Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater: The Merits of the Big Book

By Jo-Anne K.

There is an old saying that suggests we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. In other words: there may be some nuggets of gold (or a kid) in that dirty water. That is how I feel about the Big Book (BB). There is a great deal in the book that I find objectionable, especially as an atheist. However, I have also found pieces of brilliance contained within it.

I am not suggesting that everyone embrace the BB and all of its doctrine. I am only suggesting that there may be some ideas that recovering folks may find helpful. As for what isn’t useful, I will not go into all of the negative things that disturb me about the BB: the Christian slant, the sexism, the misogyny. I recognize these but have found they may be overlooked. Suffice it to say that I have a whole chapter that long ago I literally put a paper clip around. The information was just not relevant to me. The whole concept behind being a freethinker is that everyone has a right to decide for themselves what is relevant to them and what is not. What I will discuss in this essay are a few of the things that I have found to be helpful to me.

First though, my reason for writing this essay. Some individuals in the agnostic, atheist, and freethinkers meetings of AA would have you believe that the Big Book is useless and that it is not essential to read. Unfortunately a newcomer, having found a group of people that they think may help them maintain sobriety, may hear this and take it to heart. As a result they may not even consider reading the BB. In my opinion, this would be a shame. The newcomer may actually find, as I have, some ideas and concepts that are vital to their recovery.

Big-Book-3I offer this review as an option. Having been out as an atheist for a number of years I have re-read the BB and I will present to you some of the things that I have found to ring true for me.

• Withdrawing from alcohol can be very difficult; it can in fact be deadly. One very practical idea that is proposed in the BB is that hospitalization may be necessary to deal with withdrawal. Treatment for alcohol withdrawal is mentioned twice in the BB. Its merits are suggested in the foreword on pages XXIV and XXVI: “for the alcoholic who is very jittery or befogged”. As well, Bill Wilson’s own experience with treatment is mentioned on page seven and then again on page 13.

• In the chapter “Into Action,” the Fifth Step is described and this caution is offered: “We have no right to save our own skins at another person’s expense” (74). In doing a Fifth Step and making amends a recovering alcoholic may feel that they want to “come clean” about a behavior to the person harmed. I take this portion of the book to suggest that, yes, we should tell someone about our behavior–but not necessarily the person that was impacted. For example, we need to consider whether we need to tell our aging parents about every time that we were in fact not at work but were out drinking when we cancelled plans with them.

• I always thought that I was a very selfless person. I believed that I was kind and helpful to others. There is a section in the BB that challenged these beliefs. It begins on page 60 with: “Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show; is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, and the rest of the actors […] in trying to make these arrangements our actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self-sacrificing.” Of course this doesn’t always work and the results may be disastrous with arguments and ruined relationships. Here is what rang true for me: “Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind?” The reality is I don’t know how everyone should run their lives. I only think I do. If I try to make people act as I want them to act chaos usually ensues.

• I found something in the Big Book that was very helpful to me in understanding how much I should or could do for another suffering alcoholic/addict. “If he is not interested in your solution, if he expects you to act only as a banker for his financial difficulties or a nurse for his sprees, you may have to drop him until he changes his mind. This he may do after he gets hurt enough” (95). This sounds rather cold and uncaring. However, it helped me to see that if I loaned money or pcontinually doled out sympathy to a person that was continuously relapsing (in today’s psychology field this is known as enabling) then I was just keeping them from feeling what they needed to feel in order to hit bottom and subsequently seek recovery.

• On page 122 of the BB there is a request for compassion for the family of a practicing alcoholic. “Years of living with an alcoholic is almost sure to make a wife [partner] or child neurotic. The entire family is to some extent ill.” We don’t get to be completely selfish in our recovery. Compassion is required for those around us who may have been affected by our drinking/using. I usually suggest to the partner of someone that I am working with that they might find some compassion and understanding in Al-Anon. This section of the BB also helped me to recognize my own Adult Child of an Alcoholic issues. I wasn’t just an alcoholic, I have also been affected by my family’s drinking and I need to continue to be healed from that or I will not stay sober.

