Sleight of Hand; Slight on “Real” Inclusivity
By bob k
Thank the Lord (in a manner of speaking) for the wonderful liberals among the God-believers in Alcoholics Anonymous as I encountered them years ago. These delightful creatures were more interested in seeing me get sober than in coaxing me into a new relationship with the Almighty. Alcoholics Anonymous provides the narrowest of gates for some of us. I remain genuinely grateful for the broad-minded folks who helped me to slither through.
The members of AA are a diverse group, of course. There were then and are now, many of a different ilk. The “Get God or die” proclaimers are alive and well and in most instances, they loudly vocalize their pronouncements of what PRECISELY needs to be done to get sober. As they see it, that involves suiting up for the “God could and would if he were sought” team.
The inimitable Joe C. of Toronto and I have more than once discussed AA’s decreasing inclusiveness over the past few decades. That unfortunate development has been closely tied to a resurgence of interest in our society’s now eighty-one year old text, and the spread of “Thumperism.”
Ten years ago, the late conference speaker Sandy Beach, anonymously penned a screed against atheists and agnostics in AA. In his “WHITE PAPER ON THE MATTER OF AA ATHEIST/AGNOSTIC GROUPS AND RELATED CONCERNS,” Mr B. let it be known that heathens could quietly take up membership in AA, but they needed to shut the Hell up about their non-conforming beliefs. That rambling discourse brought to mind the odd position taken up by the U.S. military regarding members of the LGBTQ community. “Please afford us the opportunity for plausible deniability. We’d like to go on pretending that you’re not even here.”
In “The ‘Don’t Tell’ Policy in AA” one of the finest essays ever to appear on this website, Roger C. looks at the similarity to AA in the U.S. military’s “Speak No Evil” stance.
Freethinkers in AA have been anything but silent in the twenty-first century. They are writing books, starting groups, and speaking out. The growth of the secular demographic in recent years has been remarkable. Closet atheists and agnostics have exited their armoires and are breathing the fresh air of free expression. Most recently, Zoom has brought the idea of non-religious AA to folks who otherwise could not have imagined such things.
Of course, the fundies have been inspired to push back — hence the polarization.
But let’s return to the liberals. Those generous folks offered me a navigable path to sobriety. Forgive the cliches, but I was invited to replace the rejected God of my understanding with various G-O-D’s that included “Good Orderly Direction,” and “Group of Drunks.” Uncapitalized “higher powers” were offered for my consideration. The closest of my new friends made little effort to convert me.
Regarding my uncontrollable drinking, I was open to accepting the help of those who had overcome problems with alcohol that were similar to my own. I came to see a benefit in confession, restitution, helping others, and blending myself into the AA community. Earlier, I had come to a full acceptance that there is no path to moderate drinking for people like me and that quitting drinking on one’s own is a very tall order. The substitutions for God had not been presented to me as temporary measures, but many of my new friends were surprised that years of AA sobriety resulted in no alteration of my “Big Picture” worldview.
The Bigga Booka
The literature presents a different picture.
For the sake of brevity, I will bypass the 12 + 12 with its “Seven Deadly Sins” etc., to focus exclusively on the Bigga Booka, as my North Bay friend Lena likes to call the divinely-inspired source of all wisdom. The root of the popular “higher power” term is found in AA’s second step: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” The liberals had told me that there were a lot of powers greater than me including alcohol. Employers, police, judges and wives were also mentioned.
It did not escape my notice that none of those “powers” come with capital “P’s.” Did any of these come with power sufficient to restore human beings to sanity? As it turns out, the somewhat liberal-sounding “Power greater” has a very brief shelf life. This temporary power is a mere place-holder – a set of training wheels shortly to be discarded. Those paying close attention were warned of this early in the book: “It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power (capital “P”) greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning. I saw that growth could start from that point.” (BB, p. 12, Bill’s Story)
On page 46, the pretense that “Power greater” and “God” are something different is dropped: “… it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power which is God.”
