Practical Mysticism and the Promise of Sobriety: James, Dewey and Theology in Alcoholics Anonymous

by Orrin R. Onken


The forces of history and social change converge in strange places. One of those strange places was in the hospital room of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, in December of 1934. Wilson had admitted himself to the hospital once again for treatment of alcoholism. After a few days of being on sedatives, a visit from his friend Ebby who had "got religion," and suffering the depression that accompanies alcohol withdrawal, Wilson had a religious experience during which he felt the presence and power of "the God of the preachers." Within the next day or so, Ebby brought Wilson a copy of William James', Varieties of Religious Experience. The book came to him at an impressionable moment and the effect on him was profound. In certain respects it planted the seed of pragmatism in Wilson, a seed that would grow and would eventually contribute to the philosophic and structural basis of the most successful program for rehabilitation of late stage alcoholics that the world has ever seen. The relationship between AA and pragmatism, however, has never been a happy one. The mantle of pragmatist orthodoxy was passed from James to John Dewey while AA mixed pragmatist principles with a stiff dose of religiosity and a disease model of alcoholism. The pragmatists, with their rejection of dualist concepts such as mind and body, mental and physical, and man and God, found the religious aspects of AA disturbing and the disease concept of alcoholism no more amenable to pragmatist principles than the old idea of moral failing. The members of AA, many feeling that the program and organization had rescued them from a truly hopeless condition, viewed the godless pragmatists with equal suspicion. Nevertheless, the marriage had been made, and the tie has never be completely broken. Neither AA's religious emphasis nor the disease concept gave the organization anything genuinely new with which to battle a behavior problem as old as mankind. However, pragmatism did, and the success of AA, its continued health, and its prospects for the future are intimately tied to practices and organizational procedures imperfectly extracted from pragmatism.

Trying to isolate and discuss the role of pragmatism in AA is like trying to catch rain in a sieve. Pragmatism in its journey from Pierce to Rorty and beyond is consumed and reformed by each new personality who happens to catch world attention.. However, pragmatism is a Rock of Gibraltar compared to Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is now sixty years old, consists of close to two million members worldwide, and the number of AA groups in the United States alone exceed fifty thousand. Because AA does not accept funds from government or private industry and even limits contributions by its own members, local AA groups hold the reins of power in the organization. They contribute to the central General Services Office only as they see fit, and take directions from the central organization only as it suits their needs. Thus, the groups adapt and evolve reflecting the values, economics and social behaviors of the communities in which they exist. An AA group in the Pacific Northwest may bear small similarity to one in the heart of the Bible Belt and philosophic disputes between and within AA groups are a regular part of AA membership.

In recent years the AA program has been adapted to address related and unrelated social issues ranging from narcotics addiction to sexual dysfunction. Collectively the organizations are referred to as twelve step programs, a reference to the twelve steps to sobriety that lie at the heart of AA. These offshoot programs often have short histories and few long term members to keep the groups on a steady path. AA, however, has remained remarkably singular in its purpose and its methods. It is there to help the alcoholic who still suffers, whether that alcoholic has been sober for one day or twenty years.

When Bill Wilson was doing his drinking, alcoholism barely rose to the status of an "ism." It was a moral failing and, if there were places at all, the places for drying out were asylums, the halls of religious missions, and hospitals. All that has changed. Society is acutely aware of both the enormous damage that alcoholism wreaks in our culture and a diverse industry has arisen dedicated to solving the social problems related to the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Drunkenness has lost its acceptability on the highways and even at cocktail parties. The alcohol industry itself sponsors programs advocating responsible drinking. Although the seats are often still full at the missions, the combined efforts of government, insurance companies and private industry have made treating the alcoholic and addict into a multifaceted and often profitable social experiment. At times AA seems lost in the midst of it all, and it is easy, in this quagmire of education, prevention and treatment to lose sight of what AA actually does.

AA is an organization of amateurs. It has no specialists and almost no employees. It does not concern itself with alcohol education or prevention of alcohol abuse. It keeps no statistics and does no research. It does not in any scientific or medical sense treat alcoholism nor does it define or diagnose alcoholism. Consequently, developments in the psychology, physiology and sociology of alcholism get neither approval nor opposition from AA. One can debate issues that concern AA, but one cannot, much to the consternation of many mental health professionals, debate with AA.

The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. Consequently, with the exception of the occasional poor soul who has been "sentenced" to AA by the courts, people at AA meetings are those who come in the door knowing that they have behavioral problems linked to alcohol and drug use. Although they may not at first want to say the obligatory, "I'm Tom, and I'm an alcoholic," they do not need to be either educated about or diagnosed as having alcohol problems. The people who come to the door have been beaten down by alcohol. They have often been through one or more treatment or detox centers and managed over the course of their drinking to plow a furrow of broken marriages, lost jobs and legal troubles. When they desire to stop drinking but find that they cannot, AA is there to help.

The historical connection between AA and the giants of pragmatism is too weak to make a case that men such as James and Dewey had any significant direct influence in the development of AA. Bill Wilson probably never read any farther into James than Varieties of Religious Experience. James and Dewey, although both interested in the role of habit in human behavior, never propounded a specific method for reforming alcoholics. Bill Wilson credited William James, Dr. William Silkworth's idea of alcoholism as an obsession combined with an allergy to alcohol, and the absolutes of the Oxford Groups (absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love) as providing the framework for AA. However, the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was a compromise, and the forces of history were at work. James's work had had a quarter of a century to work its way from the universities to the American public, and Dewey had completed much of his own work in empiricism. Pragmatism, the American philosophy, was in full bloom, and even if the early members did not carry a copy of Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct, they did succeed in devising a program that could well be said to have been taken from those pages. What follows is selective look at how a program for recovery from alcoholism which reverberates still today with the religious zeal of Bill Wilson, one which has its roots in moral absolutes and concepts of mental obsessions, continues and grows largely due to problem solving approaches developed and expounded by men who rejected absolutes, mental obsessions and to a great extent religion. It is an apologetic for Alcoholics Anonymouuus, but an apologetic that seeks out the pragmatist veins that pulse within the program.


