The Thing About Traditions…

By Jerry F. 

The Twelve Traditions: A Non-Traditional Approach      

Much has been written about the secular AA beliefs and attitudes towards the Twelve Steps. Some groups have chosen to rewrite them to eliminate god references. The risk there, of course, is incurring the wrath of the local Intergroup and perhaps that of our fellow AAs.

Some groups simply don’t mention the Twelve Steps in their format and other readings. My home group is in the latter category with the implicit understanding that we approve of and adopt some steps and at least some parts of other steps.

But what about the Twelve Traditions? Is there anything there that might give us pause?

Spoiler alert: there sure as hell is.

Most of us first encounter the Traditions, those “steps written for the groups,” on window shades in our meeting rooms. However, they are best read in the back half of our Twelve and Twelve book.

A framework for governance for a Fellowship that insists upon remaining unorganized (derived from Tradition Nine) is brilliant in its conception and admirable in its execution. Written by Bill when, we are told, he was in the worst stage of his latest bout with clinical depression, they contain some of his best writing. For that, alone, they are a pleasure to read.

Then, too, who can doubt that AA would even exist without the Traditions to keep us from tearing ourselves apart when weathering some of our worst internecine battles? The history of AA, properly understood, is the history of how the Twelve Traditions saved us from ourselves.

So, does that mean that we, as secular members of AA, ought to accept the Twelve Traditions exactly as written? Well, there we need to consider all of the Traditions. In doing so, we see that we may affirm some of them but not all.

As secular AA members, we rely upon Tradition Three and Tradition Four rather more than do some of our more religious members. For us, these two Traditions validate our claim to be full-fledged AA members.

Tradition Three

The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.

Tradition Four

Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.

However, as a secular member of AA, I find that I cannot give an unqualified endorsement to the Twelve Traditions as written. When asked about it, I have stipulated that I would do so only with the exception of Tradition Two and Tradition Twelve. To be precise, my difficulty is with the first part of the Second Tradition and the long form of the Twelfth Tradition.

Tradition Two (Short Form)

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.

This is the Tradition that has a long form shorter than the short form. The long form contains only the first sentence.

In the essay in the Twelve and Twelve on this Tradition, Bill spends a few pages telling us how groups are formed and led if they don’t have leaders telling the group members how they should act. It isn’t his best writing, but it isn’t bad. The closing sentence is, “I listened, and – thank God – I obeyed.”

I do not accept the first sentence of this Tradition. I do not have, nor do I believe AA has, “a loving God.” Surely we can reach consensus at the group level without invoking an interventionist supernatural deity who will tell us mere mortals what to do when we are in doubt.

Our group conscience is a powerful thing that derives its authority precisely from those same group members. Indeed, as explicated in The AA Service Manual Combined with Twelve Concepts for World Service, also written by Bill, our First Concept is, “The final responsibility and the ultimate authority for AA world service should always reside in the collective conscience of our whole Fellowship.”

Yes, our “collective conscience,” not a god, however loving or spiteful he may be on any particular day. And while it’s true that the Twelve Concepts are written for and directly affect only the General Service Board, they have long been an influential guide for AA groups at the local and regional level.

And yet we can’t expunge the entire Second Tradition. The second sentence of the Second Tradition is important, vital even, to the continued existence of our Fellowship.

“Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.” It is so important that it is repeated—and is the only clause of which this is true—a few times in the Bylaws of WAAFT-IAAC as it was then constituted.

It is more than a reminder, it approaches the status of a mantra. We need always ensure that, at the international, national, regional, and local level, including our home groups, our duly elected “leaders” are not leading or governing but rather serving our needs. And yet, Concept X applies:

Concept X

Every service responsibility should be matched by an equal service authority, with the scope of such authority well defined. We must grant the authority necessary for our elected leaders to perform their well-defined duties.

How about a rewrite? Heresy, yes, but how about a rewrite?

A Secular Tradition Two

For our group purpose, there is but one ultimate authority—a collaborative discussion resulting in essential group consensus through our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

This reflects, in my experience, the actual decision-making process in our home groups, service structure, and Intergroups.

Anonymity and Spirituality

Tradition 12

Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Yeah, well, there are among us – we secular alcoholics in AA – members who call themselves “rationalists.” They do not believe in anything spiritual or other-worldly. They hold that science and reason can explain everything that we encounter in life and there is no need for any metaphysical interpretations. To insist on a spiritual dimension to the Twelfth Tradition is to exclude these rationalist members from our secular Fellowship.

