Standing on the shoulders of giants?


By life-j

Isaac Newton said “If I can see farther, it is because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants”. I want to look at whether that’s the case with us in AA, too.

Lately we have had increasing cause for concern over Big Book fundamentalist groupings in AA asserting that the AA program as laid out in 1938 is the one and only proper way to recover. They have canonized Bill, and the Big Book, and they have circulated publications such as the “Minority Opinion by the Mt Rainier AA Group”  in which they recommend against development of literature for atheists and agnostics with a lot of circular arguments along the lines of “the Big Book is right, because the Big Book says so.” It’s problematic enough that initiatives such as these stifle attempts to get AA to develop badly needed secular literature, but in this article I will address what I think is a greater concern. Everybody seems to be scared of saying it out loud, but someone needs to: What if early Bill Wilson and much of what’s in the Big Book is simply wrong?

Bill obviously had something right. Not only are there a number of brilliant passages in the Big Book, but around two million people have helped each other stay sober in AA, and that’s no small accomplishment, even if another 10 or 20 million, or more, walked through our doors and didn’t get the help they needed.

But when Bill was pacing the lobby of the Akron hotel, and realized he needed to talk with another alcoholic, that, I will contend, is the moment when the program was born, and that, I will further contend, is by far the most important part of the AA program.

Bill and Bob went on to help a great many others, even though they also acknowledged that many were not helped, but in the process they did help themselves.

Then at three years sober Bill – like most of us at three years sober – figured he knew everything, and he decided to write a book about it, and I think the book is full of wrong and unnecessary information. I’m not just talking about “open to interpretation” but possibly so far off the mark in key areas of its philosophy that it is amazing we could make it as far as we have with it.

Bill seemed to have an intuitive sense of what it takes for alcoholics to help one another. But once he went on to try to explain how it works he went completely off the chart.

AA is all about one alcoholic talking with another. Of everything Bill wrote in the Big Book, and during some of the following years, a great deal is without question helpful, but some of it may be outright detrimental to recovery. We won’t know until we collectively gain the willingness to look at it, which is sorely lacking at the moment, even somewhat among secularists and agnostics.

I can already hear some old-timers say “So you think you’re smarter than Bill?” I don’t know, but I’m allowing for the possibility that maybe I’m as smart, give or take a bit. But the real advantage I have over Bill is that I am standing on the shoulders of giants.

As a 29 years sober member of AA with 4000 meetings behind me I have of course learnt from Bill’s writings, but much more from our collective 80 years of experience. That’s where I find my giants, much more so than Bill, and especially among those secular members now searching for new ways.

The fact that I’m 29 years sober doesn’t leave me any smarter or wiser than anyone else in this program with 20, 30, 40 years sobriety, but I think we have to start giving ourselves credit: Just maybe someone, anyone with 30 years of sobriety, someone who is building on the collective 80 years’ experience of other sober alcoholics in AA, can see things that Bill with three years of sobriety, couldn’t?

Already when Bill wrote the Big Book there was considerable fighting in the fledgling AA fellowship about whether a god was an important part of recovery, or even needed to have any part in it at all. Since the 1930s were religious times, since the fellowship had come from Oxford Group roots, and perhaps especially since Bill was a great salesman, the religious faction won out.

The religious argument never died. In fact, Bill himself, as he gained 10, 20 years of sobriety, tried to modify his stance. He did this in his 1961 Grapevine article “The Dilemma of no Faith” and in many other places as well. If at this point he had outright tried to tell the fellowship that he had changed his mind and that much of what he wrote in the Big Book was wrong, he would have met with little success.

That sort of thing had been tried before. Around 1908 Anna Jarvis, an unusually talented and dedicated woman, for several years worked to get Congress to establish a Mother’s Day, and eventually she succeeded. Within a few years she got to see how commercialized it came to be, and she was disgusted with it, and she then spent the rest of her life working to have the holiday rescinded, with no success, of course. The florists loved it. She was even arrested for protesting it once, and eventually wound up in an insane asylum behind it all. The expense of her last days there were in part paid for by the florists.

Bill was too smart to accept a similar fate, so he just went along with the big movement he had created and mostly kept telling the same story over and over, and, of course, not expecting different results.

When Bill wrote the big Book it may not even have been a majority of those first “more than one hundred men and women” that came to decide how the next two million alcoholics would work their program.

They had, all of them collectively, not much more time in sobriety than me.

And yet there are religious people with 30, 40, even 50 years of sobriety who believe more in this three years sober Bill than they do in themselves and who won’t believe their own eyes and recognize the agnostics with a similar length of sobriety who can demonstrate an equally good, sober life.

Sobriety isn’t all about time, of course, but it is questionable at best that the experience of those first hundred people, most of whom had been sober only a few months, and several of whom even relapsed after their story had been published, should later take such precedence over the experience of many thousands of long time sober, agnostic, present day members of AA.