Magicians have some very cool names for their trickery – “prestidigitation,” “misdirection,” “legerdemain,” “hocus pocus,” “sleight of hand.” A distraction is created to disguise what’s really going on. While the left hand is doing something dramatic and eye-catching, the right hand engages in something sneaky. “Power greater” and “own conception of God” are left hand activities. The right hand is the Hand of God. It was there all along. In the literature, these issues are quite transparent. The “non-God” God option is a temporary measure – a single step onto Jacob’s ladder.
The agnostic, or atheist (God forbid), is expected to come around “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.” Look at “Our Southern Friend” Fitz, New York Number 3. The minister’s son had abandoned the religion of his childhood after finding it incompatible with his taste for hedonistic “sinning.” A mere half-hour after being visited by Bill and Hank, Fitz finds himself on his knees crying and praying, his “militant” atheism seemingly poofed away by the Grace of God.
(I am contemplating a lawsuit against the English department of the University of Toronto as I appear to have developed a very poor understanding of words like “militant.”)
Some of AA’s self-declared “militant atheists” were angry at God. Others such as Fitz were fearful of the divine wrath destined to come as retribution for his “sins of the flesh.” It was wishful thinking that perhaps the punishing God of his Christian upbringing was mythological. The mislabelers have contributed to the poor understanding of the “real” atheist and the educated agnostic in Alcoholics Anonymous circles.
The personal story of Bill’s book-producing business partner, Hank P., was called “The Unbeliever.” He too found himself bawling and praying to what he called a “Universal Power.” Although God was likely pleased by the capital letters, He may have found the mislabeling offensive, as He reversed Hank’s awakening and returned him to drinking less than five months after the Bigga Booka came to print.
Alcoholics Anonymous employs the magician’s chicanery although a word search of the sacred text reveals no “abracadabra’s.” They are implicit, I suppose.
My new AA friends had performed all manner of liberal-sounding misdirection. Most were sincere in their inclusiveness as they sought to change my drinking moreso than my philosophy. Their liberal talk is not backed up by the literature. The book is far more supportive of the fundamentalist’s position. “Get God or die.” “no human power,” etc.
The magician’s left hand holds up the “own conception” idea for the briefest time before we are presented with AA’s conception — the “real” view of what God is. He is omnipotent, benevolent, an Employer, a Father, a Director, a Manager, and a Him. We are suddenly smothered by an avalanche of “He’s” and “Him’s.” The female fundamentalist is forced to bite her lip and say, “It’s all just fine.”
There is a small number of non-believers in AA who think the literature is fine. These strange creatures largely hang their hats on a single line: “When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God.” (p. 47)
They put on blinders to what comes next, not even a paragraph later: “At the start this was all we needed to commence spiritual growth… Afterward, we found ourselves accepting many things which then seemed entirely out of reach... we had to begin somewhere.”
In a less kindly view, the clever subterfuge might be viewed as a “bait and switch.” The customer is “baited” by an attractive, advertised product that is unavailable. The customer is “baited” by an attractive, advertised product that is unavailable. Drawn to the store by the dishonest marketing of an unscrupulous retailer, prospective buyers are pressured by salespeople to consider higher priced items. In the world of commerce, consumer protection laws have criminalized the bait and switch. In the world of recovery, the little fraud is seen as helpful.
“But there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find Him now!” (p. 59) Jeez! Why not just say that in the first place? Well at least we get to choose our own conception of God, right? … Right? … “Great Out Doors maybe?” No?
HEY!!! What happened to “Group of Drunks” and “Good Orderly Direction?”
The somewhat grumpy Bob Smith had been more honest. “God is God, young man,” he had told Clarence Snyder in 1938. Bill Wilson took a different tack of “getting them into the pews.” The savages’ belligerent defiance would quickiy melt away in the presence of God’s miracles, it was presumed.
