AA Fundamentalism


Eventually, all in recovery will come up against so-called “book thumpers” in AA meetings.  Thumpers are well-intentioned AA members who stress the book Alcoholics Anonymous (aka “Big Book”) as the ultimate and final source of all matters of recovery. Not just the writing as a whole, but the words themselves, line-by-line.


I call these thumpers “AA fundamentalists.”  I choose this label because they view the Big Book similarly to the way fundamentalist Christians view the Bible. Divinely inspired and infallible. Both Big Book Thumpers and Fundamentalists will tell you that God either wrote or had a hand in these “sacred” texts.

Alongside this is the idea that if you really want to understand what those texts say, you best suspend any experience-based interpretation and simply take the book literally as it is word-by-word. It is, after all, divinely written. And, because it is so specific, the words leave little question for the reader if only they interpret well. The book, they will say,  is the final authority on all matters in question and trumps anything else someone may think or say.

This type of Big Book is-the-final authority attitude is one everyone has heard if they go to enough meetings.

Shoot – God Didn’t Write the Big Book!

While God-as-author is a promising angle to adopt when looking to understand difficult books and ideas, does anyone want to claim that God wrote the Big Book?  I guess, maybe some do? But, a big claim like that would require some extraordinary evidence to make it so. I don’t see that evidence.

The authorship of the Big Book has a paper trail. There are drafts with notes you can view in the archives. The first edition was most certainly not written by a deity. Mere mortals wrote it. The much-beloved first 164 pages were written by a few part-time AA member-writers then edited by a group that pulled it all together to its final form. That is a fact.

But Wait! What About Divine Inspiration?

While books may be inspired by all kinds of things, in the end, book writers write books. As such, books are the products of fallible, often inexact, human beings. Talk to any serious writer, and they will tell you that what they wrote yesterday could change if they wrote it again today or at another hour.

In fact, many writers often revisit, and then re-edit pieces of work in progress or previously published.  Writing is like that. What the writer is trying to say often becomes more precise and manifest over time. New information comes in. So taking ideas and concepts literally, word-by-word, outside of personal experience, from over 75 years ago, is not a very sound practice. At least, in my humble opinion. But, despite all that, some do.

I Get the Appeal

I do get it that in our world of flux, having a text that is the fixed final authority for all my troubles in sobriety (or any other problem area) would be wonderful to have.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a “magic book” that when you open it knows you and your troubles personally and then answers them through a divinely selected and authored passage?

Sadly, the world I live in does not have such books. The world I inhabit has books that often require an update or a complete rewrite. My world is continuously changing with technology, science, and medicine.

Despite this, for some in AA, the first 164 pages of the Big Book remain sacrosanct. Any effort to edit these foundational pages never gains steam. Except for a few very minor grammatical changes across the four editions of the Big Book, these 164 pages of the Big Book has remained unchanged since its publication on April 10, 1939.  And, there seems to be little to no appetite from old-timers to change a single word any time soon. The unintended consequence of this unchanging status is more Big Book Thumping.

Glaring Omissions Given it is 2020

While I am thrilled people feel a great sense of security keeping these words intact, any reader of the Big Book in 2020 has to agree that it could use a bit of updating if the goal is to get more people involved and sober. It’s just missing things.

Add to that many newcomers find the Big Book’s anachronistic tone off-putting. Further, there are glaring omissions in those first 164 pages. Failure to have nary a mention of what nearly every newcomer to AA wants to know and continuously hears about in meetings doesn’t help spread the message.

There are also these ommissions:

  • No specific mention of a sponsor.  A sponsor is perhaps the single most crucial ingredient for a newcomer to building a foundation for a lifetime of sobriety. Yet, no specific call out to “get a sponsor” in those sacred pages. The thumpers are unfazed and will tell you that the Big Book talks about having a “friend,” which is similar to the role of the sponsor. They will go on to say the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions covers sponsorship in more detail if you want it. Or, they will add, “that is the role of meetings and the fellowship to flesh those inconsistencies out.”
  • No mention of meetings? At the time of publication, AAs had meetings once a week (or even less frequently). They were hardly the daily staple they have become for many in sobriety today. Why no mention? Why no update? Should I go to three meetings a day because I can?
  • There is also no mention of treatment centers, pharmacology and sobriety, common mental illnesses, poly-addictions, the role of genetics in diagnosis, chronic relapsers, and a far more broad understanding of what is now called Alcohol User Disorder (AUD).

Hopefully, a new version of the Big Book would address these issues. But, don’t hold your breath for a new updated issue anytime soon. Keeping the first 164 pages intact is a hill old-timers are happy to die on.

So for now, with earnest newcomers, the whole AA experience can be confusing. The newcomer has to deal with multiple books, pamphlets, and all kinds of points of view.

So maybe that is where fundamentalist thumpers can help, at least initially. Give simple directions to the newcomer referencing the book.  But, AAs have a tendency to take it too far as they will soon be quoting chapter and verse like a preacher. That religious zeal is a huge turn off to many.

The Grown-Up Approach

So how ought one approach the Big Book if not in a literal word-by-word way? The grown-up way is to read the text with the lens of experience providing richer context.

  • What is meant by the passage?
  • How is this being practically applied by sober folks?
  • If you want to make it work, what is the best way to look at it?
  • Look through a lens of tolerance for other viewpoints.
  • Through it all, keep an open mind.

Those are the questions to ask when reading the Big Book.

Stop Quoting

So, please, can we all stop quoting the book chapter and verse in meetings? I have. And, if you’re an old-timer, it is harder than you think.

We all want to sound smart like we know what we’re talking about. Human nature. But I have come to believe that quoting the Big Book is less about helping and more about serving my ego.  “Look at me! Aren’t I smart!”

And as a sponsor it is great to talk about “dictionary definitions” but, was that the intention of the Big Book authors to “study” it line-by-line, decade-after-decade? I think not. But, again, I’m sure some disagree.

I think the best way to use the Big Book’s first 164 pages is by triangulating them with a sponsor, your group, and your conscience. This combined insight is a powerful combination that can go beyond words to introduce practical experience into working the steps (and whatever problems an AA may be struggling with).

Remember, the foundational dynamic of AA is not a sacred text that sober oracles can quote, but rather, it is the interaction of “One drunk talking to another” and making an honest go at the steps – together. Most of the time, when you that happens, that is the combination whereby you get sobriety.

And finally, this stepping back from fundamentalism honors the idea of humility and that we don’t have all the answers. To quote the Big Book, “we realize we know only a little.”

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