Logical Fallacies of the Big Book


By life-j

Following up after Standing on the Shoulders of Giants? in this article I would like to open an in-depth critique of the Big Book’s logical fallacies. I have to confess I’m not as sharp as I used to be, so bear with me. Hopefully I get to at least start something, even if I can’t finish it. Please refer to the end notes for resources I have used.

A power greater than myself

The god idea is probably the worst stumbling block for all progress in AA. In part because it is the one thing most insisted upon. In part because it is not necessary, and while I guess it can be of help to folks with a religious inclination, it can be harmful to others by taking away their true empowerment, or even chase non-believers away.

For most of us it appears necessary to accept help, embrace the fellowship, and then start making positive changes in our life. These changes can take many forms, including the steps or not, but what Bill Wilson does is to push the idea that a god is necessary, or else…

This is called a false dichotomy, and it is part of the Big Book’s brilliance that it sells most things as false dichotomies.

A false dichotomy, also called a false dilemma, is:

… a logical fallacy which involves presenting two opposing views, options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities: that is, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically, if you do not accept one then the other must be accepted. The reality in most cases is that there are many in-between or other alternative options, not just two mutually exclusive ones (Wikipedia).

The foremost fallacy you will find in the Big Book is here:

Page 53: Either god is everything or else He is nothing. God either is or He isn’t. What was our choice to be?

Page 25: But Bill doesn’t leave us with many options: We had but two alternatives: One was to go on to the bitter end… and the other to accept spiritual help.

This could have been simple.

“The doctor” on Page 27 explains quite clearly, and for that matter irreligiously what a spiritual experience is:

They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.

Entirely agreeable for spiritual experiences I would say.

But it takes only a couple of paragraphs before Bill Wilson turns it into that “what seemed at first a flimsy reed has proven to be the loving and powerful hand of god”, and on page 29 it has become “Each individual, in the personal stories, describes in his own language and from his own point of view the way he established his relationship with God” ( NOT “how he recovered”).

Hasty Generalization

Bill Wilson does not operate with any well developed facts on which he bases his theories, other than statistical samples of one, or two.

On page 9 Ebby comes and has been sober for two months. As we all know Ebby never really put together any lasting sobriety – which strictly speaking means that whatever Ebby did, did not really work for Ebby, but Bill takes this statistical sample of one, and runs with it, mostly because he can make a theory about it which enables him to write a book about it. This is a fallacy called hasty generalization.

We’re also dealing with a fallacy called faulty cause: Ebby has found religion, and gotten sober, and it is now presumed that the religion is the cause of his sobriety, though it may very well be something else, co-occurring with the religion, such as plain human help and interest.

Several other kinds of logical fallacies are at work in the Big Book. Here are a few of the more common:

  • Appeal to Ignorance: attempts to use an opponent’s inability to disprove a conclusion as proof of the validity of the conclusion, i.e. “You can’t prove I’m wrong, so I must be right.”

  • Appeal to authority: attempts to justify an argument by citing a highly admired or well-known (but not necessarily qualified) figure who supports the conclusion being offered.

  • Begging the question: entails making an argument, the conclusion of which is based on an unstated or unproven assumption.

  • Tautology: defining terms or qualifying an argument in such a way that it would be impossible to disprove the argument. Often, the rationale for the argument is merely a restatement of the conclusion in different words.

  • Straw man: stating an opponent’s argument in an extreme or exaggerated form, or attacking a weaker, irrelevant portion of an opponent’s argument.

  • Non sequitur: In a general sense any argument which fails to establish a connection between the premises and the conclusion may be called a non-sequitar. In practice, however, the label non-sequitar tends to be reserved for arguments in which irrelevant reasons are offered to support a claim.

  • Appeal to the stone: Dismissing a claim as absurd without demonstrating proof for its absurdity.

Bill uses this one for instance on page 10 where he says,

I was not an atheist. Few people really are, for that means blind faith in the strange proposition that this universe originated in a cipher and aimlessly rushes nowhere.

Bill puts it upside down: atheists are now the ones characterized particularly by having blind faith. And why is that proposition strange? And is this even the proposition we ought to concern ourselves with?

