How Dare You – An Open Letter to AA Trustees

This is an edited version of the “Open Letter” which was sent to the AA Trustees on August 3, 2020.[1]

By Paul W

Introduction

Alcoholics Anonymous has lost sight of its purpose, of its mission. Yes, its members and backers rightly praise the institution and its good work. Yes, AA does help people to place their alcoholism in remission. Unfortunately, the core purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous is gone… or is it?

AA’s Preamble begins, “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.”

Does AA really seek to help all who suffer from alcoholism?

Or, does it want to help only those who are, or will become, theists? If AA is for all, why the heavy theistic approach? Why the plethora of references to God, directly or through euphemisms (Him, He, Power, Higher Power)? If AA is spiritual, not religious, why the clear difficulty in defining, explaining, and laying out examples of “spiritual” without a religious tone? And, why the literal blizzard of God references in Alcoholics Anonymous?

This and more leads to, How Dare You…

  • continue to claim that Alcoholics Anonymous is “Spiritual, not Religious” in the face of significant evidence to the contrary.

  • ignore the numerous United States (State and Federal) court rulings that AA is religious – and the Canadian Human Rights Tribunals which have or were ready to rule likewise.

  • abandon the growing population of alcoholics who might have been “saved” because you, Corporate AA, insist on ignoring the thousands of people who have no religious beliefs.[2]

AA’s Religious Nature

Historical

AA owes much to the Christian Oxford Group. AA also has strong ties to religious personages and organizations and “people of (religious) faith.” AA was born of religious experiences, sudden revelations, bright lights, prayers, and finding God.

Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith leap to mind. Bill’s writings clearly indicate his religiosity. Co-founder, Dr. Bob’s practice of making novitiates pray on their knees and his writing that a newcomer “must surrender himself absolutely to God” and that he “must have devotions every morning … prayer and some reading of the Bible.” All this points directly to religiosity.[3]

In Bill Wilson’s book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, reverence is given to Dr. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Episcopal minister, Father Ed Dowling, S.J.[4], and Sister Ignatia, Sisters of Charity.

Atheists and agnostics have been ignored, disguised, or presented in a manner so as to be easily mistaken for theists. Hank P. and Jim B. are prime examples. Both were part of the original membership and were responsible for the modifying phrase, “as we understood Him” being added to “God” in Steps 3 and 11. On page 17 of Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill wrote, “A newcomer named Jimmy B., who like Henry [aka Hank] was an ex-salesman and former atheist.” This is misleading, as Jim B remained an atheist for his whole life.[5]

The “Big Book”

The premier publication, Alcoholics Anonymous[6] (“Big Book”), is filled with “God” often enough that any claim of AA being “not religious” is specious.[7] The book, Alcoholics Anonymous gives no clear evidence of how “the program”[8] works for those in the increasing secular population. Basically, it is up to the non-theists to “work things out” for themselves. Corporate AA offers no help or encouragement.

“God” and euphemisms for a god are ubiquitous in the Big Book. So much so that a reader who is without a god can only understand the program through a Churchillian effort. No assistance is offered by Corporate AA. Non-theists are on their own.

Need Examples?

Believe it or not, the following are just a few examples of the unassisted work a non-theist is confronted with. (All page references are to Alcoholics Anonymous.)

Chapter 2, “There Is a Solution”. “… the simple kit of spiritual tools” which later turn out to be the (Godly) Twelve Steps (page 25).[9]

Chapter 4, “We Agnostics”[10]. “And it means, of course that we are going to talk about God” (page 45). This sentence turns out to be a proper indication of the rest of the book and the program.[8]

“When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God” (page 47). It is a far stretch of imagination to picture a non-theist going through the program trying to translate “Bill’s words” and all statements of “God” into secular concepts and language. Clearly, AA is not a (non-theistic) “spiritual” program.

“… as we see it, there is an All Powerful, Guiding, Creative Intelligence” (page 49).

