One Big Hoax

This book review was originally published at the Atheist Recovery Blog on November 8, 2018, and is being republished here with permission. 

One Big Tent: Atheist and agnostic AA members share their experience, strength and hope.
Published September 18, 2018
AA Grapevine, Inc., New York, NY 
106 pages 
ISBN 978-1-983413-7-

One Big Hoax” – A view of the book ‘One Big Tent’ published by AA Grapevine.

This was quite an onerous task that took some time to complete and it is, given how bad a book this is, something I would not have taken on had the errors and misrepresentations embodied in this work been of less consequence.

The volume in hand, ‘One Big Tent’, misses, in every respect, both its stated intention and its supposed purpose. My goal here, given these soon to be made obvious deficiencies, will be to impute its true meaning as derived from its text though the meaning is obscured (purposely I believe) and presented with a hidden agenda in mind. The clarification of the books true meaning will, hopefully, clarify its actual intent.

As the editors say in the introductory front matter entitled ‘Welcome’ it is their intent to provide “proof that the program is spiritual and not a religion” and that “As I went through the Steps, I came to believe in a higher purpose, not a higher being.” and that “My higher purpose is to live by the principles of the Steps.” They then go on to say, “These are the hallmarks of sobriety, available to each of us in AA as we recognize our common suffering and pursue, ever more fully, our common solution.”  What is not addressed, on any of these pages, is the member who categorically rejects their so called “Steps” and any and all concepts defined, in any manner, as “spirituality.”

As to the substance of their assertion that the program is “spiritual” and not a religion I have a simple, all purpose, one-word reply. Bullshit!

On virtually every page of this turgid, poorly constructed tome there are endless religiously inspired comments (many direct from the 1933 Four Practical Spiritual Activities of the Oxford Group and the original, pre-Big Book, Akron Alcoholic Squadron of that group) such as, “the group felt he was reeking with spirituality. He just didn’t know it yet.” “I came to believe that God and Good were synonymous.” “I have a higher power, what I lack is a definition”, “I have to practice daily meditation.”, “Be still and know that I am God.”, “I use a wide range of spiritual readings including many of the books Dr. Bob had on his bookshelf.”, “I just had to stop fighting and accept everything.”, “I was told I probably needed to change every aspect of how I acted and reacted and that the AA Steps and the program could help me.”, “The second Step was my vital spiritual journey”, “I had to stop fighting everyone and everything”, “For me, prayer and meditation made me feel much better”, “ I faked it. Today, nearly five years later, I hang with ta bunch of winners.”, “The only faith you need is faith in the AA program.”, “There is a Higher Power. For me this is not a theory.”, “happy recovery is achieved through personal changes brought about by working the Twelve Steps.”, “I do believe in the human soul, above and apart from our psychology and morality”, “The Big Book has helped millions find comfort in their own existence. I am one of those people.” “In the Seventh Step Prayer I see that the believer simply asks to be a good person.”, “Constant vigilance against these defects keeps me on my toes.”, “if I would change my attitude my whole life would change. But if I held on to my old ideas and ways, I would very likely end up by getting drunk.”, “I have, however, had a deep and effective spiritual experience as a result of the AA Steps bringing me into contact with ‘an unspecified inner resource’ (which I call God as a matter of convenience).

Need I continue?

The Rev. Ward Ewing, AA GSO Trustee Emeritus (notorious for being included on the program of our first SecularAA International Convention in California in 2014) who is a “hero”, of sorts, for a sub-group of  SecularAA “spiritual agnostics” who sometimes refer to themselves as atheists, is, for some unaccountable reason, also included in this  book that supposedly is by and about atheist and agnostic AA members.

Toward the end of the book he opines as follows… “The spirituality of the Twelve Steps and of AA as a whole is clear and powerful.

