Translating the Big Book into secular language, one day at a time: A review of Daily Reprieve: A.A. for Atheists & Agnostics (2017)
By Joe C.
“No one knows for certain whether God is or isn’t, so being asked to make that Hobson’s choice is pointless…”
This is a portion of the May 23rd “Consideration” in Alex M’s Daily Reprieve: A.A. for Atheists & Agnostics (2017). This is a daily reflection book that chronologically walks through excerpts from the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. Bite-size Big Book quotes are spread over 365 separate daily reflections. This first excerpt I’ve pulled out, if you didn’t guess it, is referring to the notorious declaration in Chapter IV “We Agnostics”: “God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t. What was our choice to be?”
Alex’s book isn’t a fault-finding litany, of “Ah ha; gottcha’!” moments. What I get from this book is what does work for Alex, what doesn’t, and what can be interpreted with reason and imagination. Like a Spanish/English dictionary shows you how to say English words/phrases in Spanish, Daily Reprieve explains how to speak Big Book in secular-ese. Reading this book, I never felt Alex wanted me to do or believe as Alex does or believes. He’s sharing how, for a life-long atheist, he has been able to translate the theistic bias of Alcoholics Anonymous into his own uncompromising and authentic language.
I know how much work writing a book like this is; I think I know why Alex undertook this irrational undertaking. By that, I mean by writing a book about the Big Book for skeptics… well, he’s not reaching for low hanging fruit or dreaming of a best-seller. A fellow traveler in 12-Step recovery, Alex observed a need for secular-minded members for a way in to this inner circle of Big Book-AA, where “our more religious members” enjoy privilege. I don’t think it matters to Alex M how small or large his target audience is. AA was described to me by James Christopher, founder of Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) as, “a religion in denial.” One could characterize those of us who encourage others with a rational/scientific view of the universe and/or health and wellness, to find what’s good about AA, as being AA-apologists. We’re saying, “Despite the overt Judeo/Christian narrative of addiction and recovery, AA offers an equally rewarding life for secular-minded alcoholics so long as you learn to take what you like and let go of the rest.”
This isn’t every AA’s approach. Plenty of us reject the Big Book as an instruction manual along with the Twelve spiritual – not religious – suggestions, inside. Some don’t feel like they are defective and wonder why the rest of us spend so much time confessing and apologizing. These rugged “no Steps for me” individuals are found in both AA’s believers and realists camps. I know many fellows who never completed or in some cases never started the Steps and enjoy contented sober living that rivals or exceeds my own quality of life. Many find that AA sobriety isn’t a codified process. So why contort oneself unnaturally to embrace the book by the same name of our fellowship?
Alex isn’t the first atheist to make peace with a 1939 text written by and for AA’s “more religious members.” Familiarizing oneself with the Big Book, is to share a common experience. Long before Ted Talks, AAs understood that addiction isolates the alcoholic; those that we don’t drive away, we aren’t completely honest with. The end of drinking is a lonely business. The cure for this isolation is connection. So, the advantage (however small or large it is) from connecting with the Big Book is that you have a deeper intimacy with hundreds of fellow alcoholics in your community and a couple million around the world.
In Alex’s experience, even in a godless universe…
For alcoholics, our long-term treatment is spiritual, not medical. … we do know that the A.A. experience has shown that if we use some type of spiritual power of our own creation and understanding, however we define it, combined with other action tools of the Fellowship and A.A. program to treat our disease, we can recover.
That’s more from May 23rd.
Yes, this includes some twitchy words for some of us. These days, I avoid the word “spiritual,” because it means so many things to so many people; I don’t think it is a good word if your goal is to communicate. Is what Dick meant by “spiritual” what Jane understood as “spiritual?” Sometimes when words are overused they get worn out. And while I don’t have a dog in the is-addiction-a-disease debate, I appreciate that some have a strong feeling about it, one way or the other. The point is, I feel like Alex is expressing his experience candidly, but not forcibly. There is nothing coercive in Alex’s presentation.
Jumping ahead in Daily Reprieve to the always contentious “How It Works,” say it with me, “Remember that we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now!”
Alex’s June 3 Consideration reads:
It is only through faith – that belief in something we cannot prove – that gives us the courage and strength to take our first step down that dark passageway. Perhaps our faith comes from God, or some other religious or spiritual power of our own understanding. Or maybe our faith comes from the belief that it is simply our only way out, and we sense we have nothing to lose by trying.
Daily Reprieve does more than translate religious AA to secular AA; it modernizes “To Wives,” “The Family Afterward” and “The Doctor’s Opinion.” And not a decade too soon, I would add.
