Critique of Chapter 7 – Working with Others

AA’s 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.

By Paul W.


To any unbiased reader, the Big Book’s elaboration on “Working with Others” makes crystal clear its connection to the earliest years of AA, its experience based on low-bottom alcoholics, and the influence of Christian fundamentalism a la the Oxford Group.  As with the rest of the Big Book, the mistaken need for accepting God remains strong.

Chapter 7 makes the case for retiring the Big Book even stronger. It is a historical document suitable for studying the history of AA, but not a document for guiding the still sick and suffering alcoholics in their path to sobriety. And, Chapter 7 is definitely not a guide to be followed in helping others who suffer from alcoholism. This critique adds evidence to the case for retiring the Big Book.

As with prior critiques of the Big Book, this critique is strictly my opinion. I speak for myself because I recognize that no one person speaks for any other non-theist, let alone all non-theists. The critiques are intended to stimulate dialogue concerning the weaknesses of the Big Book and lead to its withdrawal from circulation except for the study of AA’s history.

All items in quotation marks and italics are taken from the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous). Concerning style: when I quote from the Big Book I retain the capitalization used by the author. In my critique I often use the same system of capitalization to call attention to the clear association of theism with other concepts. Just as God is capitalized so are phrases and euphemisms for God, such as Creator, Higher Power, Spirit, Spiritual Experience, Him, and numerous other examples. The association of these words with God is clear, especially in the Steps using “God, as we understood Him.”


Chapter 6, “Into Action” closes with, “The next chapter is entirely devoted to Step Twelve.

Spiritual Awakening

Arriving at Chapter 7, it should be reasonable that the reader has a good idea of a “spiritual awakening” and “spiritual” itself. After all, the Step places this in the past tense. Unfortunately, this is not the case. There has been no clear statement nor example of spiritual or spiritual experience up to this point.

The explanation of “spiritual experience” is presented on page 27 (“There is a Solution”). It reads:

Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.

life-j refers to this in his February 22 essay, Logical Fallacies of the Big Book where he critiques the “The Doctor’s Opinion” and the first three Chapters of the Big Book. It is an excellent and informative as well as entertaining read. I recommend you read it if you haven’t already done so.

I see this example of a spiritual experience as incomplete and dissatisfying. It does smack of a religious event, St. Paul’s fall from his horse and related conversion, Martin Luther’s encounter with a lightening bolt are two examples. It might also be somewhat descriptive of the experience I felt when I was freed from the bonds of theism. But it also seems to be a good description of a psychological break down.

Consequently, one might hope that this chapter will give further enlightenment. Sorry, there is no explanation of “spiritual awakening” in the chapter. Mentions yes, explanation and examples, no.

[See “Notes Concerning “Spiritual Experience” at the end of this paper for more.]

In All Our Affairs

The words, “to practice these principles in all our affairs,” are both challenging and hope-filled. Apparently, this program will help the recovering alcoholic with his whole life. Life lessons to follow? Sorry, it isn’t what the chapter, billed as “entirely devoted to Step Twelve,” is about.

To Alcoholics

Chapter 7 is all about carrying “this message to alcoholics.” In this chapter carrying the message is one of recruiting alcoholics into the program, seeking them out and interesting active alcoholics in the AA program.

Sadly, the chapter does a poor job of even this narrowed objective. It was written in the 1930s and AA’s experience base is limited, to low-bottom drunks, and generally economically difficult times. Conditions today are significantly different. Consequently “Working with Others” has little relevance to current times. In some cases, it may well be dangerous. The chapter is silent about high-bottom alcoholics, rehabs, medical malpractice, and the concept of “attraction rather than promotion.”

Consequently, Chapter 7 is a bitter disappointment. “Spiritual awakening” is assumed to be understood and to have happened. Practicing “these principles” in daily life is totally up to the reader, no guidance is offered. It’s as if Bill had no ideas to offer or had simply run out of steam. Not only is “Working with Others” disappointing, it is a waste of time and energy.

