Episode 52: Dale K. Studying the Big Book from a Secular Perspective

In this episode of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast, I speak with a new friend Dale K. Dale recently wrote a book that will help people understand the AA program of recovery as outlined in the Big Book, but from a secular perspective. I’m looking forward to this being published, which will hopefully be sometime next month. Presently, the manuscript is with Dale’s editor. What follows is an excerpt from the introduction to the book, which will be titled (unless changes are made) “Secular Sobriety.”

Secular Sobriety

By Dale K.  


Hello. My name is Dale, and I’m an alcoholic. Also, I’m what many call an atheist. That label is for you. I don’t find a personal label necessary. In fact, I don’t like the term “Atheist.” It has too much negativity connected to it. I’m not anti-theist. I couldn’t care less what others believe. In fact, I’m a believer, too! I believe in science. That ever growing knowledge of this place I live in and how I fit into it. That’s wonderfully positive! There is plenty of emotion that colors my thoughts, but my core beliefs are science based. I really don’t need a label for all this. I’m just a guy struggling through life like everyone else. Much of what I hold to be true is a temporary truth. With time new discoveries will shed light on new truths that may, also, be temporary. The one truth that I believe to be permanent is love. So, if you must label me, call me a lover.

January 6, 2017, was my 36th anniversary of sobriety. I don’t say this to boast. I say it because I think you should know my qualifications for writing this. During my early days in AA, it seemed like I was the only skeptic in a sea of religious disciples. I was told that my lack of faith was an obstacle in the way of sobriety. “You shouldn’t worry, though,” they said. “Soon enough you will get it.” In the meantime, I could use their Higher Power. I was told that would be sufficient until I found my own. The expression “fake it until you make it” was offered as hope that even this heathen could find sobriety with the God “of my own understanding.”

After a considerable test of time, it was realized that I wasn’t going to “get it.” My sponsor arranged a meeting for me with a man they described as the “Resident Agnostic.” This person was in a city 30 miles away, so I assumed there was only one in all of South Florida.

He was very friendly and considerate. He was a writer for the local newspaper, and I enjoyed discussing the “God” element of AA with him. Essentially, he told me that his solution was to add an “o” every time he heard or read the word, God. This changed God to good. It made sense to me, and I was convinced that I had my answer.

This was a good (pun intended) beginning for me. As I journeyed into sobriety, this simple translation worked well most of the time. Sometimes it didn’t work at all. There were moments when I wondered if I would ever find all this good without finding God. Seemingly, everyone else in AA believed in God. The peer pressure was formidable, to say the least.

Shortly after my first year of sobriety, I decided that I would take a closer look at religion. I read William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experiences” and, also, the Bible. I realized that I had great disdain for a book that I had never read. This falls under the “contempt prior to investigation” category. While reading the Bible, I decided I had contempt during investigation. I read about so much wickedness, violence and terrible things in the Old Testament. Then, in the New Testament, I found less evilness, but it still fell way short of satisfying. Finally, I read John 4:16. It said something that hit me like a bolt of lightning! “God is love!” Holy shit! I mean…literally…HOLY shit!!! I didn’t need to read more. I closed the book and never opened it again. I found the answer I was looking for. God isn’t just good. That was okay but inadequate. God is love.

Finally, I had my “Spiritual Experience.” It was sudden and profound. It was lovely! I had the biggest grin on my face. This was my epiphany. Oddly enough the Epiphany (a Christian holiday) is the same as my sobriety date. I remember sleeping like a baby that night. The next day I decided that whatever I was doing, whatever decision I had to make,  I would ask myself a simple question: “What is the loving thing?” The next day I gave love a test run. My day full of love was the best day I have ever had. I try to have that day again but, of course, life and my humanity is a constant barrier.   Life is a complicated endeavor.  Often, simplistic answers aren’t enough. Love is a very large subject. Many of the details are common and obvious. Many more are hidden in the folds, crevices, and secrets that make our journey through life challenging and fascinating. Finding your humble self will be your best friend in this discovery of who you are in sobriety.

