The AA Canon

We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.

William James*

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.


54 Responses

  1. Aldo C. says:

    I am an atheist and I’m the GSR for my home group which is an agnostic AA meeting. I’m heavily involved in general service and our district structure. And I recently attended an Area Assembly Pre-Conference Meeting with our Area Delegate, to express our voice here in South Florida. The Literature Committee had the most items which we extensively discussed as they pertained to changing AA literature (including the first 164 pages) to be more gender neutral and thus more inclusive. A lot of requests to change literature came from AA groups and individual AA’s who feel excluded but want to get sober and stay sober within AA. AA has worked for them and they want to ensure that it works for the newcomer walking through the door today, not in 1939 (when the Big Book was published). So what I’m trying to say is that there are people out there (besides agnostics and atheist) who want to change the literature, not to dilute “the message” but to be more inclusive, and majority of people here in South Florida, of the groups in attendance, were in favor of changing that literature. I don’t know to me it makes it seem just a little less “virtually impossible”. Otherwise great article, hope we can keep these dialogues going.

    • Dean W says:

      Thanks Aldo, what’s going on in your area is encouraging news. I hope it’s happening in other places too.

  2. Dan H. says:

    Dean – Wondering if you have a group with Zoom mtgs. Let me know here or at dhowardjunk@gmail.com. Thanks.

  3. Dean W says:

    Thank you all for reading and commenting. I especially thank those who have challenged or disagreed with me. I think this kind of dialogue is how we move forward. I argue for a secular AA basic text and I’ve discussed the issue of a split from traditional AA. I hope that as we continue to debate these (and other) issues, we will do so in the spirit of Tradition 5: Each group has but one primary purpose… to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

    How can we best serve newcomers, especially secular newcomers?

    • Dave says:

      I wonder, if you use the name AA (and I am unaware of the legal implications), but I seem to think where two drunks sit down and discuss not being drunks, we have AA. Is that truish? I just wonder, because I think you call yourself AA, in the honor of the founder, and update our behaviors in the name of the founder. He wrote things after the “big book” and it all seemed to indicated learning and update. A clear understanding that the process evolved and even Bill saw the problematic religious element. And the “big book” contains irrefutable success. It also contains very embarrassing thoughts from the past, that we ask new people in recovery to review. I can tell you I was confused by that book, and I know others have been. I respect the ancient text, but know it is ancient. I take it teaching out carefully. That is where a “big book” scholar could shine. Teach what the lesson was separated from the literal, and maybe currently incorrect guidance. I think that is what preachers and other god men are suppose to do with their book. Learn it and share it correctly, and outside of the confusion of historically confusing details. My take.

      • Dean W says:

        I don’t know the legal implications of using the AA name either, Dave. AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief seem to exist outside “official AA,” so how can we use their name? Maybe someone who knows this will comment.

        According to AA Tradition, any two or more alcoholics meeting for sobriety can call themselves AA as long as they have no other affiliation. Maybe that answers the above question.

        I like what you say about the Big Book. When I (briefly) studied theology in college, we talked about finding transcultural principles or truths in the Bible. I think the same approach works with the Big Book, but I also think it’s way past time for a revision.

  4. Jabu says:

    Thank you Dean. In March this year, we had our first “rally/thanksgiving” at our We Agnostics group in Johannesburg, South Africa. The group had just turned three years old. One of the excited newcomers, it was her first SECULAR AA meeting, asked after the meeting if we had any pamphlets specifically for SECULAR meetings. We had none. So I wholly support what Dean has said about starting our own SECULAR literature. We need it as soon as possible. Our group is very small and is hardly known in South Africa. With our own literature, more frustrated alcoholics will get to know about our existence. Let’s do it!!

  5. Dave says:

    AA is amazing. Entirely? Without criticism? No. It is frigging awful in some ways. A big book, written decades ago, with language that insults modern reality. To Wives? Clearly the opinions of the masses have changed.

    The big book is a historical reference of one of the most successful programs for recovery ever made. Bow to it in reference to its ground breaking solution it started. It fought bravely against other stupid recovery techniques. The central office for AA needs to grow up and see the writing on the wall. Alternatives now are working, but taking a lesson from AA, and then becoming modern.

    The big book is really just a big book. You showing up, sharing, and not drinking is the meat of this solution.

