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.

Sorry, Sandy.

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.

Presto Change-o

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 growthAfterward, 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.

Key Players in AA HistoryBob 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 – ✔):


15 Responses

  1. Dan C. says:

    Excellent piece. I’m grateful for the “liberals” in NY… I don’t think I would have made it! Peace

  2. Karl J says:

    This has been a real sticking point for me,”that one is god may you find him now”. After 10 years in traditional AA I was beginning to get pissed off having to ignore my own thoughts. Thankfully We Agnostics offers a wider gate to pass through. I do however hope one day AA will not have to be prefaced by god, agnostic, or atheist; after all, all three are a belief in one form or another.

  3. Dale K. says:

    OMG! What’s next on your cruel list of bubbles to break? Please don’t tell me it’s Santa Clause! Or is that santa clause in your minuscule world?

    Thanks, bob, Bobby or whoever you are today.

  4. Doc says:

    I came into sobriety and AA in 1969 and don’t remember anyone insisting on a belief in god as either a prerequisite or a requirement to sobriety. During the drive to my first AA meeting–180 miles one-way, my first sponsor, who knew I was an atheist, talked to me primarily about the traditions and about the fact that I could declare myself in and no one had the right to exclude me. It seems to me that AA, or least some AA members have become more vocal about the need for a deity as a requirement for sobriety.

    In my own path to sobriety, I simply ignore the god-stuff.

  5. John M. says:

    Nicely done as ever from an historical point of view, Bob, to point out the ever-apparent religious trappings of A.A. literature and group-speak, as well as the ruses and sleight of hand “trappings” set for…well, who? Not sure your otherwise sharp and lucid critique makes this clear (although it’s implicit in your text).

    So, who is your piece for? Certainly not for the secularly inclined since most of us, like you, stay in A.A. un-seduced and not tricked by the subterfuges you describe, having been able to see through them from the beginning.

    Not for the small, secular subgroup of “strange creatures,” like me, who find much that is worthy in the Big Book and the 12 & 12. (But to say we are “fine” with how this literature is written is stretching it a bit, Bob.)

    Not for the religious liberals you admit we’re more interested in your recovery than in adhering strictly to an A.A. theology of recovery.

    Not for the folks like Ernie Kurtz or Bill White who feel that the Traditions are more important to A.A.‘s health and longevity than 12 Step literature, in that, the Traditions’ paradoxical promotion of unity and, at the same time, it’s insistence on group autonomy creates an inherently subversive principle built into the very structure of A.A. itself.

    And certainly not for those inclined to believe in the religiosity in the first place, since they are precisely inclined this way to begin with.

    But perhaps your essay is for those who are on the fence between belief and non-belief and, of these, the especially “vulnerable” newcomer who may very well get seduced by the threat that getting sober and remaining sober is impossible until one finds God. Of course, the last thing these folks who desperately want to get sober and stay sober is to hear this wicked proviso.

    The “vulnerable” folks should always be the focus of why we seculars offer our resistance to the religious bias contained in A.A. literature as well as by the proselytizers in the rooms.

    I know you know all this, Bob. Just making sure Bobby is clear about it.

    • bob k says:

      Within my circle, both live and online, are a small number of atheist Big Book Thumpers. They claim the Bigga Booka needs no modification as the “outs” like “Higher Power” and “our own conception of God” make the book almost belief-neutral. I know that’s hard to believe. They should be institutionalized for severe cognitive dissonance. That small percentage of folks got me thinking about people who ignore the parts of the book they dislike while pretending they are mainstream.

      There are many, many others doing essentially the same thing. They see no conflict with the literature because they disregard the lines cited in the essay. A notable percentage of AA members who wouldn’t identify as atheist or agnostic see themselves as following the literature, despite having “higher powers” not remotely resembling the God of the book or the God of the dictionary.

      Our constituency is larger than the numbers indicate. There are a great many still doing gymnastics in order to “fit in.”

      • John M. says:

        Dear Bob,

        I guess I still have a lot of patience for these type of folks you describe since I’m pretty much Sartrean in being reluctant to designate my choices as the best or the most authentic that can be made. But I absolutely cannot remain indifferent to the damage and pain done by those proselytizing predators in A.A. who insist on telling newcomers that it takes a religious conversion to get and stay sober.

        Your piece is right on to expose the sleight of hand that can be used by these excluders and the use of ready-at-hand God language is easily manipulated for their purposes. If the folks you are referring to ignore these predatory types that I mention out of some sort of “belief-neutral” indifference, all the more reason for your essay today as a pertinent and timely disquisition.

        Thanks as always for the work you put into your various posts.

