Big Book ‘Thumpers’
Can you remain sober and happy in AA as an atheist or agnostic?
My first book, The Twelve Steps for Agnostics, was published on Amazon on the 21st of August, 2021. The positive comments and reviews from secular AA members have been encouraging and heartwarming. I am very grateful to report that atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers in AA have found benefits in its pages, each on their path to sobriety.
I have a spiritual mentor in the UK called Sue. Although a church-going Christian, she stopped attending church many years ago. Sue told me that she could no longer tolerate the narrow-minded dogma surrounding the belief in a monotheistic God. She has been my guide and support since I first set pen to paper. Sue has always said from day one, “Andy, if your book helps just one alcoholic who doesn’t believe in God find a way to recovery, then it was worth writing.” It continues to be a great joy whenever someone finds the book helpful.
An unexpected turn of events
What has come as a surprise is that the book has recently begun to attract negative comments from certain quarters of the twelve-step community. Of all places, these have come from AA fundamentalists, sometimes referred to as the “Big Book thumpers.” I wasn’t expecting such a barrage of judgmental condemnation, especially from people who proclaim to be the humble servants of a loving God.
One would suppose these AA fundamentalists are happy and secure in their relationship with God. Why must they attack alcoholics pursuing a secular path to sobriety? Many are open to spirituality but are more inclined to follow a path leading to a non-God-centered spiritual awakening. Since AA’s inception in the 1930s, when AA was heavily grounded in the Christian ideals of The Oxford Group,* times have now changed.
The Oxford Group
“The Oxford Group was a Christian organization (first known as First Century Christian Fellowship) founded by the American Lutheran minister Frank Buchman in 1921. Buchman believed that fear and selfishness were the root of all problems. Further, Buchman believed that the solution to living with fear and selfishness was to “surrender one’s life to God’s plan.
The tenets and practices of an American Oxford Group greatly influenced the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although not the only alcoholic to get sober in an Oxford Group, Ebby Thacher’s sobriety led to Bill Wilson’s. Eventually, Bill Wilson’s efforts to carry the “spiritual solution” of the Group to suffering alcoholics led to Dr. Bob’s sobriety in 1935. Shortly after, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob founded Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)”. Wikipedia
A non-theistic spirituality
More and more alcoholics are attracted to modern non-theistic spirituality. These days’ alcoholics are coming into recovery with a keen interest in mindfulness meditation, eastern mysticism, Buddhism, and New Age spirituality. These are paths that many AAs are now embracing in their work on steps three, eleven, and twelve. The goal is contented sobriety through a non-God-centered spiritual awakening.
Many are beginning to realize that with the help of the “Truth” uncovered in steps one to nine, the higher power frequently mentioned in the AA literature is to be found within. “The higher self” is an expression that is becoming increasingly popular in the twelve-step community. The Higher Self, absent the maladapted ego, is becoming the higher power that helps them to stay happily and usefully sober.
The new ideas offered through modern spirituality raise an essential question that begs an honest answer. Suppose the Big Book fundamentalists are happy and secure in their relationship with God. Why do they get so defensive and hostile when confronted with atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers in AA? To get defensive and aggressive to members who have found a secular path to sobriety seems like a complete contradiction.
The General Service Office (GSO) of AA
When I first began writing The Twelve Steps of Agnostics, I needed to contact the General Service Office of AA. I wanted to be clear that the book was not violating the traditions. GSO reassured me that the AA program is completely ‘open to personal interpretation.’ It was never my intention to try and convince anyone of anything. I just wanted the book to be a helpful resource for agnostic alcoholics like me who have struggled to get sober.
Throughout the book, I shared what worked for me after surrendering to the guidance of agnostic-friendly sponsors. The book’s purpose was to save other alcoholics from years of relapse. Sadly, this was my own experience. That said, I was very determined to persevere with the program. I refused to quit until the miracle of the twelve steps was also mine.
However, it became increasingly clear that I would have to find a power greater than myself to help with my powerlessness over alcohol. My journey in AA has been discovering a higher power(s) that has helped me recover. Bill describes the alcoholic illness as a “hopeless condition of mind and body.” (BB p.20)
Unlike the Big Book fundamentalists, I never tried to impose my beliefs on anyone. From my early days, I acknowledged a statement in the Big Book, “Love and Tolerance of others is our code” (BB p. 84). I have always tried to keep this declaration foremost in my mind. My position on the contents of The Twelve Steps for Agnostics has always been, ‘Take what you need and leave the rest.’ An aggressive attitude from God-fearing alcoholics to members of AA who don’t believe in the traditional idea of a monotheistic God has always struck me as entirely counter-productive.
A fundamentalist reaction to my blogs and book
Recently, a friend invited me to share my blogs online. It is of particular interest to alcoholics in recovery. As mentioned, I got a swift and adverse reaction from members with strong fundamentalist views. In their mind, atheists and agnostics can’t get sober in AA without God! One such member quickly put me in my place for declaring that the twelve steps work as well for non-believers as they do for believers. The fundamentalist member flatly told me:
“You can’t be a ‘real’ alcoholic if you don’t believe in God.”
What a shocking statement to make to another AA member!
This member knows nothing of my history as a homeless drunk. From an early age, I was a frequent consumer of the prison system and mental health services. An alcohol addiction took me to this very dark place by the time I was in my mid-teens.
Members of the fellowship have the right to believe in whatever they want if it keeps them sober and happy. Yet, some Big Book fundamentalists get angry and hostile when an agnostic declares that anyone can recover, whether they believe in God or not.
What are they so frightened of? They have convinced themselves that only a divine being called God can keep them sober. In their minds, using AA itself (Group Of Drunks) as a higher power wasn’t enough. This declaration made clear the fundamentalist position.
Every alcoholic has to believe in God to recover from alcoholism. Yet, in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, tells us something very different.
“You can, if you wish, make AA itself your higher power.” (12&12 p 27)
Bill Wilson. Co-founder of AA
Has Big Book fundamentalism always been a part of the AA way of life? It certainly was when I was a newcomer in 1984. Was it always as radical and extreme as it appears to be now? That’s an interesting question. Would Bill Wilson have supported this kind of radical fundamentalism? I very much doubt it.
Responsibility Is Our Theme
“Newcomers are approaching AA at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture, and religion. In AA, we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed principle or therapy, whatever, should be a first consideration for us all. Let us not, therefore, pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive; let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.”
Copyright © AA Grapevine, Inc. (July 1965)