    • Dean W says:

      Thanks for weighing in Dave. I disagree that the Big Book is just a big book. It is central to what traditional AA is and does. Of course that varies from group to group, but the basic text is still at the heart of the fellowship.

  6. Jonathan M says:

    Have recently discovered Secular AA here in Melbourne (Australia) and, given the COVID crisis, other secular zoom meetings. Doing so has been like a breath of fresh air, in comparison to my experience of too many conventional AA meetings. My main concern is that conventional AA drives away far too many newcomers with its ‘3rd Step’ mentality. This is rarely acknowledged. Such people are often seen as reprobates. So many of these never return. While I am unsure whether separation would be a ‘good’ thing, we non-believers certainly need to be more visible, both in person and in print. Here’s to many more secular meeting groups forming in the future.

  7. Edge says:

    The last paragraph of Dean W’s article says it all. A secular text is needed to boost a secular program. I stopped attending religious AA after 10 years, and I have 37 years continuous sobriety.

  8. Bob K says:

    AA claims to not be religious. It really is religious. I’m afraid that doesn’t amount to “Man Bites Dog” news.

    • Dean W says:

      I don’t recall claiming that it’s a news flash. I did make a few other points though. What do you think about a secular AA text?

      • Bob K says:

        There seems to be no unified secular point of view.

        • Joel D says:

          I wholeheartedly agree. It’s not the lack of a secular “text” or some form of secular steps that is limiting the growth/acceptance of Secular AA. It’s the lack of a unified message. The secular mission statement I most often see, and that our groups use should be THE mission statement. Groups still have autonomy within the spirit of that message.

      • Bob K says:

        My vibe from the 2018 convention and from my experience locally and on the internet is that only a minority of secularists seek to separate from the greater body of AA. Group autonomy is serving a purpose for many of us. There are secular texts, and there will be more to come.

        • Dean W says:

          Thanks for responding, Bob. I don’t see the lack of a unified point of view as a deal breaker regarding a text. By that logic, the original Big Book would never have been written and you and I wouldn’t be having this discussion. And perhaps the act of collectively writing a text would bring about much more unity for secular AA. It might detract from unity in traditional AA, but I don’t see that this would necessarily be so.

          As for the majority opinion of secular AA, I’m sure you know more about it than I do. But opinions change. Also please note that I’m not arguing for separation (at least not yet).

    • Jerry S says:

      AA is not a religious program, many members are, just as many members are atheist. Please don’t conclude what Alcoholics Anonymous is by basing your opinion on individual members.

      • Tim R. says:

        The prevailing opinion in the higher courts in the U.S. is that the content of 12 step programs is religious, even if the organizations did not incorporate themselves as religions. Here’s a representative example from the decision handed down by the New York Court of Appeals in Griffin v. Coughlin:

        The foregoing demonstrates beyond peradventure that doctrinally and as actually practiced in the 12-step methodology, adherence to the A.A. fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization. Followers are urged to accept the existence of God as a Supreme Being, Creator, Father of Light and Spirit of the Universe. In “working” the 12 steps, participants become actively involved in seeking such a God through prayer, confessing wrongs and asking for removal of shortcomings. These expressions and practices constitute, as a matter of law, religious exercise.

        Thus, while it is of course true that the primary objective of A.A. is to enable its adherents to achieve sobriety, its doctrine unmistakably urges that the path to staying sober and to becoming “happily and usefully whole,” is by wholeheartedly embracing traditional theistic belief.

        In short, just because the suggested program of recovery is not specifically labeled “Catholic” or “Baptist” or whatever, it doesn’t mean that it’s not “religious.” The line, “spiritual, not religious” is effective propaganda, it’s not objective truth.

        • Dave Collins says:

          In short, just because the suggested program of recovery is not specifically labeled “Catholic” or “Baptist” or whatever, it doesn’t mean that it’s not “religious.” The line, “spiritual, not religious” is effective propaganda, it’s not objective truth.

          This is just powerful I think. Well said.

          Sometimes I’ve felt like people at a meeting were telling me to “play along”, and you’ll get use to it. Or be indoctrinated perhaps. Why do I, a full out non-Christian, know so many prayers: AA.

      • Dean W says:

        Jerry, my description of traditional AA as a religious organization is based on more than just the observed convictions of some current members. Please read my earlier essay, Religion and AA, for more details.

  9. Bobby Freaken Beach says:

    My uncle worked for twenty-nine years as a human cannonball in the circus. When he retired, his boss was quite upset. “Where else will we find a man of your caliber, Harold?”

