As Bill Also Sees It

By life-j

A few of Bill’s thoughts on inclusiveness and widening the gateway. All AA approved 😊

Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence, we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought A.A. membership ever depend upon money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.

Tradition 3, long form

Nor ought AA membership ever depend on money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA Group”. This clearly implies that an alcoholic is a member if he says so; that we can’t deny him his membership; that we can’t demand from him a cent; that we can’t force our beliefs or practices upon him; that he may flout everything we stand for and still be a member. In fact, our Tradition carries the principle of independence for the individual to such an apparently fantastic length that, so long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the most unmoral, the most anti-social, the most critical alcoholic may gather about him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous Group has been formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our Recovery Program, even anti-each other–these rampant individuals are still an AA Group if they think so!

Anarchy Melts July 1946, Grapevine

Others refuse to accept all the Twelve Steps of the recovery program. Some go still further, saying that the “God business” is bunk and quite unnecessary. Under these conditions our conservative program- abiding members get scared. These appalling conditions must be controlled, they think, else A.A. will surely go to rack and ruin. They view with alarm for the good of the movement!

At this point the group enters the rule and regulation phase. Charters, bylaws and membership rules are excitedly passed, and authority is granted committees to filter out undesirables and discipline the evildoers. Then the Group Elders, now clothed with Who Is a Member of Alcoholics Anonymous? authority, commence to get busy. Recalcitrants are cast into the outer darkness; respectable busybodies throw stones at the sinners. As for the so-called sinners, they either insist on staying around, or else they form a new group of their own. Or maybe they join a more congenial and less intolerant crowd in their neighborhood. The elders soon discover that the rules and regulations aren’t working very well. Most attempts at enforcement generate such waves of dissension and intolerance in the group that this condition is presently recognized to be worse for the group life than the very worst that the worst ever did.

Those who slip, those who panhandle, those who scandalize, those with mental twists, those who rebel at the program, those who trade on the A.A. reputation-all such persons seldom harm an A.A. group for long. Some of these have become our most respected and best loved. Some have remained to try our patience, sober nevertheless. Others have drifted away. We have begun to regard these not as menaces, but rather as our teachers. They oblige us to cultivate patience, tolerance, and humility. We finally see that they are only people sicker than the rest of us, that we who condemn them are the Pharisees whose false righteousness does our group the deeper spiritual damage.

Who is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous? August 1947, Grapevine

Though three hundred thousand did recover in the last twenty-five years, maybe half a million more have walked into our midst, and then out again. No doubt some were too sick to make even a start. Others couldn’t or wouldn’t admit their alcoholism. Still others couldn’t face up to their underlying personality defects. Numbers departed for still other reasons.

Yet we can’t well content ourselves with the view that all these recovery failures were entirely the fault of the newcomers themselves. Perhaps a great many didn’t receive the kind and amount of sponsorship they so sorely needed. We didn’t communicate when we might have done so. So, we AAs failed them. Perhaps more often than we think, we still make no contact at depth with those suffering the dilemma of no faith.

Certainly, none are more sensitive to spiritual cocksureness, pride and aggression than they are. I’m sure this is something we too often forget. In AA’s first years I all but ruined the whole undertaking with this sort of unconscious arrogance. God as I understood Him had to be for everybody. Sometimes my aggression was subtle and sometimes it was crude. But either way it was damaging – perhaps fatally so – to numbers of non-believers. ………

Then, for the first time, it burst in upon me how very dead faith can be – when minus responsibility. The doctor had an unwavering belief in his ideals. But he also practiced humility, wisdom and responsibility. Hence his superb demonstration.

My own spiritual awakening had given me a built-in faith in God – a gift indeed. But I had been neither humble nor wise. Boasting of my faith, I had forgotten my ideals. Pride and irresponsibility had taken their place. By so cutting off my own light, I had little to offer my fellow alcoholics. At last I saw why many had gone away – some of them forever.

