Appendix I – Secular Versions of “How It Works”

Appendix I - Secular Version of "How It Works"

“How It Works” is Chapter 5 of the Big Book. The beginning of it (from pages 58 to 60 in the Fourth Edition) is often read at the beginning of traditional AA meetings. This reading begins with “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path” and ends with “God could and would if he were sought”. It is a tad religious to be sure. What follows are three secular versions of the “How It Works” reading.

* * *

A New “How It Works”

John S
We Agnostics Kansas City

Writing the book Alcoholics Anonymous, what we today call the Big Book, was a moment of genius and creativity. I can just imagine the excitement in the room when Bill read the steps to the group for the first time, and what an interesting debate it must have been as they hashed over the precise wording. There were those on one side who wanted the program to be religious, specifically Christian, and there were others who wanted it to be completely secular, no god at all, and those who were between the two camps who helped bring about a compromise.

Imagine the passion those early members felt for the fellowship as they watched it grow, as they made new friends while getting sober together!

New groups were forming all over the country and AA was a real movement that was really going somewhere. The fellowship was looking forward, to the future. It was free of any burden from the past, no founding fathers to revere, no sacred texts, everything was fresh. The Twelve Traditions formed from AA’s early experience were formally adopted in 1950 when AA was only fifteen years old. The AA members of that time were experiencing a program that was designed by their generation and for their generation.

Sadly, this doesn’t describe AA in the 21st Century.

No longer is AA looking forward to the future, instead it clings to the past. The AA of today is no longer dreaming, no longer tapping into the collective imagination and talents of its membership. AA isn’t building anything new for future generations. In twenty-four years, the Big Book will be 100 years old! Those of us who are members of the fellowship today should be horrified at the thought that this book will be used as the central text in the year 2039.

That’s not the future any of us should wish for AA.

It’s time to get some movement back into this movement.

What could “How It Works” look like at an AA meeting in the 22nd century?

This is my effort to answer that question.

We are Alcoholics Anonymous, members of a world-wide fellowship of men and women united by a common purpose to stay sober and help others to recover from alcoholism. For us alcohol was cunning, baffling and powerful. It took us to that great jumping off place where we met terror, bewilderment, frustration and despair. Without help it was too much for us!

But we found help in Alcoholics Anonymous and the collective experience of those who preceded us in recovery. Here, we learned that honesty, open mindedness and willingness were indispensable if we were to reclaim our lives. Although our personal stories and experiences vary, this is a general description of the path we took.

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. This humbling admission was a relief, the fight was over. We came to believe we could be helped through the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, and we made a decision to turn away from obstinate denial, to let go of our old ways, and to follow suggestions.

We took stock of ourselves to uncover the truth about who we were and the events that shaped our lives, and we shared our stories in their entirety with another person, leaving nothing out. Through this process we learned the value of character building and we persistently worked to let go of those personal traits that blocked us from our usefulness to others. Understanding the damage left in the wake of our drinking, we made amends to those we had harmed, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Having followed these suggestions, our old ideas and attitudes were replaced with a new outlook on life. We became less interested in ourselves and more interested in the welfare of others. Our past became our greatest asset, the primary tool to help other alcoholics. At last, we felt that we were set on a new course.

We maintained this new attitude by continuing the practice of personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitting it. We sought to improve our conscious awareness of these principles, and the serenity, courage and wisdom to carry them out. Everything we had done and all that we experienced to this point produced within us a deep and meaningful transformation, and having had this experience, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

This may seem a daunting task, but we assure you that none of us follow these principles perfectly, they are suggestions only, and there is no requirement they be followed at all. Together, we have recovered and with us so can you.

We members of Alcoholics Anonymous of the 21st Century need to build on the foundation that was laid by the AA of yesterday. The time has come to build something new, something better that will reach more people, save more lives and make a real difference. In order to do this, we need to stop clinging to the past. Honor it yes, even revere it, but we mustn’t let it burden us. If we don’t take responsibility for this fellowship and help to prepare it for the 22nd Century, then we are doing a grave disservice to the founders. Alcoholics Anonymous simply cannot survive long into the future if it refuses to dream, to change, to adapt and adopt, to think big.

We have the technology to gather the experience of millions of alcoholics the world-over and to transmit that experience in the language of our generation. We can and should rethink everything. For example, can’t we have more than one version of the steps? Can’t we take the principles of the steps and translate them into language for people of all faiths or people with no faith at all? If an AA group somewhere decides to write its own version of the steps while staying true to the basic tenets, isn’t that something we should celebrate and encourage?

There’s a lot of excitement among the agnostics, atheists and freethinkers in AA. We are writing new literature, blogs, creating websites, holding conventions, creating new groups, workshops for new groups, rethinking the steps, even debating these things. It’s an exciting time, a time of change. This is where the change begins, but the rest of the fellowship needs to join in. We need to build it together or we will ultimately drift apart.

