Chapter 9: Back to Basics and Other Religionists

Chapter 9: Back to Basics and Other Religionists

By life-j


In a history of secular AA we need to talk about groups and individuals whose purposes are at odds with ours. Some of them are actively fighting inclusion of non-believers as rightful members of AA. Others are simply going about their business promoting their honestly held belief that a god is central to recovery, and that the steps must be worked exactly as Bill Wilson wrote them in 1939.

In his later years, Bill seemed genuinely concerned that the fellowship he had set in motion, and for which he had written the basic text, was becoming increasingly and unduly heavy-handed with the god stuff.

Dr Bob was much more of a Christian than Bill, but they both came from the Oxford Group with its heavy religiosity. And while the non-religious part of AA has finally begun growing and claiming its rightful place within AA it is no wonder that in a heavily religious place like North America there are factions in AA pulling in the opposite direction.

And just like we have our own secular movement, there are religionists who have their own groups, and they have been around for quite some time. Many of these individuals or groups claim to be part of AA, though AA disowns some of them.

Some also choose to distance themselves from AA entirely, and have their own groups, their own meeting schedules, their own literature, and their own Big Book which of course is the first edition. Alcoholics Victorious1, founded in 1948, recognizes Jesus Christ as its “Higher Power” and uses the 12 Steps and the Bible as recovery tools. Celebrate Recovery2 was founded in 1990 and believes that AA is too vague in referring to God as a higher power and promotes a specifically Christ-based 12 Step program (“God” remains in their steps; “as we understood Him” has been removed). Celebrate Recovery claims to have had more than two and half million people complete its program.

These are just two examples.

What all of these “religionist” groups and individuals – both in and out of AA – have in common is the idea that the Big Book is the way to get and stay sober. They treat the Big Book as a Bible and the 12 steps as “sacred” rather than “suggested”. Some consider Bill to have written the Big Book with direct inspiration from god, while others simply accept it as an infallible book of instructions. But they’re all really based on connection with God. And since there is only one way to get and stay sober, and that involves God, they have little patience for agnostics and atheists. We’re simply doing it wrong, and we’re destroying AA with our un-godly ways.

Under the circumstances it is hard to not have the same intolerant attitude toward them in turn. It would be nice if we could just have the fundamentalists, the middle-of-the-roaders, and the unbelievers each work the program however they see fit and work together for our common purpose – to help the next suffering alcoholic – but it’s just not happening.

We non-believers have never claimed that our way is the only way.

Primary Purpose

The most informative article on these groups that I found, “An Enquiry into Primary Purpose and Back to Basics AA Groups”, is on a British site called AA Cultwatch3, The article appears to be well researched, and doesn’t seem to suffer much from any bias.

One of these groups, “Primary Purpose”, was inspired by Joe & Charlie’s Traveling Step Work Circus. Joe McQuany got sober in an insane asylum in 1962, and in 1973 met up with Charlie Parmley who had come to Little Rock, Arkansas to speak at an Al-Anon convention. They found that they both liked to study the Big Book, and around 1977 they began taking a Big Book study program on the road.

They also made tapes of their seminars which were widely distributed.

Their study program took off. It was based on the principle that everything an alcoholic needs to know to get and stay sober is in the Big Book.

A special lunch with Joe and Charlie as speakers was organized at the 1980 International AA Convention. A hundred Joe and Charlie tape sets were given away as door prizes for the 1500 people who attended the lunch. “Invitations exploded and within a couple of years, Joe & Charlie were presenting about 36 studies a year worldwide.”  They were a “reaffirmation” of the belief that the Big Book said everything that needed to be said to the alcoholic with a desire to stop drinking. “Studies have been given in 48 states and most Canadian provinces. Additionally, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands have all hosted the Big Book Study seminars with Joe & Charlie… Since 1977, an estimated 200,000 AA Members have experienced the spiritual benefits of these collective studies.” (Big Book Seminar4)

A “Primary Purpose” founders’ meeting was held on January 26, 1988, in Dallas, organized by Cliff Bishop, one of Charlie’s early sponsees. Cliff died in 2016.

