For Peabody and many addicts he’s sponsored, the key to becoming “a free man” has been rigorous and urgent application of the 12 steps, from taking fearless moral inventory to making painful amends. Yet mainstream AA meetings routinely do a “disservice,” he argues, by leading attendees to believe that meetings and sponsors – rather than God and concrete action steps – are what they need most in recovery.
For Alcoholics Anonymous to continue helping addicts find freedom in sobriety, the 75-year-old organization has to reclaim its spiritual roots.
That’s the message coming from reformers who say the group has drifted from core principles and is failing addicts who can’t save themselves. But what constitutes the heart of AA spirituality is a matter of spirited debate.
Has AA become too God-focused and rigid? Or have groups watered down beliefs and methods so much that they’re now ineffective?
“Some think AA is not strict enough,” said Lee Ann Kaskutas, senior scientist at the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, Calif. “Others think it’s too strict, so they want to change AA and make it get with the times.”
With more than 100,000 local meetings and an estimated two million members worldwide, AA is grappling with how much diversity it can handle. Over the past two years, umbrella organizations in Indianapolis and Toronto have delisted groups that replaced AA’s 12 steps to recovery with secular alternatives. More than 90 unofficial, self-described “agnostic AA” groups now meet regularly in the United States.
Faith language in AA goes back to the group’s founders, Bill Wilson and Robert Holbrook Smith. Six of the 12 steps, as prescribed in the original 1939 “Big Book,” refer to God either explicitly or implicitly. Step three, for example, cites “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”
Now some worry the founders’ efforts to be as inclusive as possible are being undermined by attempts to ensure, as one Indianapolis AA newsletter put it, that “AA remains undiluted.”
“In the past, there was a great deal of elasticity and tolerance in terms of different views,” said Roger C., a Toronto agnostic whose book “The Little Book: A Collection of Alternative 12 Steps” came out in January, and who doesn’t use his last name to protect his privacy. “But there’s been an increasingly rigidity from those who say, ‘It’s got to be this way and only this way.’ That has alienated a great number of people.”
But others argue that AA seldom offers the tough love that alcoholics need.