What if we struck “spiritual” from the Tradition? Our spiritual members should have no difficulty with this. We are not negating their spiritual beliefs; we are simply not giving it a place in our Tradition. After all, the intent of the Twelfth Tradition is twofold: we acknowledge that anonymity is the foundational principle of all the eleven Traditions that preceded this one, and we are reminded to always place principles before personalities. Good stuff, that. Anonymity, fully realized, is a complex proposition. It decidedly does not mean not giving your last name and other contact info to others in the Fellowship.

The Twelfth Tradition as explained in the Twelve and Twelve essay is clear, although this is an instance in which I wish Bill had gone into further detail. The importance of humility in practicing this Tradition is referred to in the essay as an “all-pervading spiritual quality” which I find unhelpful and yet I think there is much that could be written on this aspect.

Let’s back up a step or a Tradition. Our Eleventh Tradition is …

Tradition Eleven 

Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.

By extension, then, to include TV, the internet, and the next mass communication form to come along.

Here we turn to Dr. Bob for clarification. In “Dr. Bob and the Good Old-Timers,” pg. 264, he is quoted as saying that there were two ways to break the anonymity Tradition:  “. . . by giving your name at the public level of press or radio, or by being so anonymous that you can’t be reached by other drunks.”

And yet, in my experience, this Tradition is widely violated in AA, especially the second clause. And as secular members of AA, we are still too small in numbers to keep ourselves separate or remote from other members when we could be helping newcomers and old-timers to understand how a godless recovery works.

And then there is the long form of Tradition Twelve.

Tradition Twelve (Long Form)

And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.

Bill, Bill, Bill. Yes, the humility required to practice the principle of anonymity does have immense significance. But I see no reason to categorize it as “spiritual.” And I do not “live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.”

The “genuine humility” needed to practice anonymity in AA is not that of some stale catechism but rather the realization that I am not the message. I am carrying the message. And the message is that anyone can get and stay clean and sober if they are willing to practice the principles of the program.

As a secular member, I do not believe that I can turn my will, my life, or anything else over to a supreme being. I must accept responsibility for my actions, and that includes my continued sobriety.

Here’s the point: I accept and am truly grateful for the Traditions with the exception of the first part of the Second Tradition and the long form of the Twelfth Tradition. Those I reject. And I do not understand how any of us, we secular AA members, can have allegiance or devotion to the Twelve Traditions as they are now written.

It is high time that this position is reflected in our home group formats and in our regional and international organizations. Either we don’t mention the Twelve Traditions in our Purpose Statements as we have come to do with the Steps, or we affirm belief in them while explicitly denying that acceptance to the first part of Tradition Two and the Long Form of Tradition Twelve.

Toronto has shown us the way. We can “acknowledge or adopt the Twelve Traditions of AA.” I choose to acknowledge their existence in their entirety and adopt ten and a half of them.


About the Author, Jerry F.

Jerry is one of the founding members of We Agnostics in Tempe, AZ and was the instigator of the WAAFT-AZ Convention last November in Phoenix. He has served in many positions in his 27 years in AA and is currently treasurer of his traditional AA group, coffeemaker of his secular group, and has recently completed a term as a board member of WAAFT-IAAC. He considers his greatest achievement as being responsible for a change to the Fourth Edition of the Big Book and his greatest asset as being relentlessly anal.

Artwork

Images  by Cope C. “with appreciation to Henry Payne for his focused vision and talented hand, and apologies for adapting his Moses to a different purpose.”

Audio Version

The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his community. If you would like to join him, please send an email to lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com

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  1. RonB March 27, 2017 at 3:21 am - Reply

    “Religion is a cultural system of behaviors and practices, world views, sacred texts, holy places, ethics, and societal organisation that relate humanity to what an anthropologist has called “an order of existence””

    The fact is that AA is exactly the definition as per above, it is a ‘Religion’. The texts, practices, views, ethics, organization, conforms, but is perhaps merely a sub-religion of Judeo/Christianity. As with the bible, the q’ran, and other historical texts, the writings of Bill, the 12 +12, are relevent to the norms of the society of that day. A world without TV or the internet, and cell phone addiction being a wierd dream. If we learn from history, or if it helps some without hurting others, then there is no problem, but if it prevents some from achieving sobriety, and it does, then that is a real problem. The other side of AA is the fellowship, people who have suffered and understand the pain. People who want to help and at times need help themselves. Alcoholism, for many, is not a level situation. For much of the time sobriety is not hard,  in these times we can help. Occassionaly, trauma, depression etc, can cause cravings, and this is when we need the help of others. That is the wonderful balance of the fellowship.

