Episode 45: Step 11 with Benn and John

By John S.

Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t a program, it’s a fellowship. This is made quite clear in the AA preamble, which states that “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.” It’s the Fellowship that does it, and as an old-timer from my former home group used to repeatedly say, “the magic’s in the meetings.” I believe that to be true too. The 12 Steps are merely suggested, and not in the way that a parachute is suggested before jumping from a plane, but suggested as in proposed for consideration— and those who made the proposal way back in 1939, did so with the understanding that they didn’t have all the answers.

Realizing the primacy of the fellowship to my recovery, I think it’s important that when talking or writing about the Steps that I put them into their proper context, and somehow mitigate the dogmatism that’s inherently attached to them. The Steps are a product of evolution and they continue to evolve whether we acknowledge that fact or not. The Steps that were written in 1939 are simply an expression of the experience of those early AAs who in the 1930’s attended meetings of the Christian evangelical organization known as the Oxford Group. Bill Wilson wrote the 12 Steps by breaking down the Oxford Group’s six-step process into smaller components that he felt best described the experience of those people at that time.

Step Eleven has evolved over the past 80 years along with our experience. Many of us atheists simply choose to bypass this step, which is perfectly understandable and completely acceptable. I can’t say that I experience the Step as it’s written, nor do I understand it as I did earlier in my recovery. Today, I view Step Eleven as nothing more than an ongoing search for serenity and peace of mind, and how I achieve that may vary based upon my circumstances. I could find it from meditation, or from running or riding a bike, or some other form of exercise. I may achieve this desired state of consciousness from reading or writing or communing with nature. It could be any number of things. It’s not complicated. There’s no theological concept to grasp, no psychological theory to understand. It’s just as simple as doing whatever I need to do to settle down and relax, and to remember what’s important to me —and that’s it!

In this podcast, Benn and I take a slightly irreverent look at Step Eleven, which I think is appropriate for a Step that’s weighed down so heavily with religious language. Fortunately, our experience in AA is still evolving as demonstrated through the evolution of Step 11.

The Evolution of Step 11

The Oxford Group (Pre-1939)

Readers of our website and listeners to our podcast are of course familiar with the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous. We were born from an early 20th century Christian movement known as the Oxford Group. It was this group that helped Bill’s old friend Ebby Thacher get sober by following what is described from Bill’s Story in the Big Book as “a simple religious idea and a practical program of action.” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 9)

Those who got sober with the Oxford Group described the program of action as a six-step process:

  1. We admitted that we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol.
  2. We made an inventory of our defects or sins.
  3.  We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence.
  4. We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking.
  5. We tried to help other alcoholics, with no reward in money or prestige.
  6. We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for power to practice these precepts.

(Not God, p. 69, Ernest Kurtz)

For more information about the six-step process including a version written in Bill’s own handwriting, visit hindsfoot.org.

Alcoholics Anonymous (1939)

When Bill Wilson was writing the chapter in the Big Book titled “How it Works”, he hoped to bring some clarity to the Oxford Group’s six precepts, and to do this, he broke the process down into smaller chunks. In Bill’s version, the Oxford Groups’ Sixth Step became Step 11, which was first written as “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”

“The debates began almost as soon as Bill read the newly written 12 Steps to the fledgling group of sober alcoholics in Akron and New York. There were religious conservatives who wanted a decidedly Christian approach, there were liberals who didn’t mind the use of the word ‘God’, but definitely opposed mentioning a specific theology, and there were 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.” (Not God, p. 71, Ernest Kurtz)

As we secularists are well aware, a compromise was reached which is attributed to Jim Burwell. This compromise led to the insertion of the phrase “God as we understood Him”, giving us the Step 11 that we know today. “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 Alternative 12 Steps (1991)

In 1991, Martha Cleveland and Arlys G., published a book titled The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery in which they describe Step 11 as, “Increasingly engage spiritual energy and awareness to continue to grow in abiding strength and wisdom and in the enjoyment of life.” Roger C. from AA Agnostica discovered the book and was granted rights to republish it in 2014. Today, the book is widely read among many secularists in AA.

Step 11 in the New Millennium

San Francisco

Sometime prior to 2009, the agnostic AA community in the San Francisco Bay area started posting alternative versions of the 12 Steps on their website, AA Agnostics. Their version of Step 11 reads as, “Sought through meditation to improve our spiritual awareness and our understanding of the AA way of life and to discover the power to carry out that way of life.”