The irony of an atheist finding answers in the Bible is not lost on me. There are many dichotomies in my life. I welcome them. In fact, I love them. It’s an indication of open-mindedness. That quality will be most helpful in your quest for a sober life. We must be open to all that is around us. Many things you examine will be dismissed, but we must consider all of it. Take a little of this and a bit of that and create this unique sober person that will be beautiful to you. Be genuine. Be who you are. Own yourself. Try not to worry about what others might think. They are not living your life and have plenty of problems of their own. And, while you’re ignoring those that may judge, don’t judge others. Let them have their life just as you wish to have yours. This is the essence of serenity.

I would like to address the AA principle of “contempt prior to investigation.” It is very difficult to investigate what AA has to offer non-believers if you can’t read past all the references to a deity. Far too many non-believers have too much difficulty with this. The easy reaction is to dismiss AA and its’ members. That rejection means you will not find the beauty and wisdom of the program and the wonderful sober people that have come before you on this journey of sobriety. Don’t be blinded by contempt. Certainly, the Big Book can be quite obnoxious and arrogant. Don’t allow the book’s problems to become yours. An open mind will allow you to hear the bits of wisdom that help you on this wonderful experience of life without alcohol or other drugs. And remember, the only truth is the one you accept for yourself. Truth wears many clothes. Your truth does not mean another’s different truth is wrong. Both are right (and wrong). As you wish to be accepted and respected for your beliefs and who you are, extend that same acceptance and respect to others.

This is a quote by Adyashanti. “Make no mistake about it. Enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It’s seeing through the facade of pretense. It’s the complete eradication of everything we imagine to be true.” Now, I don’t give a rat’s behind about spiritual gurus, but this quote speaks to the notion that all is true and untrue at the same time. If you understand how science works, you will understand the fluidity of truth. Also, keep in mind that we should not be satisfied with mere enlightenment. When we apply our newfound enlightenment, we get the better and happier parts, too!

Many times during our lives we will determine that what we know is true. As we mature in sobriety, we will find new truths that displace old truths. Truth is a very dynamic thing. That which works for us today may not work tomorrow. An open mind, eyes, and ears will allow us to find our new truths. This is the enlightenment which feeds our serenity and happiness. This is the foundation of sobriety and a meaningful life.

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  1. Gerald March 30, 2017 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Thank you , Dale. I’ve recently been convinced of the need to rewrite our Basic Text in order to reach the younger generation as well as the irreligious people. I used to expect my fellow atheists just to “deal with it” 🙂 same as I do. Or did. I’m done dealing with it. Done.

    I also used to ignore what should be obvious, that nowadays there are a lot of people who never had the opportunity to know family members or other people who were born in the 1800’s, like my great-grandfather, who was born in 1890, lived to 1988, and still called cars “the machine” 🙂 I was also lucky to have meaningful relationships with two grandparents who lived into their nineties. Their provincial American accents, their vocabulary, their world view – the historical context of the AA Big Book is alive for me. I used to ignore that it’s actually a History Museum for a lot of people, even for Gen X’ers like me, now in middle age.

    As for the third person singular neuter, however, it’s too late for me. I’ll keep using “he” & “one,” the way I learned English grammar. If I live to be 98 like my great-grandfather did, then maybe that will sound like “the machine” someday 🙂

    My personal experience with atheism began at age ten, ten years before I got sober in AA in ’93. I realized that God was just Santa Claus for grown ups. For me, it has been the habit of a lifetime to translate the “God talk” in society generally, not just in AA, into meaningful, rational language. I don’t believe anymore that we in AA should expect the irreligious people to do their own translating.

    I also used to believe that following the Traditions would keep AA safe for & accommodating to the non-believer. Now, I concede that it’s just too much to expect groups to follow the Traditions 🙂 🙂 🙂 That pesky Tradition Four gives each group the right to be as wrong as it wants to be, and the Church Lite crowd exercises that right to the fullest, don’t they?

    I’m sorry, I listened to the first half yesterday – I’m just that busy right now – and I don’t know if this was your story or John S.’s, but it cracked me up: You know, going to a gay AA group looking for refuge from the Church Lite crowd, hoping to find that AA spiritual principle of open-mindedness in a group of people we would normally not mix with … What an indictment of the Church Lite crowd 🙂 🙂 🙂 Now then, who’s blaming whom for promoting gay culture 🙂 🙂 🙂 It just cracks me up.

