The “God” Word Delusion

This essay was originally published on June 6, 2018, at the Atheist Recovery Blog and is republished here with permission. 

Delusion can come in many forms. It can be based on the mostly harmless false hope and wishful thinking of a child-like desire to prove that somethings not true when it obviously is, the more serious self-deceptions of the active alcoholic whose lack of boundaries and self-assessment lead to further self-destruction or, in the truly terrifying mass delusions of extreme political movements. A delusional state can also manifest itself in looking at a text that clearly says one thing and then claiming, boldly, that it says another. AA, on all levels, seems particularly prone to this.

As always, my thoughts that follow are my own and I represent only myself. I also want to say, at the outset, that I have no doubt that the intentions of both the authors and publishers of this pamphlet were, in their mind, benign. It’s just that, to this reader, that Atheists and Atheism are not properly addressed here.

From its appearance in the UK a couple of years ago a UKAA approved pamphlet called ‘The “God” Word’ has been hailed around the secular AA world as some sort of breakthrough for Atheists and Agnostics in AA.

Since I first read this sometime in early 2017, I have been perplexed as to why a supposedly committed atheist might find this publication as either useful or necessary in terms of both its intent and its effects.

Now that this UK production has been overwhelmingly accepted by The General Service Conference for publication in the US a veritable cry of “hosannas” has gone up from various quarters (mostly online) within secular AA. The joy with which this publication was greeted got me looking to the sky for the Second Coming followed by The Rapture, an event, if it ever were to occur, I would most definitely be left out of.

Sadly, Wilson’s “bright white light” did not appear in the sky, just a light blue cover with white and black lettering on it with the AA/UK logo.

Before I go into a deeper critique of what I feel is behind this I would like to quote, for my atheist sisters and brothers, some lines from each of the ten stories presented here (a few with brief editorial comments in brackets). These are all shown, in the pamphlet, as examples of atheist/agnostic inclusion and, both within and outside their context, pose some serious questions. Italics are mine.

Story #1, Page 6, “I am on a journey and my appreciation of the 12 Steps is evolving as I grow in the program.”

Story #2, Page 8-9, “I got a sponsor and went through the steps with her, shared my step four with her, and prayed with her. It felt hollow and untruthful, but I did it because I thought it was what I was supposed to do… (GREAT – but then there is a qualification as there often is in these stories) I do have a practice that some people would call spiritual…I meditate every day and I think it keeps me on an even keel, mentally, and emotionally.”

Story #3, Page 10, “I was admitting for the first time that I wasn’t fit to run my own life…I came to believe that there is something within me that guides me through life and looks after me…Sometimes I call it “God” …many little things have happened in my life to convince me that “something” exists.”

Story #4, Page 11-12, “I discovered that life can be driven by the principles of the Steps rather than by my impulses and urges. As I “turned my life over” to the principles of the Steps my former alcoholic behaviors began to take a back seat…The more I aligned my life with the principles of the Steps, the more clearly, I was able to see the world.”

Story #5, Page 13, “With the help of the human power of compassion and unconditional support I get from the members of this Fellowship (all good here) and the tools of the Twelve Step Program, (???) I can give this healing process a chance. It certainly is a power greater than myself. (???)

Story #6, Page 14, (And then we get this after trying without the Steps for four years…) “I had a choice to make, kill myself or get a sponsor and work the Steps… (and then) … My role now in AA is to carry the AA message to the still suffering alcoholic, that includes my journey in finding a god that works for me.”

Story #7, Page 15, “I work the steps… (and after saying that he does not have to find god to stay sober he quotes from the Big Book Appendix II) We find that no one need have difficulty with the spirituality of the program.’ (followed by the condescending “willingness” verbiage found there)

Story #8, Page 16, (an “Agnostic” refers us to the 11th Step and then says) “It is also, for me, the great reality that is referred to in the Big Book, is beyond all concepts and labels, and defies all attempts at description.”

Story #9, Page 17, “I was able to work my way through the Steps with the universe as my higher power…I still pray but not to any religious deity.” (we Atheists do love our “prayer” it seems)

Story #10, Page 18-19, “I believe that the most important spiritual principle of AA is humility… (Muses on the existence of God, says it doesn’t matter, the quarks align and then, hopefully ironically says the following) …That keeps me sober. Amen.”

