Disputed Issues in AA and Recovery

By Galen T.

AA’s Unity Declaration, which first appeared in 1970, extolls, well, unity. But it doesn’t insist on uniformity, and AA has rarely lacked its share of controversy. This makes the fellowship a lively, interesting, and occasionally irritating place to hang out.

In the spirit of AA’s disputative history, I offer the following statements and two questions, accompanied by possibly controversial responses. These represent the opinions of the author, not those of AABB, and I hope you will take issue with them in the comments section.

Alcoholism is a brain disease. False. The disease model is associated with AA, even though as an organization it has never advocated for this definition of alcoholism. In the 1970’s and 1980’s treatment centers began promoting the disease concept and this nomenclature filtered out into AA and society at large. Today many alcoholics refer to “my disease,” as though they have adopted the ailment the way they might a stray dog.

The disease model helped clear away the stigma from alcoholism. It also serves as a handy metaphor for the comprehensive destructiveness of the malady. But is the model accurate? Does it tell us anything we did not already know? Does it pin down the cause of alcoholism and help us design effective programs of prevention and treatment?

I say no to the last two of these questions, Nora Volkow notwithstanding. Google the National Institute of Drug Abuse and you will quickly find Volkow, its director, articulately expounding on alcoholism as a “brain disease.” We know this, she explains, because when a person consumes lots of alcohol it changes the brain in ways that are increasingly identifiable and harmful. In particular it elevates the brain’s levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, creating those neural pathways of reward. In the absence of drink, the amount of dopamine in the brain plummets, triggering nasty withdrawal symptoms and compelling a return to drinking. Over time the alcohol saturated brain requires more of the stuff to maintain its dopamine levels, thus creating the progression most alcoholics experience.

This brain disease model is backed up by brain imaging studies that chart changes in the brain after it is subjected to alcohol or other drugs. But what does this really tell us? It describes to us the condition of the addicted brain, but it does not identify the reason for this brain’s vulnerability to begin with. This appears to be another instance of confusing correlation with causation. The brain disease model can gain credibility only by identifying causative differences between the alcoholic and non-alcoholic brain prior to the alcoholic brain’s exposure to the drug.

Meanwhile, many other experts disagree with Dr. Volkow. Stanton Peele (www.peele.net), a well-known and combative author in the field, gets livid over the issue. He insists that any disease model infantilizes the alcoholic by depriving her of will power and choice. Peele sees alcoholism as a maladaptive way of coping with oneself and one’s world. The afflicted need to pull themselves together and develop better life management skills. Peele is simplistic and seems to overlook the demonstrable physically addictive nature of entrenched alcoholism. He is one of the many commentators whose views are more applicable to the heavy drinker than the full-blown alcoholic.

Then we have the distinguished Hungarian-born Canadian psychologist Gabor Mate (https://dgabormate.com) who contends that addiction is caused by childhood trauma. For some of us this is true, but not for all of us. Negative childhood experience plays a role in addiction, but is not its only cause.

Peele and Mate can both engage Maia Szalavitz, who in her book, Broken Brain, ably argues that addiction is a learning disorder. Still other experts have assembled evidence that the ailment is caused primarily by social and economic conditions. Experts on addiction such as psychologist Jefferson Singer view the alcoholic as a person who is lacking life meaning and is clinging onto intensity as a maladaptive substitute.

With all these different perspectives, and more, it is simplistic to assign alcoholism to a single cause. It has multiple causes, while for any given addict one or two may predominate.

Bill Wilson was awarded an honorary degree by Yale University. False. Yale wanted to award Wilson an honorary law degree, but in keeping with AA’s traditions he turned it down. He also turned down a Time magazine cover story, even when the magazine offered to picture him with his back to the camera.

Some of our AA slogans and sayings should be retired. Yes. First, there are the God slogans such as, “There for the grace of God go I.” Otherwise, at the top of my retirement list is “Everything happens for a reason.” This is the kind of slogan that makes AA seem stupid to others. Life is full of tragedies that may have a cause but do not have a reason. Down the line, benefit may be derived from a tragedy, but this is another matter.

Along with this slogan, let’s retire its cousin, “There are no coincidences.” Of course there are coincidences. Life is full of them. Serendipity is another matter. Some people do have a facility for deriving benefit from the luck of everyday life.

One more saying: “Some of us are sicker than others.” People who say this invariably assume that it is others who are among the sicker. So, what is the point of this condescending judgment, except subtle self-inflation?

But not all slogans are bad. My home group has emblazoned on a prominent sign, “Please turn off your cell phones.” Apparently, the sign is invisible to most of our attendees since we still have at least two loud cell phone eruptions per meeting.

Other nominations for the retirement list?

