Fundamentalism’s Foibles & Follies
(A Rant in Two Parts)
By Bobby F. Beach
You’re being illogical, Captain.
Damn it, Spock, I’m a Big Book fundamentalist! Logic has nothing to do with it!
— U.S.S. Enterprise (overheard on the bridge)
The State of the AA Nation
A fundamentalist is someone who wants to substitute what he believes for what you believe… And someone who knows the will of God better than anyone else.
— Robin Wasserman
Fundamentalism is rooted in arrogance. It thrives in fear and control and darkness.
— Michael Gangor
Eighty years after the initial publication of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, and two decades into the new millennium, AA has never been more divided.
There is a possible point of agreement — that AA is not doing very well. Despite world population growth approaching 40% over the past three decades, the number of AA members has declined by half a million members since 1992. The concordance between the opposing camps ends abruptly at the perceived causation of those dwindling numbers.
In the simplest of terms, liberals see AA as being too attached to its 1939 roots, while fundamentalists take the position that we have drifted too far afield from strategies formed during the magical year when the book Alcoholics Anonymous was published. The former group decries dogmatism, while the latter group bemoans the slide down a slippery slope to loosey-goosey practices which have resulted in the weak tea they see as modern AA — a watered-down version of the previous state of glory.
Notwithstanding its monumental place in AA history, 1939 was an extremely interesting year. In Germany, Adolf Hitler, while getting the trains to run on time, had popularized National Socialist KoolAid. In Britain, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had contrived a new ballroom craze — backward tap dancing. An ocean away in the United States, citizens, and the government were playing a popular new game, “See No Evil; Hear No Evil.”
It was a banner year in the entertainment world, with some terrific films released — The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Stagecoach, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, and David O. Selznick’s masterpiece, Gone With The Wind. Many critics have labeled GWTW “the greatest movie ever made,” but no one stepped forward to say: “Let’s never make another film as Gone With The Wind is the final word in film production.”
Not so for the Big Book Thumper whose “final words” came eight decades ago.
Fundamentalism is nothing more or less than going back to an origin and staying there. It stands for one founding book and, thereafter, no more books.
— J.M. Coetzee
Fundamentalism — of any variety — is a form of illiteracy, in that it asserts that it is necessary to read only one book.
— Mal Peet
Enthusiastic members are sometimes seen swarming a prospect, some troubled soul at his first AA meeting or “just coming back.” They brandish a dark blue book. The book is always with them, whither they should wander. Lest we be misled, these bookish folks are not bibliophiles — quite the contrary. Smiling faces and glazed eyes are seen as a simple “promise” is uttered: “This is the ONLY book you will ever have to read!!”
The implicit inference, not vocalized, is this: “You probably hate reading as much as we do, so we’re bringing some pretty damn good news here!! Zero books would be better, but this is the best we can do.”
Here are some crayons. You’ll need them for circling words, drawing smiley faces ‘n chit.
Thomas Aquinas warned us of “the man of one book.” Some debate remains as to whether he was assailing closed-mindedness, or offering a caution that the single book maven would know his material really, really well. Thumpers clearly think it’s the latter but the bulk of evidence favors the former position. There’s some irony in the inability of the average fundamentalist to supply reasoned answers about the text he worships. In fairness, the book contradicts itself in places. With a mind that’s shut as tightly as a bank vault, the starry-eyed disciple is unperturbed.
The thumper is no fan of other books, including the limited array of conference-approved literature. History books are dismissed for containing no recovery.
Who would read a book if his life wasn’t in danger, after all?
You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates the same people you do.
— Anne Lamott
The less satisfied a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause.
— Eric Hoffer
The discovery that AA’s Big Book Fundamentalists hate most of what constitutes AA comes as more than a bit of a shock. Besides other books and even AA’s own books, thumpers detest the majority of AA’s members — slackers and shirkers that they are with their fellowshipping and meeting-making.
In AA, the book thumpers are the small minority who are really “doing the deal,” recovered wheat among the recovering and unrecovered chaff. Being elite is pretty damn cool. In a program decrying self-centeredness, the enlightened one must get his esteem boost from his alliance with like-minded others, what Hoffer refers to above as “his holy cause.”
Personal ego has been foresworn, but group ego is somehow okay. Thumpers are not only in with the in-crowd — they are the freaken in-crowd!
There are few things more dangerous than inbred religious certainty.
— Bart D. Ehrman
There are no forces on this planet more dangerous to all of us than the fanaticisms of fundamentalism.
— Daniel Dennett
Obviously, Mr. Dennett was not speaking of Alcoholics Anonymous, at least not directly. AA’s book enthusiasts are not about to crash planes into buildings, bomb subway stations, or set themselves on fire. I may be wrong about the last bit, as the toadies of one conference speaker declare themselves as being “on fire.” That level of enthusiastic proclaiming can be tough to sustain. The “rah rah rah” can get tiresome. On a bad morning, the delicious mania might be absent. They may wake up feeling a little flat — hollow even.
We are the hollow men. We are the stuffed men.
