Chapter 10: Conformity and Conventional AA

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.

Religiosity

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.

Conformity

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/


A History of Agnostics in AAA History of Agnostics in AA is available as a paperback or Kindle eBook at Amazon US and Amazon Canada and also at Amazon United Kingdom.

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Want to help us get the word out about we agnostics in AA? Just click here:

We want to send copies of the book to trustees, members of the GSO and area delegates and chairpersons and each book, with shipping, costs about $25. The more we share the merrier! (Here is a letter from Michelle Mirza, the Chief Archivist at the General Service Office.) We will let you know by email which AA members have received your complimentary copy of A History of Agnostics in AA. This project – and your help – is an important part of “moving forward” as a secular movement within the fellowship of AA.


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Chapter 10: Conformity and Conventional AA — 26 Comments

  1. Finally got round to dowoading the book on my Kindle. Enjoyed this interchange as well. Got a plane journey Monday so will have some I teresting reading. Thanks Roger. Regards, Tony L

  2. Atheists are not practicing the AA program if they do not use a higher power to achieve sobriety. “We Agnostics” does not say that you can be an atheist and get sober; it says that you should put aside your arrogance and believe in a higher power.

    Here is a section from page 44 and 45:

    If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophies did not save us, no matter how much we tried. We could wish to be moral, we could wish to be philosophically comforted, in fact, we could will these things with all our might, but the needed power wasn’t there. Our human resources, as marshalled by the will, were not sufficient; they failed utterly.

    Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?

    Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. Here difficulty arises with agnostics. Many times we talk to a new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship. But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored.

    Let me emphasize two sentences that drives home my point – “Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.” The authors clearly state that a higher power is the only solution to alcoholism. People recover based on other methods, but AA’s “main object” is to get alcoholics to develop a connection with a higher power.

    • Jeff, you are certainly right that the Big book as written in 1938 can be interpreted this way. As with many religious books, though, enough contradictory quotes can be found in it to support almost any position. (“The steps are suggestions only”, etc.) We can then take two paths – one would be to say that Bill Wilson at three years sober didn’t necessarily know everything, even though every three years sober alcoholic thinks they do, and thus everything in the Big Book ought to be taken with a grain of salt – or the other path we can take is to follow Bill as his sobriety matured, where he made some effort to moderate his stance on the whole god issue:

      In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking with this sort of unconscious arrogance. God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers. (The dilemma of no faith, 1961).

      As for the path you’re taking of taking the 1939 Big Book as the last word on sobriety, I do think you ought to leave it up to each person whether they want to go along with you on that. If you read the Big Book with a truly open mind you might come to the same conclusion as me. An open mind includes being aware of flaws in an argument.

      Though it is not my place to do or not do, I do want to welcome you here. But it puzzles me that you would bother writing this argument on an AA agnostic web page. The average length of sobriety attained by members of this group is probably higher than average AA, myself I have been gratefully sober for 30 years, during which time I have gone to around 4000 meetings, and I can’t help but wonder why you would think I haven’t already heard your position a hundred times, if not a thousand, and that I came here because I found your position on the higher power stuff unnecessary to me, bordering on the loathsome, and that I came here because I wanted support to investigate alternative spiritual paths to sobriety, not more of the same old higher power stuff you’re presenting.

      I do not care what the chapter “We Agnostics” says. I think it is the most loathsome chapter in the book. Bill Wilson was not right in everything he concocted at three years sober, far from it, even if he had pulled together a few other good ideas, such as that an alcoholic is likely to trust another alcoholic more than just about anyone else, and therefore two alcoholics are most likely to be able to help each other stay sober. And a number of other good ideas, but the higher power stuff is not one of them.

      • My point is that AA is completely oriented around developing and maintaining a conscious contact with a higher power. How are the steps not rooted in developing a conscious contact with a higher power?