    And Yet…….I have craved alcohol for two weeks now, I haven’t given in and don’t expect to, but I don’t feel I can go back to an AA meeting. I am not a sinner, I was a loving child until society socialized me, as any three year old child is. I’ve done the best I can and never acted with bad intent, despite my mistakes. I don’t have a deity and I don’t believe in brainwashing by ritualistic repetition of ancient texts, be they a voice from the flames of a burning bush or Bobs twelve step diet. Why oh why can’t we just look at today and the future, help those that are in need now, and provide for a future where alcohol has a lesser place. Maternal love, nurturer/carer combining with protector/provider, simple and natural. We now have co-providers and temporary surrogate mothers in child care centres to substitute for maternal love. Then we wonder why so many turn to alcohol and drugs, having missed out on LOVE. AA needs to split, leave the religious to their religion, and leave those that care about alcoholics and alcoholicism to meet and support each other with respect for Bill’s contribution, but without its religiousness in any shape or form.

    • life-j March 27, 2017 at 12:57 pm Reply

      Ron, yes it’s tough with the cravings. Hold on tight. Is there no secular meeting anywhere near you? Are you far enough along in your own sobriety to where starting one might be a good thing for you?

      Even going through the motions of having a meeting can be a good thing.  I started a meeting here 2-3 years ago, and it still happens quite often that I’m the only one there, but Ijust  sit and read “Don’t tell” when that happens. And I can kind of sit there and think of all the other unbelievers around the world who are there with me in spirit.

      It’s not quite the same as a real meeting with real people, but then again, most of the time there is another person, or two. And maybe one day it will take off.

      Meanwhile, good luck to you

    • Joe C March 27, 2017 at 8:42 am Reply

      Craving is, I think, is  one of the cruelest characteristics of addiction. There are other cruelties such as shame and physical and mental damage. I remember the purgatory of been sober and craving the relief of being high and being drunk and craving sobriety. This cruel purgatory felt like it would be permanent but it passed, for me. Hearing about others suffering from craving triggers a visceral feeling in my gut, a remember-when.

      AA is a “tale of two cities.” AA is dated literature and a certain orthodoxy that goes with it. That AA is too rigid for some and ineffective. AA is also one alcoholic talking to another, a bond of common suffering. This has a certain spontinaity to it which is not structured enough for some and thus, ineffective. While we are bound by common suffering, solutions are as individual as our fingerprints.

      It could be argued that this space is AA, maybe not an AA group which conforms to certain characteristics, but legitimately AA all the same. There is no conference-approved text here, no ritualistic reading, no coffee pot, face to face contact or any of the customary AA group trappings. There are self-described alcoholics here, who gather as equals, some with days and some with decades of sobriety. I don’t disagree in the least with your characterization of AA and I identify with your frustration. I have the same visceral empathy with your experience of said-orthodoxy as I do with your experience of craving.

      So, we can debate  if AAs who differ in worldview are better united or apart but I just want to say that for me, this space we share is a weekly ritual of mine that I attribute to my ongoing sobriety and this space is as AA to me as being in a physical room and hearing “Hi Joe” ritualistically following me saying “My name is Joe and I’m an alcoholic.”

      Is this AA or is this religious? Well we don’t have to agree on the answers. But for me, a resounding “yes, this is AA” and “no, it doesn’t seem religious to me at all.” Of course, this is just one sober drunk’s experience.

       

       

      • Jerry F. March 27, 2017 at 1:12 pm Reply

        RonB: I agree with you and with the various U.S. appellate courts that AA is a religion. You call for “a split,” a separation between traditional AA and the non-believer contingent. I believe that this is happening now. We are witnessing and participating in a schism. We in our godless AA are growing while trad AA is diminishing in numbers and therefore in influence. One alcoholic helping another will continue to be our supreme and perhaps only tradition.

        Joe: Well put. This meeting that we go to twice a week, this AABB space that we meet in, and the secular f2f meetings that we are starting in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere is AA to me.

        Peter: Very clever. A bit Jesuitical, perhaps, but amusing and clever.

        • Jenny H June 21, 2017 at 1:08 pm Reply

          Hello Everyone

          Thankfully I FINALLY came across information for AA agnostics/atheists.  I have been in and out of AA for about 15 years.  I’ve been an atheists since the age of four.  It is who I am.  I typically feel much worse/shamed upon leaving a traditional AA meeting.  I’ve been through the 12 steps several times, tried to “fake it till I made it.”  I am the Anti-Christ at the meetings I decide to be truthful at.   Thank you for all of your responses.  I see they are from March, but any more information on the effectiveness of this secular group will be much appreciated!

           

          PS: nothing is worse than being told I will die an alcoholic death should I not find a God of my own understanding.

