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 benefit in its pages, each on their own secular path toward sobriety.
I have a spiritual mentor in the UK called Sue. Although a church-going Christian for many years, she no longer attends church due to the narrow-minded dogma surrounding the belief in a monotheistic God. Sue has been my guide and support since I first set pen to paper. She has always said from day one, “If your book helps 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, otherwise known as the “Big Book thumpers.” I wasn’t expecting such a barrage of judgmental condemnation, especially from people that proclaim to be 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 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 eleven and twelve. The goal is contented sobriety through s 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 alcoholic ego, is becoming the higher power that helps them to stay happily and usefully sober.
This gives rise to an important 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? For someone who has come to love and serve God, to get defensive and aggressive towards alcoholics that 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 AA 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 finding a higher power(s) that has helped me recover from alcoholism. It is described in the AA Big Book as a “hopeless condition of mind and body.” (BB “There is a solution” p.20)
Unlike the Big Book fundamentalists, I never tried to impose my belief system on anyone. “Love and Tolerance of others is our code” (BB “Into Action” p. 84) is something I learned early in my AA journey. I have kept Bill’s declaration foremost in my mind whilst writing the book. My position with the book’s content has always been, ‘Take what you need and leave the rest. An aggressive attitude from God-fearing alcoholics to AA members that have found a secular path to sobriety has always struck me as completely counter-productive.
A fundamentalist reaction to my blogs and book
I was invited to share my blogs on online forums 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. I was flatly told:
“You can’t be a ‘real’ alcoholic if you don’t believe in God.”
What a statement to make to another AA member!
This member knows nothing of my history as a homeless drunk and a frequent consumer of the prison system and mental health services. This is where alcohol took me when 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 “Step Two” 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? 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 or 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)