Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)


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Dr. Bob & Bill W.

The first such program was Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which was begun in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, known to A.A. members as "Bill W." and "Dr. Bob." in Akron, Ohio. They established the tradition within the "Anonymous" twelve-step programs of using only first names. The Twelve Steps were originally written by Wilson and other early members of AA to codify the process that they felt had worked for them personally. The Twelve Steps were essentially a rewriting of the 6 steps of the Oxford Group (founded by Frank Buchman) with whom Wilson had contact. This "codex" is the book Alcoholics Anonymous, often referred to as the "Big Book."

After the unusual cures were realized by Bob and Bill, the Akron group authorized Wilson to write a book about the program. But Wilson returned to New York and wrote an entirely different program based primarily on what he had learned from the Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker, Jr., rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in New York, and a leader of the Oxford Group people in America. To Shoemaker's ideas, which are found almost verbatim in the Twelve Steps, Bill added in his Big Book (the new basic text) ideas about alcoholism from Dr. William D. Silkworth, ideas about the necessity for a conversion from Dr. Carl G. Jung, ideas about a so-called "higher power" primarily from Professor William James and New Thought writers, thoughts from Anne Smith's (Dr. Bob's wife) Spiritual Journal, practical techniques from Richard Peabody set forth in his Common Sense of Drinking book, and a smattering of words and phrases with New Thought and New Age origin such as "Universal Mind," "Czar of the Universe," "fourth dimension of existence," and "higher power."

Then Wilson declared there had been a program of recovery which consisted of Twelve Steps the pioneers had taken to find God. Bill asked Shoemaker to write the Steps, but Shoemaker declined. The Steps can be recognized in the Oxford Group teachings Wilson received from Rowland Hazard and Ebby Thacher in late 1934 and early 1935, but neither the Oxford Group nor early A.A. in New York or Akron had any "steps" at all.

A.A. was, at its origins, most assuredly a "religion" and a "religious organization." The concept of "spiritual, not religious," seems to have derived from the desire to keep religion separate from A.A. even though the precepts and practices of A.A. were Biblical in roots and nature. Thus early A.A. meetings in New York were those of "A First Century Christian Fellowship" then also known as the "Oxford Group." The "spirituality" idea was originally defined by Wilson as reliance on the Creator.

Some say that since the publication of the book "Alcoholics Anonymous," New Thought and New Age substitute words have driven A.A. talk and writing towards unbelief and substitutionary, secular universalism rather than toward a relationship with God the avowed Big Book purpose of the Steps. Then again, A.A. circuit speakers can often be heard to say things like "if 'God' ran you out of A.A., alcoholism can run your rusty ass back in again."

The Twelve Steps were eventually matched with Twelve Traditions, a set of guidelines for running individual groups and a sort of constitution for the fellowship (i.e., A.A.) as a whole.

Many other programs since have adapted AA's original steps to their own ends. Related programs exist to help family and friends of those with addictions as well as those with problems other than alcohol. These programs also follow modified versions of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and include groups like Al-Anon/Alateen, Overeaters Anonymous (OA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Nar-Anon.

One organization which is often confused with an "Anonymous" twelve-step program, due to the intentional similarity of its name but is not one is Narconon. Narconon is a branch of the Church of Scientology, presenting Scientology doctrine and practices as a therapy for drug abusers. Narconon does not use the Twelve Steps, and is not related to either Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or to Nar-Anon, despite the similarity of names.

Acceptance of a Higher Power

A primary belief of members is that their recovery requires them to give up their self-reliance and willpower, and to put their reliance on God, or a "Higher Power". Proponents of twelve-step programs argue that agnostics and even atheists can be helped by the program as a member’s "Higher Power" may be the 12-step group itself or any other entity, thing or object that helps a member to accept that they are powerless over their problem but that a belief in a "Higher Power" will help them to recover.

The success of Twelve-step groups in aiding in recovery of addictive illnesses is an argument of significance in some parts of the United States, where the criminal justice system has ordered 12-step group participation to convicted felons as well as inmate addicts as a condition of parole or shortened sentences. U.S. judges have often required attendance at AA meetings as a condition of probation or parole or as an element of a sentence for defendants convicted of a crime. The New York Court of Appeals ruled in Griffin v. Coughlin, 88 N.Y.2d 674 (1996) that doing so compromises the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution on the grounds that A.A. practices and doctrine are (in the words of the district court judge who wrote the decision) "unequivocally religious". The United States Supreme Court denied certiorari and let this decision stand.

Critics of the 12-step programs, however, often hold that this reliance is ineffective, and offensive or inapplicable to atheists and others who do not believe in a salvific deity. Other critics see forms of authoritarian mind control in the 12 step approach.

Some critics state that 12-step groups are religious in nature. The only authorized literature in most 12-step groups is their own publications. The members of 12-step groups make the distinction that they are "spiritual, and not religious." Nearly every meeting begins with the Serenity Prayer, a prayer addressed to God. The Big Book states that its "main object" is not to help you stop drinking, but "to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problem." Although in some meetings it may be unusual to find participants who do not find their "higher power" to be the Christian deity, it can be useful for anyone regardless of their religious belief.

Some critics also question the idea of giving up on self-reliance, which can be seen as a form of idealized despair. Secular alternatives to twelve-step programs, such as Rational Recovery, are for this reason in many ways opposite to the twelve-step process. Others, such as YES Recovery, acknowledge a debt to the twelve-steps movement but do not have a culture of belief in God.

Relation to religion

The original A.A. program fashioned in Akron was described as a Christian Fellowship, held "old fashioned prayer meetings," stressed Bible study and prayer and the reading of religious literature, and aimed to bring people to an acceptance of Jesus Christ as the way to a relationship with God.

While meetings were held by alcoholics and Oxford Group members, the work was said to be that of a "clandestine lodge" of the Oxford Group because its stress was on helping alcoholics to recovery, abstinence, resistance of temptation, old fashioned revival meetings, and conversion to Christ which seemed to derive from the ideas, principles and practices of United Christian Endeavour Society of Dr. Bob's youth.

According to its supporters, the program achieved a 75% to 93% success rate. At Dr Bob's funeral, Bill W said that he thought the success rate was closer to 5%. Its adherents said they felt the answer to their problems was in the "Good Book" (as they called the Bible). There were no Steps, no basic text, only one regular meeting. The emphasis was on Bible study, prayer, seeking God's guidance, conversion, visiting hospitalized alcoholics, fellowship and witnessing. In a word, it was called "love and service" the watchwords of United Christian Endeavour.

There are many different ways of interpreting the intent behind twelve-step programs. And as with the Bible, there are those who argue strongly for a relatively literal adherence to program literature, and then there are those who advise "take what you like and leave the rest" and advocate a much more liberal approach. (Note: The phrase "take what you like and leave the rest" cannot be found in the Basic Text of AA or any other A.A. literature. The Big Book makes it abundantly clear that following the 12 steps to the letter is one powerful way for an alcoholic of the kind described in the Big Book to stay sober, although it also says clearly that AA has no monopoly on the truth.)

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