The Tyranny of “Spirituality” and The Roots of Passive Aggression in AA


By John H. – Washington, DC

In AA the words “spiritual” and “spirituality” are used to control and intimidate the atheist. This is true in conventional AA as well as in certain segments of SecularAA.

The terms, as freely used as bludgeons within the context of conventional AA, are the “cringeworthy” impetus for many new members who seek out secular alternatives.

Sadly, as I indicated above, these sometimes-destructive concepts have crept through the doors of SecularAA and are part and parcel of a passive aggressive agenda being deployed against the more “militant” atheist members here.

Under the guise of “Inclusiveness and Diversity” (which is not, of course, an inherently bad thing) a disturbing dynamic is emerging that needs to be explored further.

“Wow!”, the reader might be thinking, “What’s he up to now? More blanket statements?”

As always, and as I continually re-state in these pieces, my opinions are my own and do not represent anyone other than myself. They do not reflect the majority view of any group or sub-group within SecularAA though I do, personally, believe them to be true.

The beginning of any discussion of organized conventional AA must go back to the words and deeds of its founders. At its inception a joint effort the AA fellowship was, at the time of his death, the product of the sum of Bill Wilson’s writings and talks regarding his vision of what AA is and what it is not. Unlike some in Secular AA, I take Bill literally knowing that his intentions were always clearly stated though laced with a born salesman’s gift for sugarcoating the unpalatable.

Bill was forever speaking out of “both sides of the mouth” as regards the non-believer. Very early on the use of the word “spiritual” and the discussions of “spirituality” in both the Big Book and 12×12 were used as a supposedly benign “smoke screen” in order to induce a “transitional state” in the agnostic or atheist so that a passage to the “broad highway” of religious faith could be established.

These foundational documents of AA are messianic and openly seek to convert the non-believer to “right” ways of thinking and acting. These “right ways” are the ways of the White Protestant American majority of the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s. These beliefs, patterns of thought and world views of the “moral” life that are the foundations of these books and the dogma contained therein come directly from that culture. I should know because I was once one of them, the product of a White American Protestant family that can trace its roots here back to the 1680’s. If you ask me how I know these things I could say, in a sense, that Wilson and Smith are part of my DNA.

The roots of AA as the crypto-cult it has become in some parts of the conventional fellowship today are found in these books and the maintenance of “quality” sobriety is, supposedly, based on your “willingness” and “openness” to the entertaining of, at minimum, a level of “tolerance” of this crap.

The conversion process is begun using the passive aggressive tone of these “soft” words to “open the gateway” to the “sack cloth and ashes”, “poor helpless me” attitude they want you to assume. When you “get it”, your rational thought process and very existence will be so subjugated to their philosophy of life that you will, one day, arrive at that famous place in the Big Book, on page 449, where, “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.”

I never have, and never will, “accept” any of that shit!

Just listen, in conventional meetings, to statements like “my best thinking got me here”, “my brain needed washing” and the truly unctuous and morally corrupt “fake it till you make it”! If it were not for the power of sharing and the wonderful individual human bonds formed in the rooms I would have stopped going to regular meetings decades ago.

Once you go down the road of “acceptance” of the “spiritual life” you will be ready to receive the God being imposed upon you by people who claim they are making no such imposition.

The true experts at AA passive aggression deploy words like “unity” (meaning uniformity), “tolerance” (meaning acquiescence) along with phrases like “live and let live” (meaning knuckle under) and the truly terrible “contempt prior to investigation” (meaning don’t think for yourself). All this is part of the “soft power” of conventional AA, a formidable arsenal deployed first by Wilson and Smith and then by Wilson alone.

For this article I attempted to re-read ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’, after a number of years of leaving it where it belongs on my bookshelf in the AA history section. I must admit I was just not up to the full task. When Bill says, “When we encountered AA, the fallacy of our defiance was revealed.” and “We soon concluded that whatever price in humility we must pay we would pay.”, I nearly threw the book across the room. I had blissfully forgotten some of these phrases and really was shocked by his controlling, passive aggressive pathology, openly revealed in these pages. His history of untreated manic depression is obvious here I think.

As to Mr. Wilson and the implications of his “moral philosophy” for us and his real feelings regarding apostates I’ll let him speak for himself about his “Steps” from page 40 of the 12×12:

“All of the Twelve Steps require sustained and personal exertion to conform to their principals and, we trust, to God’s will.”

So, Bill, that’s the way it is, “conform to their principals”? “God’s will”? I guess I’m out of the game Bill.

I had to calm myself down and remember the great good that the man did by introducing the power of sharing and the great benefits inherent in helping another alcoholic to millions of his fellow sufferers.  Not wanting to hate Bill Wilson I found that I needed to “let go” and view him, in the personal sense, as the purveyor of an outmoded and defective philosophical system that had, paradoxically, some positive effects despite its inherent coercive tone and passive aggression directed at people like me.

