Why Critique the Big Book?

Critique Featured

By Paul W.

To begin, let’s define “critique.”  It is a critical examination or discussion; an examination of the merits or faults of a literary work. In my critiques of the Big Book, I focus on its faults. My critiques are intended to stimulate thought and discussion, especially from those who are theists and view the Big Book as sacred.

But, “Why Critique the Big Book?” Primarily because I love Alcoholics Anonymous. I want it to survive and grow stronger in service to more alcoholics, especially those not well served by the current Big Book because of the messages it sends. If I didn’t care about AA as a whole I would just silently attend meetings which accept me. Briefly, I want the hand of AA to be there for everyone who suffers from alcoholism.

I also want AA to face some realities. Let’s face it, the Big Book is old. It was written in the late 1930s and hasn’t changed since. It has become outdated and, in many cases, dangerous. For example, “The Doctor’s Opinion” runs just over 7 pages and remains, just as first written. It expresses the view of a doctor who never saw modern medicine. Polio still plagued mankind, CAT scans and MRIs were yet to be invented. Historically it has meaning. If what is said is still valid according to modern medicine, let’s have a modern doctor so state. In “Working with Others” the Big Book tacitly approves keeping alcohol available in one’s home, to help an active alcoholic overcome a serious hangover. This is a form of detoxing, which should be left to medical professionals. The practice of privately detoxing someone may lead to convulsions or death. These may also result in legal action; against the one(s) who provided the alcohol and against AA World Services, Inc., who recommended doing so through its unchangeable Big Book.

In 1995 AA’s General Service Conference “ruled” by Advisory Action that, “The first 164 pages of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Preface, the Forewords, ‘The Doctor’s Opinion,’ ‘Doctor Bob’s Nightmare’ and the Appendices remain as is.” This was reaffirmed by Advisory Actions in 1998, 1999, 2000, and twice in 2001. That’s five separate General Service Conferences!

Reverence for Bill Wilson himself and his “words,” coupled with General Service Conference actions, have given the Big Book more than a patina of infallibility. The longer a work remains unchanged and unchallenged the more “sacred” it becomes. Big Book study groups, Big Book meetings, “Back to Basics” groups, and the like further cement this view. It is common knowledge that the Big Book is called a “Gift from God” and “AA’s Bible” by many members. Quoting passages from the Big Book, including the page number, is heard at numerous meetings by so called “Big Book Thumpers.” Frequently these quotations are fundamentalist and prejudiced against non-theists.

We need to be crystal clear about this, the Big Book is not infallible! “Bill’s words” are not sacred!

Additionally, Alcoholics Anonymous General Services, Inc., Intergroups, Areas, Districts, and the bulk of individual members have a narrowed view of the impact of this history on their views and that of newcomers to AA, especially those “struggling with the God Stuff” and those who are comfortable with their non-theism; be they agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, humanists, Buddhists, etc. A large majority of those in AA have no idea, much less understanding, of the feelings of separation, second-class standing, reluctant tolerance of, and even animosity experienced by non-theists in AA.

Frankly, the chapter, “We Agnostics” spends over a dozen pages proving that Bill Wilson did not understand non-theists. Clearly, he believed that all would come to God (Come to Believe) through the Program. This chapter provides theist readers with that false impression. The Big Book suffers from the theistic, Christian biases of the author (Bill Wilson) and the early members of AA. In practical terms, the Big Book perpetuates the biases against non-theists both in and outside AA.

Not God

For more information about Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, by Ernie Kurtz, click on the cover.

In the Big Book the recognized influence of non-theists in early AA relates only to modifying some of the references to God in the Twelve Steps. The influence of Jim B. and Hank P. is not clearly stated. One has to go to Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age to find any clear reference to their influence. Jim B.’s influence is disguised in Tradition Three of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. He is called “Ed” there and his influence is merely alluded to. A more complete picture of the influence of Jim B. and Hank P. is written about outside of Conference-approved literature, by a historian who was a good friend of AA, Ernest Kurtz in his book, Not-God.

Theist AA members, mostly Christian or of Christian background, are so used to and comfortable with the divine that the frequency of “God,” “Higher Power,” “Him,” “He,” “Creator,” “Power greater than oneself,” and the like in AA literature, specifically the Big Book, is hardly noticed. This is not so for non-theist members. These references leap out at us.