Working with Others: Carrying the Message

To cite every issue that I have with “Working with Others” would result in too voluminous a paper and far too many redundancies. I chose to present sufficient examples to support my claims that the Big Book is obsolete and that this chapter many be dangerous. At times I will simply list quotations and comment on them as a whole. If Chapter 7 were considered carefully and open mindedly, “Back to Basics” and similar groups would have to change their names because they can’t possibly, in good conscience, advocate following Bill Wilson’s advice in this chapter. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., would do well to officially disavow at least this chapter.

Chapter 7 opens, “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.”  How much practical experience did Bill and others have at the time this was written? What kind of “work with other alcoholics” was their experience? There were no Open Meetings to attract active alcoholics, because there were no Home Groups. The experience the founders had was very limited. So limited that the guidance in the chapter must be limited and therefore invalid for today. Another reason for retiring the Big Book.

Being Helpful

“To be helpful is our only aim.” This may have been somewhat true for the New York “100” but it clearly was not so for Akron/Cleveland. Under the influence of Dr. Bob Smith rescuing alcoholics also included conversion to belief in God starting immediately with “forced” prayer. At lease the New York group was somewhat subtle in bringing members to God. This is hinted at when the chapter advises “being careful not to moralize or lecture” when working with others.

A non-theist or one having trouble with the “God stuff” is often advised to “fake it till you make it.” How is this consistent with, “a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty” as noted in “How it Works” on page 58? Or telling one struggling with “Higher Power” to do something insane (use a chair or a door knob) being helpful? It is downright insulting! To be helpful is your only aim, really?

The advice, “When possible, avoid meeting a man through his family. Approach through a doctor or an institution is a better bet” was alright when Bill wrote the Big Book. Today AA prides itself on “Attraction, not Promotion.” In its infancy AA was actively recruiting members, not so much today.

“Real Alcoholic”

We are instructed that, “If you are satisfied that he is a real alcoholic” we should dwell on the hopeless feature of alcoholism. And, “You will soon have your friend [target or subject] admitting he has many, if not all, of the traits of the alcoholic.” These traits were given in Chapter 2, “There is a Solution” on pages 21 and 22. I have no doubt that Bill and his New York “100” were familiar with these and remembered them well. I question if a first-time reader would recall them and remember where to look for them. These characteristics were easy for the early, low-bottom alcoholics to identify with. But, are they adequate to have high-bottom alcoholics and young, “barely alcoholics” identify with? A case for shelving the Big Book and presenting more up-to-date literature.

As for “dwelling on the hopeless feature of alcoholism,” this too needs modernization. High-bottom and barely alcoholics will not easily identify with the hopelessness. AA needs a hopeful focus here, an attraction.

Religion, Faith, Morals

For prospects who “belong to a religious denomination the reader is advised that “faith alone is insufficient… [emphasis mine]. In Chapter 1 we were also told that “Faith without works is dead.”

Bill expands with, “however deep his faith and knowledge, he could not have applied it or he would not drink.” While this doesn’t bother me as a non-theist, it will clearly turn off those who belong to denominations which teach/preach that faith alone does work. One of the arguments Martin Luther had with the Church of Rome was that faith alone is sufficient. In Chapter 4, “How it Works” we were told that “God could and would [relieve our alcoholism] if He were asked.” At many meetings this is even chanted by those in attendance.

On the subject of asking, the Christians in AA may wish to refer to Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you.”

In meeting with a prospect, we are told, “Never talk down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop; simply lay out the kit of spiritual tools for his inspection.” Clearly AA does not realize or does not care how insulting it is to sincere nonbelievers and doubters to hear or read words like “never talk down… from any moral or spiritual hilltop.” Down from your superior position?

By this point in reading the Big Book one more than likely wants to know more about what spiritual in its various forms can be other than religious. This curiosity will not be satisfied anywhere in the Big Book.

In fact, one is confronted with phrases like these:

  • “Stress the spiritual feature freely”
  • “He can choose any conception [of God] he likes, provided it makes sense to him.” 
  • “be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself and that he live by spiritual principles.”
  • “Use everyday language to describe spiritual principles.”
  • “if he is to find God”
  • “We have no monopoly on God”
  • “Dependence of God”
  • “The only condition is that he trust God and clean house” 
  • “relationship with God”
  • “walk in the path of spiritual progress”
  • “in God’s hands” and
  • “the dictates of a Higher Power”

With all the “spiritual” and “God stuff” flying around in a chapter which covers working with others, I hold that it is reasonable for the reader to assume that “spiritual” relates to the divine, to God. And, that God related to religious. If AA wants to be “not religious” it has to retire the Big Book and, most importantly, officially and openly embrace non-theists.

