The “God” word – AA pamphlet

The "God" word

July 21, 2022

By Andy F

Categories: Alcoholics Anonymous

In the beginning

The fellowship was born on June 10th, 1935. On the day that Dr Bob took his last drink. The founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous is Dr. Bob’s first day of sobriety. Unquestionably, AA’s involvement in the Oxford groups heavily influenced the spiritual beliefs of the early members. Bill’s encounter with God at the Towns Hospital. (Dec 1934) also played a pivotal role in the fledgling fellowship to embrace the Oxford group’s Christian values.

The Oxford Group* was a Christian organization founded by the American Christian missionary Frank Buchman. Buchman believed that the root of all problems was the personal problems of fear and selfishness. Further, Buchman believed that the solution to living with fear and selfishness was surrendering one’s life to God’s plan. In 1938, Buchman proclaimed a need for “moral re-armament,” and that phrase became the movement’s new name. Buchman headed MRA for 23 years until his death in 1961. In 2001, the movement was renamed Initiatives of Change. The co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous met through the Oxford Group and codified several of its tenets into AA, the first twelve-step program (Wikipedia).

James Burwell (Sobriety date 15th June 1938)

The first and most important event regarding the history of agnostics in AA occurred in January 1938. Into the fellowship arrives Jim Burwell. Following several months of relapse, Jim’s last drink was on June 15th, 1938. He remained sober for 37 years until his death on September 8th, 1974

Jim was AA’s first atheist. Known also as Jimmy B or Ed the atheist, he was unhappy with the religious emphasis regarding recovery from alcoholism. Who can blame him? Six of the twelve steps mention the “God” word and higher power. Jim loved AA from the beginning, but like me, he was unable to accept any divine deity as a condition for recovery. He believed that the fellowship would only flourish if it were modified to welcome all alcoholics despite their religious orientation.

Jim’s Contribution to AA

Following much-heated debate and negotiation, Bill Wilson and the early members agreed to several changes to the literature proposed by Jim Burwell.

He was instrumental in initiating two critical changes in the twelve steps.

In their original form, steps three and eleven, found on p.59 of the Big Book, both require a direct relationship with God.

Step Three: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

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

Thanks to Jim, the qualification “As we understood Him” was included in both steps.

Step three. “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God (as we understood Him).”

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

“Wilson hardly exaggerates when he notes that “God as we understood him” is perhaps the most important expression to be found in A.A.’s lexicon. That short phrase has made membership in AA possible for millions of people who otherwise would have never been able to cross over its threshold into sobriety.”

(William H Schaberg).

More changes attributed to Jim

Jim is also credited with the inclusion of tradition three into AA’s twelve traditions:

“The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking” (12&12 P. 139)

Jim was instrumental in making yet another change to the Big Book. The word “suggested” was included in Chapter Five, “How it works.” This word made the twelve steps less rigid and more open to individual choice and personal interpretation.

“Here are the steps we took, which are “suggested” as a program of recovery” (BB p.59)

 “There is no question that Bill came very much to appreciate the contribution of Jim Burwell and the other atheists and agnostics in early AA. As he put it, “They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”

Roger C – “A history of agnostics in AA” (Amazon April 7th, 2017)

There is no question in my mind that as an agnostic alcoholic, in all likelihood, I would not be alive today were it not for Jim Burwell. At the beginning of my recovery, I could not surrender to the twelve steps as presented in the Big Book. I had to seek an agnostic interpretation. Clearly and tangibly, Jim made the AA program more accessible and welcoming to guys like me. I will always be grateful to Jim for his enormous contribution. He made AA more inclusive, which gives AA its unique spiritual quality.

The “God” word – AA Conference-approved pamphlet

In my mind, the second most important event in the history of agnostics occurred in May 2017. This was when the “literature committee” of AA, in collaboration with the “General Service Conference,” approved the publication of a new pamphlet. It is called – The “God” word. It aims to welcome atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers into the fellowship.

Its purpose is to reassure newcomers that AA is not a religious organization. In the pamphlet, you will also find ten short stories. These stories explain how agnostic members found their own interpretation of a non-divine idea of a higher power. They explain how this greater power helped them to get sober and recreate their lives.  You can read the pamphlet by clicking the above link.

A free PDF copy of the pamphlet can be downloaded from the AA website:

A landmark event

The creation of this pamphlet has been a landmark event for alcoholics in AA who didn’t believe in the traditional idea of God. Before its publication, many members didn’t believe it would give AA their best shot. On hearing frequent mention of God, many walked back out again.

This pamphlet is the work of a group in London, UK. It is known as the Thursday Islington Agnostic, Atheist, and Freethinkers group. Much hard work and negotiations with AA’s “literature committee” was necessary. In May 2017, the Thursday group succeeded in getting the pamphlet published.

Why is this piece of AA literature so important? Up to now, Alcoholics Anonymous has had a reputation for being very traditional. Perhaps by remaining inflexible to change, the General Service Office believed that AA’s long-term survival was assured. Many atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers in the fellowship strongly feel that the fellowship has to move with the times. It has “to change and adapt to the huge social changes, demographics and expectations of the 21st century.” (Islington AA&F group)

For the AA conference to approve the “God” word pamphlet is an unprecedented event in the history of the fellowship. On a personal note, I express my heartfelt gratitude to the Islington AA & F group for creating this literature. After reading this pamphlet, I wondered how many non-believers have stayed in AA and saved their lives.

The fellowship’s long-term security and survival

Perhaps the General Service Office (GSO) of AA realizes that if it is to grow and flourish, it has to adapt. More and more alcoholics are coming to AA without believing in the traditional idea of God. Its long-term survival must now depend on letting go of its former rigid and conservative traditionalism.

Is AA finally becoming more spiritually mature? The publication and approval of this pamphlet should dispel any misconception that AA is a quasi-religion. Despite the use of the word God, the fellowship has never resembled a religion in the dictionary understanding of that word.

I was thrilled with the publication of the “God” word pamphlet. It was further validation that Alcoholics Anonymous is indeed a spiritual, not religious, program. For many of us identifying as non-believers, its publication is a most welcome and heartwarming event in the history of agnostics in AA.

In fellowship

Andy F

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