There appears to be a widespread belief that sobriety is possible only by coming to believe in and embrace some form of “Higher Power” or “Power greater than oneself.” (Please recall that the use of uppercase letters generally indicates the divine or the sacred, i.e. “He” referring to “God.”) Sober non-theists are often rejected as not being sincere or not “real” alcoholics. The infamous Mt. Rainer “Minority Opinion” and the anonymous “White Paper” both made this statement, even using the scare-quotes. Theists find it difficult, impossible for some, to understand how someone can function without some kind of Higher Power (upper case intentional).

Theist AA members often respond to a person who expresses a problem with the “God stuff” using a well-intentioned “keep coming back”, confident that belief in God will follow. Others suggest, “Believe that I believe.” What help is that? I don’t have to believe that a theist believes in a God, I know that. And, how is that supposed to help with the “God stuff?” And, then there is the suggestion that one can make anything his “Higher Power.” Included are, a saltshaker, a chair, a doorknob. How insulting and stupid are these? Isn’t this a case of suggesting idol worship? All of this is clear evidence that the speakers have no idea what a non-theist is like or that, in some cases, an insult was intended. It seems as if the theist members are attempting or hoping for a conversion of the non-theist. I suggest that theist members have never experienced non-theists trying to convert them.

The general practice of opening and closing meetings with prayer gives the meeting a religious feeling to many. The most frequently used prayer is the Lord’s Prayer, a Christian prayer. The fact that it is considered otherwise by many, even Bill Wilson, does not change the fact that Jesus Christ originated this prayer. (He also instructed his followers to pray in private, not in public – but that’s another matter.)

In order to gain sobriety without the “God stuff” and to have fellowship with understanding alcoholics, non-theists have formed separate, secular groups. Rather than try to understand why this has been necessary, ignoring, resistance, and condemnation have been the answers by some AA organizations. Intergroups have refused to list secular groups. AA World Services, Inc., and the General Service Conference have done little to help. Consider the failed literature containing stories about spirituality including stories from non-theists, and the pathetic pamphlet, “Many Paths to Spirituality.” There is also the situation of AA World Services, Inc. and the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, where AA World Services, Inc. attempted to separate itself from a case against it and the Greater Toronto Area Intergroup, which had delisted two secular groups. Other intergroups in Canada and the U.S. have been involved in delisting or refusing to list secular groups.

The claim that AA is “Spiritual, not Religious” does not ring true for non-theists. Prayer at meetings and the plethora of God and other divine references throughout the Big Book lean too far toward religion, nondenominational but religious. How theistic members fail to see this is quite a mystery. Even several U.S. State and Federal courts see it and have ruled that AA is religious and that the government may not force anyone to attend AA meetings because of the separation of church and state in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It is time for Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., to retire the Big Book, placing it in the archives and to produce a new, updated and corrected guide to recovery from alcoholism. The Big Book should be acknowledged for its historical value but its errors of commission and omission need to be corrected. Acknowledging the strength of belief for theists and the collective courage of non-theists in their recoveries is essential. The herculean effort in translating divine references to the secular and adapting the Twelve Steps for oneself should be given credit. Striking down the prejudices against non-theists in AA is essential, this has gone on too long.

If no serious and productive actions are taken to affirmatively acknowledge non-theist as full members, I fear we may have a 21st Century reformation of AA, similar to the fracturing of Christianity into many denominations as stimulated by Martin Luther.  This need not be.

Thus, a series of articles, critiquing the Big Book, is underway. One intent of these critiques is to educate theist AA members of the biases inherent in the Big Book, which many appear not to recognize at best and at worst care nothing about. The intent is not to destroy Alcoholics Anonymous as a fellowship, but to move toward making AA a true fellowship, of men, women, theists, and non-theists united in their common struggle with alcohol.

To this end, my Critique of “We Agnostics” – Chapter 4 of the Big Book and life-j’s Logical Fallacies of the Big Book have been published and others are in progress.

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., the trustees Literature Committee, Delegates, and all Intergroups should closely study these critiques.

Paul W has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since May 1989. He has held many service positions including Chairing a District CPC committee, and serving as a GSR and a DCM. Paul currently sponsors several recovering alcoholics and is a service sponsor to his home group’s GSR.  He first joined AA while struggling with theism. Eventually Paul made peace with himself and came out as a comfortable and convinced atheist. He has spoken at Area functions about the lack of literature for nonbelievers and was a supporter of the GSC Advisory Action calling for literature on spirituality which would include stories from atheists and agnostics who were successfully sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. Before retirement, he was a consultant with an international professional services firm where he specialized in education and organizational behavior. Paul and his wife live in New Jersey, she a Christian and he an atheist. They have six children (50% atheists), six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

29 Responses

  1. Jabu K. says:

    Hi everybody.

