Chapter 9: Back to Basics and Other Religionists
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.
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.
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.
Dick 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.
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: https://alcoholicsvictorious.org/
2 Celebrate Recovery: http://www.celebraterecovery.com/
3 AA Cultwatch: http://aacultwatch.blogspot.ca/
4 Big Book Seminar: http://bigbookseminar.org/
5 The Primary Purpose Group of Alcoholics Anonymous: http://ppgaadallas.org/
6 AA Back to Basics: http://www.aabacktobasics.org/
7 Dick B’s Web Site: http://www.dickb.com/index.html
8 Gresham’s Law and Alcoholics Anonymous: http://www.barefootsworld.net/aagreshamslaw.html
9 Minority Opinion Appeal To AA Fellowship: https://aaagnostica.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Minority-Opinion-Appeal-to-AA-Fellowship.pdf
10 White Paper: https://aaagnostica.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/White-Paper.pdf
11 Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/with-humor-popular-alcoholics-anonymous-speaker-sandy-beach-saved-lives/2014/12/06/6574f254-7cdb-11e4-9a27-6fdbc612bff8_story.html
12 Stories of Recovery: http://storiesofrecovery.org/SandyB.htm
A History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.
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