“If something is true, no amount of wishful thinking will change it.” (Richard Dawkins) Conversely, “If something is false, no amount of wishful thinking will change it.”
By Paul W.
Chapter 5 of the Big Book, misleadingly titled “How it Works,” is an introduction to the Twelve Steps themselves and elaborations on the first four Steps. Chapter 6, “Into Action,” deals with Steps Five through Eleven and is the subject of this critique.
It is my opinion that the Big Book not only significantly shortchanges nonbelievers but is also frequently weak on logic and leans toward being religious not spiritual. Further, the Big Book is outdated and should be retired. This and my other critiques of the Big Book aim, in part, to strengthen the case for relegating the Big Book to the history shelves.
When Bill wrote Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age he tacitly admitted that the Big Book was flawed in its instructions concerning the Twelve Steps and should be replaced by Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions which he described in this emphatic manner, “This small volume is strictly a textbook which explains AA’s twenty-four basic principles and their application, in detail and with great care (emphasis mine).” This should have placed the Big Book on the shelves except for historical studies.
Unfortunately, this did not and clearly will not happen. Not only because so many in AA hold the Big Book to be sacred and infallible but because of money. Bill and Lois Wilson were paid royalties from the sale of the Big Book and retiring it would have ended their royalty income. After their deaths, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. could have retired the Big Book but its income from sales actually supports AA operations. Without the Big Book AA would cease operations.
While it is widely known, it is worth mentioning again; with few exceptions, the book Alcoholics Anonymous known as the Big Book is the creative work of Bill Wilson. The words used express Bill’s thoughts. The views of a recovering alcoholic and theist.
The thoughts expressed in this critique are the thoughts of the author, a recovering alcoholic and an atheist.
Quotations from the Big Book are in italics. The quotations of the Steps themselves used to introduce sections of the Chapter are added and are not part of the chapter. References to the “textbook” are to Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
Bill introduces “Into Action” with the clearly mistaken assertion that recovering alcoholics are trying to get “a new relationship with our Creator.” A hint of how God-focused this chapter will be. This is also one indication of his underlying belief that agnostics and atheists will “come to believe. (See Critique of “We Agnostics”) It also sets the stage for calling into question the ubiquitous cry of “Spiritual not Religious” made by so many associated with AA.
Step Five: “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”
Bill immediately admits, “This is perhaps difficult – especially discussing our defects with another person. We think we have done enough in admitting these things to ourselves.” There is a ring of truth here. The missing point is that, unless we have expressed something in language understood by another, we have not expressed it clearly. The admission to ourselves of a fault, character defect, weakness, or wrong is so simple that we convince ourselves we’ve described it and understand it.
The admission of a defect must be understood by another human in order to confirm our understanding of self.
Bill goes on to point out that failure in Step Five will lead to relapse because we, “had not learned enough humility, fearlessness and honesty … until [we’ve] told someone else all [our] life story (emphasis mine).” This is not simply a call for clarity and honesty. It is a call for “humility” in the sense of humiliation. True humility is being honest about oneself. For example, if one is an accomplished musical artist, it is humility to admit it. It would be a lie for the artist to say, “Oh, I’m not so good.” That is false humility.
Bill actually, if unknowingly, supports this when he wrote, “We must be entirely honest with somebody if we expect to live long or happily in this world.” What else is being “entirely honest” if it does not include the positive, the strengths, the virtues one has as well as the vices? How could we have done Step Four without honesty?
Active alcoholics generally don’t need humiliation. We need honesty. We need understanding and acceptance from another and ourselves. That is what admitting the truth about ourselves to our self and to another person is all about. Focusing only on the negative is the weakness of Steps Four and Five.
On page 75 we are told that Step Five gives us a feeling of “nearness to our Creator,” we will be “walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe,” and that we “know Him better.” The reward of closeness to another human is not given its due. The relief of being understood by an accepting, empathetic person is ignored. No, instead we are promised a religious experience, not the uplifting feeling which some call “spiritual,” but one associated with a god.