The field research for this article was done largely in and around Portland, Oregon. If Portland is representative, there is no such thing as a typical AA meeting. Within the city there are as many kinds of meetings as there are communities. There are special meetings specifically for lawyers, doctors, women, gays, lesbians, and even atheists. There are meetings for the rich, and meetings for the poor. There are meetings in English, Spanish and other languages. Some of the groups gather in the basements of churches or in the meeting rooms of public buildings. Other groups own or rent their own buildings and have been operating continuously for many years. The meeting most often attended in anticipation of this writing is housed in a ramshackle addition to an old Victorian house which lies just out of the industrial area on Portland's east side. The meeting room holds about forty people and is furnished with a menagerie of donated tables, chairs and couches. Four times a day, every day of the year, a chairman sitting at a school teachers desk at one end of the room announces the start of another meeting of the Twelfth Avenue chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Twelfth Avenue group is not typical. It seemed, however, to have been fairly immune to the influx of treatment center jargon that has appeared throughout AA since insurance companies, psychologists and hospitals took over the job of drying out financially solvent alcoholics. The members self-righteously call it old time AA, and some of them are old enough to remember when alcohol treatment meant a cop, a nightstick and the drunk tank. In this particular group people seldom begin speaking with the words, "I'm Bob, and I'm and alcoholic." If they introduce themselves at all, no one responds with a gleeful, "Hi, Bob." The chairman calls the meeting to order at exactly the time it is scheduled to start. The serenity prayer is said, the twelve steps and twelve traditions are read, and the chairman then alternates between reading from the Big Book and calling on people to share their experience, strength and hope. The chairman is not permitted to make comments or tell his or her own story from the chair, and no one is permitted to comment upon what another member has said. For ninety minutes the participants listen to each other and to readings from the Big Book. Stories are told. People confess. The members repeat AA cliches and interpret passages from the Big Book. Tales of drinking and despair, in one way or another, always come to a fairly happy ending. Amidst all this, drunks manage to get and stay sober.

One of the common admonitions given to new attendees at an AA meeting is the warning that the meeting is not the program. What one attends is a meeting of the fellowship. The program of recovery is "found in the pages of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous." The guts of the program are in the twelve steps. The steps are as follows:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The claim that the steps, as expanded and explained in the Big Book, are separate and distinct from the meetings of the fellowship serves to identify the AA program as being more than drinking coffee and sharing a common problem, however, the claim is not true. The average newcomer to AA, whether arriving from the streets or the treatment centers, is seldom capable of intelligently reading the Big Book or managing the language games contained in the steps. Rarely does a person get sober as a result of reading the Big Book, however, "dry drunks," people who have stopped drinking by simply going to a lot of AA meetings, are common in almost every group. The written program and the meetings interact, the book providing stability and authority, the meetings bringing the message of the Book to practical applicability in the day-to-day events of the recovering alcoholic.

An AA meeting is an emotional refuge for the newly sober alcoholic. Whether a binge drinker, a covert and solitary drinker, or a common tavern drinker, the alcoholic has developed a pattern of activities, relationships and values associated with the consumption of alcohol. As long as these work, the person has no desire to stop drinking and therefore is not, in AA terms, an alcoholic. When the activities and relationships built around alcohol cease to work, usually by making other social goods such as regular employment and financial stability inordinately difficult, the individual, often spurred by some dramatic turn of events, decides to stop drinking. Stopping drinking, however, entails much more than simply not lifting the glass. It involves abandoning a set of behaviors, personal relationships and activities that have been at the root of the person's experience for many years. Cut off from these behavioral and social roots, the alcoholic is lonely and afraid. Alcohol, is more than a drug that he physically craves. It is a crucial element of the way he has experienced the world. The loss of familiar behavioral patterns and comfortable stable relationships is akin to the loss one feels at the death of a spouse or loved one. Despite the damage alcohol may have caused, the newly recovering alcoholic must grieve.

The grieving aspect of AA meeting makes most nonalcoholics uncomfortable and generally hesitant to attend such meetings even for educational purposes. They feel embarrassed, in the same way that one might feel uncomfortable being present when a family reminisced, remembered and condemned a lost but abusive parent. To nonalcoholics, the meetings are "spooky." To the alcoholic, they are a safe haven where one is not alone. The hole left by removing alcohol from a person's life must be filled, but unlike the deceased love one, alcohol is not dead. It is as near as the local bar. Filling the void with new relationships, new activities and new ways of responding to the world is what AA attempts to do.

AA groups serve a variety of needs depending upon the groups' relationship with its members and the relationship between the group and community. However, AA groups spend the bulk of their efforts on four basic goals.. The first and most important is changing the ingrained behaviors of its members in regard to alcohol. These behaviors have aspects that are genetic, biological, psychological and moral, and in the majority of cases the group will fail to significantly change them. Newcomers, more often than not return to drinking, and many die of it. However, for some the program will work. The second goal is to return the alcoholic to a socially productive position in society. The third is to provide the alcoholic with freedom from dis-ease, a bit of comfort, companionship and pleasure in sobriety. And fourth, as with any organization, AA seeks to perpetuate and protect itself. The goals are lofty and the road to them fraught with difficulties. Getting there requires intelligence, perserverence, luck, and a stiff dose of American philosophy.


The first step states that "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable." The "powerlessness" described in this step has arguably embroiled twelve step programs in more controversy than even the religious concepts contained in the later steps. Powerlessness is un-American, and the mere mention of it raises philosophical, political and religious arguments that go to the root of the American social experience. On one side are the offended, those who feel that powerlessness negates the role of choice, will power, character, free will, and personal responsibility. To these people, the powerlessness in the first step is another example of America becoming a society of victims. On the other side are the environmentalists who see in powerlessness the fact that we are controlled by the material and social forces around us. These people speak of heredity, disease, mental illness, compulsion, predestination and behaviors ordained by a decaying social structure. In AA, the bulk of these arguments are outside issues. Although there are a few members in every group that manage to develop powerlessness into an all encompassing existential stance, for most powerlessness is powerlessness over the use of alcohol. It is the inability to stop drinking even when one has realized that drinking no longer offers any pleasure or reward. This kind of powerlessness is an objective condition for the alcoholic, and in pragmatism is encompassed by Dewey's far reaching theories of habit and the enormous role it plays in personal and social life.