Our Big Book Study Meetings went pretty well. On occasion, we would have folks from other groups, which were heavy in Discussion Meetings, who would want to share their ES&H with our Group. I’d write a little note to let them know our meetings were to learn what the First One Hundred did that worked so well for them. We were not interested in using meeting time for individuals to share their thoughts or experiences. I would hand them the note and most of the time, they would then join us in our study.

They were quite into proselytizing too:

Those who make up our Group are very active in taking the message of the Big Book into those places where suffering alcoholics wind up seeking shelter and help. We try to get to them before they become “discussionized.” (The Primary Purpose Group of Alcoholics Anonymous5)

For these people it is not about sharing experience, strength and hope, but instead about passing on the exact message of the Big Book. What Bill Wilson wrote with three years of sobriety is, for them, simply the first and the last word.

Joe died on October 25, 2007 and Charlie on April 21, 2011.

Back to Basics

The other main fundamentalist group is Back to Basics. It works much in the same way, but has different origins.

Another determined person, Wally P, launched Back to Basics, with some tapes, in December 1995. He later also published a variety of books, first among them Back to Basics in 1998, and that year the first real seminars were held.

B2B groups similar to Primary purpose have sprung up in many places. The two have references to each other, even though they aren’t directly associated. Wally P is still going strong, as you can see from his speaking engagement and workshop schedule for 2017 at the website AA Back to Basics6 but he will not be doing any workshops in 2018 in order to focus on writing more books.

The only statistic we have on the number of B2B meetings is from 2009 from AA Cultwatch. At that time there were 130 groups listed in the US. Some of these meetings were also on the pertinent Intergroup schedules while others weren’t, either because Intergroup didn’t want them, or because the meetings themselves preferred not to be associated directly with AA.

For Primary purpose they showed the following statistics on their growth:

  • 2006: Fifty nine groups in six countries;
  • 2007: Sixty eight groups in nine countries;
  • 2009: One hundred and six groups in eleven countries.

The biggest cause for concern is not the number of groups but rather the individual members of Back to Basics who remain involved in regular AA and push their agenda wherever possible.

It seems to be a common characteristic of these groups that they are heavily invested in the use of study guides with which they teach a specific, firmly in place, fundamentalist version of AA’s program. It is about recovering in one way only, by the book exactly, one size fits all, no ESH, no discussion about it, except perhaps discussion here and there about what exactly Bill Wilson meant by one particular passage or another.

It is like bible study all over again.

Dick B

There are other prolific Christian AA spinoff writers. Dick B deserves mention.

There is no doubt where Dick B is coming from. On his web page, Dick B’s Web Site7, up front is a plaque with the Big Book on one side, and the Bible on the other. His recovery program is strictly Christian. About the man who introduced him to a new life he tells:

When Peter believed, said this man, he walked. When he became afraid, he sank. And it took Jesus to pull him out of the water. I quickly saw that I had a choice – to learn and believe what God had to offer, or to yield my thinking to the seeming disasters the world was offering… So I resolved to go to the Seattle International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1990 in order to try to find out what role, if any, the Bible had really played in the founding, development, program, and successes of Alcoholics Anonymous.

And he’s a loose cannon for god from there on.

The Good BookDick B is not directly affiliated with any groups, and it doesn’t appear that he has started a “program” with groups all over the place like the others. But he does refer to the International Christian Recovery Coalition, “An informal, worldwide fellowship of Christians who care about carrying an accurate, effective, message about the role that God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible played in the origins, history, founding, original program, and astonishing successes of the early Alcoholics Anonymous ‘Christian fellowship’ founded in Akron in 1935.”

Dick B mostly has written a lot of books, about 45.