The only condition [requirement] is that he trust God and clean house” was written before the Preamble, which tells us, “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking,” which clearly contradicts the former. Do the “Back to Basic” advocates consider the Preamble null and void?

How to Help Others

In Chapter 7 we are presented with, “Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery.”  Examples of helping others include:

  • “You might try to help him about getting a job”
  • “sharing your money and your home” 
  • “counseling frantic wives and relatives”
  • “trips to police courts, sanitariums, hospitals, jails and asylums”
  • “keep liquor in our homes … to carry green recruits through a severe hangover”
  • “The family should be offered your way of life.”

There are some frightening things here. Remember that individuals are autonomous just as are groups. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. proudly proclaims that it does not control individual members, nor groups, nor Intergroups. If an individual AA member loans money and is not repaid, it’s his loss. If a member feeds liquor to an alcoholic who is suffering a hangover (a form of detoxing) and convulsions or worse result, the individual doing this is vulnerable and open to law suits. Organizationally AA at its various levels will not accept any responsibility nor offer help. However, it is just possible that, by pointing out that one was just following AA’s instructions as presented in its Conference-approved Big Book, one may prevail against AA. These instructions have been approved, insulated from change, by five General Service Conferences. They are Bill’s words in what is often referred to as “a gift from God” and “AA’s Bible.” Another reason for withdrawing the Big Book and consigning it to history.

Notes Concerning “Spiritual Experience”

Big Book Appendix

It is quite possible, even probable, that the reader of the Big Book may turn to the Appendices and see, “Spiritual Experience” listed. There is presented a one and one-half page essay on the subject. This is so important that the General Service Conference has protected it from change.

Praises such as the following abound in this short document; “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism,” “personality changes, or religious experiences,” “tapped an unsuspected inner resource,” and “own conception of a Power greater than [self].” But no examples or explanation of “spiritual experience” for the non-religious.

This essay appears to satisfy the majority of AA members. It leaves me cold, unsatisfied, and wondering how and why theist AA members find it so good that it merits fixing in stone.

I frequently ask a theist AA member to explain “spiritual experience” to me without a god in the explanation. Or to explain “power greater than myself” without a god.  Results have been disappointing.

The appendix ends with a quote from Herbert Spencer:

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation.

There are times when it is apparently used to encourage agnostics and atheists to be open to the spiritual, to God. It seems to never apply to theists being open to a better understanding of non-theists. A good number of members have it memorized. I am always amused when it is referred to or quoted. Clearly the theist members are unaware that Herbert Spencer was agnostic (possibly atheist) and is well known, along with Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, for the acceptance (outside of Turkey and the US) of evolution. When someone utters “survival of the fittest” Herbert Spencer is being quoted. This phrase was not used by Charles Darwin.

Some Research

Before his death, Ernest Kurtz was doing research for a possible updated version of Not-God. Readers of the AA Agnostica review of Sam Harris’ book Waking Up were asked questions about their views and experience of spiritual. The submissions clearly indicated that non-theists, true to form, were not in agreement about their definition of and experience with spirituality. It was abundantly clear that most respondents related or equated spiritual to theist philosophy, i.e. to religion.

Should Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., truly want to be open to all who suffer from alcoholism it would behoove the organization to embark on a serious effort to better define spiritual and spiritual experience in clear and universal terms. Also, better acceptance and recognition of non-theists as full and valuable members is essential. Neither of these have come even close to fruition. The General Service Conference has the opportunity to make some progress, we shall see.

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.  Paul has written several articles critiquing AA’s Big Book in the hope of convincing “the powers that be” into retiring the Big Book from circulation and removing its “Conference-approved” status.

24 Responses

  1. Daniel F. says:

    My experience is that being spiritual simply is being honest, truthful, patient, tolerant, non-controlling; the exact opposite of when I came in to AA. When I do these things my spirit awakens to not judging others and myself, feeling connected to others, my worries and fears are minimized, and I am able to smile and enjoy each moment. These are my spiritual experiences. Thanks Paul for sharing your experience.