I imagine as you have read through this list you have nodded, “yes, I have seen that one, and that one”. The Big Book is full of it. This makes it real difficult to make a meaningful critique of it. Once Bill builds an argument on a logical fallacy, and then subsequently treats his conclusion as fact, from that point on everything he says about the subject at hand is essentially nonsense. Thus when early on he builds his case for religion, once he has built it on logical fallacies, and established it as fact to his own satisfaction he then proceeds to talk about what god is and can and does and will do based on these erroneous conclusions, but at this point, such as in chapter 5, or 11, there is no way to relate to it meaningfully, it is simply a “fact”, albeit a false one, and as such can no longer be refuted by application of ordinary civil discourse.

What I will try to do is find those places early on in the Big Book, where he establishes these “facts” by way of logical fallacies, and see what the implications are. Here are two more:

  • Cherry picking: The act of pointing at individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.

  • Survivorship Bias: When a small number of survivors of a given process are actively promoted while completely ignoring a large number of failures.

The biggest fallacy here of course is that AA works for all, because it works for some of us. We have already looked at how few AA had really worked for, and how poorly, at the time he wrote the book.

But now let’s look at some specific points up through the first chapters where he generates his argument. I will be going through it, and pick out examples of where the problems lie. Long as this article has become, these examples are only a few out of many:

The Doctor’s Opinion

Bill leans heavily on Dr Silkworth and while the dear doctor does express a number of quite humble opinions which do give me considerable respect for the man, Bill tries to make anything he says into a scientific fact. For instance:

One feels that something more than human power is needed to produce the essential psychic change.

Dr Silkworth is of course entitled to feel that, but that does not really fall within the realm of scientifically based medical opinion – except to Bill, of course.

Chapter 1: Bill’s Story

On page 10, what are the “contrary indications”? Should he maybe have had a closer look at those? No, he has “little doubt”, and his very own little doubt is sufficient proof, and sufficient to build a movement on:

Despite contrary indications, I had little doubt that a mighty purpose and rhythm underlay all. How could there be so much of precise and immutable law, and no intelligence?

This is “appeal to ignorance”. Since no final argument can be brought against this question because it lies outside of the verifiable part of reality, he can safely take that as the only argument for the existence of a deity.

I simply had to believe in a Spirit of the Universe, who knew neither time nor limitation. But that was as far as I had gone.

With ministers, and the world’s religions, I parted right there. When they talked of a God personal to me, who was love, superhuman strength and direction, I became irritated and my mind snapped shut against such a theory.

He goes on at length. But he is also doing something more insidious: Since he himself is now “saved” he can safely berate his former self, but the real intention is to by association berate anyone else who feels the way he claims to have once felt himself.

And once I have been berated sufficiently and don’t have a leg to stand on, because his appeal to ignorance is bulletproof, I will of course have to accept his idea of a god. But he is not directly attacking me, he is attacking his own former self which is very manipulative, since the motive is obvious.

Enter Ebbie, Bill’s convincing evidence from a statistical sample of one:

Had this power originated in him? Obviously it had not. There had been no more power in him than there was in me at that minute; and this was none at all.

Ebbie’s claim that god did it is the proof that god did it:

That floored me. It began to look as though religious people were right after all.

Now that Bill has been floored, we can upgrade to a statistical sample of two, I suppose.

Ebbie never put together any lasting sobriety, but Ebbie, two months sober is nonetheless enough to build a whole movement on.

He continues with his manipulative tool:

Despite the living example of my friend there remained in me the vestiges of my old prejudice. The word God still aroused a certain antipathy. When the thought was expressed that there might be a God personal to me this feeling was intensified. I didn’t like the idea. I could go for such conceptions as Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind or Spirit of Nature but I resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens, however loving His sway might be. I have since talked with scores of men who felt the same way.

Those men could be right! But here the statistical sample of “scores of men” apparently do not carry as much weight as the statistical sample of one converted man does.

My friend suggested what then seemed a novel idea. He said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?”

That statement hit me hard. It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last.

All I can say is it didn’t take much. How could he have been so staunchly against god and suddenly gung ho for?

He does not have to argue at length about, or describe the process, all he has to do is say “Ebby made me do it”. This relieves him of the need for further explanation.

I would certainly call it a “Hasty Generalization”…

Thus was I convinced that God is concerned with us humans when we want Him enough. At long last I saw, I felt, I believed. Scales of pride and prejudice fell from my eyes. A new world came into view.