There are titles such as:

  • The Good Book and The Big Book: AA’s Roots in the Bible
  • The Oxford Group & Alcoholics Anonymous: A Design for Living That Works!
  • Twelve Steps for YOU: Let Our Creator, AA History, and the Big Book be Your Guide
  • Why Early AA Succeeded: The Good Book in Alcoholics Anonymous Yesterday and Today

Oh right, there once was Clarence S – one of the first members of AA, from Cleveland, and though he and Dr. Bob had some early conflicts, basically Clarence taught “Akron style” AA – get down on your knees and pray to your creator for deliverance from alcoholism.

Clarence was a busy circuit speaker, and also wrote books.

It may be that all these fundamentalist circuit speaking, book writing travelling circuses learned their ways from Clarence S.

Circuit speakers are a phenomenon in AA which have an aspect to them which perhaps ought to be described as “personalities before principles”. Many carry a relatively down to earth, middle of the road message, while a few do pull AA in a fundamentalist direction.

The Mt Rainier Minority Opinion and the White Paper

While we non-believers are trying to widen the gateway and make AA a bigger tent with room for all, the fundamentalists are doing exactly the opposite. They are trying to narrow down AA as much as they can. They are trying to keep agnostics and atheists out and to deny that we have a right to even be a part of the fellowship. They have in particular been fighting the initiatives within AA to make literature by and for unbelievers and secular AA available.

There are a couple of relatively recent articles of a fundamentalist persuasion, but before we address them let us mention Gresham’s Law and Alcoholics Anonymous8, written in 1976 by Tom Powers Sr. and subsequently updated by his son in 1993. It is all about the dire consequences of “watering down AA”, as in “strong tea” and “weak tea”. “Strong tea good, weak tea bad”, as in strong, fundamentalist, original Akron style, Oxford based program, as understood by the author. While originally written a long time ago it appears to have had considerable influence on the fundamentalist movements, and to this day is still widely quoted.

Let’s now focus on two other documents.

The Minority Opinion Appeal to AA Fellowship9 (56 pages) from the Mt Rainier Group in Maryland was submitted to the General Service Conference in 2011. Its sole purpose was to block the publication of “Conference-approved” literature for, by and about atheists and agnostics in AA. What follows is a slightly abbreviated version of the position of the group, from the first page of the document:

  • The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is outlined in the Big Book which is our society’s basic text. The book gives clear cut directions on how to practice AA’s Twelve Steps which are described, in the Foreword to the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, as “a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”
  • Practicing the Twelve Steps enables alcoholics to develop faith in a Higher Power (or God of one’s understanding) that is sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism.
  • Consequently, any literature which attempts to describe current atheists or agnostics as being “successfully sober” in AA would be deceptive, misleading, and harmful to real alcoholics attempting to find the power necessary to solve their problem. Such a position is fundamentally opposed to the authentic program of recovery detailed in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous…
  • Much of our existing Conference-approved literature is geared toward helping non-believers develop enough faith, in something greater than themselves, to succeed with the program of recovery as it is outlined in the Big Book. Consequently, as the Trustees Literature Committee has concluded in each of the previous six attempts from 1976 to 2006, there is no “need” for additional literature on this subject.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Has it had an influence on “conventional” AA as a whole?

Well, it was presented at the General Service Conference which meets for a week once a year every spring. The conference consists of roughly 130 members: delegates from 93 AA Areas in North America, 21 trustees of the General Service Board (these trustees – 14 alcoholics and 7 non-alcoholics – are the principal planners and administrators of AA’s overall policy and finances, which is about as high-level as it gets in Alcoholics Anonymous) as well as various directors and AA staff. It functions as the active voice and group conscience of the fellowship.

How could it not influence conventional AA?

While the GSC of 2011 did not adopt this minority opinion, it certainly had an influence on conference delegates. A proposed pamphlet for, by and about atheists and agnostics in AA was abandoned yet again and instead the shameful “Many Paths to Spirituality” pamphlet was published in 2014.