  2. Martin T. says:

    Guess it comes comes down to: If you don’t like the BB, write a better one. And, just like the Bible(s), there’s a lot of goofy, obsolete stuff in both, but there’s also much profound wisdom to be gleaned, so don’t “throw the baby out with the bath”! For those concerned that AA will go the way of the Amish, not to worry because AA will still be around (and the Amish) when you and I are long gone. And, with that, I bow out of this Debating Society!

  3. Tom R. says:

    This is a question. Has any member of AA been physically assaulted because they have refused to sat the Lord’s Prayer? One member where I go to meetings says it happens all the time. I have 35 years in AA and have seen one confrontation in that time.

    • Dan L says:

      I do not have 35 years in. I have heard mention from time to time of this sort of thing but the worst I have ever seen is some nasty muttered comments and the odd zealot who suggests there is no recovery without god. I have been told many times “You can’t do AA without god.” but I figure people who say that do not know much about sobriety or even much about AA in spite of their posturing.

  4. Martin T. says:

    In spite of the obsolete lingo, the loosely worded guidelines of the BB allowed a non-Judeo/Christian like myself to develop a relationship with and dependence on a Higher Power without the predominant cultural mythology or requirement to adhere to any particular rituals (other than attending tons of meetings, which is NEVER stated in the BB). We call it “spirituality without religion”. Without that surrender and appeal to a Higher Power (I call Her “Grace”) for help I was a slave to addiction. You can call Her or It whatever you want… as long as you call, unless you think you can recover on your own, in which case you’re on your own. Good luck!! C/S since 10/85.

    • Dan L says:

      Recovering without invoking a “Higher Power” is not recovering “…on your own…” My own worldview is my own and I do not need to explain or justify it to anyone else, ever. I refrain from making judgements as to whether a given person’s spiritual map will show the way to contented sobriety. I know that I cannot base my sobriety in dependence upon some imaginary construct. Not even phlogiston! But no number of years in AA will give me the kind of insight into the mind of another that would allow me to say if his “worldview” was conducive to sobriety or not.

  5. Dale K. says:

    Regarding contempt prior to investigation. “There are times when it is apparently used to encourage agnostics and atheists to be open to the spiritual, to God. It seems to never apply to theists being open to better understanding of non-theists.” I’ll be using this the next time a theist questions my disbelief in gods.

  6. Judas I. says:

    Why do we still lie to the newcomer and tell them that AA is not a religious program when AA has religion splashed all over it? How much longer is it gonna take to revise the BIG BOOK and make it FAIR and unbiased towards religion? Regards and Thank you and hurry the hell up. Kidding lol!! ✌?

  7. Jerry F. says:

    The BB made Bill & Lois wealthy. It is and has always been the primary source of income for AAWS. It has made AA wealthy. We are not now and have never been “self-supporting through our own contributions.” BB sales have always trumped group and individual donations. Last year was a good BB sales year for a moribund organization like AA.

    Those who call for the abolition of the BB should be aware that, sans BB sales, AAWS would shrink to become a quaint religious group like the Amish. Nice people but you wouldn’t seek them out to hang with them.

    • Tom R. says:

      Bill and Lois were far from wealthy!

    • Roger says:

      So, Jerry, AA should keep pumping the out-of-date Big Book, written 80 years ago, and which mentions “God” 281 times in the first 164 pages? Nonsense. If it does that I agree with Joe C: “My bold prediction is that if AA doesn’t accommodate change and diversify, our 100th anniversary will be a fellowship of men and women with the same stature and relevance as the Mennonites; charming, harmless and irrelevant.”

  8. Christopher S says:

    I’m in agreement that the tone of the BB critique is highly negative, but excellent points are made. The BB is hard to take from an atheist worldview.

    I would like to correct the author apparent slam at AAWS for not recognizing secular members as equal members. More recently, The October 2016 Grapevine issue featuring “Atheist and Agnostic Members”, the upcoming Grapevine book featuring their stories, and the recent GS Conference approving the U.S./Canada publication of UK’s “God Word” pamphlet, point in the direction of full acceptance. Bill’s evolution over the years demonstrated his remorse over the myopic and patronizing way he looked at non-believing members (“As Bill Sees It”, p. 146). And to quote the BB, “Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.”

