The Fraud That Is AA Fundamentalism

By bob k

It may be that Alcoholics Anonymous has never been more polarized than it is in the mid-teens of the new millennium. A consolation is that there was another time of great divisiveness.

Good God! There’s A Lot of God!

As the book was being written and discussed in late 1938, there was “strong but warm-hearted arguing, until they reached Chapter Five…where Bill wanted to explain exactly how they (the steps) worked…{He} was in no way prepared for the violent reaction when he read his twelve steps to the group a few nights later…The liberals were appalled and said so.  As a body they seemed suddenly to backtrack and take up a solid position beside the radicals.

“There was far too much God talk in the steps.” (Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p. 253)

The Myth of Unanimity

In the end, an “as we understood Him” was added here and there, an “on our knees” extracted. The general “you should, you must” tone morphed to “we did,” notwithstanding that they hadn’t. The final compromised product, no doubt disappointing to virtually all, is sold as unanimously agreed. “To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book.” (BB, p. xiii) Thus the book crows “…that we have discovered a common solution. We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree…” (BB, p. 17)

In order to believe these claims, it is then necessary to take up the rather preposterous position that identical actions were taken by Bob Smith and Jim Burwell. The paths of the enthusiastic returnee to the Congregational Church Christianity, and the irredeemable atheist, were one and the same.

“What would it take to put you into that Brooklyn Bridge TODAY??”

Minister’s son, Fitz Mayo lobbied forcefully for a book laced with Jesus Christ, biblical quotations brightening every page. Hank Parkhurst insisted on stressing the psychology of the process in a text that was godless. Yet, we are to accept that one and all were delighted with the final product.

One hour spent in a committee-room would dispel these fictions.

At the end of every viciously fought political leadership convention, there is a ceremonial final vote. The winner is unanimously endorsed. The group conscience is respected, as they march forward, to battle the common enemy, feigned esprit de corps being better than none at all.

In reality, the compromise was disappointing for most. For those whose relief from a horrendous dissipation came by way of a surrender to Jesus Christ, what the hell is this “as we understood Him,” but wishy-washy nonsense? Thus, the bible-loving folk of Akron continued much as they had been before, detached from the Oxford Group forebears only in name.

At the other extremity, the “non-god” higher power of non-believers must nonetheless be called God, (capital “G”), “as we understood Him,” notwithstanding that one’s understanding be neither of God, nor of Him. Forevermore, we have a book describing “One who has all power,” and advocating a total denigration of human power of any sort.

The heathen minority did the best that they could.

And a peace fell upon the land. Sorta.

“And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31)

Such was the “genesis” of the book.

Spiritual (Yum Yum) – Not Religious (Yuck! Boo!)

One frequently hears, and it is certainly one of the earliest assurances to newcomers, that Alcoholics Anonymous is “spiritual, not religious.” Of course, within minutes, someone is very likely to chime in with, “Our book was DIVINELY INSPIRED!!” – written NOT by mere human beings, but by the Creator His own Damn Self.

The claim of every religion EVER!

Should it be true that God, and not Bill Wilson (a mere agent), authored the steps and the rest of it, perhaps we should be nervous. We edited God. That seems like a bad idea. And what about JC? Left out entirely, might he not go all temple crazy on our money-changer asses?

But relax – AA has no requirement to go to church. Phew!! Your Sunday morning golf foursome, or delightful brunch, is undisturbed.

Worship Of The Holy Book

We are now in an era where segments of the sober folk gather rather cultishly around some charismatic, or not so charismatic, leader. Within these groups, great pride is taken in the strictest possible adherence to the book’s “instructions.” Those who are sober without a diligent obedience, in every detail, to the Big Book prescription, are dismissed. They are not “real alcoholics,” mere hard drinkers demonstrating their capacity to quit drinking quite easily through mere human resources. (These are the atheists, agnostics, and various other malingerers)

The “enthusiastic” follow the book to the letter, except of course, for the parts they don’t like. “Suggest” in its various verb, noun, and adjectival forms is particularly upsetting, and triggers ridiculous comments about parachutes, and entirely new, fanciful definitions.

“If you look up ‘suggestion’ in a 1939 dictionary, it means ‘a subtle command.'”

No, actually, it doesn’t.

Yes Dear, I have a few subtle commands about your cooking…..

Page 59 is translated to, “Here are the steps we took, which are  subtly commanded as  program of recovery.” Page 164 converts nicely to “Our book is meant to be subtly commanding only.” SHEESH!! Why “only?” But nice and firm, with no room for mucking about! Plus, pushing people around is SO much fun!

Elsewhere, the writer seems to have anticipated the 21st Century meaning. “There are many helpful books also. Subtle commands about these may be obtained from one’s priest, minister, or rabbi” doesn’t quite cut it. (P. 87)

“We believe, and so subtly commanded a few years ago, that the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy.” (P. xxviii) It all gets a bit silly, under even a minimum of investigation. Just one more – this is so much fun! “There is every evidence that women regain their health as readily as men if they try our subtle commands.” Do NOT try that one at home, guys!

But, preachers gonna preach (about a book that tells us not to preach).

Other cool translations

“We realize we know only a little” = “We know everything.”

“There are…no lectures to be endured.” = “Sit down and shaddup – the lecture starts NOW!!”

“Chip of a book.” = “Entire order of fish and chips of a book.”

“Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” = “Here, let us help you with that. ‘Our Father Who…'”

“When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God.” = “Naw, not really. God is God, right? Creator. One who has all power!! Big “G,” little “o,” little “d.” THAT guy!”

“Either God is everything or else, He is nothing.” = “Entirely your choice. Pick ‘A,’ or pick ‘A.'”

“Spiritual Experience Appendix??” “Nya nya nya nya – not listening. Not in the 164!”