        I am an atheist myself and have had my ideas ridiculed at basically every meeting in my community. They tell me that a Higher Power is necessary to achieve sobriety, and the book clearly states that claim. The people at those meetings also told me to get off my antidepressants and mood stabilizers because God will cure all aspects of my alcoholism; they essentially dismissed the fact that I have bipolar disorder and I was trying to treat it.

        Needless to say, I became manic and relapsed. According to the Big Book, the relapse was my fault because I would have stayed sober if I was just completely honest with myself.

        I have been on a suboxone maintenance program for three years and have not had an issue with drugs or alcohol since then. I believe that AA and 12 step based programs ignore scientific developments, and the nature of the program nearly cost me my life. My friends are now outside of the program because people in AA believe that I am not clean. The first year on suboxone was the hardest for me because I had to reorient my life; my friends abandoned me because I decided to give a maintenance program a shot.

        The God aspect is the most dangerous part of AA, but it is the foundation of AA. I do not see how the program can be the same without God.

      • It’s easy for me to accept that you can’t accept the suggested 12 Step program of recovery, yes it isn’t the same without God, so we agree. However, by using the same self-examination dynamics without faith / God is my reality and numerous others. We are examples of complete recovery from the symptom alcoholism, based on addressing the problem(s) of the past and using the 10th Step continuum through self-examination for continued growth.

    • The AA text (12 Steps) isn’t well written i.e., context and syntax; contextually it has contradictions, e.g. Foreword Page xiii. “To show other alcoholics PRECISELY HOW WE HAVE RECOVERED is the main purpose of this book.”

      It also appeals to the outside community, “Inquiry by scientific, medical, and religious societies will be welcomed.”

      This is the initial Foreword as it was published in 1939:

      We, OF Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. To show other alcoholics PRECISELY HOW WE HAVE RECOVERED is the main purpose of this book. For them, we hope these pages will prove so convincing that no further authentication will be necessary. We think this account of our experiences will help everyone to better understand the alcoholic. Many do not comprehend that the alcoholic is a very sick person. And besides, we are sure that our way of living has its advantages for all.

      It is important that we remain anonymous because we are too few, at present to handle the overwhelming number of personal appeals which may result from this publication. Being mostly business or professional folk, we could not well carry on our occupations in such an event. We would like it understood that our alcoholic work is an avocation.

      When writing or speaking publicly about alcoholism, we urge each of our Fellowship to omit his personal name, designating himself instead as “a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.”

      Very earnestly we ask the press also, to observe this request, for otherwise we shall be greatly handicapped. We are not an organization in the conventional sense of the word. There are no fees or dues whatsoever. The only requirement for membership is an honest desire to stop drinking. We are not allied with any particular faith, sect or denomination, nor do we oppose anyone. We simply wish to be helpful to those who are afflicted.

      We shall be interested to hear from those who are getting results from this book, particularly from those who have commenced work with other alcoholics. We should like to be helpful to such cases.

      Inquiry by scientific, medical, and religious societies will be welcomed.

      Alcoholics Anonymous.

      I am not faith based, yet in conjunction with my psychotherapy, the text Alcoholics Anonymous enhanced my recovery by engendering moderation and compromise, which is my design for living. Here’s a few examples. I believe that “Alcoholism is the cure for that of which purports to be the disease”. Page 45, it reads, “Lack of power, that was our dilemma”. Well, for me, the reason why there’s a dilemma, is my attempt to have power over that which I have no power i.e., people, places and things. Thus, my design for living is ACCEPTING that power is an illusion, and that “Lack of power is my most precious asset”. To quote Dr. Paul Oligher, (who I happen to have known), 3rd Edition, Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict, page 452, and 4th Edition Acceptance Was The Answer, page 420, “my serenity is directly proportional to my level of acceptance.”

      • “The God aspect is the most dangerous part of AA, but it is the foundation of AA. I do not see how the program can be the same without God.”

        I believe the very foundation of AA is fellowship. AA’s suggested program came years later.

