What is AA?

What is AA?

By Roger C.

Let’s go simple with the answer to this question.


We can start with the first sentence of the AA Preamble published in 1947 in the Grapevine magazine:

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.

Let’s go even simpler now and understand the word “fellowship” as a “group”. AA considers itself a “bottoms up” hierarchy, in terms of autonomy, authority and power. The single most important, powerful and independent piece of AA is a group.

And that’s any AA group. That’s your own AA group, if you belong to a group. As of stats shared in 2017 by the GSO, eighty-six percent of members belong to a home group.

You don’t need to have to know – or have any involvement with – a local AA Intergroup or Central Office, your Area Assembly or the General Service Office of AA in New York City. For a vast majority of people in recovery that’s the way it is and the way it ought to be. It’s the way we support each other. The only thing that matters for most AA folks is the group: people who share their experience strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.

All right, let’s go back again, way, way back to the mid-1940s, to get more of an understanding of AA.

It was put this way in 1946 in Cleveland:

AA Groups are fundamentally little bands of people who are friends, who can help each other stay sober. Each group therefore reflects the needs of its own members. The way a group is managed is the way its members want it to be managed for their common benefit.

A group doesn’t have to behave like any other group. A group “reflects the needs of its own members”. Period.

It’s important to note that there is no need for any conformity from one group to another. This is how Bill Wilson put it in a Grapevine article, “Anarchy Melts”:

So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other — these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so!

And then of course there is AA’s Tradition Three, also written in 1946. This is the long form:

Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend on money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.

“We may refuse none who wish to recover.” Pretty clear.

This is the rather obvious and inevitable motivation of each and every AA group. Tradition Five: “Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers”.

But back to Tradition Three. It asserts that a requirement for an AA group is that it must have “no other affiliation.” Let’s talk a bit about affiliations.

The AA GroupTo begin with, it’s important to distinguish between “inside” and “outside” affiliations. What Tradition Three is talking about is what is understood as an “outside” affiliation.

There are plenty of “inside” affiliations and they are not a problem. Early on I mentioned local AA Intergroups or Central Offices, Area Assemblies or an AA General Service Office (worldwide, there are a total of 62 autonomous General Services Offices). Most groups are linked to these: many groups have a General Service Representative (GSR) who attends meetings of these affiliated organizations.

Then there are “specialized” groups within AA, as they are described in the pamphlet, The AA Group. They are also described as “special purpose” groups. These include doctors, women, atheists, etc. Here is a list of the very first annual or biennial conferences held by a number of these groups:

  • IDAA – International Doctors in AA (1949)
  • ICYPAA – International Conference of Young People in AA (1958)
  • IWC – International Women’s Conference (1965)
  • ILAA – International Lawyers in AA (1975)
  • GAL-AA – Gays and Lesbians in AA (1976)
  • NAI-AA – Native American Indian AA (1991)
  • ICSAA – International Conference of Secular AA (2014)

The only thing that is asked of these groups is that “they open the door to all alcoholics who seek help, regardless of profession, gender or other distinction”. (AA Group, p. 16) In my own experience, these groups do indeed do that, as I have attended several of these special purpose group meetings.

Okay, that’s it for “inside” affiliations. What about “outside” affiliations?


The AA Preamble, quoted at the beginning of this piece, goes on to say: “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution.”

If AA is to respect itself then it must not have an “outside” affiliation.

And yet most “traditional” AA groups in North America are allied with a religion. That religion is Christianity.

How are they allied with Christianity? These groups end their meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father who art in Heaven” is a venerated Christian Prayer. It can be found in the New Testament in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke. It was taught by Jesus as the way to pray and is universally understood as the summary of the religion of Christianity.

To suggest it is not a Christian prayer is either ignorance or hypocrisy.

In the United States, the Lord’s Prayer – or any other prayer – has been prohibited in public schools since 1962. In Canada, the use of the Lord’s Prayer in schools in Ontario and all parts of Canada ended in 1988 when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the “recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which is a Christian prayer… impose(s) Christian observances upon non-Christian pupils and religious observances on non-believers”.

Nevertheless at the end of traditional AA meetings, people stand up, hold hands, and recite the Lord’s Prayer. It’s shameful. This is not only an “outside” affiliation or alliance but it blatantly contradicts the purpose of an AA group as it increasingly drives more and more “alcoholics who seek help” out of the rooms of AA.

