhat productive lives. Utterly amazing !~!~!

Early on, I discerned we were staying sober because we didn’t drink and connected with each other often by going to meetings and socializing with each other after meetings. We stayed sober despite sometimes facing devastating life problems and challenges — loss of jobs, incapacitating illness, the ending of relationships, death of loved ones. Through it all, we helped and supported each other, not only while being sober, but also during relapses.

I consider myself most fortunate to have found a home in the Fellowship of AA. I’ve continued to do so for the past 42 years of ongoing recovery. Of late, this awareness has been boosted exponentially by the growing emergence of secular AA groups and meetings throughout the Fellowship of AA.

I’m quite sure I don’t understand, much less agree with, the “precise directions” that Bill, Dr. Bob and other early members of AA set forth in the first 164 pages of the Big Book. Chapter Five, “How It Works,” enumerates the Twelve Steps, the core ideology of AA. They are dogmatically read, it seems, at every single meeting of orthodox AA throughout North America. Nevertheless, they become more and more irrelevant to my experience of recovery.

The healing connection I’ve always experienced and identify with in the rooms of AA is best summarized by the acronym HOPE — Hearing Other People’s Experience. This is what I suggest is the key dynamic in why AA works. Through identification with other alcoholics’ experiences, drinking as well as sober, when we share our stories and commentary during AA meetings, we receive the human power to stay sober together in the Fellowship of AA.

Though I question the orthodoxy of “How It Works,” I am utterly convinced and greatly relieved to grok, to deeply understand, Why AA Works — it’s the identification of drunks with each other, both in our shared malady as well as through our recovery together !~!~!

Not GodErnie Kurtz, the foremost historian of AA agrees with me. In Not-God, the definitive history of AA’s evolution, he notes on page 61:

The antidote for the deep symptom of denial was identification marked by open and undemanding narration infused with profound honesty about personal weakness. The process of identification was offered without any demand for reciprocity or for anything else.

In a 2002 article, Kurtz further notes, “The secret of Alcoholics Anonymous, the thing that makes AA work, is identification. As Marty Mann is reputed to have said to her fellow sanitarium inmate on returning to Blythwood from her visit to the Wilson home in Brooklyn Heights for her first A.A. meeting: ‘Grennie, we aren’t alone any more.’ ”

In 1975 Robert Thomsen published the first biography about Bill Wilson, Bill W. Thomsen’s work is based primarily on extensive interviews he had with Wilson and relates how early on in AA’s history identification functioned. He describes the Tuesday evening meetings held in the basement of Bill and Lois’ Clinton Street brownstone in Brooklyn Heights during the late 1930s:

There were agnostics in the Tuesday night Group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and in the strength of the group. At some time each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then — whatever it was that occurred between them — was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves. (p. 230)

I can’t help but reiterate that Thomsen reports that agnostics and “hardcore atheists” were an integral part of AA from our earliest beginnings.

What Does AA Literature Say

Let’s examine AA literature to discover what it says about this key dynamic of identification. Perhaps the best place to start is to examine what co-founder, Bill Wilson, wrote about identification. The following are several pertinent excerpts from his copious writing that are included in As Bill Sees It: The AA Way of Life under the subject “identification”:

Grapevine, October 1959: This process of identification and transmission has gone on and on. The Skid-Rower said he was different. Even more loudly, the socialite (or Park Avenue stumblebum) said the same—so did the artists and the professional people, the rich, the poor, the religious, the agnostic, the Indians and the Eskimos, the veterans and the prisoners. But nowadays all of these, and legions more, soberly talk about how very much alike all of us alcoholics are when we admit that the chips are finally down.

AA Comes of Age, pp. 69-70: You see, our talk was a completely mutual thing. I had quit preaching. I knew that I needed this alcoholic as much as he needed me.

