Chapter 12: Literature for We Agnostics
A few years ago, there was almost nothing for secular alcoholics in AA to read. In fact, before 2010 only a few such books had been published, and one of them had been out of print for a number of years.
That book was called The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. It had been written by two women and published in 1991 in the United States.
The book is quite remarkable. At the time there was no “secular movement” within the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. There were perhaps two dozen agnostic AA meetings worldwide. So Martha and Arlys were not inspired by an outside source; it wasn’t because they were encouraged by others that they wrote and published the book. They wrote it based on their own personal convictions and it was published simply to support others who might also find a secular version of the 12 Steps to be helpful in their recoveries from alcoholism.
We repeat: Published in 1991. Bravo Arlys and Martha!
Another two early books that were written by and for atheists in AA were also written by women.
In 2010 My Name is Lillian and I’m an Alcoholic (and an Atheist): How I got and stayed sober in AA without all that God stuff was published, but only as an eBook. The chapters in the book are taken from her shares in a three year email AA meeting from 2006 to 2008. It is really quite a special book, a special eBook.
In 2011 Marya Hornbacher’s Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power was published. Marya played a very special role in the first convention for we agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA in Santa Monica by being one of the three keynote speakers. She was an excellent speaker. Marya also wrote the foreword for Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA, which is one of books previewed below.
A British author, Vince Hawkins, also wrote a book in 2011, a book which was self-published, An Atheists Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous.
And then – beginning in 2013 – there would be an absolute explosion of books for non-believers in AA.
AA Agnostica published six books between 2013 and 2015. One of them – the very special Key Players in AA History by Bob K – is not included in the list below simply because it is not aimed specifically at dealing with the issue of secularism in AA. And we are now in the process of publishing two more, one of which is this one, the one in your hands, A History of Agnostics in AA. The other will be by Thomas B, a veteran with some 44 years of sobriety who has written a number of articles for both AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief, and is now working on a memoir which will be called: Each Breath a Gift, A Story of Continuing Recovery. Five books published by AA Agnostica are included in this chapter, including the Second Edition of The Alternative 12 Steps.
Another publication of historical import took place in 2013 and that was the publication of the first ever book of secular daily reflections for non-believers in recovery: Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life.
Some history: the very first book of daily reflections was called Twenty-Fours a Day and was written by Richmond Walker, a member in 1942 of the first AA group in Boston, and it was put together as a book in 1948. It became very popular and sales quickly reached 10,000 copies a year. Overwhelmed, Richmond offered the book to the AA New York Office in 1953. They refused. “Hazelden offered to publish and distribute the book in 1954. It is still widely used by AA members and groups today, with over eight million copies sold.” (Barefoot’s World1)
And the book is all about “practicing the presence of God”. Like the co-founders of AA, Bill and Dr. Bob, Richmond had initially gotten sober in the Oxford Group. “For those who would like to bring modern AA back closer to Oxford Group beliefs and practices, Twenty-Four Hours a Day is the most strongly Oxford-Group-oriented work written by an early AA author.” (Barefoot’s World) With 22 years of sobriety, Richmond Walker died on March 25, 1965.
And of course his is not the only Godly book. We have already written about AA’s Conference-approved Daily Reflections, published in 1990. Both books are all about pedalling AA backward rather than forward, back to a form of evangelical pietism (“God could and would if he were sought”) that was part of, but certainly not exclusive to, the Oxford Group. Remember, God is mentioned in two out of the three of the Daily Reflections.
Both of these books, Twenty-Four Hours a Day and Daily Reflections – which currently has sales of approximately 150,000 copies a year – have no doubt had an impact upon the dogmatization of conventional AA.
So what to do?
Well, start by getting something else. There are many non-Conference-approved books that are quite good, including the books listed below.
And for daily reflections, how about 365 Tao: Daily Meditations? And by all means consider purchasing a copy of Beyond Belief.
So far we’ve listed earlier secular books for we agnostics in AA. We’ve touched on books published by AA Agnostic between 2013 and 2015, we’ve talked about Beyond Belief, and we will mention one more. It is called A Freethinker in AA and is by a rather prolific author, John Lauritsen, who has his own website that includes a section called Alcoholism: Recovery without Religiosity2. But John’s secular writings about AA go a long way back. One is a document that was written on an Olympia manual typewriter and circulated by John in New York City in 1976: A Proposal to Eliminate the Lord’s Prayer from AA Meetings3.