Step Six: ”Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”
Having done a good job at Step Five we are ready for the next Step. Surprise, the Big Book lets us know that we’ve actually already done Step Six. That’s Step Six in the Big Book. (The “textbook” takes over 7 pages to explain Step Six.)
Step Seven: “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”
This Step is covered by a 56-word prayer, followed by, “We have then completed Step Seven.” One prayer of “My Creator…” and the Step is finished. All the Big Book has to offer here is a prayer.
Prayer is related to a god or gods. Where there is God or gods, there is religion. Where there is prayer there is religion. Considering this and the Oxford Group connection, it is not unreasonable to posit that, when the Big Book was written, Step Seven was seen as religious; nondenominational but religion nonetheless. (The “textbook” devotes 7 pages to Step Seven.)
In transition to Step Eight, Bill W. comments, “Now we need more action, without which we find that ‘Faith without works is dead.’ Let’s look at Steps Eight and Nine.”
“Faith without works is dead” has its origin in the Bible. Here is one version,
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17, Holy Bible, New King James Version.)
A Bible reference without citing? From the New (Christian) Testament? Religious, not just Spiritual!
Step Eight: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”
In beginning the discussion of Step Eight, page 76 of the Big Book presents this, “We have a list of all persons we have harmed and to whom we are willing to make amends. We made it when we took inventory. We subjected ourselves to a drastic self-appraisal.” So, we are ready to make amends. (The “textbook” takes just over five pages on Step Eight.)
Step Nine: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
After asserting, “Now we go out to our fellows and repair the damage done in the past” the reader is reminded that we agreed “we would go to any lengths for victory over alcohol.” It then launches into several cautionary comments on approaching others. We are advised not to “emphasize the spiritual feature [of AA] on our first approach” because “we might prejudice them.” Close at hand we find, “We don’t use this [caution] as an excuse for shying away from the subject of God.” We are also instructed, “Under no circumstances do we criticize … or argue.” We must remember, “Our real purpose is to fit ourselves to be of maximum service to God and the people about us.”
Clearly Bill sees AA as “God’s work” a missionary endeavor, bringing others to God. Making amends apparently has the subtle purpose of conversion to theistic belief. Spiritual, not religious?
(The “textbook” gives over four pages to this Step.)
Step Ten: “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.”
Here we are reminded to, “Continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear.” This is followed closely by, “Love and tolerance of others is our code.” Harming or hurting others is not listed, but love and tolerance is.
The history of AA’s lack of tolerance and recognition of non-theists in AA screams out for a Tenth Step by AA World Services, many Intergroups, individual groups, and individual members. Is not the ubiquitous use of prayer at AA meetings and functions selfish? Based on AA literature and procedural practices, is not the reading of “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking” dishonest? Is not the effective abandoning of literature recognizing non-theists intolerance? How have the anonymous “White Paper” and the “Minority Opinion” of the Mt. Rainier Group evidenced love and tolerance? (The “textbook” devotes over seven pages to this Step.)
Step Eleven: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
Meditation is not really addressed in the Big Book. Where it is mentioned, it is as a mental review of the day prior to sleep and a mental preparation for the new day each morning. Prayer is the focus.
“When we retire at night, we constructively review our day.” And, “After making our review we ask God’ forgiveness…” Upon awakening, “We consider our plans for the day.” “We usually conclude the period of meditation with a prayer…”
Concerning prayer Bill instructs, “Be quick to see where religious people are right. Make use of what they offer.” (The “textbook” deals with meditation as well as prayer in eleven full pages.)
The almost overwhelming focus on prayer, God, God’s plan, God’s will, etc., make clear the theistic background of Bill Wilson and consequently of his writings. This also gives some insight into the religious bent of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is little wonder that so many United States courts of various levels have ruled that AA is religious, not just spiritual.
Step Twelve is the subject of the next chapter in the Big Book, and deserves its own critique.
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.