Even the more devout co-founder, Dr. Bob acknowledged the healing power alcoholics experience connecting with each other. Just before he died, he made these concluding remarks in Cleveland at the first AA International Convention in 1950:

None of us would be here today if somebody hadn’t taken time to explain things to us, to give us a little pat on the back, to take us to a meeting or two, to do numerous little kind and thoughtful acts in our behalf. So let us never get such a degree of smug complacency that we’re not willing to extend, or attempt to extend, to our less fortunate brothers that help which has been so beneficial to us. Thank you.

What does Living Sober — perhaps the most secular of conference-approved literature published by AA in 1975 — have to say about identification? Though it does not specifically mention the word, page 34 certainly describes the process of amazed identification that a newcomer experiences at AA meetings. It concludes:

Those of us sober in AA a few years can assure any newcomer at an AA meeting that it is real, very real indeed. And it does last. It is not just another false start, of the sort that most of us have experienced too often. It is not one more burst of gladness soon to be followed by hurt disappointment.

Instead, as the number of people now sober for decades in AA swells each year, we see before our eyes more and more hard proof that we can have a genuine and enduring recovery from the loneliness of alcoholism.


I note that all literature cited above, with the exception of Ernie Kurtz’s writing, was published no later than 1975.

An ironic conclusion I’ve derived from our literature and my experience of AA is that between 1935 and 1975, AA was somewhat more progressive and inclusive than it has devolved to become during the last 40 years throughout many parts of North America. Wilson died in 1971 — during the first 36 years of AA’s history and for several years thereafter, I surmise his strong and charismatic personality was able to keep AA fully inclusive and open to all who sought to get sober in AA, especially for us atheists and agnostics. Bob Pearson, General Manager of GSO from 1974 to 1984, described Bill as being, “perhaps the most permissive person I ever met… He was maddeningly tolerant of his critics, and he had absolute faith that faults in AA were self-correcting.”

The rise of the so-called “Back to Basics” movement, which focuses solely on how early Oxford Group meetings in Akron functioned, has caused present-day AA to become decidedly more dogmatic through it’s rigid interpretation of “How It Works”. To my mind, this is why our secular AA movement is so essential for the continued evolution of AA. We are responsible to insure that the doors of AA stay open always for any alcoholic who desires to stop drinking.

Otherwise, AA may continue to devolve and become an ever smaller and less relevant organization. Joe C. discusses AA’s need to become more relevant during the 21st century in this recent AA Agnostica article, A Changing Landscape. If current flatline trends of AA membership since 1992 continue, perhaps within a hundred years AA members will be as quaint and irrelevant in North America as Amish folk are today.

In the spirit of our legacy of Unity and with more of us becoming involved in the General Service structure of AA as GSRs, DCMs, even Delegates, we who are sober in secular AA, can actively participate in assuring that the doors of AA remain widely open for all alcoholics, regardless of belief or lack of belief. This is in full accordance with our history, Responsibility Declaration and Traditions.

Let me close with a quote from the Big Book. In “A Vision for You” there’s a passage on pp. 152-153 that is one my favorites:

It is a fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. There you will find release from care, boredom and worry. Your imagination will be fired. Life will mean something at last. The most satisfactory years of your existence lie ahead. Thus we find the fellowship and so will you…

This “precisely” describes what I am immensely grateful to have experienced initially when I first came to AA in 1972 and identified with fellow alcoholics who were sober. More importantly, it describes what I continue to be most grateful for today in AA, because since 2012 I keep experiencing identification through the emergence of the secular AA movement.

Sober from his primary drug of addiction, Colt .45 — preferably by the case lot — since October 14, 1972, Thomas is grateful for the full life he has experienced in recovery. He’s been active at the group level throughout his recovery and in 1978 was the co-chair of the first New York City Young Peoples Conference.

Thomas has been an active participant on AA Agnostica since early in 2012 and has had the following articles published: 

44 Responses

  1. Lyle P. says:

    Thanks for all you do here. So very much needed. Myself and a few others in our little town passing it on.

