Critique of Chapter 5 of the Big Book – Step 4

Step 4 Featured Image

An unexamined life is not worth living.
Plato’s Apology

Part Two: Step Four (Pages 64 – 71)

By Paul W.


As life-J so aptly points out in his November 23, 2017 article, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants?, the Big Book should be shelved and used only as a historical document.

I fully agree with this sentiment and offer this critique (both parts), and the “Critique of ‘We Agnostics’” as further evidence for retiring the Big Book.


This second part of the critique of Chapter 5 deals with Step 4. Steps 1 through 3 were covered in Part One of the critique, published earlier.

Why critique “How it Works” at all? First, this chapter is not how AA works. It is only partly true and does not discuss eight of the Steps. Second, it is likely that someone new to AA who happens upon the Big Book is likely not to read it from front to back. It is likely that “How it Works” will be an attractive place to start.  And, doing so gives a misleading impression.

Those looking to learn more about Alcoholics Anonymous, for themselves or because of a loved one, will understandably be attracted by the words, “How it Works.” Hearing them at a meeting or seeing them in the Big Book table of contents the seeker is likely to become more alert. It is reasonable that she or he would turn to that chapter before reading elsewhere.

Consequently, this introduction to AA is important and any misleading or unnecessary information it contains is potentially dangerous.

Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

I take no issue with a personal inventory. It is a good and valuable practice.  Many great persons have recommended and practiced this on a regular basis.  Plato and Benjamin Franklin are but two examples.

The Big Book coverage of Step 4 is about being honest and admitting to one’s faults, weaknesses, defects. Unfortunately, it is directed toward the negative. No attention is given to the positive qualities of the person taking a self-inventory, yet it is most important to remember our good qualities while dealing with the negative ones. It would be all too easy to discard, through neglect, our better nature while focusing of our defects.

To give credence to the taking of inventories focused on the negative, Bill Wilson points out that businesses take inventories “to disclose damaged or unsalable goods.” While true, the process also takes into account goods which are decent and usable, something he ignores completely. He notes, “we searched out the flaws in our make-up which caused our failure.” No credit is given to that which kept us from complete collapse and death – nor the positive impulse which brought us to searching out AA in the first place.

It is probable that the despair and self-loathing of most of the low bottom alcoholics in the period when the program was developed was the focus of the fourth Step inventory simply because it was the easiest to identify and thus to admit to. Most of the early AA members would have had a hard time identifying the positive or would have used positive attributes to excuse themselves from needing the program.

But the problem wasn’t just the 1930s. It was also the Oxford Group and its influence on early AA, and in particular on Bill Wilson. In Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous Ernest Kurtz wrote about the Evangelical Pietism of the Oxford Group. The evangelical part is “the omnipotence… of a sovereign God”. The concomitant pietism part is well defined here: “a deep aversion to all emphasis on human strengths with a profound objection to any stress upon merely human sufficiency”. Just a paragraph later we find, “The very heart of the Pietist insight lies in its sense of being brought low – of essential humiliation of one’s very being.”  (Not-God, page 180)

Fortunately, since the 1930s the importance of identifying and accepting one’s positive qualities has been recognized.

It is an undeniable truth that we tend to get what we pay attention to. If one focuses only on the negative, even in an attempt to avoid or get rid of it, the negative will always be there. Defensive driving courses tell us, if you need to leave the road and there are obstructions such as trees, look not at the trees but at the open space between and around them. You will then steer to the open space. However, if you look at the trees, no matter how often you think, “Miss the trees,” you are more likely to hit one that to miss them all.

Bill’s focus is totally on the negative, the weakness, the faults, the immoral. It’s the trees and not the open space and ignores the fact that we are all actually good people trying to get out of a less good shell.


“Resentment is the ‘number one’ offender” introduces the discourse on faults. It also ends the chapter, “If we have been thorough about our personal inventory, we have written down a lot. We have listed and analyzed our resentments. We have begun to comprehend their futility and their fatality. We have commenced to see their terrible destructiveness” (emphasis mine).

