AA and the Art of Automobile Maintenance

By life-j

It has probably happened to most of us during the times when we hadn’t put our lives back together yet, or back in our drinking days, that we’d be nursing an old vehicle along and there would be days we’d say, “Dear god, please let it start”. And that’s about as religious as most of us got about automobile maintenance. I had this old van and I did a lot of work on it during the 20 years I had it. But I never once saw in the manuals, “You can’t fix your truck without god’s help, so before adjusting the valves pray to god for guidance, and after you have completed the task give thanks for god’s help fixing your truck.”

I imagine even the most devout Christian would think that an automobile manual which includes prayer should hardly be relied on. We want plain common-sense instructions.

So why do we have to get a god involved in our recovery?

Don’t get me wrong: Anyone who is of a religious mindset, if they feel a need or an inclination for a god in their life, and thus also in their recovery, that’s fine by me. It’s not my business to tell them what to do or not do, or what to believe. Let them do with their program what they want. I’m only talking about my program and about our program – the one we work together. The stuff we read, and how we talk to each other.

I cannot see why the rest of us should be admonished to get a god involved.

Bill Wilson and his early recovery comrades attended the Oxford group, a decidedly evangelical Christian group which wasn’t even so much focused on reforming drunks as on general salvation. Surely that influenced Bill’s thinking a great deal.

Then, when he wrote the Big Book, he and Bob were three years sober. Jim Burwell tells that there were altogether only eight people with more than six months sobriety when they published it. Of those first 100 people the book talks about, the majority only had a couple of months, and many relapsed. One of the 20 people whose story appeared in the back relapsed before the book came out. Six of them at some point later committed suicide (1). I’d say they didn’t have a lot to show when they wrote the Big Book. But Bill was a salesman and had great plans for his fellowship: he was going to make a movement, and he needed to have a book to do that, and he needed it right away. So, he wrote it at three years sober when he really didn’t know much about alcoholism yet and didn’t have much in the way of facts to back up his claims.

I wish he could at least have kept it simple, instead of making this big, complicated god focused program.

Bill Wilson and Hank Parkhurst were salesmen. I imagine these guys as telling half-truths, exaggerations, embellishments and the occasional outright lie to their clients, and then having to go drink to forget about it. Salesmanship is about making a sale. And while there are many honest salesmen who want their clients to be happy, it would be odd if these guys belonged to that category, when you consider how much they talked about making amends. And all their salesmanship and half-truths carried over into the big book.

I can see why Bill invoked a god – it lent some weight and authority to his book. I do believe that Bill really had those religious visions (by which I’m not saying that he indeed did make contact with a god – or that he didn’t) and was probably honest about that part.

I of course also concede that he did have some great ideas. Whether they were indeed his own, or whether he just managed to pull some of the right things together from various other sources, I don’t think we need to be overly concerned about. I wish he could have kept it simple, but obviously he had discovered some principles that worked:

  • An alcoholic will trust another alcoholic more than they will trust just about anyone else, and so as alcoholics we’re in a unique position to help each other in recovery.
  • Helping other alcoholics is one of the best ways to increase our own chances of staying sober ourselves.
  • Most of us need a tribe to belong to, and we greatly increase our chance of staying sober by going to meetings and by associating with other recovering alcoholics.
  • If the tribe is defined in such a manner that we are made to feel that we belong, then most of us will indeed feel that we belong, and we are more likely to stay.
  • Don’t take that first drink, that’s the one that leads to a drunk.
  • For most of us it is not enough to merely stop drinking. We need to make some real changes in our lives. It also helps our recovery if we can contribute to making this a better world, especially for alcoholics and their kin. Having a plan or a program of some sort can make it much easier to do. But however we do it, our recovery will most likely include working with such general principles as honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, humility, service, living by the golden rule, acceptance, and living one day at a time.
  • Take it one day at a time, one hour at a time, even 5 minutes at a time if that’s all you can do. You can postpone that drink 5 minutes, or the argument, or whatever other stupid shit you’re thinking about getting yourself into.
  • Doing the right thing helps keep you sober, because you will have no reason to feel bad about yourself. At least you won’t be adding to the reasons for feeling bad that you showed up here with, and even those will slowly fade away if you keep working on really changing your life.

Our program really did not need to be much more complicated than that.

Of course, it helps many of us to have a program with specific instructions on what to do. The steps work quite well for many people, especially those who seem to come in wanting to be told what to do, and who are of a religious frame of mind.

It works poorly for many who come in in a rebellious frame of mind, but even many of those will eventually adopt the steps.