So, is there self-contradiction within traditional AA?  You bet. And it’s not 1935 anymore. It’s time to grow up and behave as if we are in the twenty-first century.

The “Suggested” Program

We know, of course, that there is a program in Alcoholics Anonymous: the 12 Steps. As they were published in 1939, half of the Steps contain a reference to God.

As a result of these references to God, for a number of AA members, two questions emerge.

First, do the Steps have to be done exactly as they were published in 1939?

Well, no, according to the author of the Steps, Bill Wilson. To begin with, the Steps are described in the Big Book as a “suggested” program of recovery (page 59).

And can they be altered? Rewritten? The number of Steps changed? At the third General Service Conference, held in 1953, Bill was quite clear:

In one country, the Steps have been altered somewhat in phrasing and reduced to seven. Do you think we should tell those people: “You can’t belong to Alcoholics Anonymous unless you print those Twelve Steps the way we have them?” No…. We even have a Tradition that guarantees the right of any group to vary all of them, if they want to. Let’s remember, we are talking about suggested steps and traditions.

In a book written a few years later, Bill repeated himself:

We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, page 81, 1957

Second, do they even need to be done at all?

No. Again, we are talking about a “suggested” program. And then again there is Tradition Three, “The only requirement…”. Bill summarized both in a letter written to Father Ford in 1957: “A belief in the Steps or in God is not in any way requisite for AA membership.”

The Steps can be altered, rewritten, renumbered, or ignored completely, if that is the desire of a member or group.

It is important to acknowledge that “a personality change” (Appendix II of the Big Book) is often a key component of recovery from alcoholism. And the Steps can be an important part of that, even essential for some people. But it should also be noted that there are many other paths to recovery. As Bill put it in a speech at the General Service Conference in 1965: In AA “the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views.”

This is a point of view that clearly was shared by the other co-founder of AA, Dr. Bob. As it was put in the 1940 Akron Pamphlet, edited by Dr. Bob, “Spiritual Milestones in Alcoholics Anonymous”:

Consider the eight-part program laid down in Buddhism: Right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindedness and right contemplation. The Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified by these eight points, could be literally adopted by AA as a substitute for or in addition to the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love and welfare of others rather than considerations of self are basic to Buddhism.

And that final sentence aptly describes what we believe ought to be basic to AA.

AA Is Not Medical Treatment

Much of the above will annoy a number of members of traditional Alcoholics Anonymous. These “fundamentalists” treat the Big Book as a Bible and the 12 Steps as the only solution for folks suffering from alcoholism or addiction.

They are in part inspired by this quote from the Big Book which is commonly shared at the beginning of so many AA meetings: “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program…”

The path? The program? There is only one in that quotation: the 12 Steps.

There are often good comments on AA Agnostica and here is one, by Megan: “A most viciously dangerous fundamentalist distortion of AA is ‘don’t go to a therapist or psychiatrist’ and ‘get off all medications’”. She then talks about suicides as a result of people being coerced into taking that “dangerous advice”.

Over the years we have learned that alcoholics commonly suffer from other problems. Gabor Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, believes that most addictions are the result of PTSD. We also know that there are genetic causes. Indeed, roughly 6 out of 10 AA members receive various forms of medical treatment, from medication to therapy, and that’s the way it should be. In its pamphlets, therefore, The AA Members – Medications and Other Drugs and AA for Alcoholics with Mental Health Issues, it is advised that “No AA member should ‘play doctor’; all medical advice and treatment should come from a qualified physician.”

But, sad to say, many AA fundamentalists do indeed play doctor. Our commentator, Megan, added this, “Fundamentalists hate those pamphlets almost as much as the recent ‘God Word’ pamphlet.” Perhaps she is right and the desire by some to control everything and everyone is the mark of a dominating, dogmatic, and anti-democratic zealot.

Our co-founder, Bill, saw this coming in AA. At the 1965 Conference he went on to say that dogmatism of this kind often leads to a form of arrogance: “Whenever this brand of arrogance develops we are sure to become aggressive. We demand agreement with us. We play God. This isn’t good dogma. This is very bad dogma. It could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of thing.”

As Megan put it, this fundamentalism is a “distortion” of AA.

