Critique of Chapter 5 of the Big Book – How It Works

AA Big Book

To reason effectively, we must have a feeling for the truth.
Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

Part One: How It Works and Steps One through Three (Pages 58 – 63)

By Paul W.


This paper is not a revision or a rewrite of the first three pages of Chapter 5, “How it Works.”  That was done nicely by John S. (A New “How it Works”) and by Hilary J. with the Sober Agnostics group, (An Updated “How it Works”); published by AA Agnostica on August 9, 2105 and September 15, 2016 respectively.

This paper is a critique, a critical examination, of Chapter 5 as presented in the Big Book, from the portion often read aloud at many meetings through the text on Step Three. (Big Book pages 58 through 63.)

Why a critique?  Simply put, because it clearly does not “work” as described. For example, the chapter ends after explaining Step 4, other Steps are covered in subsequent chapters. So this is not a complete description of how AA works. Further, many (if not most) alcoholics have become successfully sober within Alcoholics Anonymous while following Steps which we have customized for our own situation.

Some readers, especially theists, may argue that many of my points are minutia. Truth be told, the problem is often in the details.

My position concerning Alcoholics Anonymous and the Big Book is set out in the beginning of my October 12, 2017 paper Critique of “We Agnostics”. I choose not to repeat that here.

Historical Context

The Big Book was written in the 1930s by Bill Wilson, a recently recovered alcoholic with limited experience in recovery, no medical experience, and no training or education in psychology.

Prior to publication the Big Book was reviewed by members of the “New York 100.” This review led to changes, especially to four of the Twelve Steps. “God” was changed to “Power” in Step 2, “as we understood Him” was added to “God” in Steps 3 and 11, and “On our knees” was dropped from Step 7. These were referred to by Bill W. as widening the doorway to sobriety even for nonbelievers. Not much of a widening, much less an acknowledgement that sobriety is possible without a God of any kind.

Far too few AA members and hardly any newcomers to AA are aware of the “widening” instigated by the nonbelievers Jim Burwell and Hank Parkhurst, much less the work in spreading AA Jim Burwell did in his lifetime.


Those attending open meetings will often hear the AA Preamble read in answer to the rhetorical question, “What is AA?”

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for A.A. membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

Copyright © The AA Grapevine, Inc.

Notice there is nothing here which refers to theism or a-theism (without-God). There is no mention of God (of any understanding) nor some mysterious Higher Power. There is no mention of the need to believe in any creed. In fact, it disavowals sects and denominations. (Synonyms for “sect” include cult, religious group, persuasion, religious order, and denomination.) The primary reason AA exists is to stay sober and to help others to sobriety. There is no mention of leading others to God.

How it Works

Note: From here on all quotations in italics are from the pages of the Big Book.

When the reading of “How it Works” begins (aloud at meetings or silently in private) we are given a guarantee; “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” Not bad, but what is their path?  We do not yet know that this involves some level of theism. Nor will we be clearly told that the path can be one without God.

Next come escape clauses, which are alarming. Failure comes from inability to “completely give themselves to this simple program” because of being “incapable of being honest.” Some may even “have been born” incapable. Being “naturally incapable of grasping” the program’s call for “rigorous honesty” is another reason the newcomer may fail. We are, however promised that even those with “grave emotional and mental disorders” can succeed if “they have the capacity to be honest.” Clearly, should someone not achieve sobriety, it is his fault, his failing. Definitely not AA’s culpability.

After stating that there are stories of personal recovery, we are told, “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.” Not having read or heard the stories it is presumptuous to make this assumption. At lease we should be told, “after you have read/heard our stories you may decide you want what we have.”

The author then admits to having “balked” at some of the yet undisclosed steps and we are informed that some “tried to hold on to our old ideas” to no effect until they “let go absolutely.” Referencing the strength of alcohol and the need for help we are informed, “there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now.” Once again, the emphasis on God, all but stating that theism is the only way. Yet again, no recognition of those who come to AA having no belief in God, it is wished that “you find Him now.”

Additionally, the emphasis on God is clear and forceful. It is alarming to those who are “struggling with the God thing” and off-putting to those who have become comfortable with the absence of God. This begs the question of how to welcome all who suffer alcoholism into AA with such absolute need for a God being stated.

Next, we are told of “half measures” and the need to “ask His protection and care with complete abandon.” We are frequently advised to be wary of any individuals or group which want you to surrender yourself so completely. Thus, it should not be surprising when many grow cautious at this point, “complete abandon” to what, to whom?

Then we are presented with the Twelve Steps which “are suggested as a program of recovery” (emphasis mine). More God and more surrender. We heard the word “suggested” and may have had some hope of AA not being religious, as in “spiritual, not religious” but remained uncomfortable and not fully welcomed.

Click on the image above to access three secular versions of How It Works.

