My Recovery in Traditional AA

Cross Hill

By John B

In the first week of August, 1984, at the age of forty-eight, I crawled back into AA. My first exposure to twelve step recovery had occurred in a fifteen day treatment program the last half of August in 1980 and I had spent the last four years as what I call an alcohol retread. I would pay lip service to AA principles and remain alcohol free for a couple of months, allow self-delusion to lead me to taking the first drink, which would lead to a two, three, or four day binge. Back to AA, then another binge.

This repeated violation of my own value structure generated a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, a level of psychological pain that I could no longer endure. I needed help and AA was the only place I knew to go. As a secular-humanist I knew I was still going to be a square peg in a round hole, but this time around I was committed to making sure the diameter of the hole was wide enough for me to slip into. The intensity of the pain served as a catalyst for the arousal of some embryonic open-mindedness and I began to notice something interesting: a significant number of Bill Wilson’s own statements can be used to validate a non-God approach to twelve step recovery. This required some sifting and sorting and the agnostic, atheist, secular view of recovery never comes close to ascendancy in Wilson’s writings, but it is present and it is detectable.

There are many Wilson quotations to be found in AA literature that illustrate his desire to be inclusive and he acknowledged the influence of the early agnostics that led to the choice of the words, “God as we understood Him.” (Language of the Heart, p. 201). For the sake of brevity this essay will address only two of his ideas which can be used to support our non-God position. Then I’ll try to show how the power of reason, that attribute we non-believers are so proud of, can be used to extract God from three of the common AA “prayer tools” and see if anything useful remains.

First, consider the third tradition… “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to quit drinking.” According to this anyone can become a member of AA without belief in any deity, without reliance on any source of power outside themselves, and with no requirement to adhere to any code of conduct. I nominate myself, and I’m in. What’s next?

Next, the God concept creeps into the picture when Wilson states what the Big Book is all about: “Its main object is to enable you to find a power greater than yourself which will solve your problem.” (Big Book, p. 45). He concedes the search for this power may be difficult but, “Much to our relief we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God.” (Big Book, p. 46). I knew I was not willing to accept any conception of God! Would that disqualify me from membership? Wilson says no. “You can if you wish make AA itself your higher power.” (12 and 12, p. 27). Whether he intended to or not, Wilson had conflated the term higher power with the word God and accorded me the option to designate the fellowship as my higher power. I call it the agnostic loophole, and now I had a humanist foundation upon which to build my recovery – one day at a time. Wilson went on to say he knew of many alcoholics who began their recovery journey using the fellowship as their higher power… “And most of them began to talk of God.” (12 and 12, p. 28) What was noteworthy to me is that he did not say “all of them”.

Now, about those prayers.

Serenity PleaseFirst, the Serenity Prayer. Even if a person accepts the literal meaning of the first three words of the prayer, there is a clear implication one must accept the call for continual application of rationality and personal will. Acceptance is a rational choice that requires constant differentiation between what I can or cannot control. Having the courage to change will inevitably involve the frequent use of personal will. Ideally then, wisdom will evolve and endow me with a clearer perception of truth, better judgement, and the elevation of my thinking to a higher level of sophistication. As a free thinker I choose to mentally delete the word God, replace it with the word “Please”, and use the serenity prayer as a set of instructions to begin meditation; sometimes to get better acquainted with me and sometimes to search for the answer to the current conundrum.

Two other prayers are frequently recommended to newcomers. My sponsor suggested I check out the third step prayer (Big Book, p. 63), and the seventh step prayer (Big Book, p. 76). The gist of the third step prayer is contained in this often quoted sentence, “Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do thy will.” Using different words, the seventh step prayer makes the same basic requests when it asks God to remove, “every single defect of character that stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.”

From a rational secular viewpoint the wording of these prayers is no more than a reminder to me of the commitments I had made to myself, my sponsors, family, friends, and all others who were supportive of me in my quest for sobriety. Words like this are useful reminders, but I had no need to seek divine intervention, the human community was doing a fine job. My life was now being guided by a faith based on fact.

Is reading the Big Book – including these prayers – an inevitable part of recovery, even for we non-theists?

