Critique of “We Agnostics” – Chapter 4 of the Big Book

We Agnostics

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:

A Critique of “We Agnostics”
Chapter 4 of Alcoholic Anonymous

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.


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Critique of “We Agnostics” – Chapter 4 of the Big Book — 35 Comments

  1. Was it not true that the best spiritual minds had proved man could never stay sober without God? Had not people said God had reserved this privilege to those who earnestly seek him? Only thirty years later the fact of non-believers staying sober was almost an old story, but unlike airplane travel AA still refuses to admit it.

    The chapter reminds me of the Beatles song We Can Work It Out – on the surface appearing an attempt to ease tensions, but underneath it’s “try to see it my way.” Stop fighting. Just agree with me. Or you run the risk.

  2. I am grateful for having found and being able to read reassuring words from fellow atheists. I have not had a drink now for 73 days, but have avoided attending any AA meeting mostly due to the implied religious connotations and the inability to concede that I can only remain sober through the support of a Divine Being.

    I am also unsure of my willingness (anxiety of opening up and admitting publically) to seek group support. I am seeing a therapist, but constantly read that the support of others writ large is the best chance of staying sober.

    I realize this is a tangent compared to the intended Blog post, but interested in your perspectives on attending a “conventional” AA, or if other methods have worked. As right now I am not drinking out of sheer will and by reading as much psychological literature as I can find.

    • Hi Steve. I have certainly found the principle of “One alcoholic talking to another” a crucial and essential component of my own recovery. Thus the importance of meetings and in particular my Thursday evening “We Agnostics” meeting.

      You can check below (just click on the image) to see if there are secular meetings in your community. My very best wishes to you.

      Secular AA Meetings

  3. Really appreciated and enjoyed your critique, Paul.

    I like to believe that Bill did the best he could with what he had and who he was.

    Personally, I view the Big Book as a history book. It was a starting point, and AA has evolved since then. Too slowly in my opinion, but the process continues. Only a fool would attempt to deny that non-believers stay sober in AA. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of fools. I have remained sober for the past 33 years and my friend and sponsor has done so for over 41. Both non-believers and both reasonably happy and content.

    Thank you for being part of what keeps the doors of AA wide open for all, rather than open on a crack, so only a select segment of alcoholics are granted access and acceptance.

    • George,

      Thank you for your kind words and your success as a sober member of society. Unfortunately, there are those who do deny that nonbelievers can gain sobriety without god. It is a shame that they therefore do not have the opportunity to recognize and acknowledge their own success in sobriety.

      Paul

  4. Why don’t we form a fellowship of our own? The 12 steps have been changed for other fellowships, we could do the same thing. I started a meeting two years ago and it is growing. We are not listed in the local directory and do not support AA services. We help others that is all.

  5. Paul, this is good. It will probably not matter with the true believers, and the agnostics/atheists already know they are, and are for the most part comfortable with who they are, except to the extent they are made to feel unwelcome in AA. So why do I say it’s good anyway?

    Because it just may help us get out of the making the shoe fit morass so many find themselves in. Trying to find a higher power is something way too many atheists and agnostics spend way too much energy on, and maybe writing such as yours can help shed light on the fact that the big book, in spite of a few really brilliant passages, by and large is nonsense, written by a 3 years sober egomaniac salesman, and that nothing, well almost nothing in this book ought to be taken at face value, almost nothing in it can truly be relied upon, much of it is actually damaging. How else are we going to get across to all the agnostic and atheist big book apologists that this book and its program as written in it is nonsense except by arguing bit by bit like you do, that it is indeed so?

    So this is truly an article for US.

    It is hard to meaningfully critique the big book, because it is practically nothing but logical fallacies, especially false dichotomies. When I say it is nonsense, I’m not being funny, I truly, honestly think it is, and the fact that Bill is a brilliant salesman does nothing to change that.

    Good salesmanship so far as I understand it is about convincing you to buy something you are hesitant to buy for a variety of good reasons, and it is the salesman’s job to make light of your reservations by any means necessary, including for instance a sober assessment by you, that it would strain your finances irresponsibly to buy that used car right now. The salesman needs to convince you, without knowing your financial circumstance, or caring, that your concerns are unimportant. He needs to make a sale. If the big book isn’t excellent salesmanship of that very nature, I don’t know what it is.

    Thanks again Paul. It’s a long read, but sometimes we just can’t say what needs to be said any shorter.

    • Life-j,

      Excellent commentary – as one would expect. Since there are some in “official” AA who check on this site fairly regularly, I expect that some Area-level people who will be exposed to the fact that this chapter is totally off target. I will also be directing those in my Area to this paper.

      Thank you for your comments.

      Paul

  6. Thank you, Paul, for writing this. Your eloquent analysis of the absurdity of this chapter is an immense boost to my morale. For some years now, I have been unable to attend conventional meetings. After 30+ years of figuratively biting my tongue, and “Going along to get along”, I’ve run out of tolerance. A buddy at a secular meeting (the ONLY one I fully attend anymore), pointed out to me that “Intolerance of intolerance is NOT tolerance”. Guilty as charged.

