Chapter 10: Conformity and Conventional AA
Conventional AA meetings can be both religious and conformist.
Religiosity: There can be a lot of God on placards and in readings and in Conference-approved pamphlets and books on literature tables. And meetings can end with the Lord’s Prayer (even though AA claims to be “spiritual not religious”). And this is unfortunately true in most AA meetings in North America.
Conformism: “The adoption of the ideas, attitudes, behavior, etc, of the group to which one belongs”.
In too many cases (in meetings or Intergroup) these ideas and attitudes can be pushed on others as the one way. The only way. That can be called authoritarianism: demanding that people agree and denying them the possibility to believe or act as they wish.
Where does all that come from? Is it from the fundamentalist groups and individuals described in an earlier chapter? Is it from the origins of AA in the 1930s in the Christian evangelical pietism of the Oxford Group? Is it merely a feature of tribalism (“loyalty to a political or social group, so that the group is supported unconditionally”) which in turn is a part of being human, and in this specific case a part of being a vulnerable and recovering alcoholic in AA?
Or is it all of the above?
In a talk given by Bill Wilson at a General Service Conference in 1965 in New York he declared, “Our very first concern should be with those sufferers that we are still unable to reach”. And then he asked, “How much and how often did we fail them?”
Surely some of that failure is a result of the religiosity of, and conformity within, AA.
So let’s talk about that.
Let’s begin at the beginning. In 1939. A long, long time ago. Bill Wilson and a handful of people he met with regularly had a few years of sobriety and relied upon half a dozen word-of-mouth principles to maintain their sobriety.
Bill remembers: “I split the word-of-mouth program up into smaller pieces… I was surprised that in a short time, perhaps half an hour, I had set down certain principles which, on being, counted, turned out to be twelve in number.”
That’s where the 12 Steps come from. Bill continues, “For some unaccountable reason, I had moved the idea of God into the Second Step, right up front. Besides I had named God very liberally throughout the other steps. In one of the steps I had even suggested that the newcomer get down on his knees.” (“Where Did The Twelve Steps Come From”, AA Grapevine, 1953)
And yes, God is mentioned very often in the Steps, even in the edited version published in April, 1939 in Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism (the original title of the book).
Exactly half of the 12 Steps contain a reference to God. The first is a reference to “a Power greater than ourselves” (Step 2), two refer to “God, as we understood Him” (Steps 3 and 11), another two simply say “God” (Steps 5 and 6) and one refers to God as “Him” (Step 7).
That’s a lot of God for a few short sentences. But at least the newcomer is no longer told to get down on his knees.
This is a Christian God. An anthropomorphic God (“Him”).
An interventionist God. In “How It Works”, Chapter 5 of Alcoholics Anonymous, the reader is told:
(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
(c) That God could and would if He were sought.
This is a quite specifically a Christian – and thus a religious – conception of God. Christianity conceives of God as personal and active in the governance of the world. In the Steps, one can have “conscious contact with God” (Step 11) and God can do things such as remove our defects of character and our shortcomings (Steps 6 and 7). This interventionist God (“God could and would if He were sought”), derived from the Oxford Group, is a Christian conception of God.
Thus the “religiosity” of conventional AA.
Never mind the “as you understand Him” part. No matter how hard you try to break away, to escape from the religiosity of AA, you are inevitably driven back to the anthropomorphic and interventionist – Christian and religious – deity of the Big Book and the 12 Steps.
It would be a relief to say that the religiosity of conventional AA ended there, with the Steps and the Big Book some eighty years ago, but it didn’t.
In 1990, some fifty years after the Big Book was published, AA published another “Conference-approved” book. This one was called Daily Reflections. An excellent review of the book by life-j was published on AA Agnostica on January 17, 2017: The Daily Reflections1.
It is meant for the alcoholic who wishes to begin his or her day with an inspiring reading, something that will be supportive and help him or her to maintain another day of abstinence from alcohol. As life-j reports, the vast majority of the daily reflections have the following script:
No matter what the beginning quote, and no matter what the following “reflection” says about that quote, and even no matter whether or not it even says something intelligent, or coherent about that reflection, which is far from always the case – somehow, even if there has been nothing up to that point to warrant it – they invoke god in (usually) the last three lines. Gratitude toward god, or just plain talking about the things god does in the ordinary course of existence.
In the end, 242 of the 365 daily reflections talk about God. That’s two out of three days.
A good number of AA meetings begin with the Daily Reflections.
It’s just another example of the religiosity of conventional AA. It isn’t just what was written in 1939. It’s what official AA approved and promoted a half a century after the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous, and continues to promote today.
The religiosity of AA.
This is certainly something that has been recognized and acknowledged by the high Courts in the United States. They have repeatedly reviewed the evidence at hand and concluded that “a fair reading of the fundamental AA doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious.” (New York Court of Appeals, 1996) You can read more about these court rulings, and their implications, at AA Agnostica: The Courts, AA and Religion2.
When asked about this view of the Courts, the General Service Office will typically say that it can’t comment because a Court’s opinion is an “outside issue”. No it’s not.
It’s an inside issue.
So, the newcomer has finally reached – or is getting close to reaching – the end of her drinking and she decides to go to an AA meeting.