    • Dean W says:

      I don’t know what to tell ya. I dropped my Cracker Jack decoder ring in the basket at a traditional AA meeting.

  10. Bill G. says:

    I’m very proud of my traditional AA home group. I’m able to be very open about being agnostic and most members could care less. We have true believers and doubters both of every variety. We have a strong bond of old timers. My self being one. The core of our group only wants recovery from this life deteriorating disease.

    Westend Group, Traverse City, Mi.
    Bill G.
    Born again cosmic naturalist / Taoist / Buddhist / Agnostic. Clean since 1978 because of a good hand off.

  11. Charles M. says:

    One of the most important statements I ever heard in AA is “The AA program is like an adjustable wrench and it will fit any nut.” To me this statement allows me to admit the insanity of my life while being under the influence of alcohol and being honest about my need to structure my life so as to be able to function with some direction. I have adjusted the 12 Steps to fit my atheistic conceptions and by no means do I live with perfection. I am an imperfect human being as we all are. I continue to attend AA meetings and try and be of service now in my 38th year of sobriety. The group and the experience of the group and individual AA give me faith that I too can do life w/o taking that first drink or drug. My life is limited by the fear within me but then “fear rules the world.”

  12. Jerry S. says:

    Hello,
    I’ve been following AA Agnostica for a couple of years now. After reading this writing and the comments I would like to offer my thoughts for consideration.

    I’ve been around AA a little over 35yrs, with continuous sobriety for 11yrs this coming August 14th. The mental battle over religion vs AA’s spirituality position was one of those issues which was always an out for not working the steps; especially the third. All those years I was observing the thousands of differing people I saw at the tables and remembering their belief in the program; not what they said but how life was going along, attitudes and their acceptance of others at the meetings. Twelve years ago I reached that divide in the road; I was either going to die or not.

    The largest conclusion I’ve come to during my years around the program was a large majority of “members” don’t have the disease of alcoholism. I’m afraid I feel the members of AA Agnostica are in the same place. Alcoholics of the sort I am accept that religion has no place in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, we have to give up that debate and live the program; then only do we have the slight chance of not drinking one day at a time. I agree AA agnostics taking a complete break from AA would be wise, then members which can’t gain lasting sobriety would know what the other choice is when nearness of death takes away the overwhelming urge to debate whether they’re really an alcoholic or not.

    Alcoholics Anonymous is a nice place for people to hang around since the social stigma has pretty much been alleviated. In today’s world many people are told and convinced they are alcoholic, when in reality heavy drinking is just less socially acceptable; heavy drinking does not equate to alcoholism. Believing a non human power greater than your self is not needed to stop heavy drinking. Having like people around helps relieve a negative habit. A debate club loosely based on the 12 steps sounds like a nice place to be.

    Just FYI I consider myself an educated man that worked in the medical field in a hospital setting including emergency care, intensive unit and surgery for more than 40yrs. While I find organized or non-organized religion a fool’s errand, I accept a person’s right to believe. The power I’ve seen exerted from time to time with no scientific explanation does allow me to believe in some entity greater than humans. I believe that is what keeps me sober today.

    “It must never be forgotten that the purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is to sober up alcoholics. There is no religious or spiritual requirement for membership. No demands are made on anyone. An experience is offered which members may accept or reject. That is up to them.” Bill W.

    The quote that kept me coming back.
    Jerry S.

    • Brendan F says:

      Hi Jerry. I found your contribution very insightful. I often wondered how I stayed sober continuously without a divine/ supernatural god. I believe I luckily managed to avoid the battle you experienced and explained in your comments. I often sensed people would drink again as if “god” had chosen it for them. The other aspect often neglected is the idea of “service”. I may be completely wrong but when people say they are “around” AA it suggests to me a lack of acceptance and willingness to get stuck in. This may not be your experience but it set off these thoughts for me. They unfortunately drink again and whilst some return and recover many do not. I’m glad you did and are managing to stay sober.

      I can’t accept your blanket notion that many “alcoholics” are not in fact so. Your own experience is what you say it is but I’m puzzled at how you work a program you patently don’t believe in. None the less, I found your reply interesting and it will make me think more. thank you.

      • Jerry S says:

        Hello Brendan, I thank you for your response. I used the term “around” purposefully, I could have included I’m now in and live by the program the last 11yrs.