Old-timers who are now trying at all cost to keep agnostics in AA from gaining recognition will, without giving it a second thought tell any present day newcomer with less than a couple of years sober, to just “shut up and listen”. And they will walk all over agnostics with decades of good sobriety, if they can. Isn’t it time we paid more attention to the varieties of present day experience, and maybe a bit less to that bunch of newcomers 80 years ago?

Bill and Bob set a movement in motion which has helped many. But they were just another couple of drunks. Just like we non-believers today are searching for new paths, Bill read a few books to see if he could come up with something other than the strict Oxford group program. So he read William James, and Carl Jung and a few others, and armed with all that knowledge, he wrote the Big Book. And he had a few good connections, and a bit of good luck, too.

According to a talk by Jim Burwell in Sacramento in 1957, at the time the Big Book was published there were eight people with more than six months sobriety. Some of them, and many of those with less time, relapsed. Six of the 20 who had a story in the first edition at some point later committed suicide. Really not an impressive crowd of “more than one hundred men and women” to model your recovery after. But Bill had no trouble embellishing the truth at that time.

Bill and Hank Parkhurst were business men. They were salesmen. Jim Burwell said Hank was the pushiest salesman he had ever met, and he was a salesman himself. They approached the making of the big book like salesmen, and while it took a while, eventually sales picked up.

The Big Book has sold an impressive 30 million copies or thereabouts. If all current members own 2 or 3 of them, like I do, and some have gone into libraries, that still leaves about 20 million sold or given to newcomers who didn’t stay, and gives us a rough estimate of how many people we have failed, at least from among those who either were serious enough to buy one, or whom someone else cared enough about to buy them one. No telling how many people we failed beyond that, but this number is already plenty big.

It is customary in AA to blame the alcoholics themselves for this failure, though Bill himself eventually recognizes the problem with that in his 1961 article The Dilemma of No Faith.

But the dilemma we’re suffering is not one of no faith, but of what to do with a faith based, one size fits all recovery program based on a book full of embellishments and manipulations.

And Bill had quite a dilemma all along: How to explain to himself all those recovering alcoholics with no faith who seem to have good, well-lived, sensible lives, and for that matter also many non-alcoholics do, who are non-believers?

This is supposed to be a program of honesty, after all. There must have come a point when Bill had to get honest with himself about this. How did that contribute to his depression, and his various bouts with escapism? I’m starting to read Bill’s later writings from this point of view. There wasn’t much wiggle room in the Big Book version of the program. And so later, his main quest would be to try to undo some of the damage done with his uncompromising early version of the program, all the while keeping the whole fellowship from unraveling. I would have been unhappy if I had been in such a predicament. But if everyone around you treats you like a saint, you’d better try to play the part.

His basic message in his later speeches is so eerily similar from one to the next to where it sounds like it could have been spoken by a robot. Bill says everything he knows the Christian crowd gathered wants to hear. Except that he does add one new thing: Some cautionary remarks about making the program too rigid, and about being inclusive of agnostics, the stuff which I imagine would have troubled him the most.

Thomas B. has told me that around 1990 Nell Wing, Bill’s secretary for 30 years, and AA’s first archivist, told him that she and Bill had been working on a secular book which they hoped would be used instead of much of the original literature. We have not found any indication yet that such a manuscript exists, but this information at least comes from very close to the source, and would support the point of view that even though Bill may still have been a believer, his wheels were spinning hard, looking for a way to modify the program away from the religious dogmatism which so many were trying to cement into place.

Bill, for our purposes, was first and foremost a salesman. His talent was pulling AA together, much less so the making of a program for it. It could have been simple: One alcoholic talking with another. Instead the program is awful. Bill’s gone, and now all we have is this awful program. What makes it work at all is of course those few principles which we may call spiritual for want of a better word: Honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, humility, service, living by the golden rule. And with those principles practiced diligently almost any kind of program can be made to work, no matter how awful.

I know I have been hard on both Bill and his book here. I wish I didn’t have to be. Sure he had some grandiose ideas when he wrote the book, but I was a mess at three years sober myself, I should allow him the space to be, too. The problem lies with the movement that has canonized Bill and his book. If we could somehow get to a place where the big book was no longer held up as the final word on recovery, but be taken for what it is – the salesmanship of a three years sober alcoholic – then we could view it with all the respect it actually deserves – it is our founding document, and for a three years sober guy to have written it, it is actually quite amazing, even if it turns out that much of it is wrong.

Instead, because there are so many big book fundamentalists that cling to it, I think we are left with no other option than to go after it. We don’t need to re-write the big book. We need to stop using it. If we don’t somehow dislodge it as our primary recovery book, AA will simply die off over time.