We Even Hate Our Own Stuff

AA’s second main text, the 12 + 12, is vilified. Living Sober is the scourge of Satan. All manner of evil stems from the “watering down” of the original sacred “directions” of the sanctified “First 100.”

The forces of the “recovered” carry a crystal clear message that God is NOT optional.  God, not higher power, is mentioned 182 times, or 247 times, or 324 times in the book, we are told. Not sure, why the cited number  is always different, but never mind – it’s A LOT! (The fundies should have a meeting, and synchronize their watches, or something).

War has been declared against the heathen horde, unscrupulously at work to remove God from the AA program.

The evangelists are very vocal, as evangelists tend to be, and for them AA must be forever frozen in time, at 1939. Amid the fragmented modern AA world of diluted methods and treatment center contamination, they wax nostalgic in a contemplation of “the good old days,” the early 40’s, when the sacred book was followed to the letter by one and all.

But was it so?

The Golden Age Mythology

So many years later, the fundamentalists tell us of the magnificent age of AA, when ONE AND ALL scrupulously followed to the very letter the sanctified script of our God-given text. In little sub-sets of the self-congratulatory, self-esteem skyrockets amidst shared tales of diligent practice of the codified instructions.

There is a missed irony, of course, in the various explications of an “uninterpreted” page-by-page adherence to the directions, each group differing in small ways, one from the other. Perhaps this is an inadvertent tribute to the Christianity from which we are spawned.

“Akron AA” is mythologized, but the Ohio people created a 15 cent pamphlet, at a time when the cherished book was $3.50. A simple inflation calculator tells us that Bill and his anointed crew were ready and willing to save any and all who could pony up (in today’s money) 60 bucks!


Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas penned this cautionary note – “Beware the man of a single book.” Flying forward some centuries to a world of then unimaginable technology, we can check Yahoo Answers “BEST” for the implications of the phrase:

“A man of one book knows only one way.  He is unwilling to consider alternatives or flexibility, and his stubbornness will become irritating in the short term, and dangerous in the long.”

The mantra of the Big Book thumper is that the writing of the book unified AA, and that a “recipe” was recorded, and followed with exactitude by one and all. What AA history tells us occurred, is something substantially different.

But, perhaps it’s best to not let the facts get in the way of a good story.

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.






Audio Version

The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is intersted in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Peter Ascroft
Peter Ascroft
1 year ago

Might be wrong but this seems to be a peculiarly American debate-not something that in my experience (27 years of meetings in both UK & Europe) is manifest this side of the pond.View here seems to be that there is no prevailing view-the few extremists tend to congregate together and are largely ignored by the majority and get fairly short thrift..For me-I wasn’t going to have a debate about terminology when I was dying and having put in a few days since the initial meeting couldn’t care less what anybody believes-only question for me is “does it work”-my illness,my recovery,my… Read more »

1 year ago

As understood allows for all projections.

Bob K
Bob K
1 year ago
Reply to  Mike

I’m happy that was your experience. Those who see “as we understood Him,” as opening the gates for one and all to an acceptance of the text as written, really don’t understand the position of those who don’t. My understanding of “God,” is much like that of others raised in North America in the early second half of the 20th Century, and much like what is found in our book. I don’t believe in that, or anything else properly defined as “God.” Any higher powers I used in working my way through the 12 Steps, are not something I would… Read more »

A Grateful AA Member
4 years ago

I accept the discrepancies.  Doesn’t bother me at all.  Neither does it concern me that atheists sit next to agnostics and are then flanked by muslims, christians, etc. in the meetings I attend. I have seen and know personally many of the fundamentalists that you describe.  I’ve been here since the spring of ’87; a babe compared to some but you see a lot in that time if your eyes are open (I, too, came in via the ICYPAA and other YPAAs.)  People will take issue on both sides but there is little difference to us in the middle that… Read more »

Bob K
Bob K
1 year ago

I see myself as a middle-of-the-roader as well. I am not loved by the aggressive element of the non-believing AA community. I’ve attacked both extremes somewhat. Extremists on both sides have it coming.

David S Cornelius NC
David S Cornelius NC
4 years ago

Bravo Bob K! I last drank   In November 1987. Prior to that I had been court ordered to AA meetings every day for six months, and Three times a week for three years after that. This was after 21 days in jail.   So from the middle of 86 until 1990 I went to a boatload of meetings. A big boat. 1990 to the present  my attendance has Been sporadic.   This is due to initial   And continuing dismay  with the religious zealots,  personalities hijacking meetings with their “musts”,  sound byte AA  much like our society has become… Read more »

bob k
bob k
4 years ago

Good to see people still encountering, and appreciating, “The Fraud That Is AA Fundamentalism.” I think it’s a classic, but I may be prejudiced. The AA that I encountered in the early 1990s around Toronto, Ontario was more liberal and inclusive than what I find today. The “special people” who know precisely how to recover (and where to place the semi-colons) were quite rare. AA had a wide gateway. Of course, there are more conference speakers touring the country spreading their insightful fundamentalism, and t-shirts, to those seeking to be “above the crowd.” Their attempts to deliver perfect AA to… Read more »

2 years ago

I have often thought about the irony. Here is a program that, above all, encourages change in it’s members. example: “The only thing I had to change was everything”. The program itself is 100% resistant to change.

John the Drunkard
John the Drunkard
4 years ago

I’ve always been struck by the phrase: ‘here are the steps we took.’ We know internally that The Steps were FIRST composed in the writing of the book. The original version was rejected by the membership and the One True Version composed before the first printing. So how did ‘we’ take the steps before they existed? If you read the 1st edition stories, you can see how the actions that later composed the steps were worked out. The Steps are reverse engineered from that first small sample of experience. Did ANY of the first 100 actually do ANYTHING like the elaborate… Read more »