It was re-posted again on AA Agnostica in 2011. John recently informed us that by the end of the twentieth century, most AA meetings in NYC had substituted the Serenity Prayer for the Lord’s Prayer, so perhaps his proposal, and certainly the growth of secular AA meetings in the city, has had an impact.
What follows are brief summaries of ten of the first books published for agnostics and atheists in AA. Every one of these books has either a review or a Chapter (often a Foreword or an Introduction) on AA Agnostica. They can be accessed by using the Search function on the top of the Home Page of the website. In brackets after each is the specific source for each book’s summary.
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The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery – Martha Cleveland and Arlys G. (First Edition in March 1991, Second Edition published by AA Agnostica on July 15, 2014.)
In 1991, two women were successfully working the 12-Step program… and they were atheists. They knew the program worked, and translated the Steps into secular terms. This ground-breaking book – as valuable today as it was when it was first written – is their sharing of this secular interpretation. In The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G. show how the 12-Step program can be interpreted and worked by those who do not believe in an interventionist deity. At the same time the authors conscientiously maintain the intention and integrity of the program – its values, scope and depth. A chapter is devoted to each Step. The language is clear, engaging and personal. The Foreword to this Second Edition of the book begins with a striking quote from Chapter Three which captures the essence of both the book and the 12 Steps: “We can learn the universal, generic pattern of life’s dance from the 12 Steps. But in our individual dance of life, we choose our own music and dance our own dance.” This is a unique, inspiring and helpful book for anyone – regardless of belief or lack of belief – who would like to work AA’s suggested 12 Step recovery program. (AA Agnostica)
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My Name is Lillian and I’m an Alcoholic (and an Atheist): How I got and stayed sober in AA without all that God stuff – Lillian Sober-Atheist. (Self-published as an eBook on October 15, 2010.)
After 20 years of drinking, at 36 years of age, Lillian found her way into AA and got sober. That was late last century. She’s an atheist, she’s a New Yorker. And this book, a 2010 gift to the Fellowship, is one of the pioneering resources that a nonbeliever in AA can latch onto. My Name is Lillian (the author’s pen-name) spans three years of what she calls “one side of a conversation about sobriety”. As an AA member Lillian participates in an email AA meeting from Monday February 6, 2006 to Monday October 18th, 2008. We get to tag along and you and I are going to learn a thing or two about Lillian, and if we’re lucky, ourselves as well. How you consume the book is up to you. You can marathon through the book in a weekend or savor it a few pages a week until completed. Alternatively, you can just open it randomly and read a few pages and reflect on them. My Name is Lillian isn’t opinion, criticism or analysis of AA; it’s 100% personal journey so there’s nothing to disagree with, just a few things that any open-minded reader could learn from to enrich her or his own life. You can get it online for less than a latte. (AA Agnostica, review by Joe C)
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Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power – Marya Hornbacher. (Published by Hazelden on April 21, 2011.)
Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power is refreshing and a joy to read. Hornbacher is quite simply a gifted and humble writer whose earlier writing includes books on her own struggles with anorexia and bulimia, bipolar disorder as well as last year’s well-received Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction and the 12 Steps. She is a freelance journalist, Pulitzer Prize nominee, novelist, and poet. The wisdom and compassion contained in the pages of Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power cannot help but guide the reader toward a renewed and deeper understanding of a spiritual life which she emphasizes exists right here, right now, in this world. As my atheist wife has said with playful irony, “This book is a Godsend!” (AA Agnostica, review by John M)
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An Atheists Unofficial Guide to AA – Vince Hawkins. (Self-published on October 28, 2011.)