Dewey's concept of habit varies from the ordinary use of the word in one significant way. In ordinary usage, habit tends to refer to the trivial. In Dewey it goes to the basic behavioral mechanism that forms individuals and communities. Habit is human activity which is influenced by prior activity, and is thus in a sense acquired, but which contains a systemization of action that is projective, dynamic and ready to go at a moments notice. It is not repetition, but an acquired predisposition to certain types of responses. Thus, the imortal soul, conscience, and even consciousness have no independent role in how a person responds to the world. "Concrete habits do all the perceiving, recognizing, imagining, recalling, judging, conceiving and reasoning that is done." Knowledge lives in the muscles, not the consciousness. Habit is will. One does not change habitual behavior directly, say by exercise of will, but by modifying conditions and by intelligently selecting the objects of our attention. He uses the example of a man with poor posture. The man is told to stand up straight, or maybe he simply decides that he will stand up straight in the future. Making an effort to do so, he manages to stand differently for a while, but having no experience of correct posture he is largely incapable of comfortably standing correctly even when he keeps his mind focused on doing so. Once his mind wanders, he returns to his old ways of standing. His habitual way of standing is an objective condition which prevents improvement of his posture. If the objective condition were a spinal deformity, everyone would understand the problem. However, when the condition is habit, there exists a tendency to blame his poor posture on insufficient desire or will. This belief that one can bring about a desired result by summoning up a powerful wish and a stiff dose of resolve, is in Dewey akin to a belief in magic. It ignores the objective conditions surrounding the behavior and looks to a supernatural power existing in the mind to achieve the result. The Big Book states it succinctly, " At a certain point in the drinking of every alcoholic, he passes into a state where the most powerful desire to stop drinking is of absolutely no avail." To change a habit, a person must make a "flanking movement." Thus, the man with poor posture must take up activities which promote correct standing without requiring him to think about his posture. On the issue of drink, Dewey suggests as follows:

The hard-drinker who keeps thinking of not drinking is doing what he can to initiate the acts which lead to drinking. He is starting with the stimulus to his habit. To succeed he must find some positive interest or line of action which will inhibit the drinking series and which by instituting another course of action will bring him to his desired end. In short, the man's true aim is to discover some course of action, having nothing to do with the habit of drink or standing erect, which will take him where he wants to go. The discovery of this other series is at once his means and his end.

AA's first step essentially asks the new member to quit trying to give up drinking. Wanting to stop drinking is a condition of membership but is irrelevant to ones ability to stop. The mental magic will not work, primarily because an alcoholics return to drinking is more often than not a thoughtless and unplanned passing into familiar behaviors. Instead, one must turn ones energies to other matters, matters contained in the steps that follow. Of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first one is the only one that mentions alcohol.

Since the start of AA, powerlessness has been intimately connected with the disease model of alcoholism, and AA has been a significant force in the decisions by medical groups to accept alcoholism as a disease. However, expansion of the word "disease" to include that wide variety of behaviors that make up alcoholism still leaves many uncomfortable, and the relative importance of biological factors and personal decision still sparks debate among addiction specialists. The essence of this debate concerns the cause of alcoholism, rather than what to do with the existing alcoholic, and, as in many such arguments about causation, the object of the debate is to assess blame. Moralists blame the poor choices and general character of the alcoholic. Others blame hereditary and biological factors. From a pragmatist perspective both sides make the same error. They separate man from his physical nature, and mind from the world. The moralist is angry that the alcoholic drank, and by blaming him for his alcoholism needs not deal with the conditions that create and nurture alcoholism. The predestinationist works sentimentality the other way, sympathizing with the plight of the alcoholic and turns a cause into an excuse. By emphasizing antecedent causation, both avoid having to make intelligent scientific and moral judgments about what acts are still to be performed. Both Dewey and AA, view the emotional responses based upon antecedent causation as a hindrance to an intelligent next step. The Big Book, however, fails to reject either position. Like many religious and quasi-religious texts, it is often inconsistent and obscure. Rather than choosing between the moralist and the environmentalist regarding the origins of alcoholism, or even rejecting both as the Dewey would have us do, AA accepts both and thus flirts with the errors inherent in each. The root of alcoholism is treated as a paradox. It is a failure within the mind and a biological condition.

Bill Wilson credited Dr. Silkworths idea of obsession accompanied by an allergy to alcohol as one of the founding concepts of AA. The Big Book emphatically identifies alcoholism as a disease, and did so long before science had established the biological and genetic aspects of the condition. However, the book also states that alcoholism is a symptom of an underlying spiritual malady. There is the paradox. The condition is both a disease and a symptom. It is an allergy and an obsession. It is a physical condition and a defect in character. Dewey accepted neither formulation. AA accepts both. The disease concept helps the newcomer disassociate prior alcoholic behaviors from the ephemeral and guilt ridden "self" that the alcoholic usually brings to the program. The disease did it, not you. However, once the shakes have gone away and the newcomer's head has cleared, he is faced with the other side of the paradox. He had the disease because of underlying defects in character. "Character" is never defined in AA, but nothing in the program is inconsistent with Dewey's concept of character as the interconnected bundle of habits, each affecting the others, which over a period of time combine and recombine to form a person's disposition toward and response to existence. In the fourth step, the moral inventory, an AA member is required to identify those habits which have contributed to his character as well as the specific acts which contributed to the formation of those habits. This "moral inventory," the elaborate confession that constitutes one of the most feared steps in the AA program, is a psychological exercise that takes one beyond antecedent causes and into the heart of AA pragmatism.

For the uninitiated, a "moral inventory," to be followed by confession to God and another person would probably be led by such moral failings as dishonesty, covetousness, gluttony, concupescience and other well established "sins." These receive due attention in the fourth step, but the sin that gets the emphasis is one that many might simply overlook.

Resentment is the 'number one' offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From is stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick.'

The directions to the fourth step require one to make a list of one's resentments, the object of the resentment and the underlying fear behind it. Although the reasons for making resentment the focus of the fourth step are related to the Oxford group, the effect is to make AA members examine and rid themselves of emotional responses to past events that hinder the intelligent selection of objects of attention in the present. They rid themselves of the sentimentality that affects both the blaming moralist and the excusing predestinationist. Assessing blame and finding causes loses it's value when the emotional baggage is no longer there, and the alcoholic can proceed to engage in behaviors and decisions that are projective of future consequences rather than reponsive to past events. In the Deweyan world, the alcoholic has cleaned the slate for a new approach to both past and future.

In the latter part of the AA program the member is asked to take personal responsibility for the acts which produced his prior habits and to engage in activities which, although not focusing on the bad habits themselves, begin to form a new set of behaviors. AA never truly abandons the "obsession" idea, a concept that is no less magical than will power, however, the route to relief from the obsession goes through pragmatic processes. It outflanks the habitual way of thinking that has formed the alcoholic character by involving the alcoholic in activities which resemble normal social behavior. The alcoholic must apologize and offer physical or monetary restitution to those he has injured in the past. Each such act is approached individually, and the phrase, "one day at a time" emphasizes that the alcoholic is not to concern himself generally with becoming honest, hard working, and humble, but with doing today those specific acts which constitute his AA program. From a Deweyan perspective, this emotionally difficult and time consuming process of confession and restituion serves a dual purpose. First, it distracts the member from thoughts of drinking. Second, it begins the a process of repeated acts that, although motivated soley by the desire for sobriety, resemble socially admirable behaviors. Over a period of time, such acts become easier, begin to feel normal, and contribute to a different set of habits. New and more socially productive behaviors arise out of the accumulated individual acts that make up the AA program. The fellow's posture improves.