So Ebbie’s suggestion that man make god in his own image is sufficient to convert him. This is the crucial spot. From here on there is no longer any proof needed or discussion about whether there is a god and/or what this god does or can do. He treats his claims as a fact from here on.

Page 13: [At the hospital] There I humbly offered myself to God, as I then understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction. I admitted for the first time that of myself I was nothing; that without Him I was lost. I ruthlessly faced my sins and became willing to have my new-found Friend take them away, root and branch. I have not had a drink since.

This is called a non sequitur fallacy: He did these things and has been sober ever since, but there is no evidence that those things were what caused him to get sober, and not some other cause(s) which he failed to look at because he had already made up his mind what did it.

Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new order of things, were the essential requirements.

Reminds of a question in the article God and Diet Pills by Steve B: Would willingness, honesty and humility alone have done it?

Page 14: Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things to the Father of Light who presides over us all.

He’s stepping up the religious rhetoric here, “Father of Light”, but we also have another false dichotomy here, the first indicator that it is either my will or god’s will. And since he has had a vision, the whole issue is outside the realm of scientific scrutiny. And from here on it will be treated as fact.

My friend had emphasized the absolute necessity of demonstrating these principles in all my affairs. Particularly was it imperative to work with others as he had worked with me. Faith without works was dead, he said. And how appallingly true for the alcoholic!

While this passage has some elements that appear to have been borne out by a much larger statistical sample since 1938 – helping others works – Bill Wilson here treats it as truth based on a statistical sample of one man’s opinion. Could variously be considered “Appeal to authority”, “Begging the question”, or a “Non-sequitur”: An irrelevant reason (that Ebbie says so) is offered to support, or prove, a claim.

Page 16: One poor chap committed suicide in my home. He could not, or would not see our way of life.

Or was the godly life just not going to help him, or did he need more help than what they were able to offer? Here we have one over-simplified explanation given to a complicated issue.

Chapter Two, There Is a Solution

Page 17: We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree.

We know the agreement was far, far from absolute, but saying it makes it true. Hasty generalization – unless we were to call it an outright, deliberate lie, of course.

Aside from this, there are a number of good observations in chapter 2 and 3, Bill is not without writing talent, nor without a sincere desire to help, of course. I’m just mentioning this so the reader knows I’m aware of it, but there is plenty of praise for the Big Book elsewhere. Our purpose here is, obviously, to offer a critique of it.

Page 21: But what about the real alcoholic?

This is the first occurrence of the term “real”. He now proceeds to describe what a real alcoholic is. This automatically creates that distinction, and by default creates another class of alcoholics that are “not real”, or maybe not even alcoholic. Though his descriptions and distinctions in themselves have some validity, he continues with it as if it is now established facts. This has aspects of equivocation, and begging the question.

Page 22: Why does he behave like this? If hundreds of experiences have shown him that one drink means another debacle with all its attendant suffering and humiliation, why is it he takes that one drink? Why can’t he stay on the water wagon? What has become of the common sense and will power that he still sometimes displays with respect to other matters?

Perhaps there never will be a full answer to these questions. Opinions vary considerably as to why the alcoholic reacts differently from normal people. We are not sure why, once a certain point is reached, little can be done for him. We cannot answer the riddle.

From a scientific point of view this would be a very important question. More important than many others he asks, but of course this was one Bill was not able to answer, because he really hardly knew anything at the time he wrote the book. The lack of an answer ought to rouse considerable cause for concern about the validity of the rest of his theorizing, even if in practical terms AA can still to a considerable extent be effective without an answer.

But this of course is only because AA happens to do some things which really do work, all the while giving faulty explanations for why.

Page 23: These observations would be academic and pointless if our friend never took the first drink, thereby setting the terrible cycle in motion. Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.

The validity of the second sentence does not follow from the first sentence, and preceding paragraph. Even if, or maybe because, we still do not know if (2) is right or wrong, it makes it all too obvious how Bill tosses “therefores” around without much support for his statements. But of course, Bill having stated this as a truth, it now becomes truth, and will be used as truth hereafter. Manipulation, pure and simple.

Page 24: When this sort of thinking is fully established in an individual with alcoholic tendencies, he has probably placed himself beyond human aid.

Here he does say probably, but already in the following sentence it becomes a fact: “These stark and ugly facts have been confirmed”, and “But for the grace of God” – He can invoke god out of nowhere here, and out of context, because he has already satisfactorily argued for the necessity and fact of god’s involvement. Here he is just hammering it home. He will do a lot of that.