AA is a religious organization. False, though it can seem like it. Imagine the newcomer at their first typical AA meeting. Near the beginning they may hear the Serenity Prayer. This is followed in short order by “How it Works,” a reading that mentions God five times. During the meeting people are likely to attribute their good fortune to God’s will, as in, “It is only by the grace of God that I am alive today.” After talk like this, the meeting concludes with people holding hands in a circle and reciting the Lord’s prayer. How can it be a surprise that the non-believer, Jew, or Muslim feels unwelcome?

But AA as a whole does not bear the marks of a religious organization. It does not require belief in any doctrines and is lacking the hierarchical structure and doctrinal requirements that characterize most religions. Bill Wilson aptly characterized AA as a benign anarchy. The General Service Organization doesn’t dictate how AA members must behave. As Bill W. said numerous times, AA does not require you to believe anything; the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking.

Secular meetings should welcome believers. Yes. We should set the example of hospitality and openness that we would like to see practiced religionists. Our point is not that we are smarter or better than religionists, but that there are multiple paths to sobriety and recovery.

We should call ourselves recovered rather than recovering alcoholics. It is pointed out by some that after an alcoholic reaches a mature sobriety she has recovered from her alcoholic past. She no longer drinks, and has left in the dust the self-destructive patterns of thinking and behaving that held sway during her years of inebriation. She has a new life. Then why continue to wear a millstone of defectiveness around her neck, one that implies she is still dominated by addiction? This is a valid point, one that should be heeded by long sober members of AA who have an inexplicable need to refer to themselves and others in the room as “still sick.” How helpful is this to the newcomer? Or to themselves, for that matter?

The counter argument: Many in AA agree that recovery is a life-long process, as is any quest for spiritual maturity. But does reaching this state of maturity annul the addictive effects of alcohol on our brains and render them impervious to the pull of addiction? Based partly on the number of people I see relapsing after 20 or more years sober, I don’t see the evidence that even after a full recovery we can drink normally. There may be exceptions, but why play the odds? Personally, I don’t care what other recovering/recovered alcoholics call themselves. But at least for now, I’m sticking with recovering as a reminder that no matter the spiritual heights to which I may one day ascend, I can never safely drink again.

Spirituality is easy to define. Apparently not, according to articles on this site and others. Spirituality can be conceived of in so many different ways, some say, that it is a meaningless term.

Not everybody is this pessimistic. Ernst Kurtz and William White suggest than an authentic spirituality has both a vertical and horizontal dimension. Vertically it is connected with a source of meaning that transcends the physical, empirical world. Horizontally, it connects with and pulls toward us the world and people surrounding us.     

For a brief definition I like this: “A spiritual life draws meaning and purpose from beyond what we can see and prove, enables us to transcend our selfishness and self-absorption, and creates the possibility of a humility that devotes us to giving and receiving love.”

Many of you have equally good or better definitions of spirituality. Or you may find spirituality useless. Tell us.

Recovery is easier when alcoholics forget about their past. False. It is impossible to live without a past. The question is whether we ignore the past, thereby allowing it to dominate us, or we use it to build a different future. We need to dig down into our past, talk to others about it, and draw from it lessons, motivation, and energy for building a new self and a different present and future.

AA meetings should close with either the Lord’s Prayer or at least the Serenity Prayer. No. Neither prayer should be used at AA meetings. Both are explicitly religious, Christian prayers. AA is not a religious organization and has no affiliation with any religious or Christian enterprise. So what, I have been asked, what harm can either prayer possibly do? I respond, with a smile, that they can kill people. After a pause, I explain: the Lord’s Prayer in particular alienates newcomers and can drive non-religious people out of AA.

The Lord’s Prayer is the iconic Christian prayer, the most widely known prayer in the English language, and the prayer most closely associated with Christianity. It comes directly out of Jesus’ mouth via the Gospel of Matthew 6: 6-13 and in abbreviated form in the Gospel of Luke. Its use declares to all present that AA is affiliated with Christianity. This violates our preamble, our primary purpose, traditions three and five, and AA’s spirit of inclusiveness. It should be eliminated from AA. This will require persistent education and protest. Some people acknowledge the prayer as Christian, but want to keep it for the sake of tradition. This is not a persuasive position. Is it better to retain a tradition in fundamental conflict with our primary purpose and to kill people, or scuttle it and save lives?

The Serenity Prayer seems like a convenient compromise between traditionalists and secularists because at least it doesn’t come from the Bible and is not dripping with centuries of use in Christian churches. But it was written by a 20th century American Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. It begins with the word “God,” and implies a theistic, intervening understanding of this God. There are reports from Maine that some groups begin the prayer, “Higher power, grant me . . .”  Is this an improvement? How about, “Other power, grant me . . .”?