There are three sections to Daily Reprieve:
It opens with the author’s background and motivation to write the book – which was based in part with his interest in making the Twelve Step program accessible to like-minded alcoholics. In a sense, Alex makes the following case: the principles behind the Steps (and much of the literature about the Steps) aren’t exclusively for theists; however, classic AA literature is written by theists. If morality, confession, prayer and communion with the supernatural aren’t your thing, who could blame you for thinking that the Steps don’t include you? But this bible-like narrative is easily translated into rational, secular-speak.
The second section is the 365 daily reflections, starting from the “First Edition Foreword” on January 1st to “trudging the Road to Happy Destiny” on December 31st.
Section Three is more personal musings about spirituality, life, death, love and the universe, where Neil deGrasse Tyson gets a guest quote.
In Section Three we get to know more about Alex’s recovery routine and the role books have played, and are still playing, in his sobriety. Some of us will identify with his recounting of the more religious daily reflection recovery books Alex endured in early sobriety.
Daily Reprieve joins the ranks of thoughtful secular nods to AAism, such as offerings from Dale K, Steven K, Roger C, Adam N, Jack Grisham, Philip Z, Arlys G, Martha Cleveland, Marya Hornbacher, Archer Voxx and Vince Hawkins and others. More of us are writing memoirs. That’s a good thing, too.
These book – books just like Daily Reprieve – are exactly the books I believe Bill W thought would be written by AA when he foreshadowed, “more will be revealed.” Dead AAs like Bill W, Barry L and others had something of value to share with alcoholics, but no early author claimed authority over future writings.
“Hominem unius libri timeo,” as Saint Thomas Aquinas warns – “I fear the man of a single book.”
Daily Reprieve fills an unmet need. In a way, it could be an example of AA atheists’ truth and reconciliation. Alex M doesn’t maintain a resentment towards “our more religious” fellows. Maybe it’s better to demonize the system and reconcile with our fellows. Alex explains:
In order to receive the full benefit of A.A., I had to overcome my prejudice against the Big Book’s glum religious overtones. I had to let go of my anger and resentment over the condescending attitude expressed towards nonbelievers in the chapter “We Agnostics,”… I had to put aside my contempt prior to investigation when it seemed to me that ‘praying it away’ was A.A.’s go to solution for any problem that cropped up. (Preface)
Alex was an atheist when he came to AA and he’s an atheist today. I don’t get the feeling that Alex is or feels persecuted by the tyranny of AA’s more religious majority. If he ever felt that way, Daily Reprieve is a testimony of how he’s spoken his truth and reconciled with his fellow AAs, today. Alex points out parts of Alcoholics Anonymous text that aren’t true for him. Alex doesn’t claim victim-status. There is a freedom in AA. Freedom comes with an equal part of personal responsibility. We all know examples of people who demand their freedom but refuse to take responsibility. I find in this book, the example of a man who’s found freedom and taken responsibility. That’s the type of example I’m looking for in AA.
Who do I think should read this book?
Try this book, if you are one of many AA’s frustrated with being told, “God could and would if He were sought.” If your access to AA meetings is mostly groups that read and quote Alcoholics Anonymous, and attended by people who praise their higher power, use this book as your atheist dictionary to translate what you’re hearing in meetings. Daily Reprieve will translate what other AAs mean when they say what they say, and it will make common sense out of a dated book.
My wish is that AAs who sponsor others would all buy this book. Take Alex’s book along with the sponsor’s and sponsee’s Big Book sit downs. People who sponsor will find that more and more newcomers are nonbelievers. Why say, “I once believed as you believe,” when, instead, they could read together from someone who still believes as the non-theistic newcomer believes. Every time the sponsor/sponsee come across a passage that inspires resistance, this book could help unblock (translate). Isn’t that better than faking it?
Alex uses several daily reflections to start his day, if you’re looking for something new to add to your regular reflection routine, this is something different. If you’re more spontaneous and less structured in your routine, this book could be a good reference book. It’s chronological. Every Big Book reference is noted by Chapter and page so anytime you need a translation, Daily Reprieve is a good go-to. A lot of thought and time has been put into this book. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Alex M has done much of the heavy lifting for us.
Alex was the author of Chapter 9 of Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA which you can read here: A Friend of Jim B.
When asked how long he’s been in the rooms, Joe C answers, “Clean and Sober since Disco,” and he lets you do the math. Joe hosts Rebellion Dogs Radio, a 21st Century Look at 12 Step Life, co-founded the longest running secular AA group in Canada and he wrote the first secular daily reflection book, Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life.