Bullshit! What we have here, very clearly stated, is rank religiosity and the grafting on of religious concepts and principals on to a group that is clearly, and obviously, at its root, secular in nature. It is the most egregious form of co-option I have seen yet. There have been many attempts by these people, but this is right up there with the worst practices revealed by the AA GSO and their SecularAA fellow travelers thus far.

Here is the theory:

Faced with a growing secular movement within AA the “powers that be” at AA GSO and the Grapevine felt it necessary to throw some of the so-called “leaders” of our SecularAA organization a bone in the form of this ridiculous book and the ‘God Word’ pamphlet which you can read more about here.

These bones, like all that have gone before with more to surely come, are designed to trap SecularAA in the same vice the conventional AA groups find themselves in with the “acceptance” of the Oxford Group 12 Step religion and Big Book program, using associated “literature” as a de facto “mandate” for compliance with their dogma. This has nothing to do with suggestions. Its obviously an attempt to manipulate our reality to suit their narrative.

By putting some false bromides about atheism and “non-belief” on top of their obviously religious injunctions and suppositions about the day to day realities inherent in recovery they are actively recruiting a sub-set of us who will “carry the water” of GSO/Grapevine while they attempt to marginalize and, ultimately, absorb us. To that end they have solicited endorsements of this naked attempt to water down what could have been a truly secular message and to recruit prominent members of our community to promote their specious views.

This duplicitous book was specifically designed to feign “inclusivity”, but it only encompasses the most conventional views and attitudes dressed up as the above referenced “agnostic spirituality” while omitting any truly atheist positions in contrast to or in contradiction of the conventional AA program. It in no way reflects my own 30 years of experience with SecularAA and thus, for thus reviewer, mirrors, in book form, what was attempted in the ‘God Word’ pamphlet.

By framing everything within the discredited (at least for this determined atheist) context of the “Steps” and “Big Book” the editors of ‘One Big Tent’ have perpetrated nothing short of a fraud.

They claim inclusivity while explicitly rejecting it. ‘One Big Tent’ is “One Big Hoax.”

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

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. norm langille

    Thank you for saying it so well John– a great read to start the day–

    1. John Huey

      Thanks Norm.. It’s a bit dated but still relevant I think.

  2. Anne Johnson

    When I first read this book I wanted to gag. It didn’t seem to represent my ilk of an atheist so it made me wonder if I am just too critical. John, thank you for being so honest and able to express concisely how I feel too!

    1. John Huey

      Thanks. When it came out some were lined up to thank the Grapevine for their enlightened attitude toward us. It seemed condescending to me then and even more so now. In the end we will be better off without them.

  3. Denise

    I seriously would be interested in hearing John Hueys positive message for recovery. What is his atheist position? What is his secular message?

    He is entitled to his opinion, but I wish he would stop
    using disrespectful adjectives to dismiss the 12 steps, God, Higher power, spirituality, big book, the God word pamphlet, GSO and secular AA. etc. it does his argument no good and is not helpful.

    Instead just give us a positive view on maintaining sobriety that worked for him for 30 years. Other than he formed his own group of like minded people and attended it for years, although I seem to remember the last time he shared his story, he.was quitting that too. ( might have got that wrong)

    Ok I get he didn’t agree with the book. No surprise there.

    1. John Huey

      That’s a fair question. Please find my response in the five articles below…FYI I still attend the Secular group I have been going to since 1988.. No more conventional Meetings for me ever..

  4. Marty K.

    I am an atheist who finds value in the principles, which I have no problem calling “spiritual”, of the AA Steps, despite my lack of belief in a divine grantor of such transformative power.
    I understand the essence of this critical review, but I fear another nihilist, closed minded attack on an approach to using the steps in a manner which mines the diamonds from the original attempts of struggling drunks in the 1930’s to seek common help albeit grounded in Christian- Judeo religion.
    I respect all attempts to stay sober. I strongly disagree with some of these programs but I think we need to be careful in outright self righteous dismissal of these “other” methods. I note today In secular AA , which I am a member of, to throw away the baby-12 step principles, with the secular purist water! Let’s be careful with our judgments and how we wield them.
    Thank you. Marty K. KC

