William James, the 12 Steps, and Neuroplasticity

Man on Bed Stained Glass

By Peter T.

When William Griffith Wilson died on January 24, 1971, he’d been sober 36 years.  By then AA’s co-founder, known to generations of grateful anonymous drunks as Bill W., was widely believed to be, even outside the fellowship, a man who understood sobering people up better than anyone else alive.

The rose-colored viewpoint of the famous article in the Saturday Evening Post, which effectively launched Alcoholics Anonymous worldwide, had not yet begun to fade, and the organization itself was widely touted as the most successful alcoholic treatment program of all time.

The news of Bill Wilson’s death, when anonymity no longer mattered, was published in the New York Times.

In 1935, not long after he got sober himself, Wilson searched out and counselled a boozy Akron, Ohio, MD named Robert Smith about how to quit drinking. Dr. Smith, reluctant at first, was willing to listen to another drunk, and when he eventually drank his last beer, on June 10, 1935, the event marked the birth of AA. Bill W. and “Dr. Bob” became co-founders.

Seven months earlier, religion had become a key element in Wilson’s sobriety. He’d had a dramatic spiritual awakening during yet another in a long series of attempts to get sober, this one in New York’s Town Hospital. When his alcoholic friend, Ebby Thacher, heard of his vision, he brought Bill a book by the great American psychologist, William James.

The book was The Varieties of Religious Experience, a collection of James’ much-heralded Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, given by the celebrated psychologist at Edinburgh in 1901-1902. The day after his spiritual extravaganza, Bill started reading.

“By nightfall”, he wrote later, “this Harvard professor, long in his grave, had, without anyone knowing it, become a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.” (My First Forty Years, Bill W., p. 151).

Bill’s friend Ebby had managed to get sober, at least temporarily, by attending meetings of the Oxford Group, a Christian movement which began at the British university of that name. Wilson himself, fresh from his own religious experience  and nothing loath, began going to Oxford Group meetings too.

AA and the Oxford Group parted company fairly early on, but many of the groups’ religious precepts linger on in the Twelve Steps, in the Big Book of “Alcoholics Anonymous”, in AA-approved literature, and in the very fibre of most AA meetings even eighty years later.

William James is, as Bill Wilson himself recognized, one of the original pillars of AA. And in a subtle but meaningful way, I believe he is also part of the reason why many agnostics, atheists and freethinkers, despite the program’s religious overtones, remain loyal and dedicated AA members today.

Principles of PsychologyIn 1890, William James is believed to have presented the first theory of neuroplasticity to the world in his two volume book, The Principles of Psychology. He didn’t call it neuroplasticity, but his meaning was clear. James was the first person to have pointed out that the human brain was malleable, and capable of reorganizing.

This theory has revolutionized neurological science, particularly in the 21st century. It means that we are no longer stuck with the brain we were born with, or with those long established mental and physical behaviours we sometimes refer to as “habits”. The brain is infinitely pliable and adaptable, and can change itself, even without prompting from its owner, if conditions dictate.

We have long understood that blind people rely more heavily on other senses, like hearing and touch, to compensate for their lack of sight. But the evidence suggests that this is not simply a learned response. The brain automatically rewires itself so that the sensory area usually responsible for handling sight information is pressed into service to handle sounds, for example.

In his fascinating book, “Musicophilia”, neurologist Oliver Sacks told of a study which found that 60 percent of blind musicians had “absolute”, or perfect pitch, as opposed to perhaps 10 percent among sighted musicians.

To do this, the brain opens up new “neural pathways” to its appropriate parts. The word pathways refers to the routes taken by data passing from neuron to neuron through electrical connections between them. “Neurons that fire together, wire together”’ is the way neuroscientists put it. Pathways effectively become cognitive wiring.

Other kinds of stimuli can promote the growth of new neural pathways that do more harm than good. For example, excess alcohol  changes the brain in ways that make it increasingly difficult for the alcoholic to stop drinking.

Long after the consumption of alcohol has ceased to be a pleasant experience, the alcoholic brain’s well-lubricated neural pathways continue to tell the inebriate that another drink will fix everything. That’s certainly the way it was in my case.

Despite the hangovers, the shakes, and the outrage of neglected and abused wives and husbands and friends, not to mention going broke and getting into trouble at work, our liquor-soaked neural pathways go on steering us to the untenable conclusion that life without alcohol would be pretty grim.