The culprit, as Bill also pointed out later in his recovery is something rather more like human nature. There are a lot of people who wish for a father in the sky to look after them, rather than take full responsibility for their own recovery, and there are people that really like having a program handed to them that tells them exactly what to do. These are the people who are happy with the program as it is, the 5 or 10 percent, whatever, who stay. But we can’t very well fault those people. They are after all only doing the best they can and know how, just like I am in my own way. Thus the only thing left is to attack the program philosophy, and its literature. And it is regrettable that attack is even necessary, but we’d better get on with it. Hopefully we can do that without harming the fellowship, for that, together with our love and care for the next suffering alcoholic is the most precious thing we have in AA.

life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA.

As part of this mission, life-j has written a number of articles on AA Agnostica over the past several years and these are:

To date, he has also written three articles for a wonderful website for we agnostics in Alcoholics Anonymous, AA Beyond Belief:

  • The Sinclair Method (November 22, 2015)
  • Don’t Fix It If It Ain’t Broke (April 9, 2017)
  • About Being Here (July 2, 2017)

All of these articles are available in a book put together by life-j. Here is part of his intro to the book: “…the doctors have given me one to two years to live. I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m taking a lot of time to write, while I can. A couple of other articles are in the pipeline already, and as things are published I will add them….”

You can read and/or download the book as a PDF right here: My Collected Published AA Stories.


57 Responses

  1. Be Here Now says:

    In my humble opinion Bill Wilson had the wisdom, courage and fortitude to write and see adopted The 12 Traditions which Dr. Bob endorsed as well. Thank God! Or this Alcoholic Agnostic Yogi would not be texting this today!

  2. Brent L. says:

    Excellent article. I agree that “God” and the other faith based belief arguments are a detriment to many, if not most people who are considering they may be alcoholics, but fervently rebellious of the religious overt-tones. And the folks with many years sobriety, don’t seem to be able to get into the insightful and introspective steps without invoking this belief in one way or another. There are many people suffering in their alcoholism and underlying “self” issues than can benefit from frank agnostic style sponsorship.

  3. Clara says:

    Thank you for your article. Like you, I’m an atheist with long term (30 plus years) sobriety.

    I have often imagined how much more useful and vital the Big Book would be if it had been tossed out and rewritten completely every ten years, and if all the old versions were free, offered as historical documents (easy and cheap to do now with ebooks), with only the current issue offered for sale.

    That being said, I do not view the Big Book’s ultimate fate as key, because a new version of it could eventually become “sacred,” too. The issue isn’t accepting new ideas; it is power.

    By championing outdated material as if it had a special meaning, by treating the Big Book and other AA lore as dogma, the purists have created a powerful tool to hang onto their social and political power over their meetings, their districts, etc. They get to define who is a “good” member with “good” sobriety. They get to instantly slot new members into “for us” or “against us” camps. They can accept or reject new information based on whether it helps them maintain power, and conceal the decision under the “purist” fig leaf.

    “Old school” AA members feel threatened by atheists not because they hate atheists and atheism, or believe personally that atheists can’t get sober, or think atheism is going to make someone relapse. It’s because secular AA challenges the dogma the purists believe they need to keep power within the organization.

    Therefore, I don’t think change will happen through educating or convincing AA purists that there are new and/or better ways to get sober and help others get sober; as individuals, the purists already know it. They live in the 21st century with the rest of us. But as a group, they enforce dogma because it keeps the power in their hands.

    What “old school” AA members need to grasp is that they are choosing power-through-dogma over a healthy and dynamic organization.

    • RussH says:

      Clara, thank you for one of the more thoughtful responses in this thread. I wonder, though, if we haven’t really gone off the rails here – both in the article itself and in the adamantly self-assured responses. The “old school” AA members almost certainly do not see themselves involved in a power struggle. They are adherents of a faith-based world view which is, of course, inherently irrational. We atheists/agnostics/secular-humanists adhere to a rational point of view that is at least far less faith based. The two points of view have always been at odds with each other – in and out of AA. What stuns me is the tone and content of this conversation with the seeming absence of recognition on our part that primacy of either point of view is not the issue. The very last thing AA needs is to adopt a single explanation or a single program that would be meant to serve everyone. It is resistance to that approach that gave rise to the Secular AA movement. What we deseperately need is a worldwide AA organization that accepts the pluralistic nature of the global population and strives to provide an AA environment that is open to that diversity and allows it to flourish is our worldwide organization.

      • Clara says:

        RussH, when it comes to addiction recovery, I do not view religion vs. atheism as irrationality vs. rationality. I view it as certainty vs. uncertainty. As an AA member, I wish I felt I had all the answers for newcomers, with a long-established dogma to rely on. I’m sure it’s a great feeling. But it is not in my nature to feel satisfied with current thinking — about anything. I’m old enough to remember when there were still school teachers who refused to believe continents moved. Old theories that everyone “knew” were right are toppled constantly. I get a great deal of intellectual and emotional pleasure when new theories expand my understanding, perhaps because I accept my understanding will never be complete. I am comfortable with that worldview. Many people are not, and some are AA members. Not everyone in addiction recovery can enjoy Neil deGrasse Tyson’s advice: “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”