        Also, the BB never suggests a higher power. It is, always, a Higher Power. In typical AA meetings, a lower case hp is only a stepping stone to an upper case HP (eventually you’ll get it). Let’s not intermix the two. Everyone has every right to decide what a higher power means to them or reject the concept entirely.

        The Big Book (and all other texts) is nothing more than a guide. Each of us come to our sobriety in a very personal way. As long as sobriety is achieved, there is no right or wrong way.

        As adults, we get to decide our own path. Even the most fervent dogmatic BB thumper has decided that path.

    • Jeff, sounds like you’ve been through the wringer with AA in the worst way, and basically I agree with you, the program as originally written is mostly about establishing our relationship with god (p 29), sometimes it seems more so than helping other alcoholics.

      But that shouldn’t keep us from making our own way of recovering, defining our own program, and by all means, seeking outside help when needed, and telling the fundamentalist oldtimers off when needed.

      • The AA text is a suggested recovery program, there’s no dogma. AA meetings are not a suggested recovery program. Chapter 5, “How It Works”, Page 59 reads, “Here are the STEPS we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery”. It doesn’t read, here are the MEETINGS we attended which are suggested as a program of recovery.

        The book As Bill Sees It is a mini concordance. On page 95 Bill Wilson shows a passage from an AA history book AA Comes of Age. It reads, “Our group conscience was at work to construct the most acceptable and effective book possible. Every voice was playing its appointed part. Our atheists and agnostics widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief of lack of belief.”

        Among the AA founders many were Christian, some were agnostic and atheist, each shared their individual experience with recovery. The agnostics, and atheists influenced the 12 Steps where it reads in Steps 3 and 11, “God as we understood Him.” It’s a given, since AA has no dogma that God as we understood Him doesn’t apply to atheists. Therefore, since there is no dogma in the AA suggested recovery program, my standard of recovery is my prerogative.

        I’ve been observing the AA fellowship / meetings for well over 50 years and basically the push back directed on my viewpoint from the AA fellowship is from those that don’t have critical thinking skills and / or they haven’t read the AA text or comprehended what they read. They also don’t understand AA history.

        What helps me have compassion for those that push back, is that many are abstinent, but not sober, due to still having the desire to drink or the fear that they might relapse. There’s a distinct difference between sobriety and abstinence. As David Stewart, MD. writes from his book Thirst for Freedom, “Few people realize that sobriety is an action of insights and skills far beyond mere abstinence. Sobriety is a creative discipline in the art of freedom of growth and of love. To be yourself is to become yourself.”

  3. Bill Wilson got the Abrahamic tenets (Judeo-Christian / Muslim) from Sam Shoemaker, i.e. self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others.

    Bill Wilson was attempting to profit from what was to become Alcoholics Anonymous (12 Steps), by using the #12 as a religious symbolism to attract more readers.

    Years ago when I got push back from the group think, especially when it was a gang mentality, I reminded them that Alcoholics Anonymous is a suggested program of recovery. That AA meetings are not the suggested program of recovery, the steps (Alcoholics Anonymous) is the suggested program of recovery as cited in Chapter 5, page 59. I sometimes added, that Bill Wilson said it was based on what he wrote on page 26 of the 12×12. It reads in First Person Singular:

    First, Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything. All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions. Second, to get sober and to stay sober, you don’t have to swallow all of Step Two right now. Looking back, I find that I took it piecemeal myself. Third, all you really need is a truly open mind. Just resign from the debating society and quit bothering yourself with such deep questions as whether it was the hen or the egg that came first. Again I say, all you need is the open mind.

    His open mind led him to the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous (12 Steps) i.e. to get from Step 1 to Step 2. Step 2 can’t be taken as the remaining Steps. Step 2 is the destination and the journey is self-examination which is Steps 4 through 9 (past). Step 10 is the continuum (future). As he stated on page 27, in the 12×12, “To acquire it (sanity), I had only to stop fighting and practice the rest of AA’s program as enthusiastically as I could (Steps 4 though 9).”