What is AA?

Let’s go back to the start. AA is a fellowship. AA is a group, and that could be your group.

It is a mutual aid organization, if you will.

It isn’t about rules. As it is put in Living Sober, written by Barry Leach:

There is no prescribed AA “right” way or “wrong” way. Each of us uses what is best for himself or herself – without closing the door on other kinds of help we may find valuable at another time. And each of us tries to respect others’ rights to do things differently.

But we do have a primary purpose, and that is “to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” As Bill put it, AA is a “kinship of a universal suffering”.

AA’s co-founders met on May 12, 1935 (Mother’s Day), with Bill trying to help Dr. Bob sober up at Dr. Bob’s home in Akron, Ohio. Bill worked away at that for almost a month.

It was one drunk helping another. And that, my friends, remains the very essence of AA.

For a PDF of this article, click here: What is AA?

40 Responses

  1. Peter T. says:

    I’ve always found it noteworthy that the 5th tradition says the primary purpose of a group is to carry ITS message, not THE message.

  2. Ben G. D'Sofa says:

    There is no literal disease, there is a Belief System of a disease – big difference. You do not have to remain sick forever, it is a Choice (however unconscious) to see as concretized and medicalized. This further leaves the human less able deal with natural processes, at the same time masquerading itself as a separate disease while making the root causes of addiction further unseen and unaccesable.

    Toxic shame – not fear – is the root human cause of addiction. It is the invisible master emotion that locks down all other emotions, and corrupts one’s Be-ing into a misidentity, with coverings of inadequacy and unworthiness. The experience of Be-ing has always been enough, on its own. Toxic shame has battered Be-ing into the unrecognizable, the unnatural. True Be-ing is enough, is Life, and wins, on its own, not the other way around, no matter what man does to it.

    All religions are true, and all belief systems are true – none are literal. A rigid fundamentalism is not a replacement for a missing imagination: the former turns the human into an object (objects don’t have an imagination) and a history lesson stuck in the 2-dimensional past, while the latter speaks to our living (spiritually evolving) nature, our transcendent nature. Each person has a unique imagination, a sacred imagination, and is the path where all of our impulses are found in a lifetime; it is also the first thing that is crippled by booze, not enhanced. Booze invisibly, and unfelt, replaces the intuition (whose home is the gut), losing its’ leg it falls, or “closes in upon itself” into a self-replicating concretized ‘repetition compulsion” of literalized imaginationless untranscendence. Don’t take the literal first drink; the Imagination is Always where the solution is! It is our direct connection to The Absolute, which we can never fully know; we pick up the impulses, the ideas, and animate them into form, which is what all art is, what creation is, what love itself is. We are already that, we just have to be what we are.
    Note that plants naturally do this vis-a-vis photosynthesis – they pick up the light impulse to help them help themselves to heal, the light is like a healing imagination.

    An Occidental mind tends to concretize images and symbols, which are meant to connote, not denote. Thats like going to a restaurant and eating the menu, rather than the food it describes; the menu points to a meal, not to itself.

    In no unambiguous terms, addiction (or compulsion, attachment, adjustment) – endless sober “alcoholism” itself – is a crisis of creativity, an ignorant literalism which paves over consciousness of nature itself. That’s just junk. Concretization removes the transcendence. To remain forever sick is called artificialism, and it’s how a two year old thinks. A 2 year old nominalizes, turns a process into a thing. To be clear – nonspecific generalized endless sober alcoholism is man’s ignorance nominalizing itself with literalism – it can’t see its’ nature, so it makes up a “condition of certainty” (more ignorance) which further blinds itself from its’ own nature, from creativity, from hope itself. It, all by itself, made itself “dead but not gone”, rendered impotent, astroturfed (astroturf does not metabolize), bounded, nonhuman.

    We ideally mirror the motions of nature (when we do not, we experience affliction). We are born with nature’s approval. We nod to nature. What a skillset to otherwise and forever speak so poorly of nature; this is like pretending to, imperially, force nature to turn its very back upon itself.

    There is no insurance policy against unpleasure – “participate with joy in the sorrows of life”. The biggest occidental error is a belief in separateness (often instilled at birth or before). We are distinct, not separate. Man, nature, and god are conceptually different, essentially the same. And there is this eternal principle, realizing itself, through our experience.