        I enjoy reading up on neuroscience, which (currently, at least!) theorizes humans have an innate need to detect patterns and feel certainty; when we had only our limited senses to rely on, detecting patterns and trusting our ability to do so was how we survived for hundreds of thousands of years. The patterns early humans detected (the solar year, the lunar cycle, sea tides, changing seasons, changing stars in the night sky) evolved into the earliest religions. Anyway, as an atheist, I cannot offer certainty. I cannot truthfully say to newcomers, “Do the twelve steps perfectly, believe in God, and you will stay sober.” I don’t think anyone can say that truthfully; to do so presumes fortune-telling ability — it presumes, in fact, god-like powers, a total reversal of what is expressed in the serenity prayer, which is an AA irony I must contend with at every AA meeting, because I’ve met hundreds of AA members who give that approximate assurance to newcomers. But every time I am upset by it, I must ask, “What do I have to offer instead?”

      • life-j says:

        Russ you’re right, we do not need a single explanation or a single program – and right now we have both. We will only get out of that if we can sideline the BB. And have a secular program. We don’t need an agnostic program (can’t quite figure out how it would work – a recovery program based on doubting the existence of gods? that would be almost weirder than having a program based on belief that there is one who will take a personal interest in fixing you) – any more than we need a religious program. We just need to have a secular program, where god stuff or absence thereof is everyone’s personal business. Whether or not AA can survive purging itself of the Big Book is a good question, but much on par with whether AA can survive not doing it, and still remain relevant and viable.

  4. Beth H. says:

    Great article, Life. Parts of the B.B. weren’t even true when Bill wrote them, and he knew it. They didn’t take those 12 steps, they took 6 steps, 5 of which don’t mention god. And there were already people like Jim B staying sober without a higher power which Bill refused to acknowledge. So much for rigorous honesty.

    The BB is described as “our basic text.” Why on earth would anyone undertake a major endeavor using a textbook that hasn’t been updated in 78 years? It has become a bible, not a textbook. Bibles don’t change; textbooks do.

    On a personal note, Life, you were one of the first secular people I met in an online meeting on Sunday mornings, and I so appreciated you for that. The feeling that I wasn’t alone anymore, nor some defective failure-to-launch aberration, was huge. I know you are sick now and just wanted to tell you that.

  5. Roger says:

    When I read the article, and its many comments, I am reminded of a comment made by Joe C, the author of Beyond Belief, a number of years ago:

    My bold prediction is that if AA doesn’t accommodate change and diversify, our 100th anniversary will be a fellowship of men and women with the same stature and relevance as the Mennonites; charming, harmless and irrelevant.

    I agree.

  6. - o0o- 0. says:

    “If we don’t somehow dislodge it as our primary recovery book, AA will simply die off over time.”

    This, to me, sounds like a natural and acceptable course for AA.

    • Jack B. says:

      When I’ve said something similar to religious fundies, their response has been shades of “perhaps its God’s will”.

      There is no way to wake up such people.

    • life-j says:

      This is indeed an interesting take on the situation, yes, could be “god’s will” to the fundies, but I guess we also have to consider the possibility that some organizations are so inflexible that they will self destruct rather than change, and this is the main reason why all empires bit the dust sooner or later. If that is indeed the case with AA we have to concern ourselves with how we can contribute to what comes after. There will be a need for something. But yeah, we have to consider the possibility that that is what needs to happen.

      • Jim C. says:

        Adapt or die is the fundamental law of nature. And impermanence is the one certainty in human affairs. Everything passes – great empires, nations included. To try to freeze anything in time as the final word on any subject – as too many do the Big Book – is a fool’s game and merely ensures its demise.

      • Jack B. says:

        It’s been said here before – “traditional and religious” AA is being destroyed by its most fanatic religious members. It’s been said here that that’s “a natural and acceptable course for AA.” With some regret I must agree.

        But again as has been said here “there will be a need for something” to replace it.

        I think that many people are already replacing it.

        Consider: I have at present three sponsees. All are about 5 – 7 years in recovery from several different drugs. None of them own or have read the big book. None of them have attended a meeting. None of them have “done” the steps. At my urging all are now in the hands of an MD who specializes in addiction. Two are seeing a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. All have been drug-free for at least 5 years. One named T is taking two drugs – one an antidepressant – that together have removed all cravings; not lessened or weakened, removed! His drug of choice was coke. Another named R under very similar addiction drugs is completing his third year at school in pre-med. Another named P under similar drug circumstances is about to become an officer of the court.

        This is not horn-blowing on my part; it is to show that recovery, from a scientific and medical starting point and NOT from 80 yr old gibberish, is not only possible but also very effective.

        I have given up my alcohol addiction and replaced it with watching the lights come on in others lives.

        First rule; get the sufferer into the hands of a doctor that specializes in addiction. This is crucial!

        I believe that it is pointless to try to fix what is irreparably broken: traditional AA. I also believe that it is up to, say, most people who read this site, to create a new, science-based program of recovery. We can call it anything we like or nothing at all. The most important thing is that the creation process is begun.


