A Secular Sobriety – Review
“Here is what I think it might have looked like if it were written in a secular manner with the sole intention of promoting sobriety and not religious conversion.”
Dale K. (Page 44)
By Thomas B.
With a stunning leap of areligious imagination, Dale K., author of A Secular Sobriety – Including a Secular Version of the First 164 Pages of the Big Book, has shared his story of secular recovery in AA and rewritten the first 164 pages of the Big Book from a non-religious, secular point of view.
Sober in AA for over 36 years in Florida, Dale describes in the Introduction and the first three chapters of the book how he got sober and stayed actively engaged within AA despite rampant Christian religiosity in the majority of meetings he attended — “During my early days in AA it seemed like I was the only skeptic in a sea of religious disciples.”
After a period of time, when it became apparent that he was not going to “get it” as Bill wrote about in Chapter 4 of the Big Book, “We Agnostics,” his sponsor arranged for him a meeting with the Resident Agnostic. This long-time sober member of AA related to Dale that his solution was to insert an additional “o” every time he heard the “God” word, translating it to be “good.”
During his first year of recovery in AA, despite tremendous peer pressure to find and accept God as his higher power, Dale was nevertheless able to stay sober. During his second year he decided to take a closer look at religion. He read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, as well as the Bible. He quips that he remained contemptuous of the Old Testament, relating that his former “contempt prior to investigation” had been converted to “contempt during investigation!”
However, when he read John 4:16, he experienced an eureka kind of a moment, “‘God is love’. Holy shit! I mean…literally…HOLY shit!!!” He closed the Bible and never picked it up again. This was his Spiritual Experience: “It was sudden and profound. It was lovely. I had the biggest grin on my face. This was my epiphany.”
For him, the power greater than himself, with which he would work the steps and proceed throughout the journey of recovery in AA became Love. In whatever situation he encountered, he asked himself, “what is the loving thing to do!”
With Love as his guiding principle, herein follow some of what he became aware of and experienced throughout recovery, learning to focus upon changing himself instead of judging others:
He urges secular AA members not “to dismiss AA and its members. That rejection means you will not find the beauty and wisdom of the program and the wonderful sober people that have come before you on this journey of sobriety”.
He points out that the history of science has been one of ever-changing truth as new discoveries are made. Likewise in recovery, “As we mature in sobriety we will find new truths displace old truths”.
After attending his first secular AA meeting, where the topic was gratitude!, he soon learned there was little need for god bashing. Instead, secular AA meetings focus on how to stay sober.
He’s become assured that living a virtuous life in an ethical manner does not require religious beliefs, only acknowledging the difference between right and wrong. Developing empathy and kindness towards all results in acquiring and living a virtuous life.
From his longterm recovery he’s convinced that religious conversion is not a legitimate mission of Alcoholics Anonymous; it has no legitimate function within AA.
He advocates that AA as a whole and its members embrace diversity since the reality is that the US demographically is becoming more diverse with each passing generation. One can either fear diversity and try to escape it or, as he suggests, one can welcome and embrace it.
He accepts that his purpose in going to traditional AA meetings is not “to change the hearts and minds of others. My purpose at meetings is to grow my heart and mind and to share”.
Being a strong advocate of the mental health profession, he learned in therapy that he needed to become more genuine and to worry less about what others thought of him.
He urges us members of secular AA not to live up to the erroneous stereotype of the angry atheist. Rather, be respectful of others and their beliefs, thereby demonstrating a good example of a kind and compassionate non-believer.
Dale effectively points out that AA culturally lags behind the times in regards to being openly inclusive and tolerant of beliefs other than Christianity. Throughout North America, AA members, he notes, are predominately white and mostly Christian especially in small towns and rural America. Dale relates he has attended meetings where there was a picture of Jesus along with posters of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions.
It wasn’t always this way, Robert Thomsen in his 1975 biography of Bill Wilson describes the early New York City meetings in Bill and Lois’ house in Brooklyn:
There were agnostics in the Tuesday night group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and the strength of the group.
Unfortunately, over the past 30 or so years AA has devolved to become predominantly Christian largely due to the rise of so-called “Back to Basics” groups, which focus only upon the pietistic, evangelical Oxford Group origins of AA in Akron. Nevertheless, Dale asserts that AA provides two essential ingredients for his ongoing recovery, the Fellowship with other recovering alcoholics and an organized program of recovery based upon the twelve steps. This is why he has continued to stay actively involved in traditional AA.
He acknowledges and respects much of the wisdom contained in the Big Book and reveres the legacy of both our founders. Believing in the adage “Take what you need and leave the rest”, he chose to write this secular translation of the Big Book. He hopes it will help AA become more inclusive and open to welcome those with no belief, agnostic or other beliefs different from AA’s Christian heritage:
Together, with secular people standing shoulder to shoulder with religious people in support of each other, is the ideal I dream of. That ideal is possible.
Dale is thus following in the footsteps of the legacy of Bill Wilson, our cofounder from New York, who spent his last years concerned about the many people who come to AA and don’t stay. His deep concern regarding this was expressed when he opened the 1965 General Service Conference in an address to the delegates, trustees, GSO Board and staff members:
Our very first concern should be with those sufferers that we are still unable to reach… Newcomers are approaching us at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion… How much and how often did we fail them?
Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views… Let us always strive to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.
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. 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.
In Pass It On, the General Service Conference approved biography of co-founder Bill Wilson, there is the following description of AA from Bill’s point of view:
We had to become much more inclusive and never, if possible, exclusive. We can never say to anyone (or insinuate) the he must agree with our formula or be excommunicated… we make no religious requirement of anyone.