  2. Michael T. says:

    Good stuff from everyone here! I appreciate the encouragement to accept what works for me and a few other compatriots in the Bible Belt and leave the rest behind. I have been tiptoeing around the fundamentalists in Indiana while reaping the benefits of lots of meetings and working with others for almost ten years, all of which has gotten much easier to do knowing that there are so many like-minded supporters here at AA Agnostica! Thanks!

  3. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, Jeb — thanks again for the inspiration of this article . . .

    An early slogan that was more meaningful to me than a number of the orthodox slogans was: “TTP — Trust The Process !~!~!

  4. Thomas B. says:

    Ah, John, we certainly traveled the same AA paths in New York, Young Peoples, the Midnight Meeting and Perry Street, where we got a firm and deep understanding of “Why it works” !~!~!

    I am forever grateful I found recovery in downtown Manhattan in the early 70s where the formula was: “Don’t drink, Go to meetings, Help others.”

  5. Jeb B. says:

    In my personal experience, going on 37 years in 9 days, it seems that those who say they they don’t know how or why it works say that for one of two reasons: they have heard others say that and thought it sounded good or; they have never learned how to use the process of thinking things through, learning from their own experience. My mentor at the University of Montana many years ago said: “Process is our most important product.” It is a bit like learning to how to fish, or even how to play an instrument. Practice makes progress.

  6. Thomas B. says:

    I totally agree, Eddie — I consider it a gift of the AA Fellowship that I experience each “daily reprieve.” Were I to relapse, a major characteristic of the disease of addiction, I would hope I had the humility and good sense to come back to AA to begin again staying sober a day at a time . . .

    I too have great admiration for folks who relapse and keep coming back. One of my earliest lessons was hearing an individual coming back to get his one year chip again after having spent 7 years on skid row after relapsing with 20 years active experience in AA, serving on Area committees, starting groups, etc. When he relapsed in his 20th year, he realized that for the past several years he had slowly pulled away from active service in AA and had cut down drastically on the meetings he attended.

    On impulse, he had a glass of wine with his wife on a holiday cruise. Within 6 months he had lost everything and was on skid row again. He knew he needed to get back to AA meetings, but his ego informed him that he had to be three days sober before he went to a meeting. He spent 7 years not drinking for 2 days and drinking on the third, before he “self-qualified” to go to a meeting again. Cunning? Baffling? Insidious? You betcha !~!~!

    I cherish every day I don’t drink . . .

  7. John L. says:

    Good article, which brought back memories. The Midnight Meeting especially reinforced Why It Works. I must have heard hundreds or even thousands of times such things as: Don’t pick up the First Drink! Don’t drink, no matter what! You don’t have to drink! This is what I needed to hear.

    Young Peoples. I can still remember going to the first planning meetings to form the group. And now? I had a bad fall a couple months ago, and so this afternoon, at my doctor’s urging, I’ll attend a physical therapy course intended to teach old people how to move safely.

    As I always say: The longer you’re sober, the older you get.

  8. Thomas B. says:

    Dan, in more enlightened, unorthodox AA meetings, I’ve heard it shared that there are as many ways to work the steps in AA as there are members in AA, ranging from not at all to working all 12 “precisely” every day of one’s recovery out of the Big Book with numerous postits and several differently-colored Sharpies . . . 😉

  9. Eddie S. says:

    1983 seems to have been a very good year. Go to enough meetings and one will hear countless stories of gratitude. I’m no comedian however I must admit to enjoying the smiles when I would share that near the top of my gratitude list was it had been years since I had needed to apologize.

  10. Thomas B. says:

    Eddie, at times my initial response is to sucker punch such an arrogant and self-assured @!~@$% ardent proselytizer, but I restrain myself, knowing that it would be an egregious violation of our “code of love and tolerance,” as well as a poor example for others. No pun intended, I’ve experienced that it is much more effective to “turn the other cheek” and respond with dignity and respect for all beliefs, as diametrically opposed as they may be to mine.