        I didn’t mean to leave you puzzled and don’t understand what would cause you to say “…work a program you patently don’t believe in.” Would you please detail what points in the program you think I don’t believe in. I would like your input to ponder upon.

        • Brendan F says:

          Hi Jerry. Thanks for getting back.

          On reflection I was much too quick to conclude you “patently don’t believe”. I made that remark based on you writing “we have to give up that debate and live the program”. I do apologize, I was too quick to respond as I did. I wrongly applied my own experience to yours. I did keep up the debate and eventually came to a firm conclusion that I was atheist. I did need to have my feet planted firmly in one or other camp. This was having looked at it in a practical and investigative way. My comment was made assuming you resigned from the debate and took the “belief in belief” track. I was too quick to reach any conclusion as I did. On reading your article I was also rattled by fears that I might have been just a heavy drinker. During my years of drinking I was consistent in my “inconsistency” (Binger, every day for periods, start and stop) but I was also alcoholic. I understand that one will not always make the other.

          I do apologize for my remark which was baseless and certainly unfair. Thanks again.

    • Dean W says:

      You’re certainly entitled to your opinions on my article or anything else, including the percentage of AA members who are real alcoholics. It’s nice to know at least one traditional AA member actually reads this stuff. I hope there are more. Thanks for commenting.

  13. Dan H. says:

    Thank you, Dean. This is a very well thought out piece.

    I’m a one-string banjo on this theme. I believe AA should publish a new version of the steps, with a how-to guide so that it’s actually instructional, that is suitable to the modern mind, which is to say neutral on the issues of gender and religion. It could be introduced as a companion or study-guide to the Big Book, which over time would, hopefully, be archived as a beloved but no longer useful relic.

    We could then see if early adopters – probably in more liberal areas – would generate better results than old-school AA in terms of attraction and retention. Treatment centers could experiment with it as well.

    • Dean W says:

      I like your idea, Dan. I think the Big Book has historical value, and its religious instructions still work for many people. Why can’t the Conference offer another option? If traditional AA is not a religious organization, one would think they might consider ideas like yours.

    • Mike B says:

      As someone who only worked the steps which didn’t demand religious adherence and ignored the ones which did, before taking a break as I could no longer fake it to make it, I agree that an alternative version of the steps would be a good start, assuming enough people could agree on what they should be. And I don’t think that’s going to happen unless everybody parks their ego at the door, just as Bill didn’t in the thirties.

      I’ve read a lot of alternate secular steps, on here and elsewhere, and none of them do it for me. I assume it’s because when I was broken and desperate they looked good hanging on the wall of meetings while I was figuring out the way ahead.

      When I started to get my act together, I reduced the twelve steps to twelve words, and have tried to maintain adherence to them since, they’ve kept me sober for almost eight years: “Be nice to others and don’t store up more crap for yourself”.

  14. Jackie B. says:

    Might Dean W, the author of this essay, parse and disambiguate his last two sentences of his twelfth paragraph? Their meaning is unclear. Perhaps the author can fully parse and explain them. I’m simply investigating, entirely divorced from the misquoted Herbert Spencer’s prescribed action before contempt.

    Here are the last two sentences of the essay’s twelfth paragraph. In both, the author has sewn presumed verbatim General Service Office (GSO) quotes with unquoted clauses. And here, verbatim, are these two sentences of Dean W’s twelfth paragraph:

    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’.

    Here are the things I’m unclear about:

    1. By what medium did Dean W ask his questions and by what medium did GSO answer them, spoken or written?

    1a. If the medium for either his query or GSO’s response(s) were written, can Dean W make available electronic images of either his or GSO’s or both’s written correspondence?

    1b. If the medium for either his query or GSO’s response(s) were spoken, can Dean W make available electronic images of the contemporaenous notes he presumably took to capture the words he places in quote marks in his twelfth paragraph’s sentences?

    1c. If by chance his query and GSOs reply(ies) comprised one or more telephonic exchange(s), might he have recorded it (them)?

    1d. If he recorded any telephonic queries, might he make a reproduction(s) of any or all of them?