What she will probably see first, because this is the case in the vast majority of AA meetings, is a very large placard at the front of the room with the 12 Steps. “Power… God… God… God… Him… God… Him…”
A large number of AA meetings begin with a reading of “How It Works”. So the 12 Steps will be read for everybody present, in case they have never yet heard them, as they were written three quarters of a century ago. Again: “Power… God… God… God… Him… God… Him…”
And here are a few other quotes from that reading:
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves…
Remember that we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now!
But there is a surprise coming. “How It Works” always ends with the two points mentioned in the previous section:
(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
(c) That God could and would if He were sought.
And the surprise? Everyone in the room joins in and chants the last point: “That God could and would if He were sought!”
The meeting goes on. Often it will be a speaker who will share “what it was like, what happened and what it is like now”. Or the celebration of a sobriety anniversary. Or a discussion of various topics. Sometimes if the audience is large enough it will break into groups for discussions. There is a variety of fellowship meeting formats.
But it’s how it ends…
Today, across North America, many meetings end with the Lord’s Prayer.
All those present will stand up and reach out to one another, and hold hands. Presumably that includes the newcomer. And then the Chair of the meeting will say something like, “Who’s in charge?” And then everyone recites the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, For ever and ever. Amen.
That is pretty much, give or take a point here or there, a conventional AA meeting.
The newcomer in AA is a very vulnerable human being.
And “those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program…”
And this “simple program” will be coming at her from all different directions within conventional AA. The Big Book, on the Literature table. The 12 Steps as published in 1939 and included in every single pamphlet on the Literature table. And God, who “could and would if He were sought”.
Conventional AA can be groupings of rather dogmatic women and men. These ideas and attitudes can be pushed on the newcomer as the one way. The only way.
Bill Wilson saw it coming.
“It is a historical fact,” he said, “that practically all groupings of men and women tend to become dogmatic. Their beliefs and practices harden and sometimes freeze. This is a natural and almost inevitable process.” (Responsibility is Our Theme3)
It is actually quite astonishing and dreadful how many people believe that everything you need to know about alcoholism, and recovery from alcoholism, is in the first 164 pages of Alcoholics Anonymous. These people, more than anything or anyone else, can make going to conventional AA meetings very difficult.
It is not our goal to rewrite the Big Book.
It is an historical document. It was published in 1939. It was the wisdom of a handful of white, middle-class, and mostly Christian, men. It was profoundly influenced by the Oxford Group, which was a Christian “evangelical pietist” movement. What does that mean? The “evangelical” part involves fervor for carrying the message of the gift of an omnipotent God. The “pietist” part expresses an aversion to the idea that humans are sufficient unto themselves. These ideas blossomed in the mid-1930s and were present in the Oxford Group and influenced a nascent AA. That’s where God and a higher Power emerged in AA. That’s what directly fed the idea that “probably no human power” could relieve our alcoholism and that we alcoholics, in particular, are riddled with character defects. Beyond all that Alcoholics Anonymous has two horrible chapters: “To Wives”, which is incredibly disrespectful of women, and “We Agnostics”, which is incredibly disrespectful of those not saddled by a Christian faith or religion.
Still, it is not our goal to rewrite the Big Book.
We can learn in other ways and read other more contemporary (mostly “non-Conference-approved”) literature. That is an obvious and rather inevitable way forward.
And the 12 Step program as written in 1939 is neither the best nor the only way to sobriety. The best way is whatever works for the recovering alcoholic. One of the more important moments in my own recovery was the discovery of William White, the author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, and his commitment to the celebration of all paths to recovery.
It opened the door. It allowed me to move forward in different ways, at the same time, without hesitation. It provided me with the understanding that we all have our own unique recoveries, even if we use a similar “path” or “road” to recovery. Most alcoholics have problems – psychological, emotional, mental – other than alcoholism. Indeed over sixty percent of AA members receive outside treatment for concurrent disorders.
So, in the end, it makes perfect sense that each path to recovery is unique and ought to be celebrated.
It also makes perfect sense that the 12 Steps as written in 1939 are neither the best nor the only path to recovery. In fact, with “God”, “Him” or “Power” in six of the 12 Steps, and with the way in which they reflect an odd and antiquated “evangelical pietism” of the Oxford group in 1930s, the Steps can indeed seem a tad outdated.
Which is not to say that the Steps can’t be used and/or adapted to be a relevant, crucial and often life-changing path to sobriety, which they are for many people.
That’s not the problem. The problem is an authoritarian approach in conventional AA that pushes the 12 Steps as written, and the Big Book, and the need for a God “who could and would if He were sought”, as the sole legitimate path to recovery from alcoholism.
That is not rare in AA. That is quite common in conventional AA.
Just get used to it? No thank you.
As Bill Wilson put it, “Simply because we have convictions that work very well for us, it becomes quite easy to assume that we have all of the truth. Whenever this brand of arrogance develops we are sure to become aggressive. We demand agreement with us. We play God.”
We have seen the aggression. We have seen the dogmatism. We have seen those who “play God” in Alcoholics Anonymous.
And as Bill concludes, “This isn’t good dogma. This is very bad dogma. It could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of thing.” (Responsibility is Our Theme)
Indeed. It may well be the most prevalent and harmful element in AA today.
1 The Daily Reflections: https://aaagnostica.org/2017/01/19/the-daily-reflections/
2 The Courts, AA and Religion: https://aaagnostica.org/2012/05/27/the-courts-aa-and-religion/
3 Responsibility is Our Theme: https://aaagnostica.org/2012/10/07/responsibility-is-our-theme/
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