    For some a Power greater than themselves is God, for me it was my faith in others, some were AA fellowship members and my psychotherapist which Alcoholics Anonymous suggests.

    Respectfully, all belief is valid, when it becomes invalid, is when it is injurious.

  4. While I still occasionally attend a “traditional” meeting, primarily because of long term friends, I found an Agnostic meeting weeks ago and am quite comfortable and happy with that group… And from reactions of some when I mention my attendance at the Agnostic meeting, I suspect there are many within “traditional” groups that share doubts.

  5. This program is what you get when a three years sober salesman decides to write a book about alcoholism, I guess…

    To his credit he later put a fair amount of effort into backpeddling on his big book stance.

    But this all begs the question: Who does this program belong to?

    All alcoholics in need of help, or only those alcoholics who have a religious mindset, and for whom the 1938 message rings true? I would say the latter would have been just fine if it hadn’t been for the fact that AA has worked so diligently on getting a virtual monopoly on recovery. If AA had not so aggressively “attracted rather than promoted” us alcoholics, and other programs had had an equal opportunity to get in on helping those in need, it would have been fine as it is. AA could have been a christian recovery program along with alcoholics victorious, and whatever.

    Maybe the problem started when the courts started sending people to AA? At that point AA became *the* government endorsed manner of recovery. It seems like AA has a great responsibility to divest itself of that role. I still sign court cards, but it is problematic.

    • Has anyone considered leaving AA and start our own movement. I am interested in starting a meeting for agnostics in recovery not AA. If anyone has any experience I am interested in your comments.

      • Exiting AA and forming ad hoc groups happens more than we might suspect, since documentation is impossible. Most of us are aware of specific examples. Meditation is often a vehicle for focusing such groups. Good luck to all forms of recovery and at the same time keep AA strong. Hmmm. As with economic models, must AA grow in numbers to be sustainable? What criteria define vitality for AA?

      • Mike, outside of AA there are several recovery programs already, lifering, SOS, smart recovery, which are non-religious, perhaps others too. I can see little point in starting yet another one, seems that one of those, or secular AA ought to suffice for the moment. But we do need more of an effort to co-ordinate startups of secular AA meetings, and better regional networking.

  6. I have great respect for your writing and opinion. I consider myself Agnostic, at least, I think my family sees as agnostic. My husband is atheist, a scientist and physician. So I’m not unacquainted with your point.

    However, I have still been able to benefit from AA and the 12 Steps. I don’t really know exactly how. Don’t get me wrong, I have the same analytical, skeptical mind that you do. But I’m unclear – let AA be AA. It’s got those things written in the book – but I don’t believe in the Christian God. I like the example of Jesus Christ, but I don’t think he rose from the dead, which has permanently exiled me in some sense from my family (not literally but I’m an outsider) and literally from the Catholic religion in which I was raised and for which I also have great respect. They taught me faith without works was dead before AA did. My mother took me to soup kitchens to feed the poor at a young age, and I love the Jesuits, who are basically agnostic Catholics. What’s wrong with liking the example of a historical person in Jesus Christ? A human being who taught peace?

    I’m not arguing with you, I’m just unclear. I have felt what you feel, about how you kind of have to believe in a Power Greater than Yourself – many people where I attend meetings use the group at their Higher Powers. Myself, I haven’t ruled out a Spirit of the Universe as believed in by Indians (they don’t actually like being called Native Americans). I feel spirituality – I don’t know if it’s just part of being human, or of being a spirit trapped in a body. But I tend to think the latter. My body fails me all the time, as does my great “brain.” Do you believe in the disease concept of alcoholism? Then you know the brain fails us. If the brain fails us, what can be rely on? Others, surely.

    That’s enough for me right now, but why not allow AA to be AA and live and let live? I say this, but I still respect what you write.

    • Anne, the problem, as I see it is that AA has positioned itself to be the one and only recovery program, even if it says it isn’t in a few places.