Page 25: There is a solution. Almost none of us liked the self- searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation. But we saw that it really worked in others, and we had come to believe in the hopelessness and futility of life as we had been living it. When, therefore, we were approached by those in whom the problem had been solved, there was nothing left for us but to pick up the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at out feet.

Here Bill uses the very helpful device of switching himself to be a “third person”, as in “if all these other people could convince me (in reality meaning if he could convince himself, and some others), they surely ought to be able to convince you”.

If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution. We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: One was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.

The device he uses here is to first say “we believe”, but even before the period is out, he has turned it into a certainty. And again, we have a false dichotomy: either we do this or we do that, but are there no other ways? Many things are said here: We are beyond human aid – this is of course obvious from the fact that he has affirmed it several times before, so by now no further argument for its validity is needed. And if the two only alternatives are to go on to the bitter end as best as we could or accept spiritual help, it’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

Page 28: Here was the terrible dilemma in which our friend found himself when he had the extraordinary experience, which as we have already told you, made him a free man.

Yet it appears that Rowland Hazard drank again, even several times before the Big Book was even written, but that doesn’t matter to Bill who is busy making a book. He takes what he can use and leaves the rest.

We, in our turn, sought the same escape with all the desperation of drowning men. What seemed at first a flimsy reed, has proved (where is the proof – this is just bill’s unfounded assertion, now treated as fact) to be the loving and powerful hand of God. A new life has been given us or, if you prefer, “a design for living” that really works.

The distinguished American psychologist, William James, in his book “Varieties of Religious Experience,” (one of the three books Bill read before he found himself entirely qualified to write the BB) indicates a multitude of ways in which men have discovered God. We have no desire to convince anyone that there is only one way by which faith can be acquired. (But it is understood that faith is the essential, unavoidable component) If what we have learned and felt and seen means anything at all, it means that all of us, (an Ad Populum logical fallacy, appealing to the listener’s ability to believe that the sample quoted is indeed much larger than it is, and therefore represents an unquestioningly large and convincing sample) whatever our race, creed, or color are the children of a living Creator with whom we may form a relationship upon simple and understandable terms as soon as we are willing and honest enough to try.

Here it is getting too hard to swallow, so let’s wrap up for now with the end of the next chapter.

Chapter 3: More About Alcoholism

Page 43: Once more: The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power.

Anyway, with the need for a higher power firmly established, I will wrap it up.

In chapter 4 Bill reels completely out of control. Basically there you will find Straw Man  and Non Sequitur arguments.

And of course the rest of the book is more of the same.

There are Big Book study meetings all over the country, where people cling to every word as if it were the truth. The objections to the Big Book as briefly presented herein should be obvious to anyone who doesn’t check their brain by the door, but as we know, it isn’t.

I can’t deny that there are things of value in it, but I’m coming away with the conclusion that more in it is downright detrimental. We need to stop using it. I know World Service depends on sales of it to keep their whole operation going, which does not bode well for change. But all we can do is chip away at it one day at a time.

Here are some of the sources I have referred to:

Common Fallacies in Reasoning
Fallacies (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Fallacies (University of North Carolina)
Fallacies (Changing Minds)
Logical Fallacies or Fallacies in Argumentation
Logical Fallacies (Purdue Online Writing Lab)

The most exhaustive of all, because it is linked and linked seemingly unendingly:

Wikipedia: List of Fallacies

And, finally, an area which I did not even touch upon, but it is rampant in there as well, cognitive biases:

Wikipedia: List of Cognitive Biases

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:

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.

life-j has spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in art work and writing. He is now semi-retired on a five acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.

Thank you, life-j.

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Logical Fallacies of the Big Book — 33 Comments

  1. I wish that in one of the 4 editions of the Big Book, they would have taken out the phrase on page 61 “as people like to call it nowadays” after “ego-centric.” That’s so dated, but Heaven forbid you change a word of the first 164 pages – most people think Bill W. took dictation directly from God – just like Moses on the mountaintop receiving the 10 Commandments.

  2. Apart from the logical fallacies contained in Bill’s “thinking, and argument in the Big Book,” and the utter failure of any arguments for the existence of God, either classical or modern, there is another matter that is often overlooked, and which, perhaps one that is all to in the face in AA meetings. That would be the problematical nature and meaning of God-talk in general.

