Atheist Big Book Study: How it Works
We will examine this chapter in detail to see what if anything we atheists can glean from it’s pages, and it seems the best approach is to divide the chapter into three parts; the introduction of the twelve steps, the third step, and step four. But before we proceed any further let’s gain some historical perspective.
In our previous discussions we mentioned that A.A. originated from the Oxford Group, a Christian evangelical movement of the 1930’s. Ebby T. who was helped by the Oxford Group’s teachings explained to Bill W. how those tenants helped him get sober. Bill W. passed this on to Dr. Bob, giving birth to Alcoholics Anonymous, which would soon number 100 people. It was these first 100 members of A.A. who helped Bill write the Big Book.
They summarized what they learned from the Oxford Group in six simple principles:
- We admitted we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol.
- We made an inventory of our defects or sins.
- We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence.
- We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking.
- We tried to help other alcoholics, with no thought of reward in money or prestige.
- We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for power to practice these precepts.
These six concepts would evolve into what we now know as the Twelve Steps. Ernest Kurtz in his great work Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous described the night that Bill W. wrote the Twelve Steps:
“Sprawling on his bed in an anything but spiritual mood, one evening, Bill W. poised his yellow pencil over the school tablet propped before him. Quickly, lest he block, he scrawled the words “How It Works” across the top of the page, then paused to meditate about the six-step procedure which his associates at the previous meeting had agreed pretty well summed up what they had learned from the Oxford Group. Too preachy, too goody-goody, he winced; also too complex and even unclear if one did not know the teachings of the Oxford Group…Wilson began to write, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path…”
According to Kurtz, Bill intended to break up the six-step Oxford Group process into smaller pieces, and as he wrote that night the words seemed to flow quickly and easily. When he finished he noticed the steps numbered to twelve which he found somehow spiritually significant, thinking of the twelve apostles.
Kurtz describes the scene as Bill W. was ready for the group to see his work, “debate began almost immediately, as visitors arrived and Bill completed his first reading aloud to them. Three points of view emerged. Conservatives thought that the book ought to be Christian in the doctrinal sense of the word and that it should say so; liberals who had no objection to the use of the word ‘God’ throughout the book but were dead set against any other theological proposition, and the radical left wing, the atheists and agnostics who wanted the word ‘God’ deleted from the book entirely. They wanted a psychological book, which would lure the alcoholic in. Once in, the prospect could take God or leave him alone as he wished” (Kurtz, Not God).
The image posted above, is a copy of the original manuscript of the first page of “How it Works”. You can enlarge the image by clicking on it, and you will see the original language that was crossed out and the new verbiage that was added. The original version used language that was much more direct, instructional and religious than the final version that we know today. Using phrases such as:” Throw yourself under God’s protection and care with complete abandon”, “Now we think you can take it”, “Humbly on our knees asked Him to remove our shortcomings”.
Bill sought compromise among the conservative, liberal and radical factions as he was deciding what changes he would accept. Two of the so called “radicals” Hank P. and Jim B. argued fiercely for the removal of any mention of God, but they were far outnumbered. Jim B. is credited with offering the suggestion to include the phrase “as we understood him” when referencing God.
Although Jim’s modest suggestions were accepted by Bill W., it seems to me that Bill didn’t understand atheists nor did he try. Throughout the Big Book atheists and agnostics are portrayed as people who need to be convinced to open their minds to the idea of having a personal relationship with God. He genuinely believed that he had a spiritual experience granted by God, and it was his sincere view that this experience was absolutely necessary to recover from alcoholism.
Of course, it is entirely possible that Bill’s experience was the result of the drugs he was administered as part of the bella donna treatment he received when coming off alcohol for the last time. This seems to be the least complicated explanation requiring fewer assumptions, and the one that makes the most sense. But alas we aren’t talking reason here.
Let us now examine how the steps are introduced in this chapter, and see what we agnostics and atheists may find useful.
The steps are introduced with an assurance that anyone can recover provided they have the capacity to be honest with themselves and is willing to go to any length. However, they must have God’s help and they are urged to “find Him now”!
I can only imagine how many thousands of people have heard this read at their first meeting and because of their own belief system, decided A.A. was not for them.
Atheists don’t believe that gods exist, and agnostics claim no knowledge of the existence of gods. Neither has seen any evidence of god and are perfectly content with their viewpoint. Atheists and agnostics live in a society where the vast majority of the people believe in a god, yet they still reject the idea. What needs to be understood is most atheists and agnostics have thought through their position quite carefully, sometimes over a period of many years. They are satisfied with their worldview and there is no reason for them to change it.
