Atheism, Moral Psychology,
and the Rejection of a Personal God
in Early Alcoholics Anonymous

Carl Jung, Vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit, Whether called by name or not, God will be there
 


  This is a study of interpretations of AA by people who were atheists and agnostics, or who stressed the psychological aspects of the program far more strongly than the spiritual aspects, or who gave workable and convincing sociological or other scientific explanations of why people got sober in AA, or who explained the program from a nontheistic standpoint such as Buddhism. All of these are taken from the 1930s and 1940s except for Dr. Annette Smith's book, which is included because it is the best modern sociological explanation of why some of the early atheists and agnostics in AA spoke of taking the AA fellowship itself as their "higher power," which did not mean in any kind of religious sense. It referred to the powerful sociological shaping of the people who make up any particular society by the group of which they are a part.
 


  Jimmy Burwell, early A.A.'s most famous atheist, who came into the program in 1938: (1) He used the A.A. fellowship itself as his higher power for his first two years in the program. (2) Then in the process of successfully starting the first A.A. group in Philadelphia, he used the concept of "Good" instead of God, referring to an understanding of the basic difference between good and bad, right and wrong, which all of us possessed. (3) Then "by meditating and trying to tune in on my better self for guidance and answers," Jim said that he was able to find inner comfort and steadiness.
Jim Burwell: early AA's first famous atheist by Glenn F. Chesnut.  Jimmy Burwell's journey to sobriety and serenity, as given in the chapter on the Third Tradition in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (1953), in his story "The Vicious Cycle" in the second edition of the Big Book (1955), and in his article "Sober For Thirty Years" which he published in the AA Grapevine in May 1968.
Bill Swegan (who got sober in AA in 1948) and his very successful psychological interpretation of AA (50% got sober the first time through his program at Lackland in San Antonio during the 1950s): "the healing power of truth, honesty, compassion, and personal transformation" has the power to restore our sanity. He had to break through his old alibi system and face the truth about himself. And then he developed a "spirituality centered around the spirit of helping and caring for others and saving human lives, which I used to replace my old spirit of egocentrism, anger, and selfishness."
A nontheistic / atheistic way of working the twelve steps: William E. Swegan  A commentary by Glenn F. Chesnut on Chapter 18 in Swegan's book The Psychology of Alcoholism.
Recovery through the Twelve Steps by William E. Swegan, excerpts from Chapter 18 of his book, in which he goes through the steps one by one and explains his method for working each of them.
Annette Smith and the sociological interpretation of the program: A modern author, but a very convincing scientific explanation of one of the major reasons why alcoholics get sober when they become deeply enough involved in the A.A. program. In Dr. Smith's explanation, we take the A.A. fellowship as our "higher power" in effect, though not in any kind of religious sense. That is, as we gradually become fully committed members of the program and begin to identify ourselves with the group, the principles of sociology show us that we will automatically begin to take the group's central goals as our own -- in this case, staying clean and sober -- without having to engage in any kind of enormous continual struggle.
A Sociological Explanation: Taking the Fellowship as our Higher Power  A review of the book by California sociologist Annette R. Smith, Ph.D., The Social World of Alcoholics Anonymous: How It Works.

For more information about the book see Annette R. Smith, Ph.D., The Social World of Alcoholics Anonymous: How It Works on the Hindsfoot Foundation website.
The early Buddhist nontheistic interpretation of A.A. spirituality: James Allen, As a Man Thinketh, from the reading list in the 1942 Akron Manual. Through enlightenment, we discover the powerful negative effect of bad chains of karma in our lives. By learning how to replace this bad karma with good karma, we begin to find true serenity and peace, and happy, satisfying relationships with other people.
James Allen, As a Man Thinketh.  Originally published in 1902, he quotes from the great Buddhist text called the Dhammapada, and explains the Buddhist understanding of karma, and how to escape from the chains of bad karma -- endless chains of events, which bring "bad luck" and catastrophe down on our heads over and over again, seemingly by accident, but in fact not. When we break these repeating chains, we will find ourselves no longer being driven into trying to escape into drugs and alcohol.
 


  The phrase in the Twelve Steps about "God as we understood Him" was probably drawn from the writings of Dr. Sam Shoemaker, the American head of the Oxford Group, with whom Ebby Thacher and Bill Wilson were in close contact when their little New York alcoholism recovery group was first being formed.