  7. Robert B. says:

    I have no objection to shelving the big book. I just can’t imagine how this can be accomplished, at least until a couple of generations of hardliners have come and gone. It amazes me how the religious component of AA continues to resonate as the core of the program, considering the general decline in church going activity. Of course AA is thought to be a spiritual program, rather than a religious one.

  8. Dale K says:

    I agree completely with your sentiments in this article, life-j. Even though I attempted to rewrite the Big Book, I think it should be scrapped completely. A new text, or better yet, a dynamic collection of ever-growing articles about the latest science of addiction and recovery, is what we should revere. A constant updating of scientific information is what we should be following, not a 1939 book stuck in history.

    • Jack B. says:

      Of course!!
      Science and medicine should be the sources of information re abuse treatment. Absolutely not a near 80 yr old collection of hocus-pocus.

  9. Laurie A says:

    In my AA Agnostica article Hallowed Be The Big Book? I quoted the Preface to the fourth edition: “… the first portion of this volume (the so-called first 164 pages)describing the AA recovery program, has been left untouched.” I commented: “That’s the problem…”

    Some years ago Grapevine carried an article in which I suggested that worshipping the Big Book was idolatry. Does anyone doubt that if the book were written today, 80 years later, that the first 164 pages (sic) would read exactly the same? Are we making the same mistake by giving the book the iconic status afforded it by our less enlightened AA members?

    “We realise we know but little, God (evolution) will constantly disclose more to you and to us.” Bill W. said AA is a spiritual kindergarten – each member’s theology is their own affair. My dear friend Ernie Kurtz emailed me when “Hallowed Be the Big Book?” appeared and said the book didn’t need changing; the problem was a lack of discerning sponsorship.

    • Laurie A says:

      PS: The Grapevine article was headed: “In the Spirit – not the Letter – of Alcoholics Anonymous” and appeared in the January 2007 issue. It can be downloaded from the Grapevine digital archive.

    • Tony L. says:

      Great reading. So well articulated life-j.

      It’s amazing to have had these kind of thoughts about the Big Book. Over the last 11 years for me I wouldn’t be able to put it down like this. So thanks for putting it out there.

  10. life-j says:

    Mulling all the comments over I got to think of a big problem:

    AAWS is to a large extent financed by big book sales, so (even without conspiracy theories and presumptions of evil intent) AAWS will keep having an interest in selling as many big books as possible, which is sure to be contrary to trying to get its use de-emphasized.

    And probably more than half of the approximately one million sold anually are bought by recovery centers, a multi-million dollar industry, which primarily do business for the sake of their business, more so than for the sake of the alcoholics who stay there, and so they strongly contribute to the still relatively strong position of the big book.

    If AA quit selling big books tomorrow they would probably be broke by the end of the year, so I can see how, just in order for AA to not go away, even I must want AA to sell big books. This I find really disturbing.

    • Laurie A says:

      I heard Clancy I make the same point – that e.g. the treatment industry could put pressure on AA arguing, “We like the Big Book but lots of our clients have problems other than alcohol so if you could just change the language a bit to addiction instead of alcoholism we would continue ordering the book.” AA has to be fully self supporting and as we can’t stop people buying the book one answer would be to either reduce the price or give it away free thus making the fellowship live within its means. Though I wouldn’t fancy trying to get that through Conference!

    • Clara M. says:

      Thank you for raising this point, life-j and others. I had not considered the financial importance of the Big Book to AA. I’m sure the money the Big Book has raised year after year has been a powerful justification (acknowledged or not) to leave its content as-is.

  11. life-j says:

    Thanks all for your comments. I think we need to not be too afraid of stirring up controversy. In the beginning, four years ago when I came out of the closet for real I was met with a lot of hostility and avoidance, but at this time it has become the “new normal” – people expect me to put down the daily reflections in no uncertain terms, if read out loud, they don’t do shares about “my higher power which I choose to call god” anymore as a sort of retaliation, like they did in the beginning – and what is more – many, even among the believers are actually beginning to give me support. In the room where our meeting was denied listing there are now a couple of my pamphlets in the rack, including a lone copy of the god word.

    If we don’t speak up nothing will happen, and so far it is my experience that if we do it only gets better – at least after a period of bad vibes, the sun invariably comes out again.

    And this article will of course not convince any back to basics types of anything, but it wasn’t written for/to them, it was written to all those who already know the truth, but maybe just need a little nudge to gain courage.

    Thanks all for being here.

  12. Dan L says:

    Thanks life-j for that great essay. You really seem to put my thoughts into words so much better, and more importantly faster and kinder than I can. I have always seen the Big Book as a sales job aimed at selling more Big Books. It is a remarkable book because of what it set in motion but it is treated now as a text book, instruction manual, devotional literature and the last word on recovery from alcoholism. I do not know if it is the general “dumbing down” of Western, particularly American society but so many people treat it like some kind of revelation. A fetish if there ever was one.