But having a mind of your own is not a character defect to be belittled as Bill Wilson did it in the Big Book. Especially when it comes to the religious aspect of the program.

We have to say to Bill’s credit that as his sobriety matured he did a lot to moderate his earlier stance. Here are a couple of things he said later:

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. (The Dilemma of No Faith AA Grapevine, April 1961)

Agnostics, atheists and freethinkers can in most cases no more be convinced to change their ways than anyone else that the fundamentalists pass judgment on and try to make change. We seem to have been born that way, with a skeptical mind. “Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”

And while most of us are rather average human beings just like most of the religious crowd, it is among the sceptics that we find those who will step forward and change the world for the better. Nothing in this world ever changed for the better by people placidly going along. Throughout history there are many examples of how going along made the world change for the worse.

Let us encourage diversity! Encourage dissent! And always encourage respect and love for one another.

Even though Dr. Bob said he felt sorry for me, I still like at least one thing he said:

“Let’s keep it simple.”

(1) These facts are from the following sources:

Talk by Jim Burwell 1957: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzZYvaLy52o

Most of his talk is about putting the Big Book together.

Silkworth.net: http://silkworth.net/timelines/timelines_public/appendix1.html

For further reading on being a non-believer in AA, have a look at the following websites:




You can also find schedules of secular meetings worldwide for agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, and other non-believers at those sites.

Download this article as a pdf. pamphlet 

About the Author

ife-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA. Events in the fellowship conspired to make him become way more radicalized than he ever wanted to be, and he finds it difficult to settle back down to focus on his own program again, for better or for worse. He’s spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in artwork and writing. life-j is now semi-retired on a five-acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.

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marty nieski
marty nieski

Get a load of this!  I just came home from a Monday big book meeting.  You guessed it , chapter 4.  What was I to do?  Everyone in the room knows my positions so I thought it be futile to get in to a battle of wits with unarmed people   Get this!  They never do the chapters to the wives or employers.  [Group conscious I’m told.]  Awhile ago one the attendees motioned at a business meeting to do away with chapter 4 as well.  [Nothing to do with me!]  I’m not a member of the group, but I like to sit in a big… Read more »

Reid B
Reid B

“It also helps our recovery if we can contribute to making this a better world, especially for alcoholics and their kin.” As, Lance, a previous commenter on this article said, you have knocked it out of the park here. In the back of the AA book, there’s this statement, more “…will be disclosed….” Truth be told it says “God will disclose more to you and to us.” But science is disclosing more and more and AA is not moving at a fast pace to incorporate what new discoveries bring to the knowledge base. Specifically, I want every secular-leaning AA to… Read more »


Reid, thanks, a lot of good references there, will look into it.


Great, life-j! Your 8 bullet-point description of the essential elements for a recovery program are a fine distillation of “how it works”–and would be a wonderful substitution for “How it Works” at the beginning of a meeting (if something is needed). You are really rolling lately, brother.


Well, Life, I told you that it seemed unproductive and silly to just keep repeating to every talented writer in our secular midst that they had knocked it out of the park with that day’s  article.  But you have.  It would be a  great read for this morning’s meeting.

And a great meeting yesterday in Bandon, Oregon.  Every person spoke like they were right at the edge of their knowledge inviting new insights the way you so often lead me in your writings.  Please keep it up, pard.


Lance, thanks, and it was nice to have you visit our meeting in Willits the other day, and stop by my house for a cup of coffee. It’s the fellowship that makes it all work.

Steve K

Hi life-j, great article! You reference Jim Burwell as saying that 6 of them “at some point later committed suicide.” (1) Just to clarify, does he mean 6 of the first 100 or 6 of the 20 whose stories were published in the BB?


Steve, it’s been a while since I wrote this – wrote it as a pamphlet probably about a year ago – so I can’t remember if he said it clearly or not, but it is my impression we’re talking about 6 of the 20

Steve K

I’ve just listened to most of the Youtube recording of Burwell and you’re memory is correct it was 6 of the 20 stories in the BB! That fact is shocking and it makes a mockery of some fundamentalists’ claims about the success rates of early AA members.


All the more problematic, I think is that, also considering that the more than 100 men and women apparently was rather something around 70, all together all the people in the big book put together had less sobriety time than I do by myself at present – as is the case with tens of thousands of other old-timers in this program, and yet many of “us” want everyone to abide by the words of these early newcomers, as if they had any idea what they were doing. I have to concede the possibility that bill Wilson had his head screwed on… Read more »