          PS: Let’s say I’m not “it” in the universe, and and that I do acknowledge there are forces greater than myself!  Let’s say the Solar System.  Yes, the Solar System is a far greater thing then my self, cosmically speaking.  But, do I believe the Solar System can relieve me of my insanity? Um, nope!  🙂

           

          Jenny H

        • John S March 28, 2017 at 8:48 pm Reply

          I feel that way about this site, it’s become sort of a home group to me over the last few months when I haven’t been able to get to many face-to-face meetings.

  2. Peter T. March 26, 2017 at 8:25 pm - Reply

    For now (we’ve been at it all of 3 months) our group does not read the steps or traditions – my suggestion due to simply having the word “God” in them – nor do we consider any altered versions.  We read the AA Preamble and the long form of the Third Tradition.

    I can tolerate Tradition Two this way:  There is but one ultimate authority, a loving god; and god is either everything or nothing; and if god is nothing, then there is NO ultimate authority in AA.  That seems to be the practical foundation of all our Traditions 🙂

    Jerry, thanks for all your work.

    • John S March 27, 2017 at 7:13 am Reply

      Same here. We don’t read any steps or traditions to begin our meeting. We just open with the reading of the AA Preamble, but also the agnostic AA preamble, then we hand out chips for anyone celebrating a milestone of sobriety, a reading and then the meeting begins. Our readings are typically taken from one of the many secular recovery books that we have available to us, written largely from our own community of agnostic, atheist and freethinking AAs.

  3. Eric March 26, 2017 at 4:45 pm - Reply

    I have changed tradition 2 for myself to:

    For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.

    Sometimes I think spirituality is something that resides in me, other times I have no idea. I think trad. 12 is  just an overreach as usual, a useless veneer, to make the program something that it doesnt need to be, which is having the trappings of religion for those who cannot figure out that it is their arm that lifts the glass.

  4. Bill D March 26, 2017 at 2:41 pm - Reply

    Interesting article and comments, thanks for getting the ball rolling Jerry.
    My experience with the traditions has yielded dividends beyond my membership in AA. I became involved in general service early on and my service sponsor suggested that the traditions were attitudes I should try to develop as a member of AA and, in particular as a member of an AA group. Should I find value in that regard then, perhaps, adopting those same principles as a member of groups outside the Fellowship; family, workplace, other assemblages of people and society in general would be of value. Over the years I’ve found that to be true.

  5. Skip D. March 26, 2017 at 12:26 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Jerry. for your excellent article. Hopefully, someday, AA will remove the supernatural elements in the 12 Traditions. Toward that end I would add one point:  The existence of any god is an outside issue. Tradition Two, by asserting the actual existence of  “a loving God”, without any caveats,  is in direct violation of Tradition Ten – AA has no opinion on outside issues, hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

    The recent public controversy regarding the Greater Toronto Intergroup is evidence of this violation.

  6. life-j March 26, 2017 at 11:44 am - Reply

    Jerry, thanks. I’m reminded to always think of it, and present it this way to the believers: If you’d be offended if god was taken out, does that mean you’re also offended at the hundreds of places god could also have been mentioned, but wasn’t?

    Personal recovery depends on god and AA unity? Offensive they left god out of that one, isn’t it?

    As for trad 12, it does seem rather benign to me, or even positive, or shall I say it could be, if indeed the only thing counting as spiritual in our foundation was anonymity. What is spirituality? It’s anonymity. Has a pretty good ring to it. I’m spiritual if I am anonymous. Not grandiose, climbing onto pedestals I have no business being on, not critical of myself, or self deprecating, simply anonymous, neutral.

    But it’s true of course, the believers have ruined the word spiritual with their alternate facts. It’s sad, so sad, total disaster.

    • Joe C March 26, 2017 at 9:01 pm Reply

      Life-j, your last paragraph, it reads like a Trump tweet. Was that intentional? Your argument for believers who feel offended that God has been removed from Steps/Traditions is brilliant. “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking and faith in God.” But that’s not what it says and it’s fine with the truest believer. This is brilliant, Life-j.

      • life-j March 27, 2017 at 2:14 am Reply

        Joe, no that must have been accidental 😉

         

  7. Lance Bredvold March 26, 2017 at 8:58 am - Reply

    This article is appropriate to my needs this morning.  I’ve refused to read “How it Works” in all meetings for a year now and am never passed that sheet which Grapevine produces.  However, I do often read the traditions because, like you Jerry, I see a lot of wisdom in there.  But I’ve occasionally tried to eliminate the phrase “a loving god” from within the reading of the second tradition.  I am not real comfortable doing that because most people hear the difference and seem to feel the practice would violate some sort of “tradition”.  So most often I just try not to accept the sheet of traditions which all of our groups read at the start of each meeting.

