By Paul W.
Allow me to set the stage, so to speak.
I love Alcoholics Anonymous. I want AA to succeed and to continue its good work. I know that the secular AA groups have been formed to meet a real need not currently met by other, more “conventional” meetings. I believe that it is incumbent upon Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., to take action to support the efforts of secular AA institutions as part of the world of Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the ways to do so would be to honestly look at how nonbelievers (atheist, agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, secularists, etc.) are perceived and thus treated in Alcoholics Anonymous. One of many good places to begin is in Alcoholics Anonymous (aka the “Big Book”), specifically Chapter 4, “We Agnostics.”
By the very act of critiquing Chapter 4, “We Agnostics,” I admittedly commit AA heresy. I dare to disagree with the words of Bill Wilson. Words contained within the first 164 pages of the Big Book. Words so important that they have been officially declared unchangeable by act of AA’s General Service Conference.
In “We Agnostics” Bill W. wrote with conviction, asserting his truths, his undeniable truths. He wrote as if he had knowledge and experience enough to opine for all who do not believe in a “God as we understood Him.” He wrote, as he understood his mission, for all nonbelievers, all agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, secularists, etc.
The truth is, no one speaks for or writes for such a diverse collection of thoughtful men and women. We are able to speak for ourselves. We speak for ourselves.
Bill’s lack of understanding, misunderstanding, and personal biases cry out for a critique; it begs for a dialogue, a critical exploration of ideas and experiences. People seeking recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous who have difficulty with “the God stuff” because they are struggling with doubts, people who are firmly comfortable with no God or are somewhere in between, deserve a chapter which demonstrates their journey more clearly and humanely. Additionally, theists in Alcoholics Anonymous deserve and need a chapter which helps them understand we nonbelievers among them as fellow alcoholics and AA members, not as conversion targets or enemies to be avoided or cast out.
The critique of “We Agnostics” which I have drafted is intended to be a step in this direction. It is clearly not an attempt at a new chapter on Nonbelievers in Alcoholics Anonymous. Rather, it is presented as still more evidence of the need for literature by, for, and about non-theists who are successfully sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. Literature which would be Conference-approved.
I have been an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous since 1989. Since then I have grown from theistic-doubter to comfortable atheist. (Unlike Bill Wilson’s definition of an atheist from page 28 in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, one who “claims proof of the nonexistence of God,” I define a-theist, without God.) I have journeyed through a childhood of religion and twenty years of formal Roman Catholic education to a freethinker. Most of the regulars in my meetings and home group know of my atheism and have accepted it to varying degrees, as do the Area-level people with whom I interact.
I find “We Agnostics” an insulting mishmash. It is inaccurate. It misleads. It clearly confuses theists who read it into believing that recovery leads to and requires belief in God. This is most likely the result of Bill Wilson’s personal beliefs and experiences and obviously not from his interactions with Jim Burwell, Hank Parkhurst and any other nonbelievers who became sober in early Alcoholics Anonymous. “We Agnostics” can lead many theistic members to the conclusion that they are charged with the responsibility of converting we poor besotted nonbelievers to salvation, to sobriety, to God.
A Few Examples
Only sixty-three words into the chapter the reader is greeted with these words about alcoholism, “an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.” These nine words set the tone for the message which Bill Wilson puts forth in “We Agnostics.” Unfortunately, “spiritual” is associated with the divine, the supernatural, by many people and thus with God and religion. Alcoholics Anonymous maintains that it is “spiritual, not religious.” Unfortunately, for much of the population, that distinction is meaningless, since “spiritual” is associated with religious experiences and the presence of group prayers opening and closing many AA meetings is patently religious.
Bill Wilson’s philosophical foundation concerning nonbelievers coming to belief manifests itself in the sixth paragraph where he references “the book” (aka Alcoholics Anonymous) and states that “it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God.” While his openness and direct statement is commendable, it does set the focus on God, leaving little room for nonbelievers.
Just a few paragraphs later, Bill references “a Power greater than ourselves” and ends the paragraph with “that Power, which is God.” The Power “greater than ourselves” is clearly linked to the divine, with God. This makes the case that Step Two has retained its link to “God” rather than to some secular “power.” It should be no wonder then why non-theists need to rewrite the Steps for themselves and their values.