The Dilemma of No Faith AA Grapevine, April 1961

With respect to its own affairs, the group may make any decisions, adopt any attitudes that it likes. No overall or intergroup authority should challenge this primary privilege.

Tradition Four, Grapevine March 1948

As time passes, our book literature has a tendency to get more and more frozen, a tendency for conversion into something like Dogma, a human trait I am afraid we can do little about. We may as well face the fact that A.A. will always have its fundamentalists, its absolutists and its relativists.”

February 6, 1961 letter

To some of us, the idea of substituting “good” for “God” in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of A.A.’s message. But here we must remember that A.A.’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them, as they stand, is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made A.A. available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.

1957, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p 81

Moreover, all people should have the right to voice their convictions. This is good principle and good dogma. But dogma also has its liabilities. Simply because we have convictions that work well for us, it becomes very easy to assume that we have all the truth. Whenever this brand of arrogance develops, we are certain to become aggressive; we demand agreement with us; we play God. This isn’t good dogma; it’s very bad dogma. It could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of thing.

Newcomers are approaching AA at the rate of tens of thousands yearly. They represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable. We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion. In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a common suffering. Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy whatever should be a first consideration for us all. Let us not, therefore, pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views. Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive; let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.

AA Grapevine, July 1965, Responsibility Is Our Theme

This was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, 1961

Bill Wilson Comes of Age:

It would seem that it is a basic principle – that when a person expresses their thoughts, and then later expresses other thoughts that to some degree contradict the earlier thoughts – that the later, contradicting thoughts bear witness to that the person expressing them has evolved in some manner, and has modified their point of view, and that the latter expressions therefore carry more weight than their previous thoughts, in some cases considerably more. Bill Wilson wrote the Big Book with 3 years of sobriety. When therefore he kept writing all through his later years we ought to pay special attention to that.

For a printable copy of this and other pamphlets, please email lifej@mcn.org.

All material herein © Alcoholics Anonymous ®, or AA Grapevine ®, according to the indicated source, and reprinted by permission.

As Bill ALSO Sees It pamphlet

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  1. John M. November 7, 2018 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Thanks, Life-J, as always for your thoughtful service here by providing folks with “ammunition” to combat those who have a very narrow understanding of who qualifies as legitimate members of AA. I offer here the fuller excerpt from the 1948 March Grapevine article that you include above. It was read on the floor of Toronto Intergroup in the spring of 2012 at the time when some groups were trying to get Beyond Belief and We Agnostics relisted after their initial delisting in 2011. Whether or not it had any effect on the way Toronto groups voted I don’t know, but Bill Wilson is as clear as he can be about what constitutes Tradition 4 group autonomy.
     

    The first sentence of Tradition 4 guarantees each A.A. group local autonomy. With respect to its own affairs, the group may make any decisions, adopt any attitudes that it likes. No over-all or intergroup authority should challenge this primary privilege. We feel this ought to be so, even though the group might sometimes act with complete indifference to our tradition. For example, an A.A. group could, if it wished, hire a paid preacher and support him out of the proceeds of a group night club. Though such an absurd procedure would be miles outside our tradition, the group’s “right to be wrong” would be held inviolate. We are sure that each group can be granted, and safely granted, these most extreme privileges. We know that our familiar process of trial and error would summarily eliminate both the preacher and the night club. Those severe growing pains which invariably follow any radical departure from A.A. tradition can be absolutely relied upon to bring an erring group back into line. An A.A. group need not be coerced by any human government over and above its own members. Their own experience, plus A.A. opinion in surrounding groups, plus God’s prompting in their group conscience would be sufficient. Much travail has already taught us this. Hence we may confidently say to each group, “You should be responsible to no other authority than your own conscience.”

  2. Peter t. November 7, 2018 at 10:19 am - Reply

    Great stuff, thanks as always, life-j!

    At our meeting we read the AA Preamble, the Long Form of the Third Tradition, and Bill’s 1965 Responsibility “Newcomers are approaching…” paragraph.  It helps set a great tone for curious visitors who are wondering what this “agnostic meeting” is all about 🙂

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