    It was such a relief for me to discover this space as a South African. In SA, AA is going backwards rather than forward because of theists, especially among the indigenous Africans. People are dead scared to open up about being non-theists. Some are intimidated once they voice out their feelings about God. There are many things that I disagree with in the Big Book and I always seem to be the only one “towing the line”. It’s painful to see educated intelligent people falling for some of the stuff in the BB hook, line and sinker. Thanks for the critique.

    Jabu K. Soweto group of AA

    • Tom R. says:

      Driven by a 100 forms of self delusion, fear, self seeking and fear. Our troubles are our own making.

  2. Mykel P. says:

    Great article.

    One point, you implied it was Jesus’ teaching but actually in Luke chp. 11 his disciples ask Jesus to teach them John’s (the baptist) way of praying. This prayer pre-dates Jesus.

    It is actually an ancient Hebrew prayer.

    • life-j says:

      I’m trying really hard to think of how this could possibly matter to me, but I seem to be failing at the task.

    • Roger says:

      How and why is it a Hebrew prayer, Mykel? Where is the evidence / proof that the Lord’s Prayer, as worded and shared by Jesus, predates Jesus? I can’t seem to find it in the Old Testament.

  3. Guy says:

    Great article. It says everything I want to say. Now we are considering the British pamphlet The God Word. Since it says almost nothing, I believe it is an attempt by the Theists to water down the subject in the hope that it will go away. We should vote no as to publishing it in the U.S.

    • life-j says:

      There are a couple of good things about that pamphlet. for one, it is way better than its American counterpart, “many” paths to spirituality, for another, I think it may be a good development if we have a precedent for bringing in literature which does not originate in the US. The rest of the world is a lot more sympathetic to non-believers, and can be a great help in secularizing AA.

      Your stance reminds a bit of that of the socialists 150 years ago – they were staunchly against public health and welfare measures, because better life circumstances would soften the proletarian masses to a point where they might not bother supporting the revolution. So better keep them miserable.

      • Jack B. says:

        Thank-you life-j for another well written comment. I read your comment(s) here and in other threads to be clear, concise and enlightening.

        I once had strong motivation to go to various “traditional” AA meetings hoping to explain my atheism to various religious members. I sincerely believed that with time and clear, gentle persuasion I might ease tensions and apprehension with my religious brothers and sisters in AA.

        I tried. Very hard. Repeatedly. But never succeeded in breaking through the fear and suspicion (and hate it must be said) that the religious people wrapped themselves in.

        I now look back on that period of my life with regret for the time wasted and some near embarrassment. The one common thread I found with the “Big Book as holy writ” crowd was the complete dismissal of anything and everything I said. Some of my secular friends in AA asked “well, what did you expect?”

        That question and it’s answer linger with me today.

        Today I save all my time for those who are unafraid and curious about addiction and how to wrestle it to the ground permanently.

        Again life, thanks for your comment here and in many other threads.


  4. Dale K. says:

    Thanks, Paul, for another perspective on the Big Book. As an author who has done the same, I believe it is imperative that others can see a new way of looking at this text. There is much in it that I agree with and much that I don’t. Some have said that I’m just throwing stones. I see it as helping the, seemingly, disenfranchised non-believers that are seeking sobriety. I don’t believe AA will be offering significant help to secular alcoholics and addicts anytime soon. We shall do it ourselves.

  5. John L. says:

    Yes, it’s time to “retire the Big Book.” It’s badly written and filled with things that are untrue and harmful. But let’s not forget that we already have a “conference-approved” book that represents the true AA, the AA that works. This is Living Sober, which tells the newcomer especially how to get sober, stay sober, and live a good life in sobriety. I gave a talk on it at the Austin conference, and the talk is on the Beyond Belief website.

  6. life-j says:

    Paul, thanks. I look forward to reading more. I do think though, that we can’t expect directly “to educate theist AA members of the biases inherent in the Big Book” with these articles – the theists don’t read them, only we do. However, we will be better armed to criticize individual passages in the literature, case by case, in meetings, if we educate ourselves and each other with the proper tools to critique it. And maybe little by little the fundamentalist faith in it may erode.