Moving on…

The White Paper10 originated in Florida. It is 28 pages long and was written by an old-timer there in 2010.

It is very much consistent with what we have shared earlier in this chapter. First, it places the emphasis on a need for a God, at one point even suggesting that, “Sobriety is not the name of the game, God is”. The principle here being that “God could and would if he were sought.” If you find god, well you don’t need alcohol. Second, it denigrates atheists and agnostics and suggests that we really don’t belong in the Fellowship.

Here are two quotes:

It is time for the pamphlets, the videos, the Grapevine articles, the speeches of Trustees, and overall attitude of our Central Office to acknowledge the authority of the One who responded to the cries of our co-founder, Bill W, and guided us to the most precious spiritual society on this planet. The role of this “Authority” should continuously be referred to instead of slowly eliminating any mention of Him in our publications and speeches. Without this incredible “Power”, none of us would have experienced a spiritual awakening and sensed the presence of our Creator…

One of the policies being advanced by the General Service Office and some of our Trustees regarding expanding our membership is extremely disconcerting. In a not too subtle way, the idea is being advanced that we could make our Fellowship more “inclusive” if we put “God” in the background and let outsiders think that spirituality in AA was “optional”. This would enable so-called “non-believers” to enter AA with the assurance that they could easily keep their current beliefs. I would rather hear about serving beer at meetings than diminishing God’s central role.

The author of The White Paper was said to have been Sandy Beach, who died on September 28, 2014 at the age of 83. He was ten weeks away from fifty years of sobriety.

Sandy – his real first name was Richard – was, again, a circuit speaker. A very popular circuit speaker. He “shared to great effect with tens of thousands of fellow alcoholics as one of the nation’s most sought-after speakers at conferences, retreats and other gatherings of Alcoholics Anonymous” (Washington Post11). His talks are also available online at Stories of Recovery12.

What is clear is that both Sandy as a speaker and The White Paper had an influence on AA overall. Remember it was written in 2010. And The White Paper was widely circulated in Toronto in 2011 among the members of the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup. It is fair to say that this paper played a role in the expulsion by the GTAI of the two agnostic groups at the end of May, 2011.


There are many different groups and individuals operating in the fundamentalist field of AA.

Their ascendancy happened around the same time as the publishing of the Daily Reflections, most of it a completely shameless piece of god promotion, and around the same time AA began to stagnate. It seems that these people feel certain that the only way forward is more going backwards.

I have no good explanation for why it all came to a head at around the 50 year mark, but Bill Wilson already seemed to think it was inevitable in 1961: “As time passes our book literature has a tendency to get more and more frozen – a tendency for conversion into something like dogma. This is a trait of human nature I am afraid we can do little about. We may as well face the fact that AA will always have its fundamentalists, its absolutists and its relativists.”

Well, we certainly do have our fundamentalists, our “religionists” in AA. But shall they rule the Fellowship?

1 Alcoholics Victorious:

2 Celebrate Recovery:

3 AA Cultwatch:
4 Big Book Seminar:

5 The Primary Purpose Group of Alcoholics Anonymous:

6 AA Back to Basics:

7 Dick B’s Web Site:

8 Gresham’s Law and Alcoholics Anonymous:

9 Minority Opinion Appeal To AA Fellowship:

10 White Paper:

11 Washington Post:

12 Stories of Recovery:

A History of Agnostics in AAA History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.

It is also available at Amazon Canada and at Amazon United Kingdom.

You can also get a Kindle or ePub version at the BookBaby BookShop. After you pay via credit card or PayPal you can get an ePub or Mobi and download it immediately.

It is also available as an iBook (for a Mac or iPad).

YouTube Audio

24 Responses

  1. Thomas B. says:

    I was on my way driving back home, after traveling some 6500 miles to visit my son in Tucson and friends in California (including you) and Oregon, when this was published last week, and was unaware of it until I read your article published yesterday late last night.

