When I was first asked to write a series of articles on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the “third founder” of AA, Jimmy B, who put “God as we understand Him” in the Steps, I thought to end the trilogy with the story of Jim’s sobriety as he recapped it on the occasion of his thirtieth anniversary. That bit of history first appeared in the Grapevine in 1969 and was reprinted in the Bulletin last month. Jim’s original story appears as “The Vicious Cycle” in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions of the Big Book. Since the series of articles has appeared in the Bulletin, a number of people have asked me why I feel this is important enough to write about and important enough to have started a “Freethinkers” group, so I have decided to write one more article to answer those questions.

Burwell’s crucial contribution at the founding of AA came from his atheism. He argued with the early group in New York to tone down what he called the “God bit”. This resulted in the much more inclusive wording of “Higher Power” and “God as we understand Him” that are now so much a part of AA. Had this inclusivity not been present to expand AA’s reach beyond the Oxford Group’s Protestant worldview, AA might well not have survived at all, much less have achieved the success it has seen in the last 85 years. If we mean to extend the hand of AA to all who suffer, we must try, as Burwell did, to make that offer of help as free of conditions as possible. In this regard, AA as its members often practice it has failed to live up to the Fellowship’s own principles. Partly, this is because most of our founding documents were primarily written by Bill W. and, as he himself confessed, in the early days he could not separate his religious worldview from AA’s. Partly, it is because AA members remain human beings, not saints, and often fail to fully investigate, much less comprehend, the effects of their actions on others and partly because we tend to unthinkingly perpetuate the familiar.

As an example, let us join a newcomer attending his first typical meeting. “The Sicker Than Most” group opens with the reading of the Preamble, which states that, “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.” Then, group conscience asks that someone read “How It Works”, which contradicts the Preamble by saying (amongst many other things), “Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power-that One is God. May you find Him now!” There are many who will not see the sectarian nature of these words because they have steeped in it since birth, but there are many sectarian assumptions in just those three sentences. Some newcomers might bolt at this point. Others will sit it out. A speaker commences to share. She concludes by stating that it is impossible to stay sober without finding God. This seems to contradict part of the Preamble: apparently, the only requirements for membership are a desire to stop drinking and a belief in God. But wait! This is a Higher Power of the newcomer’s understanding, not the God of the priests and preachers! Hallelujah! “And we’ll now close with the Lord’s Prayer.” What? What happened to a Higher Power of the newcomer’s understanding? And these people don’t even say the “Our Father” the right way, like the nuns taught him! He’s out of here!

Is anyone interested in telling groups that are comfortable with the traditional Christian orientation of AA that they should change? Not that I’m aware of. Freethought groups have been around since the 1970s. Personally, I’ve been around long enough to realize that there are people doing things every day to stay sober that would get me drunk if I did them. More power to them, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else. I certainly don’t give a damn about someone else’s religion. My concern, like Jim B’s concern, is that people with less traditional or non-Christian beliefs have an AA to go to where they can feel comfortable, especially newcomers who might otherwise turn away and be lost. The two freethought groups in Suffolk County are attempts to provide such places.

There have been rumors that speakers are not allowed to mention God at freethought meetings: not true. If your story involves a belief in God, that’s your story to share. Many members at freethought meetings are believers, many aren’t, they are all attending to talk about sobriety, not religion. If a speaker were to claim that sobriety requires a belief in a specific god, or any god at all, he or she would probably be informed that they are mistaken, but I, for one, would correct any speaker making that claim in front of newcomers no matter where I was. What we don’t do at freethought meetings is recite prayers. Prayers are almost by definition sectarian and the “wrong ones” can make people uncomfortable. Many times, when I lead a meeting, I am asked to close with the prayer of my choice. I generally suggest the “Hail, Mary”; for some reason, no one has ever taken me up on it.

It was the concern for the newcomer that motivated Jim Burwell.  I think it is a concern that we should all emulate today.

This article was written by Brian C., a member of Stony Brook Freethinkers. It was published in the August 2019 edition of the SIA Bulletin.