I am an atheist alcoholic who believes that many people who could be saved from drink by AA do not embrace the fellowship because they are put off by a higher power understood as “God.” I have written a book which tweaks the Steps and demonstrates that it is not necessary to believe in a god to follow the program. The idea is to widen the AA net to catch people who would otherwise not be saved. (AA Agnostica article by Vince Hawkins)
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Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life – Joe C (Published by Rebellion Dogs Publishing on January 21, 2013)
Finally! A daily reflection book for nonbelievers, freethinkers and everyone. Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life offers 365 quips for every alcoholic/addict. Drawing on quotes from writers, skeptics, entertainers, economists, religious leaders, philosophers, psychologists and varied recovery fellowship literature, Beyond Belief neither canonizes nor vilifies any school of recovery thought. Where else would you find Sam Harris followed by Mother Teresa, Bill Wilson followed with Anais Nin, a doctor’s opinion by Dr. Seuss or a spiritual perspective from Albert Einstein? Beyond Belief takes a secular look at our recovery culture with help from the classic thinkers of the ages and the wisdom in and around the rooms. (AA Agnostica, review by Carol M)
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The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps – Roger C. (Published by AA Agnostica on February 20, 2013.)
The unstated goal of The Little Book is to widen the gateway of AA so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of belief or lack of belief. The book presents the 12 Step program of recovery in a way that reflects and respects the diversity of culture, gender, religion and lack of religion within today’s worldwide recovery community. The first part consists of 20 alternative versions of the 12 Steps which were originally published in 1939 in the “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous. In the second major part of the book, four secular interpretations of the original 12 Steps are presented, one Step at a time. These interpretations are provided by well known authors Gabor Maté (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts), Stephanie Covington (A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps), Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart (Mindfulness and the 12 Steps) and Allen Berger (12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone). The last part of the book contains an insightful essay, “The Origins of the 12 Steps.” In its inclusivity and unqualified respect for diversity and difference, The Little Book paradoxically represents both a challenge to AA while anchored in the very best of its history and traditions. (AA Agnostica)
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Don’t Tell: Stories and essays by agnostics and atheists in AA – Edited by Roger C. (Published by AA Agnostica on April 20, 2014.)
Don’t Tell contains a total of 64 stories and essays mostly by agnostics and atheists in AA originally posted on AA Agnostica, most often on Sunday mornings, over the last almost three years. These were written by over thirty men and women from almost as many cities, states, provinces and counties within three countries, the United States, Canada and Great Britain. It is a diverse and eclectic sampling of writings by women and men for whom sobriety within the fellowship of AA had nothing at all to do with an interventionist God. “Don’t Tell is an important book for anyone interested in the future of Alcoholics Anonymous and the future of alcoholism recovery.” (From the Foreword by Ernest Kurtz, Author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, and William White, Author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.) (Amazon)
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A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous – John Lauritsen. (Published by Pagan Press on June 1, 2014.)
A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous is written by an AA member with 46 years of continuous sobriety, who believes that he owes his life to the AA Fellowship. There are plenty of books that attack Alcoholics Anonymous or defend it uncritically or supplement it with personal testimonies or various tweaks. A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous will be the first one to celebrate and defend the things in AA that are right, but also, with no holds barred, to criticize the things that are wrong and ought to be changed. An atheist for all of his adult life and a long-time contributor to the secular humanist press, Lauritsen bases his recovery on what he calls the True AA, the AA that works: the 24-Hour Plan and the Fellowship. He regards the religiosity in AA as detrimental to recovery from alcoholism. (Amazon)
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Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous – Adam N. (Second Edition published by AA Agnostica on January 5, 2015.)
The essays in this book explore in depth the confrontation of AA’s religious culture and practices with this rational atheist alcoholic. They explore the place of science in recovery, and explain why traditional AA struggles to embrace new scientific findings and incorporate them into its agenda. The supreme importance of the fellowship, as a healing community or tribe, with all that implies for social human beings, is examined. Powerful arguments are presented for the idea that a secular AA would not lose any of its present efficacy, but could be even more effective, maybe much more effective, and would certainly help those alcoholics now repelled by religion. Adam has quite remarkably in this book woven a practical and viable way forward for AA. Common Sense Recovery offers an understanding and appreciation of AA’s early religious culture that nevertheless and inevitably calls upon us to embrace new research and scientific findings – as well as the experience of women and men in recovery over the past 75 years – and incorporate them into an understanding of our program and fellowship. (AA Agnostica)
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Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA – Roger C. (Published by AA Agnostica on May 12, 2015).