In tune with other viewpoints I have read on this site, I also agree that the Big Book should be allowed to drift into obscurity, or maybe classified as “top secret” and locked into a vault at GSO. I see no possibility that it will be officially demoted because of the grip it has on AA fundamentalists, its role in AA ritual, and its cash value to GSO.

None of the above essay is offered as essential to recovery. It just represents the struggle of how one alcoholic attempted to acclimate himself to the only available support mechanism available to him in the summer of 1984 in Northern Indiana. Sadly, the same conditions still exist where we now live in North Georgia (not Russia). The most advertised alternatives here are strictly Christian based. I do my best at the meeting I regularly attend to share my experience and strength to emphasize that contrary to what it says on p. 60 of the Big book, my alcoholism was in fact “relieved” by human power.


Eighty-two year old sober alcoholic with 34 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 52 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.


22 Responses

  1. Marty N. says:

    On my way home from my first meeting, I asked my friend Fred who was driving, what those things [the 12 steps] were. He said “don’t worry about those, they’re only suggestions”. That has been my home group for 38 years and we still have the same Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, as suggested, although the shade is yellow and aged and is now on a paneling backing we still have them and we ain’t ever giving them up! I go to a lot of meetings in a lot of places, and I have not seen another one. The last one I saw besides ours has been replaced. As a research project, look at the copyright dates on the bottom of the shades. There is a story there.

  2. Bob F. says:

    Steve: Spot on!

    I think you are absolutely correct about connection. Connection is the true higherpower that makes the Program work, for both believers and non-believers.

    Bob in Tucson

  3. John M. says:

    I fully agree with you John: IF one is willing to look for it then, as you say, “…the agnostic, atheist, secular view of recovery… is present and it is detectable.” I never allowed the Big Book and other AA literature to speak to me in any other way than with a view to the very detectable secular tools that you, in part, describe.

    Excellent piece of writing that explains why AA is relevant even for us, the ungodly.

  4. EJ says:

    Thank you, as said above, for describing my journey in AA. Today I have nine years of continuous sobriety.

    I was first introduced to AA in the late 1970’s and recall it being more tolerant of us non-deity folk than it is now. Conviction led me time and time again back to the meetings, it didn’t work however much I tried to ‘believe’ in a power greater than myself.

    Gradually, the conviction came to include the fact that I had run out of solutions, so I went back one last time. This time I was not going to “fake it ’til I made it” at all.

    It started working because I was finally being true to the “principles” of the program, the foremost one being honesty.

    I didn’t start sharing that I was an atheist openly in meeting until about three years ago and that is when things (my heart perhaps) truly opened. I do get flak from some and when I do, I remind them that being an atheist is not being “anti-god” and wish them well.

    • life-j says:

      EJ, it is an unfortunate thing that the god people can’t tell the difference between anti-god, or should I say anti-other-people’s-imagined-god (which we really aren’t) and anti-proselytizing (which we surely are).

      And thanks John. I have done a lot of looking for support from Bill Wilson for our point of view too. And there certainly is increasing open mindedness in his writing, though he never lets go of pushing god entirely. I’m with Joe on this – we don’t have to. Some people think we have to, and it is of course nice that we can appease them to some extent, but really, we don’t have to.

      Things do change very slowly where I am, though I am aware that while some get more open-minded as a result of my activity, others get more entrenched. And while I have been in a trench war with the latter for five long years now, many of the former are coming around to “ok, we’ll accept you, in fact we’ll even give you a bit of support, if you will only please stop picking things apart at every turn”, and I am actually trying to get to that place, in part because all this argument isn’t helping my own serenity a whole lot, but it is difficult with all the proselytizing embedded in the literature, especially the for the most part nonsensical Daily Reflections. I think more and more about that book as a coup of AA by the B2B faction. It’s after it was published around 1990, that AA really started going fundy.

      I’m with Cato here: Furthermore I consider that the Daily Reflections must be destroyed.

      • John B. says:

        life-j – From reading your comments on this site I know you have been a far stronger activist for change than I have. Your statement,”because all this argument isn’t helping my own serenity a whole lot” really got my attention. Maybe it is just a factor related to getting old, but I have become convinced that the human mind is rarely changed through the process of arguing. In my own case I have rarely been out-argued which caused me to change my mind. I have changed my mind by trying to follow the example set by those who have succeeded where I have failed. In other words applying reason to the facts at hand. For some mysterious reason, alcohol deprived me the ability to do this. The role I now play in my home group is to stay alert for every opportunity to stress how my sobriety was attained and is maintained by the power of quality human relationships.