    “In pursing this question let us start quite simply but centrally by asking: Why should anyone be an agnostic or an atheist? Why should this question about God be such a biting one? Formerly skeptical philosophers could not bring themselves to accept religious beliefs because they felt the proofs all failed, the problem of evil was intractable and the evidence offered for believing in the existence of God was inadequate. But contemporary philosophical disbelief cuts deeper and poses more fundamental problems, problems which challenge even the fideist who, a la Kierkegaard, would claim that the last thing a genuine knight of faith would want or should have is a proof of God’s existence. Ronald Hepburn succinctly states the sort of considerations that are involved in that “deep ground””

    “Where one gives an account of an expression in our language, and where that expression is one that refers to an existent of some kind, one needs to provide not only a set of rule for the use of the expression, but also an indication of how the referring is to be done – through direct pointing, perhaps, or through giving instructions for an indirect method of indentifying the entity. Can this be done in the case of God? Pointing, clearly, is inappropriate, God being no finite object in the world. The theologian may suggest a number of options at this point. He may say: God can be identified as that being upon whom the world can be felt as utterly dependent, who is the completion of its incompletenesses, whose presence is faintly adumbrated in experience of the awesome and the numinous. Clear direction-giving has here broken down; the theologian may well admit his language is less descriptive or argumentative than obliquely evocative. Does this language succeed in establishing that statements about God have a reference? To persons susceptible to religious experience but at the same time logically and critically alert, it may seem just barely to succeed, or it may seem just barely to fail. Some may even oscillate uneasily between these alternatives without finding a definite procedure of decision to help them discriminate once for all. “ “

    Kai Nielsen, “Atheism and Philosophy,” Prometheus Books, (2005) p. 118-119.


    • Thanks for that, Mark. As one who “oscillate(s) uneasily” between the alternatives, I found your response refreshing. We are in a semantic/conceptual quagmire.

      • Hi Dan,

        Surely we are indeed. “God” apparently means everything from A to Z in the rooms. “Spirituality” apparently means everything from A to Z in the rooms.

        In what sense can those two words actually mean anything in particular? What do those two words actually point to? What do those two words indicate as some type of overall metaphysical claim?

        People use these two words in some metaphysical sense. Yet, when asked what they mean by the terms…and after a few questions about their individual answers to that question, a dear in the headlights look tends to dominate their faces.

        The two “accepted” narratives (language games) break down immediately if examined.

        Take a few steps back and take another look at the larger picture, and it appears as if the entire enterprise is grounded in utter incoherence, irrationality and some mysticism or other. 🙂

      • Regarding the two “accepted” language games in AA, I refer to a Literalist interpretation of the claims of the Big Book, and the Liberalist interpretation of the claims of the Big Book.

        Those two narratives (language games) are actually in conflict with each other for a number of reasons, but co-exist within the Fellowship.

        I decided very early on to inject another narrative into that mix. That narrative is one coming from secular, humanistic, and nontheist perspectives and values.

        And that other narrative put into the “conventional mix” is a game changer over time. It does not solve all problems, but it most certainly widens the gates for the younger secular folks who are coming in, and even tends to “moderate” the more enthusiastic God-talk that is so much a part of a demand for conformity within “conventional AA.”

        I could be dead wrong, but it is how I look at things from a longer, wider perspective.

  3. Hi everyone, and life-j!

    Thank you for this article. Great, fun stuff indeed for geeks like me. 🙂

    From my first reading of our Theistic-religious-“authoritative”-text, I’ve thought it could be well used as a topic of study for an informal logic class.

    I like to view the first four chapters as Wilson’s “long argument” for the existence of his version of the Christian God. The notion Wilson did not write the first four chapters on his own is simply false. The historical evidence does not support that myth.

    Wilson takes the first three chapters to trace his migration from some sort of ill-defined deism (perhaps) to monotheistic belief.

    In chapter four he sets out to become an apologist for this belief by setting out the reasons that justify belief in the existence of his Theistic God. He attempts to show why such beliefs are reasonable.

    What is interesting about Chapter Four for me, is, It is a closer set of rather common “arguments” popular within evangelical fundamentalisms of the late 19th Century and the early 20th. And it is interesting that the only places one can still hear these “arguments” today are within various evangelical and fundamentalist Christian circles, and of course, within AA.