    • Anton,

      Absurdity – a great word, right on the spot. Wish I’d used it. One of the important points I wished to make was that we who believe/know that there is no being which deserves the name “God” and that we are comfortable with that – and are able to lead sober lives. Let’s help that by making copies of the paper for Area-level members.

      Paul

  7. Fantastic article and critique of “We Agnostics”.

    When I had moved from Houston to a small Texas town, the culture shock was tremendous. My first meeting at what now has become my home-group I clearly remember saying I was Atheist the first time I shared there and people were looking at me as if my teeth were pointed and a baby’s blood was dripping off my chin. That was 6 years ago and now there are a number of others there who have “come out”, some with 2 and 3 decades sober who learned from me that there is no shame in non-belief and they no longer had to “fake it”. Tonight, I had a sponsee receive his year chip and he is Christian because I agree with the good doctor’s opinion that what is important is to have a “psychic change”, and it is my opinion that our beliefs do not matter as much as our involvement. This is why I encourage my Christian sponsee to pray and do the other (ridiculous) things theists do.

    After about a year there I began chairing meetings and someone complained that I should not be able to chair if I would not recite the lord’s prayer with everyone after the meeting. The group conscience shot him down and what is tremendous growth is this year, that same group conscience approved me to start an Agnostics meeting one day a week and even had that posted on the district website.

    When I was 6 years old my father got back from his second tour in Viet-Nam in 1971 and our family was relocated from where it always snowed in the winter to Arizona. When it was getting close to Christmas I wondered how Santa was going to land on a roof without snow, and in a flash, it all hit me. I went from “There is no Santa” to no Peter Pan, Batman, Noah, Jesus or God in moments. I have been an Atheist for 44 years now and the first time I read chapter 4 in the Big Book I not only felt it was ridiculous, but also that I would not be able to recover without a belief in deity which led me to many years of more drinking. It also did not help that well-meaning individuals in the program told me that I would have to “get on my knees and ask god to help me.”

    Thank you, Roger C., for starting and maintaining a terrific website, it really helps me in my recovery and I bought your book off Amazon, it is very good.

    Mykel

    • Mykel,

      I have the good fortune to be accepted by my regular Saturday meeting as an open atheist. When I have “chaired” meetings the regulars understood and volunteers led the Serenity prayer to open and the Lord’s prayer to end. Sadly, I have not yet been asked “the atheist’s view” on the “God stuff.” A well written secular chapter 5 as an appendix and literature about secular members – both Conference-approved would be highly helpful to all.

      I echo your gratitude to Roger.

      Paul

  8. At last I have found a few words that help me in my Journey to maintain my recovery. In recovery for the second time & “the god” thing has challenged me. I’m Irish so a little challenging for me with all these Catholics about!! And gratefully I’m feeling well. I do talk about how I find it difficult about the god part and most of my AA friends are supportive of my way of life: they pray for me!!!

    So I speak with my AA friends and some outside of the fellowship. I try to keep positive and just love my sobriety which I have worked hard for and still do.

    • Martin,

      Hang in there. Your sobriety is the most important thing – for you personally, but also for all those around you. For the Catholics around you and other theists, the fact that you are a nonbeliever successfully sober without the “God stuff” and are willing to make the adjustments to the program into a secular program will eventually inspire them.

      Paul

  9. I’m sure that most of us have seen the TV commercials that ask this rhetorical question: “Wouldn’t it be nice if people said what they really meant?”

    If Bill had said what he really meant, the twelfth step would read something like this: “Having had a religious conversion as the result of these steps, we enthusiastically joined the ranks of missionaries and tried to convert every damned newcomer we could get our hands on.”

    Facetious of course, but the point is this: Alcoholics Anonymous was born within a culture and at a time when God and religion were seen as the remedy for all the ills of society, and the drunken misbehavior of the alcoholics was certainly no exception. So almost by default, the doctrine of AA is modeled after those ideals. There were non-believers to be sure, but I suspect that at least some of the folks that didn’t believe, either knew they should, or wished that they could. Bill wrote about that very thing in step two in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and wrote this chapter for those folks. He claimed that it was to the agnostics, and entitled the chapter accordingly, but it really appears to have been written to the convertibles.

    When looked at in that light, neither the tone nor the content is as condescending as it seems to be. One thing is clear however, it was not written by an agnostic, nor was the intent to reassure other agnostics that it was possible to participate in this whole process without being converted.

    I agree with many of the other comments in regard to Bill’s change in attitude over the years. I really enjoy pointing out to my Big Book thumping friends that the book was written and edited by a bunch of newcomers!

  10. Thanks Paul, for a most well-reasoned critique of the “dreadful” Chapter 4. As Dale pointed out , however, I’m in agreement that at best we can only reasonably hope for a footnote to read something such as he suggested.

    One thing to note — often overlooked by both those who deify Bill as the cofounder who “channeled” the Big Book straight from God above as well as those who discount and demean him, is that over the course of his recovery he changed, he radically evolved his thinking. Herein follow some examples:

    As early as 1957 in AA Comes of Age, he writes, “Such were the final concessions to those of little of no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer may pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”

    At the AA International Conference in 1965 Bill made the following remarks, “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?”