  9. Dan L says:

    Thanks Paul W. for the essay. I enjoyed the read.

    I think about half of my AA experience has been sorting the useful material from the garbage in the BB and other approved publications. Unfortunately my experience has shown me that whenever I discover a particularly noxious segment it turns out to be some other drunks favorite passage. The same in reverse. AA culture contains tons of dubious slogans and idiotic bumper sticker philosophy which may have sounded good once but no longer seem sensible.

    Regarding the “Herbert Spencer” quote: to deepen the irony there is no record of Herb saying anything remotely like that. The true originator is William Paley a second rate 18th century christian apologist who was in fact referring to those who reject Christianity. Again, my thanks.

  10. bob k says:

    Once more I’ll ask about the reference to the “New York ‘100’.” I have an above average familiarity with the early history of AA, and I have never encountered the phrase. I get “100,” but the “New York” descriptor is a mystery.

    I find BB thumpers to be silly in their reverence for the book. In their eyes, it is PERFECT, divinely inspired perhaps. I see similar black and white thinking in the “Critique” series. The author is so anxious to denigrate the book in its every aspect that very legitimate criticisms are lost in the sea of vitriol. From my perspective, it’s just more black and white thinking. With apologies, I see the essay(s) as “trying too hard.”

    In the single-minded mission to go 100% negative, something important for secularists is missed. “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.” This is a GREAT line for atheists such as me! NOTHING works better against alcoholism than the very human action of helping other humans.

    There is a similar line in BILL’S STORY where it is said that this human connectivity worked “when ALL other measures failed.” Presumably those failing activities include all the mumbo-jumbo stuff like prayer and virgin sacrifice.

    APPENDIX II describes the spiritual experience as a “personality change.” That opens the door to psychology as the solution, and it’s written in a tone dramatically different from the rest of the book. The spiritual folks endure a little swipe in being called “our more religious members” seeing “God-consciousness” where others do not.

    For me, the legitimate criticisms would stand out more were they not lost in an avalanche of “It all sucks.” It does not all suck.

    • Garry U. says:

      I concur with your analysis. The tone of these articles have been disturbing since the outset. This is not so much a critique as an angry screed.

    • Dale K. says:

      You put my thoughts into words. Throughout the essay, I found myself trying hard to not be critical. I did find it to be good here and here.

    • Steven V. says:

      In large part, I agree with your take on this Bob. A “true critique” I think should also high-light the positives too. Although there’s plenty wrong and/or out-dated with the Big Book, there is some good stuff, some wisdom, some decent insights etc. that are still valuable in 2018.

    • Helen L. says:

      Thank you. I agree the black and white stridency of some of these critiques is equally difficult to swallow.

      If one cannot see anything good at all in AA or its literature or its focus on “personality change”, why be interested in reforming it at all? Why not put efforts instead into building the alternative medical model support groups of which there are now several?

    • Rick S says:

      AA taught me that I am not unique which helped me to recover. Again, I was not the only atheist who objects to the tone of the critique.

      Part of what I enjoy about AA is the context of the founding and the human struggle to overcome an affliction that to that point had even Carl Jung shaking his head. Yet two men and then quickly 100 people had recovered. The Big Book must be read and used in that context. Maybe that requires too much nuance for revolutionaries who are too smart for the rest of us.

      Like it or not, most people in the world and especially in the United States still believe in God. Who knows what the unintended consequences would be a making the Big Book secular. Would as many people be helped?

  11. John L. says:

    Thanks for thorough article. I fully agree that “the Big Book is obsolete and that this chapter [Chapter 7] many be dangerous.”

    To me the most problematic words in Step 12 are: “this message” and “these principles”. What message? What principles? The message of sobriety? The principles of helping others get sober, stay sober, and lead good lives in sobriety? Or do “this message” and “these principles” simply refer to Bill W.’s “spirituality” blather?

    I find it significant that the Steps never mention not drinking. To my knowledge, Bill W. never referred to the 24-Hour Plan, and seldom if ever said in so many words, “Don’t drink.” If I’m wrong here, please someone correct me.

  12. Steve says:

    Hi, I’m a non-believer in any gods, or religions. It does say in Appendix II that an overwhelming god consciousness is not needed.

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