The danger in accepting both the mental defect and physical disease concepts, as opposed to rejecting the error of each, is that a residue of the sentimentality that attaches to antecedent causation will remain and the emotions associated with blaming one or the other causitive factors will dominate the other. The balancing act faces AA as a whole, and in subtle ways is worked out in every meeting. In recent years, the bulk of new AA members have arrived at the door of AA fresh from commercial residential treatment centers. Typically, these centers get custody of the alcoholic for about a month. Thus, they have their hands full simply nursing the patient back to a basic level of physical health and instilling the patient with sufficient self confidence to face the world again. To do this, they rely heavily on the disease model. The bad acts of the past were done by the disease. If the disease is controlled, the inner "good person" will emerge. Having separated the alcoholic from his normal environment and with relatively little time to even start the kind of flanking activities necessary for a change of habit, the treatment centers, although always well intentioned, often produce victims of biology in search of a mythical self. Most of the patients revert almost immediately to prior habits and drink. Some join "treatment center reunion" groups where they collectively invent ideal sobriety and through endless psychobabble attempt to will it into existence. In the Twelfth Avenue Group, these people are eventually taken into the back room by an old timer and informed that their past behaviors were illegal, immoral, unethical and theirs alone. They are not excused, and whining in an AA meeting is not the same thing as paying restitution. Action produces habit; analysis and ungrounded desire by themselves change nothing.

The other danger to an AA group that arises from emphasis on the mind-body distinction is the kind of paralyzing self hatred that accompanies identifying ones past errors as the mark of an evil or defective mind. This person views character, past habits and activities as uniquely and eternally his or hers. Resisting the idea that action of any sort can touch the supernatural evil within, this sort of person is likely to dive headlong into the religiosity of AA, and while waiting for God to deliver salvation, fails to do those things that produce not only better habits but a sunnier disposition as well. If God fails to come through, the person may drink again, fall into depression, or simply wander from one program to another looking for salvation.

The first, primary and most important activity for any new member of AA is to "keep coming back." Most are released from their treatment centers with directions to attend ninety meetings in ninety days, and attending meetings, an activity which serves all four purposes of AA, is probably the most important new habit to develop. The meetings offer safe haven where the alcoholic can be with his or her own kind. They provide ceremony, stability, and most important the chance to communicate with others about the travails of sobriety. To the outsider, AA often seems a program of clichés: "One day at a time," "Keep it simple." "Let go and let God," "The thinking precedes the drinking." These shorthand phrases for more complex ideas, like any set of words, serve a purpose only within the context of AA, and thus can seem anti-intellectual from the outside. AA is in the process of presenting the alcoholic with new meanings. Dewey asserted that awareness of meanings cannot be conveyed by speech. One can describe jealousy, but the meaning will not be apparent to another person until he experiences jealousy and then relates the experience to the antecedent description. The newcomer needs to find different meanings in day to day experiences. The clichés of AA keep the descriptions close at hand, and await experience to fill them out. When that occurs, the alcoholic has the sense of "starting to get it." Returning to the meetings, the can share the experiences with others and in a loose sense be subjected to a standard of reasonableness established by older members. Thus, the physical act of attending AA meetings not only develops the habit of engaging in nonalcoholic social activity, but permits the alcoholic to learn, test and evaluate judgments made using the newly discovered meanings. He is learning to think differently, one thought at a time.

Most AA meetings begin with the Serenity Prayer: "God grant me strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." The prayer has been subject to truly incredible interpretations by AA members pushing particular philosophical agendas, but taken simply, it sums up the powerlessness in AA. An alcoholic cannot change his past or directly change the habits of thought and action that he has inherited from the past. He can, however, do certain things today, that if repeated tomorrow and the day after, may result in new habits better adapted to satisfying social standards and bringing about a personal satisfaction. The process is a Deweyan flanking move which, when working correctly, avoids the vindictiveness of the "will power" moralist and the mushy sentimentality of the victimologist. It is not, however, a miracle cure. Old habits are tenacious, and new ones take time. No insurance funded or profit oriented venture could ever economically provide the long term environment for changing a habit as deeply rooted as alcoholism. AA, self supporting, paying no specialists, having no deadlines or bottom lines, and reporting to no higher authority, has the time.


Alcoholics Anonymous is a religious organization. It is not, however, a religion. It exists outside of ecumenical councils as well as outside the varying forms of humanism prevelant in the secular world. In this odd spot, like a man standing in the middle of a highway, AA risks being run over by trucks going in both directions. AA encourages its members to invent their own God. Systematic theology is an outside issue, and dogmatic approaches to the nature of God find no home in AA meetings. However, theism permeates the program as does the belief that escaping the bondage of self as a result of a "religious experience" will deliver the alcoholic from his craving for alcohol. Precisely defining the role of self, theism and the religious experience in human growth and change has been as problematic for AA as it has been for pragmatism. With different emphasis, James and Dewey celebrate religious aspects of experience but have little sympathy for institutional theism. AA finds that the religious experience, at least the sudden "white light" kind of experience, is a rare bird, and even when it occurs to be no guarantee of subsequent sobriety. Consequently, it has a fallback position that resembles Dewey's views of habit more than James's ecstatic faith. Nevertheless, both theism and religiosity remain an integral part of the program. To the pragmatists this religiosity is suspect. To the churches it is heresy.

I. The Inventable God

The final draft of the first edition of the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was a compromise between two factions. Those founders of AA who lived in the midwest argued for a strongly religious, specifically Christian, approach, while those in the urban areas of the East Coast warned that excessive religion would alienate a large number of alcoholics. Bill Wilson probably sympathized with the midwestern faction, but fortunately heeded the warnings of the easterners. What resulted was a religious book unassociated with any established religion. By taking this approach AA entered the world of adverbial mental states that John Dewey found so attractive. "'Thought,' reason, intelligence," Dewey wrote, "whatever word we choose to use is existentially an adjective (or better an adverb), not a noun." AA takes an approach to the religious that comes close enough to Dewey's observations in A Common Faith that "whatever introduces genuine perspective is religious," to ensure that AA and pragmatists, because of philosophic proximity, will always treat each other with suspicion.. Although they differ in their attitude toward institutional theism, for both the religious is a quality incorporated into activity rather than an independent mental or social function. To emphasize this separation from established religion many AA members abandon the word "religious" altogether in favor of the word "spiritual," a linguistic evasion that ensures that they offend the churches and the humanists equally.

