Monday, 20 August 2012

Alcoholics Anonymous - Revealed

I know this is a bit off-topic for this blog but it will become relevant further down.  Full disclosure - I am a member of AA, currently holding a position of minor responsibility and have held other positions of responsibility in the past.  I am posting in a state of anonymity - after it's all said and done, I'm just a bunch of pixels on a screen.  My training is in systems analysis.  I am not in the "addictions business".  I am not a spokesman for AA; our Traditions prevent it. The only authoritative information about Alcoholics Anonymous can be found at the AA website, literature published by The Grapevine, literature with the AA imprimatur found at AA meetings or offices, or elsewhere.  That material has been reviewed by committees responsible to the membership as a whole and found to be legitimate AA thought.  Basically if it doesn't say AA on it, it ain't AA and can't be trusted as an authoritative source.  Hell, don't even trust me or any other member - look it up for yourself.  [Although there is plenty of non-AA material out there to support (or deny) my position, due to the ephemeral nature of the Internet, I'm not going to link to any of it.  Even take the Wikipedia entry with a grain of salt.]

The official AA preamble

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.

The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for A.A. membership; we are self supporting through our own contributions. A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy, neither endorses nor opposes any causes. Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.

 A very, very brief explanation (as best I understand it, see official sources above).

AA was founded in 1929 by two men, a doctor and a stockbroker, who had exhausted all other methods of staying sober.  They stumbled across a methodology where they could stay sober by helping other people to get sober.  It turned out one good way was to have informal meetings at somebody's house over a pot of coffee.  Eventually it was decided that it might be a good idea to formalize things so a book was written (The Big Book) and published. In the process of writing the book the core Steps of AA were fleshed out, but not without considerable arguing.  One of the biggest was what to do about religion.  Some wanted to invoke something within the Abrahamic tradition (God, Allah, YHWH) but this was quickly shouted down.  It eventually settled down to a recommendation (Dr. Carl Jung had some minor involvement here) for some sort of spirituality, informally referred to as a "higher power", more formally as "God" always with the caveat "as we understood him" with a realization that this understanding would, and inevitably should vary wildly from individual member to member.  Frankly, to save confusion, I wish they'd left that particular moniker out of it but we're stuck with it.  So there.

The other big issue was, of course, the relationship with alcohol and the definition of "alcoholism".  It pretty soon became apparent that any sort of controlled drinking was out of the question.  If you could do that, you wouldn't be there in the first place.  It also became apparent that there were a whole host of co-morbid behavioural problems that taken together with the inability to stop drinking, could sum up a working definition of  "alcoholism".  By trial and error, a solution of sorts was found in The 12 Steps, published in The Big Book ..

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we
    understood Him
    . [italics in original]
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him,[italics in original] praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

A few things to note.  These are bullet-points rather than full sentences.  There are capitalized references to "Him" referring to "God", in the manner that it is done in holy scripture.  Note, however, that "Steps" is also capitalized.  Frankly I wish these weren't capitalized to save confusion, but they may have something to do with typographical and stylistic cliches of the time. 

Pretty soon, the meetings got big enough that they wouldn't fit in a kitchen, then groups sprung up in other cities and it became clear that some sort of group behavioural structure needed to be fleshed out - hence (in 1945) The12 Traditions.

  1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
  2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
  3. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
  4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
  5. Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
  6. An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
  7. Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
  8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
  9. A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
  11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
  12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Note again, the "God" reference but the key words in Step 2 are "group conscience" and "trusted not govern".

As I said above, I'm a systems analyst.  I've analyzed Alcoholics Anonymous and reached the firm and inescapable conclusion that it cannot possibly work...except for the fact that it does.  When it became big enough to need an organizational structure, they went and set it up all backwards and upside down.  There's no money to speak of (a banker's recommendation!).  The hierarchy is an inverse pyramid.  There's even a Service Manual that includes such gems as (paraphrase), "if you can't get a clear consensus on something - toss a coin". Lovely.

Now one thing to consider is, if you've spent any time around alcoholics or addicts, certain behaviours stick out.  If you tell one to do something, the result will often be the exact opposite.  Hence, a top down approach simply isn't going to work.  A whole buncha rules isn't going to work.  Hell, the 12 Steps are "suggested".  So if you look closely at the Traditions in that light, they start to make better sense.