* * *
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I had the privilege of knowing Nell Wing, who was Bill’s personal secretary for many years both at GSO and after Bill retired to Stepping Stones in Westchester County. I visited Nell several times in her Stuyvesant Town apartment. In her office she had 14 legal size boxes, copies of all of the documents contained in the AA Archives. Included among these, she informed me were materials relating to a project she and Bill worked on during his later years. They were rewriting the first 164 pages of the Big Book so that it would be gender neutral and more inclusive for anyone who wanted to stop drinking, whether they were agnostic, atheist, followers of non-Christian spiritual practices, freethinkers, or what have you.
The quotes from Bill above amply demonstrate that throughout the course of his recovery he evolved from the pietistic, evangelical Christian Oxford Group beliefs that are reflected throughout the 1939 publication of the Big Book. He became more tolerant and inclusive of anyone who wanted recovery regardless of what they believed. Nell was a devotee of the Stoic Philosophers, especially Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Stoic philosophy advocated that self-knowledge and the development of ethical virtue, regardless of religious beliefs, were the hallmarks of a life well-lived. Together, Bill and Nell were motivated to write a secular version of the Big Book.
For the last several years, I’ve attempted to find documentary evidence to corroborate the hearsay evidence of what Nell told me. I’ve searched both the AA Archives in New York and the Stepping Stones Archives in New Bedford, NY. Alas, I’ve found no corroborating documentation. I also spoke to a past delegate, trustee, and former manager of GSO during the 1990s. When I queried him about this project, he gave me the following cryptic reply, “Thomas, you must understand that during Bill’s last years, GSO had to protect Bill from AA as well as AA from Bill.”
I infer from his reply that if there was ever any documentation relating to this project, it has been sealed in a restricted area of the AA Archives. Mel Barger, a longtime sober member of AA who died in February, 2017, was author of a number of AA publications to include the first draft of Pass It On cited above, and AA Today, a publication celebrating it’s 25th Anniversary in 1964. Mel and I were friends when I assisted him with information I had garnered about Ebby Thatcher for his book Ebby: The Man Who Sponsored Bill W. I visited him in his Toledo home in October, 2015, speaking to him about this. He agreed that most likely these materials have been sequestered.
* * *
But back to Dale’s exemplary book, A Secular Sobriety…
In Chapter Four, “Running the Gauntlet”, Dale begins his secular translation of the Big Book. From the outset, he urges that this not become a matter of us (secular folks) versus them (Christians). His only intention “is to make the AA program palatable for the, seemingly, disenfranchised non-believers among us. I want the AA program to be an all inclusive thing”.
He informs us that he left in the original incorrect spelling, grammar and punctuation, “because I wish to stay as close to the original text as possible”. He changed the chapter titles to distinguish his version of the Big Book from the original. I was especially struck by his retitle of the last Chapter, “A Vision For All!” He states he “left it as a 1930s period piece, but without the misogyny and sexism”. As much as possible he tried to make his version as gender neutral as possible. He begins his secular version with Chapter Two, “A Solution for All”.
He rewrites it from the point of view of an agnostic or atheist. In some passages he’s changed only a word or two. In others, he has written a completely different version. He suggests we read it side by side with the Big Book, so we can “study” it, appreciating how much wisdom is in the original text.
By studying the Big Book, we’ll find our own interpretation of it, he suggests, so that we’ll come to appreciate the underlying principles, ideas and wisdom that are contained within the Big Book. “You do not need to believe in a supernatural being to understand the concepts of spirituality and virtue.” Dale urges us to reinterpret the religiosity of the Big Book’s language in whatever way we can, focusing on empathy, kindness and love.
I have to note that this is a rather ironic, but most welcome, secular twist upon the fashion throughout much of North American AA currently to engage in intensive study of the Big Book through the Joe and Charlie Tapes or Back To Basic Workshops.
Throughout his rewrite of the Big Book, Dale inserts pertinent commentaries in which he critiques the original text and adds rationales for his sometimes radical rewrites of the Big Book. Here is one of my favorite of his commentaries, which precedes Chapter Four, “For the Agnostic”:
This chapter is, at best, a condescending charade. I find it to be very insulting and incompatible with secular thinking. By using “We” in the title, it is insinuated that the authors are agnostic. That is so obviously untrue. The author is a christian trying to save and convert agnostics. This is the part of the Big Book where their best proselytizing for god happens. Isn’t it odd that they would pretend to be agnostic for god? Attempting a conversion may be understandable, but their duplicity is detestable. I recommend that, if you read the original text, you read it with love in your heart if possible. You must understand that it is a minefield for resentments.
What an understatement !~!~! This is an example of the many relevant and appropriate commentaries found throughout his secular translation of the Big Book. Here’s another with which I deeply resonated that follows the Promises, “Well, here they are! the great and legendary ‘promises.’ It’s all true… If you practice a life of virtue and attempt to be a loving person, all this will be yours.”
Dale ends the book with a critique of the stories which constitute over two-thirds of the Big Book, pointing out how they show a decided bias towards persons of belief, especially the Christian God of the majority of white, Anglo-Saxon members in AA. Finally, he includes three stories of alcoholics in recovery, all women, Joy, Allie O. and Elisabeth H., who attend secular AA meetings.
I found reading Dale K’s secular translation of the Big Book to be a worthwhile and most gratifying experience. I especially appreciated his frequent commentaries. But most of all, I appreciated his inclusive and tolerant attitude towards Christian believers, stating what his beliefs are without demeaning or judgmentally criticizing the majority members of AA. He is a prime example of how secular AA members can positively relate with believers by practicing “principles over personalities”. I salute him for producing this pertinent and important book and urge others to read it.
It also has its own Facebook page and Len R is now in the process of creating audio versions of each of the chapters, available on YouTube.