Change is coming, it’s inevitable, but we have a duty and obligation to those who preceded us to act as capable stewards of the fellowship so that future generations can build on our work.

* * *

An Updated “How It Works”

Hilary J
Sober Agnostics Group, Vancouver, BC

The program is a tool to help us to recover from our addictions. It requires us to be completely honest with ourselves, and to take personal responsibility for our own behaviour and attitudes. We have found this to be a crucial element in our recovery.

Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you truly desire recovery, and are willing to go outside your comfort zone and work hard to change your life and your behaviour, then you are ready to take certain steps.

Some of these appeared very daunting. At first, most of us thought we could find an easier, softer way; but we could not. Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point, and chose the path to sobriety. Here are the Steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over our addictions – that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. Came to accept that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to cope with our problems.

  3. Made a decision to use the program to overcome our addiction.

  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves: acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses, and the fears, resentments and selfish behaviours that contributed to our addiction.

  5. Admitted to ourselves without reservation, and to another human being, the details of that inventory, both positive and negative.

  6. Were ready to let go of our destructive patterns.

  7. Humbly sought to change our behaviour and attitudes in order to achieve sobriety.

  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

  11. Searched within ourselves for our rightful path in life and the power to carry that out.

  12. Having achieved recovery through taking these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Many of us exclaimed, “What an order! I can’t go through with it”. Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to work hard to improve our lives and maintain our recovery. The principles we have set down are merely guides. We claim progress rather than perfection.

* * *

“How It Works”

Live and Let Live Group
Bloomington-Normal, Illinois

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it — then you are ready to take certain steps.

At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not. With all the earnestness at our command we beg of you to be fearless and thoroughly from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.

Remember that we deal with alcohol — cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point.

Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

  2. We came to believe and to accept that we needed strengths and resources beyond our awareness to restore us to sanity.

  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the collective wisdom of those who have searched before us.

  4. We made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.

  5. We admitted to ourselves, without reservation, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

  6. We were ready to accept help in letting go all defects of character.

  7. With humility and openness, we sought to eliminate our shortcomings.

  8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

  9. We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

  10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

  11. We sought through meditation to improve our spiritual awareness and our understanding of the AA way of life and to discover the power to carry out that way of life.

  12. Having changed as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Many of us exclaimed, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are human and not perfect. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

Our description of the alcoholic and personal experiences make clear three pertinent ideas:

(a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
(b) That we needed strength beyond our awareness in order to recover.
(c) That recovery is possible for nearly anyone willing to entrust themselves to this simple way of life.

Adapted from the book Alcoholics Anonymous®
Copyright © 1939, 1955, 1976, 2001 by AA World Services, Inc.


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Appendix I – Secular Versions of “How It Works” — 13 Comments

  1. Thanx, we need to spread the word that sobriety is possible without a god. We’re doing our part here in NE Conn. Keep up the good work.

  2. I’m an agnostic alcoholic from Poland. Sometimes I feel like an alien at AA meetings here. It seems like they went mad about God and religion generally. All the time: God, prayer, entrust your life to his will and everything will be ok… and so on. It’s hard to stand. Your texts are like a fresh air for me, make me feel not alone. Thanks a lot.

  3. I like each of the alternatives, they resonate well with me. Regularly when reading the’How it works’ script I try to decapitalise those words ‘god could and would if he were sought’. I mean no offence by that but I have to do the work, accept the need for change and put the effort in. I get strength, support and encouragement from people during the meetings, before and afterwards. It’s not magic but it is wonderful.

    Perhaps the way forward for AA is for there to be questions put to conference to approve alternative literature that is not theistic, does not rely on an interventionist deity. I do not wish to deny that to those who want it, but neither do I want my beliefs to be denied.

    The only criterion for membership is a desire to stop drinking. My belief system is irrelevant unless it’s to do with my denial of my alcoholism and the dangers to me of taking a single drink.

  4. “What could “How It Works” look like at an AA meeting in the 22nd century?”

    Excellent question, John.

    I think that most of the suggested changes made by yourself and your two sources are spot on. What follows are my alterations to the original and to your revisions.

    Bloomington-Normal, Illinois

    7. With humility and openness, we sought to DIMINISH OR eliminate our shortcomings. There is a very real question as to whether or not we can eliminate our shortcomings. That may not be true or it may be possible. But surely if we work hard at it we can reduce the incidence and prevalence of our wrongdoings.

    11. We sought through CONTEMPLATION AND and meditation to improve our SPIRITUAL awareness and our understanding of the AA way of life and to discover the power to carry out that way of life.

