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.
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.
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.