    But that’s something I could see myself doing. I really could. That’s the kind of feeling that brought me to this site, AA Beyond Belief. It’s actually not the religious attitudes of the Church Lite crowd but the disregard, generally, for the Traditions that drove me here. They go hand in hand, you know. One kind of intolerance makes room for other kinds of intolerance. And this is how it goes: you must believe in a Higher Power that is an extra-dimensional being. But in practical matters, we expect you to turn your will and your life over to the direct care of your Sponsor, who will himself be indirectly informed by the group. And you’re not allowed to talk about solutions that you’ve found outside of the AA program. Don’t even allude to them. And you better conform to this other long list of societal norms. And don’t even mention codependency & the Adult Child syndrome ‘cuz we’re all in active denial here, and that’s the way we want to keep it. Perfect. We want to keep it perfect, perfectly contained in the first 164 pages. You’ll find an answer in the first 164 for every challenge in life. The chapters To Wives & The Family Afterward will tell you everything you need to know about recovering from family dysfunction. And anyways, family dysfunction doesn’t have anything to do with your alcoholism. And if you don’t find what you need here, in the first 164, that means you’re lacking in faith in that extra-dimensional being’s plan for your life. Just ask your sponsor.

    And the Cults of Personality within AA take this Church Lite way of thinking to an extreme.

    … Rewriting the first 164, except for Bill’s Story, would be the AA movement facing its own denial about a lot of things. One’s religious beliefs actually are irrelevant. The misunderstood historical context actually does doom alcoholics to an unnecessary alcoholic life & alcoholic death. And by the way, when we wrote The Family Afterward in 1939, we actually had no idea what we were talking about, none, zippo, no idea at all. Why don’t you consider adding a daughter program, like ACA for example, to your recovery journey at some point in the future? Or maybe adding some professional therapy? Also, watch out for groups that don’t honor the Traditions because you’re probably not going to find the healthiest examples of AA recovery in those groups where the Traditions are ignored.

    You know, we really could give more and better answers up front, in our Basic Text, rather than taking this head-in-the-sand approach. That approach seems churchy & religious to me: you know, every newcomer has his God, and God will lead him to where he needs to go, so le’s not “dilute” the message of the Big Book … which means let’s keep our heads in the sand. Just ask your sponsor.

    No, the reality is that if a newcomer gets what he needs from his AA experience, then he’s just lucky. Just lucky to land where he lands in AA, lucky to get proper advice … lucky not to be harmed by the Church Lite crowd or the Cults. And then there’s the Non-Drinking Bar Scene, the Social Club, where they don’t practice either the Traditions or the Steps … another dead end or detour from the message of the AA Big Book.

    I believe a re-write will improve the odds that the newcomer is lucky. I’m especially interested in your re-write of Appendix II.


    Gerald, alcoholic, Japan

    • Mark C. April 1, 2017 at 11:12 am Reply

      Gerald, you might find something useful in my “Characteristics of Conventional AA.” I’ve posted that in the “file” sections of a few of our “secular AA” Facebook spaces.

      For me, the Big Book is a Theistic Religious text. And for me, while there are a few gems contained in the “holy text”, to escape the Theistic Modality contained in the text is an impossibility.

      That said, I’m “all for” whatever it is someone “believes” or “practices” IF that is helping to keep them sober.

      The demands for Conformity to a Theistic Modality come in many forms.

      What I like about our “freethinking” collection of folks is our diversity of approaches our founding historical text.


  2. Joe C March 28, 2017 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    More books with addict/alcoholic authors who have personal relationship with reality…. more is better. I love this preview and will read the book with great interest.

    Thanks, Dale.



  3. Jo-Anne Kennedy March 28, 2017 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    Looking forward to the book. Thanks for sharing


  4. stephen round March 27, 2017 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Is their possibly a time would come when those groups in A.a. would have to declare as religious or Christian if they use the Lords prayer.Say in the directory they would have it known similar to closed or open or smoking or non smoking.In 46 years of being in AA I still find myself uncomfortable leaving or abstaining from that emotionalism of hand holding and prayer at the close.Thier may be no criticism directly expressed but it makes those who abstain from it rather centered out.For those who wish just does not cut it.If they where declared as Religious well so be it and those who wish just stay away.Could a case be made of a human rights violation such as in the public schools in Ontario they just cannot do it.This would possibly be the next frontier in Ontario anyway of having to bring outside interests into the AA world to stop this rather fanatical violation of others beliefs or lack thereof.I pose this as questioning with an open mind and welcome input or sharing of opinion.