Here's how a typical meeting runs (YMMV wildly)

  • somebody shows up 1/2 hour early to get the place open, set up chairs and tables, make coffee and set out the literature (if the group has any)
  • somebody shows up to chair the meeting (it's usually the same person).  This may be the most responsible position in AA, and the most exasperating
  • somebody volunteers to act as secretary (there's a bit of minor paperwork involved, mostly financial)
  • people volunteer or get voluntold to read various things (see below)
  • the chair announces himself and welcomes everybody to the meeting
  • some groups do the Serenity Prayer, some do the Responsibility Pledge, YMMV
  • somebody reads the Preamble
  • somebody reads a passage from The Big Book called "How it works" that includes The 12 Steps (see above) and the ABC's (see below).  I personally don't like this passage for a variety of reasons, but I'm not about to change it 'cause it might be the one thing keeping somebody else sober, who may be the person who's keeping me sober
  • somebody reads The 12 Traditions (see above)
  • there may be other readings from other AA material (Daily Reflections, Grapevine, As Bill Sees it)
  • the chair may ask if there are newcomers, people coming back or people from out of town.  They are greeted
  • if necessary, somebody "speaks to the newcomer" an improvised 10-minute speech on "what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now".  YMMV considerably
  • a topic is picked.  Some groups talk about The Steps and Traditions, others allow the chair to decide, some chairs ask for suggestions from the crowd, or just "what your day has been like".  A caution is sometimes expressed at this time that discussion should centre around alcoholism.  This is often ignored.
  • the chair picks people to speak at random (the exception being a "birthday meeting" when the birthdayee gets to pick who he wants, then speaks at the end).  In large meetings it's recommended that people limit themselves to 5 minutes but if somebody needs to really talk, or they're making good points they can exceed this at the chair's discretion
  • at some point baskets are passed around for the "7th Tradition".  Contribution is optional.
  • the meeting ends with various announcements
  • some meetings close with the Serenity or (hopefully optionally) the Lord's Prayer (or prayer of your choice)
  • people come up to the chair to have court papers signed
  • people stand around and yack or arrange to go to the local coffee shop
On paper it looks all nice and neat and organized.  In some meetings it's not.  Where I live there's no smoking in public places so the smokers who can't sit through an hour meeting are constantly up and down, in and out.  The coffee hounds (like me) are besieging the coffee pot.  Latecomers wander in, some want to socialize before they make it to their seats.  I've done my fair share of chairing meetings and I've had rowdy drunks, mentally ill people messing with the fixtures, fist fights, people more interested in the girls than the meeting (it's called 13th stepping),  phones ringing (they're told to turn them off), people texting or passed out in the corner.  Despite all this, people get sober.  I've had people come into the rooms who I swore were just there to get their court papers signed and a few years later they're in positions of responsibility.  There are plenty of others who stay for two meetings and you never see them again.  You simply can't tell.

Beginners (and everybody else for that matter) are encouraged to attend meetings regularly (beginners are encouraged to attempt to attend 90 meetings in 90 days where practical),  read the Big Book, read other literature such as pamphlets (free), the Grapevine (a monthly magazine referred to as "a meeting in print" and other AA books (for sale but if you're hard up somebody will usually buy you one), get a sponsor (someone with experience in the program to answer questions and give advice - YMMV), and "work the Steps" in a workable timeframe.  People are also encouraged to do "service work" or "12th-stepping", something so simple as helping set out the chairs, greeting at the door and making coffee, working up to chairing meetings, getting involved in committee work, taking a position of higher responsibility within committees and volunteering at central office or telephone work (some cities or even countries have a 24-hour call-in line).  There are also opportunities to work within the penal system, hospitals by chairing meetings and with medical and legal professionals by giving speeches all on a volunteer basis.  You can do all of it, some of it or none of it.  The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.

The core of AA's approach to alcoholism can probably be summed up by The ABC's...

Our description of the alcoholic, the chapter to the agnostic, and our personal adventures before and after make clear three pertinent ideas:

(a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.
(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.
(c) That God could and would if He were sought.

In that...

  • AA has a nuanced definition of "alcoholic" that may differ from others
  • AA acknowledges an issue with control
  • AA recommends some form of spirituality (but you get to pick it)
Some people have some serious objections to this.  Whole websites have been been devoted to it.  I won't link to them because I don't have the space here to debate/debunk them, but I can post a specific example.

You have to bear in mind that every group is different, some are better than others.  I've attended some groups and walked out half way through the meeting.  I've stumbled on others that are excellent.  Also, individual members' perceptions and understanding of AA vary wildly.  There's plenty of bullshit spouted in meetings by people who should know better.  Again, don't even trust me, check the resources above and attend some actual meetings (at more than one group) before making a hard-and-fast judgement. Much of what you read and hear about AA is complete and utter bullshit from people who have rushed to judgement based upon faulty knowledge or innate bias.  There are people in AA meetings with hidden agendas including the desire to proselytize.  No group is perfect.  If I claimed that I'd be doing a No True Scotsman for any flaw in AA.