DoidgeNorman Doidge, M.D., the Canadian neurologist whose book The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science burst on the scene in 2007, writes as follows:

“The usual view is that the addict goes back for more of his  fix because he likes the pleasure it gives and doesn’t like the pain of withdrawal. But addicts take drugs when there is no prospect of pleasure…”

When I think carefully about my own struggles with alcohol, I can see how the kind of neuroplasticity discussed above brought me to the edge of the abyss. But more important now, I can also see how it pulled me back from the brink.

Like many elderly people I have recently had problems getting enough sleep. I wound up in an overnight sleep lab last summer, where my sleep patterns were carefully analyzed. It became clear that I had a mild case of “positional” sleep apnea – it was worse on my back. A CPAP (Continuous Positive Airways Pressure) machine was prescribed to deal with it. It worked, and still works beautifully. The quality of my slumber improved enormously. But I still couldn’t get much more than about five hours of sleep.

Earlier, I had come across a book on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy-Insomnia (or CBT-I), called Sink Into Sleep by Judith Davidson, PhD, which helped me to understand that another part of the problem might be bad sleep habits.

For habits, read unhelpful neural pathways.

Here, in my words, is Dr. Davidson’s six step program to restore sleep.

  1. Your attitude towards your bed is critical. It is not for reading, eating, listening to music, watching television or lying there, resting. Use it only for actual sleep, or having sex.
  2. If you are used to going to bed early, pick a much later bedtime so that you are really tired before you turn out the light.
  3. If you wake in the night and can’t return to sleep in 15 minutes, get up and stay up until you’re tired again, and then go back to bed. And, if necessary, repeat the procedure.
  4. Pick a workable time to get up, and get out of bed in the morning as soon as you wake. Or, if it’s before the alarm, and you can’t get back to sleep after 15 minutes, get up without lingering.
  5. If you feel short of sleep the next day, nap after lunch for no more than an hour as long as it is before 3 p.m.
  6. Keep a sleep diary, and provided you are sleeping longer, incrementally, you may start going to bed earlier, bit by bit, as your sleep time lengthens.

For me, the altered neural pathway that these suggestions have produced means an extra hour or two of sleep per day.

I sometimes wonder if the sophisticated critics who have labelled AA  a religious cult have any real idea of how the program works. I suspect that they, like some of the alcoholics who can’t seem to get sober in AA, are distracted  by details.

As we are in a position to know, some people are put off by all the “God” references. Others find the slogans Mickey Mouse, and the words of wisdom heard around the rooms mere gobbledygook. These people may find some of our pronouncements less than profound, and annoyingly trivial. I think they miss the point.

Like those earnest, usually older members who walk around clutching copies of the Big Book bristling with bookmarks, every  page a rainbow of highlights, all of the characters and sayings and rituals help provide an upbeat sober ambience and enhance the effectiveness of our primary weapon against alcoholism, the AA meeting.

When alcoholics become members of AA, they’re not just joining an organization. They’re adopting a whole new culture, guaranteed, as we used to say, to spoil their drinking. Friendships made in AA rival blood ties with relatives. In a sense they are like the relationships established by comrades-in-arms on the battlefield. They’re rooted in shared fear, misery and in having been to hell and back together.

As Dr. Doidge writes,

All addiction involves long-term, sometimes lifelong, neuroplastic change in the brain. For addicts, moderation is impossible, and they must avoid the substance or activity completely if they are to avoid addictive behaviours.

Alcoholics Anonymous insists that there are no “former alcoholics” and makes people who haven’t had a drink for decades introduce themselves at a meeting by saying “My name is John, and I am an alcoholic”. In terms of plasticity, they are often correct.

I now realize that the Twelve Steps, with or without God in them, can also be considered a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy program for Alcoholism, or CBT-A, to invent an acronym.

But it isn’t just the steps that help us make cognitive changes. Everything we do and say and and come to know in this unique culture contributes to the formation of neural pathways designed for sobriety.

Take the slogans, for example, which vary from meeting to meeting:

One Day at a Time; First Things First; You are no Longer Alone; Keep it Simple; Easy Does It; Remember When; Live and Let Live; Keep an Open Mind; Keep Coming Back; and last, but not least for many AA members, Let Go and Let God; and But for the Grace of God. These words become embedded in our sobriety.

