Some Thoughts About AA in the 21st Century

By life-j

A couple of days ago it was two years since I had my big surgery. I had cancer, and they took two thirds of my liver out. When the doctor came in I asked him: “Could you please do the surgery exactly the way they did it in 1939?”

Right – I really did, right?

No. Would you jeopardize your life like that? So why would you do that with recovery where your life is equally on the line, even if perhaps not quite so urgently for some of us?

Bill Wilson was three years sober when he wrote the Big Book. Let me be perfectly clear: For someone who didn’t already have a big fellowship to lean on, and for being three years sober in 1938 he did good. Let’s just give him all the credit we can: He did amazingly good.

But he was three years sober.

The Emperor’s New Clothes: “But he has nothing On!”

If you who are reading this are three years sober – congratulations! Those first three years in many ways are a bigger achievement for you, and for us, than the next 25 years were for me, who is 28 years sober. On the other hand – those of us who have been sober for well over a decade, when we look back, one of the first things that come to mind is probably “Yeah, when I was three years sober I thought I knew everything!”

And so, it was with Bill Wilson.

Though when he wrote the Big Book he was able to be humble enough to write, “We realize we know only a little.” Only later was he to realize how little he had indeed known. But he had set a fellowship in motion which had taken on a life of its own. By 1955 there were perhaps 150,000 members, many of whom would cling to every word in the Big Book, and he had to resign himself to that.

In a February 6, 1961 letter he writes:

“As time passes, our book literature has a tendency to get more and more frozen, a tendency for conversion into something like Dogma, a human trait I am afraid we can do little about. We may as well face the fact that A.A. will always have its fundamentalists, its absolutists and its relativists”.

We now have some people with 20, 30, 40 years sober who insist on living their life according to the writings of this three-year sober guy, all the while later in life he cautiously tried to moderate his stance:

“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)

So, we can’t help but ask:

How relevant is Bill Wilson’s original 1938 message here almost 80 years later?

What makes the AA message so special, that 80 years later there is nothing, absolutely nothing in it that needs to be changed? (Other than a few gender specific embarrassments about what the little woman at home should do, and such.)

I know there are people who try to live their lives by every word of it. This is not hard to understand. We live in a predominantly Christian culture where many base their life on writings nearly two thousand years old. To them it must feel like the Big Book was written yesterday.

However, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is growing. And the general population is growing. This all adds up to that while in actual numbers AA is shrinking only slightly, in its share of the general population, drinking or not, it is shrinking considerably. One third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation, and there are 13 million people who consider themselves atheists or agnostics, about 6% of the population.

I know that is a small enough minority to where if the majority wants to play righteous and dominate them, it’s a piece of cake. AA has done it for a long time now. Those unbelievers can be ignored, both inside and outside of AA, if one wants to badly enough.

But then what happens to our responsibility statement?

I Am Responsible. When Anyone, Anywhere Reaches Out for Help, I Want the Hand of A.A. Always to Be There. And for That, I Am Responsible!

When I was drinking it was my way or the highway, and it seems we have brought that attitude with us into the fellowship of AA: It’s our way or the highway! If you want recovery, you’ll get it on our terms. If you can’t handle it on our terms, go back out and do some more drinking until you’re ready to do what we tell you.

Of course, you’re always free to go seek help elsewhere. Just don’t count on us, unless you’re willing to do it our way.

So, The Hand of AA – is that the hand of one alcoholic talking with another, the hand of a fellowship where we may finally feel that we have come home, or is it the hand of conditional love from a fellowship which does not practice what it preaches?

We, every one of us, must ask ourselves: Who am I willing to let die, just so I can be righteous in my belief?

There are many thousands of sober agnostics or atheists in AA, and many of them have endured the god talk through a decade, or two, three, or four. I have surely sat through more than 4000 meetings myself and had to listen to stuff I did not believe in all through those 4000 meetings, just so I could be allowed to stay sober.

I was even told to “fake it ‘til you make it.” Luckily, I realized in time that if I faked it, it would only take me back to the bottle. I had faked it all my life. Luckily, I made it anyway.

And I’m here to tell about it, and to help my non-believer brothers and sisters in AA trust what they (don’t) believe in and move on to live happy sober lives despite all that is being preached to them.

As Bill Wilson puts it:

Though three hundred thousand did recover in the last twenty-five years, maybe half a million more have walked into our midst, and then out again. No doubt some were too sick to make even a start. Others couldn’t or wouldn’t admit their alcoholism. Still others couldn’t face up to their underlying personality defects. Numbers departed for still other reasons.

Yet we can’t well content ourselves with the view that all these recovery failures were entirely the fault of the newcomers themselves. (The Dilemma of No Faith, AA Grapevine, April 1961)

Are we there to help the next suffering alcoholic, or is our main purpose to serve a god – without genuine consideration for the next suffering alcoholic?

It’s time we make up our minds.

Either the next suffering alcoholic is everything or else he is nothing. He either is, or he isn’t. What was our choice to be?

I hope we will make a better choice in the 21st century than Bill did on p 53 in the Big Book.

About the Author

 life-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.