What prompted this blog entry was a posting on a message board I frequent.  Several people on there have objections to AA, which usually results in a dogfight, which gets deleted by the moderators before anybody's had a chance to really resolve anything (assuming that's possible).

Here is the salient part of one, captured before it was deleted, usernames disguised, may be slightly out of sequence.  The users are aware they're being quoted here and have agreed.  They will also be provided with a link so they can come here and rebut.


MN: Here's why AA is a bullshit cult

AA advertises ridiculously high success rates which are effectively lies. The only true metric of how effective AA is would compare AA to those who decide to break their addiction on their own, and when you make that comparison you find that AA is not effective at all and some studies have shown that it is even LESS effective. If you look at the 12 steps, it's not hard to figure out why. The first step requires that you admit you are powerless over your addiction. If someone convinces themselves they are powerless over their addiction, what's to stop them from a relapse? The answer AA provides is ridiculous. 7 of the 12 steps require one to put their faith in god. So in other words, AA teaches you that you're helpless against your addiction, and the only thing that's going to keep you on the straight an narrow is the belief in an imaginary friend that never listens to you and will never help.

Z: I agree with that and more...

It's not just that it's a religious cult, it's also that A.A. is anti-science and anti-treatment. They promote ideas hat people who are addicts shouldn't be treated for their underlying psychological conditions, such a anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, et cetera. Like any cult, the push the idea that "only we can understand each other," so it isolates the addict from their outside support and gives them a new identity as a cult member.

TR: I've always thought AA was an addiction in and of itself.

You just trade one for the other.

MN: That's actually the whole idea of AA

It tries to substitute an addiction to their cult for an addiction to a substance. It's actually spelled out that way in their methodology.

A: What bugged me about AA was the smoking.

Sure thing, go to a meeting with two relatives and the second hand smoke was so thick I would get raging headaches.

And AA will always deny this until they are blue in the face, including using other terminology.
They are fundy "Christians."

MN: There are a number of other problems

Their model essentially treats everyone the same, however not all alcoholics are the same. Some are full blown addicts who face a strong chance of dying prematurely due to their addiction and some are nowhere near that severe.

AA has a huge dropout rate. Many people who attend a few meetings quickly discover that AA is based on religion and hocus pocus. So imagine being told you're helpless against your addiction, then dropping out once you figure out that AA is not going to help. People can be left feeling far worse than they ever started.

AA also teaches people to be ashamed if they relapse (not surprisingly since religion is largely based on shame). The problem is that the vast majority of addicts will relapse at some point and most will numerous times. Just because a person relapses, doesn't mean they are a failure or should be ashamed.

So yes, AA is based on anti-science and always has been and the results speak for themselves.

A: Because there's little evidence to suggest that it works...

The majority of people who get sober through AA typically use traditional therapy. Further more, the number of people who get sober through AA roughly equals the number of people who do it without a 12 step program.

If AA behaved more so as a support group than as a religion, then I wouldn't be knocking it. The "Big Book" actually disparages atheists. It also preaches against science and prevents its members from getting real treatment.

AA meetings are like churches, though. They all follow the same religious cannon, but some are more liberal and accepting than others.


I'll try to avoid  making a straw man out of this but I'll summarize the points as best I can, then attempt to address them, not necessarily in the order above.

  • AA advertises inflated success numbers
  • comparison of numbers between AA and people doing it on their own (or by other methods)
  • Step 1 - powerlessness/control issues
  • AA is an addiction, isolationism - "only we can understand each other"
  • AA is a religion, AA is "Christian"
  • AA is anti-atheist
  • AA is a cult
  • AA is anti-science/treatment
  • is alcoholism a disease?
  • relapse
  • smoking
Here we go.
  • AA advertises inflated success numbers
 This brings up a whole bunch of issues.  First off, AA doesn't advertise (yes, they have TV spots, but their message is "if you think you have a problem with alcohol, come check us out") and I don't remember seeing any hard and fast success numbers (the Wikipedia article says something about 26% but I don't think that's an AA number, it's somebody else).  (Somebody point them out on rebut if you can find them).  The thing is, it's impossible.  The main office in New York has no idea how many members there are.  I've set up AA groups, been treasurer and whatnot and nowhere is there a reliable list of who is and is not a member.  Some people regularly attend meetings who have never signed up to any group.  Some people are there 'cause the judge says so and once they've done their time, we never see them again.  Some people go missing and we never hear what happened.  Some groups maintain a list primarily so they know who's celebrating a birthday in what month, but some people miss their birthday and we assume they're gone and a year later they're back.  Additionally, we have no way of knowing whether they're sober or not unless they do something really outrageous like show up at a meeting falling-down drunk or get on front page of the newspaper in a DUI.  Also, define "success".  I was in the program for a number of years, made a (faulty) business decision to open a liquor/wine store (which involves wine tastings), then came back.  Is that a success-failure-success?