  6. bob k says:

    I find some irony in the thumpers whose selective thumping is not supported by the text. The same folks are the ones who don’t like words like “suggested” so they parrot some tripe about “parachutes,” or tell you that IN A 1939 DICTIONARY, “suggestion” is defined as a “subtle command.”

    Lots of our crowd don’t know much about what’s in the book. More strangely, neither do some of the folks calling themselves thumpers. Those who think the literature is inclusive need to take a closer look.

    Maybe Bobby Beach should have written this one 😉


  7. Thomas B. says:

    Excellent as always, Bob. Bobby or whoever the F — you are, or are not !~!~!

    I too am most grateful for my initiation into AA in New York City, Manhattan precisely, on the Eastside and the Upper Westside, along with the Midnight Meeting, my first home group, where I learned the essence of how to stay sober: “Don’t Use, Go to Meetings, Help Others.”

    I’m coming up on my 48th Anniversary of being sober from my primary drug of addiction, 16oz cans of Colt .45, preferably by the case lot, and some 40 years clean and sober – yup, in the hazy, lazy, long-ago days of the 70’s some folks in AA, including employees of GSO and Intergroup with whom I hung out, smoked marijuana, including occasionally yours truly. I am exceptionally grateful that I had a strong urge under the influence of MJ to get what I really wanted: good and shit-faced drunk on a case of Colt .45 – that scared me straight & I have been continuously grateful ever since…

    • bob k says:

      Your kind words are always appreciated and invariably contain pearls of wisdom. Thank you so much for your consistent participation over the years.

  8. Dean W says:

    Thanks for another entertaining article, bob. AA is not an organized religion, but it is clearly a religious organization, and one that is in denial of its own religious nature. I’m interested in your answer to a question I have repeatedly asked myself in the past year or so:

    As an unbeliever, why do I want to belong to a religious organization, especially one that denies that it is a religious organization?

    • bob k says:

      That’s a fair question.

      I had little alternative to traditional AA in 1991. I came, got sober, and made many friends. I see a huge part of the fellowship that is far less religious than the literature. What I see in what we are now calling “secular AA” is a diversity of opinion on this issue. A minority would like to separate and form and independent organization. I think we’re WAY too small to do that presently.

      My experience over the years is that newcomers who attend multiple meetings do better than those who don’t. There are only limited areas where there are multiple face-to-face secular meetings. As the founder of a secular AA group, I’ve watched very many folks try to get sober by coming once a week to the only secular meeting in the area. The results are atrocious. Were we a separate organization, new folks would be less likely to participate in “the other” organization.

      I have religious friends and am bothered very little by their beliefs. I am undamaged by what I hear in conventional AA. Hopefully, some are helped by what I say.

      • Dean W says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I can relate to the lack of alternatives to AA 30 years ago, although back then I wasn’t put off by AA’s religiosity – that came much later for me. I have a long history with AA and some strong emotional ties, yet I find myself philosophically and ideologically out of place, so I have my own cognitive dissonance/identity crisis/whatever to work through.

        I appreciate your take on the religiosity of the literature vs much of the fellowship. But the fellowship keeps cranking out religious literature, in particular that unbeliever-hostile cash cow, the Big Book (still officially the basic text). Another issue for me is the structure of the fellowship. Advisory actions have set the orthodox Steps and Traditions in stone, and as long as the fellowship is following Tradition Two I think AA will always be by definition a religious organization.

        And thanks for sharing your experience with newcomers. I think staying sober and helping others is still my prime imperative. Where and how to do that is the question.

  9. Larry g says:

    That was a really fun read. Thx very much.

    I now feel compelled to share an insight I was given by my dad in summer 1977. I was 20 years old and about to leave home to join a Christian organization. He explained that all systems of belief, whether religious, political, spiritual, or philosophical, are anchored in a cognitive act of faith. That there are no absolute truths. Believing otherwise is really clever (maybe otherwise) self deception. When people claim the absolute truth…..well let’s just say that it gets complicated at best. I argued with my dad and told him he was wrong. Aaaahhh the certainty of a being twenty and convinced I had found the truth. Danged if I didn’t eventually realize my dad was right. May we all acknowledge the role of faith no matter what we believe. Doing so makes much better humans.

  10. Lisa M. says:

    I just loved this article Mr. B! I love that looking up of the meaning of words. So from on line Oxford English Dictionary – my favorite today : Psychology The influencing of a person to accept an idea, belief, or impulse uncritically, especially as a technique in hypnosis or other therapies.
    This looking up of words gets me out of my rumination and on a quest. All good. Thanks.

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