Why is the Big Book Sacred?
Sacred: Connected with God (or the gods) or dedicated to a religious purpose or deserving veneration.
Cui Bono (to whom is it a benefit?)
By Paul W.
The Big Book, which is the basis of AA’s program, is considered sacrosanct by corporate Alcoholics Anonymous and almost universally by AA members. The very thought of making any modification to the book is unimaginable to AA organizationally and to its members.
Consequently, the “official” AA program continues to rely on the divine, the sacred, the religious. The word “God”, or another version of “Him”, is found 281 times in the first 164 pages of the Big Book. The divine is addressed directly as “God” in four of the 12 steps and indirectly in two, as “Power” and “Him.”
Further, group prayers, led by “officials” are routine – at meetings of every level, from individual groups, to districts, areas, and AA World Service conventions and General Assembly Conferences.
The “insistence” on God-laced recovery and steps and the plethora of prayers in functions of Alcoholics Anonymous clearly excludes non-theists and supports the argument that AA is religious.
How would Bill Wilson react to all this? And, why is this focus on the divine and prayer the case? Cui Bono? This paper focuses on who benefits from the status quo. Who benefits from keeping the Big Book the Bible of Alcoholics Anonymous?
Imagine this: Three books exist. All are by one author and generally about the same subject. The first was written during the author’s senior year in a university. Fifteen-years later, after continued education and experience with the subject, the author has a second book published; on the same subject. After three more years, a third book, on the same subject, by the same author and the same publisher, is made available for sale. All three books were peer-reviewed and legally protected.
If you were interested in the subject-matter of these publications, which would you expect to be most informative and useful? If you could reference only one of the three, which would you select? I submit that it is clearly the most recent volume, the one based on more research and experience of the author.
The first two would be of historical and academic interest, but are likely to contain information which has become out-of-date and even to have been discovered as incorrect. For most, the latest book would be the clear choice.
This paper’s focus is about three actual books. All written by William (Bill) Wilson, all published, and distributed by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
In order of publication the books are:
- Alcoholics Anonymous (1939)
- Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (1954), and
- Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (1957)
All three address the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, particularly the Twelve Steps. All three have copyright protection. And all are approved by AA’s General Service Conference.
The official AA endorsement of the first two is further attested to by AA General Service Conference Advisory Actions. These “Actions” protect the books from change; the original wording must stand “as is.” Errors, if any, are therefore not to be corrected. Outdated language, which may not be understandable in current times or now has completely different meanings than originally, are not to be changed. All this in respect and reverence for “Bill’s words.” That is, William (Bill) Wilson’s words are “final” and effectively sacred, by official decree of AA’s “ruling body,” in practice, if not by intent.
The readership and popularity of these books is evidenced by how many are distributed in one year.
The annual distribution information is taken from recent report of the General Service Conference Annual Meeting. While distribution does not necessarily equal readership, it is a reasonable indicator thereof.
An interesting choice of a title, “Comes of Age” after years of experience with millions of alcoholics. The AA Service Manual chapter on the General Service Representative (GSR) lists one of the duties of a GSR is to be familiar with this publication.
About the Three
The popular Alcoholics Anonymous (aka “Big Book”) out-sells the other two. It is known as AA’s “Bible.”
Many AA members attend “Big Book Workshops” where this publication is studied as vigilantly as the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah, and the Muslim Quran are studied by those associated with the particular religion. The Big Book is quoted by many, as an authoritative source of the “correct” way to sobriety. In some situations, if something is not “covered in” the Big Book, it is not the “AA way” and not the correct way to sobriety. Members who are able to quote the Big Book are often known as AA gurus or “Big Book Thumpers.” For those members, the Big Book is the “final word.” No counter arguments are considered, no other sources are allowed.
As for Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions; there are also many meetings devoted to the formal and informal study of AA’s Steps as elaborated upon therein. Generally, those “Step Groups” focus on Bill Wilson’s essays on the Steps. The Traditions, when addressed, are given less attention. While Alcoholics Anonymous has “experts” (gurus), the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions apparently has no equivalents.
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age is clearly the least read of the three volumes, as evidenced by its meager numbers, with less than 7,000 copies distributed in a year. This is unfortunate since generally, the more recent volume, written after most experience, would be the choice of a serious reader. Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age would be the more serious, more thought through, pronouncements of AA’s founder, Bill Wilson. Should this publication contradict thoughts, instructions, comments, etc., in the earlier two books, it is reasonable to assume the thoughts in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age should prevail, even override the earlier publications. Where there are such differences, it is not only possible, but probable, that many Big Book “experts,” study groups, Twelve Step meetings, and the like, are misleading AA members (intentionally or ignorantly) and furthering falsehoods about Bill Wilson’s thoughts.