    Probably needless to say for this crowd, but that attempt to make the case for the existence of even an undifferentiated theistic God was, and is an abysmal failure. Yet, there the arguments stand, promoted and parroted by authoritarian Big Book thumpers in AA rooms all over the land.

    A philosophical attack on the claims and “logic” of the Big Book has been long in waiting. This article is welcome on that score. It is a beginning.

    A continued deconstruction and critical analysis of our “authoritative” text can only serve to widen the gates.

    A return to sanity is a return to reason. Let us become more reasonable regarding our historical “authoritative” text. Peace

    Think, Think, Think…

  4. From now on, I am going to describe myself as living in the shadow of an icy intellectual mountain.

    “Since he himself [Bill W.] is now ‘saved’ he can safely berate his former self, but the real intention is to by association berate anyone else who feels the way he claims to have once felt himself.”

    This for me is the worst logical fallacy in the Big Book, because it is the fallacy I see used most often by traditional/spiritual AA members to unwelcome atheist and agnostic AA members.

    Speaking of logic: just re-read Michael Graziano’s book, God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Reflections on the Spirit World. Looking forward to reading his new book, The Spaces Between Us: A Story of Neuroscience, Evolution, and Human Nature. What Graziano’s books make clear to me is that spiritual beliefs have nothing to do with logic but flow out of our powerful ability to model consciousness and intentionality in other people. That ability, essential to our survival as social animals, can create the perception of consciousness and intentionality in things that aren’t people.

    Example: If you have ever had a car not start, making you late to work, and then muttered to yourself, “This car hates me,” you have attributed consciousness and intentionality to a car. Humans are capable of attributing consciousness and intentionality to almost anything, from a “haunted” house to an ocean. The majority of humans attribute consciousness and intentionality to the entire universe and call it a god. The bad news is that when a human attributes consciousness and intentionality to something “greater than” themselves, they are perceiving it, not thinking it, similar to our perception of color, which is created by our brains. The result: logically breaking down the Big Book may not positively transform AA members hostile to agnostic and atheist members, because logic may not alter their perception.

    When I have the energy to tackle a hostile or dismissive AA member, I accept their perception of a “power greater than” themselves is as real to them as the color green is to me. I rant about the primary purpose of AA (to help the alcoholic who still suffers), and the third tradition (the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking). If the primary purpose and the third tradition are true of AA, then a person’s individual perception of spirituality is not relevant to who is welcomed, who gets help, and who gives help. My go-to argument is that an AA member who harasses or ignores atheists/agnostics is rejecting and/or invalidating AA’s primary purpose and the third tradition. It comes down to: is the person capable of understanding their perception is not universal? Even more important: are they capable of understanding their insistence on a single viable perception is detrimental to the recovery of members who do not share that perception? If the answer to both is no, l cannot heal their intolerance with logic.

    Although I do not think logic can transform intolerant members, a detailed article on the Big Book’s logical fallacies is priceless for atheist and agnostic members who are coping with being told they aren’t “real” alcoholics, etc. It is exhausting to be continually gaslighted by logical fallacies. This article has recharged me.

    • Clara, thanks for bringing up gaslighting, that’s often exactly what’s going on.

      And yes, the fundies are not going to be much receptive to logic, at least not if we go present a whole system of argumentation, but sometimes it works in small doses. Yesterday, march 2, this meeting I go to and they read the daily reflections, there was this sentence in there: “Discouragement is a warning signal that I may have wandered across the gods line”. And there were a couple of god people who swooned over how profound that was, though it sound like nonsense to me. Finally I piped up and said “can’t we have it be a warning signal of something a bit more down to earth and useful instead? Such as a warning signal that I haven’t done an inventory or gotten enough exercise, or haven’t called anyone, or something, anything, just something real that we can do something with?” – and it seems like it got people thinking a bit.

      That’s what I’m hoping will come from this – it gets US thinking along logical lines, so that we can interject a logical comment here and there, because honestly, us ranting against the god stuff, while breaking up the ice, and that’s important, of course, it doesn’t in itself get people thinking, but being able to criticize the literature in a logical manner does. Oh yeah, maybe it isn’t all about my will or god’s will, maybe there are other options? Maybe it isn’t even about will, but something else? Maybe it isn’t about ego deflation? Maybe it was just Bill and his well-to-do, well educated, rich, powerful, type A personalities that needed ego deflation? Maybe that’d not the foremost thing for, say, a woman who was regularly abused as a child and just ran away from an abusive husband and is staying in a shelter? Maybe ego building would be more helpful for her, irrespective of what worked for Bill?