    2. Is the following particular clause of the second of his two sentences: (i) his paraphrase of what his GSO correspondent told him (in writing or in spoken words), OR, (ii) his personal declaration of his own interpretation of what the “AA message” is, i.e., a non-binding opinion? Here is that clause, verbatim:

    but it basically amounts to one alcoholic sharing their experience with another

    Here’s the short form of Tradition Five, found on page 150 on Wilson’s 1953-published “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (a/k/a the “12 and 12”):

    Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

    Here’s the long form of Tradition Five, published in a 1946 of the AA Grapevine:

    Each Alcoholics Anonymous group ought to be a spiritual entity having but one primary purpose – that of carrying its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.

    On the five pages 150 through 154 of his 1953 “12 and 12”, Wilson explicated his Tradition Five. Only once does the word “message” appear. It is not followed by words that read anything near “but it basically amounts to one alcoholic sharing their experience with another”.

    Thank you in advance for answering these vital questions. In the absence of an answer, I’d be irresponsible to conclude that the ambiguous clause, “but it basically amounts to one alcoholic sharing their experience with another”, is: (1) Dean W’s paraphrase of a GSO representative’s declaration to him AND NOT (2) Dean W’s personal interpretation, i.e., his opinion. If the latter, isn’t at all binding or remotely authoritative.

    The author is indeed anonymous and thus a total stranger to me. I’d declare myself unwise to accept his ambiguous words at face value.

    Thanks in advance for your kind consideration.

    • Dean W says:

      I’m happy to try to answer your questions. My quote/paraphrase came from a past GSO staff member who was helping answer emails (I emailed my question to GSO). This staff member consulted with GSO’s archives department to give me his answer, which I’ll quote:

      We don’t interpret the A.A. program and there is no one definition of the A.A. message that exists. It is essentially 12th Step work, one member sharing his/her experience with another alcoholic and sharing about the A.A. program, embodied in our 12 Steps. We can’t provide a definition if one does not exist.

      This quote was actually a response to my follow up to the past staff member’s first answer, which frankly didn’t make much sense to me. Here is a lengthy quote from the first answer:

      Over many years, members have shared that they have found the “A.A. message” in one or all of the following – the Big Book, the Twelve & Twelve, the Steps, the Traditions and the Concepts for World Service.
      Many have noted that the Preamble outlines the A.A. message:
      The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.
      Some other resources that may be informative;
      A Brief Guide to A.A. – https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-42_abriefguidetoaa.pdf – page 27, What are the ‘12 Steps’?
      Alcoholics Anonymous is a worldwide fellowship of men and women who help each other to stay sober. They offer the same help to anyone who has a drinking problem and wants to do something about it. Since they are all alcoholics themselves, they have a special understanding of each other. They know what the illness feels like — and they have learned how to recover from it in A.A.
      Frequently Asked Questions About A.A. https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-2_faqAboutAA.pdf – page 6, What is A.A.?”
      What are the ‘Twelve Steps’? The “Twelve Steps” are the core of the A.A. program of personal recovery from alcoholism. They are not abstract theories; they are based on the trial-and-error experience of early members of A.A. They describe the attitudes and activities that these early members believe were important in helping them to achieve sobriety. Acceptance of the “Twelve Steps” is not mandatory in any sense.

      How you answer the question, “What is the ‘A.A. message’?” will be up to you to determine.

      To me, this first answer seemed to indicate that the phrase “AA message” could mean practically anything to any AA member, so I asked for clarification. Since the phrase is used repeatedly by GSO in their newsletter, Box 459, I asked what the phrase means to the author/s of Box 459. This led to the second response.

      I hope this answers your questions. If not, please follow up.

  15. Shelly H. says:

    The previous comment I posted referred to articles about separating from AA not writing, compiling a separate book. I do think we need to disseminate literature on a larger basis; That would make it part of the AA written canon so we can be considered a real part of the program.

    • Dean W says:

      What determines whether literature is in the AA canon? How much of secular AA’s literature is in that canon? Other than The God Word pamphlet and One Big Tent I can’t think of any examples of our literature that would get official AA’s stamp of approval. And I wouldn’t even call these two examples “our” literature since they came from official AA, which is a religious organization.

  16. Larry G. says:

    A superbly reasoned article. Another hallmark of religion is how it tolerates and deal with dissent aNd criticism, especially when it begins to organize. Many of us are watching AA closely to see how it evolves the establishment, growth, and evolution of non traditional AA such as AA Agnostica. We shall see. I have a foot in both. I feel no urgent need to rush it. So glad I ain’t in charge!!

    • Dean W says:

      Thanks Larry. I’m watching them too, and I don’t like what I see.