It is true that sex, jealousy, anger, grudges, fear, and remorse are mentioned; but only in association with resentment. The entire three-column example of an inventory is focused on resentment. Bill’s comment, “Nothing counted but thoroughness and honesty” rings hollow with this total focus on vice, on weaknesses, on the immoral.


Cautiously, Bill Wilson comments, “Now about sex.” Remember, this is the mid-1930s; sexual activities are just about men and women and not to be spoken of in decent company., and pregnant women went into confinement (hiding) once they began to “show.” Bill points to two views,

One set of voices cry that sex is a lust of our lower nature, a base necessity of procreation. Then we have the voices who cry for sex and more sex; who bewail the institution of marriage; who think that most of the troubles of the race are traceable to sex causes. They think we do not have enough of it, or that it isn’t the right kind.

On this subject Bill offers only God-focused help. He points out that “our sex powers were God-given and therefore good” and we should ask “God to mold our ideas.”

Spiritually Sick

Besides looking to God about sex, Bill labels resentment as a “spiritual disease” where the alcoholic is “not only mentally and physically ill” but is “spiritually sick.”  No acknowledgement is given to anything other than the spiritual except when it is also connectable to the spiritual. For him the cure is spiritual, “When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.” I doubt that the medical profession fully supports this today.

Attitude Toward Others

In writing about the alcoholic’s attitude toward those on his inventory, Bill establishes a negative mind-set. Unintentional or not it is easily hurtful, condescending, even insulting. Consider the following quotations (the emphasizes are mine):

We have begun to learn tolerance, patience and good will toward all men, even our enemies, for we look on them as sick people.”

We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick.”

This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry.”

We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator. We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness.”

Apparently many whom we put on our inventory of resentments can be considered “sick” and those who are not theistic are to be laughed at. This attitude bodes ill for recovery or acceptance of others in the program. In practice, the purpose of a personal inventory is to discover and work on one’s own characteristics and behaviors, not to assign fault to others.

Gender Bias

The Alternative 12 Steps

Click on the cover to get more information about the pioneering book written in 1991 by Arlys G and Martha Cleveland.

While the bias toward the masculine runs throughout the Big Book, it seems particularly appropriate to address it here. At the time of writing the Big Book, women were viewed as “less than” rather than “equal to” or, in many cases, “superior to.”  The Big Book’s approach to Step 4, with its masculine focus is not only less helpful to women than it should be, it is probably harmful. Consider the more inclusive Step 4 proposed by Arlys and Martha in The Alternative Twelve Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery, “Search honestly and deeply within ourselves to know the exact nature of our actions, thoughts and emotions.” This leaves the door open to including the positive in a personal inventory.  And, then, Step 6, “Be entirely ready to acknowledge our abiding strength and release our personal shortcomings” (emphasis mine).  Once again emphasizing the positive.  Simply put, there is no gender bias in this version of the Steps.


The inventory Bill Wilson offers is one of negativity. One focused exclusively on resentment, evil, weakness, lust, selfishness. These are the easy targets of low bottom alcoholics. Today we have more high bottom alcoholics, many “barely alcoholic” members. All would benefit from including their positive attributes in their inventory, especially as a target for maintenance. There are, however, two issues with a focus on positive. One being Jung’s caution of taking a positive to extreme and converting it to a vice, as when being financially responsible becomes miserliness. The other is one of ownership. Having admitted to a negative, it is easy to say, “I’m working on it.  It is ‘progress not perfection.’” As for a positive quality, once you admit to it, you are responsible for having it. You have to act like it. You own it.

Finally, “Spiritual not Religious”

Alcoholics Anonymous is fond of asserting that it is “Spiritual not Religious.”

This is questionable when one considers the references to the divine (God and euphemisms for God) in the Twelve Steps themselves. In the Big Book, the Steps are followed with three “pertinent ideas,” the third being, “That God could and would [relieve our alcoholism] if He were sought.” As noted in Part One, this appears to assert that the Steps are not necessary, just ask and you’re cured.