    I added CONTEMPLATION because it seems to me that when I think enough about the varieties of how I became aware of how we are practicing our AA way of life, I see no reason to characterize personality change as a SPIRITUAL OR METAPHYSICAL. This is my same rejoinder each time “SPIRITUAL” follows in this article.

    Many of us exclaimed, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Do not be discouraged. No one
    among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. WE ARE HUMAN AND ARE NOT PERFECT. The point is, that we are willing to grow along SPIRITUAL LINES. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim SPIRITUAL progress rather than SPIRITUAL perfection. Try the sentences without the modifiers. They make perfect sense.

    “We are human and not perfect.” Struck-through as it is self-evident and adds no meaning to the passage.

    The article is an excellent attempt to make sense out of How It Works. However, if we believe that it works, in large part by the intervention of others in our Fellowship (a point not clear according to what is explained above), it does not seem to me that this brings us any closer to understanding the mechanism under which the attainment of sobriety works.

  5. While I find all three personally agreeable, I think John’s version is the way to go: Dispense entirely with the “12” steps, and just write their principles in prose, so to speak. Get away from the firm lingo of the old How It Works. No more “half measures availed us nothing” and all that old lingo about being willing to go to any length, but a plain expression of our accumulated experience, not just Bill’s three year sober rantings.

  6. Thank you John, Hilary, and Bloomington folks, for your great contributions.

    I’ve never liked the original 12-there, I said it! Aside from the godish stuff, I think they’re poorly written, and don’t express how I perceive and feel about what I need to do to get and stay sober.

    A few years ago, I decided to express my own “steps”, covering the bases I think are essential and coming from my own mind and heart. I think of them often, and rewrite them occasionally, when certain behaviors seem more important or I think I can be more precise. I write them in pencil, so to speak, with at big eraser. I’m not who I was when I stumbled into AA, and of course my thoughts and words will evolve.

    My steps, principles, guidelines, whatever, are mine, and I don’t expect them to fit anyone else exactly, any more than Bill’s fit me. But I have to live my life Now, not Bill’s in the late ’30’s. I appreciate and respect much of his wisdom, but I wouldn’t wear his clothes either.

    And there’s nothing magic about the number 12. Some days, my “steps” are more, rarely are they fewer. For instance, I think the words “love” and “forgive” belong in them somewhere.

  7. Thanks for the great essay John. Although I have many issues with “How It Works” (make that ‘very many issues’) I find the most annoying part is that it does NOT say how it works. I realise this is because St. Bill, the primary author, did not know how it worked. At all it turns out. There is a list of things to do that the founders did not actually do and then everything is thrown into the lap of god with the claim that “…no human power..’ was gonna fix this.
    I find this to be one of the fundamental “errors” and most irresponsible statement in AA. Overthrowing addiction is not up to divine intervention – which we know has never happened since cameras – but it DOES require human power, the more the better.
    Thanks.

  8. Lately i’ve been contemplating the idea of replacing “admitted we were powerless” with “felt powerless” … a small change, but it seems more accurate to me.

  9. “No longer is AA looking forward to the future, instead it clings to the past.”
    I understand this sentiment and while I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I say, “Why the frown, turn that service triangle of AA structure upside down.” Now, with the inverted triangle the way it should be, who’s the decision makers at the top? It’s the group’s and the group’s are looking forward. Asking GSO to change the Big Book and then finding consensus on the new one… now if I was A gambling man, I’d say that is like lottery winning odds.

    But the group is what matters.
    Some groups never read the Big Book or 12 Steps. They are as AA as 1937. Some members, Dale and Archer for example have offered a published 21st century translation of the Big Book that any group can borrow. These positive examples in this esssy of shared views work great, too.

    This is our winning the lottery – groups have been given autonomy; members can reject everything the group stands for and still claim equality.
    We don’t need GSO to do jack-shit to modernize AA. Exercising Liberty is our responsibility and groups all doing their own thing prevents a new reified and dated representation of AA replacing the old one. Only the new members of our groups have to agree to update our reading rituals.
    Bill was creative. He wasn’t special; any of us can do this. Remember that the original Big Book was not Conference Approved; it was later adopted.
    I doubt 2/3 of AA would have agreed on the exact wording. Dr. Bob for one, saw the book as a grandiose and distracting side-project.

    We have lift-off, we have 21st century AA and it’s representative of the variety of members and our groups.

    • Absolutely Joe !~!~!

      In AA Comes of Age, Bill describes AA as a “benign anarchy,” stressing that each AA group has the freedom to interpret for itself how best to carry the message.

    • I realized long ago that the ultimate problem with an “official” rewrite is that there’s no way to please everyone. What’s terrific is that we have entered an era where we are seeing multiple rewrites, and we can each customize the customized version of our choice.

      A wise philosopher of the modern age is often heard to say, “If you need to change a word, change the word. The word won’t mind.”