    Thanks for a wonderful article, life-j, which effectively surveys the predominant reality of Christian ideology existing throughout the vast majority of traditional AA.

  2. Ashley says:

    I really, really grateful that my spouse turned me onto this AA Agnostic site; Sadly, because we currently reside in a small, very impressionable (albeit closed-minded) village – he and I find it increasingly hard & frustrating going to “regular” AA/NA Meetings — mainly due in large part to the old idealistic ways of thinking by some (not all), and the overuse of religion at times. With that being said, it’s a sad state of affairs that our village/town does not have a secular recovery group, or an agnostic one for that matter; I feel as though younger alcoholics/addicts (late teens, twenties, and mid to late thirties) would benefit from the non-judgemental, welcoming, & thoroughly understanding mindset and viewpoint of secular/agnostic organizations.

    Speaking on a personal note now, I was raised a devote Byzantine Catholic….however, I am NOT a modern-day practicing Byzantine Catholic, nor do I associate myself with this religious identity anymore (and I have not identified with this religion since about 1995). My beliefs & my higher power are my own….not anyone else’s …. and there have been times at our local meetings that I have (1) Been told that I am “wrong” for (assumedly) not recognizing God/Jesus as my Higher Power (2) Was flat out chastised for my “approach” towards my OWN recovery – and subsequently told that I would FAIL at sobriety without the worshipping of a religious idol, and (3) I have also had my alcoholism/addiction issues either downplayed, or looked upon as “not that serious” because I hadn’t turned to a religious higher power or God to “help or assist me” in my sobriety and recovery.

    I find all of those past behaviours from local people here appalling. I can’t even fathom walking up to someone, and basically telling them that they’re better off, or will end up dead, simply because they do not carry the same belief or value system that I do. To each their own – after all, this is 2017….

    If a person can wake up one morning and continue to battle his/her personal demons with alcohol – and successfully survive another 24 hours without drinking or using – then they’re obviously working their program correctly … and that’s with OR without a religious background having been involved.

    • Boyd P. says:

      I also live in a rural area, with a limited number of group choices. My strategy is to affirm those who are searching in my home group, share gently and honestly about my agnostic views, and be of service in the Intergroup/Central office and district activities. I have identified many kindred spirits and look forward to being part of a non traditional group. Not sure how hard to push the prospect.

    • life-j says:

      I live in a rural area myself (pop. 1500) and while it is not the actual bible belt it is religiously conservative. You can read about my experience with making a freethinkers meeting in Don’t Tell. Fall of 2016 they finally put it in the schedule.

      What happened since I gave up fighting Intergroup is that I did start the meeting, and relentlessly went around and announced it, and started speaking up against the god stuff in every meeting I went to. In the beginning I got a lot of hostility for it, later I just got them jaded, and eventually I started getting support from a number of open-minded old-timers; they do exist.

      I strongly encourage everyone to fight against the religiosity, it does pay off. I also started making a variety of pamphlets (email if you are interested) including a schedule of secular meetings in northern California. One day our DCM emailed it to me, in case I hadn’t seen it. This was a nice gesture from someone who in the beginning had been at least slightly against my endeavors. Someone had been handing these schedules out at a post-conference assembly,and our DCMc had not noticed that it was me who made it. She was just trying to be helpful and supportive.


  3. Sam M. says:

    Can you provide a reference for the 1961 Bill Wilson quote you provide at the end? Thanks for all the effort put into this helpful chapter.

