Why Critique the Big Book?
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 It has become outdated and, in many cases, dangerous.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.
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.