Leaning together. Headpiece filled with straw.
But we’re “on fire!”
Careful with the straw!
(apologies to T.S. Eliot)
It’s the fundamentalists who have introduced the view of Alcoholics Anonymous as a killing field. Weak AA and weak sponsors are killing alcoholics. Non-alcoholic drug addicts are killing alcoholics. Agnostics and atheists are killing alcoholics. Hard drinkers, able to quit drinking without diligent application of the 12-Steps are killing alcoholics.
WOW!!!! Is there even freaken more, Bobby Beach?
Treatment centers are killing alcoholics. Drug court referrals are killing alcoholics. The evil publications Living Sober and The Twelve and Twelve are killing alcoholics. The phrase “Meeting makers make it,” is killing alcoholics. Open discussion meetings are killing alcoholics.
From the perspective of the Big Book thumper, a lack of Big Book thumping is killing alcoholics. Let’s give the Devil (as we understood Him) his due. AA fundamentalists help to get some people sober — there’s no question about that. BUT, what about the others, the ones they write off as “just not ready?” Book fundies press an aggressive timetable and those hesitant to dance to that tune are unlikely to linger to be berated for their lack of rigor. They move on by seeking elsewhere or returning to the hope of surviving by the virtue of their own devices. When asked to “defecate or get off the pot,” a great many vacate the throne, in a manner of speaking.
White Paper From Sandy Bitch (sometimes spelled Beach)
You could still be in the Garden of Eden if you had just kept your mouth shut and hadn’t asked a question.
— Frank Zappa
The AA Big book has “a retired businessman who lolls in the Florida sunshine in the winter complaining of the sad state of the nation…” (p. 61) Seven decades later, a long sober fundamentalist AA member vacated his lawn chair, dipped his quill into an inkwell and penned The White Paper on the Matter of Atheist/Agnostic Groups and Related Matters. Published anonymously, the conference-speaking fundie Sandy Beach proudly copped to the authorship at a later time.
One of his key points was that heretical members were tolerable as long as they kept their damn mouths shut. Frank Zappa would not have been surprised by that. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell relates a similar tale and merits a read, or a re-read.
One Hundred Men
I would describe fundamentalism as, first of all, a movement led almost invariably by authoritarian males who consider themselves to be superior to others and who have an overwhelming commitment to subjugate women and to dominate their fellow believers.
— Jimmy Carter
Our time has changed, and it’s changed and changed, and it continues to change. So first, that what was proper fifty years ago is not proper today.
— Joseph Campbell
From Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, we are supplied with information concerning the relationship of Alcoholics Anonymous and the female 51% of the population. Here is Dr. Smith’s reaction to hearing that Sylvia K. was on her way from Chicago to get “Oxidized,” in the words of the day:
“Dr. Bob threw up his hands and said, ‘We have NEVER had a woman and will NOT work on a woman.’ But by that time, Caroline was on her way with Sylvia K.” (p. 180) “Dr. Bob showed somewhat less assurance upon first confronting the most troublesome and, in some ways, the most unwelcome minority in AA’s olden days — women!” (p. 241)
Those remarks were made after the Big Book had come to print.
There are things in the book itself that are an affront to feminists and confirm the patriarchy predicted by President Carter’s comments at the start of this section. And yet, the abominable TO WIVES chapter must be left untouched. My personal favorite quotation comes in the next chapter: “OUR WOMEN FOLK have suggested certain attitudes a wife may take with the husband who is recovering.” The Cliff’s Notes version of our book’s advice to women is “Don’t be naggin’, bishes!”
Let’s Start From the Conclusion
… And Work Our Way Back
…fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware.
— Paul Tillich
It’s all too easy to mistake passion that can change for fundamentalism that never will.
— Richard Dawkins
Big Book fundamentalists, at least the leaders, are specialists in using a desired conclusion as their starting point and then working back to assemble “evidence” and reasoning supporting the foregone conclusion. That requires a certain amount of gymnastics.
A good example is that even more casual fans of AA’s book will tell you that a spiritual experience is essential for an alcoholic to stay sober. Of course, many tens of thousands have gotten sober without the necessary spiritual awakening that supposedly comes as the inevitable result of precisely following the book’s instructions. The fundamentalist explains away the entire lot of these folks as mere hard drinkers, not alcoholics at all, and certainly not alcoholics of our type.
What IS a real alcoholic, you may ask?
A real alcoholic is a drinker who can recover ONLY as the result of a spiritual experience. Therefore, in conclusion, a drinker who can recover only through a spiritual experience can only recover from a spiritual experience.
That sounds tautological, Captain.
Damn it, Spock!! “Tautology” does not appear in the Big Book!
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About the Author
Bobby Beach is a longtime sober atheist in AA making his debut at AABeyondBelief. His rabble-rousing contributions to AAAgnostica.org include “The Watering Down of AA,” and more recently “Freaken Big Book Fundamentalists Hate Freaken Everything!!”
Beach is a pseudonym allying Bobby with the great Jesse Beach, and a tiny stab perhaps at the late atheist-hater, Sandy Beach.