Newcomers to AA (and quite possibly, many long-term members) are not familiar with the book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (AACoA), where referring to Tradition 3, Bill Wilson wrote, “Any two or three gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that as a group they have no other affiliation.” (AACoA, page 81) He also stated, “This means that these two or three alcoholics could try for sobriety in any way they liked. They could disagree with any or all of AA’s principles and still call themselves an AA group.” (AACoA, page 105) It is noteworthy to remember that the “AA principles” are the Twelve Steps as pointed out in Step Twelve, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs (emphasis mine).”

In apparent recognition of our possible angst we are told not to be discouraged, that no one has had “perfect adherence to these principles” and that “The principles we have set down are guides to progress.” So imperfect obedience to the Steps (principles) is recognized here too, even if not clearly.

Bill’s words from Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age and the elaboration in the Big Book about practice and imperfect adherence clearly bring into question many assertions by AA gurus, Big Book thumpers, leaders of meetings carrying their name, “Back to Basics” groups, Intergroups, and the like. Clearly, any assertion that the Program must be followed exactly as described in the Big Book is patently false.

After the list of the suggested Steps “three pertinent ideas” are presented. These ideas are; that we are alcoholics, that “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism” and “God could and would if He were sought” (emphasis mine). At many meetings “God could and would if He were sought” is chanted aloud by those present. These three “ideas” are seen as “facts” by most without examination. If “probably” is true there is the “possibility” that human power could; as the presence of so many recovering agnostics and atheists proves. More important, if sought God would relieve alcoholism, why are all those who earnestly and faithfully ask God for help, not helped?  And, if God would, why do we even need the Steps?  If true, the three pertinent ideas indicate no need for “working the Steps.” This lapse in logic is not addressed in the Big Book, it is simply ignored.

Steps One and Two

Abruptly the chapter shifts directly from “God could and would” to, “Being convinced, we were at Step Three.” Beyond simply listing Steps One and Two, nothing is mentioned about these Steps much less how one “works” them.

Since the experience of Bill Wilson and the early members was what is now known as “low bottom,” it is easy to understand why there was no reason to elaborate on admission of alcoholism, unmanageable lives, and the need for some help beyond one’s own strength.

Today, with the increased presence of “low bottom” alcoholics, it is necessary to provide such explanation and elaboration. The publication of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, where more is said about all Twelve Steps is helpful. Unfortunately, many in AA focus exclusively on the Big Book and miss much more on recovery. It should be noted that Bill W. referred to the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions as a textbook for AA. (AACoA, page 219)

Many who approach AA today are better served by addressing Step One in two parts; admitting to being alcoholic first, and addressing unmanageable lives later. These functioning alcoholics often have difficulty with Step One because they see their lives as well controlled.

Step Three

After reminding us that our core problem is blaming others and the world, it is not surprising that we are reminded alcoholics believe that if things just went their way, “Life would be wonderful,” “Our troubles … are basically of our own making,” and things weren’t improved “much by wishing or trying on our own power.”  “We had to have God’s help.”

Chapter 5 makes it clear that, after admitting that we need help from a power greater than ourselves, that God is the answer.  No other kind of help or greater power is discussed. References to God abound, here are a few examples:

  • God makes that (recovery) possible.”
  • We had to have God’s help.”
  • “God was going to be our Director.”
  • “He is the Father, and we are His children.”
  • Being all powerful, He provided what we needed.”
  • We were reborn.” – as in born again.
  • “… abandon ourselves to Him.”

The discussion of Step 3 even includes a prayer known as the “Third Step Prayer.”

God, I offer myself to Thee – to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!

Considering the references to God in the Steps themselves and in “How it Works” it is not surprising that many consider AA to be religious, and specifically Christian.

There is no recognition of the strength of the group, of the fellowship itself to overcome alcoholism. Synergy is completely in the shadows. Bill’s personal experience and devotion to theism is ubiquitous.

Thus far, Chapter 5 has made it abundantly clear that AA is based on belief in and reliance on God. Given the number of no-God members successfully sober in AA and the success of secular AA meetings it is evident that sobriety without God is possible and should be officially recognized by the General Service Office, AA World Services, Inc., and all Intergroups.

The critique of “How it Works” will conclude with a discussion of how Chapter 5 deals with Step Four in a future paper.

Paul W has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since May 1989. He has held many service positions including Chairing a District Cooperation with the Professional Community committee, and a District Committee Member. Paul currently sponsors several recovering alcoholics and is a service sponsor to his home group’s General Service Representative. He first joined AA while he was attempting to hold onto belief in a God, but was put off by “all that God in AA.” Eventually Paul made peace with himself, stopped faking it while trying to make it, 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 General Service Conference 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 of 57 years live in New Jersey, she a Christian and he an atheist. They have six children (50% atheists), six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

21 Responses

  1. Annette says:

    Oh boy, I cringe when they read How it Works before meetings. “There are those unfortunates” and “god could and would if he were sought.” Again, oh boy. I try to take what I need and leave the rest, not always so easy to do. I’m very grateful for these articles, they remind me I’m not alone.