And then there are the simple truths, heard around the rooms, that if uttered in the right place and at the right time can have the impact of a sledgehammer. I’ll quote just one example from Joe C’s Beyond Belief, the basis of his January 4 entry: “You will never wake up sober and wish you had a drink last night”.

They all, in capsule form, remind us of the new paths we must travel to get or hang on to sobriety. So do the chips we give out,  the most important  for a simple desire to stop drinking, and others for the number of months we have lasted on our way to a cake and a first year medallion. Any fuss we make reinforces the  wonderful fellowship of sobriety. And  familiar readings comfort us.

I have learned, over the years, to blur out the “G” word in the usual readings and concentrate on the encouraging overall thrust of the message. I once had a boss who knew he had good ideas but couldn’t articulate them as he would have liked,  so he’d wrap up his suggestion by saying “not those words, but that music”. We usually got the idea.

I often think of my old Toronto friend, “Mac” R, a TV producer, painter and sculptor, and merchant seaman during the Second World War. He died sober after more than 30 years of being an atheist in AA, and he always recognized the need to change, not just goals and behaviour, but how we envisaged ourselves in our new roles.

“I had to stop thinking of myself as a two-fisted drinker”, he once told me, “and think of myself as a two-fisted non-drinker”. I was just a booze-fighter of the one-fisted variety, one-fisted for pounding the table and smashing inanimate crockery, but I got Mac’s message. Change!

I am not yet home and dry, as the saying goes. But I love life and find I am more and more conscious of how much I have to be grateful for. As Marya Hornbacher points out in Waiting: A Nonbelievers Higher Power, feeling grateful is a form of prayer, despite the absence of an addressee.

I remember the sharp intakes of breath in Toronto AA meetings 40 years ago whenever a frequent speaker of the day would begin his trademark declaration; “My name is so-and-so and I will never drink again…” followed by a calculated pause and a broad grin, and then the final words, “… as long as I follow the Twelve Steps of the AA program”.

So it is with some misgiving that I say now that I don’t believe the neural pathway I now follow will ever allow me to drink again, any more than the old one influenced me to quit.  I am not the same person I used to be, so perhaps I can get away with it.

In the 1950’s, in New York, I interviewed a Hollywood actor named Forrest Tucker – well known for his tough guy roles. Over lunch, he told me he was an advocate of the fad adage of the moment, “You Are What You Eat”.

“I’d rather be a steak than a cream puff”, I remember him saying.

Well, in AA, perhaps, it could be said “We Are What We Drink”. If so, I can honestly say “I’d rather be a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice than a vodka martini”. And if that isn’t evidence of radical neurological change, I’d like to know what is.

46 Responses

  1. wisewebwoman says:

    I am struck more and more by how irrelevant the godstuff is in AA especially to young newcomers.

    Newcomer: What is this god bs? I was raised atheist.
    Me: Oh, I’m an atheist too. Try and ignore it.
    Newcomer: But it’s everywhere. And there’s no women, it’s full of old men reading from all these bible books.
    Me: I hear ya. But you can talk to me and listen for what people are saying about their drinking and how they don’t anymore.
    Newcomer: I didn’t know it was going to be like church.

    I think we’re the only 2 AA atheists on the island.

    • Russ H says:

      That’s perfect!

      Come to CA wisegal and visit Lafayette. We’ve got a roomful of non-believing AAs that would love to meet you!

  2. Annette says:

    What a great article and great comments!!!!! I am back in the fellowship for 68 days post relapse. I first got clean in NA in the late eighties, and I don’t remember it being as God centered as AA is now. I consider myself a thoughtful atheist, but I keep my spiritual ideas to myself. I try to take what I need from meetings. I really need these people and don’t want to offend. Have not been to an agnostic meeting yet, I hope to attend in the near future.

    • life-j says:

      I blame it on the Daily Reflections. That book, no matter what the reading is about, somehow or other the last paragraph of that daily reading gets twisted to gratitude toward god. Most regular meetings read it, at the beginning of the meeting, just before it’s opened up, so the last word before the first share is god, it sets the tone. It’s from 1992, seems that’s about when all the nonsense started taking off, little by little.

