Reshaping the AA Culture

AA needs to move beyond the canon of the Old Book, published in 1939. Will it? 

This is an article originally posted five years ago on AA Agnostica. It is the introduction to the book Do Tell!

By Roger C.

Things change.

At least that’s been my experience in life. And it’s the experience of everyone I have ever chatted with about change and their lives and the world in which we live our lives.

I thought it would all settle down, frankly. That finally when I got old enough change would pretty much cease and I could count on things remaining steady, solid and unchanged.

It didn’t turn out that way. In fact, the opposite occurred. My understanding of myself and my relationship with others seems to change almost every day. The great mystery of existence becomes more mysterious by the hour. My ideas about everything evolve. Now that I am sixty-five, I do not understand virtually anything in the same way that I did when I was twenty-five. Or when I was forty-five years old, a young pup then, it seems now.

Because things change.

So what’s up with AA?

Founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous seems somehow incapable of moving forward, at least in any significant way. It seems stuck in a pre-World War II mindset. And that, quite frankly, is a pretty sad place to be stuck.

Even Bill Wilson recognized the problem.

In a speech given to an AA Conference in 1965, he began by noting that “a million alcoholics have approached AA during the last thirty years”. He goes on to estimate that 600,000 had walked away from the rooms of AA, never to come back.

He asks: “How much and how often did we fail them?”

That question is exponentially more relevant today, fifty years after Bill asked it.

And of course the problem is that the fellowship remains shackled to the book Alcoholics Anonymous, published in 1939, which in turn is mired in the predominant Christian culture of the United States as it existed in the Thirties and Forties.

Two examples of the out-of-datedness of the Big Book (as it is known, which in itself is revealing): the misogynistic chapter “To Wives” and the condescending and patronizing chapter “We Agnostics”. That’s already a fifth of the main 164 pages, and it hardly stops there.

The book goes on to share a “suggested” program, the 12 Steps, in which God (or “He” or “Him” or a “Power”) is mentioned in six of the Steps. In Chapter 5, “How it Works”, we are told that “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism” but “God could and would if He were sought”.

So, go to an AA meeting, invariably in a church basement, and you will find the 12 Steps brazenly displayed at the front of the room and someone is likely to read “How it Works” (at the beginning of the meeting) and you will be invited to join in the Lord’s Prayer (at the end of the meeting). This is called a “traditional” AA meeting.

“How much and how often did we fail them?”

And oddly enough the suggestion that AA might be somewhat “religious” is invariably met with some form of denial. When the General Service Office of AA is asked about various Courts in the United States that have ruled AA to be religious, it refuses to respond because the matter is an “outside issue”.

No it’s not.

It’s an “inside issue” and it needs be dealt with honestly and now.

Which is not to suggest that the Big Book ought to be revised or rewritten. It is what it is. It is a kind of memoir written by middle-class white Christian men seventy years ago. The book shares the experience, strength and hope of these men and of others in AA. And in so doing it does something historical; it lays the foundation for what does work for alcoholics: the very human power of one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic. The support we alcoholics find in the rooms assists us in working towards “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” and is the very essence of the fellowship of AA.

And that has everything to do with sharing our stories…

Our dear friend, the late Ernie Kurtz, said that storytelling is in fact “the practice and indeed the essential dynamic of AA”. It is the way we AA members support each other and help guarantee our ongoing recovery.

Thus this book.

The stories in this book are all, of course, by AA members who do not believe that an interventionist deity – a God – had anything at all to do with their recovery from alcoholism. As readers will discover, many struggled mightily “in the rooms” with the idea of God or a Higher Power, wanting to fit in, as Alcoholics Anonymous was their last hope.

Some were nonbelievers from the very beginning. Others, as the life-saving “personality change” in recovery took effect over time, abandoned a belief in God. Most felt unable to be honest at meetings, afraid that what they said would be attacked. If they did “come out of the closet” the consequences were hurtful: other members of AA would often take a condescending Dr. Bob approach (“I feel sorry for you”) and warn them that they would pick up again if they did not find God. They often felt dismissed, disparaged and rejected in the rooms of traditional AA.

But they stayed, as so many do not. And survived. And are here today to share their stories…

There are a total of thirty stories in Do Tell! None of them have been sanitized nor are they cliché-ish in the way that many AA stories appear to be in either the AA Grapevine or in “Conference approved” literature.

No, these are personal and honest stories. All unique, all different. The stories in the book alternate between those by women and those by men and so we discover early on – if we did not appreciate this already – that the factors involved in addiction and recovery are often quite different in the lives of men and women.

Moreover, the style and tone of each author is different. As a consequence, readers will like some stories more than others. That’s okay. Early on in AA we learn to take what we need and leave the rest. Nevertheless there is without doubt something in each one of these stories that will resonate with those of us who have lived part of our lives in the struggle for recovery.

