Reviewed by bob k

The resistance of free-thinking newcomers to the religious language of the literature is one of the principal concerns facing the secularist in AA, in pursuing the goal of helping others. Some authors, notably Gabriel Segal (Twelve Steps To Psychological Good Health)*, and Adam N. (Common Sense Recovery)*, for example, wade through the religious language to explore the philosophical merit and common sense value that lies beneath.

If there is need to alter terms and wordings, alter away. The usefulness is in the principles.

The Universal Edition provides a secularized version of key chapters of AA’s basic text. Presumably, one could hand a free-thinking newcomer this small volume and say, “Here’s what AA has to offer, once the religiosity is stripped away.”  Previously we could counsel folks to “Take what they want, and leave the rest,” but in reading the literature, the unwanted stuff is THERE, and “in your face.” It’s very hard to “not see.”

Mr Voxx has removed the religion and left the psychology. It is not a great stretch to suggest the Universal Edition resembles what might have been, had the Jim B. and Hank P. faction prevailed, at the time the original Big Book was being crafted.

That the author’s intent be clearly understood, the full INTRODUCTION follows.

“The 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the most successful program in history for addressing addiction. It represents brilliant, groundbreaking work in addiction recovery.

“As a part of the AA process, an individual undergoes a personal transformation. This is referred to as a spiritual awakening in the AA program. This transformation is not a religious conversion, but a change in how you view yourself and your relationships with others.

“To accomplish this change you must turn to a source of principles for conducting your life that are outside of your current thinking. In the AA recovery process these are considered spiritual principles. People who participate in AA draw on a wide variety of sources for these principles including organized religion and non-religious beliefs. Some participants are agnostic or atheist; with solid sources of spiritual guidance that work for them.

“There was pressure from within the team developing the Big Book and 12 Steps in the 1930s to make the source of the spiritual principles neutral.. That is, to not favor any one source. This did not prevail and the Big Book and the related 12 Steps are written, in great part, from the standpoint that the Christian faith and its God are the source of spiritual guidance. This presents a challenge for those individuals who do not embrace this particular perspective.

“This Universal Edition consists of key chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous (“The Big Book”) that have been modified to remove the religious emphasis. All of the content of the Universal Edition is the same as the original Big Book, except for changes considered essential to make it neutral from the standpoint of personal spiritual beliefs. As a result, the Universal Edition is completely compatible with all AA recovery work including meetings, sponsorship, and related activities.”

What follows are translations of THE DOCTOR’S OPINION, and Chapters 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, and 11. TO AGNOSTICS, TO WIVES, THE FAMILY AFTERWARD, and TO EMPLOYERS are relegated to the wastebasket.

“God” exits, replaced by higher power, uncapitalized. Prayer becomes reflection. Step 3 is modified to “the care of external spiritual resources as we understand these.” In 6 & 7, we become ready, and take action to remove our shortcomiings. The new 11 becomes “Sought through reflection and meditation to improve our understanding of our new spiritual principles seeking only knowledge of their meaning and the power to carry these out.

The famous three pertinent ideas are changed to b) That probably no personal effort could have relieved our alcoholism; c) That external spiritual guidance could and would if it were sought.

We may debate the details, of course – there is no pleasing everybody. Nonetheless, this is another asset in the growing body of literature helpful to the secularist choosing to pursue sobriety within the general AA framework.

Alcoholics Anonymous Universal Edition is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

*Review of Common Sense Recovery by Adam N, AA Agnostica, September 21, 2014

*Review of Twelves Steps to Psychological Good Health and Serenity by Gabriel Segal, AA Agnostica, April 23, 2014

Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318About the Author, Bob K

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

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  1. Bob K. November 21, 2015 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    Well, there’s no version that would please everyone. Personally, I’m not big on atheists using the term “spirituality,” but those that do tend to be referring to processes such as self-examination, amends, meditation, connection with the human network, etc. No “big Hughie.”

  2. Norm R November 21, 2015 at 2:47 pm - Reply

    What Voxx has done is helpful … I admire his initiative and believe that this little book might help those who can’t come to terms with the religiosity of “Alcoholics Anonymous “.  Might I, though, implore him to re-visit his wording of Step 3?  He has kept in place a very-thinly-disguised version of “Big Hughie”, an external agent who is summoned to take over for us.

