by John Lauritsen
The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. — H L Mencken, in American Mercury (March, 1930)
I conceive of a True AA and a False AA, both of which are present in most Alcoholics Anonymous groups. The True AA is the AA that works. This is the AA of the 24-Hour Plan: staying away from the First Drink a day at a time. The True AA is centered on the Fellowship: alcoholics sharing experience, strength and hope to help each other get sober, stay sober, and rebuild their shattered lives.
The False AA is one of dogmatism, cultic behavior, conformity, intolerance, anti-intellectualism, and helpless-without-God religiosity. The False AA not only repels nonbelievers, but many alcoholics who want to separate sobriety from religion, or are repelled by public god-talk. By driving away alcoholics who are desperately in need of help, the False AA kills.
Ideally, there should be a reformation of Alcoholics Anonymous. The literature would be secularized. The barnacles of religiosity would be scraped off. The True AA would prevail.
If not a reformation, then there should be a viable alternative, which incorporates the good things in AA, but gets rid of the bad. But for now, AA is the only game in town. Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) is admirable in many ways, but it has not caught on. Here in Boston, the only SOS meeting was sparsely attended and folded several years ago.
What we freethinkers (my favorite name) are left with is living in the Big Tent that AA is supposed to be. One approach is to form AA groups for nonbelievers, as has been done in many cities and was done in London over half a century ago.  Here the struggle is to ensure that these are treated as true AA groups, with all rights, including listing in meeting books.
Another approach, which I have practised successfully for 44 years, is to shop around to find people and groups that are relatively untainted by religiosity.
We should be open about our principled atheism or agnosticism. While we should not trample on the convictions of the religious, we should expect them to respect our own convictions. One of the very first “qualifications” I heard, in early 1968, was that of “Bob”, who was in his seventies and had been sober for over two decades. At the end of his talk, Bob proudly identified himself as an atheist and affirmed that he owed his sobriety to his own efforts and to the experience of other drunks, not belief in the supernatural.
Within the constraints of tact, we should not be timid in criticising AA literature, including the Twelve Steps and the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous). These should not be treated as Holy Writ, above and beyond human criticism. We freethinkers in AA have as much right to express our opinions as do the religionists.
AA literature is filled with double-talk regarding the Twelve Steps. Initially, when introduced in the Big Book, they are only “suggested”, which is to say, optional. But then the Steps become “the heart of the suggested program of personal recovery” (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services). And finally they become mandatory, as their author, Bill W., time and again asserts that without his Higher Power (= God), and following his Steps, no alcoholic will be able to get or stay sober.
Some AA members embrace the Steps, others hate them, and still others ignore or re-write them . When I came into AA over forty years ago, most of us translated the Steps into plain English. For example, the Third Step became simply: “Let go.”
We freethinkers cannot accept the Steps as written because of their gratuitous and offensive religiosity. In the spirit of “rigorous honesty”, I have prepared a searching and fearless critique of the Steps themselves. What do the Steps say, and how well do they say it? What do the Steps neglect to say? If my critique seems severe, it is because I consider the Steps unworthy of much respect — certainly not the veneration accorded them by some AA members.
A general critique of the Steps
Do “character defects” cause alcoholism, or does alcoholism cause character defects? Are we dealing primarily with psychological problems or with a physical addiction? This is the most basic split in alcoholism recovery. The foremost proponent of the physical addiction or “biogenic approach” was the late Dr. John Milam, co-author of what is still the best book on alcoholism, Under The Influence. Milam maintained that alcoholism has physiological bases. Alcoholism itself is the key problem; it is not just a symptom of something else. For Milam, recovery from alcoholism requires total and life-long abstinence from alcohol.
The fundamental flaw of the Steps is to posit that “character defects” cause alcoholism, rather than the other way around. While promoting the “spiritual” at the expense of the physical, the Steps don’t even mention the real heart of recovery: The 24-Hour Plan. The Steps fail to mention physical recovery, social recovery, financial recovery, or intellectual recovery — they fail to mention abstinence from other mind-altering drugs.