This article will be offensive to some and it could have been more so; the “bait and switch” analogy could have been given precedence. Wikipedia refers to that as “fraud.” Rigorous honesty only goes so far, I suppose.
Speaking of deceitfulness, the time has come to reveal a little trickery of our own. Bobby Beach is bob k., and bob k. is Bobby Beach.
Some of you freaken suspected that.
Bob K has been something of an activist in the secular AA community. He has been one of the most prolific contributors to the websites AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief. He co-founded Whitby Freethinkers in 2013 and has made some efforts to support those who have started other nonreligious AA groups. In 2015, AA Agnostica published bob’s Key Players in AA History, a book that continues to sell well. Coming soon are a few other books, including “The Secret Diaries of Bill W.”
Articles by Bob K on AA Agnostica (those by Bobby Beach have a check mark – ✔):
- THUMPERTOWN THEATRE PRESENTS… Bill and Bob go to the Library (May 24, 2020) ✔
- What If We Built It And Nobody Came? (May 13, 2020)
- The Underground Railroad (April 26, 2020)
- The One and Only Kool-Aid (February 23, 2020) ✔
- Tales of Spiritual Experience (January 19, 2020)
- The Rainbow Group (January 8, 2020)
- WRITING the BIG BOOK: The Creation of AA (November 17, 2019)
- Unintended Consequences (March 31, 2019)
- We Are Diversity (March 20, 2019)
- Freaken Big Book Fundamentalists Hate Freaken Everything (February 24, 2019) ✔
- The Sad Tale of the Founder of Moderation Management (January 6, 2019)
- Bill W, LSD and AA Spirituality (November 18, 2018)
- Lord’s Prayer Threatened – Fundies go Wild (June 28, 2017)
- A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous (June 4, 2017) ✔
- The Kawartha Freethinkers (May 21, 2017)
- The Search for Self-Esteem (March 30, 2017)
- The Watering Down of AA (March 16, 2017) ✔
- Remembering Ernie Kurtz (January 19, 2016)
- Carl Gustav Jung (June 28, 2015)
- Anne Smith (April 26, 2015)
- Jim Burwell (March 22, 2015)
- Dr. Bob – Part Two (Akron-Style AA) (January 25, 2015)
- William Duncan Silkworth (October 22, 2014)
- Lois Wilson (October 5, 2014)
- Bill Wilson and Other Women (October 1, 2014)
- Sylvia K. – First Lady of Chicago AA (September 14, 2014)
- William James and AA (August 24, 2014)
- Slaying the Dragon (July 2, 2014)
- Alcoholism – What’s It All About? (May 25, 2014)
- Twelve Steps to Psychological Good Health and Serenity (April 23, 2014)
- Dr. Bob, AA Co-Founder – Part One (March 30, 2014)
- Young Bill Wilson – Part Two (December 1, 2013)
- Young Bill Wilson – Part One (November 24, 2013)
- Frank Buchman and the Oxford Group (November 3, 2013)
- Charles B. Towns (October 6, 2013)
- Clarence Snyder: Almost Co-Founder (September 15, 2013)
- Anonymity in the 21st Century (April 21, 2013)
- Marty Mann and the Early Women of AA (April 14, 2013)
- Edwin Throckmorton Thacher (Ebby) (February 3, 2013)
- Christmas, Christians, Lepers, and Alcoholics (Revisited) (December 23, 2012)
- Twentieth Century Influences on AA (November 18, 2012)
- Short of a Game Changer – Appendix II (October 21, 2012)
- God As We Understood Him (June 17, 2012)
- Heathens, Spies, Websites, Water-boarding & Carrot Cake (April 1, 2012)
- AA in the 1930s: God As We Understood Him (February 8, 2012)
- Does AA Need Religion: Agnostics on CBC Radio (January 29, 2012)
- Our Father Who Art Not in Public Schools (January 15, 2012)
- Christmas, Christians, Lepers and Alcoholics (December 29, 2011)