      • Peter T. says:

        Thanks life-j. Out of curiosity I dug up a copy of offending tract, and it confirmed my own impression that there’s a lot of God usage in it. Today’s Daily Reflections begins with a quote from AA Comes of Age p.109: “The more AA sticks to its primary purpose, the greater will be its helpful influence everywhere”. It goes on in a non-religious fashion, pointing out that carrying the message to the alcoholic who still suffers is what we’re all about, and then concludes: “I remain humbly grateful to a loving God who made AA possible”. Contrast that with today’s entry in “Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life”, which points out that for some of us who struggle with AA’s religious overtones “letting go of God becomes as freeing as letting go and letting God is for others”. Refreshingly different.
        – Peter

  3. bob_mcc says:

    Because William James is a foundation of Bill Wilson’s understanding and writings the line between atheist and theist is one step further apart. In Varieties of Religious Experience James expands from his Will To Believe; which was a response to W. K. Clifford’s The Ethics of Belief. In Clifford’s writing he explains that where there is insufficient evidence to support a belief that belief is to be suspended. James responds that in certain situations that belief will produce the results to support the belief. AA and the psychic change is one of these situations, however James never proves Clifford is wrong. Today, I see this as “CBT-A,” or benefits of fellowship vs. theistic intervention; yet there is no more a definitive answer to this question than behaviour or biological. Norm Doidge’s book is a fantastic read and he has a followup released in 2014; I have yet to read this one. The next book on my read list is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science by Markus Heilig.

    I believe there is more to craving and withdrawal than just rewiring neuron routes. When we get to that understanding it will prove we need to learn more in another area. This skepticism and reason is, to me, more powerful than any other HP I have tried to use in AA.

    Great article Peter! I hope you will write some more.

    Brain Science

    • Victoria says:

      Thanks Bob,
      I always love to hear of each new piece of research about addiction and brain science. It all adds to our understanding.

    • Peter T. says:

      Thanks, Bob. I am sure you are right to believe that there is much more to be learned about the human brain, alcoholism and many other kinds of addictive behaviour.
      – Peter

  4. Garry U. says:

    Great article and great comments. I’ve come to look at the success of AA from the perspective of human evolution. We survived the savannah by functioning as a group rather than going it alone and because this strategy worked it was passed along by those who would successfully procreate. (Bears are completely different. They can barely stand each others company long enough to mate.) This gave rise to a brain that was hard wired to become anxious when we found ourselves isolated from the group. (Loneliness) Alcohol took the edge off this isolation. Re-engaging with our group (fellow humans) seems to set in motion neurological mechanisms that support sobriety. To some that seems like magic or divine intervention. I credit the fellowship much more than our liturgy for the change people experience. (But in all fairness, 3 of our steps demand direct contact with fellow humans.) Who hasn’t heard “Meeting makers make it” or “I quit going to meetings and eventually relapsed.” I see the purpose of AA as reducing the suffering caused by alcoholism and not an agency to promote theism. Nor should we ever seek to discourage belief as it is a genuinely personal matter. We can however actively discourage self-righteous fundamentalism.
    I like Lance B.’s comparison to the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. We may have to go through a “separate but equal” phase in AA but we will most likely some day become a “color blind” fellowship. All will benefit.

    • Ted F. says:

      I agree with so much of this. We have indeed evolved to be social animals, and the development of social organizations (families, clans, tribes, bands, on to more complex societies) and the coextensive evolution of culture has further promoted that. We both treasure our individuality and depend on others to succeed and advance in life. There’s a tension there that alcohol serves to lubricate.

    • Peter T. says:

      Well said, Garry U. I’ve learned a lot from the comments, including the fact that fundamentalism may have two faces in this AA debate. I too credit the fellowship for my sobriety, more than the liturgy. And I agree that belief is personal, even for those of us who believe it is not sacred. What I learned from at least one of the comments is that agnostics/atheists/free thinkers in AA should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Live and let live is a slogan worth remembering.
      – Peter

  5. Peter T. says:

    Dear wisewebwoman: What a wonderful phrase the “leaning in” is. That’s the spirit that animates AA and makes it inclusive. If exclusivity ruled, there would be no leaning in. We lean in and we accept each other and forgive, and teach, and learn and laugh at tragedy, and get and stay sober together. Thank for your comments.
    – Peter

  6. Maureen says:

    Even though I am not convinced there is a person in heaven, I do have a spiritual Higher Power. Your essay touches on every aspect of AA. The neuron changes make absolute sense to me because it is a logical explanation. I love this sight because of the different perspective the authors offer and you did not disappoint. I am keeping, “You will never wake up sober and wish you had a drink last night.” I will be sharing that at my meeting tonight. Thank you for your contribution to this wonderful site.