    1. John Huey

      Thanks Marty..I’ve always been quick to say that if the literature and precepts represented in the Conventional Program work for you (as they do for many) please stay there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
      For some of us though those things are anathema and have proved toxic.
      There are tens of thousands of places where the Conventional approach holds sway but far fewer places that are productive for those who reject the Oxford Group influenced dogma that is the essence of AA. It is each members absolute right to reject that dogma absolutely and find another way if that’s what works for them

    2. Will P.

      Good to hear that you find yourself above the fray. Thanks for giving your view about a review of a book you didn’t read. Also, for bringing up “other” methods. Why not read the book and post your thoughts? Let’s be careful indeed.

  5. Dan L

    Thanks John for the thought provoking essay. I am easily distracted and have kinda wandered away from the whole idea of trying to fit AA into a secular framework or to take AA and try to strip out the more toxic or buffoonish religion-y attitudes. I stay sober and frequent meetings where such things generally pass with lip service and a wink before being forgotten. When I look at my own background I came from an ethnically Irish Catholic herd of drunks. I was the only atheist except for the oldest member of the family, my great-grandfather. Although most went to church on Sunday that religion had absolutely nothing to do with what happened from day to day. When in their cups they could rise to mighty arguments on scripture and theology – enough to send the Baptists fleeing – but nobody really cared.
    I frequently feel I have reached that point with AA and religion. Each time the organisation attempt to step beyond it’s self imposed limitations and lands on its nose I realise that while I am concerned with helping people get sober this kind of debate usually isn’t.

    1. John Huey

      Exactly correct.. Staying sober ourselves and helping another alcoholic is really all it’s about in essence. The rest is indeed window dressing but when someone points me down the road toward toward accepting things that I know are both incorrect and toxic for me I’m bound to either rebel or die a frustrated hypocrite.

  6. Eric

    I can appreciate you taking the time to express your opinion.
    After reading your article, I do see a lot of unsupported assertions. Perhaps a better presentation of your arguments? On its face, it sounds like your venting and not really reviewing the book. Bleeding deacon-ish? While a agree with some of statements, I need more. What should they have included? What DO secular and traditional meetings have in common? If you wrote the book, how would you do it? What positive message of recovery would you include from the secular perspective? My intent is to be helpful. Thank you.

  7. Shane Lanford

    After many years in and out of AA, I found myself at the end of the line needing to get sober. The God thing has always been a sticking point for me, especially in groups where every other person says Jesus this and that. I have no problem with Christians, I just can’t drink that cool-aid no matter how hard I try. I would describe myself as an Agnostic Theist. This time around coming back into the program, I decided to see if there were any groups for people like me, and I stumbled on this book, and then this website, and even an “agnostic” group in my city. I was so excited and full of hope that maybe I could finally find fellowship with like minded people and get that sense of belonging I have never had. After reading the book, I was left feeling like most of the stories were from the Atheist viewpoint, and wished there had been more from agnostics. Then I explored the podcasts on this website and again, definitely Atheist leaning, not Agnostic. Same with the group here in my town. And then I read your review of the book, and you come across as an Atheist angry with anyone who thinks differently. My heart is now heavy. I wish I could fully believe like someone who had religion, or disbelieve like an Atheist does[which takes even more faith than religion if you ask me]. But I am stuck here in the middle, feeling alone and in the minority. It appears the Agnostic movement in AA I was so excited to find is not Agnostic at all. It is Atheists using the word agnostic for some reason. Or at least that is what it appears like after what I have uncovered so far. I have no more beef with Atheism than I do with Religion and am envious of anyone you can say without a doubt they are certain of either position. If I could take a blow to the head with a rock and wake up convinced of the existence or nonexistence of a higher force and order in this Universe I would take that blow in a second.

Comments are closed.