Or should we conclude meetings with the Responsibility Statement, which was composed by an AA trustee, Al S., around 1965? It’s not poetry, but it’s not a prayer and it embraces our primary purpose.

From this radical suggestion, the imaginative mind broadens into other possible innovations. Do we really need to hold hands at the end like a prayer circle or a group of kindergarteners? How about saying the Responsibility Statement from our seats? Or wrapping things up with 15 seconds of silence. If we want to go for revolutionary change, our meetings could close with no chants or recitations, but simply with the chairperson’s declaration, “We are at the hour,” or “the meeting is over.”

Other ideas?

AA teaches that alcoholics are powerless.  False. The first step says that we are powerless over alcohol. But we are not powerless over many other things, and certainly not our recovery. In fact, Bill W. says that the reformation of our lives requires the utmost effort. Utmost effort requires the exercise of will. Our wills are powerful.

The Back to Basic folks emulate the successful practices of early AA by preaching a religious-spiritual conversion and immediately immersing recruits in the steps.  We should be paying attention. Yes, but not for the reasons they would like. Traditionalists claim that our success rate in the late 1930’s was much higher than it is today. This is impossible to prove. And even if it were, conditions in the late 1930s, when each “prospect” was the subject of intense, personal attention before they attended any meetings, were dramatically different than those prevailing today.

What are we to think of step-immersion? Can somebody still shaking off their last hangover comprehend, much less execute, the steps in four hours? Or in one week? Or one month? The steps require preparation, reflection, and conversation with a sponsor or other trusted person. Integrating the steps into one’s life takes time.

Bill Wilson was a power-driver who tried to shape AA in his own image.  False. People who claim this confuse Bill with some of his zealous, misguided followers, some of whom are still with us today. A power driver tries to shove his will down the throats of everybody else. Wilson doesn’t qualify. He was a collaborator from the get go and exceptionally open to diverse views, and when AA was ready, he handed his power over to the General Service Organization.

People in recovery need to forgive themselves before they can forgive others. False. This is a common and trendy misconception, but you can’t forgive yourself. We can, though, experience forgiveness. But first, hard work. We use the program, fellowship, and other sources of help to face our past and resolve our shame and guilt.  This work includes a stark reckoning with our personality flaws, making amends to those we have harmed, and forgiving others for the harms they have done to us. Then we experience being forgiven.

Bill of course asked his wife to write the “Chapter to the Wives” in the Big Book. He did not. Lois wanted to write it, and this made sense since she was a wife. Bill was never a wife. From this lack of perspective, he wrote the chapter, making Lois angry.  For the record, Bill claimed that the soon to be named book, Alcoholics Anonymous, needed an even tone throughout, from chapter to chapter. For this same ostensible reason, he wrote the chapter, “To the Employer,” even though he had never employed anyone. He also penned “To the Agnostic,” though he was not one. Though all three chapters are antiquated, Bill’s assurance to the agnostic that she too will find the light is the least useful.

It is possible to recover from alcoholism without believing in God? Of course. This debate should be over, because in point of fact people who do not believe in God have been recovering in AA by the thousands since the fellowship began. We are now doing so in ever increasing numbers and in a decade this issue won’t come up.

Let’s begin to wrap us with a multiple-choice question. What, aside from god-talk, is the most annoying feature of AA meetings today? 

  1. Noisy people arriving late or leaving early.
  2. The youths talking about drugs.
  3. Cell phone use.
  4. Cross-talk.
  5. A poor selection of cookies and brown colored water for coffee.
  6. Parking lot congestion.
  7. People who say the same thing at meetings for years on end.

What have I left out? Anyway, I’ll vote for cross-talk, especially when addressed to a newcomer, and beginning, “What you need to do is . . . “  And then there is the fawning variety of cross-talk when a meeting attendee tells the speaker what a wonderful person they are and how much they love them. Who cares? Plus, it is all ego inflation for the attendee and alienates others outside their cozy group. Otherwise, they could save the fawning until after the meeting.

Finally, what does secular spirituality look like? I don’t know, because secular spirituality is as diverse as religious spirituality. I only know what mine looks like. Every morning I spend about 15 minutes meditating. A couple of these minutes are devoted to clearing from my mind the remnants of dreams and top of the day fuzziness. I take the rest of the time to meditate on four spiritual principles I have drawn from AA. These are humility, honesty, compassion, and gratitude. Humility always comes first because it is for me the bedrock of all spiritual values and grounds an attitude of openness and attentiveness to others. After meditating on each of the principles I then call up the events of the coming day, to the extent that I know them, and ask myself how the four principles can shape my readiness for these events. I end by committing myself to these principles, which I sometimes conceive of, collectively, as a power other than myself.