All ten stories, every single one, fully accommodate, by reference, belief or application, the Big Book, The Steps, or “Spirituality” in some way. No wonder the General Service Conference-approved this thing! Its straight, conventional AA. The essence and practice of the conventional, Steps/Oxford Group based program as defined by these members and printed at the back of the pamphlet where the Steps and Traditions are presented exactly as used in every standard AA meeting everywhere. And good for them if that’s their thing! But what does it have to do with us?

Where are the stories of the secular AA s who can’t abide the Steps, original, rewritten, or otherwise? Where are the tales of the many women who find the Big Book insupportably sexist?  Where are the people who refuse to use or adhere to the word “spiritual” in any form and have stayed sober for decades anyway? Where are the people who very well might “kill themselves” if forced to work the Steps in any way? Where are the members who categorically refuse to “turn their lives over” to anything? Where are the ones who find that “power greater than yourself” both coercive and destructive? Where are the people who sincerely believe they can run their own goddamn lives? The answer is nowhere. Not here.

Before the “stories” cited they quote Wilson from 1965… Let us accord each other the respect and love that is due every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light.

And what light might that be Bill? What if I don’t want your “light”? “He”, “His”? What about my daughter’s Bill? No women around in 1965? What, in fact, would you say now to the nasty “buggers” (to coin a Briticism) who are like me?

This publication then directs the reader to the following, among other, sources of “enlightenment”.

  • The totally discredited pamphlet, ‘Many Paths to Spirituality”
  • The Big Book
  • In Particular: Chapter 4, ‘We Agnostics’ (I shit you not)
  • The Grapevine Book ‘Came to Believe’
  • The 12×12 – “Step 2” (again I’m not shitting you)
  • ‘As Bill Sees It’ – Sections on Higher Power

One of the capstones of all this for me was the numerous references in the pamphlet to the Grapevine and the famous Wilson piece from 1961, ‘The Dilemma of No Faith’, which many “get along to go along” folks in secular AA quote in defense of the proposition that our “holy fathers” had our best interest at heart. Here are two excerpts:

Speaking of the phrase “A Power Greater Than Ourselves” or “Higher Power”: “For all who deny, or seriously doubt a deity, these frame an open door over whose threshold the unbeliever can take his first easy step into a reality hitherto unknown to him – the realm of faith.” and Therefore,  faith is more than our greatest gift; its sharing with others is our greatest responsibility.” 

No matter what they might say in terms of “Inclusion and Diversity” their final intention for the atheist is conversion. This, in fact, in the macro sense, is the AA “Big Tent” strategy in a nutshell.

So, why are we being sold ‘The “God” Word’ so hard? Could it be that there is a desire, by some, to codify this “AA Lite” approach once and for all and to subsume our growing and vital secular AA movement into the corporate body of conventional AA to the point that we are indistinguishable from it? Ask yourself some of these questions as you carefully read this pamphlet. I hope everyone in secular AA takes the time to look at it carefully to decide for yourselves if it accurately represents us.

You don’t have to be a “radical” or “militant” atheist like me to see that this watered-down imported pabulum might not warrant your close embrace or the singing of its praises.

There is, in fact, a growing body of “literature” available on the various online forums, in the closed secular AA Facebook pages, blogs, and elsewhere that constitute the real cross-section of our growing part of the Fellowship. Some of these resources mirror some of what you see in ‘The “God” Word’ but many do not. Likewise, in Toronto in August at our International Convention, you will find a lot more real “diversity” of opinion that you will find in this inherently defective pamphlet.

We are a lot more interesting and thoughtful than what is presented as a true cross-section of us in ‘The “God” Word’.


About the Author

John HJohn Huey’s student work of the ’60s-’70s was influenced by teachers in Vermont such as John Irving at Windham College and William Meredith at Bread Loaf. After many years he returned to writing poetry in 2011. He has been widely anthologized and published since then. His first full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017.

Full information on his creative work, as well as his many Secular Recovery talks and writings, can be found at john-huey.com.