  • comparison of numbers between AA and people doing it on their own (or by other methods) 

It's not a zero-sum game.  My personal experience around AA meeting rooms leads me to put the number between 15 and 30% for those rooms I've been in (which isn't all of them and I live in a pretty rough part of town) by some definition of "success".  AA is not for everybody.  That's right in "How it Works".  For some people it isn't a good fit, some people run off before they fully understand the program (some later return), some find another way that works better for them and that's fine.  AA concentrates on the ~25% (my number) that it does have the potential to work for.  The intention is that people work the program as it's intended to be worked, which has been shown for some people to work.  If you're doing something completely different, we can't recommend it because that's not what we've found to work.  If you've found another way that works, more power to you, go do that instead and leave us to deal with our people.  We've got our 25% (or whatever) and we'll deal with them as best we can.  We cannot cater the program to everybody - that's impossible.  Some people go through the courts, end up in treatment, then over to us and either stay or go.  We have no control over this.

  • Step 1 - powerlessness/control issues

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become
(a) That we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.  

It comes down to, do you have control over your drinking and your behaviour.  If you did, you likely wouldn't be darkening the doorway in the first place.  The Big Book even recommends some controlled drinking and then trying to stop.  I decided to try two drinks on Friday night, then nothing until the next weekend.  I was smashed by Tuesday.

If it was simply a matter of putting the plug in the jug and sitting out the cravings, I'd be good to go.  The problem is that the behavioural aspects of alcoholism fuck up your life so badly that this needs to be addressed as well.  You've already tried controlling them yourself and it ain't working - get over it.  All "should"'s in the world aren't going to fix it.  Hence Step 2.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to

 Like I said, I really, really wish they hadn't capitalized this because it skews the meaning of the Step. 

(b) That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.

I'll admit right now that this is getting into spooky territory, but it's there for a reason.  This is practically word-for-word what Carl Jung said about alcoholism. It was the only time he had success when treating it - some sort of spirituality.

 3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over...

So up until now we've had an admission that as things stand, things are pretty messed up and will continue to be messed up until you try something different.

(c) That God could and would if He were sought.
3. the care of God as we understood Him. [underlining is italics in original]

 ...and that's where all the trouble starts - the "God" word.  I would have put an asterix with the notation "with the understanding of was already said in We Agnostics, plus all the material in Appendix A, plus you'd better have a look at the little red book (forget what it's called) and there's some nice stuff in the Grapevine magazines and compilation books."  It's a hell of a lot shorter to say "God."  I'm the first to admit that unfortunately in meetings there are people who can't leave it at that.  They feel the need to express their own understanding of "God" including people who I swear are there just to proselytize for Fundamentalist Christianity - one of the objections above.  Here's the rant I use when I get upset about it.

"Lookit.  The nature of my Higher Power is such that the best explanation I could give would involve a whole lot of mathematics and graphs and stuff.  Unfortunately, they haven't provided a whiteboard for me and I forgot my markers at home.  Also, I'm not sure how much of your High School calculus you remember and it's going to take a couple of hours and I've only got five minutes.  Plus, it's my higher power and you can't have it and it probably wouldn't work for you anyway. But if you get up here and start babbling about "God" and you're not scribbling equations, there's no point in me listening to you so I'll do you the same courtesy and shut up about it.

 Also, I've been using the wrong word.  It's "care", not control.  Here's a stupid analogy.  I've tried fixing my own car in the past.  I don't know a damn thing about it, I'm not mechanically inclined and I've often reduced it to the point where it won't even run.  At that point I have it towed in and turn it over to the "care" of a qualified mechanic.  I tell him how I managed to mess it up, he fixes it and recommends how to keep it running (like checking the oil once in awhile instead of letting it run dry).  That's probably a good working definition of "care" for our purposes.