      A number of other programs have sprung up, and had varying degrees of success, which mostly is a function of not their merit, but of the fact that AA is the program that all recovery centers and the courts use, and therefore the other programs do not get much of a chance to get into the mix.

      I think it is the religious foundation of the AA program that is to blame for this. Christians in general have been raised to proselytize, and missionarize, to think that their brand of spirituality is the only true one (as do some other religions too) and that has carried over into the the way AA carries itself. We must spread the Gospel of Bill for the sake of our salvation, well, those of us who are religious anyway. So between that, and the recovery centers, and the courts taking an active role in the growth of AA, AA is now a public institution. I would claim that it has forfeited its traditions and it’s a little bit like the privately owned banks that are “too big to fail”, and the government bails them out – the distinction between AA being it’s own program, and the public interest in helping alcoholics get sober – has been lost.

      It is a muddy area, because just like the banks remaining unaccountable after their failures, so is AA unaccountable to the public for the religious brand of recovery it perpetrates, and yet it has, for all practical purposed been given this monopoly.

      We could have started yet one more secular program outside of AA but what would have been the point? It seems that working from inside AA to make it change is the only option that will be workable. It is of course another thing that many of us, while not necessarily subscribing to any concept of a higher power (which I personally think is one of the worst problems with the program), still like the concept of “spirituality”, however nebulous, and abused that concept is, and AA is the only program that encourages such an approach, even if it mixes it all up with religion, which is not good.

      But bottom line is that AA has allowed itself to become a “publicly traded” entity, and so, as an alcoholic who is a non-believer, I feel that as a member of the general public I also have a moral right to participate in discussing what AA should be. If AA had insisted from the beginning that it should not be used by recovery centers, and had not encouraged the courts to send people here, it would have remained independent of the public, and it would have been different.

      • Just as Bill Wilson said, (paraphrased), We don’t have the market cornered on recovery. AA text reads on Page 164, Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.

        Many recovery centers use the 12 Step model, but not all.

        Aversion Therapy for addiction works, and the recidivism rate is not any higher than recovery centers, AA and other recovery programs.

        In general, most Christian denominations don’t proselytize / testify.

        The AA text doesn’t carry itself this way, but many AA fellowships do, especially in the Bible Belt. It’s the Bible Belt meetings prerogative to do so, for each AA fellowship is autonomous.

        The courts are essentially ignorant re: recovery and ignorantly coercing. With the exception of closed meetings, the AA fellowship is open to anyone. Even at closed meetings, one doesn’t have to prove “the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking”. The 12 Traditions are suggested guidelines, not dogmatic.

        The bank analogy is a false equivalency. For some it’s religious, for others it’s not religious, but spiritual. For me it’s an extension of my North American Aboriginal spirituality. I know and have known over the years Buddhists that are atheist that follow a spiritual path. Buddha was Hindu, as I know some Christians and Jews follow a Buddhist path.

        The Spiritual Experience in the AA text for me has the wording that engendered my recovery. It reads “an unsuspected inner resource” In other words, for me, I moved in the direction of not doing the outsides and practice where the answers exist. It’s an inside job!

        In the context of “an unsuspected inner resource” It goes on to read, “Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it “God-consciousness.” AA history shows that there were non-religious members, some of whom were agnostic and atheist.

    • To the extent that I say, “AA says you can’t do that” or “AA insists I do this” I am abdicating my responsibility. If we AAs were a top-down organization, AA would dictate what me and my group reads, our rituals, and what we could and could not reject or embrace.

      I have been to dozens of meetings in the world that don’t read the Steps. Don’t like them? Don’t read them; write your own if you like.

      Is that un-AA? Back to who is responsible, my group and I decide what “AA” wants and expects because our group is the highest court in AA. No one can take our AA status away. Toronto’s failed attempt proved that; did agnostic AA grow or wain in the light of Intergroup discrimination? They grew. Members in Toronto – not Intergroup decided how vital agnostic groups would be. Also, in Toronto there wasn’t even a hint of interruption to group status or legitimacy. When AA gets things right it gets no press at all. Discrimination is bad yet bias is part of our human nature. But in an inverted triangle, imposing discriminatory will has limited impact. No one can tell me if I am or am not a member or how I must or must not conduct myself.