    I agree completely that continued reliance on this hoary old grimoire will doom AA and it will be its most devoted members who will destroy it willingly to keep it from those who do not meet their approval. The book itself is shot through with alcoholic thinking and is just a collection of observations and opinions mostly from Bill W. It contains no science, medicine or anything other than folk lore psychology and a very sketchy outline of a “precise” program which at the time had no track record of success except the main author himself.

    Thanks so much.

    • Jack B. says:

      I could not possibly agree with you more.

      AA is on the decline and has been for many, many years. The one truth that survives intact is that recovery happens when one addict talks to another. Science, medicine and a secular approach are equally crucial.

      Sloganeering and spook worship avail us of nothing during recovery. They never have and never will.

  13. Murray J. Past Treasurer SOAAR 2017 says:

    Thanks! Any article that gets me thinking is worthy indeed. Sacred cows need to be challenged, examined. I look back on my first three years and the expression “ass from elbow” leaps to mind. And as you pointed out, one drunk talking to another was and is the essence of recovery.

    It was my great personal pleasure to meet you in Toronto this past September at the very first SOAAR (Secular Ontario AA Roundup). Keep cranking out the thought provoking writings.

  14. Jack B. says:

    “We don’t need to re-write the big book. We need to stop using it”.

    Heluva call to arms but let the games begin. I have not, for many years, taken to or encouraged the attendance at meetings. This is 2017 not 1939 dammit!! Agnosticism and atheism are on the rise and are loud and proud more and more every day.

    When I am asked the question “how did I stop?” I say thru AA. Many of said people respond with a variation of “its religious isn’t it?” to which I respond with “Some members are religious but I’m an atheist.”

    At “traditional” meetings, more often than not, I’m approached by newbies and others who did not know or have not been told of the existence of AAAA. No surprises there really, the fundies are most definitely fighting against secular ideas.

    Secular ideas are at home on this site. Where the pushback really counts though, is at the “religious” meetings. There is, after all, no point in carrying yet more coal to Newcastle.

    The fight for inclusion in big-tent AA begins where the religious fundies have sway. It’s very important that the fight be carried to those who venerate both Bill and the book to the exclusion of the science and medical knowledge gained since 1939.

    Failure to do that and AA will collapse as irrelevant.

    Thank you so much for this life-j.


  15. Hilary J. says:

    Thanks so much for another insightful article, Life-J! I’m always happy to see your byline. I take the book with a grain of salt. Yes, there are some valuable nuggets in there, but it is definitely a product of its time and place (white, male, middle-class 1930s America). I advise my sponsees to look beyond the archaic language and assumptions and interpret it in a way that works for them – that’s how I got sober.

    • life-j says:

      Hilary, thanks. I think I’m getting to a point where I would recommend that people don’t read it at all until they have at least a few months of good sobriety, so it won’t mess with their head too much.

      Really – they should read Living Sober instead. The one AA book which makes sense.

  16. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks life-j for this exceptionally well argued article. I agree with you that much in the Big Book is helpful for recovery. I’ve been known to reflect that considering when it was written, it’s amazing how much Bill got right in the Big Book.

    To my mind, on page 164 in the third paragraph are two sentences which are most truthful: “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.” Obviously, the Big Book thumpers disagree !~!~!

  17. Steve b says:

    Good essay, life-j. I agree that the most important part of AA is alcoholics sharing with one another. As for the Big Book, I don’t even have one, and I certainly don’t miss it.

  18. RussH says:

    I think the polarization within AA is a bigger problem than the Big Book by far. The BB-Thumpers think they have it right and the Secular-AAers think they have it right. Many in the two camps are unable grant the possibility that there may be more than one way to “have it right.” In my experience, just letting new-comers know that not everyone does sobriety the same way is the best solution to the problem. That’s why I am vocal about my secular point of view. Time and again new people come up to express relief that the secular point of view is alive and healthy in AA. Go ahead Life-J and write your new book. Hopefully you will do it as a group effort with representatives of the opposing point of view being contributors. If it really is such a great idea the project will reap corresponding rewards. Railing against the status quo as you have done here is not a positive step forward.

    • life-j says:

      Russ, thanks for reading my article – not sure what you mean by “go ahead and write your new book, hopefully it will be a group effort, etc.”

      Are you referring to the book mentioned below below the article?

      That is not a “new book” I’m writing, it is just a book with the various AA articles I have already written over the last few years, nothing more, nothing less.

      I’m not writing any new book. Besides, there are many good, new books already. That’s not the problem. The problem is a large number of people insisting on clinging to the outdated foundation document, and refusing to acknowledge the new ones, because they haven’t been written by our main saint.

      It is probably quite easy to find 50 good recovery books that ought to be freely used by whoever likes one book or another, and circulated for everyone’s consideration in the fellowship.