• Unfortunately, I sometimes hear in the rooms that God is the only thing we need and if we pray right we will be relieved of our addictions, cancer, kleptomania, or whatever else troubles us. There is a section of the Big Book which contradicts this: “… this world [is abundantly supplied] with fine doctors, psychiatrists, and practitioners of various kind. Do not hesitate to take your health problems to them” (133). Sound advice if you ask me.

AA-Big-Book-I did not relate to all of the stories in the Big Book. My life is quite different from the lives of the (mostly) men that are described in the book. However, there were a number of things in the stories that I could relate to and that I found very helpful, despite being a woman of the 21st century.

• Early in my sobriety it was suggested to me to read the chapter titled: “Freedom from Bondage.” I found the first few paragraphs in that story to be very helpful in understanding what my alcoholic drinking was all about. It seemed I had to drink or I would go insane. Reading it again I still find it to be true. “I am one of those whose history proves conclusively that my drinking was ‘a symptom of a deeper trouble.’” “Through my efforts to get down to ‘causes and conditions’ I stand convinced that my emotional illness was present from my earliest recollection.” (544). I never did react normally to emotionally charged situations. I have always considered myself to be an emotional coward. I needed a crutch. Something to help ease the blow. These quotes are still very comforting to me. I realized I was not the only one that had these issues and that my alcoholism was not just about how much I drank.

These are a few of the nuggets of gold that I have found in the Big Book. There are many others. Since I do not believe the BB to be sacred writing I have had no qualms in taking parts of it and re-writing them so they fit better with my world view. I have written another version of the 12 Steps, for example, and taken out the God stuff. Also, I have written a secular version of the “acceptance statement” on page 449 but the meaning is the same: I have to accept reality for what it is and deal with my response to it.

I believe the BB should neither be formally re-written, ignored, or cast out of AA. I believe it should be accepted as a text that was written in 1939 when the fellowship was very young. Much more has been learned about alcoholism and about the development of human beings since then, which makes some of the writings irrelevant. However, I believe the BB should be left intact and considered a historical document, one that may be beneficial to anyone seeking recovery. I think we should be adding to the literature of AA by writing from the perspective of atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers. How do we as secularists stay sober? How are we different from the believers in AA and more importantly: how are we the same?

About the Author, Jo-Anne K. 

Jo-Anne K. is a member of The Beyond Belief Group in Toronto. She believes that working the principles of the steps into her life has resulted in her 29 years of recovery. She and others from her group have recently added a secular step meeting to the group.


The photography for this article was created by Jan A. from The Broad Highway Group in Bandon, Oregon.

Audio Story

The audio version was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georiga. Len would like to start a secular AA meeting in his area. I you would like to join him, please send an email to

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Roger C.
Roger C.
5 years ago

I have finally gotten around to being able to tell you that I think this was a very helpful article, Jo-Anne. There are good insights in the Big Book and that is indeed why it will always have an important place in the archives of our fellowship.

Some time ago, Jo-Anne, Joe C. and I were part of a Canadian radio program discussing secular 12 Steps. You can hear that right here, if interested: Agnostics in AA talk about the 12 Steps on CBC Radio .

Jo-Anne K
Jo-Anne K
5 years ago

Hi, Doris. Thanks for asking me to write it. I too ask people to read it and not have “contempt prior to investigation”.


Doris A
5 years ago

Jo-Anne, I am so grateful to you for having written this article, and it’s nice to see the  lively discussion it has generated.   I am beginning to work with a new sponsee who actually wants to read the BB although she rejects the religious talk within the meetings.  I will tell her to feel free to put a paper-clip around any parts she doesn’t like.  It’s okay if she hates the whole thing, but it will be interesting to see what she finds helpful.

Jo-Anne K
Jo-Anne K
5 years ago

Thanks to everyone that has taken the time to comment. I am glad the piece has opened up discussion. And yes, aren’t Jan’s photos great!

Dan L
Dan L
5 years ago

Thanks Jo-Anne for the essay.  I am like most around here who find the BB to be almost as harmful as it is helpful.  Many parts just set my teeth on edge especially the ones certain people have blown into and entire religion, like this “real” alcoholic thing some people try to push.  Where I think I find value in the BB is that it seems to contain enough “drunk” thinking that a drunk can relate to it and begin, however haltingly, to recover.