There's no explicit need for a Deity.  For example, for the purposes of Step 3, turning your life over to the care and advice of your home group and your sponsor is sufficient.  It's not mandatory to have a shining moment of revelation or whatever.  I certainly didn't.  If you do, that's nice too.  Granted, it may be a bit difficult to get spiritual about a smoke-filled AA meeting or some of its denizens, but I've certainly had the occasional restful, meditative moment in a group setting.  I know one guy who entered the program because his dog was suffering due to his alcoholism - wasn't getting fed, taken for walks or paid attention to.  He managed to build himself a nice little spiritual program around that and has been sober since.

Given the nature of this blog, you can well imagine I've got big issues with people who attempt to drag Fundamentalist Christianity into an AA setting.  My home group had been meeting in a church basement and the building was sold to a different congregation.  They would only allow us to continue if they were allowed to preach at us before the meeting.  We told them that wasn't acceptable and went elsewhere.  One of the first AA groups I went to when I came back was "Jesus Jesus" every two minutes so after a couple of meetings I found a different group.  My own sponsor said one day, when I was getting out the whiteboard and markers (I'm kidding), "why can't you just believe in G_d".  I chewed him out.  I've been told by people who travel a lot that there are some areas of the United States where you can't find a meeting that hasn't been corrupted by "Christian" proselytizing.   YMMV drastically.

Hence, the objections raised above may very well be perfectly valid for the groups those people visited, given the website in question is in the United States.  While trying to avoid No True Scotsman, I think I've made it fairly clear that this isn't how Groups are supposed to be run.  But let's go over them one by one.

The answer AA provides is ridiculous. 7 of the 12 steps require one to put their faith in god. So in other words, AA teaches you that you're helpless against your addiction, and the only thing that's going to keep you on the straight an narrow is the belief in an imaginary friend that never listens to you and will never help. 

Well, there's a bit more to it than that.  I've known plenty of people who do (or at least say they do) Steps 1-3 and come to a screeching halt. They never dig deep, do a moral inventory, talk about it, then implement a plan to rectify some of the damage and do the maintenance steps to make sure they're not digging themselves another hole, then wonder why they go back out and get drunk again.  Their problems haven't been dealt with, they just hoped some spirituality would fix it.  There's lots of things to keep you on the straight and narrow - see list above.

Like any cult, the push the idea that "only we can understand each other," so it isolates the addict from their outside support and gives them a new identity as a cult member.TR: I've always thought AA was an addiction in and of itself. MN: That's actually the whole idea of AA It tries to substitute an addiction to their cult for an addiction to a substance. It's actually spelled out that way in their methodology.

I had a drinking problem for years and years and receive a lot of contradictory and bad advice, mostly from people who didn't have a drinking problem.  I had resorted to reading popular self-help books and stumbled upon one in particular.  The author had a completely different approach to talking about alcohol and described some of his own drinking career and life decisions.  I had just nicely empathized with him when he announced (paraphrase), "If you think about alcohol like I did, and drink like I did and behaved like I did, there's a fair chance you're an alcoholic.  There's a program for you called AA - check it out".  This is the first time I'd found anybody who seemed to "get it" - simple stuff like getting the screaming-meemies watching somebody walk out of a restaurant without finishing their bottle of wine and it going to waste.

People who have staggered into meetings have likely already had their fair share of advice, good and bad and been unable to implement it, otherwise they wouldn't be there in the first place.  We have a plan that we think works, so we want people to follow that plan, not a mishmash of other stuff.  I find it a bit of a stretch to call attendance an "addiction" and I haven't seen anything like that in the literature per se but would welcome someone pointing it out on rebut.  Certainly there are people who heavily involve themselves in the program, but if the alternative is to go out and get drunk, I don't have a huge problem with this. If it's affecting their home life or work then there may be a problem here but I personally haven't run into this.  YMMV

  • AA is a religion, AA is "Christian"
Also, "AA must be a religion, meetings are held in churches", "AA is Christian because they say the Lord's Prayer at the end and talk about God a lot" and "AA must be a religion, it has prayers". 

Full disclosure, I'm on the vestry of a church within the Anglican Community, have studied Christianity extensively and even been on a Panel of Inquisition.  I'm also a church musician. I've founded an AA group (it folded) and been treasurer of two other ones.

(Got my church hat on) Due to a decline in church attendance overall, many churches have fallen on hard times.  They have found the best way to attract members is to appear to be a "busy church" with lots of activity going on and to be seen to be doing "good works".  So, they'll rent the building out to all sorts of groups just to get people passing through the building and thinking "this would be a nice place to go to church" or "these are nice people" or whatever.  (AA hat on) By design, AA groups are broke so they can't afford to pay much.  Churches tend to provide rooms either for free or for a token amount.  The equivalent office space or space at a community league would be a fortune.  So the answer to that one is "the rent's cheap".