    • Larry G. says:

      By the way religion does not deal well with dissent. Right now I could care less how traditional AA or non traditional deal with it or otherwise. If either require fidelity pledges or bigotry elevates to overt harms (and I will decide for myself thank you very much) I will vote with my feet. Until then I remain happily a participant of both. Do as you all must and so will I!!

  17. Shelly H. says:

    I don’t think that separating would be a good idea. It would encourage sectarian groups to believe they are the “Real AA” and we bastardize the 12 step program. Then we would be a stepchild and not a real part of the family.

    I am one of the few atheists in AA in Long Beach in NY. When I have shown friends a rewritten, practical approach to integrating the 12 steps into one’s lives, they dismiss them as illegitimate. Separating from God-based AA would encourage this thinking.

  18. Doc says:

    The basic reason why I consider the Big Book to be a religious book rather than a text book is that it is unchanging. Having written a lot of college level textbooks, I have found that by the time the book reaches the students it is already out of date as there is a constant flow of new information, new findings.

    I don’t think we need a secular version of the Big Book. What is happening right here on AA Agnostica provides us with some of the information that we need.

  19. Brendan F says:

    There is little doubt that secular AA requires its own “Big book” – the need to fully organise is imperative and needs to happen. I am sober for almost 27 years. Traditional AA needs to encourage this as much as our secular members. If not, it will be damaging for all alcoholics and those yet to come to the fellowship.

    Myself and a number of fellow members (Essex UK) are about to create a secular group. I feel energised but don’t want to court any controversy. As it stands, those who have a faith in the divine are in truth following the text and canon of the big book. However, I am an atheist and need to have the courage and conviction to do what I know is right. Fakers or innocent pretenders (I write that in the gentlest way possible) don’t always make it but will need a program to stay sober without the need for the supernatural or divine.

    • Dean W says:

      Brendan, I hadn’t thought about traditional AA consciously encouraging a schism. I think they’ve been largely unconsciously encouraging a split for years though. If a split is ultimately best for both factions, it makes sense for them to consciously help the process along. Thanks.

    • Pat N. says:

      Where in Essex, Brendan? I’ve attended a secular meeting in either Colchester or Chelmsford in the past couple of years (I always get those two confused).
      Also attended one in London a couple of times (Angel?). Thanks to the virus, I despair of ever getting back to the UK, but I always found even “traditional” meetings there far less religious than their counterparts in the USA. In Essex, we stay w/friends in Hadleigh.

      • Brendan F says:

        Hi Pat. I’m in Rainham – Yes it’s Colchester but I never got to it having helped start up a traditional one on the same day.

        We are looking to get started for Saturday mornings in Rainham. I’m sure you will make it back to the UK.

  20. Edward C. says:

    I’m in the great southwest – a center of serious religion. I had started a letter of resignation to AA (not that “they” would have cared) when I found another dude and he and I started a Freethinkers group – I finally have (after 28 yrs sober without god) a real home group.

    Yes I think and believe we should make formal the split and leave AA the religion for Secular AA.

  21. Jeff P. says:

    I came out to my group as an atheist this morning. Very liberating.

    • Dean W says:

      Congrats, Jeff! I found it very liberating too (though I came out as agnostic). Some of my home group members may not have liked it much, but so be it.

  22. Dean W says:

    You may well be right, Joel. I know there are a lot of “secessionists,” who think secular AA should completely leave traditional AA. I’m not there yet, but I’m moving in that direction. Whether we stay or go (cue The Clash: “If I stay there will be trouble, if I leave it will be double”), it’s a difficult road. To Thine Own Self Be True applies collectively as well as individually, no?

  23. Richard K. says:

    I agree with Joel D.

    I am puzzled by how someone gets sober in AA, stays in AA and stays sober. Did AA work or is working to keep them sober. I wish l could comprehend? God, religion? Why do l stay?

  24. Joel D says:

    I see no other option than for Secular AA to part ways with traditional AA. I don’t believe a hybrid of the two would be beneficial to either. They are dissimilar animals. A donkey and a horse can beget (see what I did there?) a mule. But that mule is a dead end. I believe an attempt to meld Secular AA and that other version would be the end of the line for both. At my local cluster of secular meetings I often ask “Why do we feel the need to rewrite the Big Book or edit the steps to suit our needs?” In my opinion, we shouldn’t. The two are not different animals of the same species. They are just different animals. They can live in peaceful coexistence but mating the two seems unlikely.