  3. Dan H, Oceanside November 19, 2015 at 2:27 pm - Reply

    I’m sympathetic to everything in the sample except for this: In 6 & 7, we become ready, and take action to remove our shortcomings. Unfortunately–and this may simply be yet another tortured-language problem–removing my shortcomings implies agency where I may in fact be out of my depth in the same way as I am in regard to alcohol. For example, in light of recent studies employing brain scans we now know that the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for  regulation of complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning, critical analysis, etc., and probably the main site of identification as a reasoning individual–the “I”) generally works in harmony with the striatum, the seat of desire, motivation, and reward. That is, in healthy people it works in harmony. In some of us, however, the reasoning mind (the “I”) often cannot account for actions it seems to take as a matter of choice, actions that continually have negative payoff. Current research also shows that the reasoning mind is some milliseconds behind in regard to awareness of decisions that lead to actions–it then has to play catchup and say, “Yeah, I decided to do that.”

    And so it is, not only with my drinking problem but with other behaviors generated by desires–compelling motivations that express themselves as choices to what I call my “everyday waking mind” but are quite possibly something else altogether.

    I don’t suggest we throw our hands up and say, Well, I guess the God squad folks must be right. But we don’t have to turn to spooky religious theory in order to solve this puzzle. I believe that my “everyday waking mind” is but a portion of my overall psychic being–that there are depths outside my awareness. Again, current studies show that a tremendous amount of processing goes on beyond the limits of awareness. Stripped of its religiosity, AA’s central message–besides identification–is that somewhere in those internal depths is a component that will help us to restore a healthy balance between desire/motivation and higher cognitive function. And in terms of “character defects,” which are generated by the desire/reward/motivation circuit (and when out of balance show up as selfishness), this same component can be employed. I guess this would translate in “booker” terms as “proper use of the will.”

    • Laurie A November 20, 2015 at 3:02 am Reply

      Splendid – if a touch too cerebral for my poor brain! The Big Book tells enquirers in the chapter on Step Eleven, ‘God gave us brains to use.’ Well, I believe evolution gave us brains to use, but conscious intelligent rationality, although vital, is not the whole story – for example, what about dreams?

      Dan H. you speak my mind when you write of ‘depths outside my awareness’ and ‘internal depths’, what Jungians call the ‘real’ self and the Big Book describes variously as ‘ the great Reality deep down within us’, an ‘unsuspected inner resource’ and ‘our innermost selves’. I don’t ask for my character defects to be removed; I am their disciple. A turning point in my recovery came when I started to become grateful for the negative aspects of my personality as well as  my benign attributes.

  4. life-j November 18, 2015 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    Bob, thanks for this. I read it a while back, and it is inded a good attempt to take the BB beyond its religious roots. It reads so well, that I barely even noticed that things had been changed, except of course for the How it works section which I know backwards and forwards standing on my head sleeping. Hard not to notice the changes there. Anyway, it is done well, and I like the size too, indeed something manageable to give to newcomers, like living sober.

    He could probably have done a little better by rooting out the higher power stuff. That would have helped with focusing more on the peer to peer aspect, and less on the vertical one.

    But now, I’m having a harder and harder time reconciling any of the AA literature, other than maybe Bill Wilsons later, somewhat apologetic writings, with sane and sensible recovery. I’m feeling more and more like the only reason I’m holding on to AA is that that is where all the action is, that’s where people go, that’s what’s in the phone book everywhere, but that if it weren’t for that I’d just as soon chuck it all and start afresh. Well, that, and of course that for me personally it has been a major part of my life for 27 years and I can’t just cut all the personal relationships I have made, loose, just because I no longer like the AA philosophy. that would be even more traumatic than that time where I had to let my drinking buddies go.

  5. Edward November 18, 2015 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    This valid point is repeated ad infinitum.

    Over the last 25 years, I have seen tens, if not hundreds of newcomers, whose first meeting, here in England, unfortunately included sharing by starry-eyed, born-again Christians, who attributed their recovery to a personal divine intervention. Followed by being collared by proselytizing  “Old Timers”, in the break who informed them in no uncertain terms that they needed a sponsor who did it by The Book, and they would die a horrible death if they didn’t submit absolutely.

    Needless to say, most of them were never seen again. A few who stayed, made an honest effort to work the steps religiously, and yet could find no supernatural fairy godmother, and sometimes years later killed themselves, rather than drink in their despair. Or drank themselves to death, as they had been convinced that to drink again would kill them.

    We have failed these suffering Alcoholics.

    • Laurie A November 20, 2015 at 3:24 am Reply

      In 31 years’ unbroken sobriety I’ve attended AA meetings on average three or four times a week; occasionally, when ill on holiday etc fewer, but quite often more,  since retirement, often five or six. So I’ve attended thousands of AA meetings here in England and a few in America and Cuba (the ones is New York and Los Angeles I went to were very similar to my home group, not ‘Goddy’ at all.) But like everyone else my experience is limited, anecdotal and only covers a handful of the thousands of meetings held each week in Britain.