  11. Dan L says:

    Thanks Thomas B. I do have a bit of a problem with those who purport to perform the steps “precisely” as directed by the BB. Since the BB is really quite vague about how these steps are to be done some people have developed some rather “interestingly precise” interpretations of what it means to “do” some of them. In fact, for some people, the steps are not vague at all and if the 164 pages is studied hard enough it will yield enormously more than what is actually included in the printed words! Strangely enough it did not take me long to find that one person’s strict performance of the steps was anathema to another deacon’s “precise” interpretation. In that way alone AA resembled religion, particularly Christian religion. People have told me they understand exactly what the BB says because “god filled in the gaps” for them. It takes all kinds they say.

  12. Eddie S. says:

    Over the years particularly in areas with large retirement communities I would watch a man raise his hand as a visitor as was I. Then be saddened when he later shared what happened for him to lose his 10 or 20 years of continuous sobriety.

    In talking with many of them later I realized my sadness was totally misplaced. What could I have been thinking(?) to have felt sorrow to learn a chronic drunk had successfully quit drinking for 20 years and then after going back out had come back to pick up his one year chip? These people are champions in my eyes.

  13. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Skip…

    As Roger mentioned there is ample literature being published by secular AA.

    In addition, though it is barely an appropriate beginning, in 2014, GSO did publish the pamphlet “Many Paths of Spirituality”.

    Last year, a number of requests, including one made by members of AA Agnostica, were made to GSO for the Grapevine to publish a book of the some 40 stories previously published by the GV in print or online written by agnostics and atheists similar to the recently published Sober & Out for LGBT members of AA. It was squelched by the GV Board of Directors for consideration at this year’s General Service Conference, but a number of requests from other Areas, one already formulated by Area 53, will be forthcoming for the General Service Conference to consider in April of 2016.

    It may take some time, but eventually more secular literature, along the lines of Living Sober will, I’m hopeful, be published by GSO, especially, if the trends of declining membership since 1992 continue. Otherwise, by the time it is a hundred years old, AA will be as quaint and irrelevant to a majority of the North American population as Amish folks are today.

  14. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Pam — group of drunks, good orderly direction, gift of desperation, and gratitude over drama have kept me sober for a long while a day at a time.

    I won’t pick up, I’ll go to meetings, and I’ll help others, as I’ve been doing since 1972 directly in the rooms, and indirectly by my writing here on AA Agnostica, hopefully a day at a time for the rest of my time in meat space . . . 😉

  15. Eddie S. says:

    Caring about and “working” with others was my driving force for many years. In fact they were the best years of my life. Then God and Jesus began to dominate much of the meetings until I had enough.

    WTF does one say to someone who is hurting when they are hearing everything happens for a reason and/or is His will?

  16. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, boyd — I was previously unaware of that most appropriate Bill W. quote !~!~!

    I was most privileged to know Bill’s secretary for many years and the first AA Archivist, Nell Wing. I visited her apartment in Stuyvesant Town on a number of occasions — she had in a spare bedroom 35 legal size boxes of unpublished memoranda, notes, letters, working manuscripts of unpublished books, etc. I fear that much of this material, especially any of Bill’s further writings that deviate from the accepted AA orthodoxy, will be lost, that they have been sequestered from the view of the general public, within and outside of AA.

  17. Thomas B. says:

    Your most welcome, Tony — it’s how I stay sober a day at a time . . .

  18. Thomas B. says:

    I have no problem when folks in orthodox AA who “precisely” works the steps, Dan, as put forth in the Big Book. I only want them to respect that my unorthodox way of working the program works for me and for many of us agnostics who believe differently or atheists with no beliefs.

    Every week at the secular AA meetings in Portland there are newcomers who are so relieved to be able to attend AA without having to be forced to swallow “the god-bit” as described by the first atheist who stayed sober in AA, Jim B., from 1938 until he died in 1974.

  19. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, Tommy . . .

