The AA Canon
We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.
By Dean W
When I was a much younger man I served as an ammunition truck driver in the U.S. Army Reserve’s 3rd Battalion, 75th Field Artillery. I remember some very sweaty summer days at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, humping 95 pound shells in and out of my truck. Just to clear up any possible confusion, these shells were for cannons, not canons. Same pronunciation, but very different meanings. Our battery’s cannons, large artillery guns, could fire those 95 pound shells about twenty miles. The canon in the title of this article, while it can also be used as a weapon, is not an artillery gun but a body of literature.
The word canon has Hebrew and Greek roots and literally means a measuring rod or standard. In the Christian Church it came to mean “the body of sacred Scripture”. (britannica.com, article on biblical literature) But a canon doesn’t have to be religious. Merriam-webster.com lists several meanings of canon, including the nonreligious sense of “a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works”, such as “the canon of great literature”. Virtually all academic subjects have their own canon. These are the texts generally considered foundational or essential in that subject.
In the sciences, each canon expresses the best approximation of truth about that science at the present time. There is no perfect agreement on scientific canons. Scientists will disagree about some books because of differing theoretical perspectives (and other reasons), but there is a lot of agreement on fundamental ideas. The psychology canon, for example, is considered loosely authoritative for now. However, the psychology canon is not static – it changes as we learn more about the human brain, thinking, emotion, and behavior. Texts are constantly revised, added to the canon, or deleted from the canon.
So how does any literature, AA or academic, get included in a canon?
In scientific canons, the scientific method generally leads to replicated studies that in turn lead to a broad consensus on certain tentative truths. These truths are the foundation for more studies that lead in the same direction or new directions. Over time science builds up a set of texts, and science generally corrects its mistakes as it advances.
In religious canons, revelation is the most common source of truth; a deity reveals truth to a chosen person or persons. This truth, since it can’t be verified like scientific truth, must be accepted on faith. Over time, the deity reveals more truth, which is written down in a book or a collection of books. The religious group’s founder or leader, or a group of leaders, usually decide which texts are included in the canon.
Once a religious canon is established it rarely changes. It is usually considered by the faithful to be authoritative not just for now, but for all time. Once the deity and the group’s leaders have their say, the books are usually closed.
The Big Book is the foundation of the AA canon. We can debate which other books should be included in our canon, or whether all Conference-approved literature is canonical, but the Big Book was the first AA book and is still our Basic Text. It simply must be included. And although it was published over 80 years ago, it is largely unchanged. In fact, parts of it have been made virtually unchangeable. A Conference advisory action in 1976 decreed that the 12 Steps, described by Bill W as a suggested program of recovery, can only be changed by written consent of three fourths of all the AA groups in the world, a virtual impossibility.
There is little, if any, scientific evidence of the literal truth of the original 12 Steps. And there is certainly no verifiable evidence that any truth those Steps contain is eternal and unchangeable. So the Big Book is a classic example of religious canon.
In AA today, the General Service Conference decides what literature is “approved.” What exactly does “Conference-approved” mean? Does it mean acceptable? Guaranteed to remove your cravings and get the stains out of your shirt? According to SMF-29, “Conference-Approved Literature is in accord with AA principles”.
Sounds harmless, right? Well, maybe not. “In accord with AA principles” means basically the same thing as consistent with “the AA message”. And what is “the AA message”?
“The AA message” is a key phrase at the Conference and at GSO. It appears repeatedly in Conference Advisory Actions and in GSO’s newsletter, Box 459. And the Forewords to all four editions of the Big Book mention “the AA message”. Three of the four Forewords emphasize presenting an accurate or consistent AA message, maintaining “the integrity of the AA message”. (4th Edition) I recently asked GSO exactly what they mean by “the AA message”. GSO told me that there is no clear definition of “the AA message”, but it basically amounts to one alcoholic sharing their experience with another “about the AA program, embodied in our 12 Steps”.
Our 12 Steps? Here the problem becomes clearer. Many (most?) secular AA groups, including mine, don’t use those vintage 1939 steps, so when GSO says our 12 Steps they obviously mean their 12 Steps. GSO means the ones Bill W suggested in 1939, the ones with all that gloriously unverifiable God stuff, the ones decreed by the Conference as virtually unchangeable. Part of SMF-29’s stated purpose is “to make sure the AA recovery program will not be distorted or diluted.” The recovery program is the 1939 Steps.
The main reason those steps don’t work for secular AA is that “Conference-approved”, “in accord with AA principles”, and consistent with “the AA message” all mean true to the Big Book paradigm that only God can help the real alcoholic. Those of us recovering without God know that paradigm is false. But apparently the Conference can’t see it. They seem to see the Big Book paradigm of recovery as true for all alcoholics, even atheists and agnostics, for all time.
Academic canons are constantly revised, but the Big Book is not because it is a religious canon. Bill W was convinced the founding of AA was an act of divine providence, the omnipotent God intervening in human history. (As Bill Sees It, 1967, p. 195) Of course, God just happened to choose Bill as his instrument of divine intervention, both for founding AA and for writing the Big Book. And Bill and Lois (fine people I’m sure) just happened to make about $10 million in royalties from the Big Book in their lifetime. (Bob K, Key Players in AA History, 2015, p. 157) Very interesting.
Science self-corrects. Religion, with rare exceptions, does not. AA claims it is not a religious organization. Then is AA willing to correct the basic flaws in the Big Book? These mistakes appear to matter little to the Conference or to most traditional AA members, but they matter a great deal to secular AA members and newcomers. Every copy of the Big Book that comes off the press belittles secular AA members and alienates secular newcomers. I wouldn’t recommend that any secular newcomer even bother reading the Big Book, and we don’t have a copy at my home group.
I think the Conference could make the Big Book acceptable to secular AA. The Foreword to the next edition could drop its insistence on “the integrity of the AA message”. Another Appendix, similar to Appendix II, could be added to legitimize secular recovery and correct the original text’s insulting description of atheists and agnostics. This would be fairly simple. But it may be impossible; a religious canon only changes when the deity says it should. But AA is not a religious organization, right?
The Big Book, foundation of the traditional AA canon, simply doesn’t work for secular AA, but secular AA doesn’t have its own canon. In the comments on my last essay, Secularization and AA, I said it’s time for secular AA to write its own literature. We have already started, since what I’m writing now and what numerous other secularists have written is a type of literature. We also have a number of helpful print books. The problem is we don’t have a systematic approach to literature or a definitive, unifying text.
The Big Book was critical to the growth of AA. William Schaberg, in Writing the Big Book (2019), declares that writing and publishing the Big Book was the crucial factor in AA’s growth. (p. 605) If we want maximum growth in secular AA, we need a unifying text. And if we ever expect to leave traditional AA, a move many see as inevitable, we will need much more unity than we have now. A single secular text could provide much of that unity.
* Cited in James L. Christian, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering (2006), p. 208
Dean W went to his first AA meeting around 1980, and has been clean and sober since 1988. He got sober in a very conservative AA environment – lots of Big Book and Twelve and Twelve meetings, along with the Joe and Charley Big Book seminar tapes. For about 25 years he was a traditional, God-oriented AA member; a believer, if only a nominal and often skeptical one. Then, over a period of about five years he had another “spiritual awakening” and became an agnostic. In June 2018 Dean helped start the We Agnostics group in Elkhart, Indiana. This is now his home group, though he occasionally still attends traditional AA meetings. He is something of a jack of all trades – he’s worked as a warehouse foreperson, an autoworker, a tool and die maker, and a college adjunct instructor, among other things. Dean presently works as a high school substitute teacher.