From my own experience, physical recovery is of crucial importance. Step 8 in my own “Freethinker’s Steps For Recovery From Alcoholism” reads: “We strived to be in good health: We stopped smoking, exercised, got enough rest, and ate nutritious food.”  It is sadly significant that Bill W., author of the Steps, was unable to stop smoking, even when he was dying from emphysema.
There are unsavory and venal aspects of Bill W’s Steps. The early members all agreed that they should not profit personally from AA. Bill also assented, but at the same time he and his partner, Hank P., were thinking in terms of millions of dollars of profits for themselves from sales of the Big Book. Bill’s manipulations — buying out Hank for a pittance when he was on a slip, conniving to get himself as the sole copyright holder of the Big Book — brought him millions of dollars in royalties, back when a million dollars was a fortune. Bill was faced with a marketing problem. If the Big Book merely contained information on alcoholism, it would soon be superseded by better books — but the Steps, if elevated to sacred dogma, would endure. Since Bill was the acknowledged author of the Steps, he was also their sanctioned Interpreter. And as the Steps became the heart of AA recovery, all of Bill’s writings took on a sacred character.
A specific critique of the Steps
I am hardly the first to criticize the Steps. Charles (“Chaz”) Bufe did a devastatingly fair job in his book, Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?, showing the pervasive influence of the Oxford Group, a quasi-fascist religious cult. My task below is to evaluate the Steps as guides for sobriety and leading a good life.
The Big Book passage known as “How It Works” (beginning of Chapter 5), written by Bill W., introduces and contains his Steps, and is read at many AA meetings. Probably few people really listen to the words, or grasp how irrational they are. Below, Bill W’s words are in italics, and my own comments are in regular type:
RARELY HAVE we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.
The words “we” and “our path” falsely imply that the steps developed out of group experience. Far from it. The Steps were written entirely by Bill W., who cribbed them from the Oxford Group — whose principles were intended to deal with sin, not a physical addiction. When Bill W. presented them to the fledgling group of recovering alcoholics in New York, the reaction was intensely negative. The nonbelievers especially were furious at Bill’s attempt to impose his religiosity on their recovery from alcoholism. The nasty passage above may be in part Bill W’s diatribe against his atheist and agnostic adversaries, who managed to stay sober in their own way.
After some more rhetorical blather, Bill W. perniciously asserts that no human being, by himself, can possibly stay sober:
Remember that we deal with alcohol – cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power – that One is God. May you find him now.
Implicitly, nonbelievers are doomed.
Then, after saying that we, “with complete abandon”, should ask the protection of a supernatural being, Bill W. gets to his Steps:
Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
“Powerless over alcohol” may just be a rhetorical way of saying “alcoholic”. It has a nice ring, but should not be interpreted as meaning that an alcoholic, by his own initiative and with the help of others, cannot permanently stop drinking. Untold thousands of low-bottom drunks, regarded by themselves and others as hopeless, have achieved good and lasting sobriety.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Sanity? Not sobriety? Are alcoholics lunatics or addicts? Who or what is this “Power”, and why is it necessary?
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Oh, now the “Power” is “God” — albeit “as we understood Him”. But what about us nonbelievers, who understand “Him” as the product of human minds, and existing only in them? What if we ourselves, now sober and again in possession of our faculties, want to take charge of our lives? What if we seek help from other human beings, rather than from “God”?
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Doing a personal inventory may be a good idea, but the word “moral” gives the game away. In Bill’s eyes, we drank because we were bad people, and to recover we must purchase his own brand of virtue.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Confession time. Now it’s “God”, without any euphemisms or qualifiers. The newly recovering alcoholic, who may have lost everything, needs hope and encouragement, but instead Bill W. harps on his “wrongs” — thus indicating that the “fearless moral inventory” will only include sins or weaknesses, but not virtues or strengths. The alcoholic is told to blame himself, rather than a physical addiction or circumstances beyond his control.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Bill was determined to have exactly 12 steps, so he threw in this one, pointless as it is.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
More humbling of the recovering alcoholic — pushing him down rather than raising him up.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Another list, another call for self-abasement. Many, perhaps most alcoholics, harmed no-one more than themselves.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
This should have been combined with Step 8. Still more blame heaped on the recovering alcoholic.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Another pointless step. Admitted to whom? — oneself or others?