      • Mark C. says:

        Howdy life,

        “I think more and more about that book as a coup of AA by the B2B faction. It’s after it was published around 1990, that AA really started going fundy.”

        Yup… With that little reader, which should be titled “Daily Theistic Ejaculations,” cough… the topic and tone gets set for a meeting. Generally, it sets a tone of Supernatural Intervention, and forms the basis for Robotic Parrots to get a revival meeting going.

        That daily reader sets up the Rhetorical Situation. That RS is Theistic.

        Sitting amid that dribble, the non-believing, nonreligious folks have a hard time putting their “Honest-about-themselves” narratives into all that celestial adulation, and revivalist rhetoric.

        It is a daily practical problem for any informed nontheist attending conventional AA. Finding one’s own legs in those seas is a tall order indeed. Much less solving the problem.

        Atheists and other types of nontheists are going to have to up their game in these things IF they are going to be Honest and OUT about themselves.

        I’m working on a small book that looks at these practical problems, and some of how I’ve attempted to meet them, practically speaking. The working title is “Atheists in AA: A Survival Guide.” HA!

        Anyway, what we are looking at, from my perspective and experience, are Language Games within a general Rhetorical Situation.

        Injecting our Honest secular narratives INTO the general RS dominated by Evangelical Protestant Revivalism is rather an “in our faces” challenge.

        Be encouraged… with time… those secular narratives ARE game changers within conventional AA as a whole, and within our home groups. My two cents. Peace.

      • Roger says:

        Mark: I very much look forward to your book, Atheists in AA: A Survival Guide. We need that book! And it will be a pleasure to review and discuss it here on AA Agnostica.

  5. Mark B. says:

    This article should serve as a clear, positive message to everyone on the planet, not just alcoholics. I was fortunate–early in recovery, I encountered a number of essays like this one. I also read a short volume entitled ‘The 12 Steps to Happiness.” These readings, combined with the fact that Smith & Wilson’s 12 steps were put on a list of 100 greatest things that happened in the 20th century, gave me the strong faith I have that what I collectively call my higher power, the 12 principles, can and DO change my life for the better. Articles like John B’s add fuel to that idea for me–every day. Thank you!

    • John B. says:

      Mark – Thank you for describing the essay as clear and positive; that was my primary intent. I have the book, The Twelve Steps to Happiness, now you have motivated me to re-read it.

  6. JOHN JOHN says:

    Enjoyed your story… My higher power is simply my BETTER POWER, my BETTER SELF. As far as prayer for me: LIFE GRANT ME THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT… you know the rest. Step 3 for me made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of GOOD. I HAVE 22+ TOTAL years in the program. Had a fall from grace at year 12 and no longer bought into the “fake it till you make it” with the GOD program and went out to do some social drinking after 17 years. Four years of no program I got out of control a few times made an ass out of myself while drunk. Humiliation and embarrassment guided me back to AA. I no longer fake it till you make it, A lot of the BB thumpers that believe in HIM, LORD, GOD just roll their eyes or look down when I speak in meetings, sharing my program that gives me a life BEYOND MY WILDEST DREAMS. No joke. Clarity, health, wealth, fun and adventures are just some of the gifts of abstinence for me WITHOUT BELIEVING IN HIM.

    • John B. says:

      To John John from John – Your response is a strong statement of where recovery can lead a person without the necessity to rely on anything except ourselves and what the human community has to offer.

      John B.

  7. bob k says:

    I fear this essay will suffer some attacks, and that’s a shame because it is brilliant in its simplicity. I wouldn’t have lasted a month in AA in 1991, except for a few things – lack of income, no credit, no workable car, etc. There weren’t a lot of alternatives. Trust me – I looked. My lack of more appealing options still didn’t open my mind to “a Loving God,” but I had some serious need to navigate a path to sobriety through what I viewed as a field of bull droppings.