Maybe in 1939 it was acceptable, but in the 21st Century, it is completely unnecessary to insist that a belief in a god have anything at all to do with this. Why couldn’t these religious people believe their God would help even those who don’t believe? Is their God so spiteful as to punish unbelievers with drunkenness? Of course it makes no sense, nothing having to do with religion makes any sense. It would have been quite alright to simply say, “we need help”. That’s all, and where that help comes from is up to the individual. Some may believe it comes from God and others believe it comes from other alcoholics.
As an atheist, I filter out the religiosity and derive some nuggets of truth. What I learned from the introduction to the steps is that recovery requires the following:
Willingness to change
Asking for help
Can it really be that simple? Yes, and as mentioned earlier, science has shown repeatedly that the more simple hypothesis is typically the best.
Our atheist friends Jim B. and Hank P. strongly pushed to tone down the religiosity. They told Bill that that there was “too much God” in the Twelve Steps. Bill W. agreed to a compromise as shown in this quote from Not God by Ernest Kurtz.
“In Step Two we decided to describe God as a “Power Greater than Ourselves”. In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words “God as we understand him”. From Step Seven we deleted the expression “on our knees”. And as a lead in to all the steps we wrote these words: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a program of recovery”.
The Twelve Steps are suggestions only, and this was an important compromise that makes it possible for us all to have our own individual perspective and unique experience with the steps. We can, if you will interpret the steps in such a way that they fit for us.
There are any number of ways an atheist or agnostic can interpret the steps. What follows is my own brief interpretation garnered from my own personal experience in recovery. It shouldn’t be too important to you what these steps mean to me. What is truly important is what if anything they mean to you.
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable.
When I made it to my first AA meeting and saw this step, I really felt like it was the best description of my situation. I was powerless over alcohol and my life had become unmanageable. For me, this step means that I admit that I have a problem with alcohol. I cannot control my drinking and as a result, my life fell apart. I need help. An admission of powerlessness does not mean that there is nothing I can do about the situation. It is merely a starting point, an acknowledgement that I have a problem. The remaining steps help me regain control over my life and the power to become free of alcohol.
Step 2: Came to believe that with help we could recover.
I interpret this step by removing “power greater than ourselves” and “restored to sanity”. I found that after having admitted that I had a problem in step one, I can now come to believe that there is hope for me, but I will require help. I come to believe that with help, I will get better, I can recover. This is very important to me because I spent many years in active alcoholism rejecting help at every turn, believing that I alone could solve my problem. This attitude was killing me. If I am to recover, I need to break free of my resistance to asking for and accepting help. I came to believe that I could find that help in A.A., not from a supernatural power. I am helped by caring and loving human beings.
Step 3: Made a decision to change our lives by committing to this simple program of recovery.
By the time I reached this step, I realized that I had more problems than out-of-control drinking. In my new found sobriety, I began to experience life without my crutch, and this brought on a lot of emotional pain. I was frequently in conflict with others, my relationships with my family was strained, my emotions were often out of control, and my life still felt like it was unmanageable even though I was no longer drinking. With this realization, I made a decision to change by committing myself to the remaining steps.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
I think examining our past is a healthy practice, and there can be real psychological benefit derived from it. When I went through this step, I gained new perspective not only of myself, but also of other people who played an important role in my life. It was a positive experience that we will discuss in more detail later.
Step 5: Admitted to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
In step four I learned about the underlying emotional problems that may have fueled my alcoholism, and in this step, I discuss these things with another person. I felt a great deal of relief in doing this, and found forgiveness for myself and others.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to be rid of all these defects of character.
After discovering some truths about myself and learning which personality traits were holding me back, I became willing to rid myself of these basic flaws and to build character by overcoming my fears, insecurities and resentments.
Step 7: Humbly and persistently worked for the removal of our shortcomings.
This step requires me to persistently work towards character building. This is hard work that may last a lifetime. It can involve seeing a therapist, and attending A.A. meetings or other support groups. There are many ways we can work at ridding ourselves of the shortcomings that cause so many problems for us. The humility comes from simply recognizing we need help and asking for it.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
My alcoholism didn’t occur in a vacuum, other people were impacted and it was a good practice for me to understand just who was hurt and how. My list really was made in step four, but now I had to become willing to make amends for any harm that I may have done others.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible except when to do so would injure them or others.
I believe it’s extremely important to exercise caution and to not harm somebody through making amends. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for someone we harmed is to leave them alone. Personally, I found that most of my amends came from changing my behaviors.