In North America, the strong majority of religious/spiritual people are within the Christian realm of followers of the Abrahamic Tradition (I'm tap-dancing around the word "Christian" because of its strong ties to Evangelical Fundamentalism).  Members included the founders of AA and most of the original membership.  Be that as it may, as said above, it was quickly decided to keep specific religiosity out of it.  In deference to those members, however, many meetings end with the Lord's Prayer. The groups I attend where this takes place, the chair ends the meeting with the words along the lines of "For those who would like to, please join me in the Lord's Prayer or prayer of your choice".  In one meeting where that didn't happen, I made a stink about it and the Group decided to change it.  The two Groups I primarily attend don't do the Lord's Prayer, substituting the Responsibility Pledge, the Serenity Prayer or the Promises.  Prayer is certainly not limited to Christianity and meditation features in many practices of spirituality including martial arts.  The Prayers we do use are widely applicable.  The Serenity Prayer translates for my spirituality to "respect the limits of your equations".

(Church hat) Given my qualifications above, I know how to run a religion.  You need a fixed set of beliefs defining your higher power (dogma), some sort of Rite, a top-down hierarchy of authoritative (or authoritarian) control, and a variety of hoops you need to jump through to be considered a valid member.  Some religions also insist upon control over dress, manners, sexual issues and decorum.

AA flunks - badly.

Here's everything that I've been able to find defining "God".  "Loving" (12 Traditions) and "Creator" (a couple of places).  [If anybody can find any others please rebut].  That's not a hell of a lot to go on.  The Masonic "Great Architect" could qualify.  My equations qualify.  My friend's dog qualifies (granted, that takes a bit of tap-dancing on the "Creator" part).  Good luck starting an Inquisition with two words to go on.

The meetings tend to follow a similar format but in terms of a formal religious Rite invoking the Holy (ignoring the prayers which I'll get to in a bit) and callouts to a "God" summarized by a two-word dogma, there's not a lot to hang your hat on here.  The Steps and Traditions are a methodology.  There's no Kyrie (call for mercy), or Gloria (praise passage), a four-word Credo "as we understood him" falls flat on its face and is unsingable, the Offertory is boring "to keep the doors open and pay for coffee and literature", the sermon ("what is was like, what happened and what it's like now") is completely off-topic and the Agnus Dei is an impossibility given the dogma (you could make a vague case for Step 7 but you'd have to lose all the substitutionary atonement baggage first).  We do have something like an ite missa est (the service is ended, go in peace) but that's kinda anti-climactic.  We also seem have mislaid Baptism, Marriage and Communion.

We do have a Confession of sorts in Steps 4-5, but we don't perform it during the meeting, and this is standard psychological practice pre-Freud and works just fine with a non-theistic higher power.  I just plug my faults into my equations.  There is no Absolution per se.

(AA hat) As stated above, AA doesn't have top-down hierarchical control.  The position of most powerful control (if you can call it that) in AA is the meeting chair, assuming he can get everybody to sit down and shut up long enough to actually hold a meeting.  YMMV.  An AA Group will have a "business meeting" to conduct routine business such as financial stuff.  If somebody raises an issue like prayer at the meeting, a "group conscience" meeting is called to thrash it out.  The Groups send representatives to General Services committees (that's what I do) who deal with matters "affecting other groups or AA as a whole" and those committees send recommendations to regional meetings, then to New York.  All is done by "trusted servants" emanating from the groups.  Basically, it would be like the congregations getting together and telling the Pope what to do if AA was a religion. 

When I share at an AA meeting I announce "My name is [redacted] and I have a desire to stop drinking."  That's my way of announcing that I qualify as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.  That's the sole requirement.  You don't need to have done the Steps or anything else.  We had a bit of controversy awhile ago what do to about drug addicts in meetings.  I'd be chairing and have somebody pop up and say "I'm [redacted] and I'm an addict."  I'd ask.  "Do you have a desire to stop drinking?"  "Yes."  "Welcome to the meeting.  Proceed."  Pissed a whole lotta people off but they knew I was right.  On a side note, when I do "speaker to newcomer" I announce the more traditional "I'm an alcoholic", which indicates (at least to me) that at an absolute minimum I've done Step 1, but that's a separate issue.