Later Bill argues that it is a form of mental perversion, “a perverse streak” as he put it, to argue against the “perfectly logical assumption” of an “All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence.” That may have been Wilson’s personal conviction but it certainly doesn’t match the understanding or experience of the agnostics and atheists that I have come to know and respect. It should not be surprising that members who read these sort of things in the “Conference-approved” Big Book are led to view non-theist members as perverse, mistaken, and subjects for salvation or rejection.
A careful reading of “We Agnostics” for reference to atheists or agnostics who gain and maintain sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous without a Power or a God will be a futile effort. Bill does not, could not, give a clear example of a purely secular recovery, so strong was his conversion to theism. The fact that, in the early 21st Century, there are a growing number of secular meetings for non-theist members offers proof that secular sobriety is a fact. And, that a new chapter for nonbelievers needs to be written into Conference-approved literature. (The present “We Agnostics” could be retained with a footnote directing the reader to an updated chapter recognizing non-theists successfully sober in AA without God.)
What is a theist member expected to think when confronted with this complete sentence, “People of faith have a logical idea of what life is all about”? If “faith” is belief without proof, the sentence makes no sense. Where is the logic? Associated with religious faith, it mocks those about whom the chapter speaks.
Many theists/believers suppose or assume a chapter titled “We Agnostics” is for nonbelievers just as “To Wives” is for the female spouse of the alcoholic. And so they do not read it, much less reflect on it. Those who do, are bound to come away with the conviction that sobriety through the program brings belief in God. They are likely to gain a jaded understanding of nonbelievers and, based on this chapter, view sincere nonbelievers in AA as not “getting it” or as not “real” alcoholics. The vitriolic Minority Opinion of the Mt. Rainier group and anonymous “White Paper” are examples of this viewpoint.
By writing, “We have shared (the) honest doubt and prejudice” of the agnostic alcoholic (emphasis added), Bill speaks of prejudice directed against a Higher Power. His empathy is with those going through sincere (honest) doubts and ultimately conquer that doubt. Nowhere does he acknowledge the prejudice nonbelievers are subjected to by theists in Alcoholics Anonymous; prejudice evidenced by catch phrases like, “I came, came to, came to believe,” “keep coming” (and you too will believe implied), and “believe that I believe.” Worse yet the silly suggestions to make anything your higher power including a chair or a doorknob. At least until you are blessed by God, with a capital “G”.
In the same paragraph, in almost a throw-away line, Bill offers a proof of a “Supreme Being” with, “Who, then, made all this?” This error of logic, the argument from ignorance (“I can’t think of a cause so it must be God”) was unacceptable even when Bill used it. Sadly, it can be heard in meeting rooms throughout Alcoholics Anonymous to this day.
This, and more, has motivated me to write a Critique of “We Agnostics,” to open the door for dialogue on the subject, and possibly to a Conference-approved additional chapter genuinely for all sincere nonbelievers who are successfully sober in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Okay, the stage has been set. The introduction is complete. You can read my full analysis of this chapter by clicking on the title:
Please feel free to download and/or print the Critique. Any comments, suggestions and even critiques of the Critique, which can be shared here at the end of this introductory post (Leave a Reply), are welcomed.
Paul W has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since May 1989. He has held many service positions including Chairing a District Cooperation with the Professional Community committee, and a District Committee Member. Paul currently sponsors several recovering alcoholics and is a service sponsor to his home group’s General Service Representative. He first joined AA while he was attempting to hold onto belief in a God, but was put off by “all that God in the Twelve Steps.” Eventually Paul made peace with himself, stopped faking it while trying to make it and came out as a comfortable and convinced atheist. He has spoken at Area functions about the lack of literature for nonbelievers and was a supporter of the General Service Conference Advisory Action calling for literature on spirituality which would include stories from atheists and agnostics who were successfully sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. Before retirement, he was a consultant with an international professional services firm where he specialized in education and organizational behavior. Paul and his wife of 57 years live in New Jersey, she a Christian and he an atheist. They have six children (50% atheists), six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.