As stated, it is not unreasonable to assume that this volume contains information, thoughts, and insights, which Bill Wilson arrived at after more experience, after more sober years. The reader may expect more nuanced insights, and a more accurate assessment of the AA program, its approach, and means to sobriety for more alcoholics. Clearly, if this were widely known and acted on, it would likely lead to reduction in sales of Alcoholics Anonymous and negatively impact the operations of corporate Alcoholics Anonymous.
The following few passages, in “Bill’s Words” from Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age are illustrative.
Discussing a Buddhist monk’s reaction to God in the Twelve Steps, Bill wrote:
To some of us, the idea of substituting ‘good’ for ‘God’ in the Twelve Steps may seem like a watering down of AA’s message. But here 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. (p. 81)
There was no adverse reaction on the part of Bill Wilson to the Buddhist’s elimination of “God” in the Twelve Steps. Bill’s own words, “A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us,” indicates this clearly and concisely. However, Alcoholics Anonymous, as a whole and in smaller individual units, has a seriously negative reaction to any modification of the Steps. This includes secular excommunication, shunning, and other forms of rejection.
Reactions to non-theistic groups’ modification of the Twelve Steps clearly demonstrate corporate AA’s negative reaction to any modification. This points out AA’s disregard for Bill Wilson’s later thoughts. Corporate AA’s reactions to this in the face of U.S. courts and Canadian Human Rights Tribunals manifest its strong aversion to acknowledging such freedoms through the excuse of not wanting to engage in any controversy. AA World Services has failed to directly address this issue. Could this be from a fear of rebellion and a significant loss of revenue because the Big Book would not remain such a big seller? Is AA in the business of sobriety or selling books? Cui Bono?
Bill Wilson clearly indicated that changing the wording of the Steps had his approval.
Later in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill Wilson quotes the Long Form of Tradition Three, “Any two or three gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that as a group they have no other affiliation.” He then comments:
This means that these two or three alcoholics could try for sobriety in any way they liked. They could disagree with any or all of AA’s principles and still call themselves an AA group… This sort of liberty also prevents AA from becoming a frozen set of dogmatic principles that could not be changed even when obviously wrong. (p. 105)
Working for sobriety was Bill’s first priority. Egotist that he was, he nevertheless was willing to give up on the “sanctity” of the Twelve Steps so that others may achieve sobriety. And to do so as an AA Group! This was foretold when he compromised on the wording of the Twelve Steps to allow the deletion of “on our knees” (Step Seven), the change of “God” to “Power greater than ourselves” (Step Two) and addition of the modifier “as we understood Him” to the word “God” (Steps Three and Eleven).
It is not widely known that these modifications (changes) to the Steps were due in large part to Hank P and Jim B – both non-theists. Jim B is known to many AA members as “Ed” in Tradition Three (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pps. 139 – 145). Readers will recall that Ed, a vocal atheist, was shunned by his AA group when he asked for money while on a drunken binge. He finally returned, on his own, and remained successfully sober and active for years. Members of his AA group eventually wondered, “What if we had actually succeeded in throwing Ed out for blasphemy? What would have happened to him and all the others he later helped?” Fact is, Jim helped others by getting AA started in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC and San Diego, CA. Jim remained an atheist all of his life.
It is unfortunate that these historical facts are ignored by corporate Alcoholics Anonymous and are unknown by thousands of AA members.
Referring to the publication of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill Wilson wrote: “This small volume is strictly a textbook which explains AA’s twenty-four basic principles and their application, in detail and with great care.” (p. 219)
What? The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions is a textbook for the Steps (and the Traditions)? Not the beloved “Big Book?” Not the AA “Bible?”
As noted above, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions “sells” only one-third the number of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous. Cui Bono again?
Granted that, in the Foreword to Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (p. 17) Bill wrote, “The book ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ became the basic text of the Fellowship, and still is.” Since Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age represents Bill’s later thoughts, it is possible, if not probable, that he came to believe that Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions replaced the Big Book as AA textbook.
Why Not More Attention to Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age?