Nothing elaborate or fancy here, but it helps me to live in the direction of my best inclinations rather than my worst instincts. On any given day, an instinct may win out, but this never prevents me from beginning again the next morning.

I would like to hear about other practices of secular spirituality.

About the Author, Galen T. 

Galen spent most of his career in the ministry, and in mental health and career counseling. He has published numerous articles as a career consultant. He is now an independent writer focusing on the application of personal narrative to addiction recovery and life generally. He has been sober since 1995 and is active in several of his local AA groups.


The graphics used in this article were created by Kathryn F. 

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chris w
chris w
1 year ago

I’m neither agnostic nor atheist but I agree with nearly everything you said in your article. I don’t hold hands and I don’t pray at meetings. Those times I do comment in a meeting, I never suggest getting a sponsor (which is never mentioned in the first 164 pages of the BB). What I share is my experience of having worked the steps with a few alcoholics when I came to AA. That helps avoid co-dependency and keeps with the pertinent idea that probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism. A G(roup) O(f) D(runks), as opposed to one… Read more »

Maricica S
Maricica S
2 years ago

In “The Chapter to the Agnostic” in the AA text the author posits what early Marxists fashioned out as God Building.  These agnostics knew they wouldn’t be timely successful abolishing religion so they proposed this higher power in a meta religious context viewed in terms of psychological and social effect.  The 12 steps, Bill W. as the grand figure and founder introduced to all newcomers, and the reward of sobriety.   The symbolism of the circle with the triangle and anniversary coins as well as the slogans a tenet of this spiritual program.   A god figure to ground it all to… Read more »

3 years ago

From the The Serenity Prayer section above…. “There are reports from Maine that some groups begin the prayer, “Higher power, grant me . . .”  Is this an improvement? How about, “Other power, grant me . . .”?”

If that was referring to our now 2 y.o. Brunswick Maine grp, we have further modified this by ending our mtgs with the ‘Serenity Statement’: “I seek the serenity to…”

BTW, we recently changed our named our group from the “Agnostic Path” to “Without a Prayer” …truth in advertising.

Brian Ó
Brian Ó'hÚrdail
3 years ago
Reply to  Danm

My take on it is: “Through my own actions and with the help of others, may I develop the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know thw difference”. This allows me access to the human wisdom in these words and unshackles it from religion.

3 years ago

To me, by saying you’re “recovered” indicates that you can now go out and drink,since you’ve recovered from alcoholism. It means you’re now over your condition.


Jack Blair
Jack Blair
3 years ago
Reply to  Jen

I have, over the last several years, introduced myself as a recovered alcoholic. A few years ago I suffered the effects of a type of cancer that was beaten into remission via chemo therapy. As to cancer, I am recovered from that disease; it no longer rules and ruins my life. I am, as well, recovered from alcoholism; it no longer rules and ruins my life. Both diseases required that I make some permanent changes in how I live my life. A part of my recovery from alcoholism requires that I no longer consume alcohol; a fact that I share… Read more »

Jerry F.
Jerry F.
3 years ago

Quite an article, Galen! You’ve covered so much ground that I could respond to various statements for months to come. The language choices must have been difficult as you were negotiating your way through a landmine strewn DMZ. Well, I’ll pick one issue today. AA is not a religious organization. I agree. It is not an adjective, it is a noun. AA is a religion as defined in dictionaries including the OED and wikipedia and as determined by the various Circuit courts and as we use that word, “religious,” in our daily lives. You gave three determinants of a religion… Read more »

Jack Blair
Jack Blair
3 years ago
Reply to  Jerry F.

So; was AA always religious and/or a religion or has it been made so by religionists hijacking the idea?

3 years ago
Reply to  Jack Blair

I would gather that it is a whole lot of both.  I often have seen a cult within a cult develop where a certain charismatic person manipulates a crew of disciples they sponsor.  And often means I have personally witnessed 2 gross cases of this, and have read accounts from others frequently.  Many sponsors hold meeting for those they sponsor and those they sponsor that are quite innocent. I have attended such things, but what I am talking about is more like what is reported in the “midtown group”which was an ultra extreme case. But I have known people who… Read more »

3 years ago
Reply to  Jerry F.

i 100% AGREE WITH YOU, I ONLY PARTIALLY AGREE WITH MANY OF THE POINTS OF THE AUTHOR.  i HAVE BEEN INVOLVED WITH FEW 12 STEP GROUPS ON AND OFF FOR 20 YEARS NOW.  OOPS… CAPS..LOL I have been so horridly effected by the great debate society that usually descend upon me with great anger when I make similar points.  Here I have seen this cultishness consume another non-AA 12 step group in the grossed manner possible, and it has left me unwilling to engage with any 12 step group. I may be a bit of a pioneer in this realm… Read more »