      • RussH says:

        I thought the thrust of the article was that we need to replace the existing Big Book with one that benefits from the cumulative knowledge and experience of the last 80 years. From your response I have the impression you just want to change a lot of minds within conventional AA. Screeds like the one you produced here are not likely to achieve that goal.

    • Jack B. says:


      Did you read the same essay the rest of us did?


      • RussH says:

        Thanks for the sarcasm, Jack. Yes I read the same article. Different take on it than the rest of you. There is way too much complaining among the Secular AA contingent. Sure the Big Book suffers from the all the deficiencies noted. Sure it would be good if we had an updated text. So, if there is so much passion for complaining about it maybe there should be some passion for actually writing such a book. Into Action… etc etc etc.

        • Roger says:

          What life-j was saying in this article, Russ, boils down to this: the Big Book ain’t perfect. He’s right. And it’s worth saying, given that some in AA think it is perfect, and some even treat it as a Bible.

          Over the next while we will post more articles which critique various chapters in the Big Book. In that vein, we started with this one: Critique of We Agnostics – Chapter 4 of the Big Book.

      • Jack B. says:

        I see I wasn’t clear enough.

        The Big Book doesn’t need to be re-written. It needs to be replaced.

        By science.

        Cheers, Jk.

  19. Diane I. says:

    Fabulous article – exactly how I feel! Thank you!!

  20. Oren says:

    Thanks, life-j. Once again, you put things in perspective, and on this Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., I appreciate your clarity. Thanks also to Roger for the link to “The Dilemma of No Faith”, which I have never read before. As life-j suggests, Bill’s description of “spiritual aggression” seems to show how he had come to see the problems that had developed in the program. Spiritual aggression and spiritual arrogance–my, how those concepts have a haunting and troubling resonance in our own unsettled times.

  21. Ed S. says:

    I agree let’s go back to keeping it simple. “It could have been simple: One alcoholic talking with another.”

  22. Jim C. says:

    Bill and Bob got a lot right. But Bill said himself in speeches to medical/psychiatric bodies after AA began to take off that the Big Book was in large part synthesis and that you’d look a long time to find anything new in it.

    To be sure, they cribbed judiciously from the Oxford Society and elsewhere. But as a whole, the program holds up remarkably well. It turns out that most of the practical aspects of the program they designed – the action – have been supported by modern science as effective. They seem to have understood, from trial and error, observation and hard experience, the value of peer support, of prayer and meditation, of active gratitude, of serving others, of discipline and structure. They understood, as the poet Frederick Seiden has put it, that “Repetition is Fate.” They understood, as Walter Mischell suggests in later evaluation of his Marshmallow Test, that avoiding temptation and urges has less to do with willpower than it does with distraction. They understood that human beings are herd animals, that we are natural mimics, that we unconsciously adopt the behaviours, speech patterns, cadences, attitudes of those with whom we keep company.

    Bill, as a salesman and Wall St. promoter, understood the power of pithy slogans – Just Do It, You Deserve a Break Today – to activate entire universes of thought, urges and behaviour. They understood the power of habit, that habits could be changed but not extinguished, and that those who stopped doing things necessary to support the new behaviour would revert to the old because the brain, like most organisms, wants to conserve energy and prefers habit. What they understood, though they wouldn’t have words for it, was neuro-plasticity. Because they didn’t have language or explanation to account for the changes their program produced in the early going, they attributed it all to God.

    But most of all, they knew that they knew only a little. It would have stunned them to see modern AAs parsing the Big Book like Talmudic scholars. If religion is something we study and spirituality is something we experience, the practice of taking the Big Book as the literal, divinely inspired, infallible and unchallengeable truth sounds much more like religion than the spirituality we often claim. I believe the AA program works. It has worked for me for just under 25 years. But I believe it works for reasons other than those promulgated by many of the more traditionally-minded among my peers.

    Jim C., Toronto.

    • life-j says:

      Jim, thanks. Yes, “the program holds up remarkably well” – the problem is that it speaks to fewer and fewer people. It’s not the program we need to have hold up, but the fellowship. We need to be able help the 80% or more to whom the current program makes no sense.

      • Jim C. says:

        Agreed. There are two trends that I think will force reform. First, the coming of age of generations who are digital natives and are raised in an entirely secular society. They will likely be averse to much of the overt religiousity and are apt to find the BB, in tone and content, archaic in the extreme. Second, is the steady advance of science in coming to understand addiction and its treatment in ways not dependent on otherworldly intervention. All the best.

  23. Gerald W says:

    In regard to the God question. It’s not that I’m ungrateful for this fellowship; it’s just that for me, the belief in God is illogical.

  24. bob k says:

    There is a tremendous polarity in the AA world of 2017 -far worse than three decades ago. With more and more atheists and agnostics having the temerity to speak out, the God defenders have circled the wagons.
    (Please read “The ‘Don’t Tell’ Policy in AA” on this website. It’s BRILLIANT!!)

    Pushback against the pushback. The whole “Back to the Big Book” movement freezes time in 1939.