    Some kind people encouraged me to substitute for God. I wasn’t preached at much. When I was, I recalled that my need for AA was greater than its need for me. Things like Appendix II and page 47 were helpful, as were some of Wilson’s later writings. I still was a square peg in a round hole, but I made that work. I was careful to pick my battles. Going to war with the support group at every opportunity is NOT a good idea, unless you’d really rather return to drinking.

    I was 19 years and 11 months sober when I attended my first “agnostic” AA meeting, the second anniversary of Beyond Belief. The freethinker movement has revived my enthusiasm for AA, but I have many friends in the traditional groups.

    It is definitely possible to use conventional AA as a pathway to a new life.

    • John B. says:

      bob k – Thanks for your response. I have had the vaccination for any type of “attack” criticism. After over three decades of sobriety this web site is my first connection to serious thinkers who see the steps and recovery in similar ways that I do. I’m grateful that my son and wife shoved me into the 21st century. Your book on the Key Players, Roger’s book on The Agnostics, and Joe C’s book on daily Musings have added quality to my recovery. I like your humorous use of hyperbole: Carl Jung was, ” the pinnacle of human power”; AA’s rush to counter the popularity of the 24 hour a day book, “a mere 36 years later”; and Dr. Bob’s 17 year “whirlwind courtship”. The vignette style of coverage of the key players serves as an effective way to get acquainted with those folks or in my case to expand upon an existing body of information. You guys are helping a lot of people.

  8. Joe C says:

    Enjoyed this story. Thank you.

    I got sober going to regular AA meetings but what that means in the mid-1970s in Montreal would be a very different experience than in another place at another time. For example, there was no emphasis on religion and no emphasis on AA literature. Meetings were like “real” back-to-basics: the AA tradition on storytelling, one alcoholic talking to another. Most meetings were speaker meetings, either one or two sharing the one hour time slot. Less frequent were discussions, going around the room sharing individual ESH (experience, strength and hope). I was sober over ten years before I ever read the Big Book. The first AA book I read was Pass It On. Working the Steps wasn’t book based either. My sponsor shares their experiences and I shared mine. No one cared what I believe, it rarely came up. There were true believers in supernatural intervention but it was more interesting than imposing.
    We had an AA club house near by, very social. People would gather to play cards or watch sports. The meeting after the meeting happened in people’s homes. It would often carry on until late.

    Conferences and round ups filled in the gaps. Young People’s conferences and later meetings, was my first special purpose gathering and it was a game changer for me. I felt like sobriety might be fun when I heard people talking my own language.
    I know now that my experiences in early AA aren’t universal and I don’t know if a newcomer walked into the rooms that fit me sober, if they would be introduced to a very different view of AA now. Most of who I knew are dead or moved away.

  9. Diana says:

    Thank-you for this well written article. I also appreciate the autobiography at the end. It is clear you are living a full and content life.

    • John B. says:

      Diana – Thanks for taking the time to respond. Your perception is right on the money. Helen and I just spent the weekend watching our local college women’s basketball team win their conference tourney in Augusta, Georgia. Looking to going to the first round of the Division two national tourney in Anderson, South Carolina. One of the most valuable rewards of recovery is to be able to set priorities, engage in activities, that are enjoyable for us and supportive of others. Pure excitement; no chemical enhancement needed.

  10. Lance B. says:

    I’d like to appreciate another feature of this article. The more extensive autobiography at the end feels valuable to me. I would not want it to be a requirement which might turn off some contributors, but would like to encourage the practice for those who are comfortable doing it.

    • John B. says:

      Lance – Thank you for this evaluation. Roger asked for some bio after I submitted the essay. I’m a beginner at this game and after I had sent him the personal information I wondered if I had overdone it. At least one person thinks it’s about right.

  11. Lance B. says:

    Thank you, John. You have described my journey exquisitely. And given me a better explanation for what happened. I love the allusion to making the square hole big enough to accept my roundness. For me it happened in very close to the same time frame and I’m now 76 years old.

    I still struggle to understand why heavy emphasis on Christianity in meetings bothers me as much as it does. But your description of how you made use of the various prayers and ideas seems to fit my current needs well. I need to fit in to our predominate religious community or I’ll be ejected and back where I started with no nearby connections at all.

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