Our dear friend, the late Ernie Kurtz, said that storytelling is in fact “the practice and indeed the essential dynamic of AA”. It is the way we AA members support each other and help guarantee our ongoing recovery. The stories in this book are all by AA members who do not believe that an interventionist deity – a God – had anything at all to do with their recovery from alcoholism. As readers will discover, many struggled mightily “in the rooms” with the idea of God or a Higher Power, wanting to fit in, as Alcoholics Anonymous was their last hope. There are a total of thirty stories in Do Tell! And they are very personal and honest stories. All unique, all different. The stories in the book alternate between those by women and those by men and so we discover – if we did not appreciate this already – that the factors involved in addiction and recovery are often quite different in the lives of men and women. As Marya Hornbacher says in the Foreword: Do Tell! is a “diverse and richly textured collection of recovery stories by non-believers… It is a book that would certainly have made a difference in the early days of my stumble toward sobriety and the Twelve Steps… It is also making a difference in my sobriety today.” Enjoy these wonderful stories of “experience, strength and hope” by atheists and agnostics in AA. (AA Agnostica)
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We also need to acknowledge two pieces of agnostic-friendly “Conference-approved” literature. The first is the book Living Sober, published in 1975. The second is the pamphlet “Do you think you are different?” which was published in 1976. It contains two stories by secularists: “My name is Ed, and I am an alcoholic (atheist)” and “My name is Jan, and I am an alcoholic (agnostic)”.
Both of these were written and put together by a gay man by the name of Barry Leach, a staff writer for Alcoholics Anonymous. John Lauritsen, the author of A Freethinker in AA, describes Living Sober as “explicitly secular” and “independent from” religion. (AA Beyond Belief4)
Articles about, by and for non-believers in AA have also been published by the AA Grapevine. A monthly magazine since June of 1944, the Grapevine has published just a little better than one article by a nonbeliever every two years. That is not entirely the Grapevine’s fault: no doubt not a large number of articles by agnostics and atheists in AA have been submitted over the years.
However, in October 2016, the Grapevine devoted an issue to we agnostics in AA, called “Atheist & Agnostic Members”. And at the April General Service Conference, it was agreed that the Grapevine would collect its already published forty or fifty articles by atheists and agnostics and publish them in a book. This would follow the same principle that resulted in a book published in 2014, Sober & Out: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender AA Members Share Their Experience, Strength and Hope, which contains 57 stories which had been published in the Grapevine between 1975 and 2011.
The October issue of the AA Grapevine was very well received. And we very much look forward to the book that contains the stories, the experience, strength and hope, of atheists and agnostics in AA.
This may not be perfection, but it is certainly progress.
Credit where credit is due.
We conclude this chapter on AA literature for we agnostics now, rather arbitrarily, with the Foreword I was pleased to write for the second edition of The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. This is shared out of respect and appreciation for the two authors of the book and also because it provides a kind of summary of and a positive closing to this particular chapter about literature for we agnostics in AA.
Here it is:
We can learn the universal, generic pattern of life’s dance from the 12 Steps. But in our individual dance of life, we choose our own music and dance our own dance.
Chapter on Step 3
This is a remarkable book.
And there are at least two very good reasons for that.
First, there is in this book, to the best of our knowledge, the first “non-Godly” version of the 12 Steps ever published.
The original version, of course, written by Bill Wilson and published in Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939, refers to God (or a “Power” or “Him”) six times.
That’s way too much God for many of us.
And, to be sure, many in AA had already taken action to circumvent the “God bit”. In fact the term “God bit” comes from Jim Burwell, one of the first members of AA, who convinced Wilson to make the 12 Steps a “suggested” program of recovery – rather than a required one – in the AA fellowship.
Meetings for non-believers in AA have been around for a long time. Quad A (Alcoholics Anonymous for Atheists and Agnostics) was launched in 1975 in Chicago. Only a few years later, in Los Angeles, Charlie P and Megan D started the very first AA meeting called “We Agnostics”. It is named, of course, after a chapter in Alcoholics Anonymous (often called the Big Book).