This article was adapted from a pamphlet that life-j created in September 2016, which is available for download in pdf on this site.

aa in the 21st century

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Stephanie

    Totally agree on every point. At a Big Book retreat a few years ago I made only brief reference to later a writing of Bill’s and the shock was visible on many faces in the room. I had to be “diplomatic” at this retreat because it had been a arranged by an overly zealous firmly theist group. The talk is in the link below.

    All your points are clear and exactly the questions people should be asking themselves and their groups. And while I prefer not to get political, I haven’t been sober long enough (8 years) to know if this is a “normal” cycle through which the program goes (like politics itself), or have more militant ideologues or extremists become more vocal over the last 2-3 years?

    (And after reading your bio I see that we have still more on which we agree. I recently submitted something to this site with my experience because I too struggle with remaining a “member,” and at this time I find I cannot. )

    1. John S

      Thank you for sharing the video. I’m listening now and find it very interesting.

    2. life-j

      Stephanie, good talk, thank you for sharing it

  2. XBarbarian

    this is SPOT ON!

    the “back to the 40’s” thing is strong in this area, Tampa Bay, FL. Lots of old timers. they love that nostalgic bs.

    I like to remind the fundies.. if there is a god as you preach.. and AA seems to evolve.. then why are you so damn determined its evolving wrong? I thought the phrase was trust god, clean house, and help others? are you saying you don’t trust god either?

    that pisses em off. lol

    fundies suck. whether aa book thumpers. religious nut jobs, or political lunatics.

    and ya, what an important point. the guy was writing to sell a book, and with a 10th of the experience I have myself.

    thank you!

    1. bob k


    2. Jack Blair

      Very well said friend. I will copy and hand out your comment along with the article.

      Thanks again,



    3. XBarbarian

      thanks Jack and Bob!

  3. Thomas Brinson

    Thanks life-j — congrats for writing this excellent article/pamphlet, your AA recovery as an atheist and for surviving your surgery so some two years now, a day at a time without using.


  4. CathyM

    another home run!  I wish I could seamlessly recall these references in light deflection, however,

    in the danger zones of regular meetings, my prefrontal cortex goes offline  – but I keep going back 🤪

    thanks  life-j

    1. life-j

      Cathy, thanks, that’s part of why I started making the pamphlets. some of them I have a bit of a hard time defining the target audience. this one is sort of polemic toward regular aa members presumed to be openminded, but then, few of them are likely to read it. the people who will are mostly those who already agree. And this particular one is also not a good one to give to newcomers. but I think perhaps it could sometimes serve a purpose as a handy reference for a freethinker contemplating an argument with a believer. We should probably consider a way to make the more useful ones more available.

  5. sks

    You convey so well the hypocrisy and rigidity in AA that I continually struggle with. Thank you for putting it out there so eloquently.

  6. Dean

    Thank you life-j. I also sobered up in 1988.  I was a relatively conventional AA member for over twenty years. Over the last several years I gradually became an agnostic. It has been interesting, to say the least. I share your concern that AA reach out to agnostic and atheist newcomers, and that we respect the world-views they bring to AA.

    Why should an agnostic or atheist alcoholic seeking sobriety in AA be bombarded with religiosity and told that their beliefs are inferior and, if they expect to stay sober, temporary? How many agnostic or atheist alcoholics who come to AA, already suffering from the crisis of alcoholism, are willing to suffer the added crisis of having their belief systems attacked? AA broadens the concept of a deity to God as we understood him. But why can’t AA offer an approach to sobriety either with or without God? Is AA a religion or not? If AA is not a religion, as most members seem to claim, then a secular approach to sobriety should be within its purview.

    Dean W.


  7. Norm L

    Truly enjoyed the read–been an agnostic as long as I can remember–sober since May 1980– thanks Norm from Nova Scotia

  8. Bob S.

    Thanks to  this site and the readings on here I have had the courage to share my non-belief in an interventionist theistic godoup and with fellow AAs, especially a lot of the younger folk. I’ve been sober since 1988 and finally I don’t feel the need to find a higher power acceptable to mainstream AA. Thanks everyone!

    Bob S.

    Phenix City, Alabama

  9. Steven Vincent

    Very, very balanced view of Bill Wilson. I really like how you acknowledge that for him being 3 years sober when he wrote the Big Book, he did really well. On the other hand – he was just 3 years into this and we know he almost certainly used a lot of ideas from the book The Common Sense of Drinking written by Richard Peabody and other literature like Varieties of Religious Experiences and plenty of ideas from Carl Jung too. Also as you mentioned, over time Bill slowly backed away from a lot of the ideas/beliefs he was so strong about in the Big Book but of course plenty of people in A.A. simply say Bill “watered down” the program to make it appealing to more people. Making it more appealing to others I agree with – not the “watering down” piece though. Thanks again for writing this very sensible, well balanced and interesting piece life-j.

  10. Edward Calhoun

    Yeah I love Bill Wilson – however he did do more than a bit of plagiarism of a 1930 book “the common sense of drinking” by a recovered drunk named Peabody – – he did help those who could pay for recovery LOL

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