    • Peter T. says:

      Thank you Maureen for your comments on my essay. The members of my group, the Broader Path, in Odessa, Ontario, refer to themselves as secular spiritual. Of course there is a spiritual dimension that is not religious.
      – Peter

  7. Ted F. says:

    I only recently subscribed to this site and began following the posts and comments. I’m sorry to say I’m disappointed. And this article almost perfectly encapsulates why I am. Very well-written, it nevertheless spends most of its space alibiing for regular AA. I don’t get much of a sense from the posts and articles I’ve read so far that there is any sense of the difference agnosticism/atheism makes to AA. Indeed, the impression I get is that it’s a technicality that doesn’t really matter. It’s a tolerance that reduces differences to inconsequentiality – to a disregard of any significance, in fact. I get no sense here of why We Agnostics or Quad A makes a difference. It reduces everything to a tiff among family members.

    • Russ H says:

      Just out of curiosity, how do you think the difference agnosticism/atheism makes to AA should be framed?

      • Ted F. says:

        Well, first, I don’t have the definitive answer. But that question doesn’t even seem to be addressed here. My whole point in my comments thus far, starting with that long one originally, is that it tends to be treated as if it really doesn’t matter.

        How does our agnosticism/atheism play into our staying sober – our working at staying sober? Bill W.’s and Dr. Bob’s AA is very much a crypto-Christian discipline. It permeates the entire fabric of AA. There is no AA without it. Moreover, the original AA literature makes that clear. Read the Big Book. Read Dr. Bob’s story. Read the lit that immediately follows the Big Book. Read the reminiscences of the original members. As religions go, Christianity has been very big in the history of the advancement of Western Culture. Its problem, like that of its sister religious ideologies, is that it is not true.

        And truth should have a function in following a set of protocols, a code, a philosophy that function to organize the way you deal with life – and our alcoholism is a big part of our lives.

        So, does it make a difference? If not, then it’s all a tempest in a teapot. If it does, how does it make a difference? How do you do the God steps, and there are a lot of them? How do you work a “program”?

        The support network provided is helpful. It’s what most of us AAAA use AA for. But how does a modified AA program play into this? How does it replace the original AA dogma and doctrine?

        I don’t see We Agnostic/AAAA’s addressing that. The comment on human evolution is where you start with a secular philosophy. A biological evolution that gave rise to an evolutionary psychology and a sociobiology whose ramifications into creating and influencing our culture, and thus the culture of AA, should be explored more assiduously.

      • Russ H says:

        Ted – Drug addiction (alcoholism) is a human problem that crosses all social boundaries – including the ones that separate religious believers from non-believers. Recovery from alcoholism is equally available to all people on both sides of that boundary. We know this from direct experience. We Agnostics and Quad A meetings make a difference because they provide AA environments that are comfortable for non-believers. And, yes, we are all part of one big family within which differences exist and tiffs are not uncommon. You may believe you have discovered “truth” but people with very different points of view from yours feel equally strongly that they have. Our purpose in AA is not to adjudicate those differences of opinions but, rather, to accept them and focus on helping people recover.

    • Peter T. says:

      Ted F. I am not making excuses for what you call regular AA. But I managed to stay sober for 45 years in it. Forgive me if I’m grateful. I was able to do that because I knew that whether or not there was a God was less important than knowing that I wasn’t Him, Her or It.
      – Peter

    • Lance B. says:

      Maybe you could write an article on why groups such as We Agnostics and Quad A do make a difference in AA.

      I was surprised by the large proportion of alcoholics with more than 20 years of sobriety showed up in Santa Monica and also on this website. The fact is that most of us got sober and stayed with AA for whatever reason and despite the fact that much of the dogma was difficult for us.

