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 It is a historical document suitable for studying the history of AA, but not a document for guiding the still sick and suffering alcoholics in their path to sobriety.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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.