New York

The agnostic AA community in New York City adapted the San Francisco Steps and posted them on their website until sometime after September 28, 2010. It was at that time that a GSO staff person wrote to the Agnostic AA NYC website and asked them to stop referring to themselves as an AA group if they were going to post alternative versions of the Steps.

Toronto (2009)

In 2009, Canada’s first agnostic AA group, Beyond Belief which meets in Toronto adapted a secular version of the 12 Steps borrowing from a number of sources, including the San Francisco group. Their version of Step 11 reads as, “Sought through mindful inquiry and meditation to improve our spiritual awareness, seeking only for knowledge of our rightful path in life and the power to carry that out.”

Here is Joe C.’s account of how the Toronto version of Step 11 came to fruition:

Our Step 11 variation’s lead architect was Stan R, one of our original members and the webmaster of aatorontoagnostics.org the blog that preceded AA Agnostica. Stan was one of our original members who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. You can imagine the horror of a bright mind being witness to ones own (host) body deteriorating. He got to the stage that he couldn’t come to meetings.

We had a few variations (secular) of the Steps. AA Agnostics was one source. New York’s AAagnostic website had a secular version of the Steps in 2009. I understand from Mel that they got a threatening letter from GSO and/or New York intergroup and they elected to take their agnostic 12 steps down. There was the BF Skinner CBT version and maybe another one or two others, too. So we borrowed from some more than others, we aimed to keep them as close to AA as possible, tolerating words like “moral” inventory, etc. We had a round table discussion deciding the wording for the website (and at that time what would appear on the GTA Intergroup website, too). It’s hard to remember that we were peaceful fellows with Intergroup from 2009 to 2011 and our Steps, while controversial, were approved by the Executive Committee at the time.

So, August or September was the composition date for Beyond Belief’s 11th Step and while there would have been six to ten of us, “mindful inquiry and meditation to improve our spiritual awareness, seeking only for knowledge of our rightful path in life and the power to carry that out.” was largely Stan’s wording.

— Joe C., from Toronto’s Beyond Belief Group

Do you incorporate Step 11 into your recovery? If so, how do you choose to interpret this step?


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  1. Benn B January 7, 2017 at 11:10 pm - Reply

    I really hope to make it to one of those Sedona Mago retreats sometime Joe! That place sounds really cool and I love the idea behind those get-togethers. I always appreciate your insights!

    I am really looking forward to talking more deeply about the traditions as well. I haven’t dug in to them for a while, so I’m hoping I have some fresh ideas. I do know that I always found it interesting that what’s actually written about them in the 12 and 12 never seemed to back the actual wording of the tradition that much.

    For example,

    For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

    People often focus so much on the God aspect of Tradition 2, but the writing in the 12 and 12 mentions God and His authority not at all and rather focuses on the servant part of this tradition.

    It should be fun and I’m sure will piss off plenty while making others feel better about their own ideas and concerns. Just the way I like it … 🙂 

  2. Steve K January 5, 2017 at 10:50 am - Reply

    Hi John, I agree that AA is a fellowship and not a program as the preamble states, but would suggest that the founder’s intention was for the AA Fellowship to carry a message of recovery – its Twelve Step program. This is the “common solution” outlined in chapter two of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. This part of the book states that being bound together by common suffering is not enough and that a “common solution” is also needed in order to recover from alcoholism.

    While members of the Fellowship are free not to believe in or practice the Twelve Steps, I don’t understand those who feel the need to deny AA’s origins and history. It is what it is.

    Yes the Fellowship has evolved and continues to do so, and in my view this is a good thing, but let’s not deny the importance of the Twelve Step program to it’s founders (even the atheists) who sincerely believed (along with the Fellowship) that it was the answer to their common problem – alcoholism.

    With the aim of balance, here’s a link to an article of mine that was recently published in “In Recovery Magazine” which is titled, “The Mutuality of the AA Fellowship and Program.”

    The Mutuality of the AA Fellowship and Program

    • John S January 5, 2017 at 12:18 pm Reply

      Hi Steve, it’s nice to hear from you. Just speaking from my own experience, it was the fellowship that had far greater impact on me than did the Steps. It was the telling of stories and the sharing of experience that was critical to my getting and staying sober. I think even the founders realized the importance of identification through the sharing of personal stories as the Big Big is a story book, the vast majority of its contents being personal stories.