    When I arrived in AA in 1984, the meetings in Miles City, Montana did not read the traditions.  However, there was  an effort made by our delegate in the early 90’s to support the traditions by reading them regularly.  I think GSO also was part of that effort.  And as DCM, I also encouraged the practice.

    I’ve never balked at reading tradition 12, but have felt a vague discomfort in reading it without, until now, identifying through your writing, what it is that caused the discomfort.  Sure enough, you hit the nail on it’s head.  Thank you for that and your entire well written article.

  8. Thomas B. March 26, 2017 at 8:44 am - Reply

    Excellent, Jerry — thank you !~!~!

    I agree perfectly with you Jerry regarding the insignificance of the first sentence of Tradition Two. In fact, I wrote an essay for AA Agnostica entitled, “Tradition Two: A Flaw in AA Service Structure?”

    Regarding the long form of Tradition Twelve, I am in partial agreement with you. I am a secular AA member who is spiritual, but not religious, being a woo-woo practitioner of many New Age alternative spiritualities to include those of Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples who are in awe of the magnificent mystery of being, as was Albert Einstein  and other notable scientists. My difficulties with Tradition Twelve is that with its emphasis on humility it parrots what I find most repugnant about the Christian religion, so prevalent throughout North American, especially here in the US with Evangelical Christians. This can be described as “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maximum culpa. Save me, oh Lord, me a worthless worm of a sinner, who can only be saved by the blood you shed when you suffered and died for MY sins.” Rather, narcissistic and not so humble that.

    Two additional observations: I really like how you integrated our Concepts of Service into the essay, and I’ve always thought that traditional AA is somewhat hypocritical by it’s reliance upon notable circuit speakers who preach to the madding crowds of AA acolytes — not so much humility this either, now is there . . .

  9. Joe C March 26, 2017 at 8:07 am - Reply

    Great timing for me, Jerry; I’m at our Area Assembly (Ares 83) so a little Tradition/talk is right on. I’m an atheist mucker and what that means is I use a black highlighter – not a yellow or orange one – to cross out what is distracting or disagreeable to me. In How It Works for instance, crossing out all the statements that aren’t true (for me), what’s left makes sense. I find that nothing is lost when I remove what is not true from a narrative.

    i invite others to try; it was very liberating for me. So in tradition two, I just cross out everything between “our ultimate authority is” and “our group conscience” and it rings true for me.

    From the trenches here, I am talking about how much it would mean to our groups and others for USA/Canada to adopt and re-print The God Word: Agnostics and Atheists in AA, approved by the UK conference in 2016. I’m talking up SOAAR & ICSAA, coming to Area 83 soon. It’s nice that now there are so many secular groups in the Area so it’s nice to hang out with like-minded friends. There are still pockets of discrimination and hostility in our Area. One district corrections chair won’t refer parolees to agnostic groups or include them I the court card proof of attending. Hey, I have groups I don’t like to, but isn’t it personalities before principles to impose my view on the members and groups I serve?

    Grest to hear from Arizona. I’ll be hosting a weekend secular Steps and Traditions workshop in Sedona for a weekend in October and I hope to get to an extra sexular meeting in Sedona on Friday and Phoenix on Sunday night. Can I quote you Jerry?

    • Jerry F. March 26, 2017 at 12:21 pm Reply

      Hi Joe:

      We are conducting a regional WAAFT or ICSAA (or whatever it may then be called) convention in the Phoenix area in October or November of this year, just as we did in 2015. Exact date not yet determined. So let’s stay in touch. I will let you know when we get a solid date and if you would do the same we might be able to do a two-day event. Example: regional convention on Saturday followed by your workshop on Sunday.

      Just a thought.

    • John S March 26, 2017 at 8:38 am Reply

      Thanks for sharing that Joe. At our Assembly, we are having an ad hoc committee on unity which is designed to help the Area become more sensitive to minority groups within AA, including agnostics and atheists. A lot of people don’t understand that we do face discrimination in AA and I think that’s because, for the most part, we just deal with it, well at least those of us who choose to remain. I’m optimistic that our Area will find ways to become more sensitive to minority communities in AA. One thing that I’d like to see them adopt and we are requesting it, is the elimination of the Lord’s Prayer.

      Thak you too, Jerry for this article about the Traditions. I think the Traditions, for the most part, have been important to AA’s survival. One complaint that I have is how other AA members think they have to enforce them, usually by shaming someone else. That happened to me once when I just innocently broke an anonymity and publically promoted something for my group on Facebook. Oh well….

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