Step 10: Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
This is a great step. It’s all about stopping during the day and taking a look at how we are doing. Was that email I sent done in anger? Why did I do that? Do I owe an apology? We aren’t beating ourselves up here, we are simply trying to form healthier relationships with others and to gain a better understanding of ourselves.
Step 11: Sought serenity to accept what we could not change, courage to change what we could, and wisdom to know the difference.
The original wording of this step is asking us to improve our awareness and contact with God through prayer and meditation. That doesn’t work for me because there isn’t a god with which to make contact. Instead, I looked at what I am trying to really achieve here and I found my answer in the Serenity Prayer.
Step 12; Having recovered as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
I have recovered and my life has improved largely because other people helped me, and now I want to give back and help others. I’m not trying to proselytize here. I am simply trying to help those who want help.
Don’t let the fundamentalist deter you from interpreting the steps in a way that makes sense to you. It’s okay to think about these things. Contrary to what you may have been told, your thinker is not broken.
The root of our troubles
A core concept of A.A. is the destruction of self-centeredness, and this was an important concept for me to grasp. It makes sense that I became increasingly self-centered through my addiction. Addicts and alcoholics have to think about themselves a lot and the trouble that we get ourselves into often requires some fancy footwork to get out of, and often at the expense of others.
If you believe that an alcoholic needs to experience a fundamental change in their thinking to recover, then step three is important because this is the first time we have to stop and think of what else needs to change besides quitting drinking. In my opinion, self-centeredness is a good place to start.
So in my atheistic vernacular Step three:
“We made a decision to change our lives by committing to this simple program of recovery.
Before, I am willing to change my life, I need to understand what needs to be changed. When I first arrived at A.A., drinking pointed to all of my problems, or seemingly so. I never took the time to look any deeper than that. But after being sober for some time, I noticed that I was often angry and resentful. Feelings that I used to drown with alcohol could no longer be drowned out. I had to get down to the bottom of what was behind my drinking.
In step three, I became acutely and painfully aware of just how self-centered I actually was, and I wanted to change this by going further into the steps to learn more about myself and the action that I could take to become a better person. That’s what step three meant to me and it was totally grounded in reality. There was nothing supernatural or magical about it at all.
The final section of “How it Works” addresses steps four and five, which in A.A. we refer to as the housecleaning steps or as the Oxford Group put it so aptly “confession”. I know many people feel that we are being too hard on ourselves, blaming our drinking on bad character, needlessly beating ourselves up. That’s not what this is about at all. These steps are about discovering the truth about ourselves.
Resentment is a frequent topic of discussion at A.A. meetings and it’s no wonder. In this chapter, resentment is considered to be the “number one offender”. I disagree with Bill W. when he writes that “all forms of spiritual disease stem from it”. There is no such thing as a spiritual disease, but there is such a thing as resentment, and it is a trait that we want to have under some control.
What is resentment? It is simply feeling something again. It’s thinking back to a past event and feeling the emotion it carried as if it were happening right now. What’s wrong with this? In my opinion and from my experience I found that resentment is a form of self-deception. When I am reliving the past event and when I do so repeatedly, the resentment begins to take on a life of it’s own. Although, grounded in truth, we often add more to it over time, so that eventually the version of events in our head doesn’t match at all with reality.
In step four we take a look at those past events that cause us pain or discomfort today, and we ask ourselves why we have them. We aren’t looking for who is right or wrong, we simply want to know the truth about what happened and why we carry the painful memory. When I did this, I found that sometimes I had good reason to feel hurt. There are some things that happen to us in life that are’t our fault, we had no role. In those instances, we can only look at what part of us was impacted.
When I talk to another person about the resentment and fear that I carried with me all my life, and that person shares with me similar feelings and experiences from their past, I come to understand that I am just another person in this world doing my best. And my parents were only people doing there best, and their parents and their parents before them. We humans are connected to each other, we are all very much alike.
As an atheist, I can gain quite bit of good from this chapter. I have trained myself to remove the religious terminology, but that’s not difficult. I find nothing about the Twelve Steps that can’t be interpreted in a way that is meaningful to me.
But is all this necessary, do we really have to do these things to stay sober? I don’t know to be honest. I don’t think everyone needs to do these things. I have heard of people who stay sober and happy through the fellowship alone. In my opinion the community we find in A.A. is the single most underrated factor of our recovery. In A.A. some people claim that the fellowship alone can’t keep them sober. Maybe that’s true for them, but for me it’s extremely powerful and I don’t think I could have got sober without it.