      Knowing that a thousand old timers have been managing to uncomfortably survive or even prosper in AA, makes me wonder where are all the shorter term sober people. Are they with us and just unable to express themselves for fear of offending traditional AA? Are they leaving before getting sober? Are they getting sober and then moving on to more relevant therapies? Are they becoming sober and then just leaving – perhaps to become complacent and perhaps take a drink a few years hence? And in many places where there is no viable alternative to religious AA for social interaction essential for some peoples’ recovery, are they just drinking themselves to death without any hope?

      I don’t want to damage AA or create an irreparable schism within our fold. And early on I was so excited by the possibilities of WAAFT in AA that I burned some bridges with my own dogma. I’ve become more diplomatic and accommodating to traditional AA. And my guess is that many others of us have also realized that we won’t be changing the beliefs of others and if we are going to be valuable to building AA, we need to find a voice of moderation.

      It would be fun to hear a rousing call of enthusiasm for WAAFT AA from you. And John H. plus John C. surely do add some of that excitement to our efforts if you choose to read their articles or listen to them in Austin.

    • Victoria says:

      Greetings, Ted. I’ve been following this site and the more recent one – equally highly stimulating – ‘Beyond Belief’ pretty much since their inceptions. I also have no such alternative meetings here in Australia, except for one (in the whole country!) which I cannot easily get to at night. So Agnostica, Beyond Belief, and the other linked sites suggested from there – including Rebellion Dogs Radio – have had a profound supportive influence on my own ability to stick with f2f meetings of the more traditional kind.

      Do some of the god-bothering / BB-thumping – Back to basics / ardent 12 Step devotees in them drive me insane? Yes, they sure do. However, despite several – some quite serious – relapses over the 4.5 or so years of AA attendance, I go back to meetings precisely because I have so much WAAFT style thinking, interpretations, and personalities to remind me I’m not alone. So that’s a huge difference for me. And I’d wager, quite a number of other readers.

      Moreover, having watched the count of WAAFT style meetings grow and grow over the years – via the NYC website graph – I can only conclude that this represents a material difference, on the ground as it were.

      For me, it’s either truck along with this perspective keeping me sober AND sane – or it’s return (as I’ve done on other occasions) to the anti-AA blogosphere, 95% of which can be pretty toxic. And I’m by no means squeamish when it comes to vigorous debate, I can assure you.

      Anyway, good to see you here – the more voices the merrier, I say.

  8. Russ H says:

    Thanks for the new perspective, Peter. This story shows up this morning just as I have been reading a couple of very good books that touch on the illusion of understanding. Too long to go into details but it has been suggested that the stories we tell ourselves and each other are, ultimately, attempts to discover meaning and truth in our lives and in the bigger world in general. Meaning and truth are very elusive goals. I find myself continually relearning two lessons again and again: what seems to be often is not, and belief is far easier to achieve than understanding. I’ve put an order into Amazon for the “The Brain that Changes” and look forward to getting a better handle on neuroplasticity. Thanks!

    • Roger says:

      Interesting, Russ. I am currently reading Pulitzer prize-winning Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death. The book is a classic on “the illusion of understanding”!

      • Russ H says:

        I will put it on my list. The two I have been reading are “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll and “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.


    • Peter T. says:

      Thanks Russ. You won’t be disappointed in the Doidge book, and you might try Oliver Sacks as well. That’s a good point about belief and understanding. Could we say that belief is an easier, softer way?
      – Peter

  9. Joe says:

    After 30 years of sobriety I am now battling another issue with Neuroplasticity called Parkinson’s. The same author has written a book about how to combat this with exercise, also a good thing for the alcoholic!

    Joe V.

    • Peter T. says:

      Thanks, Joe. I admire your willingness to wage war on yet another front.
      – Peter

  10. Skip D. says:

    Sorry, I don’t like blame-the-victim apologetics. Those who can’t seem to get sober in AA are not all “distracted by details”. God is not an AA “detail”, AA reeks of god, god, god, everywhere you go. I hear people say that’s just an excuse, that a person who really wants help will not be put off by the god talk (I was one of those desperate enough). But, that is just plain wrong, and here’s why – alcoholics as sick as I was often die before they get to the point where they don’t care about being proselytized.