“Actually, we were fooling ourselves, for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God” (page 55, emphasis added). This is an unabashed claim that a God exists and everyone knows it, even if buried deep in the subconscious. These are the thoughts of a man convinced that everyone will come to accepting God. Obviously AA is a theistic program, based on a God of the Ten Commandments. Bill Wilson, and AA itself, hold tightly to the hope and belief that all will “Come to Believe.”

“God restored us all to our right minds” (page 57). A reader must conclude that to be in ones “right mind” is to be a theist. This passage holds that atheists, agnostics, Free-Thinkers, Humanists, and the like are not in their right minds. How dare you claim that AA is open to all?

Chapter 5, “How It Works”. outlines the “program” of Alcoholics Anonymous, it introduces the Twelve Steps. Part of this chapter, especially the listing of the Twelve Steps, is read aloud at many meetings open to the public, as “How it Works.” It is reasonable to assume this chapter is the official program of AA, a theistic program.

Writing about the scourge of alcoholism Bill Wilson states, “Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now” (page 59). Clearly, AA expects its members to “find God”, not to remain non-theistic.

“We had to have God’s help” (page 62). In AA’s mind, those without a god cannot gain sobriety. On the same page is, “…we could at last abandon ourselves utterly to Him.” This relates directly to AA’s Step 3, “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” (italics in the original). AA holds that God is essential for sobriety. AA is theistic, is religious.

On page 63 we find “the Third Step prayer.” Prayer is a religious act, offering oneself to a god is a religious act. Strange for an organization which claims to be “spiritual, not religious.”

“We asked God to mold our ideas and help us to live up to them” (page 69). Another prayer, another religious act.[11]

Chapter 6, “Into Action”. On page 80 we are told of a man who finds that it is better to follow the program “… than to stand before his Creator guilty of …” Judgement after death is a religious belief or truth. It is “religious.”

A miraculous happening is reported on page 84, “… that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” A miracle performed by a god is religious.

Chapter 7, “Working With Others”. On page 93 those doing Twelfth Step work (proselytizing) are instructed, “Stress the spiritual feature freely. If the man be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God. He can choose any conception he likes, provided it makes sense to him. The main thing is that he be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself and that he live by spiritual principles” (italics in original).

AA holds that one must have a God of some sort (“Power” is capitalized). AA has been unable to give examples or definitions of power which are not insulting. As for “spiritual principles,” AA has been woefully poor at explaining them in a non-religious fashion.

There are many more direct references to God and to prayer (a religious activity) in Alcoholics Anonymous. They are easy to find.

A Thought Experiment

Ask yourselves:

  1. What are the qualities, characteristics of religion or religiousness that Alcoholics Anonymous lacks?

  2. What are the indicators which demonstrate AA’s spirituality that are devoid of religious connotations?

  3. Why does the plethora of references to God, Him, Higher Power, etc., not indicate a religious nature of Alcoholics Anonymous? (Don’t religions have a god?)

  4. How is the practice of group prayers at AA meetings and functions not a sign of religiousness?

  5. How is the passing of General Service Conference Advisory Actions “freezing” Bill Wilson’s words in Alcoholics Anonymous and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions not an act of declaring infallibility?

Conclusion

Trustees, please be honest. At least admit that, while AA is not a specific religion, it is religious, to the extent that it relies on a male God, most likely Christian.

  • There is no doubt that AA supports the writings of its founder, Bill Wilson. Consequently, when he wrote a letter mistakenly stating that the Lord’s Prayer is not just a Christian Prayer[12] AA was accepting the inclusion of this prayer in its meetings.

  • There is no doubt that AA practices religious rituals at its meetings, opening and closing with prayers.

  • That Corporate AA does not even ask that meetings and groups identifying as AA not include religious rituals in its meetings and affairs.

  • That you still allow the delisting of secular meetings or refusals to list in the first place.

  • That you studiously ignore Bill Wilson’s permissive words expressed in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.[13]

  • And, finally that you are reluctant to make any serious corrections to the “program” and related literature, especially the “Big Book,” for financial reasons.[6] This reluctance extends even to ignoring contradictory comments and erroneous statements, especially those made by Bill Wilson.