      We have to be able to argue.

      • “We have to be able to argue.” Absolutely. And thanks for the reminder that bringing logic into discussions of recovery has two sides: the macro (AA as an institution), and the micro (one on one at meetings). Both are critical. On days when the macro side feels overwhelming, there are still opportunities to do something on the micro level.

  5. Nice job – well organized. Just left a BB discussion meeting and I’m working on them slowly. Many seem to understand but are afraid to admit it. We have a group of us trying to find a location for an atheist meeting. Not too easy considering most meetings around here are held in churches. We are in NE Conn. and south central Mass. Ask around, we are not hard to find. Regards.

  6. Bill Wilson did not write the Big Book. It was a collaboration of the Akron Group of AA which was still associated with the Oxford group and had members with much more sobriety than Bill. His main contribution was organizing the twelve steps and writing Bill’s story which eventually led off the book and led to the fallacy of Bill as author (although conman Bill did copywrite it). If one goes back to the basic Oxford texts they will find lots of text simply transcribed. Bill’s initial attempts to get the book published earned him the sobriquet “Big Book Bill” because he was determined it be bigger than the average book with larger type and heavier pages. The importance of the book however is that is an excellent starting point for discussion, not a Bible. Without the book we would have no point of reference starting a debate, so whatever it’s flaws it is the start of our fellowship but like Wright’s airplane it is a beginning not an end and anyone who can get by in life with all his questions answered in 164 pages has a problem.

    • Bill Wilson did not write the Big Book. It was a collaboration of the Akron Group of AA which was still associated with the Oxford group and had members with much more sobriety than Bill.

      Brian, first time I have heard anyone say this. It would be interesting if you could elaborate/support it.

      • It appears to be a new myth. It goes something like this: All the first members wrote the book. It was their co-authorship that is speaking in the Big Book.

  7. Thanks life-j for a very logical assessment of the our so called Big Book. I stopped reading it years ago and have had little motivation to do so since.

    I found the content of your article most enlightening and am inspired to take a new, unread/unopened copy of the 4th edition off my bookshelf. I intend to edit it with the information gathered from this site and Beyond Belief.

    Armed with this information I/we could now start attending traditional Big Book studies revealing the secular (atheists, agnostics and freethinkers) worldviews and beliefs regarding the book and the many fallacies it contains.

    Could and should make for some very interesting gatherings and discussions. This exercise would be conducted on the home turf of AA traditionalists and would no doubt result in some very intense sessions; probably not a place for secular members with a pacifist nature although I am sure it would be a character building experience for many of us.

    Most newcomers attending big book studies today hear only one variety of recovery… god or death. Should secular members attend and participate in these sessions it might help newcomers and even old timers come to believe, understand, tolerate and accept there are many paths to recovery and contented sobriety.

    If nothing else life-j we could minimize the tendency, as you stated, of members checking their brains at the door when arriving!

    Thanks again,

    Mike B., Oliver, BC.

  8. Thanks all for the kind feedback. This article was a long time coming, probably took the better part of a year, including me and Roger arguing more about it than all the previous ones. But it was close to twice as long to begin with, and I’m grateful to Roger both for his editing skills, and for his considerable encouragement to me to write.
    It has given me yet another purpose in life that I did not have before, and is helping me a great deal through what could easily have been very difficult times.

  9. I lived silently and alone, for many years, in AA, walking on the side of the AA room, trying to not be noticed, trying to avoid the friction, trying to avoid the ‘god stuff’. For I was sure that I had found a way to get sober, and stay sober, and to help others improve their lives. And all the nit-picky arguments that I found in the ‘AA Text Book’, (for me, it has never been, ‘The Big Book’). I Thank You for bringing these ‘God Ideas’ into the light of day. I am indeed grateful for what the practice of the Spiritual Principals in my daily life has done for me.
    27 years sober – 27 years Agnostic.