      The website aacultwatch acts as a sort of witch-finder general in naming and shaming the sort of groups to which Edward refers, e.g. Road to Recovery, Joys of Recovery etc. But they are in a minority and have no influence at Board level or Conference. And the uncomfortable fact for we sceptics is that those groups not only exist but get some drunks sober – they clearly meet a need otherwise they would be disbanded.

      And those groups could point the finger at wishy-washy liberals like me and accuse me of condemning newcomers to death by not introducing them to the old-time gospel as preached in Akron in the 1930s. They warn that liberal agnostic members fail suffering alcoholics. I’m amused by comments from people who have been exposed to the ‘God squad’ for many years in AA – but have not been ‘converted’ themselves! And they don’t drink on it (just nurse simmering resentments!) God (evolution) gave us brains to use – let’s use them.

  6. Laurie A November 18, 2015 at 12:30 pm - Reply

    Archer Voxx is only doing what the original Big Book compilers suggested: ‘When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you…‘ That’s on page 47 of my fourth edition.

    A footnote invites the reader, ‘Please be sure to read Appendix II on Spiritual Experience’ which includes the words, ‘With few exceptions our members find that they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource which they presently identify with their own conception of a Power greater than themselves. Most of us think this awareness of a Power greater than ourselves is the essence of spiritual experience. Our more religious members call it “God consciousness”.’  (My emphases). Even the most dogmatic atheist could admit to an unsuspected inner resource – unless they think they know everything, of course!

    • jodie a November 19, 2015 at 2:26 pm Reply

      Ironic, however, that Voxx relegated the chapter that gave us all that latitude “to the wastebasket.”  I’m excited to read some of it, and i can understand why it may have been a tough rewrite, but i can’t help being a bit disappointed.

      • John S November 19, 2015 at 7:41 pm Reply

        This isn’t the best writing in the world, but it’s how I imagined Chapter 4 We Agnostics could have been written: We Agnostics As It Could Have Been Written.

        At one time, I was going through the Big Book trying to find a way to make it work. Finally, I settled on just leaving it alone, stuck in 1939 and instead focus on new books.

        I have the Universal Edition of the Big Book and I’ve read through it. I can see how it can be useful and I think it’s a great contribution to our ever growing body of secular AA literature.

  7. Thomas B. November 18, 2015 at 11:02 am - Reply

    Thanks Bob K. for an excellent review of yet one other pertinent and helpful book in the expanding resources for AA recovery different from the orthodox Christian point of view espoused in the Big Book. Despite the resurgence of the “Back to Basics” folk, who harp back to their understanding of how it was “precisely” done in the early days of Oxford-group dominated recovery in Akron, we secular, unorthodox members of AA are expanding the horizons of alternative versions in AA for successful recovery, so that “anyone, anywhere, who reaches out for help” can, indeed, find recovery within the rooms of AA.

  8. Joe C. (@Rebellion_Dogs) November 18, 2015 at 9:09 am - Reply

    The flood-gates are open and it has made the recovery landscape more fertile and abundant. Remember when publishers were the gatekeepers? It really is a new paradigm. I would love to see a graph of titles about the peer-to-peer approach on a secular basis. Start it from the 1980s with SOS literature or maybe go back to Living Sober in the early 1970s. Philip Z was much needed but maybe because he was a trail-blazer, he didn’t get the recognition or notoriety he deserved (A Skeptics Guide to the 12-Steps, 1990). Good on Hazelden for publishing it.

    Now secular recovery is a whole sub-category. Be it anecdotal memoirs of doing just fine, thank you without the Steps, or apologist interpretations of secularized language that demonstrate that the principles are only religious if it suits you. Confession, “sinning,” the limits of mortality – these all play out in Judeo/Christian language (as we see in AA’s Twelve Steps) but they are more existential than religious, if you ask me. Assessing our behavior, our limits and our values is hardly a religious experience.

    I read Voxx’s FIVE PRINCIPLES which I liked. I’d read this one too, eventually. It’s cerebral but that’s not a bad thing. What I’m saying is Bill W did have a story-telling way about communication. As an author he made an emotional impact on me and the anecdotal stories of personal and AA early experience really stick to the ribs. I don’t find the same lasting impression from instructional writing.

  9. Chris G. November 18, 2015 at 8:49 am - Reply

    This sounds very interesting. I went to get the Kindle version, but it is not there on Amazon. Any way to contact the Author about an ebook version?

  10. dave b November 18, 2015 at 8:22 am - Reply

    Glad to see this.  I once edited god references out of the first 168 (or is it 186) pages.  Felt really good – but didn’t restate ideas much.  Glad to see chapters that would have been hard to fix were simply deleted.   Think I’ll have to get a copy.

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