  20. Thomas B. says:

    A significant reminder — thanks Laurie !~!~!

  21. Thomas B. says:

    That’s my impression, too, JHG — as I mentioned in an earlier comment, I look forward to visiting the Bill Wilson House again in the fall when my wife and I travel back East. IIRC, they have an extensive list of the outcomes of those who collaborated with Bill and Dr. Bob, a number of folks, like Ebby, who relapsed, some making it back to AA and recovery, others not.

    An excellent observation about AA celebrating its founding when Bill carried the message of his “recovery” to Dr. Bob, not when Bill had his “white light” spiritual experience . . .

    I know for myself that my continued recovery is immensely enhanced whenever I endeavor to help others, to share my experience, strength and hope.

  22. Thomas B. says:

    In a sense, I agree with you, Steve – AA is a peer-group experience of AA members, who share experience, strength and hope, to achieve the common goal of recovery a day at a time.

    Though many of the group dynamics are similar to psychotherapy groups with a mental health professional, I believe the significant difference that AA groups share from therapy groups is that we have no leaders, only trusted servants – at least in those groups who follow and live in the spirit of our traditions and concepts of service. Of course, YMMV… 😉

  23. Thomas B. says:

    So gratefully glad, Joe, that you made it back to sobriety, hopefully in a more open and inclusive “brand” of AA . . .

    Your experience I suspect is not uncommon. If I were ever to drink again, I know the “shame and guilt” introjected into me from my Christian background, both as a southern Baptist/Presbyterian and a Catholic, would be a huge obstacle to my returning to AA — Congratulations for overcoming that significant barrier.

  24. Thomas B. says:

    As life-j mentioned, Bob, this is a most salient observation.

    In the fundamentalist Christian cult that my wife and I experienced AA as being when we moved from New York to the southern coast of Oregon in 2011, this is what we experienced as well. The rooms were filled with chronic relapsers who were shunned and shamed for not working the steps right, i.e, “precisely” as described in the Big Book. Those who stayed sober, haughtily and proudly proclaimed they were “recovered,” just as Bill, Dr. Bob and the some 70 to 80 folks who collaborated on writing the Big Book claimed to be. This Fall, when my wife, Jill, and I spend a couple of days at the Bill Wilson house in Dorset, VT, I want to see again a list of what happened to those who collaborated on the Big Book. As I recall a substantial number of them, like Ebby, drank again, some to return to AA, others not.

    I take to heart and head, that we are granted a “daily reprieve . . . “

  25. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Eddie — I’m forever grateful to my sponsor of 33 years, who in my second year of recovery in late 1973 as described in my article on Sponsorship, if I recall correctly, convinced me that I could use g-o-d, group of drunks, as my higher power. I’ve been successfully and for the most part happily sober ever since.

    The facilitator you had was a most wise woman, sharing what works, instead of orthodox AA dogma.

  26. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, life-j !~!~!

    Realistically, I doubt if “we” can ever totally eradicate the concept of a “higher power” or “power greater than ourselves” as a core tenet of AA orthodoxy. It would be equivalent to 911 Truthers being able to convince Congress or a majority of the US population that the implosion of the World Trade Center complex was an inside job on the part of the Bush Administration.

    Like 911 Truthers, even with our recent “explosive growth (pun intended)” we are still a tiny minority within the vastness of AA membership, especially in North America.

    Nevertheless, I firmly believe that as we continue to grow and expand, we can bring more secular concepts within the body of North American AA as a whole — IF more of us become active as GSRs, DCMs, Area Officers, even delegates, with in the AA General Service structure.

  27. Joe J says:

    Great article. I came to AA in 1983, became very involved but by year 6 did exactly what you have said. I believed I was supposed to become involved in Christian religion. Never felt at home there but had always been told I must have faith in “god through christ”. I drank again. I was told god had removed my alcoholism. I drank for seven years till I made it back to sobriety.

  28. Thomas B. says:

    Wonderful Chris — thanks !~!~!