    • Joel D says:

      I agree that those stuck in the “disease” model of alcoholism tend to hold on to the notion that they are in some way still afflicted and always will be. I have asked many alcoholics why we need this label “My name is Joel, I am an alcoholic”. I am usually told it is a form of identifying with others. Really, I am at an AA meeting – do you need more? When I meet a person socially I do not say “Hi, my name is Joel and I am a veteran, an engineer, and am anemic”. Alternately, it has been suggested that it is an act of humility. To whom am I humbling myself? I am a living being who (hopefully) continues to evolve and recognizes that my past does not define me nor presume my future.

      I think I just find labels distasteful. Maybe I’ll take it to the other extreme and further classify myself. “My name is Joel, I am an asymptomatic, atheist person with alcohol use disorder who is still occasionally prone to abhorrent thoughts, speech, and actions and as such attend AA meetings to learn how others so afflicted cope with life”. I like the way that rolls off the tongue.

      • Love 13 says:

        That’s cool! If I am someplace and people are introducing themselves with labels I usually say this, “I am a human being who is choosing to not engage in selfish harmful habits today and I’m using the concepts of this program to do so”. That usually gets people’s attention.

        I didn’t achieve true sobriety until I learned that I did not have the disease and I rejected the LIE.

    • John M. says:

      Dear Ben,

      Thank you for your comments. You certainly presented me with a lot to ponder although I’m not sure I was fully able to comprehend all the points you raised.

      The addiction community, of course, continues to debate whether or not our alcoholism is to be looked at as a disease or whether there are more social and psychological factors that condition our alcoholism. I see you come down on the not-a-disease side, as I do.

      I have recently heard other folks stress, like you, that shame, as opposed to fear (or resentment), is the most paralyzing feeling we alcoholics face. I continue to reflect on whether one or the other was more prominent with me but certainly both fear and shame were my constant companions until I started to seriously deal with these two feelings in recovery (as well as my resentments).

      You mention the power of imagination and in this you reminded me of Coleridge’s view of the imagination as a creative, healing and transcendent power within us. I like Coleridge a lot and have always found it to be so tragic and sad (just as with any of us) that for such a gifted poet and perceptive thinker he could never quite manage to overcome his opium addiction even though he desperately tried and tried. Of course, we know it’s hard, though not impossible, to do so on our own.

      Thanks again for your thoughts on addiction, Ben.

      • Brian T. says:

        Roland brought back from Dr. Jung the idea of one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic: ergo identifying oneself as an alcoholic is part of the process. By identifying myself as an alcoholic I know that I don’t have to explain my thought processes as they are shared by the the other alcoholic. It is my fellow alcoholic that helps me keep sober.

  3. George S. says:

    Another great article! Really appreciate all you do, Roger. I’ve printed a number of articles from this site and share them with fellow A.A.s that are not computer savvy or not yet aware of AA Agnostica. You make a difference! Thank You…..

  4. Alex M. says:

    Thanks Roger.

    Last month I made a motion at our monthly A.A. Intergroup business meeting to replace our traditional Lord’s Prayer meeting closing with the A.A. Responsibility Statement so we could be more inclusive for any non-Christians at the meeting.

    With an attendance of almost 100 Intergroup Representatives, one would have thought they were being asked to sacrifice their first born child. There were only two members who spoke in favor of the motion, and the line of those against the motion was so long there was not enough time for all of them to speak.

    Objections to closing with the Responsibility Statement and keeping the Lord’s Prayer included: “It’s the way we’ve always done it,” “It’s not broken so it doesn’t need fixing,” “Raise your hand if you have a problem with God or the Lord’s Prayer,” and of course, “Tradition Two says we’re guided by God.”

    The two members who spoke in favor of the motion pointed out that we were at a business meeting and not an A.A. meeting, and that not everyone in the room was Christian or had God as their Higher Power, so we should be more inclusive, tolerant and considerate to our fellows.

    No one denied that we were not at a business meeting, or that the Lord’s Prayer was not a Christian prayer, or that there was not any Tradition Three “affiliation” violation. Instead, the Intergroup members expressed gratitude that A.A. and our Intergroup used the prayer at every meeting.

