Five AA Myths that Critics and Zealots Share

By Jesse Beach 03/16/16

What do AA fundamentalists and AA bashers have in common? They're both wrong.

Five AA Myths that Critics and Zealots Share

Big Book thumpers and AA critics fall prey to a common stereotype about what defines AA — It’s a myth that Alcoholics Anonymous is a program. Yes, there is a program but AA is not a program—it is a fellowship with a suggested program. The characterization of AA as a program is pervasive. We always hear, “How long have you been in the program?”

Radical inclusion and inalienable rights are inherent in membership, and that’s important to us. One of our rights is to embrace or reject AA’s Twelve Steps—which are twelve of many arrows in the AA quiver—which include the one day at a time concept, the benefit of a mutual-aid society, and the value of experience. Membership rights are not dependent on twelve-step obedience or being able to quote from Alcoholics Anonymous, the book that shares the fellowship’s name. Let’s look at how both pro- and anti-AAs fall prey to erroneous presumptions.

Dr. Lance Dodes is known to Fix readers as an AA skeptic. In the chapter “The Myths of AA” from his book The Sober Truth, Dodes reveals a blindness to his own AA fallacies. The good doctor describes AA as imposing unavoidable givens: “admitting powerlessness … (turning) our will and lives over to the care of God … its one-size-fits-all treatment philosophy … the idea that addicts have character defects,” and so on. 

“But Dr. Dodes,” I say. “I don’t believe in a prayer answering, sobriety granting God. I don’t believe AA is a one-size-fits-all treatment or philosophy. I’ve been sober for 40 years, stacking chairs and helping newcomers. Am I not as AA as anyone?” The Sober Truth condemns bad science but refers to the aforementioned beliefs and practices as constants with which we are asked to judge Alcoholics Anonymous. However, two million AA members practice AA in ways that are as unique as their thumbprints. Dodes has included presumptions in his analysis where constants ought to be. Bad doctor! 

Now let’s check in on AA fundamentalism. Toronto Intergroup is currently under the microscope for kicking groups to the curb for the crime of reciting an agnostic interpretation of AA’s Twelve Steps. You can’t read a modified version of the Twelve Steps and call yourself AA, Intergroup espouses. Is what they say true? Are the Twelve Steps sacred? Can they be both suggestions and prerequisites?

I contend that in a fellowship with no rules for members nor authority over AA groups, nothing is sacred and nothing is forbidden—no matter how reckless this liberty may seem. What Toronto’s new and improved Traditions 2.0 preach is out with unity and in with uniformity; conform or be cast out. Bad Intergroup!

Both the critic and the zealot assume that to be AA, everyone kneels at the altar of the Twelve Steps, and a pretty strict interpretation thereof. While both sides may find wide agreement with their presumptions, there was a time when you could reach unanimity for your flat earth theory. Popular opinion doesn’t make something true. Only facts make something true. 

Relying on evidence—not popular opinion or our own biases—is what makes a freethinker, according to Bertrand Russell:

“What makes a freethinker is not his beliefs but the way in which he holds them. If he holds them because his elders told him they were true when he was young, or if he holds them because if he did not he would be unhappy, his thought is not free; but if he holds them because, after careful thought he finds a balance of evidence in their favor, then his thought is free, however odd his conclusions may seem ... He will not bow to the authority of others, and he will not bow to his own desires, but he will submit to evidence.”

So let’s examine the evidence to see if AA was created as a book, a program or a fellowship. Ladies and gentlemen, here are five easy to find, myth-busting facts about AA.

1. The Preamble 

Read at the vast majority of AA meetings to explain to newcomers exactly what AA is, Alcoholics Anonymous is defined as a fellowship of men and women who share stories. The Preamble is more about what AA isn’t—not religious, not organized, non-affiliated, no dues. There’s no mention of any program, either.

2. The Twelve Traditions

Surprise! There’s no program described or defended in the Twelve Traditions. Tradition Three emphasizes belonging without doing or believing anything. AA’s architect, Bill W., always described AA as a society of common suffering—not devotees of a universal solution. 

Tradition Five uses italics to emphasize that every group’s purpose is to carry its message—not the message from on high—which is crafted to meet the needs and personality of the group, echoing Tradition Two and Four. Because no modality or belief system is obligatory, self-governance replaces any need for groups or members to be subjected to popularity contests or to require approval for changes to group policies. 

3. The Twelve Concepts of World Service

You won’t find procedures in AA to punish nonconformity. While the General Service Board is charged with maintaining the integrity of the Steps and Traditions, the concepts directly defend groups against governance regarding the use of, rejection of, or artistic liberty with our suggested Steps and recommended Traditions. In the final word, Warranty Six of Concept XII states:

“Much attention has been drawn to the extraordinary liberties which the AA Traditions accord to the individual member and to the group; no penalties to be inflicted for nonconformity to AA principles … no member to be expelled from AA—membership always to be the choice of the individual; each AA group to conduct its internal affairs as it wishes … Because we set such a high value on our great liberties and cannot conceive that they will need to be limited.”