    I read Varieties Of Religious Experience early in sobriety – because of Bill Wilson’s reference to its importance to AA. I was puzzled by the stark contrast between the dogmatism of AA and the objectivity of William James book. However, reading it gave me the notion that AA was supposed to be as free as the 3rd, 4th and 5th Traditions say it is. It gave me hope.

    On a lighter note, I’m reminded of a famous William James quote that is particularly relevant for alcoholics. When asked what determines the quality of a person’s life, James said, “It all depends on the liver.”

    • Linda Kurtz says:

      Explain the “dogmatism of AA.” I’m not sure I can see that quality in the AA I know.

      • Steph R says:

        I dont see where he wrote “dogmatism” but I don’t understand how you can know the definition of dogma and not understand that as a fact.

        Dogma is a belief or set of beliefs that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted. It serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system, and it cannot be changed or discarded without affecting the very system’s paradigm, or the ideology itself. The term can refer to acceptable opinions of philosophers or philosophical schools, public decrees, religion, or issued decisions of political authorities.

    • Peter T. says:

      Skip D: I didn’t mean to suggest that God was only a detail. I don’t like the term either; never have. But for the 45 years without an agnostic group in my area, I stayed sober in an AA where the word battered away at my eardrums if I allowed it to. But if getting sober meant ignoring it and getting on with the action parts of the program, that’s what I did.
      – Peter

  11. Lance B. says:

    What a fun read, peter. Thank you!

    A few years ago one of older members commented that I’d acquired a fair number of pithy quotes from various speakers around AA. He suggested we put them on pieces of paper and hang them from the pipes of our basement meeting clubroom.

    Well, that idea turned into a repository of such quotes in a plastic container which has sat on our table for several years. I entered most of them and occasionally find a newcomer thumbing through them. But the habit of writing down such witticisms has run it’s course and I had not added one in a couple of years. Reading your article I just wrote down six (count em; 6) new ones which would each make an excellent meeting topic in my opinion.

    What a treasure trove of insights and obvious truths (not those words but that music, ya know) you have provided for me this morning.

    • Peter T. says:

      Lance B: What a great idea! Have you ever thought of putting your pithy quotes into natural groupings (perhaps by the kinds of problems that they address) and having them published? Thanks for your encouragement.
      – Peter

  12. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, most excellent, Peter T. — thanks for a most informative and well-presented article that is conveyed in a most pleasing manner. Not only does the article make imminent good sense, but it does so in a most entertaining manner.

    Yes, as Roger said in his email announcement, “A truly insightful and wonderfully written article” !~!~!

    I especially appreciate your concept of AA being a healing culture that transcends the language through which it is conveyed, enabling participants who fully engage within its ethos to change — in other words, they evolve into a different and healthier way of being.

    • Peter T. says:

      Thomas B: Thank you for your kind words. I envy you the skillful way you summed up what I was trying to say in your final paragraph. Yes, by gosh! What Thomas said!
      – Peter

    • Jack B. says:

      Always enjoy your insights and comments. I miss hearing and seeing you at our local meetings. You and Jill were bona fide assets to our area.

      In the spirit… Jack

  13. Steph R. says:

    Oh how I love this essay!!! I have been saying it for years especially to sponsees who struggle with idea of god. I am an atheist, and with the exception of the “rooms” I am emphatic in my views. And, I have remained steadfast in my belief that the program of AA is really no more than a program of cognitive behavioral therapy. You don’t actually need spirituality or god to practice the “program.” It’s CBT for many millions who would never even know how to seek it out let alone where, or for whom any kind of “therapy” has been stigmatized. This essay just let me take a deep breath. I recently moved from Manhattan to Long Island and the over-use of god and spirituality in meetings has led me to stop attending and I have 5 years. I’m not a newbie. In fact, the recent rise in “spirituality” in and around New work has led me to dislike AA as a whole. I know it isn’t rational, but it’s how I feel. I’ve started see AA itself as a religion of sorts and have felt that there is no real place in it for people like me–exactly what it’s to supposed to do. And the AA fundamentalists can’t see it. So rather than fighting I have left for the most part. I’m staying sober. And, I’m happy. I’m happy joyous and free. But I cannot tell you how much this article helped me. Thank you. I am so grateful, Peter!

    • Lance B. says:

      You know Steph, I think I understand your position exactly. Your comment drove home to me both the value of Peter T’s article, but also the importance of educating the fundamentalists of AA. As you note, they really can’t see it.