The second and third steps introduce the newcomer to the slippery theology of AA. The second says we "came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity." This is the "higher power" of AA, a force or entity that in the lingo of AA often appears as "my higher power whom I choose to call God." God appears more directly in the third step, a step in which the AA members make a decision to turn their lives over the "the care of God as we understood him." This italicized addendum to the word "God" appears many times in the Big Book and emphasizes the fact that God need not be a specific supernatural entity. Paul Tillich once commented that the conceptions of God that have existed throughout history and in various cultures are projections on the white screen that is God and serve to ground and clarify our religious experience with a particular social and historical context. In AA, one is encouraged to make one's own projection. The results range from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the openness of the procedure allows AA to accomodate a wide variety of personal and social value systems.

By permitting, even encouraging, its members to invent an appropriate God, AA removes the core of traditional theological inquiry and leaves the implications and connotations that accompany the word "God" itself. Although most AA members eventually gravitate to a type of theism that resembles liberal Christianity, others do not, Young people coming directly from treatment centers tend to show up with quite creative visions of a "higher power." The Twelfth Avenue group has seen a deceased chicken, the branch on a tree, and a variety of other recovery inspired deities. In older members, the theism may be based upon anything from the unpredictable and grumpy God of the old testament to the noncoercive deity of process theology. Some members never accept a deity at all, and remaining atheists, serve as an anchor to the concrete when a group strays too far into the spiritual hinterland. Because of the wide variety of beliefs concerning God that may be present in any particular AA meeting, theology, discussion of the nature and characteristics of God, is considered inappropriate to the setting. Although, one is urged to invent one's own God, once the job is done the member is also urged to keep quiet about it.

Because alcoholism tends to make a person better known in the bars than in the churches, a substantial number of alcoholics come to AA without pre-existing theistic beliefs. Many are atheists. Others hold a grudge against God, churches, and religion in general. For these people, the higher power in the first two steps is most often the AA group itself. God is a "Group Of Drunks", or possibly, "Good Orderly Direction." The conception works as well as any. One purpose of the second and third steps is disabusing the alcoholic of the idea that he can by exercise of powerful desire or will keep his drinking within socially acceptable standards. From a pragmatist point of view, the alcoholic is presented with a situation in which deeply rooted habits are being denied. These habits, not simply the habit of drinking but all those personal and social behaviors that accompany alcohol abuse, exert a tremendous power. It is a craving for alcohol, as well as a craving for the comfort of familiar places and long time friends. Outside the scope of well developed habits, the newcomer is confused, scared and uncertain. Things are changing. In his always understated style, Dewey wrote, "While however we cannot actually prevent change from occurring we can and do regard it as evil. We strive to retain action in ditches already dug. We regard novelties as dangerous, experiments as illicit and deviations a forbidden." The new AA member is about to embark on a series of activities which have little to do with drinking. Appeal to intelligent choice doesn't work. The newcomer is asked to trust. The trust might be in God, but on at least one level, it is trust in the experience of those who have gone before. For many, the collective wisdom and experience of the group remains God for a significant portion of early sobriety.

In A Common Faith, Dewey makes a foray into theology that is not much different from what each new AA member must face. Dewey in essence asks himself "[W]hat conception of unseen powers and our relations to them would be consonant with the best achievements and aspirations of the present." For the alcoholic the question is made easier because the aspirations of the present are generally limited to achieving comfortable sobriety. Dewey eventually answers his question by giving the name "God" to the "active relation between ideal and actual," a formulation that for him provides protection against both despair and defiance. In AA, Dewey's sophisticated answer would be considered no better or worse than any other. The important thing is that the member face the question. The answer he chooses will be put to the test soon enough.

Despite the best efforts of many commentators and thousands of AA members, the second and third steps of AA are obscure. Unlike any of the others, the second step, "Came to believe," is structurally passive. There is nothing to do but wait for belief. The third step, "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood him." is filled with Wittgenstein style language problems. How does making a decision to "to turn our lives" different from actually turning our lives? How does the "care of God" differ from "God?" As confusing as these language problems may be, the true difficulty in the second and third step is how does one go about turning one's life and will over to a God that may have just been recently invented. Not only is it difficult to imagine a specific act that would accomplish this step, if it could be accomplished, but one also has to wonder whether it is psychologically possible. In certain respects, the second and third step hover without ever landing above the problems addressed in James' controversial essay, The Will to Believe.

Although there is a certain leeway regarding what one must end up believing after the second and third steps, at the very least the AA member needs to be convinced that he or she can stop drinking by virtue of forces outside the self. One desires to quit drinking, but needs to stop trying to quit. It is not an easy task, and the hypothesis that God or some other exterior force can remove the craving for alcohol and the urge to engage in alcohol related behaviors is questionable at best. Although AA meetings are usually well attended by people who have achieved long term sobriety, the statistics of alcohol recovery have never been good. More often than not, alcoholics, after a few days, months or even years in the program, return to using alcohol and drugs in a self destructive manner. Asking a newly sober member to "believe" may be more than the person can do. However, if anyone is in a position to will themselves to faith, it is the person on the run from alcoholism.

James asserted that in order to will belief--to accept a proposition as true based upon less than objectively certain evidence--the proposed belief had to be living, forced, and momentous. For most the AA hypothesis, if not theism itself, is certainly living. The growth and success of AA shows that the program can work. For all practical purposes, the choice is also forced. Skepticism, waiting until all the evidence is in, simply means a continuation of the unsatisfactory forces of habit that have propelled one to AA in the first place. One could choose a different recovery process, but one must choose and act. Paralyzing doubt spells death. And finally, the decision is momentous. Everything is at stake. People come to AA because it is the "last door on the block," and although that door is always open, at some point the alcoholic will drink himself beyond any help, human or otherwise. The opportunity to experience comfortable long term sobriety will not stay open forever. Circumstances demand faith. The commitment to faith in the third step prayer is as follows:

God, I offer myself to Thee--to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always.

The prayer smacks of traditional theism and certainly steers any ambivalent member in that direction. However, if God is a tree branch, a "Group of Drunks," or some other deity recently invented by the member for the purposes of sobriety, the whole thing appears theologically silly. But as often occurs in the AA program, the action is more important than the belief. Praying, seeking help in cases where one is helpless, and escaping the bondage of self are acts that will be repeated over and over again in an extended program for sobriety. Belief counts, but action makes the difference, and the third step is the action that prefaces the most difficult and most avoided steps of the AA program.