4. Party like it’s 1935

AA’s anniversary is another indicator that AA is a fellowship, first and foremost. If AA was primarily the Steps or the Big Book, wouldn’t our anniversary be on the date of publication of Alcoholics Anonymous? But that’s not how we do it. AA’s birthday is June 10, 1935. While not historically accurate, June 10th is deemed to be the birth of AA, a symbolic marker of the first time one alcoholic, sober but struggling Bill W., was able to help another alcoholic, Dr. Bob, put the plug in the jug. There was no program and no book; we were born of an oral tradition and damned if it doesn’t still work that way—except for a few fundamentalists and their revisionist view of our history.

But speaking of the Big Book, the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous includes 28 stories of alcoholics plus one Al-Anon story. We know how the stories end, for these 28 storytellers are dead now. Fourteen never drank again after writing their stories. Seven returned to drinking and presumably died of alcoholism or related symptoms. Seven relapsed but eventually returned to live and die sober in AA. So here’s a confirmed case of the controversial claim that AA is 75% effective. Half got sober right from the get-go, another 25% eventually maintained sobriety, and 25% couldn’t be helped.

Keep in mind, none of these 28 worked the Twelve Steps exactly as written because their stories were compiled before the Steps were conceived or published. We presume that some used a six-step variation and some borrowed from the Oxford Group, but there was no codified program. 

5. The AA group

There is a pamphlet called “The AA Group” in which, again, no beliefs, behaviors or structure are mandated upon members.

Since I got clean and sober in 1976, I’ve been to meetings in nine states, seven provinces and five other countries. Still, I haven’t been to even 1% of AA’s 115,000 meetings. There are a lot of meetings. Most meetings read the Twelve Steps as part of the format, but some do not. Some read from Alcoholics Anonymous while others find it old-fashioned. 

In one of my regular AA groups, the Preamble is read before the chair shares/identifies for two to five minutes, then asks for three topics from the floor which she or he writes on a sheet of paper, which is then circulated around the room while people share. The meeting closes with AA’s Responsibility Declaration. Sometimes the Steps are discussed, but there is no ritualistic reading from “How It Works” or anything else in the Big Book.

I support the right of individuals to hold or express deeply held beliefs. If you credit the Twelve Steps for your sobriety, keep up the good work. If you have criticisms of AA, keep them coming. There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm for AA’s suggested program; there’s also nothing wrong with being skeptical. 

But don’t assume AA has a common doctrine. There are members with four weeks of sobriety and members with forty years of sobriety who dismiss the Steps or pick only a little and leave out quite a lot. What is AA? We are our members and we are our stories. We aren’t something that happened way back when; AA evolves. 

Bill Wilson knew this. He loved his Steps but he loved alcoholics more. As AA was finding international growth, the first Buddhist groups changed the Steps for their members. Buddhists don’t believe in a personal higher power. The word “God” didn’t make any sense for Buddhist alcoholics who were getting sober in AA. But Bill didn’t tell them to go start their own fellowship. Here’s what he said, as recorded in the chapter “Unity” in the book AA Comes of Age:

“To some of us, the idea of substituting ‘good’ for ‘God’ in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of AA’s message. But here we must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.”

So if you want to express AA as a program, have at it. But understand that that’s not the AA we inherited from our founders—at least, not according to the facts. 

Clean and sober 40 years, Jesse Beach is a pseudonym for Joe C.—writer, radio host and author of the first secular daily reflection book, Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life (Rebellion Dogs Publishing, 2013). Jesse last wrote for The Fix on Toronto Ban on AA Atheists Sparks Global Flap. 

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Jesse Beach may be a contrarian. Clean and sober since the disco-era, Jesse finds the prayer-answering, sobriety-granting higher power notion a wee-bit superstitious for his pallet. Still, he finds a secular view of 12-Step culture no impediment to contented recovery. As a rebel, he's no follower either. Anonymity is so-last-century in this next-Gen smiley faces and voices recovery culture. Jesse's not shy; he just finds the message is the medium - not the messenger. Be the face and voice of recovery; have at it; Jesse is kickin' it old-school. Psst, Jesse Beach might not even be his real name. 

Besides addiction/recovery lifestyle journalism, Jesse's word-smithary is also found in music, finance and cue-sport magazines and websites. Jesse hosts a radio show on Sirius XM called, IndieCan Radio, "the best music you've never heard!" When he's away from his computer, you'll find him mountain climbing, cooking or songwriting.

Lurk or make contact with Jesse B on Rebellion Dogs at his website, Twitter, and Facebook.