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.


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

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laura gail
laura gail

Jerry, thank you for this carefully reasoned and well written article. I came here to see what had been written about the traditions from a secular perspective, and this is exactly what I needed.   I started looking into secular AA when I realized how little I had to offer a newcomer who was clearly non-theist and wanted to be sober. My answers to her questions all sounded shallow and limited, and I realized that in my 30 years of sobriety I had always quietly had the attitude that once someone was sober they would come to believe in a… Read more »


“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… Read more »

Joe C

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… Read more »

Jerry F.
Jerry F.

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… Read more »

John S

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.

Jenny H
Jenny H

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… Read more »


PS: nothing is worse than being told I will die an alcoholic death should I not find a God of my own understanding. I tend to think that death has been overplayed by religion. We are wary of the unknown, but it will happen, our concern is really how to extent the bit between now and then, without suffering. We tend to like our materialism. I don’t like ‘alcoholic’ death’, it is really  organ failure due to toxicity, our bodies even create alcohol, problems only occur when the amount of anything we consume exceeds that which we can process. Even… Read more »


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… Read more »

Peter T.
Peter T.

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,… Read more »

John S

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.


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.

Bill D
Bill D

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… Read more »