Once upon a time it read "honest desire to stop drinking" but we dropped that a long time ago.  That's why I don't have a huge issue with court-mandated people in the meetings.  They have a desire to stop drinking.  Granted, they're trying to stop drinking to keep the judge happy or salvage their marriage or get their car back or avoid some whopping fine. I don't give a damn as long as they respect the Traditions and when they get up, talk about drinking or the Step or whatever the hell the topic is.

Control over dress, manners, sexual issues and decorum?  Seriously?  Alcoholics?  I can't get them to turn their damn cell phones off.

  • AA is anti-atheist
This actually came up on a CBC radio show a couple of months ago.  Seems in Toronto there are a couple of "atheist" AA groups and some of the spokespeople anonymously got on and tried to make their point.  Personally, I think they're doing a straw man.  There is no need for a deity within AA.  Hell, look at my situation.  For purposes of faith, I'm a follower of what can best be understood of something that happened around 2000 years ago (yes, I'm tap dancing again), but for purposes of stopping drinking I'm using something completely different, the explanation of which wouldn't look out of place in a physics textbook.  (Aside - somebody joked awhile ago that the current state of theology is that there's more references to God in physics textbooks than in some religious publications).

I will certainly grant that some of the AA literature reads like it's wall-to-wall theism but I think that's unavoidable or else it would be full of unreadable tap-dancing like in the previous paragraph. It's the same situation as the default generic-person "he" in English.  We tried "he/she" for awhile and it simply didn't work.  As I said above, you can't really come to full judgement on the whole issue of atheism vs. agnostism until you've waded through a couple of hundred pages of stuff and at the end of it you're just going to have a headache because the message ends up being "do whatever works".  Most people have found that some sort of spirituality helps.  If you can stay sober without it - go for it.

Again, this all came from hard, practical experience from Dr. Carl Jung and one of his patients in 1926, who ended up talking to an early AA-er, who brought it to the attention of the founders.  Another early influence on AA was William James and his "The Varieties of Religious Experience" in which he laid out all sorts of spiritual experiences both theistic and not, all found to be beneficial in some form or another.

  • AA is a cult
I think that's going to come down to a definition of "cult".  Charles Manson's gang comes to mind.  Some of the scarier religious groups do as well, the key being isolation and control, some of which was addressed up above.  I think some of the problem may be some well-meaning (or not) members proclaiming "you have to follow the program to the letter, do your Steps perfectly blah blah blah or you're going to absolutely for sure get drunk".  Nonsense.  It says right in How it works, "we are not saints".  The Steps themselves are "suggested".  Again, if AA has a methodology that has a success rate (YMMV) they are first and foremost going to recommend that methodology over and above something else, especially if they feel it hasn't been given a fair attempt. I'd hardly call this isolationism, I'd call it staying on message.

There have also been suggestions of a "cult of personality" around Bill W. and Dr. Bob.  Some meeting rooms have their pictures up (but not identified).  Some rooms have their last messages up.  Some of the anti-AA websites have event taken to personally attacking them, hoping this will put a stain on AA.  It's been my personal experience that they are rarely mentioned unless something historical comes up but again YYMV.

  • AA is anti-science/treatment
It also preaches against science and prevents its members from getting real treatment.

I'm the first to admit that some of the science in The Big Book and elsewhere is out of date.   I also remember (rebut, please) reading it bemoaning the lack of a science/medicine-based solution to alcoholism (ie. take a pill and it goes away) and hoping eventually something will come along.  Apparently it hasn't.  Here's something from How it Works - "There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders" a free and open admittance that these can be co-morbid with alcoholism.  I can't find it right now, but it's actually recommended to go to the doctor and get these taken care of outside of the program.

AA has no problem with the medical community.  The General Services Committee that I sit on has a sub-committee specifically for interacting with medical health professionals.  Speakers are invited to go to the hospital, hold AA meetings and talk to patients.  For a while I was on the list of people who would assist patients leaving the hospital integrate into regular life, specifically getting them lined up with an AA group and sponsoring if necessary.  I have a mental health issue.  There is nothing in AA to deal with it so my doctor does that.  He is confident in AA's ability to deal with alcohol issues so we leave it at that.  There is no conflict.

We've had plenty of people come into the rooms where its readily apparent that they need more than we provide.  We're broke.  We don't have the facilities.  We have no place for people to detox.  We don't have access to medicine or medical equipment and we wouldn't know how to use it if we did.  We are not psychologists - we're a bunch of drunks.  I've personally driven some of them over to detox and welcomed them back when they're released.  I've picked a few up myself.