    As expected, the motion failed by a wide margin, and no one spoke to me after the meeting. Despite being loud, proud and wrong, Christian democracy always rules in our local Bible Belt community.

    What is A.A. today? Where I live A.A. is a Christian, God-centric, non-denominational Oxford Group style mutual aid fellowship. What should it be? One alcoholic helping another, using only the moral values embedded in the 12 Step principles to guide and direct our lives, one day at a time.

  5. Diane I says:

    Fabulous article Roger!! Thank you so much!! I truly wish everyone in AA could read it and understand so that things could change!!

  6. Martin M. says:

    At meetings everywhere the statement that customarily preceded the Lord’s Prayer I, “We have a nice way of closing, if you’d care to join us.” Inviting someone to say a prayer isn’t shameful. It’s an offering. No different from, “Would you like fries with that?” The idea that it’s driving huge numbers of people away from AA is not an idea that can be supported by fact. Pray or don’t pray, do the steps or don’t. This is covered in the third tradition. I think you missed the mark here. Other than that point, I generally agree.

    • Love13 says:

      I hear what you are saying however I respectfully disagree. I think the point is that irrespective of whether someone gently and calmly invites people to say the prayer if they care to do so is that it just doesn’t belong in the first place. AA says it is not religious and then it has a religious activity. That is self-contradictory and hypocritical. If you are not a religious organization then you do not have religious activities. If you have religious activities then you are a religious organization. And it has been proven that large numbers of people have been turned off and do not go to Alcoholics Anonymous because of the Lord’s Prayer because there are large numbers of people saying that!

    • bob k says:

      You have missed the point of the alliance-affiliation problem.

      • bob k says:

        In the landmark cases in the 1960s, the US Supreme Court determined that offering the option to “sit out” the prayer while others prayed their Christian Prayer was insufficient protection of the civil rights of the minority. AA should be at least as inclusive. Almost no one even attempts today to make the case that the LP is generic. It isn’t.

        Closing AA meetings with the Lord’s Prayer makes Christianity the “official” religion of our non-religious organization.

        We have no way of knowing how many are repelled from AA by this practice. When I don’t like a restaurant, I simply don’t return. People surely do the same with AA. The implication that the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t harm our outreach is illogical. For one thing, we look like fools in contradicting our “Spiritual NOT Religious” talk.

    • life-j says:

      Martin, quite different from “would you like fries with that?” – and it’s simple to decline. Rather it’s like “look, here are 30 other people who all have agreed to have fries with that – so are you going to have fries with yours too, or would you like to stick out like a sore thumb for not having fries?”, or “we know you find fries disgusting, but we’d like to try to make you eat some anyway”, or “if you don’t like fries that’s ok, but that’s all we’re serving until everyone else have eaten their fries, only then can you have something to eat that you want”, or “please join us in eating the fries of your choice – you can have French fries, French fries, or if you absolutely insist on being different from everyone else, you can have French fries instead”, or not least: “if you don’t have fries like everyone else, most people are going to remember it and think you’re weird, and they’ll tend to shun you”. Stick that in your ketchup and smoke it!

      • Diane I says:

        Right on life-j!! Not saying the Lord’s prayer made me feel like I didn’t belong. And there is no way it belongs in AA!!

  7. life-j says:

    Roger, thank you, this is really well written, and should maybe be adapted into a pamphlet?

    And congratulations on the 500 article milestone. I have been coming here since pretty early on myself. One day I sat down and tried to figure out exactly when, and found a couple of entries from early 2013. What I discovered from doing that was, with a bit of dismay, that in those couple of first postings I was saying the same things I am saying these days, though perhaps not as clearly yet. So have I really not grown as much in those 6 years as I thought, other than in my ability to write? I don’t know, probably in ways I don’t recognize yet, but it does leave me a bit concerned that here we write and write, and we haven’t had that big breakthrough yet. Even though there have been victories: The Ontario human rights trial, and that most other Intergroups have eventually caved in that held a hardline stance against us, the Grapevine book One Big Tent, the god Word pamphlet, and of course our 3 conventions and the proliferation of secular groups.