    I love that you are a GSR for an orthodox AA meeting & a secular AA meeting — an excellent example that we can be in AA with other members that as the BB asserts with whom “normally we would not mix.” BUT, we can, IF we follow the traditions and strive to follow our code of “love and tolerance,” despite the reality that we are sometimes not offered the same by ardent believers in return.

    I never experienced “being shunned or ‘dis-membered'” until my wife and I moved to a small seacoast town on the southern coast of Oregon, where AA functions primarily as fundamentalist Christian cult. Even, when I lived for a couple of years in Tucson, the home of Wally P., one of the primary advocates for and best-selling authors of the the “Back to Basics” movement since 1998, I was able to find meetings which were not solely “god & BB centric,” as much of AA has devolved to become during the last 35-40 years.

    We have to patiently and with respect, dignity, & our code of love and tolerance evolve AA back to what it was during it’s first 40 years in full accordance with our history, traditions, especially Unity, and common experience.

    I salute your endeavors to do so . . .

  29. Roger says:

    Even though it may not have been mentioned in this particular article, Skip, there is plenty of new literature that is clearly for we agnostics in AA and Thomas has more than played his part making that happen. Just click on the image and enjoy:

    AA Agnostica Books

  30. Skip D. says:

    Excellent, powerful and reassuring article. Sadly, though, as seems often to be the case, there was no mention of the need for new literature that is clearly inclusive of WAAFTs in AA.

  31. Pam says:

    Thomas: Eloquent. Identification as a power greater than myself… or outside myself. This really resonated with me in helping to capsulate how I see my program. Thank you for your words of wisdom. Pam W.

  32. Boyd P. says:

    A relevant cite as regard “identification” and how it works in an AA group comes from an early Grapevine article by Bill Wilson, dated January, 1946. He describes how the Big Book took form.

    “…we inscribed in it the essence of our experience. It was the product of thousands of hours of discussion. It truly represented the collective voice, heart, and conscience of those of us who had pioneered the first four years of AA.”

    Thank you Thomas for focusing upon how sobriety blossoms in the shared experiences of AA groups.

  33. Eddie S. says:

    My first exposure to AA were the meetings in and outside the treatment center where I spent my first 45 days without a drink. I was 46 at the time and had been a daily guzzler since I went on my own at 18. I also had never been in a church, read a paragraph out of a bible and the word god made me want to gag. I heard a lot of what I interpreted as musts but what worked for me is I could take what I liked from the meetings and books and then bow out of the whole god (higher power) concept.

    Upon reflection I’m certain what allowed me to remain sober these past 33 years was the amazing thoughtful facilitator I had who came up to me in a time of need, put her arms on my shoulders, looked me right in the eyes and said, “Eddie, I know you’re struggling with the god concept and that’s OK. All that’s really important is you know you aren’t it”. Letting go, what a concept…

  34. Tony says:

    Thanks for your insight E S & H Thomas. Very helpful.

  35. Dan L. says:

    Thanks for the great essay. This really lines up with my understanding of what I am trying to do in AA. It also does a very good job of explaining why god helps the godly so much and why the atheists and agnostics can thrive as well. It is my belief that “god” as used by people in recovery is simply an easy (or very convoluted and elaborate) method of generating acceptance. If you believe in god either she will help you or she won’t and it relieves you of the burden of having to think too much about why things are the way they are. “Why” is not the question we are supposed to be asking anyway but rather “how” as in “how do I get out of this mess?” Thanks again. Dan L.

  36. life-j says:

    Bob, that’s a really important observation. Don’t think I have heard it said that well before. Also resonates well with JHG’s comment above.

  37. Eddie S. says:

    My experience with people who proclaim this is that they are living with a heavy dose of fear.

  38. Tommy H says:

    Very thoughtful and thought provoking.


  39. Laurie A says:

    The 13th century Dominican Meister Eckhart said, ‘God is a nameless nothing’!