    Bill and Hank were desperate entrepreneurs wallowing in failure. Sobriety has brought no return to economic success, so in late summer of 1937, they began to formulate a master-plan for the creation of AA Inc., with the two washouts at the helm, and drawing CEO salaries.

    When JD Rockefeller Jr., and other rich folks failed to open the vaults, the last great hope for AA Inc. was the creation of a book that they were convinced would be a best-seller. Under the original deal, the book wasn’t owned by AA. Hank and Willie were the proud owners of 67% of it. To my eyes, the number one stain on the very mixed bag legacy of Bill W. is the profit motive behind the book project.

    Today, the BB sells about a million copies a year. Had it sold 50,000 a year, back in the day, Bill and Hank would have scooped a dollar a book each, and very quickly would have become wealthy. That was the plan.


    The 1939 printing cost was 34 cents a copy. The great altruists elected to sell the book for 10 times that, about $60 apiece in 2017 money – more than a day’s pay for the working poor.

    I find Bill to be far from canonized in modern AA. I hear on a regular basis that Bill was a druggie, because of the LSD experiments, and that Bill was an adulterer, because of, well, because of the adultery. The lid has come off of the womanizing talk since Lois’s death, 30 years ago.

    Fundies knock Bill’s intelligence in order to make the case that Bill could not have written the book without God’s help. To the “divinely inspired” folks, Mr. Wilson was a mere tool.

    Mostly, BB thumpers hate the later Bill, where he deteriorated into tolerance and inclusivity. Fundies HATE Appendix II (an early flash of the liberalization), and essays like “The Dilemma of No Faith.” The Godly feel that Bill turned traitor.

    The book is the central object of worship. It neither slept with a bunch of other books, nor did it drop any tabs. Had it done so, the pages would be multi-colored 😉

    I liked the essay, and I hope it’s longer than this comment.

    • Roger says:

      You can read The “Don’t Tell” Policy in AA by clicking on the image:

      Don't Tell

    • life-j says:

      Bob, thanks for the down to earth historical evaluation, we need that.

    • Secular and sober says:

      Thanks for the mention of the references to Bill being a “druggie” because he explored ancient medicinal triggers for change. Science has many medicinal supports for people who experience physical and mental ill-health. Lumping the use/trial of chemical medications into juvenile name-calling is anti-science and reckless.

      Many members of AA have dual/multi diagnoses and require complex medication to even survive. The 6/20 suicide results in early AA are horrific and tragic. AA is NOT qualified to prescribe OR preclude the use of any medication!!!! It is entirely an “outside issue”.

      I deeply appreciate this article. I have instinctively rejected the ‘big book’ as being a PTSD trauma trigger for me (grew up in a violent religious cult). Now I understand better why I was right about that.

      Science has come a long way since the BB was written. We have options the original authors never did. The knee-jerk reaction of those insisting on sticking their head in a hole regarding modern treatments is detrimental, obsolete and aggressively dangerous!

      One thing I like about sobriety is learning to trust my BS meter. I have to remember that it only applies to my own sobriety. But the BB was absolutely the worst thing I could read early on. It is not required for healthy sobriety.

  25. Pat N. says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, life-j! Once again, you’ve crystallized some concerns and ideas that have been lurking behind my left eyebrow, but that I’ve lacked the nerve or words to write down. I hope this essay gets abundant exposure.

    The fellowship unquestionably was the essential part of my quitting booze, and that was the beginning of a real, wonderful life. But it WAS the fellowship: the acceptance, tolerance, good example, practical suggestions, the LOVE of this ragtag mob of striving men and women that got me moving when I lacked the hope and path I needed.

    It was not a god, it was not a book, it was not 12 badly-expressed, deistic Steps – it was the people. And it’s still the people.

    Including you. I really appreciate knowing you, and wish you the best of health, peace, and joy.

    • bob k says:

      It has just occurred to me that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. Yer welcome.

    • Hilary J. says:

      Good point! It’s the fellowship itself that’s most important, not the book, the rituals or the steps, let alone a “higher power”.

  26. Robert B. says:

    I agree that AA needs to grow up. It amazes me how members refer to the big book as untouchable. They seem to be fearful that any attempt to update the text will somehow threaten their sobriety, or the program in its entirety. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it comes to mind. Of course one could argue it is broke considering AA only seems to work for a select population.

    • life-j says:

      Robert, thanks. I really think that the big book should not be updated or re-written. A number of people have already done/tried that, latest Dale K., and while these efforts are laudable, the fact (as I see it anyway) is that it simply cannot be done. No matter what you do to it, it will remain – for the most part – a bunch of unscientific, religious nonsense.

      Let’s restore it to it’s 1938 edition, and put it up on a shelf, and not use it for recovery anymore, only to take it down off the shelf when we want to appreciate our fellowship’s origin – which we can not do so long as we’re still stuck in that origin. For such a purpose, someday it will be nice to see how far we have come – presuming we ever do get to a place where we can say we have.

Translate »