  4. Anthony L. says:

    Thanks for the article & doing all the research Life-j. I’m definitely with you on the notion of why do I have to find some concept of a Higher power (God) by any other term. I spent years looking into the background, history and possibility of the Christian God & having come to the opinion that there is no evidence or indication of anything supernatural (which is fine by me). But hey I’m in AA: find some other supernatural entity. Yes I’ve tried all that. “The room is my higher power”.
    Or “nature” fits the gap. Kind of liberating to share “I don’t have one” but 11 years sober through mutual support & fellowship but most people at my home group don’t want to hear that. My meeting is no different than many. If a newcomer or detox person turns up they are straight in with their story. How they found a sponsor. Read the book under supervision. Said a “step 3 prayer. Went through the steps rigorously with their sponsor. All that stuff. So I sit there & think, What am I going to say? I came here because I couldn’t control how much I drank & obsessed about when not drinking. Came to regular meetings. Did service & tried to improve my attitude to life.
    So these days I tend not to share for the newcomer. My excuse. It may sound conflicting after a big book thumping. So just disappointing when 95% of them never come back. Oh yeh “they’re just not ready”.

  5. John L. says:

    “Sobriety is not the name of the game, God is.” This is the slogan of the false AA: the Steps and Big Book religious crap. I have long maintained that there is an inverse relationship between spirituality and sobriety, and this quote proves it.

    The true AA consists of the 24-Hour Plan and the Fellowship. We recover, a day at a time, by staying away from the first drink. Recovering drunks help each other get sober, stay sober, and lead good lives in sobriety. The true AA is expressed, clearly and cogently, in the AA Preamble. The true AA is described in the only good AA-published book, Living Sober.

    I’m a low-bottom drunk physically. My life depends on sobriety. When these superstitious muddle-heads attack sobriety — when they attack the true AA — they are threatening my life and the lives of all alcoholics. We must fight them! — tactfully, when possible, but without pulling any punches.

  6. life-j says:

    Thank you all.
    I am always puzzled when non-believers tell about what their higher power is. It seems to be an idea that really dies hard, that we need a higher power of some sort, at all.
    Anyone who is comforted by it, by all means go ahead and have one, but there is nothing that makes a higher power inherently necessary for the program to work. If we aren’t buying Bill’s fabricated assumption that we need a god, why would we buy the god lite version – that we have to have any kind of higher power?
    Let’s think outside the box. In fact, let’s realize there is no box.

    And Roger thanks for asking me to write this article. It definitely needed to be written. This was my first made-to-order article, and on a subject I didn’t know a whole lot about before I started. It is always a good thing to learn something new, and realize I have abilities I didn’t know I had.

    • Rob D. says:

      I have to disagree. I don’t think *anyone* can get sober without a “Higher Power,” but I don’t think it need be divine in nature.

      If alcoholic Sam could get sober all on his own, surely he would do so. If he just wanted to stop, or control his drinking, or whatever, surely he would do that, *if* *he* *could*.

      But if he *can’t* do this all on his own, he is going to need help to do it.


      That “help,” whatever you call it, is *more* than just Sam struggling on his own. And if he wants to ask for help from God, hey, great. But if he wants to ask for help from the local AA group, hey, *also* great.

      I have no patience with folks who try to tell someone they cannot get sober without believing in God. I know people who have done so.

      And waddya know? They let believers believe, and non-believers work it their way, and tend to be quite healthy in their recovery.

      I do my best to follow their example.

      • life-j says:

        Rob, I can’t quite figure out what it is that you disagree with.

        Of course those of us who come to AA it is because we’re seeking HELP. And that help should then automatically be called “higher power” just because early Bill Wilson was peddling his religion?

        If we don’t separate “help” from “higher power” we will remain in this muddy religious mess.

        The group is not a higher power, it’s a group.

        The ocean is not a higher power, it’s an ocean.

        The universe is not a higher power, it’s the universe.

        Is the universe bigger than me? Sure, and so is a school bus. So what?

        A “higher power” is an interventionist all powerful entity which can be petitioned to change the course of normal events (even if Bill cautions us to only ask for its will for us). Anything which does not fit that description is not a higher power.

        I’m just hopeful to root out higher power talk from anything which is spoken or written *on my behalf* such as all official AA literature is: Deep down in every man woman and child is the idea of god.

        Things such as that are an insult to my autonomy and integrity as a human being.