The answer could be found when the interests of the publisher are considered. Which of the three books would the publisher encourage AA members to purchase and read? “Cui bono?” suggests an answer; focus on the one with the most circulation (sales) thus on profit. But who benefits? Not the individual alcoholic. It is not necessarily those who are still sick and suffering. It appears to be the three corporate bodies of The General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc., Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., and Alcoholics Anonymous Grapevine, Inc. that benefit.
It will take more time and effort to get corporate AA and AA’s thousands of fundamentalist members of look toward the future with open minds and hearts. AA’s aversion to controversy is beginning to “cost.” More courts and tribunals will need to rule that AA is indeed religious, not just spiritual. The propensity of expelling groups and meetings for using Steps without God and religious-like rituals (e.g. groups led in prayers) in the face of court and tribunal rulings continues and should be alarming. And, importantly, secular AA groups need to flourish and be vocal about their legitimacy.
It is time for corporate Alcoholics Anonymous to face reality. Bill Wilson demonstrated in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age that the Steps are not fixed, not sacred, not infallible. They can be, may be, and should be changed for the benefit of all alcoholics who are still sick and suffering. Each individual is free to write his or her own Steps, in keeping with personal philosophies, religions, or non-theistic life-styles. Why not groups and meetings? The exalted Bill Wilson was OK with it.
If they were to pick up Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age and read it, “executives” of corporate Alcoholics Anonymous, its Trustees (especially Class A), its legal staff, and consultants might just realize that it is time for AA to publicize Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age and let the Fellowship know that the Steps, as written, are flexible. The Steps are truly just suggestions.
Of course, there is the money issue, the profits from Alcoholics Anonymous are more than simply significant. Loss of those profits will hurt. Is AA ready to fulfill its mission? To follow its dream? Would AA publicize Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age in greater numbers? Would AA even consider a new kind of Big Book, which contains the textbook Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions and significant portions of Alcoholics Anonymous Come of Age?
In the AA Service Manual, page S26, it is a duty of General Service Representatives to be familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. Clearly, if any reasonable number of GSRs had done so over the years, Bill Wilson’s openness to personalized Steps would be widely known, the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions would be more widely read, and the “cash cow” Alcoholics Anonymous would be a historical document.
This is even more alarming than it first appears. If General Service Representatives are expected to be familiar with this book and many GSRs become District Committee Members and many of those move on to Area positions, including Area Delegates, it is reasonable to assume that there would be many more people familiar, in some detail, than the distribution seems to indicate. More AA members, particularly Delegates, would already be aware of the fact that Bill Wilson supported customization of the Steps. Unfortunately, it is clear that Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age has not been read by a significant number of AA members.
About “AA General Service Conference-approved literature”
All three books discussed in this article contain the notice, “This is General Service Conference-approved literature.” In effect, the imprimatur of Alcoholics Anonymous, a declaration authorizing publication. An imprimatur is also a declaration that a book or pamphlet is free of doctrinal or moral error. It is the latter meaning that has come to be associated with AA publications, especially the books Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. In addition, the fact that both books have been “protected” from change by General Service Conference Advisory Actions, their infallibility has been assumed by most readers. Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”) has actually become known as “the AA Bible.”
Unfortunately, this has the effect of perpetuating outdated information, contradictory text, and outright error. Corrections, especially in historical facts and the sciences, are prevented. It also fails to address the obvious differences between or among books which have General Service Conference approval, including those addressed in this article.
The obvious, but thoughtless, comment that the Twelve Steps are under copyright and therefore can’t be changed is without merit here. Personalized or customized Twelve Steps would violate copyright law only if claimed to be “the AA” Steps that are under AA’s copyright. In other words, a false claim. Further, should Alcoholics Anonymous acknowledge Bill Wilson’s words, that Steps written by individuals and groups (e.g. “any two or three” persons) are allowable and, as the copyright holder, AA should have no objection.
It would be instructive and valuable to reflect on how AA’s program looks to others, (e.g. to non-theist) when encountering its program, its principles. Understanding how and why they react would be helpful.
It is about time for Alcoholics Anonymous to begin taking proactive action to clearly demonstrate that its mission is to help all those who are suffering from alcoholism; be they of a specific religion, theist without religion, or non-theist of any description. If the Buddhists were “allowed” to remove “God” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age) why not everyone?
Paul W has been a member of AA since 1989. He first joined AA while he was attempting to hold onto belief in a God by “faking it till he made it.” 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 has been a supporter of recognizing nontheists as full members of AA. Paul has had several service positions including treasurer for meetings and his District, General Service Representative, District Committee Member.
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 of her own definition and he an atheist. They have six children (50% atheists), six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.