  2. Mark C. says:

    When asked to read “How It Works” before meetings, I respond with “No thank you, It is decidedly NOT how it works for great numbers of people.” If the person is shocked at my reply, or umm, my lack of “conformity,” I respond with “It is a religious evangelical appeal to belief in Bill Wilson’s God.”

  3. Ken M. says:

    Paul, thanks for your comments on How it Works. I have 33 years in this program. I struggled with the god idea for a long time. Today I have no belief in any gods and associated religions and theologies. To me, the program gives me the ability to strive for, and attain, some level of spirituality. For me, that means not to drink, try to do the right things, and don’t hurt anyone or thing. While I have not drank for over 33 years, occasionally I fail in the other two parts. When that happens, I need to remember that we seek progress, not perfection. Step three and eleven allow me to interpret my understanding of a higher power in terms of spirituality, not through religion and theology. While many of my friends in the program don’t agree with my beliefs, they are entitled to theirs and we get along very well. We use whatever works for us.
    Thank you.

  4. Tony L. says:

    Thanks Paul.

    I appreciate you noting that Fellowship is so understated & Valued. I have never had more than a very brief association with “The steps”. As time passes I am happy with my decision. Happy & Sober without all the dogma. Going towards 12 years.

    • Dale K. says:

      I had a sponsor in the early ’80s with 28 years of sobriety at that time. He said he had never worked the Steps because “back in the day” nobody concerned themselves with it. He admitted that he benefited from the Steps, but only “through osmosis.”

  5. bob k says:

    Who were the New York 100? I have never heard that expression.

    “Prior to publication the Big Book was reviewed by members of the ‘New York 100.'”


    • Chris C says:

      It’s from the Foreword of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (another example of Saint Bill taking liberties with the truth to sell his opus, the truth is that there were about 70 AA’s when the martyr claimed they were more than a hundred in number):

      We of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book.

      • bob k says:

        I ask specifically about the phrase “the New York 100.” Have not seen nor heard that anywhere else.
        Whatever the unknown number that got exaggerated to 100, the greater portion of them were in Ohio.

      • Dale K. says:

        I think most of us are aware of the exaggerated number. I’m thinking the question is more about the “New York” part of the expression. No?

    • Mark C. says:

      Historical clarity goes a long way.

      • Chris C says:

        Fair enough. The fictitious 100 from the first edition foreword is the only mention of 100 I can recall from my study of the literature from the early days of AA (as limited as that study may be here in the company of AA history scholars).

        Maybe there is a missing sarcasm tag in the OP. Could it be meant tongue in cheek in same way a “hot New York minute” is meant (when in New York traffic, a “hot New York minute” is the infinitesimally tiny increment of time between the moment the light turns green and the moment the driver in the car behind you lays on the horn).

  6. life-j says:

    Thanks. I think perhaps you’re letting Bill Wilson off too easily by bringing in AAcoA, where Bill himself had also come of age. Looking at the BB by itself it is evident how ignorant Bill really was about just about everything.

    And he got to be painfully aware of that fact later on, and it must have been really hard on him.

    Can anyone of Y’all imagine having written a book like that, and it becoming hugely successful, and be an intelligent person, and have to live with having written that book? And pretend to be happy with it…

  7. Dan L says:

    Thanks for your essay Paul.
    The chapter “How It Works” is just one of the herd of elephants in the living room of AA. I think that a very large number of us read that chapter and thought, “Hmmm that doesn’t say How It Works.” In fact at no point in the Big Book is “How It Works” explained other than some hand waving about omnipotent AA god whose will we must seek and follow. That entire chapter has bothered me from the first day I read it. “Rarely have we seen…” turns into “Regularly we see persons fail..” but of course failure is the fault of the person not thoroughly following this poorly marked path to a capricious deity. Since the beginning this has discounted the enormous majority of people who trusted AA to bring relief and were unsuccessful. There are many around who will state without a trace of irony that “The Program” – there is NO program – is $100% successful! As usual we have earned through our own unthinking zealots the spite that is occasionally poured on us.

  8. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Paul for a most reasonable deconstruction of the Big Book’s Christian belief system.

    I am eternally grateful that the small secular meeting I often attend in Bloomington Normal, IL has rewritten its own version of “How It May Work” which is much more palatable to agnostics, atheists and freethinkers.

  9. Hilary J. says:

    Excellent post, thanks!
    The 3rd, 7th and 11th step prayers made it very difficult for me to embrace the program.
    Step 3 was a real struggle for me. Only when my sponsor suggested an alternative version was I able to accept it:
    “Today I will do what is right for my health and my sobriety.”

  10. Devon says:

    Thank you for publishing this excellent critique which puts into words the “feelings” I have at each meeting. As a newly “open” agnostic, it is so helpful to have advice and supporting documentation to affirm my beliefs.

  11. Harold Y. says:

    Thanks for your post.
    Chapter 5 could have been titled “What To Do” as it doesn’t
    tell “How It Works”. I think Bill was messing with our minds.

  12. Dale K. says:

    The god of my own understanding is one of fiction. Should I place my sobriety in the hands of a fictitious character?

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