    Later in 1975 Robert Thomsen, who wrote the first biography about Bill based on hours of tape-recorded conversations with Bill, reports the following, “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 for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and in the strength of the group. At some time each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then — whatever it was that occurred between them — was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves.”

    • Thomas, yes it is important to point out how Bill changed as his sobriety matured. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Bill 20 years sober looked back on the whole mess and saw what a hack promotional job he had done at 3 years sober, and how it had now taken on a life of its own, and how impossible it would be at that point to really make the changes needed to make a better program. If I had been the canonized leader of a mess like that I would have been depressed, and dropped some acid, too.

      But it is commendable that Bill did write a number of things to try to turn this super tanker in a different direction.

  11. In my early sobriety I regularly attended a Big Book meeting with another non-believer. We bristled at having to read the godly stuff in the BB, and we often sought comic relief. Whenever one of us would be unlucky enough to be the reader of the last paragraph of Chapter 4, we would read it, “When we drew near to Him, He exposed Himself to us!”

  12. After 32 years sober in “regular” AA as a life-long atheist, “out” for 10 years, it’s amazing how many people still think that if I just read “We Agnostics” and/or the second Appendix (yet again), all will be right in THEIR lives. Fortunately, I’ve come to a point in my own recovery where I can just smile. (Curiously, my father, an Episcopal bishop, was at peace with it, as is my 20-years-sober ordained Baptist sponsee, and my friend, the 1-year sober RC priest. Live and Let Live.)

    My current home group is dominated by Roman Catholics. It’s their thing, not mine. My tolerance varies.

    • My sober brother is a RC priest. I am an atheist & proud of it… he has to sit through many boring AA mtgs & despises the god part too. So many Christians believe you must have FAITH in a higher power… what any AA needs is a firm belief in their own selves to get & stay sober… to me that’s FAITH!

  13. Yes, omg.

    I attended a regular meeting last week, where this chapter was read… I have to say it might as well been titled “those da*n agnostics”.

    I sat through the meeting (squirming, actually)… hopefully one voice, one other perspective – shared at the end – might give hope to a new member of AA.

    I believe it would inspire many if an authentic piece was written for pamphlets and this chapter rewritten by and for secular inclusion.

  14. Bill as well as most in AA are ignorant of the world’s religions, especially Buddhism which has no god or higher power focus. A Pew survey also said most Americans can only answer less than half of questions on the world’s religions. Also most are only aware of the western world’s religions with a single god in it. Bill was ethnocentric as are most in AA.

  15. In A Secular Sobriety, I describe “We Agnostics” as the textual equivalent of Reefer Madness. The following is my commentary about this chapter from my book:

    It’s difficult to articulate my feelings about the original Chapter 4. The chapter’s deceptive nature is quite repugnant. I could rant and rave, on and on. That might make me feel better, but my feelings are so negative that it would bring me down and you with me. Reading this chapter is the textual equivalent of watching “Reefer Madness.” One thing I’ve come to understand is this: When religious people read this, they believe it is spot on. Their opinion is the result of prejudice towards, and ignorance of, what it is to be agnostic or atheistic. Many of them, truly, believe they have the corner on righteousness all to themselves.

    This chapter is, at best, a condescending charade. I find it to be very insulting and incompatible with any 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 blatant 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.

    Paul W. suggests a Conference-approved additional chapter to Alcoholics Anonymous. As much as I would love this, there is no precedent for it. I believe the odds of such an addition to the Big Book are just this side of nil. What does have precedent is adding an asterisk to the chapter title as in “TO WIVES*” and a clarifying footnote. It could read:

    *Written in 1939, when there were few secular people in AA, this chapter assumes that the alcoholic should come to realize that their higher power must be “God as we understand Him.” Today, we know this is inaccurate. A supernatural higher power is not necessary for sobriety. Faith in God is very helpful for many, but it is not a requirement. There are many secular sober alcoholics among us. Their contribution to Alcoholics Anonymous is abundant and equally valid to that of our theistic members.

  16. Good read! One of the many myths that I was taught about the Big Book is that it’s the “collective work/words” of the original 100 members of AA. What we know of course is that the Big Book was Bill Wilson’s baby – it’s a collection of his opinions and beliefs at 3-4 years sober. Nothing more, nothing less. Yes, there were some edits insisted upon by some of the other other members before it was published but this book is authored by Bill Wilson. In fact, we know Bill Wilson’s attitudes, opinions and beliefs changed over time and that some Big Book “enthusiasts” will say that Bill “watered down” the program to make it more palatable for others. I doubt we’ll ever really break through some of these “false beliefs” but at least people who are newer to AA can be taught the truth about early AA and the Big Book.

  17. Good and thorough critique of this dreadful chapter. If anything, too kind to Bill, who, so far as I know, never mentioned the 24 Hour Plan or said directly that sobriety means not picking up the first drink, a day at a time. (If I’m wrong here, would someone please correct me.)

    • John L.,

      You pose interesting questions. I’ve put them on my list to look into. Thank you. Can’t promise when I’ll have an answer.

      Paul

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