  7. Phil G says:

    I have gone to Celebrate Recovery several times to support my wife telling her story (testimony). It is no more offensive than a church service, which it resembles closely, including the music. No surprises. Don’t think anyone shows up expecting anything different. Fortunately, my wife no longer attends. The problem I saw is that some of the CR folks also attend a specific AA meeting, and they tend to bring CR with them, like referencing scriptures. I avoid that meeting.

    • Rob D. says:

      Heh. I learned my lesson about *that* one years ago.

      I go to a 7 a.m. meeting at a local Methodist church. (So there is a stack of bibles in the room for other groups that use it.)

      One day, a gal was going on about how she tended to over complicate things, and that she felt herself unique in that. I bent over to grab a bible, to read the very end, where Namaan the Leper is lectured by his servant, to the effect that Namaan would have done something complicated if Elisha had demanded it. Since all Elisha asked him to do was a simple washing, why not give it a try? What would it cost him? If it worked, great, and if not, he was not out of anything anyway.


      I had several people walk out before I even spoke. I guess they thought I was going to give a moral lecture or something, but really, all I had intended was to demonstrate that over complicating things is nothing new… here is a four thousand year old story addressing that very thing.

      When people got up and walked out, I got the point, and kept my mouth shut.

      I am VERY damned careful of what I say in a meeting.

  8. Rob D. says:

    Very well-thought-out and stated.

    I am a Catholic priest, sober since 1986.

    I find groups such as “Celebrate Recovery” and “Alcoholics Victorious” a touch disturbing, but I suppose what they do is their business, and not mine. I never refer anyone to them, as I think they are founded on a poor assumption; that we can only get sober or maintain recovery by being around folks who think exactly as we do.

    While I consider it a truism that no alcoholic can get sober without a “Higher Power,” I don’t know that they have to define it the way I do. I have my Higher Power, and you have your own, which is likely something akin to: “Me working the steps as part of AA is a higher power than me trying this all on my own, which wasn’t working for me, anyway.”

    For me, that’s foundational, and probably needs to be there for *everyone,* believer, atheist, or agnostic. Anyone who wants to define it farther, well, that’s their business, isn’t it?

    I hope “Agnostic AA” can stick with the principle that “the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

    It will serve you well, and probably be the mark of “Real AA,” and keep you going when all these splinter groups are long forgotten.

  9. Boyd P. says:

    Life-j, thanks for your studious summary of the fundamentalist members of our fellowship. I wonder what some of them would say was left out. For this agnostic the conversation about inclusiveness is worthwhile with some of them, based upon my experience in the fellowship. I hear shares that are honestly searching. They often refer to experiences in nature, and that rings my bell. And there is a strong contingent extolling meditation, which brings me round to a home spun truism which I heard in a meeting, embracing humility, “I can’t fix my thinkin’ with my thinkin’.”

    • life-j says:

      Boyd, thanks.

      As far as our thinking goes, the common expression “my best thinking got me here” usually is taken to mean something like “I’m stupid, and I’m an alcoholic, and between the two I’m lucky there was a place like AA to scrape me off the pavement, and a god to lead me there”.

      But couldn’t it just as well mean “One day I pulled myself together, thunk some intelligent thoughts and said to myself, Life, I said, I better go get some help, and so I called AA”.

      I’m being deliberately goofy here, but the difference ought to be clear: I can either berate myself for the past, or give myself some credit for the present. I am likely to do the former if I “know” that god is doing it all for me. I can of course only do the latter if I don’t have a higher power to whom I ought to give all the glory.

      I am of the opinion that at the point when we have our wake-up call, whatever its character, that’s when we start fixing our thinking with our thinking. We become sensible, teachable, and we can take whatever credit seems reasonable for that, within a framework of reasonable humility. Of course much credit goes to the fellowship which helps us get back on track, and provides a framework for our growth, but the idea that I can’t fix a broken brain with a broken brain to me is simply an extension of the idea that without the Father I am nothing, because He is everything. We need empowerment, and we can’t have that if we start out by berating ourselves.