II. Confession, Dualism and the Bondage of Self

The fourth step, the moral inventory, is an elaborate preparation for the psychological cleansing that accompanies confession. Once the inventory with its emphasis on resentment has been prepared in writing, the AA member presents it orally to God and another person. This difficult and humbling exercise lies at the heart of a set of exercises designed to force a "spiritual experience." The process is not new, having been used for over a thousand years by those seeking a mystical union with God. To make this journey one needs an ontological place for both the self and the deity. Within Deweyan metaphysics this is nonsense, a journey from one mythical entity to another. However, the process, the activities involved, have in one form or another been practiced by religious communities throughout the ages. What distinguishes the process in AA is that the exercises are focused on alcoholism and the changing of specific habitual behaviors. Enlightenment is not enough. Conversion, being "born again" is fine, but in AA it is put to the test. Basic behaviors must change.

In the year 1350 the anonymous author of Theologia Germanica listed nine steps necessary to perfection and union with God. In America Jonathan Edwards had twelve criteria for testing the validity of a spiritual experience. In The Varieties of Religious Experience James described the conditions that contribute to a religious experience. The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, prescribes these conditions as a cure. James explores in his chapter on the "Sick Soul" the kinds of depression, disillusionment and psychological decay that often precede a conversion experience. Although the alcoholic usually possesses a fairly "sick soul" when he or she arrives at the doors of AA, the fourth step, the moral inventory, examines the values, habits and acts that have brought him there. If he wasn't depressed before the fourth step, he probably will be when he his done. The fifth step, confession to God, oneself and another person, is the cleansing process. James writes:

For him who confesses, shams are over and realities have begun; he has exteriorized his rottenness. If he has not actually got rid of it he at least no longer smears it over with a hypocritical show of virtue--he lives at least upon a basis of veracity.

The return to veracity and the casting off of emotional baggage from the past is a crucial step in AA. The Big Book describes the reaction one should have when the fifth step is done completely and honestly.

We pocket our pride and go to it, illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past. Once we have taken this step, withholding nothing, we are delighted. We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator. We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have a spiritual experience. The feeling that the drink problem has disappeared will often come strongly. We feel we are on the Broad Highway walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe.

Return to veracity by honesty with another person has often been a important part of both religious and psychotherapeutic practice, and the emotional response described in the Big Book is similar to the descriptions of the state of mind that follows successful psychoanalysis. However, in AA being born again, being returned to mental health, or having begun a spiritual experience is all for naught if it is simply a psychic readjustment to reality. The spiritual experience in AA is connected to a specific behavior, a powerful and dangerous addiction. Union with God is not enough. One must also become capable of sobriety. And there's the rub.

The Big Book constantly returns to the spiritual experience or awakening as the cornerstone of sobriety and in doing so endorses a form of mysticism in which an altered consciousness, a mystical state of mind, has curative powers. James asserted that mystical states of consciousness were at the root and center of the personal religious experience, and in Varieties examines mysticism from the secular to the intensely demoninational. James includes within the mystical experience phenomena such as a sense of deja vu and sudden realizations of significance. He writes, "The simplest rudiment of mystical experience would seem to be the deepened sense of significance of a maxim or formula which occassionally sweeps over me." These occasions of Jamesian mysticism are familiar to any AA member who has suddenly seen in one of the AA phrases such as "One day at a time," a meaning and significance that it had not previously carried. James also includes drunkeness and drug induced states of consciousness within the realm of the mystical, an inclusion which makes one wonder to what extent AA is simply substituting one mystical consciousness for another. Commenting on the universality of mysticism and its uniformity across historical and cultural lines, James neatly summarizes the spiritual experience.

This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the indvidual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystical states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates languages, and they do not grow old.

Despite James's lyrical praise for mysticism, he concludes the chapter with the observation that although mystical states can and should be authoritative over the person experiencing them, revelations obtained through mysticism have no intrinsic authority which should require others to treat mystically obtained knowledge uncritically. The roots of a mystical experience are inaccessable to the outside world and authorities ranging from Jonathan Edwards to St. Teresa are in agreement that the genuineness of a mystical exprience can only be judged by its fruits. For Teresa the fruits were renewed energy, a better disposition and activities consistent with what God would have us doing. In AA, the fruit is sobriety, serenity and productivity. Whether in AA or medieval Christian mysticism, escaping the bondage of self must prove itself in the empiricist arena.

Traditionally the literature of mysicism has treated the self as a supernatural entity separate from but associated with the physical body. This ontological entity, containing a wide variety of psychological, philosophical and religious qualities, has for the mystic always been something to overcome. It is the stumbling block rather than the conveyance. Escaping Cartesian dualism, the separation between the self and other ontological categories, was the goal. Attaining this goal was celebrated by reaching a temporary religious/philosophic state of mind which left one psychically and spiritually changed. One returned to the physical and practical world wiser, more comfortable and enlightened. Dewey, relying on empiricism alone, also escaped the grasp of Cartesian dualism, but skipped the mystic journey. The supernatural self was not something to be quashed or escaped, it was instead an illusion. It was a stumbling block, granted, but an intellectual one rather than an ontological one, simply a hindrance to intelligent management of impulse, habit and experience. AA, in its generic religiosity, patterns its program along lines common in the mystic tradition and treats the self as an evil ghost blocking the path to comfortable sobriety. However, religious mysticism does not easily fit in unlabeled bottles. When the theological content is removed from God, leaving only the psychological exercises, there are implications as well for the entity known as "self," and escaping the self begins to look more like something from the pages of Human Nature and Conduct than The Interior Castle.

The human self has been constructed, reconstructed and deconstructed innumerable times. Students of humanity have been presented with mind, soul, individuality, consciousness, ego and many other constructs, each carrying its own parcel of value laden psychological and religious implications. Descarte's, "I think therefore I am." set the tone for metaphysics up to the twentieth century. With few exceptions, the human self has always been a supernatural entity consisting of one or more parts, but always separate from the body as well as the physical world. It incorporated but was not truly defined by a persons past experiences, present sensations, and possibilites for the immediate and eternal future. While God and other supernatural entities have come under attack in the centuries since Descarte, the self has been remarkably resistant. The pragmatist led attack on the traditional concept of self and dualist views in general have been largely overshadowed by the multifaceted self of Freudian psychology. Even today, James's question, "Does Consciousness Exist?" is nonsensical to the man or woman on the street. Dewey's nondualist view of experience and nature is heresy, not against the church, but against an ingrained intellectual construct based in habit, tradition and cultural values.