11. 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.
The religiosity gets even heavier. Does “conscious contact with God” mean that He speaks to us directly, telling us what He wants done? This step prescribes total self-subjugation, total denial of any independent will. It is a step for slaves or zombies.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
It is presumptuous to claim that a “spiritual awakening” will result from these vague and skimpy steps, or is a prerequisite for recovery from alcoholism. What does “this message” mean? — the message of Bill W’s spiritual hokum, or the message of sobriety? Having arrived at the 12th and final step, Bill still hasn’t mentioned staying away from the First Drink.
Many of us exclaimed, “What an order! I can’t go through with it.” Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we were willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.
And some of us exclaimed “What self-aggrandizing drivel!” What does this mean? — “to grow along spiritual lines”? — “spiritual progress”? — “spiritual perfection”?
Our description of the alcoholic, the chapter of the agnostic, and our personal adventures before and after make clear three pertinent ideas:
(a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
Contrast this helpless-without-god propaganda with the phrases I heard in beginners meetings over four decades ago: “A day at a time you don’t drink.” “Don’t pick up the first drink.” “It’s the first drink that gets you drunk.” “You don’t have to drink!”
(c) That God could and would if He were sought.
How much better to say that a recovering alcoholic, with the support of others, can lead a good life in sobriety!
Bill W’s Steps are not just poorly written. They have nothing to do with recovery from alcoholism. By placing total reliance on “God”, they lead away from the Fellowship: the help of other human beings. By harping on “spirituality”, they depreciate the practical aspects of rebuilding lives in sobriety. In short, the Steps are part of the False AA.
The Steps are harmful in many ways. They tend to weaken rather than strengthen the recovering alcoholic. A century before Alcoholics Anonymous, the Washingtonians believed in kindly and gently approaching alcoholics who were down and out, restoring their self-respect, and helping them to help themselves. In contrast, Bill W’s approach was to deflate and further humble the recovering alcoholic. Always Bill is blaming the victim: the alcoholic is always wrong, never society or customs or circumstances or other people.
Whether the Steps are helpful, harmful, or both, it is intolerable that they should become sacred dogma. Everyone should be free to criticize or reject the Steps — openly, and without risk of ostracism. Every AA member and every AA group should be free to reinterpret and re-write the Steps, in line with the principles of the AA Preamble and the Twelve Traditions. The True A.A., the Fellowship, belongs to us Freethinkers as much as it does to the god-people.
As expressed in Tradition Five, our concern should always be for “the alcoholic who still suffers”. We cannot allow worshipers of the False AA to drive away the newcomer, whose life is at stake.
References / Further Reading
Anonymous, Dr. Bob And The Good Oldtimers, 1980.
Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age, 1957.
Susan Cheever, My Name Is Bill, 2004.
Ernest Kurtz, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1979.
Dr. James R. Milam and Katherine Ketcham, Under The Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism, 1981.
Matthew J. Raphael, Bill W. and Mr. Wilson: The Legend and Life of A.A.’s Cofounder, 2000.
 R.L. Wild, “Only With God’s Help?”, http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/WILD.HTM, (accessed Dec 14, 2012).
 John Lauritsen, “A Freethinker’s Steps for Recovery from Alcoholism,” http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/STEPS.HTM, (accessed Dec 14, 2012).
 John Lauritsen, “Washingtonian Forebears Of Alcoholics Anonymous,” http://aaagnostica.org/?p=2787 , (accessed Dec 14, 2012). John Lauritsen, “Washingtonianism,” http://paganpressbooks.com/jpl/WASHINGT.HTM, (accessed Dec 14, 2012).
About John L.
John L. has over 44 years of continuous sobriety. He believes that he owes his life to the AA Fellowship. Nevertheless, he has been an atheist all of his adult life, and has always been open about his atheism. Within AA there is, or is supposed to be, great freedom both for groups and for the individual.