      For the vast majority of AA, a supernatural view of addiction and recovery is observed and preferred. What they do at groups I don’t attend does not persecute me. If I’m a minority it is an uncomfortable fact that most people will speak in assumptions that don’t apply to me. “Separating the men from the boys” is ageist and sexist. “Walk the walk” excluded the disabled, “God could and would if he were sought” excludes the atheist, “To Wives” assumes hetero-normative, sexist ideas of family. So in a meeting of mostly heterosexual, 40+, mostly male, mostly theistic members, a sixteen-year-old trans atheist might not feel that everyone is speaking their language. Is that persecution? Is it unfair? An interesting question perhaps. More sensitivity is a good thing. We are AA; this site is AA if it says it is.

      Our home group is AA – the highest rung on the AA latter? If we don’t like our group, we switch groups or start our own. There is some tyranny of the majority in AA. If a minority wants a pamphlet about this or that it needs substantial unanimity for AA’s General Service Office to fit the bill. But any group can create any literature they want for their own purposes. If I want freedom/liberty, then will I take responsibility? This is the true meaning of “it’s a selfish program.” No one owes me anything, no one’s going to do the work or inject me with motivation. These things come from within. If I drink did anyone let me down? I guess that could fall to how each of us look at it.

      It’s good to agitate, express ourselves, criticize and make suggestions. I do my fair share of it. But my sobriety comes first and AA doesn’t owe that to me. My sobriety is my responsibility. That’s the wisdom of our upside down triangle structure with groups (and members) at the top and the service structure subserviently below. Only I can assure my continued sobriety. Only the members of my group can determine what’s best for us. This puts equal and high authority with the high level of responsibility that the member and group holds.

      I have enjoyed this book and I enjoy this feedback. People are passionate. It expresses a love for fellow alcoholics. If anything I say is or feels disagreeable, I really don’t mean to contradict anyone. I feel free to express my own feelings, experiences and observations and I do.

  7. “That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.” The authors of the Big Book had no understanding of the probability of human power. I give them credit for even using the word “probably.” I’m guessing there was some arm twisting going on regarding this when the book was being written. Nonetheless, it’s a wide enough hole for us to drive our secular truck through.

    Thank you, Roger, for continuing to post your book. I’ve enjoyed reading it again.

    • Never thought about the word “probably” and I love your thought that it leaves a wide enough hole for a secular truck to drive through — Genius!

    • What I learned at my first group which was a traditional group, that no human power meant that no new woman in my life, no new job, no new car, no new relationships, could relieve my alcoholism!

      I had to find out why I drank and when I did the antidote was the principals of the program. Cheers Daniel.

      • Sure Daniel. But I strongly suspect you had the “inner resources” (human power) to get sober and maintain your sobriety.

        Probably. And that in spite of what you might have read in the Big Book, or heard in your “traditional” group.

      • We, as humans, have power. Fellowship is a human power. Love is a human power. There are many very human sources of power that get downplayed to promote a dependence on a supernatural power. All those things you mention, Daniel, are true. Fortunately, there is much more to the arguments for or against human power.

  8. Well written Roger. I’ve been on both sides of these issues before and I do understand the thinking that many in AA have – I don’t necessarily agree with it but I understand it. I now see clearer than ever that if AA is to keep going, it will need to “loosen up” and change. One of the many things that drove me from “mainstream” AA/CA/NA was the defensive reactions when any criticism was made, especially from “outsiders”. The “they don’t know what they’re talking about” attitude and the close-mindedness eventually got to me. I’m glad and content going to Agnostic/Atheist/Freethinkers meetings where it’s ok to have different opinions and experiences. A place where the idea of “many different paths to recovery/sobriety” is truly celebrated.