  • Is alcoholism a disease?
One of the objections I heard to AA's approach is something along the lines of "because AA treats alcoholism as a disease over which a member has no control, it prevents him from exerting the self-control to stop drinking himself", going on to proclaim the problem to be moral weakness or something along those lines.

News flash!!!!

Addiction is a chronic brain disorder and not simply a behavior problem involving alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex, experts contend in a new definition of addiction, one that is not solely related to problematic substance abuse. 

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) just released this new definition of addiction after a four-year process involving more than 80 experts.


Two decades of advancements in neuroscience convinced ASAM officials that addiction should be redefined by what's going on in the brain. For instance, research has shown that addiction affects the brain's reward circuitry, such that memories of previous experiences with food, sex, alcohol and other drugs trigger cravings and more addictive behaviors. Brain circuitry that governs impulse control and judgment is also altered in the brains of addicts, resulting in the nonsensical pursuit of "rewards," such as alcohol and other drugs.

  •  relapse
AA also teaches people to be ashamed if they relapse (not surprisingly since religion is largely based on shame). The problem is that the vast majority of addicts will relapse at some point and most will numerous times. Just because a person relapses, doesn't mean they are a failure or should be ashamed.

 Lemme guess.  You've been reading John Bradshaw.  Love the man.  Love his books. I personally haven't seen a lot of toxic shame-based stuff in AA.  I have seen, especially within Step 4, an opportunity to examine ones life for healthy shame, then do something about it.

As I mentioned above, I relapsed.  When I had had enough of my second drinking career, I came back to the rooms and was treated matter-of-factly.  I got the "welcome back" chorus when the chair asked for people coming back, somebody passed around a list so I could get some phone numbers, the package included some up-to-date literature including a current meeting list and after the meeting people wanted to know if I needed anything like a Big Book, information or go for coffee.

I've got somebody in one of my groups that's never managed more than 6 months of sobriety, but he keeps coming back and we keep welcoming him back because at least he makes it back and maybe, finally he'll hear the right thing that can make him stay.  I wouldn't want him not to be in the meeting because occasionally he'll say something that keeps me sober.  And every time he comes back, he's a little worse for wear which makes me wonder what kind of shape I'd be in if I went back out.

  • smoking
I'm lucky.  I don't smoke.  I even tried to take up smoking and I didn't get the addiction.  It just made me cough a lot.  Also, I live in an area where it's illegal to smoke in a public place so (as I mentioned above) the meetings are smoke-free and you just have to put up with the smokers tromping up and down the stairs during the meeting for their fix.

Here's the thing.  "AA has no opinion on outside issues".  I've been in business meetings where somebody popped up, complaining about the smoke saying "AA should be doing something about people's smoking - it's an addiction too".  Sorry.   AA is about alcohol.  We've got enough problems dealing with that.  If you want to quit smoking, it's not AA's issue.  Do something else.


To sum up.  I've done the best I can to address the issues as I see them, as an individual member of AA.  My word is not Gospel, see the resources above.  I believe most of the accusations I've attempted to address are done in good faith but lack of knowledge.

I'm opening this up to rebuttal.  If somebody finds an obvious problem with the above, I'll either address it in the comments, or fix the original post, noting the edit.  In some cases, we may have to simply agree to disagree.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

WBC rejoices at Texas AM shootings


RT : THANK GOD FOR SENDING THE SHOOTER TO TEXAS AGAIN! Why couldn’t your maroon wall stop today’s shooter?  

GodSmack: Maroon Wall Fail!

They're also ignoring the law against protesting military funerals.

Wishful thinking on the part of the delusional.😳 RT New Law May Spell End Of WBC Military Funeral Protests
Another dead MI soldier. God's wrath! Westboro to picket funeral of Spc.McClain, 8/16,Rochester Hills.  

WBC Funeral Pkt Army Spc. Kyle B. McClain 8/16 @ 11AM , St. Mary of the Hills Catholi Church, Rochester Hills, MI

Funeral: F 8/17 @ 10AM West Point, MostHolyTrinityChapel, USMACadetChapel, 699 Washington Road, West Point, NY

Smart guy! Not only sees new federal law is unconstitutional, but that WBC's legal challenge is inevitable.

WestboroFuneralPkt: rmy Major Thomas E. Kennedy, son of a former NYPD Detective; graduate of West Point.

and I guess they've also got it in for California and naturists just on principle.

California for a second day on Monday, threatening a clothing-optional resort and forcing the evacuation of some 500 homes.
PraiseGod! SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 13 (Reuters) - Hundreds of firefighters battled a pair of wildfires that burned out of control in Northern ...