The authors come from all parts of North America and the United Kingdom. The length of sobriety of each of them varies considerably, much like at a regular AA meeting, with the average being roughly twenty-one years. Five of the writers have more than forty years of continuous sobriety…

Five years ago there was no literature at all for atheists and agnostics in AA.

Now there is a plethora of good literature: Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power by Marya Hornbacher (2011); An Atheist’s Unofficial Guide to AA by Vince H. (2011); A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous by John Lauritsen (2014); Common Sense Recovery: An Atheist’s Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous by Adam N. (2015); Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life by Joe C. (2014); and, The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps by Roger C. (2014).

To name but a few!

And now this book, the one in your hands that you are reading now, Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA

For we agnostics to feel at home in the rooms of AA we must inevitably be a part of reshaping the AA culture. We need to be a part of bringing our fellowship into the twenty-first century and helping it let go of its increasingly quaint religious origins.

Alcoholics Anonymous can indeed widen its gateway and be inclusive of all, including atheists and agnostics.

And for that we are responsible.

Things change.

Do Tell! [Front Cover]There are a total of 30 personal stories of recovery in Do Tell!

Fifteen by women and fifteen by men.

And a supernatural interventionist deity – a “God” – had absolutely nothing to do with their recovery.

More information is available here: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

20 Responses

  1. Larry g says:

    Hey Betsy, thx for sharing. You are not alone. For two years now AA Agnostica has been my lifeline to staying same in AA. I would also add that there are now hundreds of AA online mtgs for us non traditional. It’s made all the difference for me.

  2. Betty H. says:

    I have just found this website through a FaceBook group I recently joined. I left AA 7 years ago because of the “changes” that were happening in my area. There was a fundamentalist movement overtaking the meetings. A book or pamphlet called “Back to the 40’s” was all the rage and everything about it was finding its way into the meetings. To compound the problem, many of my “closest fellows” in the program were the biggest proponents of this “great” new thing.

    Back then there were very few of me (I was the only one I knew) and a whole lot of them. I tried though Tradition Meetings to push back on some of the changes that were taking place in my home group but I was regularly out voted. The language of this pamphlet was seeping through everything.

    I finally gave up and just quit going. Fortunately I’m happy, healthy and very sober. My life didn’t come to a crashing end and I didn’t drink. I miss the fellowship, and mostly helping that new comer. I worry that maybe someone like me could have walked in the door and I wasn’t there to greet them to tell them all this Christian nonsense isn’t necessary. It didn’t happen in the 12 years that I was there… But you never know.

  3. Larry g says:

    For me and me only, I don’t presume to know what’s best for others. I still attend traditional AA. I’ve just learned how to tolerate the god talk and big book thumping. Find it amusing really. I speak my truth openly. Those that don’t like it just steer clear or humor me. I tolerate them and vise versa. Have many good friend there. Got sober there. Am contemplating starting a free thinkers AA meeting. It’s my understanding that the fastest growing segment of AA is us agnostics, atheists, and free thinkers. If we get big enough we may gain some additional leverage to influence some changes. If you wanna start your own deal go for. I wouldn’t stand in the way. But I’m staying put. I just love what I get from AA Agnostica. It’s been so very helpful to me.

  4. Roger says:

    Things change. That’s how the article begins and ends.

    Is change always easy? No it’s not. It can require work. Look, for example, at what’s happening these days in an effort to make our cultures and institutions non-racist: protesters and weeks of demonstrations worldwide after the death of George Floyd.

    Yes, it will take some work to change Alcoholics Anonymous. That is an important part of the purpose of AA Agnostica. Critiques – protests, if you will – have often been shared on the website, and that will no doubt continue over the next years.

    We are not however trying to create a separate clique for those in recovery. All human beings – and in particular those of us in recovery and in AA – should be respectful of every person in recovery.

    Will the struggle to change AA ever work? Why not? Things change.

  5. Dean W says:

    Excellent question! I wish more people were asking it.

  6. Larry g says:

    I’ve starting sending request to AA WSO asking for an updated version of the big book’s first 164 pages that is: 1) gender neutral; 2) has all references to god and spirituality removed and focuses only on action not belief; 3) has the chapter on “We Agnostics” rewritten by an actual practicing and sober agnostic; and 4) has the chapters on “To Wives” and “The Family Afterward” rewritten by Al-anon folk. My suggestion is that this be an optional alternative resource for any who desire it. If enough folks request similarly we might get somewhere.

  7. Barbara S. says:

    Why not just start an alternative organization? Why bother with AA at all?

  8. Dean W says:

    I agree completely. If it’s a textbook, it’s got to be the worst one I’ve ever read. It’s really the de facto AA Bible.

  9. Doc says:

    While they may call it a textbook, they treat it like a religious text: “Bill just held the pen while God dictated the words.” Like many religious books, it speaks to a past way of life rather than the people who are living today. It does not take into account that people have changed and that there is a greater understanding of alcoholism and addiction now.