In mysticism, the standard starting point for casting off dualism is overcoming desire for physical, social and even spiritual things or amenities. The first dark night in the ascent of Mt. Carmel by St. John of the Cross is to remove all one's attachment to worldly things, including ones attachment to sensory spiritual experiences. In another kind of monastic journey, the the Zen Buddhist, seeking the inherent perfection within rather than union with an external God, must rid himself of attachment to all worldly concerns whether they be sensory, emotional or physical. The Second Wisdom in Buddhism states that the cause of suffering is desire and desire is based upon the illusion that the self is separated from the things it desires. In both cases, the self and it's desires are granted a provisional existence, but one that can be overcome or in some way transcended. In AA, where the spiritual awakening will eventually be tested by the member's sobriety, the self and it's worldly attachments plays a similarly negative role. The culprit here, and example of AA abandoning James for the discomforts of Freud, is the "ego." The Big Book declares, "Selfishness--self-centeredness: That, we think is the root of our problem."

AA's search for the "spiritual experience" and "spiritual awakening" follows well worn mystical paths. One surrenders, one reduces attachment to worldly things, and one initiates a process of self appraisal and confession that reduces the effect of past events on current behaviors. The process treats the dualistic formations of mind/body, human/divine, and thought/action as existing conditions, but conditions that are escapable through a particular set of religious or psychological exercises. Liberation from dualism is marked by a religious event or experience that is temporary in nature, but which leaves one's response to experience permanently changed. James reveled in the idea and saw the process as filled with potential for drama as well as healing. AA takes a Jamsian approach, however, it is forced by the realities of addiction and the necessity of testing the process by subsequent long term sobriety to acknowledge that sobriety often takes more that an afternoon of "white light" spirituality or psychological displacement.

The end of the mystic journey, whether it be in medieval Christian practice or on a Buddhist monastery is the practical and physical world in which we live. The archtypical enlightened one is a simple man engaged in the mundane activities of life. Kierkegaard describes the process in discussion of the Knight of Faith. In a sense, passing through the universal, the realm of ethics and worldly matters, the Knight of Faith returns from the spiritual to live in the concrete, a realm that is ontologically superior to the spiritual. The Zen master, similarly, must have abandoned his attachment to enlightenment as well as to worldly things and may upon meeting Buddha on the road, kill him. The mature AA member does not teach, does not lecture or instruct, but instead pours coffee and washes the dishes at the end of the meeting. Spirituality on the other side of the spiritual experience is simple action, addressing the day to day problems of living. This is not, however, a return to self and dualist metaphysics of before. It is maintenance of human values in an environment where dualist constructions have lost their power to lead.

While James took a certain amount of delight in the mystic aspects of religiosity, his pragmatist successor did not. Religion, for Dewey, whether in practice or simply in language, invoked far too much of Cartesian metaphysics. Empiricism got him to a nondualist world view just fine. Furthermore, the philosophic or religious state of mind, for Dewey carried too much of the philosophies of acceptance that had in practice justified and perpetuated outworn social and political systems since the time of the Greeks. He rejected the idea that the religious experience was a separate and identifiable experience, and asserted that psychological accommodations to the world could occur with or without religious terminology and practice. Freud had branded religion a mental illnes; Dewey branded it as social and psychological stagnation. Psychological accommodations had value, but neither proved traditional religious metaphysics nor justified the social consequences of the religious outlook. Dewey found the metaphysics of Descarte lacking through normal intellectual and empirical inquiry. He skipped directly past the dualist distinctions inherited from Descarte without taking the mystic journey. In AA this was heresy, but a heresy that for practical reasons had to be accommodated.

Dewey, although opposed to the metaphysics and social systems promulgated by religion, was not insensitve to the healing effect of certain temporary mental states that have traditionally been considered mystical. These curative experiences, however, prove according to Dewey only that there exists a "complex of conditions that have operated to effect an adjustment to life, an orientation, that brings with it a sense of security and peace." However, for Dewey, who applied the word "God" only to an active relation between the ideal and actual, the mystical experience carried the threat of passiveness. "There is, indeed," he wrote, "even a danger that resort to mystical experiences will be an escape, and that its result will be the passive feeling that the union of actual and ideal is already accomplished."

For James and Dewey the self was not an ontological entity that had to be overcome. Instead, it was a relic of past metaphysics, a stumbling block to the intelligent direction of attention and energies. The self was a convenient language reference to our individual apparatus for processing experience, but was just as much a part of nature, community and the world as the chair in which we might sit. This was not a slight to individuality, creativity or intelligence, simply a new and dynamic canvas on which these human qualities could operate. The self was a creation of the communities in which a person grew, not reducible to social forces, but not separate from them either. Inquiry and action rather than acceptance dominated Deweyan approaches. And in AA where the spiritual life is one of action, the Deweyan approach was always in the wings when the gift from heaven was too slow to come. AA members must live and operate in the unstable hustle and bustle of humanity. Success in the monastery is not AA success, and union with God is insufficient if alcohol continues to play a destructive role in the life of the member. For many a member, sobriety comes from the effort involved in doing the steps rather than the mystic experience that may or may not result and from joining in and allowing his or her character to be reformed by the values of a new and sober community. This is not to deny the power of the mystic process in contributing to a profound and character changing psycho-religious experience or to overcoming dualist constructs that act as a hindrance to intelligent and fulfilling activities, but simply a recognition that a backup plan is worth having, and one taken from the psychology of pragmatism is one the works.

One common thread in the literature of mysticism is that the practice and process of mysticism never concludes. A spiritual experience is neither the conclusion nor the cure. Whether it be the Zen master, the monks who wrote Theologia Germanica, or the mature AA member, maintenance activities, continued growth and passing of the message to others fill the days. The little and big problems in life remain. Enlightenment, in the last analysis, is usually bestowed posthumonously. In AA, sobriety is a process rather than an achievement, but a process more easily and intelligently managed without the burden of the eternal ontological entities that clutter the Cartesian cosmos.

Despite what happened to Bill Wilson and many others in AA, in the day to day operation of the Twelfth Avenue group, sudden and dramatic experiences of a religious nature are viewed with suspicion. The old timers have seen too many newcomers getting God as a roommate and being drunk a month later. The following passage from the Big Book gets read aloud in the Twelfth Avenue group many times in any given month.