Forget about correcting the “Big Book.” It is a valuable, historical volume, much like medical books and papers from the 1930s and earlier. Be courageous and embark on writing a new book, one which retains Bill Wilson’s basic thoughts and modern thoughts which include all who suffer from alcoholism. Or, simply state that AA is for theists and others need not apply. I suspect that there is an alcoholic or two or more available to be the Martin Luther for AA.


Notes:

[1] The trustees have responsibility for three incorporated entities; The General Service Board of Alcoholics Anonymous, Inc., Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., and Alcoholics Anonymous Grapevine, Inc. Trustees of AA refers to both Class A and Class B Trustees.

[2] Pew Research has predicted that the “not-religious” population of the United States (Atheists, Agnostics, Free-Thinkers, Humanists, etc., and “Nones”) will equal and even surpass the population identifying as “Christian” in a few years.

[3] Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, page 131. This book is “General Service Conference-approved literature.”

[4] Father Dowling, S.J. pointed out the similarity of the Twelve Steps to the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order. (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, page 253.)

[5] Jim B (Burwell) was responsible for getting AA started in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and San Diego. Jim’s story is in Alcoholics Anonymous, (pages 219-231) titled “The Vicious Cycle.” Unfortunately, editing appears to have obscured his life-long atheism. Jim is also featured in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, as Ed in Tradition Three, where the impression that he came to believe in God is made. Why Bill Wilson changed Jim’s name to Ed is unknown.

[6] I call the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, “premier” because of the reverence it is afforded and its monetary value to AA. It is the largest seller of official AA publications. This alone is a massive obstacle to serious thoughts about changes to or corrections of the “Big Book” text. (AA’s net literature sales represent 55% of its income, whereas member and group contributions are 41% of income, with investment income being 4%. AA’s net profit – reported as “Excess of Income” – for that year was just short of $4-million. This is from a recent Annual Report from Owen J. Flanagan and Company, Certified Public Accountants.) “Follow the money” is true, even in AA.

[7] The fact that “God” is so prevalent throughout AA literature and practices, coupled with Corporate AA’s inability to explain “spiritual” without a deity, are clear indication of AA’s religious nature.

[8] The word “program” refers to the Twelve Steps and well as the Twelve Traditions and the Twelve Concepts. The focus here is on the Twelve Steps outlined in “How It Works” in Alcoholics Anonymous and elaborated on in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. Both publications carry the AA imprimatur, “This is A.A. General Service Conference-approved literature” and have been protected from change or revision by General Service Conference Advisory Actions.

[9] Alcoholics Anonymous has been woefully unable to define “spiritual” in a clear and concise manner. After years of denying the need for non-theistic literature on secular spirituality, AA made two attempts. The first was for literature on spiritual experiences which was to include stories from atheists and agnostics. This failed completely. The second attempt resulted in the pamphlet, “Many Paths to Spirituality,” which was a disappointment. Finally, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. obtained permission to print the United Kingdom’s pamphlet, “The God Word.” Its success is questionable.

[10] Except for most personal stories, the majority of the “Big Book” was written by Bill Wilson. (He even wrote “To Wives” even though Lois volunteered to do so.) Bill wrote the chapter, “We Agnostics” alone. There is no evidence that this chapter was prepared in collaboration with other agnostics, atheists, or non-theists. Bill actually dares to speak for all non-theists. His lack of understanding is clear in the “Conference-approved” book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, where, on page 28, Bill Wilson states, “Religion says the existence of God can be proved; the agnostic says it can’t be proved; and the atheist claims proof of the nonexistence of God.” This last statement is absolutely false. The word “atheist” indicates those who live a-theistically; without a god. This one sentence has resulted in many AA theistic members having unwarranted negative opinions of atheists.

[11] Additionally, four of AA’s Twelve Steps involve prayers or religious acts.

Step 5, “Admitted to God to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

Step 6, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” (Uncovered and listed in Step Four.)