Today there are hundreds of AA meetings for agnostics and atheists in major cities across the United States and Canada. And more coming, more and more quickly.
Moreover, there is now plenty of literature for those who do not believe that an interventionist deity has a role to play in their sobriety.
For example, in 2013, Joe C published a book of daily reflections called Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life. That same year The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps was published and it contains the secular version of the Steps, written by Martha Cleveland and Arlys G, which are at the core of this book.
All of the above is meant to place The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery – written in the middle of this history in 1991 – in a historical context.
The “God bit” is hardly dealt with at all in this book, except in the introduction, as an impediment for many people who could otherwise do a 12-Step program. What the authors do is find the root power of each step, and reword it.
As 12-Step practitioners, we believe in the 12-Step program. We believe it can work for anyone. Our objective is to help non-religious people accept the healing power of the Steps. This is the same program, same principles, same values, same scope, same depth – all of it said in a little different language. We have extracted the actions and principles of the original Steps and put them into a secular context.
And they do it well! Anybody can understand Martha and Arlys. To use the Steps, there is no need for any particular religiosity; nor is there any need for psycho-jargon.
The original Step 6 says: “Were entirely ready to have God remove our defects of character.”
Martha and Arlys reword that Step to say: “Be entirely ready to acknowledge our abiding strength and release our personal shortcomings.”
In both cases, the person doing the Steps must be “entirely ready.” But in this book, the work isn’t relegated to God. It is up to the individual to be prepared to take action. And, in this version, the individual doesn’t only deal with personal shortcomings (or “defects of character”), but also acknowledges an “abiding strength”.
We shall deal with this more positive approach further on.
But in the meantime, we want to point out that, in fact, these can be the 12 Steps for anyone. Especially those without a belief in an interventionist God.
Women and the 12 Steps
The original 12 Steps were written by men for men. In particular, they were written for white men with well-to-do backgrounds.
This version of the Steps was written by two women.
Does that mean it is just for women?
No. It means that Martha and Arlys add some much needed balance to the Steps.
There is a tremendous emphasis on “powerlessness” and “humility” in the original 12 Steps. While the idea of being powerless over alcohol makes sense, the idea that a human being is by his or her very nature powerless is another matter entirely. And yet it is deeply ingrained in the original Steps.
In this day and age, preaching powerlessness and humility to women would seem a bit off kilter.
But remember, the original Steps weren’t written today or for women.
And, to come back to the religion part, they were deeply influenced by the religion of the day. The evangelical pietism of the Oxford Group, in which AA – and the Steps – had its origins, considered humans worthless. It emphasized a “deep aversion to all emphasis on human strengths.” (Not-God, p. 180). You had to “Let go and let God.” This attitude is very much embedded in the original 12 Steps.
And so when Martha and Arlys talk about acknowledging our “abiding strength,” as they do in their version of Step 6, they are, if you will, “letting go of God”, and recognizing that we human beings are indeed not powerless and have a part to play in our own sobriety, our most precious recovery.
And that is an important part of their version of the 12 Steps.
And it adds more balance between accepting the things we cannot change and mustering the courage to change what can and must be changed in our lives.
We are not criticizing the original 12 Steps or their author. Nor do Arlys and Martha do that in The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery. Indeed, Bill Wilson never claimed to have written the perfect Steps. On the last page of the main part of the book Alcoholics Anonymous he wrote: “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.”
And this particular book is meant only to be a helping hand to we alcoholics who do not have a belief in a God and must inevitably “choose our own music and dance our own dance” on this generic but ultimately unique 12 Step road to recovery.
Let the story begin.
1 Barefoot’s World: http://www.barefootsworld.net/aa24hoursbook.html
2 Recovery without Religiosity: http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/ALK-FREE.HTM
3 A Proposal to Eliminate the Lord’s Prayer from AA Meetings: https://aaagnostica.org/2011/11/17/a-proposal-to-eliminate-the-lords-prayer-from-aa-meetings/
4 AA Beyond Belief: http://www.aabeyondbelief.org/2017/01/15/living-sober-the-book/
A History of Agnostics in AA can be purchased at Amazon US.
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