The term "spiritual experience" and "spiritual awakening" are used many times in this book which, upon careful reading, shows that the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us in many different forms.
Yet it is true that our first printing gave many readers the impression that these personality changes, or religious experiences, must be in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals. Happily for everyone, this conclusion is erroneous.
. . .
Most of our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the "educational variety" because they develop slowly over a period of time. Quite often friends of the newcomer are aware of the difference long before he is himself. He finally realizes that he has undergone a profound alteration in his reaction to life; that such a change could hardly have been brought about by himself alone. What often takes place in a few months could seldom have been accomplished by years of self-discipline.

Much as the invitation to invent one's own God took the theology out of AA, this revision of the original text regarding the spiritual awakening steals the experience out of the religious experience. AA orthodoxy holds that the spiritual awakening will occur during the ninth step, the performance of amends to those the alcoholic has injured, and that the benefits of the spiritual life will appear. This awakening can and usually will be as a result of a spiritual experience which occurs even though one remains unaware of it. The psychic rearrangement or adaptation occurs without the knowledge of the one who has experienced it.

The mystic journey ends while the practitioner is occupied doing other things. In the process of pursuing salvation--the meetings, the steps, the amends, the work with other alcoholics--one simply doesn't have the energy left to work at not drinking. Non-alcohol related activities and socially acceptable behaviors such as honesty, humility and a bit of tolerance, once painful, become easier, habitual and eventually a part of the AA member's character. The flanking movement is complete. He or she has truly found a power greater than the self: the power of circumstance, the power of intelligence in choosing the object of one's attention, and the power of habit. The born again experience may or may not occur, but the action involved in seeking it can result in a wonderful side effect: sobriety. The Big Book emphasizes that the spiritual life is one of action, not the finding of a particular "holy" state of mind. The Deweyan outlook triumphs in the end, for when AA allows that the religious or mystic experience can imperceptable to the recipient, then it cannot be far from Dewey's assertion that the "actual religious quality in the experience described is the effect produced, the better adjustment in life and its conditons, not the manner and cause of its production." For the drunk, sobriety, humility and honesty practiced one day at a time to the best of one's ability amist the vissitudes of life is the religious experience.


Among the philosophers of American pragmatism, ideas had to be continually tested on the playing field of experience. Falliblism was a characteristic of all their conclusions. In AA terms, "we know but a little." In July of 1995, over 100,000 members of AA gathered in San Diego for the worldwide convention that celebrated 60 years of the twelve step approach to recovery from alcoholism. While the conventioneers dissappointed bar tenders in San Diego, the Twelfth Avenue group carried on in the usual fashion. Four times a day drunks met and with the help of ceremony, tradition and the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous took a stab at staying sober. Some would succeed, others would fail. However, refusing government or private funding, going without psychologists, scientists or politicians, the Twelfth Avenue meetings were one part in the most successful program for the alcoholic that the world has ever seen. It has proven itself in the laboratory of the world.

Picking a winding path through religion, philosophy and psychology, AA taught the alcoholic to give up trying and in doing so give up his obsession. It treated the origins of alcoholism as a paradox, both disease of the body and an the manisfestation of defects in character. By calling it both, it became neither, and the predictive characteristics of causation and blame lost their power. Instead of dwelling on the origins and efforts to escape those roots by effort of the will, AA turned the attention of the alcoholic to a different quest. The quest was for a power outside the self that would remove the compulsion to drink and bestow upon a person sobriety without effort. This quest that had to be undertaken anew each day. On some days the power might be God, on another it might be the tough love one finds in a "Group of Drunks." More often than not it would be simply the effort required by the quest itself. The twelve steps work when a person works at them. Attention to detail counts, and in the end, it is the managing of one's attention in the varied circumstances of life that delivers sobriety. The program, which appears at the start to be the path, becomes the destination.

AA is religious. It uses the terminology and practices handed down from centuries of searching for God. In the Twelfth Avenue group, as elsewhere, the theologians of AA are kerigmatics and exegetics. They carry the word in their personal experiences. They study the paradoxes and obscurities of the Big Book for guidance through the complexities of the modern world. Spurning systematic intellectual approaches, they are the evangelicals of sobriety, carrying the message from the meeting hall to the streets, jails and hospitals. They are mystics in search of the spiritual experience, however, they are neither monastic nor contemplative. They have learned, as did John of the Cross, that mysticism is hard work and the spiritual life is lived with the hands and feet in motion.

Were a person to search diligently among the conventioneers in San Diego, it is doubtful that one could find a single person willing to take credit for his or her own sobriety. The self gets neither credit nor blame. Dewey writes:

We are all natural Jack Horners. If the plum comes when we put in and pull out our thumb we attribute the satisfactory result to personal virture. The plum is obtained, and it is not easy to distinguish obtaining from attaining, acquisition from achieving. Jack Horner, Esq., put forth some effort; and results and efforts are always more or less incommensurate. For the result is always dependent to some extent upon the favor or disfavor of circumstance. Why then should not the satisfactory plum shed its halo retrospectively upon what precedes and be taken as a sign of virtue? In this way heroes and leaders are constructed.

AA has neither leaders nor heroes. Officers and members alike conceal their identities, and only AA speaks for AA. The self is as inventable as the AA god, adaptable to the circumstances of each new day, capable of action but always subject to the upredictable winds of circumstance. Dualist metaphysical constructions crumble, and even though the AA member may be too busy to notice, the mystic goal of oneness with the cosmos becomes a reality.

Critics of AA accuse the organization of everthing from cultism to heresy. Both sides at times make reasonable arguments and AA may not be the right place for people who have deep denominational ties or who are put off by all religious terminology. Other programs serve the needs of these people. The most persistent criticism of AA, however, seems to be that the program never ends. The cure never arrives and participation in AA becomes a life long affair. Though Jack Horner might not understand, Dewey and James would. Dewey writes:

The physician is lost who would guide his activities of healing by building up a picture of perfect health, the same for all and in its nature complete and self-enclosed once and for all. He employs what he has discovered about actual cases of good health and their causes to investigate the present ailing individual, so as to further his recovering; recovering, an intrinsic and living process rather than recovery, which is comparative and static.

Dewey might well have been hesitant to transfer the activities of the physician into the realm of the religious, but James was not. "Science, " he writes, " gives to all of us telegraphy, electric lighting and diagnosis, and succeeds in curing a certain amount of disease. Religion in the shape of mind-cure gives to some of us serenity, moral poise, and happiness, and prevents certain forms of disease as well as science does, or even better in a certain class of persons." Religion, however, is not something to be completed and forgotten. Neither is AA.

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