      I understand that those early members did in fact follow a process as they understood it from the Oxford group, then adapted this process into the 12 Steps. As you know, I love the Steps and they have been helpful to me. However, I do not see them as critical or even essential, a statement that may have shocked me had I heard it said only three years ago.

      We could follow almost any process. This is not to denigrate the Steps. For me and this is just my experience, the steps are how we communicate what happened to us, what we did and what we do.

      I admitted that I was powerless, I came to believe I could be helped and I made a decision to change. Those were all experiences that I had.

      I then took inventory, shared it with another and became willing to build character for the remainder of my life, and I made amends where necessary. Those are things that I did.

      I continue to monitor my actions and behaviors and make amends when necessary. I seek serenity and peace in whatever way I can, and I try to help others. Those are things that I do.

      It bothers me when we place too much importance on the steps or study them too closely or think that having knowledge and experience with them means anything to anyone. I don’t like it when people beat themselves up for not doing the steps exactly right and I abhor the dogmatists who insist that I do them just as prescribed. I don’t like worshiping the past and the people who came before.  I have experienced all of this during my time in AA. This is why when I speak of the Steps today, I feel a need to provide a caveat which was probably best expressed by Dr. Bob…. Keep it Simple.

      • Steve K January 5, 2017 at 1:03 pm Reply

        I’m personally fairly liberal where AA and the Steps are concerned and think whatever suits the individual or group is ok and upto them to decide. My point is that however I personally relate to AA and the program the founders believed in both the Fellowship and Program as detailed in the literature of AA.

        The Big Book is a story book sharing AA members’ experience, strength and hope, but it also details a Program of recovery that the early members thought was very important. We may not like it, but that’s what the book is about – Fellowship & Program. Which aspect we choose to focus upon is upto us, but let’s not deny the founder’s intention is all i’m saying and be aware of our tendency towards confirmation bias.

        • Benn B January 7, 2017 at 11:03 pm Reply

          We don’t KNOW that all the “members” early on agreed completely with that program of recovery as outlined in the book. The book also makes it sound like everyone was a believer for the most part and agreed with the notion of the need for a higher power in a metaphysical sense. This was a mis-representation as we do know that at least 3 of 52 early members were unabashed atheists. The tone of the book conveys a unity that didn’t exactly exist. The intention of the book, at least partially, was to help “sell” this suggested program eventually and convince monied interests to back AA on some level. They abandoned this thankfully or maybe just didn’t have the success at that route as they’d hoped.

          “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we only know a little. More will be revealed …”

  3. Willow January 5, 2017 at 9:21 am - Reply

    love the new music!

    • John S January 5, 2017 at 12:37 pm Reply

      So far people seem to like the new music. I think we’ll keep it.

  4. Joe C January 5, 2017 at 9:13 am - Reply

    AA is coming of age, again and maybe always. While traditionalists and literalists deserve their claim to AA turf, too, I love John and Benn’s secular look at AA’s Twelve Steps.

    I’m so glad to hear you’re looking ahead to talking about the Traditions. Traditions aren’t our rules in mutual-aid, they are our experience. Our experience is changing. Our fellowship is adapting.

    In October, I’ve been invited to be part of the Sedona Mago Recovery Series for 2017*. Always cutting edge weekends that attract contemporary members, this is the first secular look at Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.  Good for Sedona Mago – good for all of us. I hope October’s retreat is more than an echo chamber of non-theists supporting non-theists. Who cares what we believe when we’re working with new people. It’s their salvation we’re trying to inspire. Can we help them frame Steps and Traditions based on their own cultural lens? Well that depends on our empathy, our cultural humility. So, I’m putting you on notice that I expect that I’ll be borrowing some of your upcoming ideas about the Twelve Traditions, just as I’ve already incorporated your Twelve Step narrative into my own.


    • John S January 5, 2017 at 12:36 pm Reply

      That’s very interesting Joe. I look forward to hearing more about that. We will do our best with the Traditions. That’s one area where I am a little weak, though I have learned a lot more about them over the last couple of years.  Maybe I’ll learn them from doing the podcast with Benn.

      Thanks for listening and reading and writing.

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