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Dean W
Dean W
1 month ago

Thanks for a very thoughtful essay, John. My issue with the pamphlet in question begins with the first sentence, “AA is not a religious organization.” This is total bullshit and an incredible example of denial. You ask a lot of questions here that I would love to hear GSO and the Conference Delegates answer. I’m not holding my breath. This pamphlet and the rest of the condescending crap coming out of New York led me to conclude that, after 32 years of sobriety, I simply may not belong in AA anymore. In my not so humble opinion, Secular AA, or… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey
1 month ago
Reply to  Dean W

I’ve been turning blue waiting since our first crack at joint independence in 2014 in Santa Monica at our first International Convention as well as in Austin in 2016 and Toronto in 2018. Let’s hope that idea gets rationally discussed here in Bethesda, MD in 2021. There are moves afoot to establish splinter groups under the Secular Recovery banner but I’m not part of that. A true group decision will possibly be made in the future on the question of what, exactly, does Conventional AA have to offer us at this point. My answer, of course, would be nothing which,… Read more »

Dean W
Dean W
1 month ago
Reply to  John Huey

Especially in light of the exchange that follows between John S and I, I have to wonder what “a true group decision” in Secular AA is? John seems to take a very narrow view of “Secular AA,” while I take a very broad view. Do the Secular AA Conventions represent the overall secular AA movement, or do they just represent those in the movement who have the time, money, and desire to attend the Conventions? If the Conventions speak for no one but the participants, then who speaks for the movement? Does anyone? Hence my conclusion that the movement needs… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey
1 month ago
Reply to  Dean W

Come to the next Convention here in Bethesda MD in October 2021 and put on a workshop to discuss that. It sounds like both a timely and provocative topic… Gregg Ottinger is the Chairman of the Convention and could confirm that with you. Please send him a proposal.

Dean W
Dean W
1 month ago
Reply to  John Huey

Thanks for the suggestion, but I’m not much the conference or convention type even in the best of times, and these Covid days obviously ain’t the best of times.

John S
Admin
1 month ago
Reply to  Dean W

I reject this notion that the Secular AA organization has any authority to declare other AA groups as being in or out of AA. All they do is put on an AA conference every two years. I suppose if there is a vote to make the conference something other than an AA conference, then congratulations. The conference is no longer an AA conference, and I suppose those of us who want a secular AA conference will have to start a new one. Every AA group in the world is an autonomous entity, taking orders from nobody. They are in or… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by John S
Dean W
Dean W
1 month ago
Reply to  John S

I agree with you about Secular AA’s authority, or lack thereof, regarding other groups. I may be speaking out of turn since I haven’t participated in any of the Secular AA conferences, but I tend to use the term Secular AA to refer not just to those conferences and participants, but to the secular movement in AA generally. I see secular AA as more of a movement than an organization. In fact, I see it as a movement that needs an organization.

Ralph B.
Ralph B.
1 month ago

“Many Paths to Spirituality”, “the GOD word” and “One Big Tent” may all have their shortcomings but they have allowed me to become comfortable with secular AA. I am grateful for each of them.

Murray J.
Murray J.
1 month ago

I drank the koolaid early on. I used to say my worst thinking got me into the alcoholic mess. A member at a secular meeting appropriately berated me saying stop beating yourself up. I faked the higher power crap. I have been doing deprogramming for years now. I found my way out of the traditional AA abyss by finding secular AA. I’ve seen the light. It’s called the sun. And the God Word pamphlet? Our Area 83 debated the pamphlet a couple of years ago. Even die hard thumpers gave the thumbs up. Progress? Maybe.

John Huey
John Huey
1 month ago
Reply to  Murray J.

Good to hear about your journey Murray. I suspect that the reason that “thumpers” gave that thumbs up was that it was, more than less, in accord with their views.

John L.
John L.
1 month ago

Agree. Let me add that the pamphlet neglects sobriety. Unless I missed it, there is no mention of the 24-Hour Plan — staying away from the First Drink a day at a time. The emphasis is on personal shortcomings. In the words of “Johnny”: “In A.A. recognize we are flawed, that we can and must change….” — implying that alcoholism is merely a symptom of underlying character defects. On the contrary, I maintain that alcoholism is a physical addition to ethyl alcohol. When drinking we poisoned our bodies and brains, and this made us sick, messed up our lives, and… Read more »

John Huey
John Huey
1 month ago
Reply to  John L.

As always John you put it both concisely and correctly. These people seem to want you to proceed with these so called “defects” for life which can only be held in check by a devotion to the Oxford Group influenced Twelve Steps. Something that makes no sense whatsoever.