Step 7, “Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

Step 11, “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

[12] Ignoring the fact that Jesus originated that prayer. See the New Testament; Matthew 6: 9-13 and Luke 11: 2-4.

[13] Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (AACoA) is “General Service Conference-approved literature.” It was published in 18 years after Alcoholics Anonymous. In AACoA, Bill Wilson, quotes the long form of Tradition Three and then states, “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 A.A.’s principles and still call themselves an A.A. group.” Recall that at the time of AACoA, “principles” referred to the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions. Put simply, Bill Wilson gave cart blanch to groups of alcoholics to write their own, secular Steps (“any way they liked”). In a word, all that God stuff is unnecessary.


Paul has been a member of AA since 1989. He is comfortable as a nontheist and identifies as an atheist. Among the AA many service positions Paul has held are General Service Representative and District Committee Member. He has spoken at AA Area functions about the lack of literature for nonbelievers and has been a supporter of recognizing nontheists as full members of AA. 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.


58 Responses

  1. John BF says:

    Good on you, Dan. I wouldn’t worry about being sued until you’re actually ready to publish something and then bring it up for the community comments.

  2. Dan C says:

    Thank you. I am going to add this to my list of projects. Hopefully, I don’t get sued!

  3. John BF says:

    We didn’t ask permission when we started the new tie language translation so I don’t think a reverse translation needs approval, however, that being said it will not be an official AA recognized literature and groups would have to decide individually whether to use it even as reference material.

    Personally, I use a red cover pocket size unofficial edition of The big book that has page references in a glossary at the end of the book for almost every word used within the book. It is very useful but not official.

  4. Dan C. says:

    John, I wonder if you need AA’s permission. This would be a fun project. Put in Freethinkers stories in the back. It isn’t that big of a deal to do because it is essentially 200 pages, new stories and a preface…

  5. JOHN bf says:

    You are welcome. please spread the word, the Thai edition is available from AA literature for anyone who would like to try to start the reverse translation. It does cost money.

  6. Linda W. says:

    WOW, John BF!! Thank you for taking the time to inform us about this important helpful information. Others may already be aware but I was not.
    Linda W, Belfast, ME

  7. John BF says:

    I’m a born-again agnostic having been raised a Lutheran, then became agnostic at age 12, then 20 years later, a Muslim for 20 years, then a Buddhist and back to agnosticism via AA for 10+ years now. I got sober in a country full of atheists, i.e. Buddhists, with a government and religious organization determined to keep AA away from good Thai Buddhists because they thought AA was proselytizing Christianity. Fortunately, determined members of AA tried for many years to get the Big Book in Thai language re-translated primarily because the old translation used ‘formal Thai’ wording rather than ‘street Thai’.

    The result, with a translation that AA GSO insisted they take the lead on, is that a new Thai Big Book has been approved, authorized and distributed for the last couple of years WITH THE WORD GOD REMOVED and the Buddhist Thai equivalent of ‘All Things Spiritual’ used instead!! Yes, you read this correctly, so AA IS CHANGING to accommodate at least Thailand where the need was very evident, e.g. 40 years in the town I lived and got sober in with at least 4 meetings a day, 7 days a week without a single Thai language meeting.

    So, my SUGGESTION is translate what has ALREADY been approved and start from there to try and get AA to accept an ‘amended’ translation for non-religious people. If you put in the work, you can at least hopefully produce an ‘unofficial’ Big Book that some of us can use at ‘Free Thinkers’ meetings until an ‘official’ revision can be done by AA. THIS IS POSSIBLE, it will just take time.

    Bill Wilson was a high powered sales person bent on making AA a reality in a ‘In God we Trust’ country. According to the last living Washingtonian member who knew Bill W when he attended Oxford Group meetings, he considered Bill to be an agnostic throughout his entire recovered life regardless of what he wrote in order to get the Big Book accepted by the majority with some minor opinion options.

    At 85 years, we are still in our infancy and more work needs to be done to be more inclusive and IT WILL TAKE COURAGE, WORK AND DEDICATION.

  8. Katharine says:

    You said it for me. I IDENTIFY!

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