The Twelve Steps

It continually surprises me how many secular A.A.-ers and fellowships remain beholden to the Twelve Steps. They may reject certain theistic ideas about an omnipotent God, but adhere to the Steps with religious zeal nonetheless. My surprise is a matter of perspective, to be sure. I’m not just atheist or agnostic. I’m an out-and-out non-believer, remaining in Pyrrhonic aporia about any postulated ultimate answer about anything. You give me a metaphysical or moral absolute, and I will doubt the hell out of it. I will entertain it, but I will doubt it. If we doubt that the book Alcoholics Anonymous was divinely inspired, I figure, why not also doubt that it contains the ultimate answer to sobriety and recovery?

That’s no argument. So, let’s say we take a look at what the book says about the Twelve Steps. On page 59 of the fourth edition, it says, famously, “Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery…” The word suggested is crucial, as is the context of the steps in the book and the writing of the book.

Many times I have heard the word suggested glossed approximately as follows, particularly by old-timers: “The steps are suggested. If you jump out of an airplane, it’s suggested that you wear a parachute. That’s what suggested means. It means you best do it!” This is powerful rhetoric, but bad analogical reasoning. If there were many cases of people jumping out of airplanes without parachutes and landing safely, we would doubt that suggested means something like required. But there are many cases of people recovering from addiction without following the Twelve Steps.

A suggestion is a specific piece of advice, and the significance of a suggestion can vary from the photo on a box of Triscuits labeled “Serving Suggestion” to an oncologist recommending chemotherapy. Not much is at stake in following or not following the advice of the Triscuit people, and their advice is based presumably on somebody’s idea of tastiness and a good time. Tons at stake when you visit an oncologist, and the advice ought to be based on expert knowledge from clinical and scientific studies. The range of subjective-relative and intersubjective-objective bases for suggestions is enormous. The question could therefore be whether we regard the author(s) of Alcoholics Anonymous as experts.

I submit that a secular person has good reason to doubt that expertise. Immediately prior to the sentence in question are the claim that there is an all-powerful God and the admonition (and claim) that finding God and asking for God’s “protection and care with complete abandon” are necessary to recovery. Then, of course, the book’s presentation of the Twelve Steps relies heavily on God. God and the Twelve Steps are tightly interwoven in the text.

In addition, as readers of William H. Schaberg’s Writing the Big Book will know, Bill Wilson wrote a few different versions of the steps, based on his own later recollection of how some of the alcoholics involved in the groups in New York and Akron had started into recovery. Moreover, the number of steps changed repeatedly until he settled on twelve, seemingly only because it was a nice, round number. There is, in other words, something arbitrary about the original Twelve Steps as written in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Of course, there are secular versions of the Twelve Steps. But since the original steps are so tied up with God, were written in retrospect, and were manipulated to reach the number twelve, I don’t understand why anyone secular would deem it necessary to make versions of each and every step. At times, authors of de-Godded versions take great and awkward pains to avoid evoking divine intercession, particularly in steps three and seven. What for?

Here’s a suggestion: consider what the Twelve Steps say, think about what they’re pointing toward (other than God dependence), and develop a way forward that provides sufficient guidance and flexibility so that it will help you recover. You know, think for yourself. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask for advice from others, and it doesn’t mean you need to find someplace other than A.A. for fellowship (as I’ve stated before, my sense is that A.A. is where the fellowship is). It means you don’t need to pay fealty to this dubious text.

2 thoughts on “The Twelve Steps

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