    This does presume, obviously, that we actually keep going to the meetings, otherwise we can’t. I’m still going. I would encourage all who have stopped going to start up again. If we aren’t there to chip away at the nonsense, how will it happen?

    We do need our “own” meetings, of course, but the rest of AA needs US, if it’s going to change. Fighting the fundamentalist brigade is hard enough in a meeting. The father away from a regular meeting we are the harder it gets.

    • Mike says:

      Hi life-j. I remember you from other boards on the web. Possibly the big debate thread from years ago on mentalhelp.net?

      It’s good to see you are still around and doing well. I like this comment. I agree with it completely.

      It is tough to stay involved when you see so much of the BS around you in the meetings? How do you deal with it? Do you call it out right there or more less choose your own battles?

      I’ve had many different beliefs while being sober. Many that I thought would cause me issues and rob my sobriety. But, I’m happy to report that I’ve been without a drink since January 15th, 2006.

      The thing I miss most about the meetings were the relationships. I’ve met so many good people and in the rooms, and have gotten to know many on an intimate level. I still go back once in a while, but always feel that my experience clashes with the dogma. Honestly, I’m still trying to determine if I would be of great help in the rooms or not. Trying to find my place after an extended vacation.

      Again, good to see ya around and thanks for your contributions to the truth. Is this your site btw?

      ~ Mike

      “Age and wisdom have nothing in common”

  7. Clara M. says:

    For me there is one overriding reason to critique the Big Book (or any AA literature, custom, or practice), which is that attendance at AA meetings may be involuntary. People are forced to attend meetings, or face grave consequences: incarceration, divorce, loss of child custody, job loss, or loss of their bed in a treatment center. I assume any one getting a slip signed at an AA meeting is not at the AA meeting voluntarily.

    When the line, “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” (from “How It Works”) is read at the beginning of meetings, I feel pain on the behalf of newcomers. They might be at the meeting to keep their kids out of temporary foster care. How horrific it must be to hear “if you…want what we have” in those circumstances, as if the person just happened to drop in at the meeting because they were mildly curious about this AA thing.

    It shocks me that the frequently involuntary nature of AA attendance is not at the forefront of every member’s mind in meetings. Always makes me think of these lines from the movie MASH:

    Hotlips O’Houlihan: [to Father Mulcahy, referring to Hawkeye] “I wonder how a degenerated person like that could have reached a position of responsibility in the Army Medical Corps!”

    Father Mulcahy: [looks up from his Bible] “He was drafted.”

  8. Alex M. says:

    Thanks Paul for your excellent article and I support your points and suggestions. My biggest challenge as an atheist in AA has been how to effectively carry the message outlined in the Big Book to the 90% of AA members that believe in God. Newcomers in AA must connect with me in some way before they will listen to my recovery experience, so how can I best use the Big Book, which is not going to change anytime soon, in this process? Temporarily putting aside my personal prejudice and resentment against the Christian God focus of AA with a sponsee does not come naturally but if I don’t, he won’t listen to any recovery solution I share. If a sponsee believes in God, no problem. If they don’t, I try to concentrate on how best to use the few insincere and pretentious God disclaimers in the book. The message I try to carry is that despite the religious bias of AA, anyone, including atheists like me, can get sober and find a new way of life in AA, and let me tell you how I did it.

  9. Ed S. says:

    I agree totally! Well said.

  10. Jerry F. says:

    I agree with most of your comments regarding the text and the front matter of the BB. I look forward to reading your critiques.

    There are some factual errors in your article though and these should be corrected. We hear too much mythology in AA meetings as it is.

    You wrote, the BB was “written in the late 1930s and hasn’t changed since.” There were 401 changes made in the first 164 pages of the BB from the first printing to the fifth printing of the first edition.

    You know how every edition has a reprint of the Forewords to the previous editions? No they don’t. The Forewords to those earlier editions have been changed in the later editions. They’re fake.

    You commented that The Doctor’s Opinion is “just as first written.” It has had extensive changes made. Some of them after the doctor died. Sit down with various editions and printings of the BB and compare.

    Many of us remember the kerfuffle raised when the text of Dr Bob’s Nightmare was changed and then changed back to the original. All of my commentary above, though, excludes Dr Bob’s Nightmare and includes every letter up to and including page 164.

    The Twelfth Step has been changed. Twice.

    Every edition has had changes made including several to the fourth edition.

    There are other matters in your article that I would like to address but, frankly, to me the BB is that historical artifact you mentioned. Leave it on the shelf.

