As with governments and religions, in Alcoholics Anonymous, either formal or informal authorities are charged or charge themselves with interpreting various founding documents. The founding document for AA is the volume entitled Alcoholics Anonymous commonly referred to as the Big Book. Governments and religions have official bodies to interpret their founding documents. In AA everyone gets to be an expert, at least in their own mind.
As an iconoclast by inclination, I tend to rebel against those who treat the Big Book as inspired dogma. I like to remind folks that the words “sponsor” and “AA meeting” do not appear in the original edition of the Big Book. I note as well that the Twelve Steps are “suggested” and not mandated.
How does the dogmatic approach work in AA? Here is an example. Step Three goes “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” After reading this step certainly thousands of times, a few years ago I was struck that “as we understood (Him) God” required a further action on my part. I was charged with coming up with some understanding of a God or Higher Power. I could not just conveniently co-opt a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or other concept fully conceived, unless that was my true understanding. I found this challenge to be quite exciting and liberating as well. When I raised this point in an AA discussion meeting, my understanding was immediately countered by someone who considered themself more knowledgeable than I in the post Big Book AA literature. Leaving aside issues of a God’s gender, the individual noted that “as we understood Him” meant that the understanding had already been done by the founders of AA and discussed in a wealth of AA literature such as The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous and As Bill Sees It, a sort of greatest hits of AA co-founder Bill Wilson published in the 1960s. I don’t buy it. Although interesting, the response did not sway my thinking, at all.
Typically, in a post such as this, now is the time I should denounce AA for being a cult, discouraging alternative views, heavy-handed, dogmatic and blah, blah, blah. The problem is, that has never been my experience beyond the isolated incident here and there. Over the years that I have enjoyed that AA meetings pretty much reflect of the culture in which they exist. In that way there is plenty of room for diversity. There are about 450 meetings per week in the three-state metro area where I live with a population of about 1.2 million. If I don’t like the meeting I attend, I have 449 other options.
Another line often heard in AA is to “Take what you like and leave the rest.” I think this is very solid advice. Here is how this has worked for me. When I walked in the doors of AA the first time, someone said something about a Higher Power, to which I rebelled that I was not going to hang out with a bunch of Jesus Freaks, so I made my exit. I didn’t want to “take it” so I “left it.” Six months later I was back and ready to “take” a good bit more of the program. Over the years I have continued to “take” and “leave” what I hear at AA meetings. I have never felt bound by AA Dogma, nor have I ever considered the organization to be a cult or anything along those lines.
Fact is, were it not for AA, I am confident I never would have gotten sober. Were it not for AA today, my sobriety would be a great deal more difficult to maintain. I enjoy too that there are lots of folks in recovery with their own network/resource that is very successful for them and has nothing to do with Twelve Step programs. With so much available, I am grateful that when the addict decides enough is enough, there are an abundance of tools available to start on the recovery road.