Wilsons later day “spiritual” acolytes are all over conventional AA of course but they are even with us here in the supposedly “Secular” version of our beloved fellowship.

As I noted some time ago in my article that was initially suppressed by AA Beyond Belief in 2016 and later published here,   https://atheisticaa.com/aa-skepticism/stockholm-syndrome-atheist-agnostic-aa/ , there are a sub-set of members of Secular AA who, in my opinion, overly identify with the “powers that be” in conventional AA such as the General Service Office (GSO), The Grapevine and various Regional Service entities.  These entities base their philosophy and practice on Bill Wilsons Oxford Group inspired 12 Steps, The Big Book and the 12×12.

I believe that there are moves being made to more closely affiliate SecularAA and our SecularAA groups with these entities that do not, by their very nature, hold atheists and agnostics in the highest esteem. I have even heard rumors of proposals to eventually fully integrate SecularAA with the conventional AA program thus making our separate service entities and even our bi-annual convention unnecessary.

Members such as myself who oppose closer ties with these entities have been increasingly characterized in negative ways on line and elsewhere in print as have those members who oppose all forms of the 12 Steps (Original or Revised) and the Big Book.

The cry for “Inclusiveness and Diversity” (a laudable liberal phrase when used in the context of Government, Business and Politics) is turned on its head and the same (or very nearly the same) passive aggressive attacks are made on the “militants” here as are made on the “ungodly” of whatever stripe in conventional AA. Its as if, even here in SecularAA, we are being accused of lacking a “spiritual center”.

There will be ongoing debates about the wisdom of SecularAA associating more closely with other groups that may be fundamentally oppositional to our best interests and I predict the conversation will rage on for years to come.

What absolutely won’t happen, in terms of myself and others in the fellowship who value their freedom of thought and expression, will be a “knuckling under” to passive aggressive attack propounding a monolithic uniformity of viewpoints under the false flag of “AA Unity”.


John HJohn Huey’s student work of the 60’s-70’s 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 had poems presented in ‘Poetry Quarterly’ and in the ‘Temptation’ anthology published in London by Lost Tower Publications. Work has also appeared in ‘Leannan Magazine’, ‘Sein und Werden’, at ‘In Between Hangovers’, ‘Bourgeon’, ‘The Lost River Review’, ‘Red Wolf Journal’, ‘Perfume River Poetry Review’, ‘What Rough Beast’ and ‘Memoir Mixtapes’. His full-length book, ‘The Moscow Poetry File’, was published by Finishing Line Press in November 2017. Full information and Amazon links can be found at http://www.john-huey.com.

8 thoughts on “The Tyranny of “Spirituality” and the Roots of Passive Aggression in AA”

  1. All voices should be heard. I’m glad this blog started. https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/p-17_AATraditions.pdf talks about pre-Tradition life in AA and some of our experiences that let to some of these suggestions (Not Rules), and mostly secular suggestions, I might add. Around page 10 – 12 are poignant but not preachy. They talk about AA victimhood and AA persecutors. Back then we were referred to as Red Ridding Hoods and Wolves:

    “Panhandlers begin to panhandle. Members get drunk and sometimes get others drunk with them. Those with mental difficulties throw depressions or break out into paranoid denunciations of fellow members. Gossips gossip and righteously denounce the local Wolves and Red Riding Hoods. Newcomers argue that they aren’t alcoholics at all, but keep coming around any way. “Slippers” trade on the fair name of A.A. in order to get themselves jobs. Others refuse to accept all the Twelve Steps of the recovery program. Some go still further, saying that the ‘God business’ is bunk and quite unnecessary. Under these conditions our conservative program—abiding members get scared. These appalling conditions must be controlled, they think, else A.A. will surely go to rack and ruin. They view with alarm for the good of the movement! At this point the group enters the rule and regulation phase. …” The whole essay is a good read and I recommend it to anyone.

    Personally, I don’t feel intimidated or persecuted by words or people who wield them – I am no Red Riding Hood.

    But orthodoxy is weaponized in and out of AA. There is a a reason why AA is more male, aging hetro, theistic middle/upper-middle class that the greater population. AA is a more comfortable place for people who believe in an interfering god. If you are a male/hetro/Caucasian privilege enjoying alcoholic, do we have some literature and rituals for you–at least in groups that rely on our out-dated literature.

