Belief and the infallible big book

“Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.” – Alcoholics Anonymous, p 164.

Meetings in my local traditional AA groups end with “A Vision For You,” usually followed by the Lord’s Prayer. It doesn’t take a lot of critical thinking to notice that the two statements that begin the “Vision” are not truly part of the ideology of traditional AA. Traditionalists do not believe that the book is “suggestive only,” unless suggestive is defined in some tortured way, such as “a subtle command” (as it was on a poster on the wall of my home group). They also do not believe that the authors knew “only a little.” The book is considered infallible.

As an academic who teaches critical thinking, the fallacies in the book of Alcoholics Anonymous stand out very clearly to me. The questions it raises is why that the book is regarded as infallible even with those fallacies. Moreover, despite indications throughout that text and others that AA should remain open to new ideas, traditional AA’s ideology maintains that no revisions should be made and no new ideas should be incorporated. As many in secular AA and other recovery groups frequently mention, in traditional AA, that text is regarded as sacred and inspired directly by God.

When reality contradicts this, the ideology is upheld. For instance, the painstakingly documented Writing the Big Book, by William Schaberg, shows that Bill Wilson’s inspirations were far more terrestrial and mundane. The yet-unnamed AA in New York wanted to write a book that would help fund their operation. Wilson wrote good stories—not true stories—and a text he hoped would sell well. Nowhere in the history of AA is there mention of a burning bush, a weeping statue, or holy images in toast guiding Bill’s pen. (That was somewhat acerbic, I admit. As I write this post, I am trying to avoid getting too deep.)

Ideology, and the blunt instrument of ideologists, propaganda, operate without regard to logical consistency. While I doubt any person is entirely logically consistent in their own beliefs, and all of us commit fallacies, a keynote of ideology and propaganda is strategic use of fallacies in order to induce belief. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ideological meaning for traditional AA of the first two sentences of the “Vision.”

Ideology is a hard nut to crack. The French philosopher Louis Althusser explained that it is nearly impossible to be outside of ideology: we usually attack an ideology from within another ideology, but to be able to believe anything at all, to have cognition at all, to function as a subject in society at all, we must be within Ideology. Contra Slavoj žižek’s famous illustration in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, there are no lenses that clear away the ideology from our vision.[1]

So, in secular recovery meetings, a lot is said about the backwardness, the rigidity, and the ignorance that it seems to take in order to believe in “the big book.” I’m inclined to agree with that myself—which is why I am suspicious of it. As a member of my trad group said to me, “be careful about tearing down something that has kept millions of people alive.” That member believes that what helps people stay sober in AA necessarily includes following the ideology of traditional AA and believing in the infallibility and completeness of the text of Alcoholics Anonymous. There is no way for me to demonstrate to him that this is illogical (post hoc and petitio principii), because the basis of his thinking, including any logical thinking, is his fundamental belief.

What I do is, I keep showing up to meetings, sober and ideologically perverse, and sharing about it. I don’t challenge anyone’s reasoning. When I am shouted down or criticized for expressing my non-belief, I say that I am simply sharing my own experience. I am not responsible for what others believe, and I am not responsible for the ideology of AA. But no one has to accept it. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, after all.


[1] This is not the only way to understand ideology, and Althusser left himself a back door to escape Ideology (a rather dubious one, imho), but his argument for the hermetic inescapability of Ideology is compelling. It may be simpler than Althusser made it out to be: to avoid Ideology, do not believe in anything.

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