  10. Dean W says:

    I’m going to make a perhaps slightly arbitrary distinction between the culture of AA and the structure of AA. Culture includes beliefs, attitudes, values, goals, etc., and can also include material items like the Big Book. Structure includes “the AA message,” which is the steps as published in 1939; structure also includes the Traditions, Concepts, and Warranties. These are the foundational and operational documents that govern AA.

    For AA to be truly inclusive of secular people, much more than the culture must change. The God-centric structure must also change. This is probably impossible. At the very best, it is highly unlikely.

  11. Dean W says:

    Unfortunately, those who claim the Big Book is a textbook include the folks running the official AA show in New York. It is still considered the Basic Text for the AA fellowship. I expect this to change, well let’s see, maybe … How about never?

  12. Bethany D. says:

    Thank you Roger. I love all of those books you referenced above. I discovered the existence of secular AA just over a year ago, a few weeks after attending my first traditional meeting. It was AA Agnostica that represented “AA evolved” to me. I found hope and relief on this site. I found inspiration to continue to evolve in my recovery, through a secular lens, in the context of my changing culture, which is now a global culture. Thank you so much for maintaining and caring for this site, for your words and ideas, and for inviting others to bring their words and ideas!

  13. Clare says:

    I was told the fifth edition would only have two changes. They are going to remove the word “suggested” and declare that alcoholism is in fact an allergy.

    Seriously, if a member of my family needed help, the last thing I’d do is hand them a big book. There are too many better sources of strategies and information that are based on reality.

  14. Jeff P. says:

    I have abandoned any hope that AA will depart from its orthodoxy. Any view that might topple the house of cards is instantly attacked as being outside the traditions.

    The more information about the psychology of addiction and recovery that is at our disposal, the more likely we are to succeed. We will never change conventional AA, but with peaceful, harmonious coexistence, we can model behavior that attracts the curious mind.

    If we build it, they will come eventually.

  15. Richard K. says:

    Loved Karl’s and Doc’s comments. No an atheist. Keep up the good work Roger.

  16. Roger says:

    Hi Lance. As of today, 193,912 people have come to AA Agnostica to read Frank M’s article, An Atheist’s Guide to 12 Step Recovery. To me, that’s astonishing. And, yes, I may well re-post it, since it is so well liked. Thanks for the suggestion!

  17. Lance B. says:

    Thank you for reposting this introduction, Roger. Since first meeting AA Agnostica and later you, I have been so impressed by your own writing. It displays clearly for me what gave me the immense sense of relief when I first read Frank M.’s article nearly 10 years ago. That article just felt precisely correct to reflect my feelings, but I needed a framework to formalize my own understanding of how we might change things in AA to fit me (and hopefully, other newcomers) into some part of AA. Or maybe, how to make all of AA more open to everyone including me.

    Whenever you are short of new material from writers among the secularists who visit this website, it is wonderful to hear again, some of the things you have thought and written which coalesce my own thinking on our goals.

    Speaking of reading things again; would it be time to repost that Frank M. article which I think you once indicated was the most searched for posting on aaagnostica? Or would that be making the same mistake people make when sticking to the old BB prescriptions and stories?

  18. Karl J says:

    Great article Roger. Change is inevitable, it’s when and how that we don’t know. It’s so important to keep banging away at all inclusiveness and diversity. To me, since no one knows and it’s not likely anyone will know if there’s a god or not. The Responsibility Pledge is what I hang on to. If that means listening to a god-oriented alky I’m in with an open mind. We can only lead by example, it’s disheartening that conflict has to exist when the goal is the same for all of us.

  19. David W says:

    I think we need to evolve in AA to a point where people can feel safe to come in and talk freely about their struggles with addictions, what works and doesn’t work in their recovery without the fear of people coming up to them after and invalidating their words because “I didn’t get sober that way” or “it’s not in the Big Book therefore it’s not valid”. Traditional AA’s model is essentially a one size fits everyone cookie cutter approach to alcoholism which seems to be fragmenting into specialty groups that are more sensitive to the needs of the individual. Unfortunately Big Book doctrine is still weighing us down and inhibiting the acceptance of more contemporary readings in meetings.

    As a note, there is a current proposal to create a fifth addition of the Big Book. It’s proposed the main text will remain unchanged but Appendices III and IV, The Medical View on AA and The Religious View on AA will be updated. Personal stories will be updated to reflect changes in the composition of the fellowship over the past 19 years. A fourth section has been proposed of stories written by people who got sober before age 25.

    If the updates are done in a way that invites inclusiveness and diversity, I envision a book where the main text contradicts the appendices. Isn’t there a passage in the Big Book that says “half measures avail us of nothing?”

  20. Doc says:

    There are those who claim that the Big Book is a textbook. It is not! Having written several textbooks, it has been my experience that by the time the book reaches the students it is already out of date as there have been new discoveries, new insights, new ways of doing things. This is what makes education exciting.

    What makes sobriety exciting? New insights, new ways of doing things, new discoveries, new knowledge. Most of that comes not from the Big Book, but from discussions with others in recovery.

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