    But, I guess I’m impatient: We haven’t significantly influenced AA as a whole yet. They’re still reading the damn Daily Rejection of new thinking in all the meetings. Because of my personal circumstances I try to get off the barricades, and yet, I want to agitate and strategize and keep giving them hell until we get somewhere. We need to move past preaching to the choir with all our excellent writings, and go change regular AA. Yes, those meetings are autonomous too, and can read the Daily Rejection all they want, but sometimes they just need new thoughts spoken out loud by someone with courage to do so. New thoughts don’t come out of a vacuum, they reflect a very real need.

    Anyway, once again thank you Roger, and congratulations for having carried the site all this way.

    • Love 13 says:

      What is the Daily Rejection statement?

      • life-j says:

        Oh, it’s like forgetting about love, and going with orthodoxy instead. It’s really just a play on words. Are you familiar with the book Daily Reflections? So I called it Daily Rejections. It’s goofy, I know. I couldn’t help myself, I thought it was so clever, bordering on cute. But the Daily Reflection in particular does contribute more than most books to the orthodoxy in AA, and the rejection of different thoughts, different thinkers. I apologize, I was just sitting and chuckling to myself, and thought maybe others would get a chuckle out of it too. I now realize it was infantile of me. I won’t do it again. Just for today, anyway.

    • MikeB says:

      Deciding in 2017 to read the daily reflections online was, in retrospect, both the worst and best decision I made at that time.

      The worst because its relentless focus on god as I continue to fail to understand it left me questioning daily whether I really was in the right place, and the best because it led me eventually to make a deep inventory of my core philosophy and beliefs, which has – and I still think unfortunately – driven me away from meetings.

      I still consider myself a member of AA, still try to live by the steps in as much as they are suggestions for daily living, and even continue to carry the message to other alcoholics that these suggestions can work. What I can’t and won’t do is to spend a couple of hours away from the family who forgave me and accepted me back in order to listen to people who will neither listen or learn insisting that the Christian way is the only true way, and needing to defend myself weekly every time I am heard pointing out to a newcomer that Christian fundamentalism is nowhere cited as a requirement for membership. And this is in the UK, where we don’t even do the Lord’s prayer, at least at any of the meetings I went to, where it is increasingly acceptable (and possible) to tick the box on forms for no religion rather than claim to be Christian as was the case not so long ago.

  8. Bobby Beach says:

    I am something of a steps guy, although what I’ve done does not number “12,” and I’ve changed words where I needed to. One of AA’s best ideas is expressed in Step Ten. Last week, I was wrong about something—Freaken Big Book Fundamentalists DO NOT freaken hate EVERTHING!! They freaken LOVE the Lord’s freaken Prayer!!

    Mea freaken culpa!!

    Fundies DO freaken hate cogently presented arguments such as this one. The essay reads like the closing argument presented by a skilled prosecuting attorney, the case built carefully, as bit by bit the supporting evidence is offered for each point. Fundamentalists do have some strategies of their own when dealing with this sort of logic and rationality – they stick a finger in each ear, and start muttering “NUH-NUH-NUH-NUH-NUH-FREAKEN NUH.”

    Freaken thumpers HATE freaken cogent argumentation!!

  9. David B Bohl says:


    You have brilliantly labeled and described one of the biggest problems we have in helping people to recover, including through AA. “Self-Contradiction” sends a confusing message, and when a person is confused, they either won’t engage or they avoid that which confuses them. Seems to me that, to be helpful, our statements and actions need to corroborate and support the fellowship and suggested program you describe.

    • bob k says:

      “Don’t worry, New Guy (or Gal), AA is NOT religious – It’s spirit-chewal!!!” Now let’s circle up and pray Christianity’s NUMBER ONE prayer like we’re in a Baptist Church.”


      “Just sit down and shuddup, except when it’s time to stand up and do as Jesus instructed!”

  10. Roger C. says:

    We don’t end our meetings here in Sweden with the Lord’s Prayer.

  11. Megan says:

    Thank you, Roger, for additional health information and the link to the new “AA for Alcoholics with Mental Health Issues — and their sponsors” pamphlet. I particularly like the “— and their sponsors” addition to its title…hint, hint to self-proclaimed ‘leaders’.