    • life-j says:

      Jerry, it’s true that many changes have been made. I wasn’t aware of it, until I started working through the BB in a focused manner. However most of these changes are of no consequence for the promoted philosophy. They are mostly of the stupid kind, such as that what we know to be “more than one hundred men and women” have seen “thousands” recover in this program, because they just couldn’t leave the original text alone there, but wanted to impress with the later progress. The original may have said “dozens” – stuff like that.

      No changes of real significance have been made, and probably ought not to. I don’t think they will either, but just theoretically speaking, I think it would be cause for concern if the BB was indeed radically revised, rather than just being kicked upstairs. It would lend legitimacy to all the core BS that would unquestioningly remain – the god stuff, the ego deflation, etc., if the rethoric was toned way down. Better keep it exactly as it is, and write something new.

      • Tom H. says:

        Well said, life-j.

      • Jerry F. says:

        Hi Life: Thanks for chiming in.

        I agree that the BB should be shelved, not revised.

        However, some of those hundreds of changes were indeed substantive. If you sit down with a first edition, first printing and compare it to a fifth printing of that edition, Life, you will be amazed at how material some of those changes are. And updating membership numbers and “more than 100” are outside the scope of the study so that’s not a factor.

        Most changes were inconsequential but the Steps were changed. The third pertinent idea was changed. The study that led to the retraction in the BB fourth edition took several months. If you replicate this study you will be amazed at the changes and you will never again dismiss how important they were to the formation of the AA philosophy.

        Then, too, this is the BB which has had changes made to the front matter of every edition. Why would you change it if “the BB has never been changed” was even close to the truth?

  11. Anton D. says:

    I add my agreement and gratitude to the author of this article. It accurately reflects the perception I’ve had of AA for over 30 years now. It’s to the point now where I go for the “meeting before the meeting” fellowship at a couple of meetings, and then leave. Use what you can, and leave the rest, and in my case, MUCH of what I leave is in the first 164 pages of the eighty year old, laughably antiquated, big book.

    Ten years ago, I was all but certain AA would eventually diminish into obscurity, or become splintered into a multitude of separate, smaller organizations by a ‘reformation’. But with the rise of the secular movement, I think there’s a much better chance it can evolve into a more open, accepting, self-help entity.

    Thanks again to Paul for writing this, expressing so succinctly what I’ve felt to be true for decades.

  12. Dave says:

    I was heartened to read this article. It has been many years since I last attended an AA meeting due to the religiosity of the local meetings. I remember AA fondly and am quite convinced that when I started on the path to recovery (1986), I wouldn’t have succeeded without it. I now attend SOS, and although it is a good group, we are too few to form a diverse recovery community.

    • Steve B. says:

      SOS is what AA should strive to be like.The only thing AA has that’s better than SOS is the name recognition. Unfortunately, SOS is small. I helped start two different SOS meetings in the Chicago area, and both were shut down for lack of attendance. As far as I know there are no longer any SOS meetings around here, and I miss them.

  13. Tom R. says:

    Right, the book is copywrited so go ahead and change any other book that is copyrighted to hell with the author.

    • Dale K. says:

      All but the “first 164 pages” are protected by copyright. AA’s inattention to the copyright allowed it to lapse and is now (and forever) in the public domain.

      • Tom R. says:

        Perhaps look at page IV just before the contents page. See what is says!

      • Dale K. says:

        The indication of copyright on page iv is a bit misleading. The copyright only applies to everything in the book except the “first 164 pages.” Don’t take AA’s word for it. The United States Copyright Office is the authority.

  14. Tom H. says:

    Your points are well-made.

  15. Thomas B. says:

    Thank you Paul for this excellent first installment critiquing the biG booK, and thank you Roger for publishing them. I look forward to further critiques.

    I’m convinced that AA’s membership shall continue to diminish until GSO removes the bIg bOok off its pedestal and until more updated literature is made available with the imprimatur as being conference approved. In early August, an excellent start shall begin when the Grapevine publishes a book — not a watered-down pamphlet — of our secular (i.e., non-religious) stories.

    Of late, I’ve been struck about how much the Christian concept of Original Sin in the 1930s from our beginnings in the evangelical Oxford Group has had an overbearing and enormous influence on the formulation of the steps and AA’s program of recovery — essentially, we are miserable sinners until we are cleansed by the grace of good, ole, J.C. — NOT !~!~!

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