      My recovery started the day I said to myself “I need help” and went to AA.

      According to Bill Wilson’s false dichotomy it is either my will or god’s will. If indeed it is god’s will, then He led me there, and I rest at his bosom in eternal gratitude. If it is not His will, it doesn’t automatically follow that I’m selfish, self centered, egotistical and un-humble, though that was of course all to some degree true, all that follows is that I pulled myself together, and asked the fellowship for help. If that was not my thinking, then whose?

  10. Dan L says:

    Thank you for another great essay. I am still rolling life-j’s previous writing around in my mind. It was intensely moving and “spiritual”. This article just reminds me of the “spiritual imperialism” of religions, particularly christianity which attempts to dominate and control other people’s spiritual experience by claiming to have originated everything benevolent and claiming to be its sole arbiter. This leads to bigotry and exclusion which we know are NOT a part of our program. How many times does it have to be pointed out that we have no protocol or criteria to exclude or eject someone and such things require a prejudicial extrapolation and interpretation of other unrelated guidelines. The phrase “all who suffer” seems pretty inclusive to me. I see these exclusionists to be a bigger threat to AA than any agnostic…I mean they hope to convert us someday don’t they? To bring us to see the Light? I have read that in a place or two.

  11. Vic L. says:


  12. Gerry R. says:

    Many thanks for a fine article. In addition to your mention of the B.B.’s clarification that the program described is “suggestive only,” we should be aware of the clear statement on B.B. p. 93 that we don’t have to adopt anyone else’s concept of a god, all that’s required is that the concept [i.e., “good,” or “spirituality” or whatever] makes sense to us. Also helpful in supporting our position is the Appendix that softens substantially the idea of a “spiritual experience.”

    • life-j says:

      Gerry, thanks for joining in.

      Page 93 kind of feels like a plea bargain: I don’t have to adopt anyone else’s concept of god – I just have to accept someone else’s concept that there is one.

      • Sam M. says:

        Right, the key being accepting they believe one exists. But it doesn’t explicitly (nor implicitly) say the belief in a supernatural HP is a requirement to achieve sucessful recovery.At some points in the Big Book it directly implies that, but it’s mainly out of avoiding repetition, the limitation not to qualify or explain the open interpretation of Higher Power, God, spirituality, et al., every single time the concept of surrendering our ego driven, maladaptive, alcohol soaked way of running things is alluded to, which is often, especially in the later chapters.

        The essential concept of Higher Power for me as an atheist is the notion of other, not me, outside my finite individuality, outside my self-centered, ego maniacal, drug abusing self. There are infinite powers greater (Higher) than me, both in human form and in nature. All that is required is recognition, surrender or belief in this fact that I am limited, and that I need the fellowship, a power greater than myself, to get out of myself, to get connected to others, to receive the counseling, advice, friendship, guidance, etc from other AAs, which grants me the opportunity to get better, & live a reasonably happy, effective sober life.

        Belief in the sense of I believe in the goodness of humans, or I believe the Falcons are going to win on Sunday. Evidence-based belief. I believe appealing to a Higher Power, and working the steps will ensure I maintain good recovery (not using, of course, is #1). #PlugInTheJug

  13. Paul E. says:

    Thank you Roger and Life J. I’ve been watching this stuff come flying by for several decades now, but I don’t think I understood how ‘organized’ it was. Sometimes it gets funny. In the area where I live some of the fundamentalist groups seem to be fighting with each other, raging away at the other groups about fine points I didn’t understand until now. Mostly though, it appears to me as if power is their main objective. Each of their proponents wants to be the ‘great man’ or ‘great woman’ in AA in the area. In my opinion, it’s not so much a matter of ideology as a matter of power, who is in charge, and all that. Curiously, they are worldwide also. One of their strongest actors spends half his time in AA groups in Southeast Asia.

Translate »