      I couldn’t see racism either in the 50’s. Or litter in the early 60’s. Or any need for women’s rights in the 70’s. We are evolving.

      Clancy I. has used and probably invented a phrase which I like referring to some of the fundamentalists in AA. He says that here and there and at certain times around AA, there are little “pockets of enthusiasm.”

      Despite the fact that I am pretty much alone in SE Montana as a secular alcoholic, I am trying to be a pocket of enthusiasm for the next person like you who comes along.

      Thank you, as well as Peter, for your comment which meant so much to me. Hang in there and keep pointing out your truth as we gain strength.

      Doesn’t it amaze you how much quality thinking comes out of just that one metropolitan area of Toronto with the leadership of a few clear minded and well spoken advocates. I should be able to imitate them and make a small pocket of enthusiasm here in my burg as well.

      Say, these math problems they require of me are getting rather challenging. 18 – 6? Well, I’ll work it out somehow!! (gg)

      • Steph R. says:

        Hi Lance! Thanks so much! Your comment means a lot to me. I’ve felt almost ashamed of my feelings about AA in recent months. And the voices of people saying “you can only stay sober if you believe in god/have spirituality” have me questioning everything (which we both know is actually a good thing: question everything!). But when I think about drinking I’m disgusted by the thought. I don’t believe I’m cured, but I have no desire to drink. I really think that by slowly replacing one old habit with one new habit I have changed my neural pathways… But trying to educate the fundamentalists makes me tense and angry and that is not why I am sober. I also don’t want to harm anyone else’s chances of getting and staying sober… So this essay and your comment mean so much to me. And, yes, I’m so grateful for these free (and clearly intelligent) thinkers in Toronto!

      • Peter T. says:

        Lance B: Thanks for your support in your exchanges with Steph, for her and me. And thank you too for dropping the hint about the math problems. If I hadn’t seen that, I might still be trying to figure out how to reply. I wish you luck in SE Montana and do hope you’re considering what we call in Odessa a secular spiritual group. The fundamentalists make it difficult, but the results can be beautiful. Sincerely,
        – Peter

    • Peter T. says:

      Dear Steph R: I think your letter alone is justification enough for my having written this article. I kept my agnosticism to myself inside the rooms for most of the 46 years I’ve been sober, and although I didn’t let the God issue undermine my sobriety, it has at times been a bit of a struggle. It sounds to me as if there is no agnostic AA group in your area. If our experience here means anything starting such a group can be difficult. Those who proclaim their belief in God and all those other religious trappings that they insist are spiritual will absolutely not listen to reason. And for some of them, their mission in life has become to suppress us unbelievers, or as someone at our district meeting put it while trying to disqualify us for membership, “throw the bastards out”. Well, we’re not leaving, and we don’t want them to leave either. That has been the hardest part of all this. Saying live and let live and meaning it, and hoping that one day they will come to say and mean it too. But in the meantime we have a little group of 13 members in Odessa, Ont., which is near Kingston where most of us live. Two of our members are believers. They accept our beliefs and we accept theirs and we concentrate on the broad strokes of the program we share, without dwelling on our differences. Together we breath fresh air and are grateful for our sobriety, and we want the hand of AA always to be there. What I’m saying, I guess is that the fight we’ve been having with the district is worth it. Have you ever thought of starting an agnostic group in your area? Thanks again for sharing your feelings.
      – Peter

    • Roy says:

      Steph I read your post and noticed that you recently moved to Long Island. There are a few agnostic / free thought groups based on LI, and in fact I am a member of one in Stony Brook. Check out the Suffolk County intergroup website for details and please stop in one night!

      • Steph R says:

        Hi Roy!! Wish I’d known yesterday we were on the Stony Brook campus on Thursday night for an early appointment on Friday! And thank you, I will be looking it up!!

  14. wisewebwoman says:

    What a great read first thing in the morning! There’s such a comfort in the familiarity of the meetings. The handshakes from strangers, the welcome, the rituals, the addressing of the newcomer, the surrounding of her at the end of the meeting. The ‘leaning in’ as one of my dear AA friends has it. I see it all as if for the first time with a newcomer in tow. And it makes me cry in gratitude. Where else indeed.

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