    I was raised a Quaker (Society of Friends, not Church) and, although I had become atheist, had adopted a personally dishonest, when-in-Rome “whatever” attitude about the God word/God stuff and Lord’s Prayer for many years. Easy for me to say “whatever!” It wasn’t until more Secular meetings began in my area, and I listened to the heartbreaking story of atheists who left AA because of the “pertinent ideas (yaaaarg #3)” and Lord’s Prayer. They had true self-honesty and could not adopt quasi-Christianity in order to get sober. They struggled for years trying to stay away from the first drink without the fellowship of fellow drunks. How many died? It became clear to me that AA meetings’ insistence on the Lord’s Prayer was causing great suffering, if not killing people.

    Today if the Lord’s Prayer is begun – with a BIG smile on my face – I break out of the circle and loudly state “I am not a Christian and have great respect for the AA preamble ‘AA is not allied with any sect, denomination” — and then I leave. Many of those meetings now close with the Responsibility Statement. As a Buddhist I know says “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

    • Love13 says:

      I am impressed! I am an extremely assertive person and I would never have the chutzpah to do that!

      • Megan says:

        The BIG smile is important — and real (happy to help :)) — it also flummoxes those who want to ignore or discount us by labeling us “angry atheists”.

  12. Oren says:

    Well done, Roger. Thank you!

  13. Joel D says:

    I’m an ardent supporter of Secular AA and have helped establish a couple of secular meetings in my area. Recently I have been asking myself if what I was advocating was truly AA or perhaps something else. This article has assured me that as long as a meeting of those with a desire to stop drinking excludes no one, and we adhere to AA’s primary purpose, it is indeed AA.

    I’ve been given the opportunity to share, at the District level, exactly what Secular AA is all about. With articles like this, support of non-theist and theist friends alike I feel I am well armed to support the position that any gathering of two or more alcoholics regardless of special circumstance, gender, profession, religious affiliation, etc. does indeed fulfill the “mission” of AA.

  14. Thomas B. says:

    A wonderful read, Roger — thank you !~!~! And congrats, on this being your 500th Sunday article . . .

    You have most effectively described the essence of AA, which was present at AA’s founding moment in Akron when Bill spoke with Dr. Bob — one drunk sharing experience, strength and hope with another drunk so they both can stay sober.

  15. Melinda says:

    I am keen to know – WHICH ‘god’ word pamphlet?

  16. Eileen M says:

    Fire and Brimstone in the First Tradition.

    The AA member has to conform to the principles of recovery. His life actually depends upon obedience to spiritual principles. If he deviates too far the penalty is sure and swift; he sickens and dies.

    • Love13 says:

      The problem with that philosophy is that it is just not accurate. Millions upon millions of people go to a couple of meetings or perhaps like me a thousand in twenty seven years and then leave and we don’t die and we don’t get sicker! The problem is that people who go to meetings assume that the people they stop seeing there have dropped dead! That’s the problem with assuming! We definitely make an ass out of you and me when we do so! The overwhelming majority of people who continue to go to meetings don’t bother to pick up the phone and call people they no longer see and say hey how you doing what’s up?! People who stop going are labeled awful names, losers, dry drunks, et al.

      The overwhelming majority of people who checked out Alcoholics Anonymous and then realize that it is not the right path for them do get sober and I don’t mean just physically abstinent I mean mentally and emotionally and spiritually balanced and healthy! As a matter of fact Alcoholics Anonymous has a 5 to 10% success rate at most! Exponentially higher percentage of people get and stay sober without 12-step fellowships or any recovery groups at all! It’s great that it exists for people who want it. In my opinion it is wrong to tell people they’re going to die from something that isn’t even a disease in the first place if they don’t adhere to the party line!

    • Tim R. says:

      But what are “spiritual principles”? The term is so vague that it’s practically meaningless, and the number of definitions you’ll hear is nearly equal to the number of people you ask.

      • Love 13 says:

        True that. I always assumed that the phrase spiritual principles refer to the 12 steps. But I respectfully agree with you that every person asked has a different idea of what that means. When I first went around I heard someone talk about how when she’s walking down the street past the house with a beautiful rose bush and she stops and notices that that is a spiritual experience. If I just stop and enjoy the beautiful colors and the symmetry of the petals and leaves and I reach out and feel the softness of the pedal or the roughness of the leaves between my thumb and forefinger and I stick my face in the flour and enjoy the aroma after checking for bees of course that that is a spiritual experience. I choose to believe that to this day. Yesterday a friend from my Tuesday night group texted me and said we missed you last week and we hope you are here tonight. For me that was a spiritual thing.