    Atheist/Agnostic meetings are a great example of post-Big-Book AA working without a hick up. We have irrefutable evidence that dismissing the Twelve Steps process, in whole or in part, is no barrier to enjoying AA sobriety. Meetings that don’t read the Steps are as AA as any other group. Chronic-uniqueness is to be avoided but embracing our individualism is perfectly healthy AA-ness. Still, it’s our nature to gather in tribes and it may even be human nature to elevate our tribe and belittle the other(s). Unabashedly speaking our truth is an unavoidable step in personal integrity. This step is more obvious in extroverts of course. Regardless of what our truth is, it will surely trigger someone else. Such is pluralist democracy.

    I think I’ve (with the help of our secular AA community) have arrived in terms of being unabashed about my rightful place in AA. Where do I go from here? Well, I am a tad embarrassed that I don’t have a broader understanding and I haven’t taken a broader stand in favor of all marginalized and likely, underrepresented AA members. Youth, women, LGBTQ, visible minorities and even the very religious who don’t adhere to a male one-god worldview. There is no, We Muslims” chapter or pamphlet or anything else. Hopefully it wouldn’t be as badly written as the Big Book suggesting that those of the Islamic faith can/will overcome their close-mindedness and adopt the Judeo/Christian brand of faith. Sites like this are a sign of AA maturity but I for one would like to be as informed about all of the “red ridding hoods” in AA, not just the harassment/discrimination that I personally have endured. This isn’t a call to action; it’s a reflection of my thoughts today.

    Keep the card and letter coming; I will continue to read with interest.

    1. Thanks Joe,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments as always.
      I sincerely doubt that anyone who has encountered me, even briefly, would put me in the “Red Riding Hood” group. Words have power and mean something different to people who don’t have 40+ years doing this like you or 30+ like me. No one in Secular or Conventional AA has power over me or is able to cause me any real distress. Extreme annoyance, yes, distress no. I just don’t care.
      As I have told you many times now I have been approached, in person, at various Secular AA events (including your event in Canada last year and the meeting in Arizona we were both at) after speaking (in my usual understated way) by many members who have expressed to me their concerns about speaking out openly at our meetings about their own determined atheism and aversions to all Secular AA Steps and Big Book crap. They hesitate because of a perception that other members may be critical of them because they fail to “tow the line” of one particular Secular AA meeting or another. There are also mentions of this in the comments of the various closed Facebook pages we are both members of.
      I’m on a one man mission to stop that shit! Stay tuned..

    2. John, as us usual I appreciate and respect your thoughts and comment. Getting the book Beyond Belief then Meeting you at the Sedona Retreat has positivity affected the quality of my sobriety and my confidence in being open about the tyranny in AA. I was fortunate in early sobriety to have a Prickly Old Fart in in my corner with a big heart and big view. (My sobriety 11/1/87).

  2. Another fine, in your face declaration from “Godless John!” It took me back to my first reading of “The Chapter to the Agnostic,” and my disappointment at its patronizing tone. As one who has struggled against this general tone (if not outright frustration/anger from other attendees who defiantly announce their higher power “WHOM I CHOOSE TO CALL JESUS CHRIST”) at meetings for almost 35 years (if I make to May 5th, knock wood), I applaud John’s uncompromising stance. The only requirement for AA membership, still, for me, without any surrender to a god or spiritual concoction of any kind, is a desire to stop drinking. So far, so good.

    1. Thanks Mark,
      Who would have known 51 years ago that we would find ourselves here talking about this? An 18 year old kid has other things on his mind as I recall. Thanks, as always. for your support of my “humble” efforts!

  3. Thanks for the interesting essay John. As a relative newcomer to the recovery community
    and then shortly after arrival in AA becoming a charter member of local secular AA I am
    interested in various points of view as to where this might or could be going. I do not want
    to be a second class citizen in AA but I do want AA to live up to its own inconsistent values.
    There is an avalanche of mixed messages that I need to sort out and I am going to take my time
    deciding where I want to be with all this. My atheism is not likely to go anywhere.
    What I do not want to see under any circumstance is a Secular AA as parochial, rigidly smothering,
    fearful and doctrinaire as mainline AA is today. Any halfhearted student of history can see where
    this could go. We can divide into Leninsts and Trotskyites or Bolsheviks or Mensheviks until
    we all become regional rump programs or maybe something constructive. Rigidity is an big issue.
    Thanks;
    Dan L

    1. Hi Dan,
      By nature and political inclination I’m a Trotskyite but have read enough in the history of Bolshevism (a subject that I began to study in earnest during my four years of full time residence an even more years of involvement in Moscow) to realize that, in the end, they turned it into a secular religion that resulted, initially, in tens of thousands of deaths and later, after the true perversions of Stalinism, millions!
      That’s the long way of saying that when it comes to general human (or AA) relations one always needs to temper ones ideology with more than a touch of compassion for ones adversaries lest unintended consequences ensue.

      1. we sure don’t want to see any of that Revolution stuff.revolution with a small r like what has been going on since the beginning of time.of course, evalutions and revolutions aren’t always slow

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