In Bill Wilson’s commentary on Step 4 there are more than 20 references to the divine. Consider this paragraph:

We never apologize to anyone for depending upon our Creator. We can laugh at those who think spirituality the way of weakness. Paradoxically, it is the way of strength.  The verdict of the ages is that faith means courage. All men of faith have courage. They trust their God. We never apologize for God. Instead we let Him demonstrate, through us, what He can do. We ask Him to remove our fear and direct our attention to what He would have us be. At once, we commence to outgrow fear. (emphasis mine)

Further, the influence of the Oxford Group beginning with early AA and prevailing to current times is the reassertion of “the omnipotent and otherness of a sovereign God” (Ernest Kurtz, Not-God page 180). And remember the phrase chanted aloud at many meetings, “God could and would if He were sought.”

Considering all this and more, how is “spirituality” to be interpreted except in a nondenominational religious context?

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.

11 Responses

  1. Gerald W says:

    Evolution is a word that I find myself using a lot when discussing any aspect of The Big Book.

  2. Andrew says:

    Do you guys have an alternative program, or do you spend all your time trying to disprove AA’s? I realize this is a slightly smart ass comment, but it is important that you have something going.

    • Roger says:

      Oh, we have something going, Andrew. But it isn’t about pushing religion/God on others, and pretending that doing that is either wise or helpful, as is done in Chapter Five of the Big Book. And with Step 4 (“In Bill Wilson’s commentary on Step 4 there are more than 20 references to the divine”). That’s all.

  3. Guy says:

    Another right on article. I also recoil at AA pushing the Grapevine and other literature which is full of God. As I come to realize my own atheist position, I know that I can’t promote literature which is full of God & spirituality. Since I got sober I have noted people using “MY higher power” like a weapon that they can quickdraw to outgun their neighbor. Much like the awful “How am I driving ?” signs which suppose that a bad driver has the right to complain against a professional driver, their “higher power” attitude supposes that they are right by divine guidance. No such animal.

  4. Tom M says:

    Thanks, Paul, for your insight into the fourth step. Your insight has helped me clarify many questions I have about the AA program. I say at meetings how surprised I am that the program has worked for me even though I have no belief in god. There obviously is more. The god nonsense kept me out of the program for years. It’s refreshing to see a frank discussion about these issues. Thanks.

  5. Tom H. says:

    4th (and 5th) Steps were big deals in the recovery biz. It was essentially a graduation exercise for me.

    I assume little has changed in the ensuing twenty-seven years.

  6. life-j says:

    Paul, Thanks for this installment.

    Only way AA will change is if we keep showing up there, and speaking up against the nonsense. If we stick to ourselves then surely nothing will change.

    But as someone the other day suggested – if AA World Services is in money trouble, shouldn’t there come a day when they realize that maybe they would do better economically if they were to start selling some modern literature that people will read? Instead of the half-dozen conference approved books they could start selling all kinds of recovery books, including some of ours. Truly start making “conference approved” mean not the only ones people ought to read.

  7. Jackie K says:

    There are indeed fundamental glitches in the Big Book. While I don’t think the entire book should be shelved, it remains exclusive to AAFT’s, as well as Buddhists. Unfortunately, its original dogma is so deeply ingrained among the vast majority of its members that I don’t see major changes on the horizon. Today, when someone asks me to read at an AA meeting, I tell them, “Sure, if you don’t mind me changing a word here and there.” Sometimes I actually get away with it. I just can’t recite something I don’t believe in. As a first step, I sure would like to see WAFFTAA’s literature accepted by the Central Office of AA in New York as part of AA literature.

    • Steven V. says:

      I agree with your sentiments Jackie – I doubt AA will ever agree to change or shelve the Big Book. That shouldn’t stop us from advocating for change though.

      • Robert says:

        It will never happen unfortunately. It is so ingrained. I stopped trying to fight city hall years ago! You just get blackballed. The ignorance is unbelievable and they get hostile with tons of cross-talk if you even stray towards new findings in medical and scientific worlds. They will become non relevant as time marches on and keep repeating their ignorance FOREVER!!! Even Wilson knew towards the end it had morphed into a Religious Monster that unbelievably exists in 2018!!! How very, very sad.

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