  17. Love13 says:

    Thank you very much for posting that.

    That is a real eye-opener! According to the overwhelming majority of the close to a thousand meetings that I attended and the 27 years I was trying to get help from that organization were not even real AA groups because they did all kinds of things that they were not supposed to do! One of the biggest things that caused and wreaked havoc in my life was the anti medication and anti therapy stance. Especially at the very beginning say the first 3 or 4 years when I was in a more rural area. Every single solitary last person who opened his or her mouth at the podium or sitting in a circle around a table or whatnot ranted and raved about how it is wrong to take medication for members of Alcoholics Anonymous and you can’t even go to a therapist without taking medication! Now granted some people might say to me well you were a grown woman and you didn’t have to listen to these lunatics. The thing is inside I was not a grown woman I was broken confused child who knew absolutely nothing about anything. It was 1988, the internet did not exist and these people were put forth as experts in the field who knew more about this subject than anyone else on the planet or even God himself. I had no way of knowing they were a bunch of fundamentalists who wouldn’t have known reality if it had walked up to them and introduced itself.

    It is interesting to note that after I became a real Christian I stopped saying the so-called Lord’s Prayer or Our Father in meetings. I knew that it did not belong and I wasn’t going to help people deceive themselves into thinking they were on okay terms with God when that might not be the case. As it stated in that article and as I stated before, Jesus gave that prayer to his disciples when they came to him and said Lord teach us how to pray. It is not something that any old person can mindlessly chant and play mental gymnastics into thinking that that makes them safe. Out of respect to the Lord Jesus and the scriptures I would stand quietly and fold my hands across my belly but I would not close my eyes and I would not bow my head. I would look up toward the ceiling. I never had anyone confront me about not saying it. I think everyone had their eyes closed and simply didn’t notice. Or anyone who did have his or her eyes open probably wasn’t saying it either and that person wouldn’t feel it necessary to give me a hard time about not doing something that he or she was not doing either obviously.

    One of those things for me that was probably one of the top three reasons that I left is I did not want to be someplace where I had to ignore more of what I paid attention to. As I have said before I believe that Alcoholics Anonymous and the other 12-step fellowships are constantly sharing Dogma, Doctrine and tenants of paganism and New Ageism that I just don’t want to hear or be exposed to over and over again. I am a member of a secular recovery organization and although there are people with religion beliefs most of the time you just don’t hear it.
    I wish that I had known about secular AA decades ago. I definitely would have checked it out. Although if people in the groups had found it necessary to sit around and bash religion and people with religious beliefs that would not have worked for me either.

    Thank you very much to everyone who shared and took the time and energy to help me have a better understanding. I appreciate that. I’m going to bookmark this page so that I can come back and look at this information if I want to do so in the future.

    I knew that AA had gotten very far away from what it was really supposed to be but I didn’t know just how far away that was. And again as I said in a previous post I do understand that in different areas of this country and the world Alcoholics Anonymous and the other 12-step fellowships are radically different from one another. It does seem that in the area where I started and even here in the big city where I live where it is less fundamentalist but still so it is more sick than in other areas. Although a huge number of meetings have left the so-called Lord’s Prayer or the so-called Our Father out completely and have replaced it with the Serenity Prayer which I believe is much more fitting.

    Peace, Love 13.

    • Megan says:

      Thank you Love13. I am so sorry to hear about your early experience with fundamentalists telling you to ignore medical advice. My experience with Secular AA meetings is sometimes members share about how difficult God-y AA meetings can be, some share about the damage religiosity had done, but mostly members share how to stay away from the first drink without magical notions.

  18. John S says:

    This is absolutely brilliant!

  19. John M. says:

    Dear Roger,

    I really like the simple and methodical way you presented “What is AA?” You nailed the answer: our home group is AA. It’s where we can be held accountable for the quality of service we provide and the care and compassion we give expression to whenever any alcoholic walks through our doors.

    I like what John S. suggested a couple of weeks ago at another site that “when someone paints AA with a broad brush,” invite them to attend meetings at your home group to learn about the AA that your group practices and is proud of. The kind of AA you write about Roger is the kind of AA any home group I am affiliated with must represent. And for that, I am responsible.

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