  5. Benn B March 27, 2017 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience Dale! I really enjoyed the discussion back and forth here with you both! Thanks for sharing!! 🙂

  6. RonB March 27, 2017 at 3:49 am - Reply

    I relate to much of what you say but have a minor disagreement about qualification, 36 years of ‘antibuse’ consumption doesn’t mean a lot. I have a bigger issue with your belief in atheism! I too believed I was 99.9% Atheist ( as much as I believe fairies live at the bottom of the garden……R. Dawkins) but then I reaad the rest of his book and was horrified. He is religious. Science is his god and probability his prophet. That is not Atheism, or if it is then I am something else. You appear similar. I have a lot of time for Darwainism, until a miracle gave chemicals DNA and ‘then there was life’ (perhaps took six days). Science gave us cures to terrible diseases, it also have us the atomic bomb and the internet/media that impregnates beliefs and controls our minds. Science has seen the decline of family life. There were loving families that would die for each other, thirty years ago we were down to two co-providers, parents in homes and children in child care facilities. We’re now down to the reality of no family, after all there is no need for women, just keep some as egg bank suppliers, or no need for men, just keep some to top up the sperm banks. Children genetically modified to be perfect. So much so that ‘eqzuality’ is a reality, we’re all the same. No competition, no aspirations, no purpose, nothing but bored. That is the goal of the religion of science, and it is working. It’s also one reason people take drugs and alcohol, escapism. It really makes me cringe.

    • Mark C. April 1, 2017 at 11:21 am Reply


  7. Bob K. March 26, 2017 at 10:35 am - Reply

    This interview was one of my favorites ev-ah!!

    I’m a firm believer that the AA newcomer who doesn’t change in some significant way puts himself,  or herself, at high risk of drinking again. Many have so much fun rejecting God that they reject everything else as well, save a once weekly convocation with fellow heathens. There is little chance of having my personality altered by the AA program, if I fully eschew the AA program.

    A couple of years ago at the Beyond Belief meeting in downtown Toronto, the speaker was clearly a highly intelligent, but very anxious guy. He boasted about having never opened the BB in his 7 months of sobriety. For me, this is one of the unintended, unfortunate side effects of agnostic AA, when it all goes a bit awry. At Whitby Freethinkers, we shut down (for the most part) the bashing of traditional AA, and its more evangelical spokespeople, quite early on. Not much sobriety is produced by whining about what we dislike, or perceived mistreatment.

    Our website should publish a review of Dale’s book as shortly as possible after it’s available. I’d welcome that assignment, were it to come my way.

    Back to the issue of change, it’s hard to even imagine the borderline neurotic Dale of the 1970s. I’D KILL TO BE AS CALM AS HE IS  NOW!! What a warm and attractive personality. If I find out he’s a decent golfer, I may propose to the SOB! 😉

    At a time closer

  8. Thomas B. March 26, 2017 at 10:31 am - Reply

    Excellent, Dale. I look forward to reading your book when it is published. Your initial definition of God as Good is the first deviation from the strict Christian Orthodoxy of the Oxford Group influenced Big Book that Bill W. acknowledged when early on Buddhists inquired if they could insert the additional O. I also “grok” your expansion of God as being the “holy shit” of love !~!~! It strikes me that many godly AA members who shun and shame us heathens don’t know much about AA’s “code of love and tolerance.”

  9. Danny Dion March 26, 2017 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this perspective. In this my 39th year of sobriety, I have finally admitted to myself that I am an atheist for lack of a better word. I have however been careful in admitting it broadly at AA. I love the fellowship but have found the literature to be condescending and tedious to say the least.

    Your story was very enlightening and gave me hope.


    Danny D

  10. Bill P March 26, 2017 at 9:33 am - Reply

    I agree. And I might also add that to me, God is not only “Good” and Love but also Beauty, Understanding, Forgiveness both of others and of oneself. I have “come to believe” that we are sent to make the world a better place, to leave behind something, however small, which is better, to show that we cared and that we were here.


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