  10. An old agnostic sponsor and I used to have a great time with We Agnostics. We’d read each paragraph, laugh at it then critique it. The one that would get us crying with laughter and commentary is the “prosaic steel girder” paragraph and its “perfectly logical assumption”.

  11. Excellent article! You’ve pointed out so many issues that made me an AA skeptic for years before getting sober my own (agnostic) way. I’m glad to see you’re still posting!

  12. Once again life-j you have collected a huge pile of my disorganised thoughts and incoherent feelings into a well organised and coherent essay with pin point accuracy. Thank you for putting so much thought and energy into this work. It is a fantastic aid to understanding the aura of “something not quite right” I have always had about that “big” book.

    Dan L, Spruce Grove

  13. My goodness, life-j, you have certainly deconstructed a comprehensive compendium of some of the obvious difficulties encountered by atheists, agnostics and freethinkers when reading the Big Book. And, as you point out, you have barely begun to scratch the surface !~!~!

    A crucial factor regarding the Big Book of paramount importance , I contend, is to consider when it was published — 1939! The historical reality, even throughout Bill’s life which ended in 1971, is that incredibly much “more has been revealed”, not only about alcoholism itself, but also about how to recover from it.

    The emergence of secular AA attests to this reality, and it is a shame that GSO due to the grip ardent Christian believers have on the General Service Conference can do relatively little to change this reality. AA today is comparable to a modern-day mechanic trying to repair a 2018 racing car with a manual written in 1939. Not only would he be disastrously unsuccessful, he would no doubt be ridiculed by his or her associates.

    Nevertheless, as you point out, there is considerable wisdom to be derived from the Big Book. I suggest that we view the Big Book as being comparable to say how we view the works of Plato or any of the Greek philosophers. At best their theories about the cosmos can be considered as seminally important historical documents. However, modern-day astronomers certainly would not base their expanding theories about the cosmos on the rudimentary reasoning of Plato and other Greek philosophers.

    I’ve always contended that the primary value of the Big Book lies not in the first 164 pages, but in the stories in the latter two-thirds of the Big Book, wherein AA members can identify with “how it was, what happened, and how it is now.” This identification, I contend, is why AA works, not the rudimentary religious formula, Bill and the other founders theorized based on their relatively small sample of the first 100 men and one woman, a good number of which did not, like Ebby, maintain continual sobriety. (Ebby did have seven years sober in Texas and he died sober with about two years, largely due to the enabling assistance of Bill, who always referred to him as my sponsor, even when he was raging drunk in Manhattan meetings.)

    Another factor to consider is that we have relatively little information about those who tried AA and were not successful in getting sober. We know much more about those who came to AA and who stuck.

    As a side note, in case you haven’t heard, the Grapevine is publishing a book of stories by atheists, agnostics and freethinkers that have previously been published in the Grapevine. You are to be commended for having initiated this project in 2014 by the article you wrote here on September 7th — THANK YOU, life-j !~!~!

    Hey, considerable progress has been made — it only took four years for the Grapevine, with General Conference approval, to accomplish this feat, not the almost 30 years it took for GSO to publish the initial “Many Paths” pamphlet, acknowledging that AA members can get sober without having to submit and be born again through the alleged son of the alleged god of the alleged Christian religion.

    • “I suggest that we view the Big Book as being comparable to say how we view the works of Plato or any of the Greek philosophers.”

      May it be a cold day in some alleged Hell before that comparison is made. I shall not. Ever. Not even.

      Wilson on par with any of those folks? Where’s my knife, I’m gonna go slash my wrists. Hahahaha.

  14. There is world of difference between skepticism and criticism. In AA as in my life as a whole, I’ve been encouraged to bring a critical inquiry to matters of importance.

    I don’t read the big book but those who do aren’t being ungrateful by challenges to premises and promises in AA literature.

    Now, I did read ye olde book after about ten years of sober time in AA. And I’ve worked with men who used it as a guide for them for working the Steps and that’s fine with me. I encourage them as I have been encouraged, embrace the principles and don’t take the language (or theology) literally.

    Thoughtful commentary, life. I’ll recommend it to others.

  15. Very well organized and stated. I look forward to reading more.

    We must continue to examine the Big Book in order to widen the gateway without creating a “them vs us” scenario.

  16. Thanks for the research effort Life, amazing,

    “Hominem unius libri timeo,” as Saint Thomas Aquinas warns – “I fear the man of a single book.”

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