  40. JHG says:

    There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that those who equate AA with God, the Big Book, authoritarian sponsorship, and “working the Steps in order” have a harder time staying sober than do those who find empathy, in-depth identification, acceptance, and unconditional love. And those who have the best chance of staying sober are those who are often on the giving end of that connection. It is telling that AA marks its own birthday not with the hallucinatory experience that initiated Bill Wilson’s sobriety but instead with Dr Bob Smith getting sober as the direct result of Wilson carrying the message to him. Why that worked according Smith was “he talked my language.” (BB p 180)

  41. steve b says:

    Thomas has written a good article here. I believe that the fellowship of AA is indeed group therapy, and that the AA founders naively attributed their new-found sobriety to a “higher power” rather than realizing that AA was working for them “only” because they were helping one another.

    I like life-j’s higher power (“nothing”). Hey, life-j: Would you mind if I borrowed Him for a while?

    Speaking of higher powers – and I have ample opportunities to do so at the traditional AA meetings I attend – recently an AA member told me that she didn’t believe that I or anyone else was really an atheist, that deep down inside everyone is a believer! Now, can you beat that?

  42. Bob C says:

    Thanks you for the article. I am grateful that this site continues to mine fresh ideas and honest perspectives about inclusion through recovery. Its very grounding.

    One thing I have noticed as a regular phenomenon is that a member will come to AA and get sober a while using some of the basic principles you have described. Then, the person becomes involved in a religious society such as a christian church, and the person then stops coming to AA. It is often the case that misguided advice from church leaders about addiction is the reason for the person’s departure from AA, and so many of these people end up drinking again.

    I believe that the reason behind this phenomenon is that the member loses two main things: the very unique idea of admitting we are addicted, as a genuine illness; and the related experience of members connecting to each others vulnerabilities and humanness. People can easily become preoccupied with the “transformation” part of recovery, and lose the “identification” part in very subtle ways. I believe the self exile from AA into religious movements after becoming sober is a typical example stopping doing the difficult and humbling human element of the program, whilst putting a fledgling sobriety into “gods hands.”

  43. life-j says:

    Thomas, thanks. Many good points. And isn’t amazing how Thomsen and so many others always seem to have to call it “a power greater than themselves”? A formulation that leads straight to god, and that’s of course why they like it. What’s so greater about it?

    You describe very well, with the rest of your quotes anyway, how what works is identification and the commitment of one alcoholic helping another. Really, nothing greater about it, just ordinary human goodness at its best.

    We really need to get rid of this power greater than ourselves and higher power language if we are ever to help people have an honest look at what works and not all the time see people sink into the god quicksand.

    “…but your higher power can be whatever you define it as”
    “ok, i define it as nothing”
    ‘well if that works as your higher power, that’s ok”
    how absurd can it get?

    I don’t want a higher power or a power greater than myself to satisfy those that think it is somehow better if it is greater rather than higher, i just want my fellow alcoholics.

  44. Christopher G says:

    Nice, Thomas! It is so evident that identification and example speaks so much more than the preaching of steps and dogma and even the science of addiction. I am so supported by the fellowships I attend and I believe they are completely unaware that they are doing it. My hope is that I bring some of that to them in return.

    The bleeding deacon syndrome that I have heard and am guilty of buying into tells me I am a second class alcoholic because I haven’t “done the steps” and joined the “fellowship of the spirit” rather than just being an equal member no matter what my activity; a form of shaming and hazing that coerces myself and others to drink the Kool-Aid of conformity for fear of being shunned or “dis-membered”.

    Granted, much can be gained from application of the principles found in the steps as well as other literature and practices, but to have them idolized as sacred dogma is wholly unattractive and thoroughly self-promoting.

    I identify with much of your experience and am encouraged by yours and other secular AA examples here to attend my first area meeting this week as the GSR for two meetings in our town; one agnostic and the other traditional. How’s that for “drawing a circle that shut them in”?!

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